On reviews and reviewing

My novel, Island in the Clouds, recently received a second 2-star review on a book review site. I’m okay with the rating, because I know not everyone will enjoy my writing so this was a little jolt of reality to counter all those 4-and-5-stars I had been receiving since I first published the book in February of 2012.

WARNING – SPOILER: This story has a happy ending …

What caused me to take exception with the reviewer was that she had listed my novel in the “Thriller” category – which it is not – then complained that it had not been “thriller” enough. Worse though was that she recounted much of the plot line, right down to the ending, taking away any potential suspense readers may have discovered for themselves, had they a mind to read my book, in spite of the low rating and this reviewer’s comments. She did not include a “May Contain Spoilers” warning.

I know I can’t, or shouldn’t, say anything to the reviewer, nor do I think I should complain to the site where this was posted. I have to hope this particular review remains buried within the 31 other very-positive text reviews my book has received, as well as the many blog visits, reviews and interviews I’ve enjoyed over these past three-and-a-half-years promoting this book. (And I just know you’re all going to rush over to that site now to read the review for yourselves! Go ahead. I don’t mind, because I’d like you to give me more feedback on this subject below, in the comments section, after you finish reading the rest of this blog post.)

What bothered me most about this particular reviewer, though, was that she really does not know how to write a review. While some of the points she made about my book did strike me as logical (and I do take any criticism under consideration as I write further books in this series), she was kind of all over the map, so I’m not sure how she came up with 2 stars instead of 3 or even 1; she did seem to generally like reading the book, and there were apparently a few redeeming features. Anyway, about the “Thriller” categorization confusion … I’ve now discussed with my editor, Rachel Small, the idea to list the next novel as “Literary Fiction with a dash of Mystery” and hope that disspells any confusion as to my intentions in writing this series. (The next novel definitely is more LitFic, while Island was more Mystery. Neither is a “Thriller”, however.)

So I thought this was as good a time as any to write a blog post about Reviews and Reviewing – how to write a review (how to read a book to write a comprehensive review), how to read a review (as an author) to always get the most from it that will help improve your writing, whether we need reviews in the first place, and what reviews mean to potential readers. About a year ago, I had compiled a list of interesting links to do with these topics, so I present these to you now. Also, I have been discussing this topic with roughseasinthemed, a professional editor, journalist, and reviewer of books. She will have more to say on her own blog, but I’ve listed links to two blog posts she wrote previously that I remembered when the problem of this particular review came to my attention.

And now, here’s how you may become involved in the discussion … Please read through the links I’ve posted below then add to the conversation – especially if you are yourself a book reviewer (either professional [i.e. you are paid to review] or as a blogger). What advice would you give to anyone wishing to review our books? Has an author ever contacted you about a review you’ve posted asking that you edit the content? And, Authors, have you ever had to complain about a review for its content? For those of you who have read this particular review of Island in the Clouds, do you think I’m being too sensitive or do you think the reviewer revealed too much of the plot?

(NB. I’m not talking about malicious reviews or trolls or bullies here. Those reviewers deserve their own particular corner of Hell! I don’t believe my reviewer was being at all malicious – she just did not know how to write a book review. So please focus on this type of review and reviewer in your comments. Thanks!)

roughseasinthemed on Reviewing
I’m reviewing …
Views and reviews

Do We Really Need Book Reviews?
What’s a Book Review Really Worth? from BookMarketingBuzzBlog
When reviews really matter … from Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo
Do Read-and-Review Programs Really Work? from Indies Unlimited

On how to write a book review
How to Write a Book Review from Susan Finlay Writes

Get in on the planning stages and learn how you may help an author before their book is published
Pay it Forward – Beta Reading from Dylan Hearn’s Suffolk Scribblings

Authors, how you may want to deal with your readers … or perhaps not
What If Authors Behaved In Real Life Like They Behaved Online? from Tara Sparling Writes

Learn something about the publishing business so you know why your book is not receiving reviews, or being badly reviewed …
Publishing Facts You Probably Don’t Know from BookMarketingBuzzBlog

And specifically for Self-Published Authors …
From Tara Sparling Writes:
What Makes Me Buy A Self-Published Book?
What Makes People Buy Self-Published Books?
What Puts Readers Off Self-Published Books?

For those of you who base your reading selections on what sells best …
The 100 Bestselling Used Books Since 2000 from AbeBooks.com (Presumably, these books were well-reviewed when they were released.)

