Do you remember the good old days when you walked into a book shop and decided if you wanted to buy a book based on the cover, the title and whatever was written on the back or the inside? Maybe the author’s name played a part too, because you may well have bought everything he/she wrote regardless of the title etc, because you love that author and you know they won’t disappoint.
Reviews didn’t come into the equation – they simply didn’t exist, not for the vast majority of books. Only a few made it into the review columns in the papers, or onto The Times bestseller list. You had to rely on your own judgement and gut feeling.
Then internet shopping came along, and the whole idea of purchasers leaving reviews on products was born.
Now, we all know reviews can be subjective; someone who buys a skin cream might love it, someone else might hate it; an electrical item may work perfectly for one person and may short circuit for another.
Reviews are even more subjective when it comes to novels.
Take a look at the following examples, for instance. These were all taken from a recently published novel.
1* One of the worst books I have read. Dreadful rubbish. Ridiculous plot.
5* The characters seemed unique but perfect and the storyline is different to anything that I have read before
1* Gave up quickly. Read like a bad school essay. Very cliche and badly written.
5* This is my fav book of all time. Simply put it is addictive.
1* Poorly written, repetitive, derivative. Doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be an informed story about magic and the ethics of using it, a romantic bodice ripper or a young adult piece of fiction. Nonsense.
5* This is by far the best read I have had in a long while. I just love the detailed way the author writes. Her style of writing completely captured me from page one and I haven’t been able to put the book down.
1* Just terrible. This book is so juvenile, badly written and unoriginal…pass on by!
5* This is a very thoughtful, well written novel.
1* Even if I was stranded on a desert island, I wouldn’t read this again.
5* The detail is fabulous and the setup for the rest of the story is carefully unravelled piece by piece.
1* Struggled through pages of telling, with very little dialogue, which was like being lectured at. Seems to me that the author just wants to get across how wonderfully clever she is…well not at writing you aren’t!
5* Honestly one of the best books I have ever read. The characters are engaging, thoughtfully written and interesting, and the story is intricate and clever without being overly complex and convoluted.
Such widely different reactions and opinions about the same book are quite staggering, which is why we should take reviews with a pinch of salt. The four and five star reviews this novel has received greatly outweigh the three star and less. This book has been well received and although it might not be a piece of literary fiction which has won loads of awards, it has done very well for itself indeed.
Yet, it clearly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And I think you, as a reader, will have experienced the same kind of thing – a book may have been raved about on social media or in the press, but when you read it, you wondered what all the fuss was about.
To be fair, it doesn’t often happen the other way around. A novel with a slurry of poor reviews will often be overlooked and will sink into obscurity. Those reviews may be due to poor editing, glaring plot holes, lots of typos, etc, and may well be deserved. As an author in receipt of those reviews, I would be taking a close look at my work and asking myself if all those 1 and 2 stars could have a point.
This brings me nicely on to the reasons why readers leave bad reviews, and I mentioned a couple just now. Other reasons could be that the reader didn’t like genre, or the subject matter, or there was too much sex, swearing, violence (or too sweet, too tame, too vanilla!). In this instance, I would say that the publisher needs to make the genre and its associated tropes clear, although readers do have to accept some level of responsibility for this. For example, if a story is marketed as a thriller, readers should expect some degree of violence. Or if it is set in medieval Britain, readers should understand that for an author to be true to the time period, women might not have the same rights as women have in the present day UK.
Then there are the odd reviews, the strange ones which make you pause. For instance, I’ve seen a 1* which said the reader really enjoyed the book and couldn’t wait to get started on the next. There are also the 1* reviews which say things like, the item never arrived so they couldn’t say whether it was any good or not. Or that the packaging was damaged. Or they don’t like vampires, when the blurb clearly states there are vampires in the story. Or that the ending was predictable because the two main characters got together in the end (it was a ROMANCE!!! for goodness sake, what do you expect? – it did make me chuckle though, and no, that review wasn’t posted on one of my books).
You also get readers who leave negative reviews for every book they read, no matter what. It does make me wonder why they bother reading anything more than the back of a cereal box if everything they read is so poor, `which makes me think they must take delight in finding the negatives in every book they pick up. On the flip side of the coin, there are the readers who only leave four and five star reviews. It could be said that they are easily pleased, but I prefer to think that they don’t like to leave a bad review because they are aware of the blood, tears, and sweat which goes into writing a book and they don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings.
As a reader, I don’t look at reviews left on the books I want to buy. As an author, I don’t look at the reviews of the books I’ve written. Actually, let me clarify that, because it’s not strictly true. When a book is newly released I’ll check the reviews out, just to make sure I haven’t published a total dead duck which everyone hates. After that, I hardly look at them, only to check the overall rating, or to pull a quote out for marketing purposes. After all, as the old saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and as long as I’m pleasing some of the people some of the time, my job is done.