Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reader Reviews: Helpful or Harmful?

Sandra Parshall

With space for print reviews rapidly disappearing, online reviews by readers are more important than ever – and someday they may be all we have left. Most publishers have been quick to add avid readers to their distribution lists for free advance copies, hoping for an online mention, any kind of mention, of each new book. A lot of writers, though, hate this practice and complain about amateur
reviewers who seem more interested in proving their cleverness than in fairly evaluating books.

Authors who may have carped for years about negative reviews from Kirkus or Publishers Weekly or biased newspaper reviewers now have a new appreciation of “professional” book critics.

Although writers will smile when a reader-reviewer gushes, “I love this book!”
(Isn’t that what we long to hear from everyone?) they aren’t happy when the lack of professional restraint goes in the opposite direction. Even a negative assessment in a professionally edited publication will usually have a civilized tone. A reviewer might say a book is a disappointing followup to previous entries in a series, or go further and describe the plotting as weak or unbelievable and the characters as wooden. But no respected newspaper or magazine will run a review saying a book is the worst piece of crap ever to see print, or that books this bad should carry warning labels, or that the entire print run should be burned. Online reader-reviewers are free to write any of those things – and some delight in doing so. If questioned, they might say they feel a responsibility to steer other readers away from bad books. It’s a new take on word of mouth. Word of computer?

Some of the reader-reviewers do so many reviews, though, that I have to wonder where the dividing line is between professional and amateur. You can major in
English lit in college, but does that qualify you as a critic of currently published work? You can’t earn a degree in reviewing. You can’t go to trade school to be trained. Maybe some book critics have done apprenticeships under experienced reviewers, but I suspect that many of them more or less fell into the job and decided they liked it enough to keep doing it. Some are writers who earn extra money by reviewing (novels don’t pay all that well). After they have enough reviews to their credit, and provided lots of those summing-it-up lines that are ideal for book jackets and ads, they are esteemed – and feared – as professional critics.

So what about the regulars on the DorothyL mystery listserv who have been reviewing books for years or decades? They don’t get paid to do it, and that makes a difference to many people. A review written for free and posted on a public listserv may be scorned. I know of people who refuse to read DorothyL
reviews because they’re written by amateurs. It’s rare to see a DL review quoted on a book jacket. Yet most of those “amateurs” are intelligent, thoughtful readers who love books and know the crime fiction genre as few others do. I consider DL the best online source of reader reaction to books, and I read the reviews faithfully.

The online reviews that make me cringe are filled with bad grammar, misspellings, typos, punctuation errors, misstatements about plot and character, and garbled opinions. I see them mostly on Amazon and Barnes&, but I know they’re posted by the thousands on sites I don’t have time to visit. One very real blessing of reviews in professionally edited publications is that they aren’t freighted with all that garbage. (Please don’t take that as a snooty opinion from a writer who thinks she’s perfect. Like most authors, I make enough mistakes to keep copy editors employed. And that’s the point: what I publish is edited first.) Sometimes a professional reviewer will get a character’s name wrong or describe a plot turn incorrectly, but on the whole a professional review is clean and easy to read.

I have to be honest and say I have seen only a tiny number of negative reader-reviews of my own books. Maybe if I followed every link on every Google Alert, I would find them all, but that would leave me no time for anything else, such as life. I did come across one critical review of my second novel, Disturbing the Dead, that amused me. The reader-reviewer complained that I am obsessed with shoulders and she couldn’t enjoy the book because she was too busy noticing my every mention of the characters’ shoulders. I had never seen that particular criticism before (and haven’t since), but yes, it has made me aware of the way I use body language in my writing. I would never dream of contacting the reader-reviewer to argue about her perception of my shoulder obsession. I write what I want to write. She is free to interpret it in her own way.

The online world offers free expression to everyone who loves books and loves to talk about them. Readers have always talked about the books they like or dislike, but with the spread of the internet authors are now able to “overhear” that talk, and for some it’s a rude shock to realize that not every reader loves their writing. Reacting in public is almost always an embarrassing mistake. Nothing is more cringe-worthy than the spectacle of an author ranting on Amazon because some reader said unkind things about her novel. If reader-reviews bother you, I would advise, try to control your ego and curiosity and stop seeking them out.

How do you feel about the flood of reader-reviews online? A good thing, a bad thing, or a wash?

Do you read them?

Do you write them? If so, have you ever been contacted by an irate author?

Do you buy books because you’ve seen positive reader-reviews? Do you decide against buying books that other readers have reviewed negatively?

Do you take the critic’s opinion seriously if the review is riddled with mistakes in spelling, grammar, or punctuation?

What internet sites or listservs do you regular read in search of book recommendations from other readers? Did you discover any of your favorite writers in this way?


Kathy Thomason said...

