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Books, Features

Online Book Reviews – The Good, the Bad and the Downright Nasty

My favourite reading corner

I’m writing this piece from a slightly uncomfortable position on the fence that separates readers and writers.  I am most definitely a reader, of 32 novels in the first half of this year to be precise, so if I keep it up I’ll easily smash last year’s record.   I also think of myself as a writer, but I am not, so far, a published author, so I haven’t had personal experience of receiving reviews.  I do have a passionate interest in new fiction though, and I spend a lot of time writing reviews.  The critical environment into which new books are being released has changed beyond recognition, and online reviews are the main reason why.

Sticks and Stones….

Last week on Twitter, Shelley Harris, author of Jubilee, unwittingly started a trend under the hashtag #crapreviews and dozens of writers piled in contributing quotes from their least complimentary critiques.  Many (not all) found it very entertaining, as was her post mortem blogpost http://shelleyharris.co.uk/.  One of the things that has surprised me most since joining Twitter is just how much reviews, both positive and negative, matter to writers.  The thinking used to be that writers should remain silent and not respond to criticism, but now they’re expected to be online, communicating with readers, it’s not unusual to find even best-selling, prize-winning novelists venting their sorrow about poor reviews, ironically drawing attention to them, as if that lessens the sting.  Maybe it does; it can usually be relied on to bring some sympathy and affirmation from those who do like their work.  Writers are human.

If you can’t stand the heat

Maybe I am migrating to the dark side – I instinctively find myself seeing it from the writer’s point of view now I know how difficult it is to write a novel of any description.  I respect any author who gets published, even if I don’t personally like their work (Taking No Prisoners – My View of Fifty Shades of Grey). Nobody pays me to review, so I choose to spend my time writing about novels I’ve enjoyed and want to recommend, whilst still taking a critical approach. Some people evidently crave the satisfaction of doing a hatchet job.  Let’s face it, most people will never write a novel, but anyone can express an opinion, or to be perfectly blunt about it:  If you are a published writer anyone can trash your book in an instant.  Unfortunate, unfair, but true.   Once it’s ‘out there’, you have no control over how it’s received, what people read into it, what kind of critical response it gets, the assumptions they make about you.  That’s what you signed up for; nobody made you do it.

My current read, which got the Kakutani seal of approval

The democracy of taste

As I mentioned in Being Selective – How do you choose which books to read?, the influence of professional critics and reviewers is on the wane.  Nobody’s denying there’s still prestige attached to getting coverage in a national newspaper or magazine; Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times is so renowned for her cutting reviews (even of Anne Tyler, imagine!) that it must surely be an honour to be savaged by her.  Online reader reviews, especially at Amazon and Goodreads, now have a greater impact on sales.   (The smartest publishers are well aware of the influence of book bloggers too, but I’m not commenting on blog reviews because it’s too close to home).  The reason publishing is such a risky business is that nobody can predict if a particular book will fly or flop.  That’s the bit that readers get to decide.  The books are written for them, after all.

Who’s giving out the stars?

I’m willing to bet that you take more notice of a book recommendation from a friend or someone whose taste and judgement you trust than a stranger’s review on Amazon – I know I do.  How do you know how much weight to give someone’s opinion if you don’t know where they’re coming from?

Some online reviewers give a thoughtful and balanced assessment of a book’s strengths and weaknesses, commenting on the characterisation, the plot, the writing and the ideas and emotions it stimulates.  Those reviews are the most helpful, but not everyone reads in a critical frame of mind; a lot of people just want a good read and that’s fair enough.  I’m all for readers having their say and am just as interested in hearing why someone didn’t enjoy a book – and everybody has that right – as long as they explain why.  Reasons which crop up repeatedly are unlikeable characters, plausibility issues, and disappointed expectations.  I’m not sure it’s fair to criticise a book for not being what you thought it was going to be rather than what it IS, but I do understand the feeling.  Far too many novels have either a title or back of book blurb that give a completely false impression.  When readers feel cheated, it’s hardly a promising start.

Many online reviews seem to be dashed off in haste, slanted by obvious prejudices or (my personal pet hate) determined to spoil the story for other readers.  If a review is inarticulate or ungrammatical, I’m not interested in that person’s opinion, especially if they then comment on the writing!

Raves and Rants

Judging the by star ratings, having some degree of enthusiasm for a book seems to be the main motivator for writing an online review.  Know that feeling of loving a book so much you can’t put it down, can’t stop talking about it and feel bereft when you get to the end? Last year I felt this way about just 5 of the 55 books I read, although many of the others were good or very good.  I hardly ever write Amazon reviews, partly because I hate giving books stars, it’s too blunt an instrument for a delicate task.

As #crapreviews and a quick surf on Amazon reveal, a small but significant number of individuals (usually hiding under cover of anonymity) make extremely negative comments about the book or really spiteful or insulting remarks about the author’s writing ability or even the writer personally.  They sometimes go as far as suggesting all positive reviews are by the author’s family and friends!  I actually think it’s healthy for writers to be able to have a laugh about it.  Those people may get a kick out of the thought they’re damaging the writer, but I think we all know it says more about them.

