5-18 Powell's City of Books, World's Largest Indie Bookstore by Judith Ashley and Sarah Raplee

Friday, December 22, 2017

STAR-CROSSED—Book Review Dilemmas

By Linda Lovely

I first posted a blog on the topic of book reviews in 2011. Six years later, the topic is more complicated—and aggravating—than ever as Amazon appears to be in another purge cycle.

The current complaint among authors? Amazon is purging reviews from individuals it has determined have social media ties to the authors. Given these links, the positive thumbs-up reviews must be biased.

The answer from authors? They use social media to communicate with and interact with their fan base—so, of course, cyber ties exist between them. That doesn’t mean the reviewers who have some social media link actually know or have even met the author in the flesh. And it certainly doesn’t mean their reviews are biased.

For authors, reviews are a numbers game. For a book to be eligible for various types of promotion, it needs a base number of reviews to appear “legitimate.” Also, the star ratings must be, shall we say, stellar, preferably with an average star rating of 4 ½ to 5. We (and by this I mean all authors who haven’t climbed into the top 10% of best sellers) need positive reviews.

That brings us to the second review dilemma: it’s those dang stars.

I’m in a book club. After we discuss each read, the moderator for the month asks us to rate the book on a five-star system: 5=I absolutely loved it. 4=I really liked it but it had some weakness. 3= I liked it and would recommend it to others. 2=I didn’t like it, but finished it. 1=I disliked it and didn’t finish it. This past month, we re-read Pat Conroy’s classic, The Prince of Tides. The individual ratings ranged from 5 to 2. Most of the books we read earn average ratings in the 3 to 3 ½ range. That means we’d recommend them to others. Often enthusiastically. Yet, a three-star rating would be a relatively “poor” showing on Amazon. 

The problem is that everyone who posts an Amazon review and assigns a star rating comes with a different idea of what those stars mean.

Should 5-stars be saved for only literary classics and never be awarded to excellent romance, mystery or other genre titles?  What if the writing is excellent but the plot has some holes? What if the suspense is gripping but the reader feels no emotional attachment to the heroine?

What individual readers see as defects are subjective. Some author friends, who write darker, gritty novels, complain constantly about “bad” reviews that give 1 or 2 stars because their books included bad language or sexual content—even though the description of the book clearly indicates it will include bad language and sex. So why did they read it, if that’s not what they like?

Not knowing how other people will interpret their personal star system, many people I know elect not to post a review—while others only post five star reviews for any book they’d recommend, making the ratings merely “You go, girl!” votes of support and encouragement.
I don’t have an answer to these problems. All I know is that I will continue to beg for reviews because I need them in quantity to succeed in this business.

So here are my questions for authors:
·         Do you encourage people to post reviews of your books?
·         Do you resent ratings that are less than five stars?
·         Would you rather have someone post a three-star positive review or no review at all?

And here are my questions for readers:
·                     Do you post reviews and/or assign stars?
·                     What prompts you to take the time to write a review?
·                     Does seeing posts from an author on social media influence your review?

P.S. I currently have 39 reviews for BONES TO PICK. My new humorous mystery, and I could sure use more!


Judith Ashley said...

Thoughtful post Linda. As you know I'm an author but I'm also a reader. Depending on what's going on in my life I read a book or two a week (when things are going smoothly) and at least that many a month no matter what. I'm not the best at writing reviews and in reading Maggie Lynch's most recent "Author Secrets" book, I think I've figured out why.

1. It takes time to click onto all the review sites and post a review even if I write one ahead of time and just copy and paste to each one.
2. I have my own issues with Amazon although they absolutely do not know who I am but I tend to shy away from them except to put my own books up on their shelves.
3. I want to write a 'quality' review and that means saying something about the book other than "loved the characters" or "felt like I was there the setting was so well done" but what then to write? "snappy dialogue"?

However, I am going to make an effort to catch up with reviews on Goodreads and see what happens. One place to post reviews is much easier for me than four or five and to be honest I'd never just post a review on Amazon and not on at least Kobo and Barnes and Noble, possibly Apple if the books are up there also.

Again, a thoughtful post.

Linda Lovely said...

