On Reviews

An author friend recently thanked me for posting an Amazon review for her latest book. “How do you always know when I’ve reviewed your books?” I asked. “Because I read my reviews,” she answered. “All of them?” “Yes.”

I’m the opposite. I seldom read my reviews. I might occasionally check my star rating and the number of reviews I’ve received. Or even glance at the first few when my book comes out. But after that, I avoid them.

I’ve put some thought into why my friend and I have such different approaches to reviews. Maybe it’s because my friend is a very non-controversial writer. She writes inspirational romances, and her books are what are called “gentle reads”. They’re never going to offend anyone, or provoke strong reactions. I can be a very polarizing writer. For example, when I entered my latest historical romance in the RITA, I got scores back of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Readers' responses to my books tend to be all over the place.

Since the beginning of my career, my books have gotten mixed reviews, and I’ve come to accept there are aspects of my world view and creative vision that are a bit different from that of most romance writers. I also have a very distinctive voice, which draws some readers in, while turning others off. I can’t change either of those things. And so I seldom read reviews, because a lot of the time it’s my voice or my story vision that the reviewers are reacting to, and their opinion, good or bad, isn’t going to be helpful.

In contrast, my friend reads her reviews to discover what readers like and don’t like in her books. The idea is to figure out how to write a better, more compelling book next time. It’s great when a reviewer gives you something specific that you can process and use in the future. But a lot of the time, that’s not what happens. Many readers don’t analyze what they didn’t like. They simply express their emotional reaction to the book.

Professional reviews are another matter. I read a lot of them in my job ordering fiction for a library. Professional reviewers tend to discuss both the good and bad aspects of a book. When they are critical, they tend to criticize specific things. They will mention slow pacing or tired tropes, clichéd characters or awkward prose, things like that. They also tend to balance negative things with a disclaimer, like “Despite the over-the-top action and lack of character depth, urban fantasy readers will be pleased”. Or, “Her (the writer’s) fans will find what they’re looking for.”

In those cases, the reviewer is recognizing that even though they didn’t like the book, there is still going to be demand for it. For someone like me, who is purchasing books for a library, that’s very helpful. I can’t simply buy the books that get the best reviews. I have to buy the books that the patrons at the library where I work want to read. And trust me, those aren’t always the ones that get the best professional reviews.

Despite my resistance to reading reviews of my books, I have to admit reviews have influenced my writing. I’m currently rewriting a book that was published almost fifteen years ago. As I rewrite, I’m conscious of the fact a fair number of the reviews of the original version found my heroine unsympathetic and cold. This time around I’m trying to make her more appealing. I’ve not only tried to get inside her head more and better reveal her psychological state, I’ve actually changed the plot so her actions aren’t so frustrating to the reader. I’m trying to make her less flawed and more “heroic”.

Bear in mind, it’s taken me fifteen years to get to the point where I can do something positive with those negative reviews. And that’s the thing you have to be careful about. Bad reviews can be devastating. They can demoralize you to the point that you feel like giving up writing. Or, they can push you to make changes that don’t play to your strengths as a writer. You have to remember that for every reader who dislikes a certain aspect of a book, there may be another one who loves that very thing. There are books I find plodding and dull, while other readers see them as beautifully crafted and complex. There are books that bore me because the characters seem shallow and uninteresting. But other readers don’t care because they’re focused on the action and suspense.

Over and over we’re told that a review is only one person’s opinion. And that truly is something to keep in mind. If that opinion helps you write a better book next time, then maybe it’s a good review, even if it is critical of your work. But if it does nothing except ruin your day, then it really is a bad review.

How about you? Do you regularly read your reviews? Do they influence your writing?

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the Dark Ages, medieval, and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands, and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at a public library. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing, she enjoys gardening, traveling, and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

12 thoughts on “On Reviews

  1. There is little more to be said about reviews that you didn’t already say here.

    I read my reviews, but I have a very strong sense of who I am as a writer and what I want to write, what I want to say. So what few bad reviews I do get rarely shake me. Bad reviews, for me, are outliers and are usually qualified with such things as, “I don’t usually read this kind of book, but…” or “I usually prefer books about…” If you don’t usually read the kinds of books I write, then you aren’t my audience and your review has very little bearing. In fact, I wonder that you bothered to read it at all, much less leave a review.

