Friday, August 15, 2008

When Authors Obsess Over Reviews by Amateurs

The Washington Post (online version) has a feature from this Sunday's edition up already and it should prove to be a thought provoking piece for those who write book reviews for various websites. I do sincerely try to be fair in every review that I write and I don't make a habit of taking cheap shots, although I imagine it's happened more times than I realize or intended. In fact, I've had some nice comments from some of the authors I've most criticized saying that they appreciate honest reviews and can see the point I was making - and then they usually tell me why they think I am wrong. Fair enough, that, and I very much appreciate their willingness to discuss their work with someone as anonymous as me.

Author Chris Bohjalian admits to being a little obsessed by the reviews of his books over at Amazon.com but, thankfully, he still has enough of a sense of humor to laugh at the absurdity of some of those "reviews."
...there are few worlds as barbed as the digital one, and people say savage things about my work online that they wouldn't dare say in person. Such are the privileges of anonymity and distance.

To wit, a recent post at Amazon for one of my novels is headlined, "Not getting better." The reader concludes "In a word: vacuous."

It gets worse: "The writing is crude, the yarn slack. He's not been 'Oprah'ed' for nothing."

Or this from another customer review titled "Ugggghhhhhh":

"I was asked to read this book for my job," the reader volunteers, and then explains why he gave the book just one star out of five (I have not added the following typos to impugn the critic's qualifications; they were already there): "I proceded to read it untill i got to chapter 7, and when i found that no plot has even erupted yet. The entire chapter was about a deer. How can a book be seven chapters in, and about 100 pages in, and still have expostition material. this book was terrible and would never suggest to anyone."
...
It only takes one thorn like that in a rosebush of 30 or 40 flowers to leave me bleeding and wounded and thinking to myself, "Wow. You really aren't very good, are you? You're certainly not good . . . enough." Am I thin-skinned?

Perhaps. Vulnerability and creativity don't always go hand-in-hand, but often they do.
...
It affects both book sales and, yes, my self-esteem. Certainly, there are lots of enthusiastic reviews for my work by readers online, and there are plenty of critics -- and I am not using that term facetiously, I promise -- who understand a book in precisely the fashion I intended. That, too, is what draws novelists to pore over the Web reviews. In that mosh pit of online commentary, that galaxy of single-star and five-star reviews, a lot of people who are far smarter than I have said things about my books -- both good and bad -- that left me humbled.

Nonetheless, it is hard to resist a review that uses the word "Stoopid" or to argue with someone who calls himself "Bic Parker."
Please read the whole article over at the Post website because my clips don't really do it justice. Mr. Bohjalian makes some great points and, although he does it largely with humor, there is a serious message here.

18 comments:

  1. I don't know, I think paying for a book entitles the reader to an opinion, however it may be expressed.

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  2. This isn't really just about online book reviews, it's about anything that allows people to give their opinions, from blogging, to comments on Youtube videos, to personal websites and more. There are ways that sites have tried to deal with all these opinions, but they're often given equal weight. Maybe that's not always a good thing, but it's not always a bad thing either, and I think it's just something that anyone who puts stuff out there for others to look at (books, videos, artwork, whatever) has to deal with.

    Also, I agree with Sylvia that readers are entitled their opinions, although sadly not everyone who gives an opinion has actually read the book he or she is commenting on...

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  3. Definitely have to go check out this article; thanks Sam! I try to be fair when I write up my reviews. Always try to highlight something I loved about a book, but if I give up on it, I explain why I didn't finish it. But, I do think my best reviews are the ones that I was excited about. I put far more energy into those ones!

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  4. If I were that author, I would not be too concerned over the opinion of readers who cannot spell or use punctuation correctly. It seems to indicate a certain lack of intelligence or education.

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  5. That the author might be reading the review is always something I keep in mind (unless, of course, the author is dead). I've been mean from time to time and though I try to justify those instances, I still feel a little guilty about them. I'm not remorseful enough to remove such posts, as I do feel there's something to be said for an honest reaction. In one case that haunted me for a while afterwards, I reviewed a book that I felt was terrible (and still do), written by an author who seemed to be working the blogging circuit, befriending all the reviewers and getting all good remarks in the process. Did they all like it? I felt it was soooo bad that at least one other reviewer should have said so by now, so perhaps it was out of a sense of balance that I practically ripped it to shreds. I never heard from the author again, of course, and there's no way I could make it better, but if her feelings were hurt, even momentarily, I regret not keeping things a little more professional-- still honest, but less concerned with the good/dishonest reviews (though I'm sure some truly did enjoy it, certainly not all). I should have cared only about my own review. I initially resented the author for playing everybody, but in hindsight I think it was more complicated than that, and I'm sure some genuine friendships were made through her networking.

    There are also a few instances when I sense a superiority complex in an author's tone, and I feel the need to knock them down a peg. Of course, I could be reading the personality behind the book entirely wrong, and I'm sure my reviews could be criticized for the same thing.