I’d like to end with one of my favourites.  It’s not even nasty, I just found it very funny.

Once put down, it was unpickupable.

Whether you’re a reader or a writer, what’s your take on reviews?  Do you pay any attention?  I’m hoping for another of our lively debates!

*POSTSCRIPT*

I’m delighted that Suzanne Joinson, author of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar (out on 5 July), will be the second Guest Author to join me On the Literary Sofa on Monday 9 July.

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About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.

Discussion

17 thoughts on “Online Book Reviews – The Good, the Bad and the Downright Nasty

  1. About writing reviews for Amazon: they make an immense amount of money in this country, on which they deviously manage to pay hardly any tax at all (the Luxemburg scam), whilst killing the independent book trade. Why write free reviews for them?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/apr/04/amazon-british-operation-corporation-tax

    Posted by Tom Voute | July 3, 2012, 10:32
  2. Great post, Isabel. I often wonder why people bother with really negative Amazon reviews. Surely, if you hate a book that much, you’d just want to forget about it and move on to a new book? I’ve read 5 star and 1 star reviews of the same book and been absolutely amazed at how people can see things so differently. I agree that a balanced review looking at strengths and weaknesses can be useful, but some reviews are so nasty that you do start to wonder whether there’s something personal. The funniest negative review I ever saw (though it wasn’t an Amazon review) claimed that the central character had ‘the moral complexity of a sheep’! I don’t know what the writer had done to upset that reviewer. And by the way, I read the book, and didn’t agree.

    Posted by susan elliot wright | July 3, 2012, 14:16
    • Thanks Susan, glad you found the post interesting. I think book reviews have a lot in common with hotel and restaurant reviews (something else close to your heart!) in that those who leave excoriating reviews for one, often turn out to do the same for almost everything they write about. There’s just no pleasing some people!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 3, 2012, 15:03
  3. I think you and I are kindred souls (I read about a book a week, love a cozy writing corner [yours is ideal!], and enjoy all kinds of books — the 5 star and the 1 star variety). I think that reading is subjective, just like writing is. What one person enjoys (in reading, and in the stories she writes) another turns her nose up at, either the genre, or the writing style, or the content. So no, I don’t believe in negative book reviews, and once I get my book published (like you, I’m writing ‘women’s fiction)’ I will try to avoid reviews. It’s important for us writers to have our books CRITIQUED before they’re published, but that’s different. I have reviewed books on Amazon, but only those I truly liked. Thanks for your great post, which gave us readers and writers a chance to express our views (not REviews). :+)

    Posted by roughwighting1 | July 3, 2012, 14:37
    • Hi Pam, thanks for your lovely comment, it does sound as if we have a lot in common! I absolutely agree that taste is a very subjective thing (as agents keep telling me!) and I feel very uncomfortable about criticising a novel just because it wasn’t to my own taste and potentially putting others off reading it. Why do that when there are so many amazing, well-written books to shout about?!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 3, 2012, 15:12
  4. Hi Isabel – great post as always.

    The culture of publishing these days pushes writers to keep a close eye on their reviews on Amazon and Goodreads as it appears to directly affect whether or not a new reader will pick up your book or not. I’ve been very lucky with the reviews for my book, but last month I received a particularly nasty one on Amazon UK. Did I take it to heart? I’m afraid so! Your book is such a huge part of your life that it is difficult not to. However, in hindsight, it is one bad review that is swamped by many wonderful ones and the personal nature of the review speaks for itself – any rational person would quickly dismiss it.

    I’m told (by a social media expert) that a mix of good and bad reviews is healthy as it shows your book is provoking a response. As writers, we should bear in mind that we are in a subjective business and what one reader loves, another will dismiss. Although I don’t write bad reviews, I do think people are entitled to their opinion, as long as they are written with kindness.

    I look forward to reading your book when it reaches the shelves.

    All Best,

    Jane

    Posted by Jane Isaac | July 4, 2012, 20:37
    • Thanks Jane, great to have someone who’s already published chipping in on this. Sorry to hear you had a bad experience – I can imagine how much it must hurt, even if the person comes across as someone whose opinion the writer doesn’t particularly respect. My impression from reading Amazon reviews, from Twitter and talking to the writers I know is that getting awful reviews is part of the deal and something all writers have to cope with without exception. By the sound of it, it doesn’t get much easier as time goes on! Such a shame that we all hear criticism so much more loudly than praise, and waste our time worrying about it, but that’s creatives for you!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 5, 2012, 09:47
  5. For me, you were right when you said some people only leave reviews when they have enjoyed a book. As a writer, I can’t leave a bad review. If I didn’t enjoy a book, I just don’t say anything about it. I know how much work went in to it and I also know that reading, stories and style are all subjective. Reading is not an objective pass-time. We all like different things for different reasons, so something that I may hate, may be loved by another reader. It’s all about personal taste. For me, leaving a review is a thank you to the writer.

