Thoughts on Reader Reviews

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigCustomer Reviews

I’ve learned not to talk to my family about reviews.  I’ve seen them flinch in the past when I’ve mentioned some of the negative things said about my books. I realize that they haven’t developed that ability to be detached about it yet.  To them, a negative review is as hurtful as if someone publicly said something negative about me.

For me, it’s not like that.  Not unless, maybe, it’s been a bad, bad day and the review is the final straw. Or if I’ve lost a reader.  That’s probably the single most hurtful thing I can read from a reviewer—something along the lines of: “I’ve read all her other books but after this one I won’t be buying any more.”  That does have the power to really mess up my afternoon…if I let it.

My most-reviewed book has 578 reviews.  I haven’t read all of them, but enough to get a snapshot or big picture of what the readers thought.  And, in general, I do find reader reviews to be helpful.

Reviews give me a picture of my readers.  I can frequently tell their age (readers often state it on the reviews), their education level, and where they’re from.  It’s easy market research.

Reviews give me direction.  Readers talk about what they like and don’t like in my books.  If enough of them talk about an aspect they don’t like…you can bet that I’m going to be making adjustments to my general game plan in the next book.  As a commercial writer, I’m writing for them, after all.

Customer reviews can offer valuable insight to other readers–and can give us more visibility on Amazon.   I’m one of those people who spends a lot of time researching even minor purchases.  We broke our filtered water pitcher here and needed to replace it. I wanted a full picture of what I would be buying.  So I looked at Consumer Reports (which was reviewing the pitcher in terms of filtration ability, flow rate, and clogging), but then I expressly clicked over to Amazon to see what customers would say.  I wanted both types of reviews—the critical review done in a lab under special conditions, and the customer reviewer saying, “This thing wouldn’t fit in my fridge.”

As a reader, though, I don’t read customer reviews before buying a book on Amazon…I’d rather read a book blogger’s review or a Publishers Weekly review (if there is one).  That’s mainly because customer reviews have a scary number of spoilers in them.

So we have different types of reviews in the publishing world right now.  We have critical reviews from trained journalists and well-read and practiced book bloggers…and then we have reader reviews.

Journalist Porter Anderson explained the difference between these reviews beautifully in his Writing on the Ether post last year for Jane Friedman’s blog, “Let’s Review Criticism.”  Porter states:

Actual criticism never seeks to tell users what to do. Instead it takes the work at hand and analyzes it in terms of what its creator(s) intended to do. What did this author mean to achieve? Did he or she achieve it?—how? how not? how well? The user of criticism is then left to decide whether the analysis makes the work worth looking into. And he or she then decides whether the work is “good” or otherwise. Criticism asks you to think for yourself, not be told to “read this” or “don’t read that.”

But are most readers reading book blogger reviews or reviews in publications like Kirkus or PW?  Or are they paying more attention to reader reviews?  Judging from what I’ve seen in my own books’ reviews, readers chat with each other in the reviews.  Some reviews get comments.  Readers certainly seem to be reading them and discussing them. So they’re important.

Reader reviews also seem to figure into Amazon’s mysterious algorithm that determines visibility on the retailer’s site.  The more reviews you have, the better.

And, this is something most every writer already knows….I never respond to reviews. Not glowing reviews, not mediocre reviews, not scathing reviews.  Not even reviews that seem unfair or incorrect.  I disengage…the reviews are written by readers for readers.  They’re not written for me.

What are your thoughts about reader reviews?  Are they helpful or hurtful? Are you able to find something constructive out of even some of the worst ones?

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29 thoughts on “Thoughts on Reader Reviews

  1. Thanks for sharing your views, I certainly agree with you and (for the most part) try to disengage as well.

    And I especially agree that reviews, particularly from people I respect, other professional writers or journalists, can be extremely useful and make you rethink, as you put it, your game plan for your next book. It has even made me redo an already published book! I had come out with a novel about a retiree-turned-artist to the dismay of his wife (she hates his academic paintings) and had focused on his troubles and not hers. It was really lopsided and gave the point of view of one major character and not the other. So I rewrote it using alternating points of views and I’m satisfied with this improvement and I can honestly say I owe it to my readers!

    1. Claude–Thanks for coming by. And…isn’t it amazing that we can republish a book? That’s a wonderful aspect of the digital age. I guess the only real downside is the feeling that we’re never really *done* with a book.

