On reviews and dentistry

This post is inspired by an article in the Romance Writers’ Report, which suggests (among other things):

Got friends? Got an e-mail list from your last high school reunion? Then ask them to go onto such sites as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and Shelfari and post reviews of your book.

I’ve been thinking about reviews for a while–ever since I was on a panel discussing reviews at RomCon, where someone suggested that the problem with negative reviews is that reading is subjective, and a book that one person hates another might love. The implication, of course, was that you wouldn’t want to dissuade that second person from reading the book. I don’t disagree, of course–I firmly believe that people should judge for themselves, sometimes with or without the aid of proxies.

But there are three assumptions that I can filter from these various points, and they are closely related. The first assumption is that people seem to think it is better to have lots and lots of positive reviews of a book–the more positive reviews, the better. That somehow, a reader is more likely to buy a book if it has nineteen five-star reviews and zero one-star than she would be to buy a book that had eighteen five-star reviews and one one-star review–or ten five-star reviews and nine one-star reviews.

At some level, this is correct: a book that is universally panned by everyone is probably going to lose sales. (This is, by the way, a Good Thing for everyone but the author and publisher of that book. Bad books waste readers time. Bad books make reading feel like a less valuable activity to readers, and makes them more likely to substitute other activities, like watching TV or knitting sweaters. As an author, I want historical romance to be filled with awesome, incredible books, because that is how we create a genre that readers hunger for. I want all the crap to die on the vine–bad books turn readers away from the genre as a whole. Luckily, historical romance is by and large filled with awesome, incredible books.)

But back to the subject at hand: with the exception of those very few books that everyone hates, it seems to me that even the dimmest readers can’t help but notice that enjoyment of a book is subjective. Likely they know this from personal experience. We’ve all read books that were praised to the heavens, that we didn’t personally love; and we’ve also read books that a friend hated, only to discover that we loved it. But even if the reader somehow didn’t notice that reading was subjective up until she was faced with an Amazon page, don’t you think she’d figure it out based on the fact that there were different reviews, saying utterly different things?

This leads me to the second assumption. A person who claims that ten five-star reviews from high school friends (who have not read the book) is valuable as promotion must believe that all five-star reviews are equal. They are not. We have all seen utterly useless reviews from friends and family. They look like this:

“Author B. Obvious writes a masterpiece of literary genius! It is the best book I have ever read in my entire life. The plot is amazing. Buy three copies.”
–from reader I. R. Obvious, II

When I read reviews like that, I automatically discount them. Worse: I discount every positive review that I see for that book, because I know the author has trolled friends and family to write for her. I assume that others do the same. In fact, I know that others do the same. Reviewers and authors get called out on this kind of bad behavior all the time.

This leads me to the third assumption. If you believe readers will be swayed by your dentist’s stupid review of a book he hasn’t read, you believe that readers lack the ability to critically analyze sources. If you believe that readers do not understand that reading is subjective, and so will knee-jerk reject a book on the basis of a few negative reviews, you believe that readers lack a fundamental understanding of human nature. In short, if you think that readers are swayed by sheer magnitude and star-number of reviews and nothing else, your fundamental assumption must be that readers are stupid.

Now, I realize that intelligence is a difficult thing to judge, and that reams and reams of paper have been employed in attempts to determine smarts. But–you may not know this–there is at least one definitive test of stupidity that has been universally employed. I have it on very good authority (well, mine–on this blog, that is the ultimate authority) that every single person who decides to read a book by Courtney Milan is not stupid. In fact, studies have proven that my readers are basically all at genius-level intelligence, and usually higher. Even the ones who don’t like my book.

And so it really, really bothers me that people think that they need to promote using the underlying assumption that their readers are stupid.

My readers aren’t stupid. Deep down, the greedy portion of me wishes you all were–it would make it so much easier to promote my books if you just blindly followed others like sheep! If I could lead you to the bookstore with reviews from my dentist, don’t you think I’d have done so? (Also, I would have visited the dentist sometime in the year before my release.) But alas. My readers are too smart to be fooled by such tactics.

And so, instead, I have to engage them. I have to provide content. I have to–gasp!–write books that hopefully, they will want to read. And–I confess it–even though my cold, avaricious heart wishes I could fool you into buying my books with reviews written by my mom, it’s a little more satisfying to have you do it because you, you genius you, think that it’s a good idea.

P.S. I realize I can’t convince anyone to buy a book with a review by my mom, but Mr. Milan is another story. His reviews are made of gold.

14 thoughts on “On reviews and dentistry

  1. Ah. I have to say, if I got an email soliciting positive reviews, it’d make me want to go and post a negative one. I probably wouldn’t, but in my head it’d go something like “1/5 stars. I wish I could give the book 0 stars, but that’s impossible on Amazon. The author is a tool and a douchebag, and doesn’t deserve your money, regardless of amount.”

    Obviously I woke up on the nice side of the bed this morning.
    And yes – all your readers *are* geniuses. *preens* 😉

  2. I agree with Limecello. If I was solicited to write a positive review, I’d automatically think the writer was a hack and unable to get positive reviews the old fashioned way – let people read the book and make up their own minds.

    That said, I rarely review books on Amazon. I give it 1-5 stars as I feel it deserves, then let it go unless the book is so egregiously bad that I do want to warn others to stay away, or so mind-blowingly good that the very planet will be improved if more people read it. Meaning, of course, I rarely review books on Amazon :)

  3. Excellent points, Courtney! I would never ask for reviews and I’ve told my family under pain of death not to post any. Not only that, but they aren’t to respond to any bad reviews I get. So far, so good. :)

    I have a couple of bad ones on Amazon, and while I don’t read them because they hurt, I won’t ask for them to be taken down either. If you paid your money, you’re entitled to your opinion about the story.