I have the same issues you do in writing reviews, Judith. I want to write something meaningful so I postpone until I have "time"-which often doesn't happen. Then the "write review" note on my to do list has been sitting there so long I'd need to review the book to write a meaningful review. Authors of the books I read would probably much rather I post a one sentence review and then make a note to come back and edit it when I have time.

Sarah Raplee said...

As an author, I encourage reviews. I don't resent less than 5 stars but prefer to know what they did and didn't like. I'm not sure about the last question, Linda.

I sense your frustration. We chose Indie publishing in order to have more control over our careers. Unfortunately, there is nothing to stop booksellers from throwing up obstacles by way of playing favorites. SIGH

Barbara Strickland said...

Even reading this great post I am confused. I am a fledgling author but am also a reader. I have been reviewing for years and years and now I am afraid to review. I have had reviews pulled by amazon when I didn't even know the authors except by some long distant association of belonging to a writing group online. These people wrote in a different genre, met on different nights and I had never met any of them. I read their books and reviewed because I was intrigued as to what they had produced and this information came through a generic newsletter.
I gave them a three star noting both positive and negative elements without spoilers. They were pulled. I belong to lots of groups where the relationships are stronger and those reviews have not been pulled. It is so confusing. When I read and review I don't stop to think about relationships. I just review because I am a reader and have been doing this long before I attempted writing myself or had social media.
Your post was great but often now I am put off reviewing books from this group because I do read all of your posts and share them. In fact my reviews have dropped to occasional these days. Reviews are feedback. We need it and we need to give it. Such a crazy world to be in.

Linda Lovely said...

Barbara, I find the reviewer situation confusing as well. I have no idea how Amazon determines what reviews should be pulled. You aren't the only one who has found their reviews for people they've never met pulled, while reviews for people they have closer relationships with remain. I understand why Amazon wants to make certain that authors aren't "buying" fake reviews, but they're automated answer isn't working. By the way, most of the authors I know (including me) were avid readers before we started writing and remain avid readers still.

Maggie Lynch said...

Hi Linda, Interesting discussion. Like most writers, I am both an author and a reader. Though I admit I don't have much time for reading (outside of research) these days. I used to read three to four novels a week. Now I read, maybe, three to four novels a year.

In terms of reviews, I don't believe Amazon is pulling reviews with social ties. I know a lot of authors think that because they are trying to make sense of what's happening. But the logistics of that is just crazy. The problem is Amazon is concerned about reviews being real. No one knows what their algorithm does, but we do know it's automated and tweaked regularly to search out bad players. And it would do it consistently. For example, I give a birthday gift of a book to each reader on my street team. 98% of those gifts go out from Amazon. If Amazon could track anything that would be it and they could stop ALL of those reviews which would be devastating to me. But not one has been stopped.

On the other hand, there is an author who is part of Windtree Press that whenever she tries to do a review for me, Amazon won't let her. Yet other Windtree Press authors can. I don't know why Amazon won't let her, but for some reason there has been a flag associated with her and reviews (it's not only me she can't review).

In terms of reviews, I agree we all need to have them. However, as far as readers are concerned, they don't all need to be stellar. In fact, having a few less than 4 star reviews tends to show that they aren't all fake. If you look at any best selling author with thousands of reviews you will see that most of them hover around a 3.5 average. As you said, no one book is for everyone--sometimes not even for people who have read and loved the author before.

I believe authors should work to get reviews but try not to obsess over how many stars it is or what the person said is wrong. As with any ratings it is the preponderance of feedback that should be your guide. If you have a few that are 2s or 3s, then it is likely those people were not your readers or they rolled out of bed on the wrong side that day. I believe the majority of bad reviews (assuming your book is well-written and has been edited) have nothing to do with your book, but everything to do with your marketing. If you were marketing your book to an audience that was too wide (e.g., all romance readers) then your reviews are bound to have a lot of people who aren't your market and they will be disappointed no matter who good the story is. However, the more you market to your niche audience and draw fans to you in that way, the more likely your reviews are going to be great because you are delivering exactly what they want.

Linda Lovely said...

Interesting response, Maggie. You're right--many authors are convinced that the Amazon algorithm has to do with social media ties, but your example suggests otherwise. You also make an interesting point that some authors may not be scattershot marketing rather than concentrating on their special market. Of course, sometimes it's hard to figure out the demographics of your target market and find a way to reach them. Thanks for the thoughtful response.