24 May 2013 by Published in: Uncategorized 33 comments

I participated in a lively discussion today about book reviews, and how other authors approach the delicate matter of reviewing work that they feel is, er, wanting, to say the least.

Which got me thinking.

I don’t leave a lot of book reviews. Mainly because I don’t have nearly enough time to read, and when I do, it’s usually one of my faves, something that delivers the sort of read I want with dependability. And I don’t feel compelled to review these authors – there are usually hundreds, if not thousands, of reviews extolling their virtues, so I don’t believe my two cents is going to afford any additional illumination.

But I will occasionally review a peer. Only one that I can give 4 or 5 stars, though.

Why? It’s obviously not because I have any problem putting forth controversial opinions. It’s mainly because if I read 10 books, I’m lucky if 2 of them would rank that high. The rest will vary from 2 to 3 stars – I don’t bother reading the 1 star books more than a few pages. And I don’t want to leave 2 or 3 star reviews, because my dislike of a book, or my thinking that it’s okay but nothing great, isn’t a typical reader’s take. I’m extremely hard on my own writing, so I’m hard on that of others, as well, but the things I may dislike may have absolutely no relevance for average readers. If I dislike echoes and am particularly sensitive to them, or feel that the word choice is lacking, or that the pacing is plodding or amateurish, that’s the author in me talking, not the reader.

I liken it to the difference between a film student going to see a movie, and me going to see the same movie. The film student may deduct points for things like camera work, angles, lighting, composition…a whole bunch of crap I have no idea about, not about which I particularly care. I just know whether the film was entertaining, well done (meaning acted and written), and satisfying. So my four star review might be the film student’s two star.

My two star book review might be someone else’s four or five star. Because I’ll likely be dinging it for technical issues that are invisible to the average reader. And that’s not fair to the book, or to those reading my reviews. And also, it feels like a waste of my time, because I wasn’t set on the planet to tell others how I think their books suck. The marketplace will more than determine that over time, so I’m redundant in that process. Thankfully.

Writers tend to want to pick apart the work of others. It’s an occupational hazard. But I recognize that failing in myself, and try to curb it, and not allow it to ruin my enjoyment of a book I’ve picked up for pleasure. It’s tough to do. You can’t view everything through the eyes of an editor, and then just switch that off when you’re reading someone else. You can try, but it’s tough.

Anyway, that’s my elegant rationalization for why I don’t leave more reviews, or reviews that are less than four stars. Life’s too short. It’s also why I no longer accept books from my fellow authors. Mainly because I have a year’s backlog on my kindle now, but also because while people say they want to hear criticism, most don’t really want that. They want to be told the book’s good. So when someone like me comes along and says something like, “it read like it meandered – you should cut 10%,” they take that personally. And I don’t want to piss anyone off. Again, because life’s too short.

What do you think? As readers, do you want authors you respect to leave reviews, even if they’re scathing? And authors – how do you approach this kind of thing?

I’m curious.

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Comments

  1. Old Git
    Fri 24th May 2013 at 7:15 pm

    I think author reviews are fairly redundant. Most peer review sites I have been unfortunate to visit are teeming with aspiring writers who want reviews — but from readers, not writers or would-be writers, who tend to seek the artifice at the expense of the art therein, if that makes any sense.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 24th May 2013 at 8:55 pm

      It does. And I’m not so sure that the author reviews really even register on readers. Go look at the reviews for the latest Dan Brown and check out the one and two stars. Well written, intelligent, and obviously ignored by just about everyone.

      Reply
      • Lynda Filler  –  Sat 01st Jun 2013 at 4:38 am

        I was about to leave a comment on Dan Brown’s new book. Interesting that you reference it in your first comment. I loved the book. And I did read the bad reviews. I’m curious. How could a writer who has such amazing success have such awful reviews. That’s precisely why you are right, it makes no difference. I would have bought the book anyways–and did read it without considering any of the reviews.
        I trust Dan Brown to send me on an exciting journey and that’s all I ask.

        Reply
  2. Fri 24th May 2013 at 8:48 pm

    I only leave reviews for money.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 24th May 2013 at 8:53 pm

      A man after my own heart. Sensible fellow.

      Reply
  3. Fri 24th May 2013 at 9:02 pm

    it has to be said though – I’ve never not enjoyed so many books, nor been so disinclined to review them, than since I started writing and studying the craft of it. Just doesn’t seem right. It’s kinda like pointing out who the killer is within the first five minutes of every single episode of The Mentalist. Ruins it for others. Probably.

