Monday, May 05, 2008

Why bad Amazon reviews aren't worth crying over

Author John Scalzi seems to have gotten a kick out of posting several "one-star" Amazon reviews on his blog. (Bad language alert.) He followed up the quotes with this:

How do I feel about these one star reviews? I feel fine about them. I am not under the impression that, alone among all writers who have ever existed, I will be the one whose work is universally acclaimed; nor am I under the impression that when readers who feel burned by work are offered an avenue to express their displeasure, that they will rather prefer to stew privately. Nor do I think an appropriate response to negative reviews is to flamebroil the reviewer and send my minions to harass them, thus revealing myself to be something of an insecure psychotic. Someone doesn’t like my work and wants to tell people so? Okay by me. I’ll live. As will any other author who has the sense not to get in a lather over the idea that somewhere someone might not like their work. And if you don’t have that sense, well. Just put on your big author panties and deal with it.

I posted something quite similar here at NRJW on February 19, 2007. Instead of making you click over, I'll just quote it here:

Recently one of my author friends mentioned on a private e-mail loop how hurt she was that one of her books had received a mean-spirited review at I advised her to shake it off. These things happen, and they mean nothing. I spent a couple of moments worrying that my friend might think my advice a little glib because at that time, my first book had 15 Amazon reviews, all 5-stars, and my second book had nine; five 5-star reviews and four 4-star reviews. But today I can speak with more authority, because an Amazon customer calling herself (or himself) "User 124" has just posted a nasty review of A Family Forever. It begins:

This book is trash!

I am highly suspicious of the five-star reviews for this book. I may be wrong, but their tone is so similar it makes me wonder if they have been written by the author herself?

"A Family Forever" is the trashiest book I have ever read. Although you shouldn't take my word for it, nonetheless I would advise that before you waste your money on this travesty, I suggest you borrow it from your library or your local bookstore when you've got a couple hours to kill, sit down and read it - for free. I guess like me you'll find Coulter's writing style crass.

This is not a book review. It's a transparent attempt to wound me. But rather than sinking deep into my flesh, this clumsy sword blow glanced off my armor. Read the second half of the review, and then I'll explain:

I don't feel easy about about writing this bad review and in the spirit of fair criticism, I have to say that I could write several pages here on what is wrong with this novel, but I don't wanna be bothered with giving up my precious time to this kind of trash.

I can't recommend this book, unless you are on a desert island and "A Family Forever" is the only book swept into your unfortunate hands by the sea. Give yourself a break, don't buy it!!!

As an Amazon customer and frequent review reader, I give no consideration to book reviews that say "it's awful, and the author's an idiot" but offer no evidence to back up the first assertion, let alone the second. If you want to convince me that a book is bad, give it two stars and tell me about the plot holes or provide examples of the unrealistic dialogue. If you can't explain why the book is awful, I'll dismiss your opinion as irrelevant. A one-star review that reads like a preschooler's tantrum doesn't make me think, it just makes me roll my eyes.

It's no different when the book being trashed is my book. This hit-and-run review by an individual who cloaks herself in anonymity and who has never reviewed any other book at Amazon isn't the kind of criticism I take seriously. It's likely that "User 124" is someone who was ticked off by something I wrote on this blog or elsewhere online and whose pettiness drove her to seek revenge via a scathing review. That's why her inept little rant wrung a snort of derision from me rather than the spate of bitter tears she was so clearly hoping for.

If asked by a book's author, Amazon will remove reviews that contain plot spoilers and those that viciously attack the author. If someone wrote, "Brenda Coulter is a Nazi," I would demand that the review be deleted. But I won't be complaining to Amazon about the review by User 124. She hasn't violated Amazon's policy and is free to conceal her identity and trash any book she likes (and here it should be pointed out that one need not purchase a book from Amazon in order to review it). Besides, if we authors could get rid of every unflattering review on Amazon, the good ones would become less valuable.

If you know an author who has been crushed by a mean-spirited review at Amazon or elsewhere online, I hope you'll assure her that the vast majority of readers are intelligent enough to recognize and dismiss these smallminded, heavy-handed attempts to damage authors' reputations. The only people made to look stupid by such reviews are the people who write them.

The difference between the bad review I quoted above and the ones Scalzi posted on his blog is that mine was trashing me rather than picking my book apart. But if I wasn't destroyed by the former, what terror can the latter hold for me?

We authors can shake these things off--and I believe we must. If we don't, we open the door for self-doubt to creep in and hamper our creativity and choke the life out of our writing.

Scalzi concludes with this challenge to blogging authors:

Post your one-star (or otherwise negative) Amazon reviews, if you have them, and you probably do. Oh, go on. Own your one-star reviews, man. And then, you know. Get past them. If you’re lucky, some of them might actually be fun to read.