33 responses

  1. Thriller? Now that’s an odd choice. I thought “thriller” was like after reading it you’re afraid to be alone in the dark.
    No need for me to repeat what’s been said in other comments. A writer expects not all readers will be happy campers, but a reviewer should keep a tight rein and only record her opinions/observations without doing a total reveal of the plot and characters. Unclear on the job, perhaps.

  2. I agree with everyone else. Sending a polite request asking the review to remove the spoilers is a reasonable response. As to the rating and response, I can only speak for myself but I’ve read plenty of low-star reviews that have made me want to read a book (especially the “this book offended me due to its portrayal of X & Y type comments), so I wouldn’t worry too much about the rest of it.

    1. Wasn’t worried about the comments nor the number of stars, Dylan, just the inclusion of spoilers and mis-categorization. But as you can see from the update blog post, all’s well that ends well. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. […] Aug. 9, I posted to this blog about having received a review of my novel that contained spoilers. I asked what you thought I […]

  4. Author Rebecca Heishman

    I believe that there are well-meaning people who are excellent readers, but who are inept at writing something as innocuous as a book review. Of course, we know that writing a good book review is anything but simple. But, I’m so grateful to anyone who takes the time to review my work that I would withhold criticism. Quite honestly, I have read book reviews that revealed quite a lot of the storyline, and it actually lured me into buying the book. So, I suppose it’s a matter of personal opinion. I would not be turned off by a review that revealed too much.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Becky, and what you say is all true, but I still wonder why a reviewer would go to the trouble of recounting and revealing a plot line when it wasn’t necessary for reviewing the book, except to prove she had actually read it. The writer has struggled and worked hard to write their story and has written a synopsis that usually gives readers a good taste of what’s involved. Why try to relate in a few lines the meat of a novel when all that is really required is to say, “I liked/didn’t like this book because …”

      One friend doesn’t like writing public reviews, because she doesn’t feel her writing is adequate. Yet she’s a voracious reader and tells me privately what she likes and doesn’t like. I have encouraged her to write to authors directly to tell them what she thinks of their writing. And to tell her friends when she has enjoyed a book. I know this doesn’t help those authors who are concerned about building up the number of reviews, especially on Amazon, but it is a way for those readers who can’t or don’t wish to write public reviews to at least let the author know one reader has been moved by their writing.

      Whenever I’ve received private comments from readers about my books, I’ve always asked if I may use those comments, either in promotion copy or to post on my blog anonymously, so that others may read what they have to say. I then receive a positive review with no spoilers, and I also have the great pleasure in knowing someone out there cared enough about what I’ve written to take the time to tell me so.

  5. The review you asked about should most certainly have a spoiler alert. I would have been very disappointed to stumble upon it before reading your book, which I quite enjoyed.

    I’m sure my time will come, but so far the reviews I’ve received for my own work haven’t been contentious. I learn what I can from them and count myself fortunate to have received private feedback as well via email from readers whose insights are extremely valuable. And some of that value is learning that the same thing one reader gushes about, another tears apart.

    1. Thank you, J.P.! I appreciate your comments!

  6. I agree with you 100% that it’s irritating when reviewers leave spoilers. I can also feel your pain when you believe a low review is unjustified. Keep in mind that many reviewers may not be as articulate about expressing themselves in reviews, and many don’t pay attention to the category. I found the review you were referencing, and you’re right; she makes no sense. I couldn’t follow her logic at all. It was like she was saying random things in an attempt to look smart. And just FYI, the book is categorized as “thriller” on Amazon.

    If you will forgive me for making a few blunt observations (this is just based on the Amazon site): (1) sorry, but your cover isn’t very eye-catching. It looks like a very blurry photo, and trying to see what was in it caused me to strain my eyes a little. Your name needs to be bigger, too. (2) $9.99? For a Kindle ebook? The average ebook is priced between $2.99-$4.99. What justification do you have for charging double that amount? Most people aren’t going to pay that much unless the author is very well-known. I was honestly thinking about buying it just based on this post and some of your other reviews, but I can’t afford to pay $10 for a single ebook. If you clarify your cover and lower your price, you will likely see you sales shoot up like a rocket, because, really, the book seems appealing.

    1. Thanks, Jessica. I really wasn’t worried about the 2-star rating. Really! According to Goodreads, that level means the book is “okay” and I do know that not everyone will enjoy reading my writing. It’s the part you mentioned, that she makes no sense in what she has to say about the novel, that is worrisome, and could be misleading to potential readers.

      Thanks for finding the Amazon category, too. I’ll make sure that gets changed immediately. (I did find the categories on Amazon, and it’s listed in both “Mystery” and “Mystery, Thriller & Suspense” – which to me means that it could be one of, two of, or all three of these categorizations, but does definitely not mean it IS a thriller. I need to get in contact with Goodreads to find out how to adjust the categories and, indeed, even to find where these are listed.)

