6 February 2012

Reviling the Reviewer – not always a good idea

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a small piece about author bashing. It was intended as a bit of a blast against the people labelled as “Trolls” on the Internet – people who deliberately cause a rumpus in order to be noticed. In the case of some “reviewers” these verbal attacks are aimed at trashing an author’s work, and on occasion, his or her integrity (especially where historical fiction is concerned).
I argued that to review a book – even if you did not enjoy it – you do not have to be foul and abusive. 
The old “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” quote.
I had a couple of interesting people contact me disagreeing with what I’d written. (Disagreeing in a nice sense – oddly, no trolls emerged. I’m either too fierce or not important enough!)
One correspondent in particular pointed out the other side of things from the reviewer’s perspective. And what set me thinking was one sentence:

“Reviewers are here to recommend a good read; we do not give critiques.”

She was right. Readers read review blogs, partly to discover more about an author, but mainly to decide what books to read next. So reviews should be honest and accurate – although I still emphatically state that they should not be rude or vile towards the author.
If a novel is a load of rubbish, fair enough, but be objective about it, not rude.

One thing that seems to annoy reviewers – rightly - is the obnoxious author who indignantly counterblasts any criticism of his/her book.
This is the sort of author who adds a comment proclaiming the reviewer is an idiot who cannot read or has no awareness of the English language because the book was not rated at 5-stars. “All my other reviewers understood what I was trying to say and have given it five stars. Maybe you had better brush up on your reading skills.”
Unfortunately most of these rants come from self-published or Indie authors. I suppose because the indie market is an open free-for-all at times. Some books get poor reviews because they do not deserve a good one. I’m sorry, but it is time some SP authors realised that their masterpiece was turned down by publisher after publisher and agent after agent for a good reason.
The book is not written very well.

Yes, everyone can write a book – not everyone can write a readable book.

 All too many of these “wow what a great read” reviews (on Amazon, Lulu, Goodreads etc) are so very clearly added by friends and family. Just as it is easy to spot the heckling troll deliberately targeting an author in an obnoxious and rude manner, it is easy to spot the deliberate “fab book” friends and relatives review.
 Look at their previous reviews, just one or two or none. Their only reviews are for this one author. Bit of a giveaway that. And most are not proper reviews just a “I loved this book” format. No detail of the plot, the writing style, the characterisation.
Now I must admit, I do this on Amazon – “Loved the book” sort of comments, but this is because I do not have time to write a full and proper review, and I am adding my personal comment as an author and reader, not a review as a reviewer.  
my Amazon reviews
I have protested about reviews, but not (I hope) rudely. One review was for a previous edition of Sea Witch on Kindle and it was not a good one: “don’t buy this it looks like it’s been set by an idiot” (not the exact words, but you get the gist) The thing is, the reviewer was right. My previous publisher had plonked it on Kindle with no idea how to upload the formatting properly. The result was a heap of nonsense – maybe that is why the company went bust? I had no choice but to add a comment though – that I agreed and this edition has now been removed and replaced by a properly produced one by a more competent publishing company.
What does irritate is that this particular reviewer (last time I looked) had not removed the review. I’m assuming he or she was quite happy to trash an author’s work, but not responsible enough to notice when said author had politely responded.

 As an aside regarding comments/reviews that rubbish an author’s use of punctuation and grammar:  I have come to the conclusion that US and UK ideals are not on the same level playing field. To us in the UK the game the US calls football is rugby. In the same way, our way of expressing things by the use of commas, for instance, is not the same as the US way of expressing things.
Reviewers please note that! Keep in mind UK English is not the same as US English.
That still doesn’t excuse the obvious typo – but read on….
I personally welcome constructive criticism – if I’ve made errors I want to know about them – however, and this is a big “however”: please keep in mind that typesetting and production are often beyond an author’s control. (I site my own novels here – after almost 20 years as an author I have finally got some decent, quality, editions that are properly produced – and I am talking mainstream and indie here. Some editions are out there with hideous typos, despite my efforts of proof reading. If the publisher, for whatever reason, does not correct the errors, or sets the book wrong, there is nothing, as an author, that I can do about it. Nor are the titles of my mainstream traditionally published novels my jurisdiction. I opposed Harold the King being changed to I Am The Chosen King so please rant at the publisher about it, not me. And don’t rate my book with one star because of it!
I must add in here a review left for one of my books that made me laugh outright – and hopefully prospective readers will realise the ridiculousness of it.
All errors are original:

“My hopes for this book were up after reading the reviews here, but I must confess I was very disappointed.
First of all, the plot is confusing. There is no clear line through the book. Second of all, the story is not deep. The characters are not well described, so their feelings and reactions do not seem natural to them. Oh, I did understand the love between the two main characters, but only because it was stated black on white, several times - it is simply not possible for me to feel this love the two characters apparently share. For me, a book is not good if I don't at least can feel sympathy for the main characters, and understand their line of action, and I certainly cannot with this book.
Last, there's an enourmous mount of text used to describe certain more or less uncomfourtable events. An amount not balanced to the amount of text used to describe the characters. It seems unnecessary and wrong for the plot.
So, to me this book is not an example of good writing, not even a good story. Furthermore, there were several errors in this version of the book, which is very disturbing. The only reason why I give this book two stars instead of one is that I actually came through it.
I'm sorry for mistypes and grammatical errors in this review - English is not my main language.”
This reviewer has two other reviews (for novels by different authors. One is:
“I read it through, but exciting - no. I never felt I was there, I never felt sympathy for the heroine, even though I tried. It was boring and not well written. The small parts of the children's story in the beginning of each chapter - not even remotely interesting.”
Ah, well it wasn’t just my book that disappointed then.