To date, I have found only two other bad reviews of my books--and I have quoted and linked to both of them from this blog. But I'm still a new author (my fourth book will be published late this summer), so I haven't yet had time to collect many. I will, though, eventually. And when pepole send them to me or I discover them on the internet, I will own them because I know that's the way to rob them of their power to erode my confidence as a writer.

If you're a published author who has some bad reviews you'd like to defuse and render harmless to your self-esteem, quote them or link to them in the comments. And if you blog about this over at your place, please leave us a link.


H.E.Eigler said...

I really find it funny that someone called something you wrote 'trashy'. You seem like the LEAST trashy person! Thanks for the giggle :)

Brenda Coulter said...

What? You didn't enjoy the part where she called my writing "crass"? That one was my favorite.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Yeah, I think the reviewer was trying to be funnny, because I laughed at the ridiculousness, too.

Paula Krapf said...

I'm going to send your post to my authors when they have to deal with that first bad review - it is so important to put it into perspective as much as it may sting to read (along with everyone else) that someone doesn't love your book. I tell my authors to decide if there is any validity in the criticism to learn from; if not, shrug it off and move on. But your way of saying it is much more fun. :)

Brenda Coulter said...

I think the reviewer was trying to be funnny

Yeah, maybe. I also loved the part about the desert island and my book being swept by the sea into someone's "unfortunate hands." Pretty juicy stuff.

I tell my authors to decide if there is any validity in the criticism to learn from; if not, shrug it off and move on.

Absolutely, Paula. Even when some criticism is warranted, it doesn't necessarily follow that the book's garbage and the author is an idiot. Yet that is exactly what many authors "hear" when they read less-than-gushing reviews of their books. It's a shame, really, because a lot of people are allowing themselves to be hurt for no reason. And that has to affect their writing.

trudymorgancole said...

You are so well-adjusted. Everything you're saying, I know is true intellectually, but I find that emotionally, bad reviews still hurt. I can't distance myself enough, even when I know they're obviously wrong.

Oh well. Only one of my books even HAS Amazon reviews, and most of those are good ... but when I go to that page I have to scroll quickly past the bad ones. I'd like to be as sanguine about it as you are!

Brenda Coulter said...

You are so well-adjusted.

Maybe I just have a knack for seeing both sides of an issue. I figure that if I don't love every book I read, it must be the same for other people--which means that some people who read my books aren't going to like them. Since I know that when *I* hate a book, it's not necessarily because the author lacks talent or is a bad person, I'm not crushed when someone hates my books. I just assume they're following their own tastes, not judging my talent or me.

Ray said...

Thanks for this post :)

It's amazing how you just take bad Amazon reviews in stride. I mean, I used to have this other blog, and when people left comments with unwarranted hostility like that, well, it used to get me down a bit.

I was thinking Amazon reviews must be a lot more intense than just blog comments. But here you are letting them slide off you like water off a duck!

Brenda Coulter said...

The thing is, Ray, I'm just too stubborn to allow other people to manipulate my emotions.

Anonymous said...

There is one reviewer called "misfit" who holds court on Amazon author's web pages. That is to say, she will write a bad review, and then invite comments from her friends, who inevitably praise her review, and then write a one star review of their own. My web site was invaded by this swarm of killer bees. When they were finished with me they left 47 comments and four one-star reviews. My novel was found wanting because of what they felt was an excess of sexuality, although some insisted that I had a poor command of the English language, wrote stilted dialogue, and that my book was a waste of a good tree. In the meantime I've gone on to finish my third novel, which will be released by a major publisher in the summer of 2010. I think we should all keep in mind that a reviewer doesn't need a license or credentials of any kind to post a review, and that 99 percent of them wouldn't qualify to write literary reviews or critiques for a national publication. Remember, we live in the age of computers, a world where any idiot can publish reviews. The bar has been set so low that it rests anchored to the ground. We need only walk over it without notice.

Nicole MacDonald said...

I've been stung with a few needlessly mean reviews. I'd like to say I took them as well as you did.. I'm working on that ;p Thanks for this post, I realise it's a few years old now but it was much needed and I'm very grateful to have read it.

Hil said...

hi there! Thank you for this! I just got my very first bad review and it was incredibly discouraging. Didn't know what to do.

Perfect example though, that you can't always please everyone. People have a right to a voice.

Michelle Betham said...

I've just received my first bad reviews of any of my books today, and receiving 2 in one day was something of a hammer blow I could have done without, but I've let them get to me, and now it's time to let them go. The positive reviews far outweight the negative, and reading this blog post has helped me really come to terms with those bad reviews. So, thank you!

A great post!

Anonymous said...

But what about reviews that are personal, nasty, and just mean spirited? I am going through this now because one woman didn't like my nickname!!! Unbelievable.