    Reply
  4. Sat 25th May 2013 at 1:10 am

    As one of your fellow authors that got on your TBR list before the cut off, I have to say I do want an honest opinion. I prefer not to have it posted on Amazon because I want to use it in the editorial review area, assuming there is a positive portion I can use. I expect that there might be some positive and some negative comments. I’d want to know what could have been done better so I could improve for my next book. If of course you felt the whole thing sucked, I’d appreciate knowing that too, albeit worded in a less blunt way.
    Oh, and please don’t put it in a program and spit out data about reading levels. I don’t want it to be a science project. Just want to know if the book was enjoyable or not.

    Reply
    • Old Git  –  Sat 25th May 2013 at 7:43 pm

      I can relate to your desire to be honestly evaluated by RB and his ilk, Kim. From trawling the peer review sites a few years ago I have seen that up and coming writers can tend to revere the opinion of accomplished writers. But I wonder whether these accomplished writers actually have the key to the mint when it comes to identifying the strengths and weaknesses of any given product other than their own. I’ll take this even further and state that even pro editors cannot help but become jaded once their “innocence” has been eroded by the tests of time, and the validity of their convictions, such as they have become, once they succumb to one formula or another, which is inevitably modified by their profession and even the opinion of *their peers.
      After reading through the comments, I was not surprised to find that authors who are learning the art have trouble detaching themselves from their “hats”.
      Which takes me back full-circle when I say that the best evaluation is from an avid reader — who may ask: did it pull me in? was my curiosity aroused? did I want to read on? was I satisfied with the conclusion?
      The technical elements are redundant when placed next to whether the answers are yes/no to these questions.
      If you write in a confident voice, believe in what you are portraying, that is more than half the battle. The reader can sense this confidence and if your story is interesting he will read on after you have intrigued him with your well-crafted opening.

      Reply
      • Kim Cano  –  Sat 25th May 2013 at 7:50 pm

        I agree that reader reviews are what matters, and so far I’ve been getting great ones thank God. They’re not all from family/friends. And I do use an editor who used to work in Big 6 and now freelances.
        Guess I want Russell’s opinion because he’s one of my two favorite authors. The other, Somerset Maugham, is dead so I can’t bug him…

        Reply
        • Old Git  –  Sat 25th May 2013 at 8:21 pm

          Russell is a tough nut to crack, reader-wise — perhaps a seance for Maugham? *smiles. My reply to you was also a reply to the general topic, of course, Kim.

          Reply
      • Russell Blake  –  Sat 25th May 2013 at 8:15 pm

        Yes.

        Reply
        • Kim Cano  –  Sat 25th May 2013 at 8:49 pm

          Of course I want to have the opinion of the toughest reader. I wouldn’t be me otherwise!
          I’m all for the seance though. Can we do it virtually? I think Russell has tarot cards, or at least knows how to use them.

          Reply
  5. Sat 25th May 2013 at 1:52 am

    As an author who does write reviews… I can appreciate your reasoning. I get inundated with review requests, however, I see my reviewer job/hat as being a book matchmaker of sorts. I’ve had friends my whole life ask me for book recommendations, so I try to focus on the angle of who WOULD like a given book, given its style, theme, or message. There have been a small number that have suffered from such shoddy production I’ve felt duty-bound to give that heads-up–but I also don’t post star ratings with my reviews. There are authors I’ve reviewed whose work I couldn’t appreciate, but who loved my review.

    As I continue this path, I do see myself getting pickier about which books I will consent to review–though I see that less as a conflict of interest issue, and more of a time management self-protection.
    πŸ˜€

    Reply
  6. R
    Sat 25th May 2013 at 7:50 am

    Like tmycann said above, for me it’s about time management. Most of what I read is research-related in some way. It pertains to my current WiP. So if I’m writing SF, I likely won’t read a Mickey Spillane knock off.

    But when I read a book, I do tend to leave a review. Just my $0.02. I try to be honest but fair and kind. I point out what I liked as well as what I did not like, or what I felt didn’t work, as well as why it didn’t work. I get a fair number of emails from Amazon saying my review helped someone else, so I guess I’m on the right track.

    As for the number of stars, if I like a book, it’ll be in the 3- to 4-star range. If it was amateur and unreadable, it’ll get 2. If your book isn’t ready to be on sale and put up for peer review but you publish it anyway, don’t piss and moan about crappy reviews.

    I reserve 5-star ratings for books which absolutely blew me away in some fashion. The last two 5-star books I recall reading were READY PLAYER ONE and THE VISIBLE MAN. Both were probably 4.5ish.