  2. I read my reviews. Some you can discard, like one-star reviews with one line that says ‘this sucked.’ But my reviews have given me direction before. My second book had a female character specifically because that’s what reviewers wanted.

  3. As a reviewer if I dislike something in a book, I try to point out that it’s my dislike and why. Even though I don’t like a particular book or part of it, I don’t ever want to discourage someone else from not reading it. Strange, I know, for a reviewer to say, but we all see things differently and it’s only fair to the author to point that out. I have even read a few books because of the bad reviews. I found their dislike of a certain element in the book or the author’s writing to be one that I liked.

    1. Mason–That’s *perfect*. That’s exactly what we want. And you’re so right–frequently I’ll read a review and think to myself, “Okay, this reviewer didn’t really care for this book. But I don’t mind lack of description and a slower paced story, so I think I’ll still buy it.”

  4. …I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled. – Prufrock, Eliot.

    I am not inclined to pay attention to advice without intimate knowledge of the authority of the one who offered it. Also, when I solicit advice, I am inclined to follow it.

    Ive asked Hemingway what he thinks about certain passages. So far, he hasn’t answered. Lucky there.

    I’d sell porn if it was a commercial offering. I’d poll voters if I was running for office. I ask the best writers I can impose upon for unvarnished appraisals of my works.

    I might be inclined to solicit the local Murder and Bridge Tea Club for construction and plot guidance on a mystery – if I thought my own mystery devices were serious in the genre as yours are. My mysteries are more devices of enticement than classic sleuthing because I can’t do sleuth well ( and hats off to those who can! Wow, tough to pull off).

    “I have learned not to read reviews. Period” – Grisham

    Unsolicited advice from reviews? Oh, please be careful.

    Nobody will ever adore our writing as much as they adore a plate of fresh cookies after a spring day spent in school looking out the window wondering when 5th grade will end.

    1. Jack–Well put! Yes, reading reviews is dangerous stuff. I wonder if I’m so immune now because I’ve had so many bad ones? I mean…having bad reviews (overall, still plenty of good ones, but *lots* of bad ones to balance things out) really toughens one up.

      For me, though, yes, I can pull advice out of the reviews and make adjustments. It’s funny, too, because the readers are clearly not talking to me or thinking that they’re offering advice at all. So it’ll be something like: “I wish Myrtle’s son would stay out of her business more. He’s getting annoying.” If one reader says something like that, I’ll pay attention, but not put too much thought into it. If 20 readers say similar things (and I’m using this as an example because this is an actual issue I’m getting feedback on from readers) then I’m breaking Red’s leg or something in the next book. Poor guy!

      But Grisham may have something. I’d say that if the reviews aren’t helping us at all, what use are they to us? And then we should just skip that section on our book page.

      And…Prufrock is my favorite. Saddest lines in all of poetry: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

      I do not think that they will sing to me.”

  5. Elizabeth, I’m glad you mentioned that you never respond to reviews. I’ve had a few folks who told me they expect me to respond to their posted review. That’s tricky, isn’t it? On the one hand, I don’t like to see readers upset. Then again, responding to reviews (no matter what they say) is a slippery slope.

    I appreciate readers who take the time to share their reaction to a book I’ve written. Between reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I can get a good sense of what’s working and what pleases readers.

    I write mysteries, and am fascinated by the diversity of opinions regarding “whodunit.” Some readers say they had no idea, some say they thought they’d figured it out but were wrong, and I’ve had a few say they knew the identity of the villain before the end. They were unanimous, however, in saying they enjoyed the story. And isn’t that why we write?

    1. Susan–Sometimes book bloggers will send me a link to their review…it is a little disconcerting when that happens. So what I’ll do with something like that is to thank the blogger. Sometimes I share the link on Facebook. But that’s as far as it goes.

      It amazes me that so many readers write reviews!

      Like you mention, I’ve seen all kinds of reviews mention the whodunit–readers were shocked, they knew it all along, etc. And you’re right–for them to still enjoy reading the book…that’s wonderful.

  6. Congratulations on the number of reviews you have, Elizabeth. I appreciate the time and effort readers make to write a review, and I try to look for the constructive criticism in those reviews. Then I weigh it for the “does it ring true?” factor. When a Baptist minister told me that I needed more romance in my books, I knew I really needed more romance in my books! The result has been a multi-award winning series and broadening my fan base.