      I thank you as well for your blunt comments, but I am definitely not an author who is interested in sales numbers. I’m much more interested in finding readers. I previously wrote these (two, actually) blog posts on the subject, Why Do you write?

      You’re the first person to mention any problems at all with the book’s cover (and that’s the eBook version of the cover Amazon required when the book was first made available for sale by my eBook formatter). The price was strategically set and is half the price of the paperback version. I’m not sure that pricing any lower would have increased sales in the long run. My sales have been quite decent, in fact, and I’m happy to see the number of positive reviews that have been posted by readers from, literally, around the world. I have also received some terrific reviews and interviews from many bloggers, and these posts have definitely helped spread the word about my writing much further. (Links to these may be found on my blog.) So, indeed, I am very pleased with the exposure I’ve received over these three years and I know there is enough interest in the second novel of the series that finishing and publishing that should be my priority right now! In fact, I must get back to that right now!

      I am more than happy to send you a copy of my eBook, for review purposes, Jessica. Just send me an email, if you are interested. susanmtoy (at) gmail.com

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment.

  7. I think it is most unfortunate that your reviewer listed your book under the wrong category and included spoilers without saying. I do write reviews myself from time to time and do try my best to ensure that details like this are properly done. Though, it may be the case that this is a new reviewer who is possibly a little inexperienced? Maybe it would be an idea as Seumas said to approach them and ask them to take out or hide the spoiler elements?

    1. Thanks, Marje. The reviewer writes a review blog and has already been reviewing books there for a while. As roughseas has suggested, I’m going to ask my editor to approach the reviewer and very kindly, as Seumas suggested, ask her to either include a spoiler warning or remove the plot references.

      1. Good luck, I hope it goes well for you.

      2. I’m sure all will be fine. As I said, I don’t take issue with the actual review of my book, and she did make some valid points that I will take under consideration

      3. Oh by the way I noticed on Goodreads your novel is classified under the following categories Thriller/Mystery. Maybe an idea to get Goodreads to amend this?

      4. You’re welcome, happy to help. 🙂

  8. Reblogged this on blindoggbooks and commented:
    For those inclined to write a review of a book…it’s okay to leave a negative review if that’s how you felt about the book…but please don’t divulge the entire plot. State your opinion and the reasons for it (as vaguely as possible) and be done. Don’t ruin it for others who may, or may not, share your opinion.

    1. Thanks for reblogging, Tim, and for your comments,

  9. Almost all authors expect a bad review from time to time…and there’s nothing wrong with a reviewer saying they didn’t like a book…and there is also nothing wrong with explaining why…but a review describing the entire plot of the novel the way this one did is wrong.
    It’s okay to say the book was unenjoyable to you, but don’t ruin other people’s enjoyment.

    1. Thanks, Tim! I appreciate your support.

  10. I think retelling the story, including in the case of Island, major spoilers, is downright ridiculous. A review should say what’s good and bad about the book, and it should be clear whether the author is being personal or objective, although I would say, either is acceptable.

    In this case the ‘reviewer’ was complaining about there not being enough meat in a vegetarian curry. Poor analogy but you get the idea. Apart from that she really enjoyed the vegetarian curry, which was extremely tasty and spicy …

    I did wonder, did you and Rachel discuss maybe Rachel asking her to remove the spoiler or edit to use the goodreads spoiler alert option? Rachel as your editor and to save you getting directly involved.

    It was one of the strangest ‘reviews’ I’ve read in some time. How can you not decide whether or not you like a book? Either you do, you don’t, or it left you with no strong feelings either way. You can think it’s good or bad, but not to your taste.

    I was complained at by a crybaby who asked me for a review. I orig said I couldn’t finish his book so wouldn’t leave a review. I picked it up again, thinking maybe it would get better. It didn’t. So I gave it two stars. It was not well written, nor had it been edited. You can imagine my reaction. Tenses and spelling were all over the place. One particular annoyance was ‘She text me,’ for ‘She texted me’ or preferably ‘She sent me a text’ or something a little more grammatically correct. Most current reputable dictionaries agree on text, texted, texting etc. He asked me why I hated his book which I found most strange. I couldn’t bear his bleating so I took down my review on Am. Left two stars on GR though 😀

    Thank you for the mention and the links back. The other links were an interesting and varied choice of reads.

