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Five Stars? Really?

September 27, 2012

I was going to post a light-hearted character interview today, but got sidetracked by a post on Holly Lisle’s blog about Amazon reviews. Apparently, good reviews can be bought and paid for, and in fact John Locke, who sold one million ebooks in five months, did just that to achieve his rockin’ sales figures. The thing is, I was chuckling when I read the New York Times article that Holly kindly linked to in her post. While reviews-for-hire don’t surprise me in the least, cynic that I am, it seemed to me that authors are slugging it out for something that many readers don’t give a hoot about.

Would you read something by a new author simply because it sported a slew of four and five-star reviews?

Coincidentally, I’m a reader myself, so maybe I’ll use my own reading habits as an example of why Amazon reviews mean diddly-squat to some readers.

First of all, as a literary omnivore—I read everything from romance to hard sci-fi to classics—and a slow reader to boot, it doesn’t take all that many good books to keep me out of trouble. I’m not likely to go trolling through Amazon looking for random books, since if one genre seems bare, I’ll just switch to another. Meanwhile, if I’m not careful, friends will ply me with books they’ve read, asking my opinion of them. I also read a lot of blogs, and after I begin to connect with some of my cyber-buddies, I trust their judgement in terms of what sings and what stinks. (If you want some really insightful reviews and recommendations, armchairauthor at ‘Ink’ has got you covered.) Of course, I can always turn to tried and true established authors. If a book has the name ‘Neil Gaiman’ on the cover, I don’t care what people say about it, I’m going to read it. Last but not least, I take advantage of the ‘Look Inside’ feature. It only takes a few pages for me to recognize beautiful, concise writing, and clean storytelling. If I’m slogging through prologue number three by the time the preview ends, it’s probably a sign this one is not going to be for me. Literary omnivore or not.

But for those who do let Amazon reviews influence their buying decisions, I hope readers and writers see this as a sign that we need to review responsibly, or we destroy the credibility of the source. If readers are trying to connect with books they like to read, is a one-star review with the comment, “Lame. Blech.” going to do that for them? We need reviewer that writes, “Unlikable characters, inconsistent plotting, and a ‘deus ex machina’ conclusion,” and expounds upon the reasons why. In other words, don’t underestimate your readers.

How about you? Do you use Amazon or Goodreads reviews to help you choose what books to read? Do you write reviews? If so, what prompts you to write a review, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent?

And don’t worry, next week I’ll have that character interview for you!

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26 Comments
  1. September 28, 2012 12:11 am

    I don’t really pay much attention to the Reviews. A book isn’t like a camera or a computer or some other piece of equipment. You can’t judge a book by someone’s review of it works or doesn’t work as promised (though I guess in some cases you could stretch the terminology of “works” to fit, but I didn’t for this comment). A book is subjective and assigning numbers of stars to it seems kind of silly. I have had Writer friends who have read 50 Shades of Grey and some have said they loved it and others have said it was the worse written book they have ever read. Which one was right? They both were from their perspectives.

    Now with that said I do look sometimes to see if there is someone who made intelligent comments that I might take into consideration, but only in terms of hard facts like if a reviewer points out specific writing technique issues or goes to the trouble to point out why or why not the story line worked. So I guess I am in the same ball park as you Kirsten.

    • September 29, 2012 3:36 pm

      If the reviews were, like you say, well-written and insightful, I might pay more attention. The thing is, by the time I get to the review page I have usually already made up my mind about whether or not I’m going to read the book.

      I’m just finishing up Book Three of 50 Shades, and I can see that it is definitely not for everyone! Will I write a review? Probably not, for exactly the reason you state. Different things will work for different readers, and those who are going to read it are not going to care what I think anyway. Hence, my point about the importance of Amazon reviews being overrated as an purchase incentive.

      • September 29, 2012 3:43 pm

        Agree. I normally have made up my mind by the time I get to the reviews, however, one time thought I would pick up a Series and then 75% of the Reviews all mentioned how the Series started out fantastic but by the time the author got to Book 4 (of a 8+ book series) everyone commented on how they felt the author was just trying to drag the series out as long as possible and the shine and polish it started with had significantly dulled. Needless to say, I skipped the series and found another to start.

