How Do Writers Really Feel about Reader Reviews?

by Barb, back in Massachusetts, consumed by a book deadline and an upcoming wedding

FoggedInnfrontcoveryellowThe fourth book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series came out recently, so it’s given me plenty of opportunity to think about reader reviews.

Of course, there is no one way writers feel about reviews. All the Wickeds keep track of traditional media and blog reviews (and are grateful for them), but when it comes to reader reviews, we are all over the map. One of us never looks at Goodreads or Amazon, one of us checks obsessively, constantly looking for new reviews, and the rest fall on a spectrum in between.

To check for new reviews on Amazon, if the number of reviews shown for any book listed on your author page ticks upward, click on the number, then click on See all xx customer reviews, then scroll down and flip the Sort by choice to Most recent.

Yes, you are right, I have just outed myself as the one who “checks obsessively.”

amazon-logo_blackI think the main reason I check so frequently is because my business background taught me to hunger for constant and frequently updated data, and that is something us lay people just don’t get in the publishing biz. Apple can probably tell you within half an hour every iPhone that’s been sold, what the configuration and price was, and who sold it to whom. Publishers claim they can only reconcile book sales after six months, and can only inform authors about it six months after that. I admit it. It makes me crazy.

So I look for data anywhere I can find it, and reviews, especially number and frequency of reviews being added on Amazon and Goodreads, seem as good a proxy as any.

goodreadslogoThis means I read them all. The good ones are gratifying, of course. The less good ones are interesting, too. In every book I try something different, not to be perverse, and not because I am at all bored with the traditional/cozy form, but to avoid repetition and because I believe the tale I’m telling demands it.

For example with Fogged Inn, the book starts with the discovery of the body. The book moves forward in time from there, but Julia goes back to the night before the murder in conversations with people and in her personal reflections throughout the book. So not true flashbacks, but kind of. There are a lot of suspects, because each suspect is really a couple, that multiples the suspect pool by two. Finally, without spoilers, the resolution of the mystery is not a traditional one for an amateur sleuth.

Some readers react well to one or more these elements and say so in their reviews, and some don’t like one or more. Some people hate one or more. I am fascinated with the reactions.

The reviews that are the hardest to read are the ones that point out a spot in a book I know is weak. “Oh, man, ya caught me,” or “Darn, I didn’t paper that over as well as I thought,” is usually my reaction.

And some reviews are just really terrible. People hate the writing style or the protagonist or the story. Just hate it.

People who have never put anything out to the public to be judged often wonder how writers, or people working in any part of the arts or entertainment fields, deal with those “just hate it,” reviews.

Luckily, the “hate it” reviews are usually mixed in with several “loved it” reviews. Sometimes, the book is the wrong genre or in some other way a bad fit for the reader. As Sherry’s daughter says, “You can have the sweetest peach, but if the person you offer it to doesn’t like peaches…”

lbblogoEditing the Level Best Books series taught me how huge a role personal taste plays in people’s reactions to fiction. Us four editors, aside from being of two different genders, were probably demographically indistinguishable from one another from a pollster’s perspective. Yet, there were stories some of us loved and others hated. There were stories people argued passionately for that other people didn’t care about at all. And when we sent our little book out into the world, we were always surprised by which stories were recognized by awards or nominations and which were specifically mentioned in reviews. Honestly, most of the time I guessed wrong about what our standouts would be.

With novels,  it’s really all about the math. The number of reviews is probably a decent proxy for how well a book has sold, and the averages may tell you something about the quality, but the individual bad reviews don’t mean that much. In fact, the more popular a book is, the more likely people outside it’s core audience are to try it. So a book selling tons will usually have a lower Goodreads or Amazon average rating than a book selling only to its niche readers and no farther.

I know as a consumer of movies, when I look at Rotten Tomatoes, I look at average ratings for critics and for fans (and ponder it a bit if one is wildly different from the other in either direction) and base my decision to watch on those averages, not on the individual reviews.

One thing typical reader reviewers (as opposed to book bloggers and others who also leave reviews on Amazon, etc.) may not know is that when you follow reviews as closely as I do, you get to know who some frequent reviewers are, and you’re watching them just as they’re watching you. One man who has left glowing reviews for all the Maine Clambake Mysteries and even went to the Cabbage Island Clambake was disappointed with Fogged Inn. I feel badly about that and hope he stays around for the next book. Another reviewer has trashed every one of my books on Goodreads and vows every time not to read another one. I always think, “Good, don’t,” (despite everything I just said about averages and number of reviews). And yet she returns again and again.

I described these reviewers to a non-writer friend, and he found it creepy and stalkerish, both their interest in me and my knowledge of and interest in them. But I find it fun, and a part of my world. And I’m grateful to have them. Really.

25 Thoughts

  1. I find that the regular reviewers tend to reach out in other ways, too, whether on Facebook or by getting in touch with me via my website. I must confess that I’m one that rarely checks Goodreads or Amazon, but I know my husband and kids check my reviews often. They let me know if there’s one I really need to see. Once in a while, if I have some extra time on my hands, I will scroll through the reviews and make notes about things that worked for people and things that didn’t. There are times I wish I could reply to some reviews, but I never do.

  2. Great post! I’m more obsessive when a book is coming out and less so as time passes. I’m grateful that the first few for All Murders Final! were good — it will take the sting out when there is one that’s bad. I found it interesting on a Facebook thread one day that readers weren’t happy that authors didn’t like or comment on their reviews. Because as authors we always hear not to comment or like a review.

    1. I had always heard authors weren’t supposed to comment or like reader reviews, too, so that is interesting.

      I do so appreciate the review, but it represents someone’s personal point of view and experience and as such, whether it is good or bad, I don’t feel entitled to say anything about it.