She is now going through all of my blogs on Youtube (autocorrect won't let me write v-l-o-g-s) just to see why they call me by a certain nickname.

I explained to her in the section why I was given the nickname and now she's going back and forth. Some of my readers were incensed and now it's a huge argument going on right now. A big mess.

It does hurt when someone you don't know can just say mean and untruthful things about you. It may be easy for some, I'll get over it...soon I hope

kweeks55 said...

Good post! It seems to me that many people don't write reviews unless they are really impressed with something or they are disappointed. Clearly it takes motivation to logon to a website and post your negative or positive feelings about a book. I think that many books are simply misunderstood. I have several method books on Amazon for learning to play guitar, ukulele, and mandolin. Since my method is so much different than the traditional methods of learning I think that people's expectations are misguided.

Anonymous said...

I have just recently published my first ever non-fiction book. It is about natrual sciences and has gotten some pretty decent feedback so far.

However the first ever review I received was from some teacher in the USA who gave me a one star review and said it was the worst book he ever read. I found this guy and asked him to explain. He said he did it to encourage others to buy other books instead of my own. So instead of commenting on my book, he decides to launch a campaign against my reputation, how mature. If someone doesn't like my book then fine, but what gives him the right to launch a vendetta against the author? He has not reviewed any other books or indeed written anything.

I also found reviews against him from some of his students basically saying he is a bad teacher, does this mean he could be jealous of my work? This person is hardly acting professional in slating another individual's work rather than offering critical comments that an author can take forward. Unfortunately people like this exist in all walks of life, from internet trolls to professional academics. At the end of the day, you are the author, in years to come your work will still exist in some form digitally or as a hard copy, but hopefull their reviews will pale into insignificance.

A previous poster was absoloutly right, this age of computers means we live in a world where idiots can be 'reviewers'. Its nothing more than a license for the cowerdly uneducated and narrow minded to vent their jealousy in cheap thrills for their own ends. Its interesting, people who post these comments, hide behind computers, but do not publish themselves. A case of being able to dish it out, but not able to take it back.

Anonymous said...

The problem is, Amazon is removing perfectly legitimate 5-star reviews that it has judged to be fraudulent (without any sort of trial or evidence) and allowing clearly fraudulent 1-star reviews (from competitors, malicious genre haters, etc.) to remain. 1-star reviews do hurt sales because they lower an author's overall rating. Lower sales create a downhill cycle of diminishing returns.

Amy Michelle Mosier said...

I came here to research the reason why negative Amazon reviews are voted "Not Useful". I have left several honest reviews, 3-star reviews of some horror books. Do you notice that positive reviews do not get thumbed down? I think it's the whole self-esteem movement. One negative criticism and you are tarred and dumped on with a bunch of fire ants. I am also an author but I'm a reader first, author second.

Books R Us Free Library ( Branch 2) said...

Hey, I too am a published author on amazon, and I admit, when I published my first few books and the bad insults began to come ithe form of negative reviews, I did not realize such sharks existed in these waters. But I also learned that a bad review can mean gains in sales simply cause other people will sympathize seeing that the author is being dogged, and buy the book just based in that. I also learned not to go purposefully and read the neg reviews any more. Don't let the devil in and he can't hurt me. I make it a commandment now to just never go read any reviews, good or bad. They mean nothing to me. No one has the right to make me feel bad. This is my book and my right for my words to be read. My books will be seen in this world. I am published and it is set in stone. The reviewers sure are not making money. I am. I also wish that in order for a amazon reviewer to be able to review my book, they should actually have to PURCHASE it first. But I found they can just skim through a sample not actually buying it and still get to review it and trash it just because they bought something somewhere. I wish we authors could delete whatever reviews we don't want seen. Why not? It is our book, not amazon's. Why do they get all the say so? I say they hold too much power. They never removed any neg reviews when I told Amazon that I was personally being attacked more than the book. It sure isn't my fault that customers are so discontented. That is the main reason people dog others, is because they are so unhappy. It's as clear as day to me. But in the end I leave my books in the hands of a much Higher Power. Thanks for the share. I at least do not feel so alone anymore. I am known as Katryn Ali, Sciantel Crista, and World Domain on amazon. Have a blessed day!

KoahWisdom said...

You make some good points and I love your attitude. However, for indie authors bad reviews can quickly sink them. Not b/c others may be influenced by the review, but b/c it will knock their books out of amazon's internal search engine, so their book never even shows up in searches.

A legitimate bad review is one thing. But with Amazon's review policies and system it is too easy for some hack to do a two minute hit job and the indie author is basically done with no available recourse. Months of work can go the drain in an instant b/c of some carpet bomber and there is nothing the author can do about it.

To me this is a big problem - anyone can post a review for any reason and unfairly sabotage a indie author.