I don't like reader reviews, they tend to be too emotional, filled with misspelled words, bad grammar and in general seem designed to get other people to appreciate how clever they are. I have reviewed professionally for several years and believe that "I loved this" or "I hated this", is not a review. A review is a thoughtful analysis of the book, with reasons and examples to back up your point of view. I have never believed in trashing a book, someone will like it so I have always tried to review from that standpoint and give reasons why someone would enjoy the book. It is distressing to see all these gushing reviews that were written that way because they got a free copy and were trying to show their gratitude. I only read professional reviews and regret that so many are many are falling by the wayside.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested to hear what people think about this. Thanks for writing about this topic.

Undine said...

Interesting post! Speaking as an amateur reviewer, rather than a professional writer, I have to say that many of the "professional" book reviews I have seen, particularly over the last few years, have been fairly worthless hackwork. They tend to go too far in the "civilized" direction, giving such bland and impersonal writeups that you frequently can't tell what the book was really like, or even if the reviewer truly enjoyed the work or not. Many are also surprisingly confusing and poorly written. Many also give a completely misleading idea of what the book is really about--to such an extent that there have been times when I'm positive the reviewer never actually read the book. There is, after all, as you admitted, a very fine line between "professional" and "amateur" reviewers.

I agree that a lot of reviews on Amazon and suchlike are juvenile rants that are equally cringe-inducing. However, the best online reviews give a better "feel" for what a book is really like. Blunt honesty has its uses. Personally, I've only posted reviews if the book has made a particularly strong impact on me one way or another. Most of what I review are works of history, or the occasional historical novel, so I only feel the need to comment if I think the author has presented some truly worthwhile information, or, conversely, if I think the book is full of gross factual errors and /or deliberate misrepresentation of historical truth. Then, I start throwing the one-star reviews around. (Although I'm not fooling myself into thinking that anyone pays any attention to them.)

In general, however, I don't let reviews of any type influence my opinion of a book. If I've read something that particularly interests me--for good or bad--I'll look up reviews (amateur and professional) just out of curiosity to see what others thought of it. But I've never bought--or not bought--a book just on the basis of good or bad reviews.

Steve Liskow said...

I sometimes review books on Amazon--I'm a former English teacher and currently a writer, too--and I sometimes read reviews, but less and less often for the very reasons you mention here.

Many reviews are downright dumb and I can't take a writer seriously when he misspells words, misuses language, or can't support his opinions with clear examples.

Since few of the reviewers seem to understand how to critique a book intelligently, I seldom take their advice unless several reviews on a site give a book low ratings for concrete reasons.

I can't remember picking up any particular book or author because of a glowing review unless it's by someone I already know and whose opinion I trust.

I'm not sure the reviews mean anything anyway. I remember going onto a site to give a book a bad review and discovering that many critics had already given it an average rating of 1.5 out of 5. The author has several other books out that sell well even though neither his writing nor his reviews have improved much.

Debbie Bogenschutz said...

I'm a reviewer for Library Journal, and the reviews I write for them are very different from the comments I post on my reading on DorothyL. But reviewing is changing, even for Library Journal. In the past, we were reviewing for an audience of librarians. Now, with LJ reviews being available in Amazon, etc., we're told to think of the general reading audience with our reviews. I have posted reviews to Amazon a few times, especially when an author on DorothyL has asked me to, but I rarely read reader's reviews there. If I have a strong reaction to a book, positive or negative, I might go see what others have said, but I don't feel they have any real value.

caryn said...

I guess I have to question why it is assumed that reviews posted online are always done by "just readers" and not "real reviewers." Is being paid to review what makes a person a reviewer? While most of the reviews I do are indeed done for free, I have also in the past worked as a paid reviewer. Is it having some sort of English degree? (Yes I do-well an English minor at least.) Anyway, this discussion hits a nerve with me.

I have read professionally done reviews published in respectable publications, beautifully written that gave no soul to the book what so ever. They seem to be written to some set format. BORING! In fact, I've read a few where it was fairly clear the reviewer had only skimmed (if that) the book.

But, I have also read reviews on DL and other lists where the review made no sense or worse, gives the whole plot away.

But I have to say, for the most part, I think the reader reviews on the lists give a better feel for the book's character than many of the professionally done ones. Also, as a regular member of some of these lists, I've gotten to know which people share my reading tastes, so I really look for their book comments.
Caryn in St.Louis

Sandra Parshall said...

Caryn, you make a good point about knowing the people on a list and looking for recommendations from those whose opinions you respect. I view DorothyL as a valuable list for online "word of mouth" about books, and one of the most thrilling things about publishing my first novel was seeing it recommended on DL by people whose opinions I value.

Yes, reviews that give away too much of the plot are terrible for both the writer and the readers. That has happened to me even in printed reviews in respected publications, and I simply don't understand why reviewers do it or editors allow it. All I can do is hope no one who read those reviews will remember them!