    I guess I feel that if I’m going to spend a couple dozen hours investing in a book, it’s fun to post a review about it. Plus it can be educational for me to deconstruct it. The Author/Editor in me participates in the crafting of the review, but must share the stage with the Reader, who is reading for pleasure. Because at the end of the day, that’s what this is all about: escape; enjoyment; fun; pleasure.

    Reply
  7. Sat 25th May 2013 at 11:26 am

    Russell,

    I couldn’t agree more and basically have the same policy and for the very same reasons (though I’m sure you get many more requests than I do.) Many folks enjoy books that I dislike mainly because it’s tough to take my editing hat off. Thus an ‘honest’ public review might be too harsh. And like you, I’ve found folks seldom actually want criticism, public or private, regardless of what they say.

    For that reason, I never accept books from other authors anymore, but if one is offered and it looks like it might interest me, I will decline and then buy a copy direct from Amazon. That way the author gets a sale and there are no obligations or expectations either way.

    Even then, I seldom review, but what I will do (very occasionally) if I read something I really like is send a short email recommendation to my own email list. I’m pretty sure the author gets more bang for the buck out of that than s/he would from an Amazon review. I also suggest that folks who do decide to buy/read the book leave a review if they liked it.

    Obviously, I have to REALLY like the book to do that, because I don’t want my readers getting pissed at me.

    Reply
  8. Sat 25th May 2013 at 5:06 pm

    I don’t review as an author, but I do review as a reader. I have a separate account with Amazon for my personal reading, and I use a screen name. Separating the professional from the personal works for me. I try to turn off the writer who would have done things differently. Now I have a tendency to rate based on escapism. Did I lose myself enough to stop thinking about the individual sentences? Did I close the book with satisfaction? Did I want more? Or was it drivel, schlock, or just plain poop in the dirt?

    I’m not sure anyone really pays attention though. One honest opinion is often lost in the onslaught of apparent family, friends, and sycophants that follow some authors. I’ve seen major releases have 400 five star reviews a month before it’s even released just from excited fans saying they can’t wait and they know it will be great. The book can be the biggest pile of manure in the world, but the true reviews will never push that rating down where it belongs.

    I’m with R. E. McDermott, a mention in a popular author’s blog is way more effective than a review on Amazon any day.

    Reply
  9. Sat 25th May 2013 at 5:33 pm

    I leave reviews if 1) I’m saying something new and 2) the reader really needs to be warned or 3) a genuinely under-appreciated book needs a boost.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 25th May 2013 at 8:19 pm

      I don’t for a very selfish reason. Last thing I need is for an author’s fans to get pissed at me because I slagged their hero/heroine. It’s like telling someone their baby is ugly and stupid. It may well be, but nobody is going to want to hear it, and I don’t need a vendetta from readers that think I’m a dick. I mean, I know I’m a dick. I don’t really put on airs about not being one. But when you core an author a new one and you’re visible, as I am, you’re sort of declaring war in some peoples’ minds, and the last thing I need is someone deciding to even that score. I don’t mind trashing a big name on my blog, because I’m pretty sure nobody who loves Twilight cares what I think, but if I leave a review for an indie author who writes in my genre and whose work blows goats, that will have a deleterious effect on their perceived quality, and I don’t want to play that card. I’d rather just keep it to myself and shut my pie hole.

      Reply
  10. Sat 25th May 2013 at 7:00 pm

    I don’t accept requests for reviews but choose the books I want to read and then review them from choice. If they’re truly bad ( in my opinion/ for my taste) I leave no comment at all. If they’re OK I leave a fair rating but always try to be kind, even with negativity knowing that others who like the style may read it after me. There are enough people prepared to dishearten a budding author without me adding to it when very often some good editing can improve things.

    Reply
  11. yoon
    Sat 25th May 2013 at 9:50 pm

    Looks like I’m the only one who is not an author here. Methinks readers-who-are-not-authors are way under-represented. You should do something about that.

    I don’t know what constitutes an avid reader, I read 50 to 100+ books a year. Am I qualified? And no, I don’t particularly like reading authors’ reviews and I don’t trust a review if it’s from an author, famous or not, 5 stars or 1 star. I read one or two top 5 star reviews and read several 1 or 2 star reviews. In most cases, I read more 1 star reviews than 5 star reviews because I like to know why those people disliked the book rather than how many different superlative adjectives can be used to describe how great a book is.

    Now where is my cake?