    I hope if I ever make it to a bookshelf myself, that I can ignore negative reviews, based on the reasoning I’ve just used!

    Posted by Rebecca Bradley | July 5, 2012, 18:21
  6. Hi Isabel, I do find I’m reading more Amazon and other non-professional reviews lately than the professional ones. I can find Amazon reviews helpful – I think it’s possible to get into a rhythm when reading them so you know which ones to trust and which ones you ignore. I do agree with Jane and you that it seems bad reviews are just part of the territory – what is scary is when I hear something like what I’ve heard recently that one or two bad reviews on Amazon could sour a writer’s publishing deal. Urban legend? I hope so! I’d hate to think that a few people bent on being negative could hurt a writer’s career. I’m with Rebecca: as a writer I find it impossible to trash someone else’s book. Intelligent criticism is one thing but harsh negativity isn’t really helpful to anyone (except maybe that reviewer?). But in the end, if in fact writers WON’T lose their publishing deals, I guess I’d rather have more communication rather than less (freedom of speech, etc.), even if some nasty stuff ends up out there about our sweet novels.

    Posted by Kristin | July 5, 2012, 20:14
    • Hi Kristin – I agree with you re tuning into other reviewers’ comments. Often you can sense if the person concerned is remotely on the same wavelength by the things they comment on because it gives a clue to the way they read. I am drawn to reviews that mention the writing for example, something I’m really interested in, because most don’t.

      Yes, I heard a literary novelist say it only takes five 2 star reviews on Amazon to ‘kill a book’. However, I’ve since discussed this with other more commercial writers who totally dismissed that notion! Happily, I still believe a far greater influence than online reviews is word of mouth, which I regard as far more reliable.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 5, 2012, 22:28
  7. Well put, Isabel! It’s a jungle out there in the land of online reviews. 🙂 It’s hard to know sometimes when a book is going to be good or not just from the reviews.

    I think people tend to review “high” on Goodreads and Amazon (the whole phenomonenon you mentioned of why reviewers review in the first place), so I usually try to go for books that get four stars or above. But yeah, so hard to wade through it all! 🙂

    Posted by Writerlious | July 9, 2012, 16:44
    • Hi Erin As I said in the article, I just hate the stars thing. In my mind, 5 stars would be my favourite books of all time and 3 would be a pretty decent rating, but of course that’s not how it works on Amazon. The disparity between what people say and their star ratings can also be bizarre – sometimes a 2 star review is really not that critical, or someone strongly disliked an aspect of a book but still gave it 4 or 5!!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 10, 2012, 07:54
  8. After I’ve read a review copy I always go on to Amazon to see what others have thought about it. Of course, I write my own opinion but if I see that twenty other people have been annoyed by the same flaws as me, I can safely assume that it’s the book’s fault and not just an issue of personal taste.

    I’ve written a few luke warm reviews, but I’ve only ever written one scathing review. And that’s because I still believe from the bottom of my heart that it’s the worst book I’ve ever read. The trouble with reviewing is that when you get a book that you hate, you don’t have the option to just stop reading it and I think that makes you resent the book even more.

    I was quite an inexperienced reviewer when I wrote the scathing review, and I sometimes wonder whether I’d be so harsh about a book now (the author got quite cross about it, and she’s actually a bit famous & influential). But I’m glad I wrote it, I was only being honest. And if you’re an honest reviewer, it makes your glowing reviews more valuable.

    For Books’ Sake never gave us any guidelines for how to assign a star rating, so I came up with my own system.

    5* one of my favourite books
    4* will definitely read again
    3* would read again
    2* would not read again
    1* how did this get published?

    Interestingly, in my experience a low star rating doesn’t necessarily put people off picking up a book, but I know that a 4-5 star rating can encourage someone to go out and buy it.

    Posted by Cariad Martin (@cariadmartin) | July 13, 2012, 09:34
    • Hi Cariad
      I was delighted to get this comment from someone who’s done a lot of reviewing and finally! someone who admits to having written a scathing review – thank you! How telling that the author felt moved to get annoyed with you and communicate that, especially as someone established. Your system of star ratings also interested me, particularly as I very rarely re-read books so that is not a factor that I would take into account. I’m just too busy balancing new stuff coming out and trying to plug some key gaps I’m aware of in my literary knowledge!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 13, 2012, 17:54
      • Yeah, I think it’s a bit of a fantasy that I’ll get a chance to read any of my favourite review copies again at a later date (in reality I revisit about 1 a year!). For writing purposes I do often dip in and out of books, sitting in the hallway reading a scene or a chapter that I think might be useful, and the 3, 4 and 5 star books are often flicked through then.

        I know what you mean about the balancing act, in the rare gaps that I don’t have a new book I need to read, I try and squeeze in a classic or modern classic that I haven’t yet got round to!

        Posted by Cariad Martin (@cariadmartin) | July 17, 2012, 09:33

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