Reviews and reactions

A couple of days ago I blogged about the suspicious nature of very short five star reviews. However, a recent revelation, pointed out by the excellent author Sara Crowe, has made me want to return to the whole business of reviewing - specifically what reviews are for and how, as authors, we ought to respond to them.

On the matter of what reviews for, I was struck by a response to my earlier post. Someone said 'Most Amazon "reviews" are not actually reviews anyway, they're about whether or not the reader liked the book, which is something different.' I'm not sure I agree with that sentiment. I'd certainly agree that there's little point a review just saying whether or not a reader liked the book - but I do think it's an important part of the mix.

Some while ago I moaned to a major science journal that did book reviews that their reviews were terrible because they never told you if the book was any good at what it purported to do. All each review consisted of (sometimes at length) was a summary of the science covered by the book. But, for me, a review isn't a synopsis. It certainly should give you a feel for what the book covers, but it should equally be about how well it puts across its content - fiction or non-fiction - and what the reading experience is like. Which inevitably overlaps with whether or not the reader likes the book. All reviews are subjective - get over it.

As far as I am concerned, the point of a review is to help a potential reader decide whether or not to read the book. And to do that, yes, it should give an idea of what the book's about - but it's not the review's job to reproduce the content in précis form. Instead it should tell us how well the book puts that content across, any issues with the book and how it delivers on the promise of its puff, the marketing blurb that attempts to sell it. In reading a review we are looking for informed guidance on whether or not the book might work for us.

Which leads me onto reactions to reviews by authors. I think anyone who has written a book and got a bad review feels an urge to respond (if they are silly enough to read the bad review in the first place). But the vast majority of us take the intelligent step of restraining ourselves, because it is only going to end in tears. To show how horribly wrong responding can be, we have a wonderful case study in the situation Ms Crowe brought to my attention - a Goodreads review of a book called The Boy and the Peddler of Death. Someone posted a one star review, calling the book wordy and pretentious and saying that it didn't live up to the summary, which suggested it would appeal to fans of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones etc. Now at the time, this book had plenty of good reviews too, and an average star rating of over four.

Unfortunately, the author felt it necessary to wade in and attack the review and the reviewer, digging himself a deeper and deeper hole. At the time of writing, just four days after the review was posted there are 2,062 comments, many of them in direct response to the original review, which alone has 15 pages of replies as more and more Goodreads members waded in to defend the reviewer. And still the author kept on digging. The book now averages two stars, and nearly every recent review gives it one star. The author has committed Goodreads suicide.

Now I have heard elsewhere what a nasty, backbiting place Goodreads is, but this incident isn't really a case of trolling. This is a genuine reaction to a shocked potential audience to the author's inability to take criticism and his remarkable inability to see how much damage he is doing himself. (It didn't help that his defence combined ad hominem attacks with pretentious twaddle.)

Personally speaking I rarely read reviews of my books on Goodreads/Amazon, though I can't resist doing so when a book is reviewed in a newspaper (in part to get pull quotes for my website). But if I do dip in to readers' reviews a) I tend to ignore the low scores and b) I would never think of responding. The only time I ever did so indirectly was to flag a review to Amazon because it contained blatantly incorrect information. All that happened is the same person put a variant of the review back on, adding a complaint that it had been pulled in the first place. So even that was a mistake.

As I've said elsewhere, no one likes to get a bad review. It's hurtful. They're slagging of your baby. But as an author, you make the choice to put yourself out there. No one asked you to. And if you do so, you have to accept that not everyone will like your books, sometimes for really stupid reasons, and get over it. Think nice thoughts. Stroke a dog. Read a compensatory good review. But PLEASE don't reply to the review.