    Reply
  12. Sherry
    Sun 26th May 2013 at 1:44 pm

    I read constantly but in a different way than most. I am a nurse of several years so I read patient info, technical/medical articles, etc on a daily basis. These are important, real life documents, sentences, descriptions, and so on. What always stands out are the mundane phrases that are constantly used mostly by unskilled healthcare workers. That being said, I read for pleasure approximately 40 hours per week reading for pleasure. Chronic insomnia. So, when I look for a book in which to immerse myself, I talk to my friends who are like-minded. I don’t care what someone I have never met says about a book. I enjoy the way certain authors turn a phrase or keep my heart level elevated with each new discovery. As long as it isn’t uneducated, lifeless fodder, I will give it a try. I never review books because what is not my cup of tea may be right up someone else’s alley. I would, however, love to publically review some doctor’s progress notes…I mean really! πŸ™‚

    Reply
  13. Sun 26th May 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Your article reads like I wrote it myself, only better. I’m an author who reviews, but I don’t bother reviewing what I didn’t like or love. I’m also a really, really picky reader. I only sample books whose covers and blurbs got past my filters, and I reject about 90% of anything I sample on the basis of (IM(H)O) weak or careless writing. I can almost never get past writing I don’t like to get to what might be a good story.

    Reply
  14. Sun 26th May 2013 at 11:42 pm

    I recently wrote a blog post similar to this one but mine focused more on where bad reviews come from. I’ve been experimenting lately and I’ve found that now that I don’t use KDP Select to do free promos (maybe 1x one day promo a month maximum), I get a lot less 1 star and 2 star reviews. The problem is that free targets an entirely different crowd of readers than readers who are willing to pay (even $0.99) to give a book a try.

    I basically think there are three classes of readers.
    1. Freeloaders
    They grab everything that’s free or wait until it’s free for a day to get a copy. They hoard free books. While some of them are very generous when they review the books they got for free, most of them are not. I’ve gotten almost ALL of my 1 star and 2 star reviews right after free promos. It doesn’t make me want to change much of anything (occasionally there’s a good point, but not very often) because I don’t want to be targeting readers who only grab free things anyways.

    2. Half and Half
    There are some readers that still grab books for free when they see freebies but they are willing to pay for books if they think they will enjoy them. They usually will give indies a try if the cover art, description, etc. all look appealing because you can get a great read for a reduced price because Dan Brown didn’t write it (even though it may be much better than the $14.99 e-book copy of Inferno… which I’m a little disappointed with so far.) These are the readers I like to target the most. I’m fine if they grab a few of my history works or fiction for free because they will usually buy a few more books from me if they like what they read.

    3. Patron of the Writers
    These people pay for everything. They even have a chance to get an ebook for free on occasion and they don’t. I guess there could be several different reasons for that. Some of them are friends of mine and they think it would be rude to keep me from making a couple dollars for an item they’re purchasing that I created. Some of them see anything below $4 as cheap indie garbage. Whatever their reasoning, I hope they like the stuff that I write. A lot of these readers like my travel photo-based tours of Asia and the U.S. They barely sold at $1.49 and $2.99 but they get sold and borrowed more often at the $3.99 price point I currently have them at and the reviews have been nothing but great at that price point as well.

    So there you go, Russell. My ridiculously long comment. You can blame yourself for it though because you invited everyone to make comments. πŸ˜› Oh and BTW, I’m slowly reading Jet in my free time between work, writing, refinancing my house, law school applications, and everything else that’s going on. I have to say that it’s really an impressive book so far. I also promise that I’d tell you if it wasn’t. My main point is that I have two e-books that are permanently free and those can be used to try me out as an author. I don’t do free promos anymore unless there’s a REALLY good reason.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 27th May 2013 at 4:37 pm

      The freebies definitely bring out the one and two star reviews.

      As James Lee Burke says, “The boos always come from the cheap seats.”

      Yep.

      Reply
  15. Mon 27th May 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Your post is timely. I’ve just finished reading an indie book by someone I know. Though it was well written (grammatically) and a half-decent story, I was not in love with it. Instead of giving it 3 stars or lower, I’ve decided to do nothing. Like you, I don’t want to trash someone’s creation. Writing reviews, like art and film, is subjective. Sometimes, the less said, the better.

    Reply
  16. Mon 27th May 2013 at 3:46 pm

    I don’t take review requests, nor do I review books that often. Only if I REALLY like something (and then I’m probably only going to give it 4 stars, because I reserve 5 stars for stuff that blows me away).