    I think Bohjalian's concerns-- and feelings-- are valid. But I also think it's more important that people keep talking about books, whether or not their comments are positive. While most of us read reviews we also review the review, so to speak, and know that one person's opinion is just that.

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  6. Just to follow up, it's not true that all comments on Amazon are given equal weight. There is the recommendation system, which I use and find quite helpful. Any "stoopid" comments tend to get relegated to the back pages by that system.

    And I think any negative comment, however "professional," can potentially to hurt an author's feelings. They need to learn how to take criticism just like everyone else does in their job. Sometimes it's valid, sometimes it isn't, but you can't take it personally.

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  7. Sylvia, I agree that everyone has the right to express an opinion...the internet is perfect for that, and I love it for that reason...but I do think that people should use the time and effort it takes to do a decent job of expressing that opinion, including the reasons they feel the way they feel.

    Those two and three sentence "trashing reviews" irritate me and I'm not even a published author.

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  8. Library Girl, I think that word-of-mouth reviews by readers, listeners, and viewers are a great improvement over what we were limited to even just a few years ago. I didn't trust all of the professional reviewers because there was so much "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" going on all the time.

    Also, so many of the pros got to the point that they were writing to impress their peers and the authors they covered that I often found their reviews to be useless or near-incomprehensible. I love the way it works today.

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  9. Jen, I have to agree. I find my negative reviews to be much more difficult to write than the ones for books I am enthusiastic about.

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  10. Gotta agree, Jeane. I will never understand how someone can criticize a published author in a post that reeks of their own incompetence with the language and highlights their poor reading skills.

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  11. Great thoughts, John. I've seen an author or two play that game, too, and it is irritating to watch. I usually just stay away from their book if a look at it tells me that the reviews have been "harvested" that way.

    I think that the writer of this piece is probably less sensitive than he seems to be in the article. I think his use of humor and sarcasm was great and I'm tickled that he opened himself up so that this kind of thing can be discussed.

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  12. Thanks for the follow-up, Sylvia. The internet has created a whole new world of marketing techniques and sales strategies. The genie will never be put back into the bottle, so authors, singers, actors, etc. really do need to adapt to the new reality if they are to sleep at night.

    I think what is happening is definitely a good thing...one of those changes that have armed the consumer with more information than he ever had access to in the past.

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  13. I hate that authors are people too because I don't want to have to worry about their feelings, I just want to talk about the book and why I liked it or I didn't. But alas, they are, so I try to be nice. Luckily my reviews are fairly incoherent anyway so hopefully no one is losing sleep over them.

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  14. As a reader of reviews, I'd really prefer that the reviewer didn't take the author's feelings into account. Of course they shouldn't be needlessly cruel, but at the same time, I don't think they should be looking for ways to make the review nice.

    I buy books based on reviews and if someone isn't completely honest about a bad book, I may end up buying it. If it sucks, I want to know it sucks - no sugar-coating, spinning the postive points, etc.

    If an author can't handle that, they need a new career.

    Personally, when I've had people review my writing, I really preferred to hear the negative reviews so I knew what to work on to improve.

    I know the point of this article is more about the "stoopid" reviews, but latel I've been hearing a LOT about reviewers who always "try to find something postitive," and I just feel that if you have to "try" then you're misleading the reader.

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  15. Carrie, your reviews are far from incoherent ones. I understand your desire to be "nice," but luckily that doesn't keep us from being honest and negative when negative is the only way to go on a review. I think the whole key is not to turn a review into a personal attack...unless the book is a personal attack on another person or group. Then their motives are fair game, IMO.

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  16. Agree, Annie. There is no reason to always try to temper a bad review with some positive comment or two. That just dilutes the meat of the review and makes the review reader wonder about the reviewer's seriousness...a no win situation for everyone involved: author, reviewer, and reader.

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  17. Hey Sam - I'm just catching up on your blog. My favorite thing about Book Chase is that you discuss "booky" issues with intelligence and fairness. Your posts always make me think. Oh yeah, and your reviews are good, too :)

    Anyway, I have been thinking about this issue a lot as I'm being contacted by more and more authors. I hate to give a book a low rating when the author has been so gracious about sharing their book/ideas. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I feel compelled to be honest. After all, I don't want to waste my money on a book that someone was too chicken to be honest about. You know what I'm saying?

    Anyway, interesting perspective from Chris Bohjalian, an author I greatly enjoy. Thanks for the link and thoughtful exploration of a very relevant topic.

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  18. Susan, thanks so much for the kind words...much appreciated.

    You know, I think that anything less than an honest review is just wrong and should never be written. Of course, there are ways of being honest without ridicule and name-calling. I think that most authors are untroubled by thoughtful, yet critical, reviews and it's the slams that don't treat the book seriously that bother them.

    Sometimes "attitude" is what kills the deal. I've read so many ridiculous reviews on Amazon.com that I can pick the hit jobs out in the first paragraph now. Some people go way beyond a review and get way to personal with their critique.

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