  3. Thanks, Barb. I check in on my Amazon and GR pages every so often. Like you, I’m intrigued by both good and bad reviews, though I’ve found some peace reminding myself that everything is subjective. That whole peach thing is so true….

    1. And there are always good reviews to balance the bad. Really, either way, it’s wonderful that people are moved enough to take the time.

  4. Mostly I try not to read reviews. Those I’ve seen have been generally positive, and there’s a lot of love for the Irish series. But I’ve found that any negative comment, justified or not (“things happen too slowly,” for example) upset me out of proportion to the comment, so I guess I’d rather miss the good ones to spare myself the downers. (We do all believe the good ones, right?)

  5. As a reviewer, I found this post to be 5 stars. 🙂

    Seriously, I started out reviewing at Amazon in 2001 (although I have a few older ones floating around the site) and still post my reviews over there. There you’ll really find the range of helpful and not remotely helpful reviews. Some of them make me cringe because they are totally take up space (like the ones that are just about delivery of the product).

    I do think that Amazon reviews (and even book bloggers to some extent) do tend toward the more positive. It’s a hobby for me, so I’m only going to pick up books I think I will enjoy. I have so many books waiting for me to read, I don’t have time for the ones I won’t enjoy.

    When I do have to write a negative review, I struggle with them. I try to remember that someone spent a lot of time and effort writing that book. I may not like it, but I shouldn’t trash it in a harsh or unfair way. It’s hard, and even when you say things in the nicest way possible, you still can wind up with backlash.

    As far as author comments on reviews goes, the danger can be when an author tries to defend themselves on the negative reviews. That’s when authors need to not react or think through how they respond the most. I do like it when I know authors appreciate my reviews and show it when a comment or like, but I know some authors don’t acknowledge any reviews publicly, so I don’t think anything of it when they don’t.

    I could go on for a long time, but I am late to work.

    1. Hi Mark-
      Don’t be late for work!
      So interesting to hear your views. In the first week after release, a lot of Amazon and Goodreads reviews will be from bloggers or other media reviewers and from people who otherwise have access to ARCs or NetGalleys. Then it settles out and is mostly reader reviewers from there on.
      I also tend to only post positive reviews, and not finish the stuff I don’t like. I’ve only written one really negative review–for a non-fiction book I bought in hardcover that so annoyed me… The review’s on my website, though not linked to any menu or other navigation. Yet people still find it.

  6. This is such a loaded topic and so well presented Barb! It is so strange to think the process to react to books on Amazon is the same as for leaving an opinion on the quality of a food processor or a tote bag. I often wonder if people who design toasters or suitcases also read the Amazon reviews and feel either elated or quashed? There is something about the relationship people have with books that makes it all feel so personal.

    I read somewhere once that readers are looking for soul mates. I think that could go a long way to explaining the positive and negative outpourings in reviews.

    1. The food processor or the tote bag has a product manager attached who is very interested in the reviews, because they are going to make a new model soon. Not so much for books, which when they’re done, tend to be done.

      I do agree, people adopt the characters and can get upset when they behave badly or in uncharacteristic ways (at least in the reader’s eyes).

      It’s fine to give an honest review, particularly one that is civil. I’ve been lucky in that regard. Even people who didn’t like a book clearly read it and thought about it. (Then there’s the guy who gave Fogged Inn a rating of 1 on Goodreads before I’d even finished writing it!)

      1. Don’t get me started on those who start rate stuff too early like that guy. They drive me up a wall. Almost as much as the authors who review their own stuff. (Yes, I’ve seen that.)

  7. As a reader, I don’t read reviews of books I read or considering reading. I could never and would never write a negative review. There is nothing that annoys me more then someone telling me not to read, watch or listen to something because they think it is “terrible.” Everyone is entitled to their own taste and everyone’s taste is different. Many, many times have I heard something was bad and I should “not waste my money.” Of course, being who I am, I spend the money and enjoyed the product. And then there is the opposite, everyone raves about something and after I take a look, I was sorry I did. I don’t think there is a problem with constructive criticism, but some people are just cruel to be cruel. I understand some people do rely on reviews when making choices, but I prefer to make my own judgements, be they good or bad.

    1. I do use average ratings as a part of a decision to buy or rent or read or whatever. Not so much for books as for movies. But it’s just one piece of evidence and one part of the decision. I would never base a decision to view or read something entirely on ratings.

  8. One of my goals reading wise this year is to write reviews. Besides amazon and good reads are there any other important sites to put reviews on?

      1. I don’t have a Librarything account and I’ve never heard of Leafmarks. I post reviews at Goodreads, Amazon, and (Barnes and Noble’s sight).

  9. A thought on negative reviews. Some people don’t write them. Heck, some bloggers won’t write or post those reviews. And I get the reasons why – they don’t finish things they aren’t enjoying, they don’t like to dwell on the negative, they know that personal taste is a very important factor. Those are all valid reasons. (And I agree that if you didn’t finish a book you shouldn’t be reviewing it.)

    However, I do post reviews of books that I’m not praising. I feel the need to warn about issues I see in books. Could someone else love it? Absolutely. They will still need to make the decision for themselves. But it helps to show someone’s tastes and it gives a better sense of balance, at least in my mind.

    There are good arguments for and against. That just happens to be where I come down on the issue.

  10. I appreciate it when my readers take the time to review my books on Amazon and/or Goodreads, and (so far) have enjoyed it when they then connect with me on FB or Twitter and sometimes contact me through my website. It is all about connections, and online reviews are a wonderful way to keep my finger on the pulse.

  11. Well, you know I am the person who doesn’t read them. I appreciate anyone who does a review, and know how important they are on Amazon, etc. But I think it is something I learned from my theater life–they can have power that isn’t helpful. Maybe after book 3 is in I will change my tune…

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