    FWIW, I think her ‘review’ is annoying but not something to take too seriously. She says what you do well, which is what the book is billed as. And, I did enjoy the intro about Bequia, I found it really interesting. I’m also looking forward to your next book 🙂

    1. Thank you, roughseas! Having read both the review and my novel, you are most capable of adding substance (and a better explanation) to my own complaints about this review and reviewer. Rachel and I have not had a chance yet to discuss her contacting the author on my behalf, but that’s a very good suggestion. Working with an editor is like having the best advocate possible in your camp – the one person, besides the author, who wants the book to be the best it can be and always be presented in the best light. Had my book been traditionally published, the publisher (or the publisher’s editor) likely would have taken on this role.

  11. I always thought the whole idea behind book reviews was to encourage readers to read a book. Even when a reviewer gives a not so good rating, readers may still be inclined to read the book for themselves. However, if the reviewer reveals the plot ending (in addition to giving a low rating), readers are discouraged from reading the book. At the end of the day, book reviewers are people too. And just like anything else, what one person doesn’t like, another person may like

    1. Exactly, Lynette! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  12. I agree with Seumas about addressing the spoilers or at least asking for a spoiler warning.

    I have a couple of those reviews too. I appreciate that not all readers will like my books – I don’t expect them to. In fact, that would be really odd. Occasionally, a reader seems to have misinterpreted an element of the book or missed something important. That’s concerning, but if most readers got it and are happy, I’m happy. Thanks for all the great resources.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, D. Wallace Peach! It’s good to hear the thoughts and experiences from other authors.

  13. I get complaints about my book not being a romance all the time. I don’t promote it as a romance, but some consider a romance, and it doesn’t help that Kindle categorizes it as romance. I tried to change it, but just by entering “vampires” as a keyword it assumes it’s a romance. Funnily, the same setup puts me in Horror in the UK.

    As for two stars, someone told me that Goodreads categorizes two stars as OK. Three stars is good. And not many Goodreads readers understand that for the Amazon generation, three stars means a fail. My three star review on Amazon sounds pretty positive. I received a three star review on Goodreads before its release, I assume as an accident when a reader took part in my giveaway. I’m lucky, because the same thing happened to another author who received one star this way.

    I’ve seen three star reviews for poor Amazon delivery, for the fact that a novella is short (some refuse to give anything higher than three stars to novellas)…

    The whole system stinks. I believe you should mention your pros and cons in the review body, and the star system should reflect the quality of the book. You don’t like romances? Fair enough, mention it by all means, but rate it as a book that isn’t a romance. You don’t go into a restaurant, eat broccoli and cheese soup, and then give them a bad review because your soup wasn’t a chocolate dessert.

    Reviews are objective. We forget that sometimes. A more subjective system would be swell.

    That said, with the limitations we have, the system is as good as it can be. I think the solution will be found in better categories. Instead of sticking with paranormal romance, how about searching for the heat level, the reading level, the humor level… Readers want to like the books they read. If their search gave them a better match, reviews overall might become fairer.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Carmen, and I like your way of thinking – better categories so readers find a better match to their reading taste. As you say, right now, the system is as good as it can be.

  14. Reblogged this on Tricia Drammeh and commented:
    This is such a tricky topic, but I appreciate Susan’s articulate, logical approach. In my former life (pre-blogging and writing), I left Goodreads reviews that ranged from one-sentence “I liked it” to long, rambling mini-novels. I didn’t follow any guidelines about how to review, but I didn’t leave spoilers either. Most readers review from the heart. They are posting an honest opinion of how they feel about the book.

    I think it’s different for professional reviewers and bloggers. If someone is going to be a professional reviewer or have a blog where they review books, I think they should refrain from leaving spoilers. If they must reveal aspects of the plot, it’s a good idea to post a “Spoiler Alert” as a courtesy to the readers. Once a reviewer enters the professional or blogging arena, they have their audience to consider. As a reader, I would be very disappointed if someone decided to summarize the entire book before I had a chance to read it.

    Please read the post on Susan’s blog and contribute to the conversation if you wish. It’ll be interesting to see where everyone stands on this issue.

    1. Thanks so much, Tricia, for reading, commenting and reblogging – and for all the support you give me and so many other authors, by being such a dedicated reviewer of books!

  15. …excellent, balanced response to the 2-star review, m’Lady, Susan… however, while agreeing it;s NOT the done thing to challenge the reviewer about the OBSERVATIONS on the writing, I think it’s quite in order to respond thanking her for her honest review, which you accept, but asking if it’s possible to take out the ‘spoiler’ elements, as much in fairness to other potential readers as to the the author …:):)

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