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Slightly Fevered Thoughts on Reviewing

I recently had the novel experience of being the very first person to review a certain book online. When I initially posted my 2 star review, it had one 5 star rating with minimal commentary at GoodReads and no reviews I could find anywhere.  (And given how many authors now salt review sites with phony reviews, I’m half sorry I didn’t give it a higher rating just to reward an honest author. But I guess that would defeat the purpose.)

It was a little unnerving to rate a book 2 stars when the only other rating is 5 stars, but I’ve been out of step so often, I’m pretty much used to it. Still, curiosity has kept me checking back on the book at GoodReads. Shortly after my review went up, another 2 star rating appeared. Then another. Currently it has four 2 star ratings, one 3 star, one 4 star and one 5 star.  (Still no ratings at Amazon — again, thank you honest author!)

In my experience, this is very rare. Most early ratings I see run high — frequently, to me, bafflingly high. And though GoodReads is thankfully not as prone to the author sock-puppetry you see endlessly at Amazon, I confess, I have wondered about how much those reviewers were influenced by receiving a free early review copy or by feeling an obligation to the author.

But now I’m wondering if maybe it’s just really hard to go first. To have the courage of your negative convictions without any peer support. Would those other 2 star ratings have appeared if mine hadn’t? I have no way of knowing — all I know was that this wasn’t the first 2 star early read for me, but that this was the first time others have openly agreed with me.

I need to write a reviewer’s statement for “Karen Knows Best,” and it’s hard. I’d like to claim that I’m never influenced by where a book comes from, or by other people’s opinions, but I’m not sure I can. I’m the wishy-washy Beatle on this blog. I see three sides to every issue.  Reviewing here has been good for me, because the spirit of the blog is to speak your mind as forthrightly as possible and let the chips fall where they may. (So far they haven’t fallen much of anyplace. It’s almost disappointing.)

And we need that spirit of forthrightness, because reviewing online is getting ugly. First the sock-puppets made Amazon reviews meaningless and useless (well not completely — when I see certain kinds of raves there, I can pretty much conclude the book sucks.) Now they’re also targeting honest reviewers with vicious personal retaliations.  Check out this bit of nastiness, and this.

It’s hard to completely avoid forces that might influence how we read a book and thus how we review it. Not wanting to offend a favorite author. Not wanting to be mean. Being scared to be the first to offer a negative opinion. Trying to be funny. Having a bad day.  Hell, I’m writing this while I have the flu; I’m just hoping it’s actually in English.  For myself, I’ve concluded that those influences come with being human, and could even be considered part of the subjective experience of reviewing. What’s important to me is whether I can move past them and keep the focus of a review on what I genuinely think and feel.

But I can’t think of anything uglier that might influence a review than being scared to be honest because you might get attacked. So here’s to everyone out there who speaks up and goes first, and makes it easier for others to speak their mind. I’m glad I got to be one of you.

17 Comments »

  • Sadly, I’m beginning to recognize the names and user names of some the self appointed review police over on Amazon. Could they be regarded as trolls? Oh why the hell not!

    I try to winnow them out but one good result of their verbal bile is that I appreciate the serious, honest reviewers even more.

    You keep on being your bad self, Willa. ;-)

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  • Heh. I like the idea of my bad self. Maybe I need a tougher looking avatar.

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  • I’ve written reviews on some of the same books that
    have been reviewed on here and in several occasions I agree with how bad they are after I’ve read them for myself.

    If I don’t like a book, I will not sugarcoat it.
    If the author gets upset or other readers get upset,
    so be it. We are entitled to our opinions and
    if they don’t like them, they don’t have to read
    them.

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  • I tend to find 5 star reviews are written by the author or her friends. Ellora’s Cave is massive for that. 2 star reviews? Yeah, I’ve had them and I move on. Good for you for being honest. As for review police on Amazon? Sadly some people have no lives and need to be bitter and twisted to be seen as interesting.

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  • Lori
    May 11
    10:56 pm

    My brother reviewed one of my books and gave it 5 stars. I feel like I should apologize for it but … one of my characters swore in an interesting way that now my bro has inherited. So maybe it was a 5 star book to him?

    I’m tired of the guilt. I’ve given 4 and 5 star reviews to friends and will continue to do so. If I hate it, I won’t leave a review. But man, the guilt is crazy.

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  • This is such a wonderful question/issue!

    Because whether we are aware of it or not, sometimes our grading or even the tone of the review are influenced by things that have nothing to do with the book itself–and I think that for me this happens more on the middling to good books than anywhere else.

    Because sometimes you really like the author but don’t love their books, or you have loved pretty much everything of them you’ve read so far, and then this one book is…just average (or, yikes, even lower than).

    It’s on those occasions that it can be hard to not let those external factors influence the reviewing process.

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  • I know the feeling.

