April 17, 2014

The Value of Book Reviews and Dealing with the Trolls

by Toni Leland

Recently, a successful writing colleague of mine commented that she’d received a truly nasty Amazon review of her newest release. I really sympathized with her—been there, felt that. And as I’ve wondered so many times in the past, my thought was: why do readers feel the need to vent their opinions so viciously? Or at all? If they didn’t like the book, is it necessary to say hurtful things to someone they don’t even know? Have they ever tried to write a book? Do they have any clue to what goes into crafting a story? Never mind getting it published!

I visited the title in question and, sure enough, amid several excellent reviews was a one-liner: the book was garbage, don’t waste your money, don’t read this author’s work. As I’ve done in the past with a couple of less-than-stellar Amazon reviews of my own books, I clicked through to see this reader’s “other reviews.” There were none. Perhaps this person is a beginning reader. Sometimes, the “reviewer” will have their own agenda, be involved personally with another title or author, or simply have nothing better to do with their time. We’ll never know the real story. But be assured that these nay-sayers wouldn't trash a book if they came face-to-face with the authors; the anonymity of the Internet gives some people the courage to be unkind.


Don’t confuse a reader’s “opinion” with a book review. Comments like the one above belong in a forum where bashing is the norm. Book reviews are a whole different breed.
A “real” book review is comprised of many parts:

  • Why or how the book relates to the reader’s interest;
  • The reader’s perception of how well the author used his or her craft, vis a vis language, characters, plot, etc.;
  • What audience would enjoy the book;
  • A brief description of the plot, without giving away key points (spoilers) or the ending;
  • Why the reader did or did not enjoy the book.

Where's the Value?

On Amazon, one poor opinion in the midst of many good ones tells us that someone might just be marching to a different drummer (such as an avid horror fan trying to “review” a romance). But many bad opinions that echo each other tell us that perhaps the book really is a stinker. But a poor review is not always a bad thing, if it was given in the spirit of constructive criticism. We can learn from our readers’ honest comments just as much as we can glow from the praise. If there are dozens of 1's and 2's, look at the recurring theme of the comments. There is a valuable message there, a clue to what might make the book a better read.

Look at the overall average of the reviews; ideally, there should be a balance between the five-stars and the 3- and 4-stars. As with poor reviews, there will be a similarity of comment that can give an author insight into what he or she could change in future work. I recently struggled with a New York Times "best seller", wading through the first third of the book before giving up. I could not get into the story and felt disappointed. Later, on reading the reviews of this title, I heaved a sigh of relief; dozens of readers had voiced their disappointment with the lack-lustre characters, the slow pace of the book, and the fact that they "couldn't get into the story." A valuable message for the author.

Reviews and Sales

Do reviewer comments affect the sales of our books? I believe that today’s average reader has the ability to make a decision based on the synopsis and description of the book, the author’s track record, and the positive comments left by others.

So, authors—keeping working on developing lizard skin. Difficult, but our mental health and creative juices depend on it. Try not to let negative reviews sidetrack your love of the craft and determination to make each story a better one.

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