Monday, January 7, 2013

Do You Trust Reviews?

There's been a lot of discussion in the book world lately over the value of reviews and Amazon's decision to remove reviews from its site that it considers to be nothing more than "one hand washing the other". By that I mean, complimentary reviews written by friends of an author, or one author penning a review of another author's work in exchange for the second author writing a review of the first author's work.

Confusing, right? It gets even worse when authors write reviews of their own books under false reviewer names. It's a practice called "sock puppets". The author creates a "sock puppet" and becomes the puppeteer.

I've written plenty of book reviews, some for Mystery Scene Magazine, some for Library Journal, and some for Futures Magazine. I've also occasionally posted a review on Amazon. If you've read my blog in the past, you know I also post reviews here, most of them written by people I respect, like Carl Brookins. I trust Carl to be honest in his reviews, to say what he liked about the book, and when there was something he thought the author could do to improve the story, to always frame his opinion in a respectful manner.

Not all reviewers are like that. In fact, some reviewers are downright hurtful when commenting about a book they didn't like. I've known authors who say they were devastated by a review of their work posted on Amazon. Generally the reviewer did not explain what it was that turned him or her off to the story. Instead, he/she used words like "horrible" or "stupid" to describe the book, thus implying the worst about the author.

I've never received that kind of review for one of my books, but I've seen some rather malicious reviews on Amazon while looking at books to buy. Frankly, because of their blatant nastiness, I dismiss both the review and the reviewer as untrustworthy. 

I also dismiss reviews that gush over a book without pointing out what makes the story so good. Sometimes, due to a lack of solid information about the story, I wonder if the reviewer even read the book, or if he/she wrote the review simply as a favor to a friend. 

And sometimes the reviews are so grammatically incorrect that I question if the reviewer can even recognize the difference between a well-written book and a just so-so book.

An example of that is an Amazon review I read last night. The reviewer claimed to be quoting directly from the book, but failed to place quotation marks before and after any sentences in her review. So where was the direct quote? It was hard to tell which sentences reflected the reviewer's thoughts and which sentences could be directly attributed to the book's author. 

In another Amazon review, the reviewer described one character as "a agent that works" for the FBI. Whoa, baby! "An agent who works" would be grammatically correct, but "a agent that works"?? Time for the reviewer to take a refresher course in English grammar.

Am I nitpicking here? Some might think so, but I'd disagree. If a reviewer doesn't know how to write a sentence correctly, why should we trust his/her opinion of the writing skills of the author?

Reviews are handy tools for readers interested in finding new and exciting books. I believe the trick to utilizing reviews to one's full advantage is this: find a reviewer whose taste in books mirrors your own and follow that person's recommendations.

So who do you trust when it comes to book reviews? Do you read the reviews on Amazon? In your local newspaper? On other online review sites? Do you value word of mouth recommendations over reviews? I'd be interested to hear what you think about this subject.

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16 comments:

  1. Our book club at Grace Church relies on the book summaries posted on Amazon, not any reviews. If we like the content and are familiar with the author, we'll try the book. We're more concerned with content than reviewers' opinions. We only had one bad read, and that was when we relied on a reviewer. Everyone hated that book!

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  2. I'm glad that method works for you, but when you say you have to be "familiar with the author", it sounds like you don't take a chance on a new or unknown author, and I think you could be missing out on some good books then. Again, I think knowing the reviewer is important, but of course that's harder to do today what with newspapers cutting back drastically on their book review sections.

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  3. I read reviews and take them with a grain of salt. I look at what they have to say particularly when they talk about characters or plot or if their criticisms semm like valid points, but ultimately word of mouth and content synopsis have more impact for me

    Terri

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    1. I agree, Terri. Word of mouth works for me, too.

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  4. I read Amazon's "Look Inside", the blurb about the book, and then the one star reviews. Why the one stars? Sometimes they are just hateful, venomous things, but some contain useful info. For example, "the author goes on and on about every detail of what the characters are wearing". That annoys me too. I tend to read the one, two, and three star reviews to glean what I can. I tend not to trust many of the four and five star reviews as I suspect they are friends of the author. On the other hand, if I feel a book deserves a five star review, I have recently started writing them as I know many people do read them and I want to help an author I like.

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    1. I'm like you, Kate, when it comes to long descriptions of clothes, or even when it comes to throwing in designer names for clothes or shoes. Maybe the designer name tells you something about the character's finances, but more often than not, the reader already knows if the character is well off or just making it.