  7. I guess writers must develop a thick skin and learn not to take things personally – just like you describe here – using the information to improve the next book. I have been asked a few times to write reviews by bloggers I know and it makes me uncomfortable if I don’t care for the book vey much. I don’t want to hurt their sales. But this makes me realize readers might not take reviews quite that seriously.

  8. Writing reviews is an art. So is reading them.

    I have so few reviews, I’m still waiting for my first clinker. My 12 readers all seem to love me more than their own children.

    But when I’m looking for a Dylan album I don’t own yet (there are a few) or a mystery I haven’t read, the tone of voice in the review is usually enough to tell me whether this is a fan, raving a bit too much, a hater hating, or a fellow reader sharing what moved them and might move me.

    During this publishing transition, readers are probably depending almost entirely on reader reviews. For good or ill, we have to deal with that.

    There is one place where I’d consider responding to a review: if blatantly incorrect information were presented as fact which might prejudice readers. For instance, if someone were to claim they had to put my book down because of the profanity — well, that’s impossible. There is none. And I’d feel justified in challenging that statement.

    Now, if they said “Canfield is a hack who couldn’t write a grocery list” I’d ignore it. Or post it on my website, which would be sorta funny.

    1. Joel—Ahh….good point. The tone. Yes, I can tell if it’s family, if it’s someone who is one of my True Fans, if it’s someone who read it just because it was free one weekend.

      I’ve seen blatantly incorrect info in reviews for my books before. It is *irritating*. But again, I leave it alone. Even if the review is not even for the content of my book–the review is for the length of time it took Amazon to ship the book, the condition of the book when it arrived, etc. But it makes my blood pressure go up, for sure.

  9. Elizabeth – I couldn’t agree more about making sure we don’t get too ‘close’ to reviews. Nothing one writes is going to appeal to every reader. It’s that simple. But it’s also liberating in a way, because we don’t have to write to please each person (as though we could!0.

    That said though, I look at thoughtful reviews as a form of assessment. I read them to see if there’s a pattern about my work that I’m missing, or something in general that I’m doing well. They’re very helpful in giving me insight into what I’m like as a writer. And there’s nothing like a good review to put in ‘the bank’ for when I’m having ONE OF THOSE DAYS.

  10. You have an admirable outlook on reviews, Elizabeth. I’m with you on learning and gleaning as much as I can from my 2-5 star reviews (I never read 1-star, they’re rarely relevant or coherent).

    Peace, Seeley

    1. Seeley–And those 1-stars will frequently state: “I didn’t even finish the book.” Blah. If they didn’t finish it…can they really review it? A journalist couldn’t, but here’s a difference with reader reviews.

  11. Elizabeth–
    578 reviews. The last time I looked, Just Bill, my novel about dogs had gleaned 19, about half of which were written as a favor from friends.
    For me, even professional reviews often prove unreliable. Last Christmas, I bought two copies of a heavily reviewed and marketed novel, one for me, one for a good friend, as a gift. When I read the book, I whipped off a disclaimer to my friend, apologizing for having sent him something unworthy of his good taste. Since most of my purchases are made through Amazon, I rely on the “Look Inside” feature. I can usually tell from the writing itself when a book isn’t for me. Whether it is for me is more iffy.
    But no review is fair unless, as Porter Anderson says, it judges a book on the basis of what it’s trying to do.

    1. Barry–I’ve got those types of reviews in the mix, too–folks who will review me kindly, no matter what. Thank goodness for them–it helps on days when I’m under siege. :)

      And yes…I’m with you on giving books as gifts. Most times I have to buy it/read it first to make sure it’s going to suit my mother/friend/mother-in-law. Books are personal buys, aren’t they? More so, oddly, than even buying someone a piece of clothing.

  12. It will take me a while to build up that detachment that I think I’ll need to read reviews. I think the readers’ opinions are definitely worthwhile and I hope I can stay detached enough to use them properly. :)

  13. I admire your stance on reader reviews– not many authors are so balanced. I haven’t really written many reviews, but I try to figure in what someone would want to read or not read a book, based on subjective tastes most of the time.

  14. I’m new to this and have little experience, but I’m bracing myself for the bad ones. For now, I only check on reviews every once in a while. I rarely read a book based on online reviews, though. I mostly read based on referrals from friends. Old school!

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