Reviews: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Writer’s World)

write-a-review It’s been a while since I’ve written a “Writer’s World” post, so I thought I’d weigh in on a longstanding and important conversation about book reviews.

This past Sunday, PizzyGirl over at Prism Book Alliance posted a blog about negative reviews that I shared on social media. You can read the post here. In a nutshell, she posted a not so flattering review of an author’s book, and she received some serious backlash in response. The timing of her post was a bit of a perfect storm for me, since my newest book, Blood and Rain, has just been released by Dreamspinner Press, and I’m in that “will they like it or will they productreviewhate it?” mode that leaves me feeling like I’m not quite standing on solid ground.

Before I get into my personal feelings about reviews, I thought I’d break them out into three categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Good, of course, are those are the 3-5 star reviews (yes, a 3 star can be a good review!) where the reader really liked the book. The bad is pretty easy to spot, as well. 1-3 star reviews where a reader didn’t like the book. Then there’s the ugly. These are the reviews that are just plain nasty, including those that attack the author, are snark-filled, tell a prospective reader nothing, and make anyone reading them want to cringe (or at least, anyone with a conscience). The first two categories, “good” and “bad” can be helpful to readers trying to decide whether to read a book. The last category is pretty much worthless to anyone.

Time to add the author into the mix. I have two jobs–I write full-time, and I spend nearly every waking hour when I’m not at my real life job (public sector attorney) writing. Why does that matter? Because I work very hard to write books readers will like, and when they don’t, it smarts. No doubt about it. Do I read reviews? Yep, although there review_scottare times I wish I wouldn’t, since they can really mess with my focus. Yes, focus. I’ve got that cheerleading squad in my brain that pushes me to write, and when I get a bad review, the squad has to work overtime. Doesn’t matter how many glowing reviews I get, it’s that one bad review that I remember. Why? Because I write not only for myself, I write for readers and I want them to enjoy my books.

So let’s talk “bad” reviews. They’re really not so bad. Sometimes, I learn something from them about what readers like. And believe me, I do listen! Most of the time, I’ve realized bad reviews do not reflect bad writing, per se, but differing personal tastes. Case in point, my first novel, Blue Notes. I’ve had a number of people say it’s one of their favorite books ever. Ever. Which totally blows me away. But  take a look at the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, and you’ll see there are readers who said it was boring, or too slow, or, my favorite, that it must have been “Twilight” fan fiction (yeah, no, don’t like Twilight and it was never fan fiction). How can you square such differing opinions? Let me use my favorite food example. I LOVE chocolate. Any kind. My husband? Can’t stand the stuff. I don’t get his taste, he doesn’t get mine. Apples and oranges. I can’t force you to like an apple if you prefer oranges. We’re all different. It’s really that simple.

The “ugly” reviews are the easiest to stomach to some extent, because they’re truly 04c9ea33c9dcadf91702bc963d09df46not worth very much to people considering reading your book who are looking for direction. These are sometimes called “troll” reviews. They don’t explain what it was about the book they didn’t like. Some of my favorites? A 2-star review with the text, “I don’t like reading May/December romances” for a book that was clearly a May/December. Why read it? I’ve seen the same with M/M/M romances or BDSM. Why bother reading something you aren’t into? I’ve had a few of these where it was clear the reader didn’t realize they were picking up a gay romance (as opposed to het romance) and then gave it a 1-star and said, “This book isn’t for me. I didn’t realize what I was picking up when I started it.” What good is that to a reader?

But “ugly” reviews are the ones that make your fingers itch to respond to. I won’t, regardless of the temptation. Someone who can’t understand that the tone of a review is mean, or that the content does nothing except bash and author won’t ever be convinced by something I have to say about it. Period.

I know a lot of authors. I know some who will not look at Goodreads reviews. I know some who pay people to collect good reviews so they don’t have to wade through potentially bad ones. It’s tempting to do both of these things, but this is where I’ve laid down the gauntlet to myself: I want to encourage reviews, the good and the bad, regardless of my emotional reaction to them. Authors need reviewers (readers and blog reviews). And we need them to be honest. Kind, too, but honest first and foremost.

Does it hurt when a fan writes a lukewarm or even negative review of a book I’ve written? Damn straight. Do I get angry? No. I take a deep breath, shrug off the “ouch”, and appreciate that they’ve taken the time to review. To me, it means they care about books, and about sharing the reading experience with others. With the ugly reviews, I do my best to be 2d723db58dfae5bcea025e456f33ccf8sanguine. As a reader, those are the reviews I wouldn’t pay much attention to anyhow. Do I condone them? Not at all. But given the anonymity of the internet, I think they’re here to stay.

For 2015, I’m going to make myself a promise. Well, two promises, actually. First, I’m going to continue to read my reviews, good, bad, and ugly. Second, I’m going to “like” them all, regardless of the content. Because, let’s face it, without readers my books will just sit on my own bookshelf. My “like” doesn’t mean I agree with the review or that I don’t get the ouchies reading it, it just means that I respect the reviewer for his or her opinion.

