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&Noble.com, 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?