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  5. I don't read reviews. I have had totally opposite opinions of so many books, movies, etc., over the years, that I just gave up reading them. I am a member of several online reading groups and do notice what others say about what they like (or sometimes don't like) in a particular book or a particular author's work in general. Over the time I've been in those groups, I have come to recognize who seems to have similarities and definite differences and somewhat gear what I read based on those comments. But I also prefer to actually go to a bookstore and LOOK into the book myself a bit before making a decision on what to read or not read. Once I know an author, I might order a book without seeing and holding the book myself, but usually not with a first time reading someone.

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    1. I also think word of mouth is the best way to judge whether you'll enjoy a certain book or not. Like you, I've come to trust the opinions of certain friends and people I've met online. I know who shares my tastes in books.

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  6. I am with Terri--I read reviews with a grain of salt. And with a guilty conscience. When Amazon reviews were new, a friend asked me to review her book. It was not to my liking, but I was too cowardly to say so. Instead, wrote the best review I could for it. I gave it way too many stars. But I did learn from the experience. Now when someone asks me, I tell them I'm really busy and I'll try to get to it. Then I take a look. If I don't like what I read, I'll simply say I find I'm too overwhelmed with work to do it. Cowardly? Maybe. But what I know is that people's tastes in reading are different. Turns out some people really liked her book. It's just a little harder to remember this when the writer is a friend.

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    1. I don't think it's cowardly at all, Terry. Makes sense to me that you wouldn't want to hurt a friend's feelings. And you're right about different people having different tastes in books. I'm a huge fan of Terry Pratchett, but one of my best friends didn't see the humor in his work at all and won't read him. Different strokes for different folks. :)

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  7. Depends on what you mean by trust. I'm happy with anyone who takes the time to write a positive review of one of my books. I don't worry about small grammar mistakes, because Amazon likes unprofessional reviews from readers. I also welcome more technical reviews from authors, but am always afraid Amazon will decide to remove them. I used to include the word, Author, in my own reviewer description at Amazon, but have since changed the description to read "Morgan Mandel Appreciates Well-Written Books in Various Genres, as Well as Other Quality Items." So far, all of my reviews remain up, not only about books, but the other items I've purchased at Amazon.

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    1. The problem I see with mistakes in reviews is this: if the reviewer can't see his/her own mistakes, how can I trust that he/she has noticed the writer's mistakes (if there are any).

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  8. I write reviews on Amazon. And I read reviews on Amazon. What I find fascinating, the reviews that give 5 stars, but as described by another comment here, have no actual description of the book. I will click on a name, and look to see who they are. I have found people who have only reviewed one author, and every review was 5 stars. I have also found reviewers who are so hateful and when you see who they are, that may be the only review they have written.

    I read reviews in the paper, and other places. I read reviews written by people I respect. I read blogs by authors and readers. But, after all is said and done, if I get the book and like it, good. If I get the book and dislike it, too bad. I don't finish books that are not appealing to me. It is my responsibility and a review can point me in a direction, but that is all.

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    1. I like your attitude, Annette. And you're right. Reviews can point you to a book, but in the end, it's your own taste in reading that matters.

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  9. Hello Mary, this has been an interesting thread to read. Before publishing my book, I read all of the bad reviews for my favorite authors on Amazon. I was amazed at how hurtful some people can be. I have never left a review because I figure that my opinion is just that, an opinion. Now, each morning I wake up and check to see if I have a new review, and yes,somewhere I should add the words "in fear." I have had some very kind reviews and I am happy that those people enjoyed my book. I have also had a few reviews which felt more life a personal attack rather than a review of the book. So, if people don't trust the good reviews, because perhaps my mother created seven Amazon accounts to give me 35 stars, (it does sound like something she would do,so I asked her not to!)and often the bad reviews clearly state that the reader didn't understand my book- I hope that people take advantage of the "look inside" feature. I don't want to bore anyone with my work, I want people to read what they like, and if it isn't my book, no hurt feelings. I have found that "looking inside" has helped me to pick just the books I want to read in the little time I have to enjoy a book.

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    1. Writers have to develop thick skins, Robert. Bad reviews are discouraging, but from what I've heard, there isn't a writer alive who hasn't received one from time to time. Hateful reviews are something else altogether. I have no idea why some people want to destroy writers.

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