        • September 30, 2012 3:13 pm

          I definitely seek out recommendations before embarking on a series. I hate to invest so much time reading the first book or two, only to be disappointed by the next ones, or worse, have no conclusion in sight at all for the story. (I’m looking at you George R.R. Martin. 😉 )

  2. September 28, 2012 1:52 am

    I’m not an ereader at all… so reviews are not up my alley… yet 🙂

    • September 29, 2012 3:41 pm

      I think this might be a case of ‘leapfrogging’ where the whole e-reader thing will morph into something else, because to me, carrying a laptop and a designated e-reader and an iPod and a phone is just … too much!
      The whole review kerfluffle seems like one of those fad things that everyone is so outraged about, and then six months later we’re asking ourselves: what we were thinking?

  3. September 28, 2012 3:26 am

    Shocking all this isn’t it! 😦

    I guess I am influenced by reviews, but I’d much rather go on personal recommendation 🙂 if I was randomly looking for a book and it had lots of 5 star reviews, yes, I’m definitely much more likely to buy it than one with say lots of 1 star reviews lol

    Xx

    • September 29, 2012 3:46 pm

      It does seem that on the surface five star reviews would indicate a better book, but when I looked more closely and found that books I felt were sub-standard were getting such high marks, I became suspicious. I wasn’t too surprised when I was right about some of these glowing recommendations being reviews-for-hire.
      Personal recommendations, whether in real life or via social media, are my preference for sure. 🙂

  4. September 28, 2012 6:46 am

    Why does this not surprise me…

    I’ve been burned by 5-stars so many times, I don’t even read them much anymore. (I read a lot of indie, so I do look at reviews.) It’s nice if the cover appeals, but the story description and reviews are where I focus my attention–in that order, and looking mainly at the 2 to 4-star reviews.

    I don’t review as my author persona (a pen name), but as my alter ego, I’m a tough critic and rarely give 5-stars. I save those for the truly exceptional novels. I’m plainspoken and I’m not shy about saying what I didn’t like, but I also try to back it up with examples and to praise the author for their strengths.

    As authors, we’re in a difficult position because we network with each other and know the value of/need for emotional support, and that causes most of us to say only positive things if we review. (I mean, what do you do if it’s bad? Refuse?) Even so, I think the best thing readers can do for other readers is give honest reviews. Yes, reviews are subjective, but if the reviewer explains what they did and did not like and why, someone coming after can decide for themselves if the negative things would bother them or not.

    • September 29, 2012 3:56 pm

      I agree, covers count too! In addition to attracting my attention, they give me an indication of the professionalism of the production.
      I think one of the reasons I am hesitant to review books is because I feel that I’m tough to please as well. (In fact, I decided to write a book because I wanted to write something that I really enjoyed reading–and I found out how difficult that is!)
      But reviews–as opposed to critiques which are for the writer–are for the reader, and I think readers deserve to know exactly what they’re getting into. It’s a touchy thing, but I think it will eventually work itself out as the e-publishing world finds its niche.

  5. September 28, 2012 8:01 am

    Very interesting. I can’t imagine paying for a review. I’d want to know what people think, not what they are paid to think. I use reviews if they are written by someone who shares the same likes as I do. I write reviews, but never bad one. I don’t believe I should. Have you ever picked up a book and decided you don’t like it. Then a year later, you try it again and love it. What if I’d posted a bad review based on my first reading? Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for a particular genre and that’s not fair to the author.

    • September 29, 2012 4:03 pm

      I agree. I would be much more inclined to write a good review if I truly loved something and thought it deserved more attention. I just don’t have it in me to rip something apart because it didn’t appeal to me. For my own purposes, yes, I would pull it apart to discover what was missing and how I would have written it to make it better, but that’s a different kind of analysis.
      I think that’s exactly why reviews-for-hire is so disturbing. Readers of a particular genre deserve to have other readers/writers review something based on its merits within the genre, not because the author needs to fluff up his/her sales figures.

  6. September 28, 2012 8:42 am

    I first discovered that some authors paid for their reviews a month or so back. I came across an article on the topic…unfortunately I can’t remember where it came from! But I remember being just slightly outraged. I don’t know why, really. I guess I found it sad that writers have to stoop to that…I don’t know. Is it necessary? That’s a good question. Who knows, maybe I’ll be doing it one day. I won’t judge.

    Generally speaking though, no, I don’t often read reviews before delving into a new book. Sometimes if I’m purchasing a book through itunes, etc., I’ll glance down at the reviews, but more often than not, I’ll use my own intuitive judgment for book selection. For the most part, my gut will tell me whether or not I’ll enjoy a book.

    • September 29, 2012 4:08 pm

      I don’t think you’ll ever have to pay for a review! 🙂 Besides these are just the reviews on Amazon, written by random strangers who may or may not have a clue about what makes a good book.
      I think that’s what struck me as so odd. Why would someone go to so much trouble to stack ratings that are so arbitrary anyway? I suppose that once in a while a great book will get more than its share of one-star ratings, but I think that speaks more about the Amazon ratings than it does about the literature.