Laura DiSilverio said...

I don't pay any more attention to book reviews by people I don't know than I do to movie "reviews" overheard in public places. Even for traditionally published reviews, until the reviewer establishes some cred with me (i.e., I like the books he lauds or dislike the books she doesn't recommend), I don't pay much attention. As Sandy sort of said, it's reviews by people whose opinions you value that influence your reading habits.

carl brookins said...

Interesting reactions to the blog. Particularly from several who write they pay little or no attention to reviews and yet seem to be quite aware of them and are able to characterize them.

There are a sizable number of "professional" reviewers online. It is my observation over a number of years that the number of "amateur" reviews that are truly personal rants is declining.

I also don't see anything wrong in a reviewer being "clever" is her or his review does a reasonable job of providing accurate facts about the book, as well as an opinion. I read a lot of reviews as well as write them. I follow several reviewers whose opinions and biases I have identified.

I also find it interesting how many authors profess to "never" read reviews. I don't believe them. Negative reviews are useful. They do provoke readers to buy and read, just as do positive reviews. The worst situation for an author is to be ignored.

Finally I would like to gently point out that just as novelists don't always write their very best book, reviewers also sometimes submit or post reviews that are not the pinnacle of good writing.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great post! I've tweeted this one.

I try not to read reader reviews, myself. Book bloggers are very professional, but readers on Amazon, etc, can be hurtful.


Sandra said...

As Carl says, some online reviewers (including some on DorothyL) are completely professional, whether they're paid or not.

As for movie reviews... oh, please. I usually don't bother to read them anymore, at least not before I see a film. I might look at them afterward. I can't count the times I've discovered that a film I enjoyed very much was panned by critics -- or vice versa. I don't want a negative review to keep me away from something good.

Marlyn said...

Wow, this topic is a minefield. I don't know too many reviewers who actually get paid for their work. I have reviewed for several newpapers and professional (librarianship) journals and was only paid by one of them.

That said, since I'm not paid, I can generally afford to not publish reviews of books I don't like; I just don't feel comfortable doing that. But I also try to be somewhat analytical in my approach (even though I may gush a bit!)

Susan said...

As a librarian who both worked with children, teen and adult books and has reviewed for professional publications in the past and currently reviews manuscripts for a small independent mystery publisher, I hope that my reviews hold up to scrutiny. I started a book review blog because when I moved to academic libraries, I missed talking about books and wanted a place to share what I was reading. I mostly only review things I liked, and I always try to read a book not only to see what I think, but to think about how others might read it or enjoy it. Even books I don't love, I find something constructive to say. I try my best to articulate what I think about a book without giving too much away. I try to add readalikes when I can think of them, and excerpts from professional reviews. I recently had a list of readalikes published in Booklist's online newsletter, and I am on a few publisher lists to receive copies in advance. However, just as many of the titles I review are borrowed from the public library. Readership of my blog is small but steady. I think this goes back to the know your audience/reader/who you are reading. I do know that I am turned off by bad design and all the other things that people above mention about reviews written badly.

Stacy Alesi said...

I just read about a study done in Taiwan in 2007 about the impact of online book reviews on purchasing. If you're not curious enough to read the full report, the researchers came to the conclusion that placement of the reviews was probably more important than the actual reviews. If negative reviews were among the first or last listed, readers were less likely to purchase the book than if the negative reviews were sandwiched between the positive ones.

This is the article on that research:
Lin, Tom M.Y., Yun Kuei Huang, Yang, Wen I. An experimental design approach to investigating the relationship between Internet book reviews and purchase intention. Library & Information Science Research, Volume 29, Issue 3, September 2007, Pages 397-415

Anonymous said...

I review for Story Circle Network, which posts to Amazon. If we can't give the book a positive rating, we don't review it. I also post to my blogs. I review mostly nonfiction. If I see something that detracts or that I think would have improved a book, I'll mention it briefly. But I'm not an expert. My intent is to impart information and to share my positive impressions, not to tear down what someone else has built.

I'm a former English teacher and librarian; some of my reviews sound more "academic" than they should and probably don't attract many readers on Amazon. I'm working on that. I review because I no longer have a forum for sharing books, as I did when I was a librarian.

An intelligently-written review may influence me to read a book, but I don't pay much attention to the negative ones. For the most part, I'm a browser. If I hear of or see a book that might be interesting, I'll read it, no matter what the reviews say. I'm appalled by the rants.

Sandra Parshall said...

Stacy, I haven't seen that report on review placement and would love to read it. Apparently it bears out what I've always suspected. I wonder sometimes why Amazon will post a negative PW review as the first one people see -- wouldn't that tend to cut down on sales? I know they have some sort of contract with PW, but still...