    Only if a book catches my eye will I review it on my blog. Learned the hard way that some people don’t like criticism, even if it’s couched in an otherwise good review. Once I reviewed an indie book and gave it four stars, but commented that there were times I didn’t care for how the POV shifts were handled. Said author no longer speaks to me, haha

    I stick to reviewing movies on my blog. They’re more fun to write (especially because I usually review awesomely bad [or just mediocre] horror flicks), and the author is probably not going to show up and ream you a good one because of something nit picky.

    Also, do you just not know what to say on a review sometimes? Often I just think “I liked it” and don’t really think much more about it. I usually feel a bit silly saying “I like it” in various ways over about 500 words, another reason for the dearth of reviews on my blog, haha

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 27th May 2013 at 4:38 pm

      I write so few reviews nowadays that I don’t have to struggle with what to say. Truth is I don’t review a book unless I really thought it was a standout. And I’m never at a loss for words with standout books.

      Reply
  17. Tue 28th May 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I feel so torn on this issue, as I love to read as much as I love to write and I do have strong feelings about what I read:P I also like to engage as a reader so book reviews are a way to do that. I personally draw the line at 3 star reviews. A 3-star for me is there is something(s) I really enjoyed about the book, but there were other things I didn’t. If a book is 1- or 2-star for me I won’t review. I just can’t because like many acknowledge, reading is just too subjective. If I’m on the fence between a 3- and 4- star or a 2- and 3- star sometimes I won’t write a review. I do love raving over books I love!

    Reply
  18. Tue 28th May 2013 at 2:09 pm

    I hear what you’re saying about being critical because you’re in the “business”. I see the same things when I’m reading other’s peoples work.

    For me, I refuse to leave a review less than four stars and most of the times it’s five stars (unless a book is crap and is obviously pumped out there just to separate me from my money – not honest – even then, I’d probably just not leave a review). Maybe I’m just a spineless wuss, but I just can’t bring myself to say bad things publicly about people or their books. I just won’t do it. Besides, there are plenty of people out there MORE than willing to leave bad (undeserving) reviews for me.

    Reply
  19. Tue 28th May 2013 at 2:43 pm

    A great thorn in the side; reviews.
    When I went to school, and learned what a correct “Review” was, I was told that a “Review” is:
    a. a short description of the base of the story line,
    b. between 100 and 300 words long, and;
    c. describe the pros and cons of the story from a third-person point of view, not only the views of the reader, for others who might read the story
    As my wife says, reviews on Amazon are not “Reviews”, but short 20-word “Opinions” that give no feedback and only damage the book and author.
    Its a pity that Amazon holds itself so high in service, accuracy, and its own name, but doesn’t understand the definition of the word “Review”.
    Most who paid nothing for a novel or book will not “waste” their time to write a 100 word review if they didn’t like it.
    As Randy Morris stated above; the Patrons of the Writers would, good or bad.
    My views only.

    Reply
  20. Thu 30th May 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Interesting perspective on picking apart the technical aspects of writing. I think you’re right that readers wouldn’t be interested in those aspects, and it’s probably not fair to the book to highlight them. I’ve never considered it from that angle before.

    Love the comparison to a film student watching a movie. My husband is like that – whenever we see a movie and talk about it afterward, he goes on and on about the cinematography, etc whereas I just grade it on enjoyability. πŸ™‚

    Reply
  21. Gary Sweeney
    Tue 10th Sep 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Reviews are very subjective animals. Different people get different things from a story.
    So far, I have had a bit of a mixed bag for my book, (Some Time In New York) ranging from the dreaded one star, to four stars.
    But one review in particular got my back up so much that I had to respond to the ‘reviewer’ in protestation. It went something like this: Eurgh no. Not for me, I’m afraid. Why would I want to read this kind of violence and a double murder on the first page? This was a free book and I’m so glad I never paid for it. I gave up after the first page.

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on books but I sent a message to the reviewer and reminded them that it is supposed to be a BOOK review, not a PAGE review. The book blurb on Amazon clearly points out what the reader can expect early doors, so this reader should not have bothered downloading the ‘freebie’ anyway. They withdrew the unjust review the following day.

    I am more than willing to receive reviews, both good and bad, just as long as the reviewer has read all or the majority of the book and judged it on that.

    I’m halfway through the second Jet book of yours and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve bought the rest and have them ready on my Kindle. I’m currently splitting my spare time between reading Jet, and working on my follow-up book which I’m hoping will be ready by Christmas.

    Reply

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