Do reviews really matter?

posted in: On writing | 25

The honesty or dishonesty of reviews has been the hot topic of the month, with many people expressing opinions on sock puppets and purchasing reviews, as well as the practice of writing scathing negative reviews on books with the express purpose of driving down a book’s ranking. The fact is that practices such as these won’t go away. Where there is a potential for profit, you will find corruption.

I can’t see much point in being outraged. I don’t know about you, but I stopped taking much notice of book reviews a loooong time ago. A review is somebody’s opinion, no more, no less – even if it’s honest. That’s just as true of prestigious literary awards like the Archibald or the Booker. Frankly, I can just about guarantee that if a book’s won one of those, I probably won’t like it. And that’s just a matter of taste.

So how do I choose books? I do what I did in the days before Amazon. Come on, some of you can remember that far back, when you actually went to bricks and mortar book shops. You went to the shelves which held your favourite genre and if you didn’t grab the latest by your favourite author, or a book your mate recommended, you’d look at the covers. Then you’d take out the book and read the blurb. Still interested? Peruse a few pages. If it looked interesting, you headed for the desk.

You can still do that on Amazon. Find your genre, then an interesting cover. Read the blurb, download a sample. If it’s crap – don’t buy it. Sure, if somebody I know, and whose opinion I respect, has left a review, I might take note. But most blockbuster books attract a wide range of reviews. The infamous “Fifty Shades of Grey” has literally thousands of both 5 star reviews and 1 star reviews. It all depends on your taste, doesn’t it?

In the last few days, JK Rowling’s new book for adults, “The Casual Vacancy”, has hit the book shelves and so has Terry Pratchett’s latest YA, “Dodger”. Leaving aside Hatchette’s formatting debacle with Rowling’s book, the reception to her novel hasn’t been great. Response to Sir Terry’s non-Discworld story has also been mixed. To some extent, I imagine that’s because people’s expectations have not been met. The authors have strayed away from their usual patch to explore new territory, and I have to say that may well be a warning for writers. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write outside your usual genre, just that if you do, don’t expect the people who read (say) Harry Potter to love your new work.

I’ll still buy “Dodger” and I dare say I’ll enjoy the read. I wouldn’t have bought either “The Casual Vacancy” or “Fifty Shades”, regardless of their Amazon ranking.

Just one more point; most people don’t write reviews, or even anonymously rate books on Goodreads. They buy a book to delve into another world for a little while and then they tell their friends what they thought. And let’s face it, word of mouth is still far and away the best review you’ll ever get.

I’m starting to think Amazon might be better scrapping its flawed review system altogether. Too often it does more harm than good. What do you think?

25 Responses

  1. In praise of five star reviews – Greta van der Rol

    […] Reviews. It’s one of the buzz words in the author world – especially if you’re self published or small press. Many articles have been written about how to handle negative reviews, how to get reviews, how to write reviews and whether reviews actually matter. […]

  2. datbookreviews

    Interesting. I know what you mean, as I stated in one of posts: I read book reviews after I have read the book, to compare my opinion with that of others. I enjpy reviewing books because it gives me an excuse to delve back into them and share my opinion with others in the hope of sharing good literature.

  3. MPax (@mpax1)

    Great to hear one of your books is taking off, Greta. I get notes from fans who never leave reviews. Then you get reviews from people who confess it’s not their cup of tea, yet feel the need to comment on it anyway.

  4. Carol

    I usually don’t read reviews on the book sales site; I’ve found that some of them are written by people who don’t even like the genre especially if the book is from a sub-genre. I do read reviews on a few blogs that specialize in sub-genres. At least I know that the reviewer likes the type of book.

  5. scavola

    My deal is, I don’t care if you LIKE the book or not, tell me if it’s a GOOD book or not. There should be more criteria, as I’ve found on this 6-8th grade writing rubric: Tell me if it’s a GOOD book or not, and I can decide for myself whether I’d LIKE it or not. Too often, I’ve come across, “I liked the writing, the character and his voice, the creativity, how unique the world was, etc., it wasn’t a bad book, but it just wasn’t for me – 2/5 stars.”

    • Greta van der Rol

      Yes. I’m aware of a number of books given poor scores (1 and 2) because they included a bit of coarse language. And they were well-written books.