If you’re a reader, please consider reviewing the books you read. Just a sentence or two and a rating can go a long way to help others decide which books to read, and it may really help your favorite authors sell more books (yes, some of us really do this for a living).

I welcome comments from writers and readers (and those of us who are both). I think this is an important discussion to have! Happy holidays, everyone. -Shira

 

13 comments

  1. Carrie Pack - Reply

    I couldn’t agree more! As an author myself, I appreciate all reviews, but I constantly have to remind myself that not everyone is going to like my work. I’m only human after all. 🙂

    • shira - Reply

      Amen to that, Cary! It’s why, when I do review a book, I try to remember what I might feel like being on the receiving end of the review! Kindness costs nothing, truly.

  2. Tali Spencer - Reply

    You said it so well! I’m one of those authors who seldom reads Goodreads reviews because the bad ones mess with my head. It hurts so much knowing I wrote something someone disliked, that I disappointed readers, that I get thrown off writing for a while. So I only read my reviews when 1) I’m not actively writing, such as when on vacation, or 2) when someone, either a reviewer, reader, or friend, points me to a review. Usually they only do so if it’s mostly good. 🙂 Of course, sometimes they’re not. But I appreciate them all, including the bad ones, and believe reviewers are primarily for readers. Writers need them to find out if what we wrote works and is reaching readers in the way we hoped.

    I notice you “like” reviews. How do readers/reviewers feel about this? I mostly don’t because I’ve heard that authors liking reviews makes the reviewers self-conscious, knowing the author is reading (even though we all know we authors are reading!) the reviews. So much as I would love to like almost all my reviews, as a kind of thank you, I don’t do so because I fear being misunderstood.

    • shira - Reply

      You know, that’s a great question about the “liking” part, Tali. I’ve always “liked” good reviews of my books. Two reasons: 1) the reviews with the most likes pop up to the top (okay, so that’s the “me, me, it’s all about me!” reason; and 2) I want to thank readers for buying and reviewing my books.

      I guess I never considered it might make reviewers self-conscious. If you care enough to review, bad or good, you are putting your opinion out in the public and you must assume authors as well as readers are reading your reviews. I always assume authors will read my reviews. (Honestly, I think most authors do.)

  3. Brandilyn - Reply

    I think the review is important (obviously). I think the tone of the review is important as well… for multiple reasons. But it boils down to respect.. for the author, for yourself, and for fellow readers.

    I wanted to address one question you raised. ““I don’t like reading May/December romances” for a book that was clearly a May/December. Why read it? I’ve seen the same with M/M/M romances or BDSM. Why bother reading something you aren’t into?”

    The why is easy… pushing your own boundaries. I don’t generally read BDSM, but some of my favorite books in the genre are BDSM like AJ Rose’s Safewords and JP Barnaby’s Painting Fire on the Air. I HATE historical, but I adore the Widdershins and Magpie Lord series (Jordan L Hawke and KJ Charles respectively). I used to completely eschew shifters of all kinds… but Kendall McKenna’s Strength of the pack series changed that.

    • shira - Reply

      That’s a great point, Brandilyn. I probably should have said, if you’re going to read outside of your preferences/comfort zone, be sensitive to the fact that your opinion is likely to be colored by those preferences. Also, I think it’s important to point out that you aren’t (or weren’t) very comfortable with a particular type of book, and hey, now you are (or maybe you still aren’t).

      But there’s the difference between a helpful (good or bad) review and an “ugly” review. A review I’d imagine you writing, Brandilyn, would explain why it was a good or bad book. It would give potential readers direction and insight.

      Reviews require good writing and thoughtful consideration. I will never disrespect someone who dislikes my book but explains why in a way that is helpful and respectful. Mutual respect. Definitely. Respect for the writer who spent hours (weeks? months?) writing, AND respect for the reviewer for their time, consideration, and thoughtfulness.

  4. Sara York - Reply

    That’s a healthy view of reviews. I dislike reading reviews. The positive ones don’t give me a healthy view of my writing and the negative ones I obsess over. However, I don’t think telling someone their opinion of my book is wrong. I’ve had one reviewer come back and apologize for writing a bad review. They admitted that they were wrong but I never engaged them. Having a street team or group that goes out on your behalf can be dangerous. Sure, mega fans may want to only see positive reviews of books they love, but encouraging them to “set the reviewer straight” is never okay.

    • shira - Reply

      I agree, Sara. I think in most things, it’s important to be gracious or, if one can’t manage that, just say nothing. It’s not worth the mess it creates to argue or have fans argue on your behalf. That said, I have seen a fan of mine disagree with a review (kindly, mind you) that was not so kind. As a writer, I appreciated that. But it could easily have crossed the line, and then where would things have gone? Yikes!