    I think this is one of the reasons why a review can’t simply be marks out of 5 – it has to be written out. Not just to tell readers WHY you loved/hated it

    Once thing I tend to do is write my review THEN look for what other people have said (and then wonder why they all loved a book that made me grieve for the poor trees who died in vain) just to avoid being persuaded by a mass squee. If I don’t know what other’s have said, I’m not going to be skewed. Because I think it’s far moooore intimidating (especially if you have an ARC) to be the reviewer to post a 2 (or dreaded 1!) star review after a long ream of 5 star reviews full of glowing praise – even if I am tempted to say “the people above me who reviewed this book are clearly all on crack”

    But, especially as you mentioned all the pressure for positive reviews there are now, it’s so vital to stick to your guns, not be swayed and not be persuaded. A reviewer has to have integrity, has to be willing to call drek drek – or what’s the point? And all it takes is one review where you’ve hedged it a bit and you’re going to damage your own reputation

    We ahve been attacked for negatvie reviews – and make much of the blocking. Our response is generally “we’re reviewers, you asked for a review, not an advert. We’re not your marketing department”

    Edit to add: I don’t actually trust book reviews if the book has ONLY got 4-5 star reviews. There’s no way that no-one reading that book didn’t dislike – there’s no way everyone loved it. a gazillion 5 star reviews always make me, rather cynically, assume the author has sent a three line whip round their friends and family

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  • @Fangs for the Fantasy: I try not to see what others have rated/said beforehand too, though of course a lot of the time I checked GoodReads before I decided to read the book. But once I know I want to read something, I avoid hearing anything more about it. This has led to some interesting misunderstanding by me of what a book was going to be about…

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  • One of the reasons I personally don’t do review requests is so that I can rip and shred at will if the book deserves it. Things like gratitude for being a given a free book in exchange for a review is bound to influence the way you write a review, especially if you hated the book.

    I’m grateful for those authors who who still send me books with no expectation of me loving or reviewing them. They’re worth their weight in gold.

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  • Well phew, I’m glad it’s not just me.

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  • Hmmm. I rarely get reviews of any stripe. I don’t solicit reviews and usually don’t even know they’re around until months later.

    A couple observations, though. I’ve noticed over the last two or three years that subsequent reviews frequently echo whatever the first review was. So a two star review on a particular site will often be followed with more two star reviews. Or a five star will be followed with a rash of five stars.

    I’ve also noticed certain reviewers are quite consistent with their reviews (one in particular has NEVER rated any of my books higher than a 2.5 and I have to wonder why she keeps reading them if I’m such a poor writer!) Another apparently never met a single one of my books she didn’t LOVE and find AWESOME.

    Here’s the thing. I suspect reality is somewhere in the middle…probably a four stars level. Whatever the truth, I know I’ll never please all the readers all the time. And in the end, the reviewer’s opinion is the opinion of one individual.

    I’m far more likely to pay attention to those individuals who take time to send me an e-mail or fan letter.

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  • Mariana
    May 13
    1:37 am

    I was recently given a book to read and rate for an ongoing competition (awards). I didn’t love the book and gave an honest opinion to the person requesting the rating. Then I went to update goodreads and saw it had no ratings yet…. what to do?! I seriously was stuck in front of that screen for what seemed like hours.

    Ultimately, I decided just to mark the book read and did not provide any rating. I was certainly not brave enough to post the very first rating/review for the book. I’m a sucker yes, I just don’t want to put anyone off because I know lots of people that would enjoy that book. I was just not one of them.

    Very good post… has me re-thinking my decision.

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  • @Mariana: I didn’t put it together while I was writing it, but I think this post was partly me processing the fact that I’m now a blog reviewer and feel more of a responsibility to really tell it like it is without holding back. But I’m still dealing with some nervous parts of me. I completely understand where you were coming from.

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  • @anny cook: There are certain authors I keep reading even though I rarely rate them very high. Factors: their books are readily available, my friends are reading them, I read one book by that author I really loved, or — in the case of Diana Palmer — I am one sick puppy.

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  • A tangential question @anny cook: is this 2.5 out of 4 or out of 5? If the former, why is that such a bad thing then? Not all books–not even the majority of books, more likely less than a third of books–will ever be in the 8 or higher grade for me. But that doesn’t mean, at all, that I can’t/don’t enjoy books from 6 on.

    So I may keep on reading an author whose books never go beyond a 7 simply because I enjoy them for what they are, flaws and all.

    Or, as Willaful says, ’cause I’m a sick puppy *coughBDBcough*

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  • Las
    May 13
    3:48 am

    @anny cook: An author who’s books are all 2.5 for me isn’t one I’d necessarily stop reading. Some 2.5 authors I feel have a great voice, or their stories just have something that sucks me in, even though the actual writing might be disappointing. I’d give those authors several tried in the hopes that they improve.

    Other 2.5 or less authors are of the cracktastic variety–I don’t even try to kid myself that what I’m reading is quality, but it’s sure entertaining.

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  • Thank you for your comments, ladies! The 2.5 was out of 5.

    I confess I read (and re-read what I enjoy) and that’s a wide variety. I started my library about forty years ago so I have plenty of books to read. The e-book additions just give me a few more options without having to buy a lot more bookcases.

    Reviewing a book is a tough business. I appreciate the time spent reading and then writing a review. The post gave me some new ways to look at the business.

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