  6. Vero

    I agree, and believe that a killer blurb and an interesting cover, ALONG WITH A GOOD STORY can make much better indirect marketing than reviews and stars.

  7. Pete

    If reviews don’t matter, there are some cray-zeee authors on Goodreads and Amazon who’re making an awful big deal out of them!

    I wish I knew if the reviews were being read at all. I wish I knew what DID matter!

    • Greta van der Rol

      Yes, there are, Pete. I find that a bit sad. I suppose they think it’s a way of getting noticed. Which it may be, I’m not sure how Amazon’s algorithms work. But one of my books has taken off and I still can’t tell you why. And it has less than 20 reviews.

  8. Lorijo Metz

    You bring up a good point, Greta. I will look at reviews, but I try to look at a mix of them. Usually I don’t get to reviews, though, until I’ve been sold on the cover and possibly the blurb. What I like about Amazon (and B&N) is that I can download a sample of something I’m unsure about. That’s my ultimate test. If I already know and like an author, reviews don’t usually come into play. (i.e. I will be purchasing JK Rowling’s new book, even though the cover is ugly!)

  9. Allan Douglas

    As you say, Greta, reviews are just a readers opinion. Since reviews are open to persons of all walks of life, not just “professional” book reviewers, you’re going to find a mixed bag of reviews – even if they were all done honestly. But these days, that’s not a guarantee by any means. I agree with you: the best way to decide if a book is any good is to grab the sample and decide for yourself. If the first chapter or two don’t grab you, neither will the rest.

    Of course, if you’re a paper book purist this is a little harder to do. But many authors offer samples on their web sites.

    • Greta van der Rol

      There are always libraries. And downloading a sample is probably a good way of deciding if you want to outlay for the print copy. Much cheaper than wasting hard-earned dollars on something you may not like.

  10. Bill Kirton

    As a writer I’m in complete agreement with you, Greta, but as a sometime reviewer, I do see the value of thoughtful, informed analyses of a text. It’s self-evident that there are reviews by people who’ve really read the book and who back up their opinions of it by careful reference and sound argument and that there are oaths by friends and family who may not even have opened it. Good reviews not only help you decide whether to buy a book, they can actually increase your enjoyment of reading it by highlighting some aspect you might not have seen otherwise. So yes, let’s scrap the unmonitored Amazon scribblings and the like, but let’s keep a place for the sort which actually enhance the reading experience.

    • Greta van der Rol

      I agree pretty much completely with what you said, Bill. I’m particularly against the ‘unmonitored Amazon scribblings’. Well-considered reviews can be helpful. But of course, they are still a matter of opinion.

  11. The Masquerade Crew (@MasqCrew)

    This is a great post. I think reviews still matter, though this fuss over positive or negative is a little much. People have bought books because of our reviews, so reviews can still be a powerful force for finding new readers. However, perhaps not so in every context as you referred to.

    I’ve read books before because of a negative review, so I’m the type of reader who looks at reviews, specifically the lower rated ones. And now that I review books, I look at ratings and reviews even more so.

    How to fix the system is beyond me, though. I don’t think Amazon should scrape the program all together, but perhaps the rating of a book should have little to no influence on their algorithms. A book with a low rating might still be popular for whatever reason and be worthy of coming up in someone’s cue. Tough to say.

    This is such a great post, I’d be happy to syndicate it on our blog, The Masquerade Crew. If you’re interested, send me an email. [email protected]

    • Greta van der Rol

      Oh, there will always be reviews. It’s the way of the world. But we can have a little more control over reviewing sites (for example) to at least minimise blatant buying of reviews. We always had newspaper and magazine reviews. Not just the open slather, I’ve got PMT today, or you’re my best mate, type review.

  12. MonaKarel

    Reviews are just one person’s opinion and can be affected by so much more than “just” the quality of the writing. Some people enjoy leaving scathing reviews of books they think are just toooo sexy, others don’t much care for first person and instead of just not reading any more of the book they find a need to express their opinion on the world stage.
    Fact is, some authors writing leaves some readers cold and the sooner everyone can get over that the better. And some authors have huge followings of loyal fans. Just one of those facts of life.

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