I think librarians are the sharpest people around when it comes to evaluating books. I'll always pay attention to a review written by a librarian.

ckubala said...

I read reader reviews with the same eye that reads those in professional journals. I like to hear what the general public, the fans, the voracious reader has to say about the book(s). Grammar, spelling, etc. do not bother me unless the errors are so blatantly awful and consistent that it distracts totally from the piece.

Paid reviews...I use this term rather than professional as I see many amateur reviews that are very professional, sometimes leave me cold as they are too complimentary or yes, gushing. Some review words are over used and drive me insane.

I read non-paid reviews on many sites. Some of the best

Blogging for a Good Book The Staff of Williamsburg Regional Library

Lesa's Book Critique's

Shelf Talk
Staff of the Seattle Public Library

GoodReads and Bookbrowse

to name just a few.

signlady217 said...

Most of the time, other people's opinions of books/movies doesn't agree with mine. I have a few close friends who opinions I value, and will at least consider, but even then we don't always agree on what's "good". I mostly just ignore the reviews, and read/watch what I want.

G.M. Malliet said...

The "reviewers" who give away the plot of a mystery, including who done it - is there ever any excuse for that? Even if the words "spoiler alert" are included? (Hint: Correct answer to both questions is, no.)

Suzanne F. said...

I read reviews to select adult books for a public library. Gone are the days when I made decisions based only on reviews in Kirkus, PW or Library Journal. It's still important to read the reviews in professional publications, but I also need to follow the "buzz" about the books that are catching on with book discussion groups and showing up on all the popular blogs. I've come to mistrust a lot of blog reviews, however. Like some reviewers on Amazon, some bloggers get free copies from publishers, and even though they say this doesn't influence their reviews, I'm not sure I believe this. I try to rely on blogs that have been around for a while and are insightful and grammatically correct. There are generally reputable blogs out there, and it's important to follow them. Buying for a public library, it's important to know what books will be popular with library patrons, and that means reading a variety of opinions. I read both types of reviews and make my best judgment.

jenny milchman said...

I think this is an extremely important topic (posted a few thoughts of my own here but in general, I respect the wisdom of crowds. I don't deny that professional reviews offer something unique, and I dearly hope they are preserved. But aside from outliers--like a reader with a personal vendetta or imposing a personal issue onto a book--I believe that readers' opinions are among the most important. I always learn something from a DL review and tuck it away for future writing.

Lauren said...

I value the reviews on social networking book sites like Goodreads, because I can see what my friends and coworkers are reading, and decide what I need to read next. As a librarian, I have used Amazon and Goodreads reviews when I’m on the fence about ordering a book. And online reviews from social networking sites help me answer Readers Advisory questions, because sometimes I’ll read a review and click on the reviewer to find out a little more about him / her and what else has been reviewed. It helps with the “if you liked this book, you’ll probably like this one too” questions.

Once, I actually had an author take umbrage with what I’d written in a review of her book on Goodreads. I gave the book 3/5 stars, but I pointed out that the author of this memoir was very wealthy, and while the book was written about the hardships of end-of-life care for aging parents, the author’s financial situation put her on another plain with most readers. I still feel this was valid criticism, and was a bit miffed that the author felt she needed to defend herself by commenting on my review. Surely when you publish a book, you must expect it to be viewed with a critical eye.

I don’t pretend to be a professional reviewer, and have no pretensions that what I’m writing can take the place of a Michiko Kakutani or a Julia Keller (my personal favorite). Connecting readers with books is my chosen profession, and keeping up with what readers think is essential to doing that well.

P.J. Coldren said...

I write them. My reviews for RTE ( are edited for spelling, etc. but not for content. I've received comments from authors who haven't liked a review, and from authors who appreciated a good review. I hope I'm professional in my reviews. I try. I've been reviewing on RTE for quite some time, so a reader who wants to get a feel for my taste (to see if they agree or don't) has plenty of chances to check me out. I tell writers, if they want me to review their book, to look at my stuff and see if they still want me to review their book.

P.J. Coldren

lil Gluckstern said...

I read this blog with great interest because I read the DL blogs, but I avoid the reviews because I simply don't want to know the story before I read the book, and too many reviewers simply give away too much. But, in fairness, I don't read the book jackets either. What I find is that authors who blog (like Ms. Parshall and G. M. Malliet) have aroused my interest, and I simply don't miss their books. I also have to say that authors who respond to my notes of appreciation get my undying loyalty, and as much of my money as I can give. It really is simply a matter of good interactions and I like those in my life. So now I have to get back to "Broken Places."

Sandra Parshall said...

I hope you enjoy Broken Places! If you do, please tell everyone you know. If you end up hating it, please tell no one. :-)

Linda R said...

I occasionally post reviews on Amazon, but have made it a practice to review only books that I sincerely enjoyed. If I can't give it five stars, then I don't review it at all.