I’ve been reading on-line reviews lately which, in some cases, is a lot like slowing down to look at an accident on the side of the road. You know you shouldn’t do it, but something just draws you in.
I often scan the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads for books I’m considering buying. I’m rarely influenced by them, unless they happen to mention any of my no-buy triggers, but it’s interesting to see the range of responses a book may get. Looking at the high and low reviews it often seems like they are talking about completely different books.
My recent foray into review reading was over on Goodreads, where I was curious to see what people thought about a series I am in the midst of reading. I had a very strong emotional response to many of the books in the series and I wondered whether others had as well. (They did.) To be completely honest, I was also looking for some mild spoilers about the next book in the series so I could decide whether to continue reading or take a break. The story I just finished had packed a major emotional punch and I wasn’t sure I could handle another dose quite so soon.
Based on the reviews – some of which were wonderfully written, some of which were witty, some of which were just plain mean, and very few of which contained actual spoilers – I decided it was time for a little reading palate cleanser.
Conveniently, as a “street team” member for a number of authors, I often have Advanced Reader copies (ARCs) of upcoming books sitting in my inbox, waiting to be read. Even more conveniently, the most recent ARC I had ready and waiting was about as far from the series I had been reading as it is possible to be and still be book.
But, that got me right back to thinking about reviews.
Part of reviewing ARCs, whether you are on a team for a favorite author or obtain a copy from a publisher or a giveaway, is the expectation that you will give the book at “fair and honest review” at various outlets (Amazon, Goodreads, etc.).
And that’s where I hit my first problem.
When I went online to look at the pre-publication reviews that others had posted for the ARC I just read, they were gushing and effusive and “best book ever” positive and while the book was a quick, fun read, it wasn’t stand out great. It was well-written, but the plot resolution left me ambivalent and a week or two from now I’ll probably have forgotten much about the story.
It left me torn.
Had I just picked this book off the shelf, I’d have given it a 3 (and I have some specific comments to back that up) and moved on. I have to wonder though, if the book’s author really wants that honest a review. Not that I think she’d want a dishonest review, but do authors give away pre-publication copies of their books because they truly want feedback or is it because they want the kind of reviews that will help drive their marketing.
I’m feeling like “marketing” is the answer, though I may be wrong.
Ultimately, I gave the book what I felt was a “fair and honest” review. Although as a writer I’d love for whatever I publish to have gushing and effusive and “best book ever” positive reviews, as a reader I’m looking for reviews that are a little less biased, so those are the kind of reviews I try to write.
We’ll see how that goes.
If I suddenly find myself with no more ARCs waiting in the inbox, I’ll have my answer.
So, is it just me or have you ever felt conflicted when reviewing a book? As a reader, what makes a review useful for you when deciding whether to buy a new book?
Like you, I look for triggers–things that I know are likely to either make the book a pleasure or decidedly not. And I’m sometimes positively influenced to buy a book by a one-star review if I feel like that review is malicious or focuses on something that doesn’t bother me (cursing, for example).
As far as what authors want: to sell books. Speaking as an author, I’d be perfectly happy to have someone rant about how The Demon Always Wins is irreverent, even blasphemous, if I thought it would sell a few copies. It’s reached a point where the fact that everyone who reads it seems to like it doesn’t actually do me much good.
I’m sure “marketing” is the answer 😉
As a reader I never bother much about the star rating. I skim the reviews, ignoring the one-liners that look like some form of pay-to-play, looking for longer ones with sensible content that actually discuss the book. I read those, looking for nuggets that make me think the story might be for me, or not so much.
When I’m writing reviews, I try to offer similar insights. I don’t worry much about how many stars. I don’t snark. I focus on what I think makes the book or author distinctive, what I especially enjoyed, or what was a problem for me. Hopefully this is a win/win for both author and potential reader.
I’ve never joined/signed/bought any of the services, like NetGalley, that organize book reviews for authors, but the reviewing process is definitely a mixed bag. Of the Amazon reviews I’ve received for my books, when I see a three-star review and the reader raves about how good the book is, I wonder what she needs to see to give a book four or five stars. I don’t think that kind of review/rating helps readers that much, if the stars and the words don’t match up.
But when reviewers give me three stars because they think the book has problems they can point to, I’m fine with that. I have to say, if a reviewer hates the book and wants to give it a one-star review, I would just as soon the reviewer didn’t leave that review. They couldn’t tell from the back cover copy and first page that the book wasn’t for them?
In general, I’d rather have the review, even if it’s three stars. Other readers use those reviews to make purchasing decisions, and it’s good to have an opinion and discussion up there for them to consider.
I’ve often wished Amazon and other places had a “did not finish” rating or a “not the book for me” rating people could use for those instances, instead of just using the lower numbers, which then skew the book’s overall rating. I know I’ve hit instances before where the cover, back-blurb, and first couple pages seemed right up my alley, only to find by the second chapter that I’d made a terrible mistake. I wouldn’t leave a review for a book like that, but I’m wondering if it might be helpful for the author to know that maybe her positioning/marketing wasn’t attracting the reader she was looking for. Maybe not. Just thinking out loud.
I think a DNF or NFM designation would be really helpful, and readers could leave comments maybe, but there’d be no star rating to skew results. I’ve bought books that turned out to be big mistakes for me, too, but I never leave a review in those cases because I always think that I’m not a fair judge in those cases.
I don’t do reviews. Ever. Even for my friends. Books are so subjective and one person’s catnip is another person’s cat vomit. And I also suck at writing reviews.
That said, when I finally get around to publishing this dumb thing (yes, it’s gotten to that point), I will want reviews. Good ones. And hopefully honest ones. But TBH, I’m so done with this story that I really don’t think I’ll care at that point. I’ll just be glad it’s DONE. Count it as my first book/entré into the publishing world, and move on.
Reviews are so tough, and I think there’s a huge problem of “grade inflation”. We all buy into this “be best” thing, ignoring the fact that so many books (and students) are actually average.
Look at restaurant reviews. On an American site, a three out of five stars is pretty meh. (Unless there are a lot of fives and a lot of ones, which means something else. Weird food, probably.) But if I look around on a Japanese website, “It was great! Really enjoyed it!” gets three stars. I think five stars are reserved for unexpected out-of-body experiences.
So, I try to remember this and fight it in my reviews. Four is a good/great book. Five is a good/great book that I will read over and over again until it falls to pieces or my computer account is compromised. Three is a good book that has major flaws (and I try to point out both). I try not to review threes or below unasked, because it can drag down their average. I think GoodReads has a function where you can leave a description, but don’t have to rate it, which is really nice. (And even if asked, I wouldn’t publicly review a two. I’d check with the author on a three.)
And I don’t review books that aren’t my cup of tea. Lolita, I recognize as an absolutely astounding book. Same goes for The Lovely Bones. But I’ll never, never read them again (unless I forget why they were so disturbing and need to remember for some reason).