    Of course I wish that all the people who loved the books would post glowing reviews — I’m only human, after all. But I would never, ever ask. It’s just not done in my corner of the world. :)

  4. I don’t review books for Amazon because I’ve resisted signing up for the privilege. Also, I can no longer read romance novels for leisure, as I can’t put the *&^%%*^* figurative blue pencil down long enough to just relax and enjoy. I do enjoy reading reviews, however, and totally agree with you that the reviewer gives away so much information about herself that you can credit or discount the entire review based on those clues. Even more interesting are the comments on the reviews, esp. as indicative of the personality of the commenter.

    And I especially love Mr. Milan’s reviews, though he seems to have a fairly limited field of books he reviews.

    Do you remember finding any Amazon reviews by someone who wrote as Mr. Quickly? They were little masterpieces of their own, whatever he was reviewing. He seems to have stopped, however. alas.

  5. I’m afraid I find the Amazon reviews mostly useless. The reviewer either feels it’s the worst book she’s ever read or the best. No real context is given as to why they hate or love the book; the review is often a forum for personal attacks.

    I much prefer to read reviews over several sites to see if I pick up on a common theme. As far as asking loved ones/friends to post a review, I’m sure it’s done all the time. I’m just not sure it’s the greatest strategy for an author to announce the strategy and be proud of the technique.

  6. I have seen a friends and family review that was worse than your example. Oh, how I wish I had saved it! It went something like this: “I’ve know XYZ for twenty years. S/he’s an excellent writer and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of her/his books.” I was quite taken aback by the obvious I-haven’t-read-this vibe.

    I can tell you, as a reader who uses Amazon extensively as a research tool, that negative/bad reviews are just more information about the books. Just recently, I was looking at an older historical novel, and one of the only reviews on Amazon was by someone who couldn’t recommend it because it focused too heavily on the romance relationship. Did I pass over the book because of the lack-luster review? Heck no, I was worried the book was mostly about the politics of the period. If it’s got “too much” romance, I’m all over it.

    The same principle applies to books within the Romance genre. If a review complains about how there’s a marriage of convenience and it’s just not believable, my reaction is “Marriage of convenience? Cool!”

  7. This is why, when I read and write reviews, I look for statements about content. “The action flowed naturally” or “the ending felt rushed” or “the chemistry between them felt perfect”. The number of stars is not as important, since my evaluation will probably differ from the reviewer’s. A two sentence review declaring the book the best thing since sliced bread is just as worthless as a two sentence review bemoaning it as a pile of crap. Neither tells me anything about the book itself, just the reviewer.

  8. I’m looking forward to Mr. Milan’s review of TRIAL BY DESIRE almost as much as the novel itself.

  9. Mr. Milan’s reviews are made of gold! Sherman tanks! haha!

    I really like the 1 and 2 star reviews. In fact, usually I skip the 5 stars in lieu of bad ratings. If someone hates a book, and the reason they hated it is why I hate books, then I know not to get the book. On the other hand, if they hate a book for a reason that I like a book, then SOLD! Good examples of this are, Happy-Ever-Afters, Levity, Silly-bad-guys…

  10. Mr.Milan’s reviews. Yes. Gold. I loved his review of Proof by Seduction :) Anyway, I look at reviews from reviewers I know and trust that is one reason I love blogs and Goodreads. I also make sure to read the negative points in a book reviews first and see if those negative points correspond to other negative points or my own negative ones to judge the legitimacy of the reviews were I don’t know the reviewer.

    Anyway. Good post!

  11. I only peruse Amazon reviews if I am desperate for spoilers for a book. There are many wonderful review sites/blogs that I rely upon for a review. I guess I have to add Mr. Milan onto that list.

  12. I’m with MaryK: whether a review is positive or negative doesn’t matter as much as if it’s substantive. That’s what makes a “good” review. Whether the reviews are by people the author knows from high school or people who have read the book but don’t give us anything but blind praise/hatred, a review that just says “This book is fantastic! It’s the best thing I’ve ever read!!!!” and a review that says “This book sucks!” are both equally unhelpful. (Although honestly, if the book got all “This sucks!” reviews, I might start getting a little suspcious.) If the reviewer actually puts some work into explaining why the book is fantastic/sucky, then the potential reader also has the chance to realize that she doesn’t like what the reviewer is into/likes the very thing the reviewer hates.

    As a result, I rarely bother posting a review unless I feel like I can elaborate beyond “I love it.” (I always feel I can elaborate beyond “I hate it,” if I do. Hate is easy to articulate.) And I’m more likely to post reviews on LibraryThing or Facebook than on Amazon or B&N, since I’m on the first two pages every day and would only return to the item’s page on one of the seller’s sites specifically to post the review. Sometimes I do, if I feel really strongly about it. I’d have to be really fired up to post on Amazon, since I don’t buy from them any more unless I can’t find the item anywhere else.

  13. I don’t have a lot to add beyond what’s been said here already, but I have to agree. When I read a review, I know I’m getting the reviewer’s opinion, their subjective take on the book, but I am also getting a lot of information on what works and doesn’t – in their mind. It’s that information that makes a review good. Something that they absolutely hate, I may love. Something that they love may be the thing I avoid like the plague.
    I try really hard when I’m reviewing a book to write the type of reviews that I want to see. I want others to do the same.

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