Mixed Feelings? Oh, Hell Yes!
Don’t get me wrong. I need book reviews to sell books. That doesn’t mean I need the reviews I get though–and surprise! surprise!–the good ones can be just as bad as the bad ones.
Amazon proscriptions notwithstanding I try to get my friends and family to post reviews of my books. It’s not as easy as you might imagine. It’s easy to ask, but not so easy to get them to actually do it. I suspect some of them don’t read the books in the first place, so there is that, but for those who do, only a fraction will take the time to put up a substantive review. They’re friends and family, so they are happy to give me a five star rating. I appreciate them. I do. They just don’t write deep, insightful reviews.
I don’t mind. Really. There are some good excuses. I’ve used them myself for other things.
- They don’t know how. Writing a review isn’t easy. It’s easier than writing a book, but harder than watching Game of Thrones, for example.
- They don’t have time.
- They don’t want to see me become too successful because they know that if I do, I will be forever after insufferable at Christmas parties, family reunions, and other common social gatherings. No one wants that, especially if there will be children attending.
This isn’t about friends and family reviews though. This is about the review game, how it’s played, and the shitty results it sometimes brings.
The Good, the Bad, and the WTF!
My books have been accumulating reviews lately, mostly good but some not so good. I’ve been forced to think about reviews in general and their usefulness in particular. It’s no secret that a writer’s success depends in part at least on the reviews they get.
I have mixed feelings about reviews. On the one hand I need them. They are essential to selling books and selling books is essential to my continued mental and physical well being. On the other hand they can be a source of considerable annoyance. Ian McEwan said of them, “Reading reviews makes you thin-skinned. It’s like waves washing layers off your skin.”
This can be true of good reviews as well as bad. As Eleanor Catton writes, “Writing is exhilarating, but reading reviews is not. I’ve been really devastated by ‘good’ reviews because they misunderstand the project of the book. It can be strangely galvanizing to get a ‘bad’ one.”
So, maybe it’s best to just ignore reviews—to not read them at all. They don’t do much to soothe the writer’s troubled sense of worth, that’s for sure. On the other hand, sometimes we need to be ‘strangely galvanized.’
James Blunt puts things is a different kind of perspective, “I try to read everything that I can about myself because Saddam Hussein didn’t read his reviews and he thought he was winning!”
(I think sometimes that the same thing must be true of Donald Trump. Either his staff is insulating him from really negative opinions or Trump himself is able to discount the bad reviews as ‘fake news’ and let them roll off his wispy lid like so much water. Either way he obviously thinks he’s winning and eventually Karma is sure to bite him on the ass. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was found hiding in a spider hole like Saddam though I doubt he’ll be hanged for his failings.)
5 Kinds of Reviews I Could Do Without … if I Didn’t Need Them So Much
Here then are some categories of reviews that I would like to discount or even eliminate but cannot because Amazon won’t let me:
- Two and three star reviews that say my books are well-written and funny but take exception to the politics and opinions of my characters. Really? It’s fiction. That’s for starters. Crafting interesting characters means being able to imbue them with their own beliefs and proclivities. Otherwise they’d all be the same person—me—and I’d just be writing essays. Seriously, I had one reviewer ding A Cup of Pending because he said I punched Ayn Rand in the nose. I didn’t. My protagonist, Cliff, might have, but really all he said was that, were she still alive, the movers and shakers she wrote about wouldn’t give her the time of day. If that’s a punch in the nose, she had it coming.
- Four and five star reviews that are full of syntax errors, misspellings, and typos. If someone has the good taste and discernment to give me a lot of stars, it seems to me they ought to spend a few minutes proofreading their review so that it will carry some weight with the people who read it whilst trying to decide whether or not they want to buy my book. If a review is full of grammatical errors, it loses its credibility. People just assume the reviewer is an idiot and their star rating has no validity in the real world.
- Any review that completely misses the point of the book. There is actually a finer line here than you might imagine. As soon as an author puts his or her work out in the ether for a public to read, that work has a broader ownership than it did gestating in the author’s mind. Readers get to weigh in on your meaning, and an author can’t always say definitively that they are wrong—except when they can. For instance, I read a book blogger’s review of Moby Dick last year. She rated it two stars. Said it was a boring exposition of arcane whaling practices that was way short on plot and character development. That’s just wrong. I got a pretty good review of Speedster just the other week. The reviewer liked the plot. Thought there were lots of interesting twists and so forth. Then said it would appeal to fans of The Fast and the Furious movie franchise. This kind of comment would probably scare off a lot of people who aren’t fans of The Fast and the Furious. I’m one of them. I spent considerable effort in Speedster making fun of tuner punk car clubs. I really think tuner car fans would probably not like Speedster at all. The upshot? Import tuner fans will read my book based on this review and be disappointed at best and insulted at worst. On the other hand, readers who are looking for something more than adrenaline-laced car chases and dangerous stunts won’t bother to read Speedster. Why would they?
- Deliberately Toxic reviews calculated to destroy the author. Sometimes these are done to increase another author’s competitive advantage. Sometimes they are done for personal reasons. Sometimes they are just meanness perpetrated by trolls for sport. Writing is hard enough without this kind of shit, but my saying that is not going to make them go away.
- Glowing fake reviews calculated to juice an author’s marketing efforts by taking advantage of Amazon’s ranking algorithms. Amazon does a pretty good job of ferreting these out and guarding against them, but they still exist. These are done in support of ‘authors’ who are only in it for the money. Those of us who write for love of letters or story telling or art are at their mercy.
It’s unfortunate that we all have to compete for attention in the same crowded marketplace—even more so that we have to rely on reviews to differentiate us from every other author and wannabe in the universe. Like so many things in my life that ‘don’t kill me, but only make me stronger,’ I’m just going to have to deal with it.
If you are reading this bit now, congratulate yourself. Hardly anyone gets this far in my posts. Too bad. This is where I load the snark and the funny stuff. Every one of these little postscripts is like a vanity card at the end of one of your favorite TV sitcoms … except shorter and not quite so philosophical. I know I’m not going to crack you up every time, but I’m going to try, and so should you. If you enjoyed this post, even a little bit, you should consider sharing it with your friends and acquaintances by clicking on one or all of the social media buttons below. You’ll help me grow my audience. When my audience is legion, you’ll be able to say you were an early adapter. Won’t that be a feather in your cap? Whatever you decide to do, just keep in mind that a click here is easier than writing a review and almost as useful. Thanks for your support.