    • You’re definitely tougher than me. I tend to find bad reviews demoralizing. And I do have to say that I suspect that romance reviewers may be a lot more brutal than some other genres. Because I know quite a number of romance authors like me, who seldom read them.

  2. I read every review I find. Even the bad! Like any criticism, you have to weigh and filter — is this person presenting a valid point? Should I adjust my writing or editing? Or is this person just upset that I wasn’t this other author or genre, in which case I need to adjust my marketing? Or is this person just the outlying data point which makes the others cohesive and real, and I can ignore this review?

    This makes reviews either useful or irrelevant, and I can live with either of those. 🙂

    • Your calm rational approach to reviews of your own books is impressive. I’m afraid I take them too personally and get stressed out that I’m wasting my time writing books when I get a really nasty one.

  3. Thanks, Mary, this is a very thought provoking look at reviews. You covered the good and the not so good side and gave me insight as how to make better use of my own reviews. Well done.

  4. A really terrific blog. One sentence really home for me: “You have to remember that for every reader who dislikes a certain aspect of a book, there may be another one who loves that very thing.”

    I find my experience to be exactly this and they’re often all over the map. It’s taken me far too long to stop putting so much stock into them, to remember that it’s just one person’s opinion. Like you, though, I can’t take the really bad ones. Glad to know I’m not alone in that. 🙂

  5. I would like to say I don’t read reviews, but I do. I want to know which characters my readers like and dislike. I want to know which stories they love and which ones they hate. It’s a good way to get to know your audience a little better. I just do my best to take reviews with a grain of salt and not allow myself to obsess over the bad ones. Every writer with an audience gets a bad review. Every. Writer. I don’t care how great you are or how many readers love your books. There’s always going to be that person who says you can’t write your way out of a box. There will always be a person who hates your main character or how you ended a story. It’s important to remember the reviews are just opinions, and we all know what they say about opinions.

    Now when I leave reviews, I only leave them if I can give a book three or more stars. There’s already too much negativity in the world. I prefer to review and promote what I love instead of bashing things I hate. On that same token, I’ve actually bought books based on one star reviews. Especially if they’re particularly vicious to where you can tell they were written by someone with an ax to grind. I’ve gotten some fantastic books that way.

    • I’m with you. If I don’t really like a book, I don’t leave a review. I’m all too aware from my library job that people’s tastes vary tremendously. I can love a book and the next person can hate it, and vice versa. The best example I can think of is one of my co-workers loves CATCHER IN THE RYE and I absolutely hated it. At the same time, THE GREAT GATSBY might be my favorite novel, but she despised it. So right there is the reality of reviews.

  6. As a book buyer, I read tons of reviews.

    I usually read negative and positive reviews to see how they balance one another. I pay attention to the reviews from major publications like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.

    If there aren’t reviews from major publications, I look on Goodreads and Amazon.

    It’s hard to buy a book that has fewer then ten reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. If there are a handful of reviews, they usually were written by friends and family.

    I ignore reviews on Goodreads that have a bunch of video clips. Those are by reviewers who have a fan base that follows them and agrees with everything they say. They often write the dumbest reviews I’ve ever read. They love saying crappy stuff. Unfortunately these reviews are the first ones anyone sees.

    I ignore people who say, “I bought this and didn’t realize this was a romance, and I hate romance, so that’s why I gave this one star.” Then don’t review the book and injure the author’s ratings, you idiot.

    If a review says a book has typos and needs editing, I absolutely won’t buy it. Even if the author has fixed the book, it’s hard to figure that out on Amazon or Goodreads. The negative reviews remain, so do hire an editor before you release your book.

    I am always curious to read negative reviews of books I love. Sometimes a review has merit, but I want to say to the reviewer “You just don’t get what is wonderful about this book! You don’t see that it’s a fairy tale or that great horror books start slow” or whatever. I think it must be very difficult to see those reviews as an author. I want to say to the author, “Ignore this person. They didn’t get it.”

    That’s why I always take reviews with a grain of salt, both bad and good.

  7. Hi Alice! (waving) Hope to see you see at conference this year.

    I agree, you really have to look at reader reviews in a totality. In my job, I usually read reader reviews more to get an idea about what the book is like more than as a rating system. I can’t read every book (obviously) so when doing readers advisory, it helps a lot if I’ve read some reader reviews of an author’s books. It helps give me an idea of what their appeal is.

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