      Zen in everything. My motto. It’s a challenge to adhere to it sometimes, but it’s a good thing to aspire to!

  5. Pat - Reply

    A few words from the professional reviewer side of the dilemma:

    As a reviewer who reviewed for too many years to count, I was caught between wants. I wanted to read only wonderful books by wonderful authors that I could recommend whole-heartedly to my readers. But I kept getting flak that all my reviews were 4-5 star reviews even though the editors (except two) let me choose my own books to review. My answer: why would I choose a book that didn’t appeal to me to review? Besides, why waste my time? Why not use my time and resources to review something with the potential to be great?

    What happens is I amass a number of authors whose work I love and review their new books. Now what do I do? How do I review the new book? Do I just say, Shira Anthony has written another great book? How do I REVIEW the book? My answer was to pit Shira Anthony’s new book against the body of her work that I’ve enjoyed previously. How does this new book stack up? That seems fair to me.

    But what if Anthony who has previously written about music and musicians switch to erotic sci-fi, a sub-genre that I don’t enjoy? Now how do I review the new book?

    As you can see, the problems go on and on. Of course, I’m not talking about your average reader/reviewer, but the pros who do this for a living. (And yes, that used to be possible!) What reviewing as evolved into is opinion, not review. Unfortunately, those who haven’t done this for a living can’t separate review (strengths and weaknesses of a book) from critique (why isn’t this a better book? What’s wrong with this book?). Hence, the reader/reviewers whose reviews don’t review at all.

    Okay, down from my soapbox now. I haven’t read the new book yet, Shira, but am anxious to do so. I’ve always enjoyed your books in the past and have a couple I reread over and over again. Thanks for persevering despite ugly “reviews.”

    • shira - Reply

      Thanks Pat!

      Pro reviews and reader reviews are definitely different animals. That said, what’s important is that they impart some information that’s useful to others who may read the book. If I had to review a book of mine in a genre I don’t like, I might either just skip the review, or note it in the review that it’s not my fave (so long as I thought I could do the book and the review justice given my bias). Very, VERY, tricky, I agree!

      I always find it fascinating when someone tells me “X Book” is their favorite of mine. Some love one book, and hate another. Then another person will tell me the hate the book the other reader loved, and loved the one the other reader hated. Which just brings me back to the factor it’s difficult to separate in a review: personal taste.

      I admire reviewers. I did some reviewing before I was published and found it very challenging. I don’t review much any more. It’s too time-consuming and too fraught, when I’m a writer in the genre I’m reviewing. But I appreciate reviewers. Always!

  6. Katherine Halle - Reply

    Shira,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post! It was extremely helpful to see what you and others in the comments do in regards to reading reviews. I am one of those people that tends to avoid Goodreads like the plague /o Mostly because I found seeing a really bad review or even worse, a one star with no explanation so disheartening that it put me off my writing for quite a while (something I really can’t afford, seeing as how I have so little time to write in the first place). (Also, I do understand not everyone is going to like my writing and I’m find with that LOL seeing as how there are many popular books that I don’t read)

    I do read all pro reviews good or bad and the bad ones I take to heart as a learning experience. I’m always open to good criticism, ways to improve my writing, tips for what they didn’t like about the story so that the next one can be better. But the ‘ugly’ reviews to me, just aren’t helpful.

    It was also nice to see the comment made by a pro reviewer to get the flip side of things and see just how complicated it can be. I do admire reviewers because I think it’s awfully hard to give an honest review whether you liked it or not. It’s one instance where words actually fail me /o and I can’t manage to string a coherent sentence together beyond “it was awesome” or “ugh, I really didn’t like it”. I guess that’s a weak spot I need to work on. So I most definitely appreciate and admire reviewers and the amount of thought and work they put into their review.

    Thanks for this post!

  7. shira - Reply

    Thank you, Katherine, for sharing your own experiences! I’ve often been tempted to avoid Goodreads because of the same thing. I totally understand. And I agree that it’s important we hear and understand the pro reviewers’ perspective.

    I’ve seen several review blogs shut down or reviewers quit in the past year or two. I often wonder if the reason isn’t, in part, because they don’t have our full support. I know there are other reasons and there have been some important controversies, but I’d hate to lose these diligent supporters of the genre who really are so vital to our line of work!

  8. Venona Keyes - Reply

    You did a great job of differentiating a bad review from an ‘ugly’ or troll review. I agree–I have read many books outside of my comfort zone because I like adventure. If the book turns out not to be my thing, or I really could not stand it, I will not leave a review. Plain and simple. If it’s not usually my thing, and I like it, I will write a review and let people know it was outside my comfort zone and I liked it.
    Troll reviewers, in my opinion, are people itching for a fight. And sometimes there are takers out there. I take the advice from my wonderful late grandma, ‘Ignore them. Use your energy to affect something YOU can help make a positive change, and the negative will fade away.’ It wasn’t about reviews, per se, it was good advice for life in general.
    Thanks for the post!!

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