  7. September 28, 2012 3:19 pm

    I use the reviews on both Goodreads and Amazon, but I only read reviews that actually say something about the book. I’ll start with one-stars and move up to the five-stars, so that I get a good idea of what others thought. Sometimes, like in a want ad, you can read between the lines, depending on what people gush about (or rant about).

    I do admit I’m starting to wonder if I should just ignore them altogether, now that this John Locke thing has been exposed. Stuff like this doesn’t help:

    http://www.mediabistro.com/prnewser/pr-stunt-activists-sink-amazon-bestseller-with-fake-reviews_b46050

    • September 29, 2012 4:13 pm

      Hi Amy,
      Welcome to A Scenic Route!

      There are a few reviews that are quite interesting at Amazon, and it is usually not hard to distinguish them from the ones who gush or rant. Maybe if more people were to rate them as helpful or not the most useful ones would rise to the top.
      As for your article. Wow, just goes to show you how you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. It’s a shame, but being vigilant about our sources is as important as it’s ever been.

  8. September 28, 2012 8:24 pm

    I sometimes read reviews in retrospect. Kind of backasswards I know, but I enjoy seeing what other folks thought after I’ve read a book. Five stars doesn’t mean much to me. Anyone can and will, apparently, say anything. (I read Holly’s article on John Locke.)
    I’d recommend the Look Inside feature, though. I’ve thought about writing a review here and there, but the clock is ticking and I spend enough time on the Internet as it is!

    • September 29, 2012 4:20 pm

      Omigosh, I do that too! What I do (when I have time …) is write a couple hundred words about my reactions to the story and then see how my thoughts compare with the more erudite reviews. That’s how I discovered what a tough reviewer I would be. I’m really unhappy about loose plot threads and ambiguous themes. And I hate cliffhangers that force you to read the next book to find out. Wrap it up please, I say, or leave a few things open, but close that plot arc …
      Like I said, I’m tough to please. 😉

      Someday, when I finish this revision, and the next book, and read everything I’ve got in my to-be-read pile, maybe I’ll post a few reviews, just to see what it’s like. 🙂

  9. September 29, 2012 7:14 pm

    Thanks for the shoutout! The “look inside” feature is a huge factor when I’m deciding whether or not to purchase a book. I usually only pay attention to reviews if they are from readers I know, who have taste similar to mine. I will absolutely take a risk on a borrowed book, however. You well know some of my best reviews come from reading books I hated!

    • September 30, 2012 3:17 pm

      That’s where paper books come in handy. Borrowed books offer not only the benefit of a free read, but when you’re done, you get to discuss the story with the lender. A win, win, that e-readers haven’t seemed to be able to figure out yet.

      And keep those great reviews coming! Great books deserve to have more attention, and readers need a hand in avoiding the stinkers.

  10. September 29, 2012 10:41 pm

    Now that I think about it, I really don’t pay much attention to reviews, either for my books or anyone else’s. I begin with the cover, pop over to the “look inside”, and if they can hold me for a page or two it’ll definitely get my consideration.

    Having said that, if a book has a whole bunch of low ratings, there’s usually a reason.

    • September 30, 2012 3:23 pm

      Hi Jonathan,
      Welcome to A Scenic Route. 🙂

      Good point. If a whole bunch of readers take the time and effort to post a low rating, there might be something that’s making them irate! 😉
      I’m impressed that you are able to ignore the ratings on your own books (that and the fact that you have books out there to rate!) I don’t know if I’d be able to do that.

  11. September 30, 2012 12:45 pm

    I actually do pay a certain amount of attention to reader reviews, but I take what is said with a grain of salt. I usually look for specific details about what makes a book good or bad, and try to figure out if it’s something I might enjoy regardless of the reviewer’s personal opinion on the subject.

    • September 30, 2012 3:27 pm

      Very true!
      The very thing one reviewer hates, (too many love scenes, lots of dialogue with little action) might be exactly my cup of tea. That might be what makes reader reviews so subjective. Every reader has his/her own criteria, which may or may not be the same as mine. A thorough review might make that distinction.

  12. T.F.Walsh permalink
    October 2, 2012 6:29 am

    I always take a look at ratings and what people say, but I don’t let it influence me since everyone has different tastes, and so many times I’ve loved a book others haven’t. So I don’t believe that works. Plus I always get suspicious of book reviews with only perfect ratings… it seems suss to me.

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