Friday, August 10, 2012

Reviewing the reviewers

We are a culture that has grown accustomed to reviews.  We review restaurants, movies, sports, television shows, and products.  Reviews are what help consumers make choices.  I want some good sushi, I will read what reviewers think.  I want to make sure that hotel I just booked doesn't have mice, I will read the reviews on 

Reviews and reviewers are common and an important part of marketing.  No one wants a bad review of their new theatre production or make-up collection, or oil change service. 

Two opposing problems are beginning to surface in the world of reviewing and I think books are getting hit the hardest by these excesses. 

First, the overly glowing review.  Sometimes, people over react.  Maybe the lasagna was the best you ever tasted, but are you sure?   Maybe it is a great book, but is that adjective inclusive of a large range of greatness? 

The first thing that I think of when I read an overly glowing review is:  "Who cares what their Mom thinks, anyway?"  Worse, sometimes I wonder if the author PAID to have someone say that.  In infomercials the advertiser is required by law to say that the people on camera were compensated for their appearance. 

The reason for this is because it skews things.  If someone made me ride the Total Gym and filmed it without my consent and didn't compensate me for it, they may not be able to use my opinions of the contraption to market their product.  Pay me a few hundred dollars and prepare me for the experience and I will try to say something nice.  You know, because everyone's watching.  I'm not dishonest, I am just easy to manipulate.

Am I imagining these things?  No. Some indie authors actually talk about it openly on forums.  I just shake my head.  As if indie authors weren't getting enough bad rap for the writing (most times, deserving, I know), now we are paying people to say nice things on Amazon just to falsely promote our stuff?

When someone reads my books, do I want them to review it?  YES!  I even ask (read, beg) people I know who have read the book to take the time to review it for me.  I don't care if they give it 3 stars out of 5.  If that is their honest opinion, I will accept it.  Plus, I need their feedback.  I wanna get better, tell stories that resonate with people, create characters that people remember.  With honest feedback like unbiased reviews, I can do that.  But, will I ever PAY someone to do it, or even give away my book with the understanding that it will get a 5 star review before they even finish reading it?  No.

The opposite end of the spectrum is the negative review.  I understand when someone doesn't like a book (except for mine, of course).  But, sometimes people go overboard.  Look, I have endured some really bad movies.  I just turn the thing off.  If something offends me, bores me, makes me uncomfortable, or isn't my cup of tea, I try not to be too harsh.  I might say: "It was so bad I turned it off and put it back in the mail to Netflix." Or, if the food is so bad or the service so horrible, I just don't tip, or go back to eat there. 

I am not advocating not leaving a negative review.  Don't get me wrong.  Maybe someone else will be helped by learning that your local pub has cockroaches, or the waitress will hit on your husband unabashedly right in front of you.  I just think that there is a decorum and a sense of right that needs to be followed.  Sometimes, we Americans, especially we Christians, get too wrapped up in our own sense of righteous indignation.  Sometimes, bigots, racists, atheists, functioning illiterates, and self-serving cynics leave reviews so scathing that their biases are evident.  Maybe we feel some sort of calling to warn those other Christians, or bigots, or racists as to the nature of the poor novel or novelist. 

An example would be a Christian who would dain to read the 50 SHADES stuff.  If they were brave enough to read that sort of book and then give a 1 star review with scathing remarks and a huffy manner, it doesn't really do what they wanted it to do.  They made themself look worse than the book and might have just sold a few more copies of it.  Conversely, if a person that is bigoted toward people from the Middle East were to leave a blistering review of THE KITE RUNNER, their bias may be so strong that people can see through it and buy the book just because they felt sorry for the author. 

Negative reviews, and there are a plethora of them even for the most popular and well regarded books, are most often the least helpful reviews.  The three-star to four-star reviews often reflect more insight into the book and why it didn't work for that particular reader.  Often, what is repugnant or boring to one reader will be exactly what another reader is wanting from their next read.  The problem with negative reviews is that so much vitriol is expended about the level of just how poor the novel is, they don't give salient and intelligent reasons for why they hate said trash. 

So, I guess I can sum this up by saying that reviews are important.  If you have something good to say, be honest.  If you have something negative to say, be specific.  More to the point, specificity is global when it comes to reviews. 

Let me know what you liked:  the characters, the way the book had twists and turns, the way it ended.  If it sucks monkey butts, let me know why.  Was the author's grammar so poor, you couldn't read it (I have had that happen a couple of times), was the drama too dramatic, or do you have a specific bias that the author just happened to rub the wrong way?  Just admit it.  Say it.  That way I can review your review and maybe put a one star beside it instead of having a  review smack-down right there on Amazon or Goodreads with you.