My point is – I so dearly want to respond with maybe this reviewer would understand the text, the plot – and not call me a bad writer – if she understood English better.
A classic example of blaming an author when it is your own failing that causes the problem.
Regardless of the rather absurd context of that review, it really is not wise to respond with an indignant protest. Genuine readers will see the silliness for what it is.
 Some authors leave themselves wide open for a rough ride by proclaiming themselves to be what they are not. Write historical fiction on the basis that you are a knowledgeable historian and have thoroughly researched the facts – then I have no sympathy when reviews find error after error, or condemn such an author’s novel as nonsense. I have never claimed to be anything I’m not. I do not possess a history degree (well I do have half of one – never bothered finishing it. I might one day.) My novels are “what might have really happened”. Note the word might.
Similarly if one author – published or prospective – slams another published author’s work as nonsense, then be careful that your own work is all you claim it to be, or you might be on the receiving end of the same sort of public trashing. What you send out comes back threefold.
So do reviews, good or bad, affect sales? General opinion seems to be that even a bad review is not as detrimental as it might first seem.  A good reviewer should be able to state that the book didn’t work for them, and therefore receive a low star rating, but it is  still possible to point out the positives, that people who enjoy such and such will love it. As example, I have received bad reviews because the reader did not like the detail in the battle scenes, or there was too much historical detail. Fair enough – but other readers prefer this sort of novel. As an author, you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. As reviewers, please don’t damn us unnecessarily.
As authors, though, are we expected to just sit back and take it? No, I do not think we are – but there are ways, and ways, of responding to a bad review – if you must respond:
Be polite.
Ok, so it is obvious the reviewer has not read the entire book, but just picked up on one element – let’s say the central character is anti-gay. There is no need to slam the whole book because of this (er… its fiction…..) Say openly “I did not like this book because of its anti-gay stance. I therefore did not finish reading it.” A good, fair comment – what is not acceptable is “This book is rubbish because its anti-gay”. Nor is it acceptable for the author – or agent, or whatever, to retaliate with “well you are a rubbish reviewer because you haven’t read it, so don’t know what it is about.”
Be respectful.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion. So a particular reviewer or person who has left a comment on Amazon has been less than pleasant. Do you really want to lower yourself to their level?
Acknowledge that everyone has their opinion, and you thank them for theirs, although perhaps it would have been nice for the reviewer to have got the protagonists name right: its Jesamiah Acorne, not Jeremy Acorne.
Be Dignified.
Rant back if you really want to – the temptation is especially difficult to resist on Facebook threads – but state your point and leave it at that.

Remember those Trolls I mentioned earlier?
If they look you in the eye and catch your attention, you are in grave danger of turning into a troll yourself…..


  1. Honestly, I agree with some things you've said and disagree with others.

    For instance, you said it's hard to write a book that's readable. I disagree completely. Most of the writers I've met work hard, are competent, re-write, study the craft and are overall good at what they do. I think instead, it's actually hard to write a book that people will care to invest in. Whether they are helping you sell it or buy it, there's very few out there that have the potential to make a lot of money, even if they are very good reads.

    Also, even if someone writes something terrible the first time, I think through study and critique, that anyone could write something interesting and readable.

    I do agree though that it's best for people to be polite when reviewing. I remember reading a book blogger (vividly) saying how he hated a certain book so much he was never going to read a self-published book again and obviously the writer was stupid and had no grasp of the english language and hadn't re-written. Made me sad to read something like that. It was unprofessional and immature in my opinion.

  2. Hi E.B. Black - thanks for responding. I totally agree that writers work hard, and I totally agree that many SP authors study their craft, re-write, and end up with a very good, enjoyable book. There are, unfortunately, many who do not.
    I didn't say it's hard to write a book that is readable, I said not everyone can write a book that is readable.
    By this I meant a proportion of self-published authors do not understand the technical side of writing – have no idea what point of view changes are, what author’s voice means – no concept of tense. I’ve critiqued many MS over the last few years, and believe me, some are dire.
    Out of ten submitted MS :
    1 should have been picked up by mainstream
    2 need a professional copy edit for punctuation. grammar etc for a final polish
    4 need a professional full edit to sort out continuity, POV, author’s voice
    2 need to be re-written (a lot of hard work needed) because some of the story doesn’t make sense – but has potential
    1 is dreadful – no plot, no characterisation, no continuity – it’s just a ramble of words

    The potential author who seeks advice, works hard on draft after draft, gets a professional critique – and takes the advice given – will more than likely end up with a good, readable book.
    I have come across several authors who refused to accept that their MS needed more work: one, when I advised that the continuity was all over the place responded with: “Does it matter? No one will notice.”
    Er..... I noticed. And believe me so will the readers.

    Those “wanna-be” writers who blame the publishers, agents etc for not recognising genius when they read it, have no intention of listening to why their book is being rejected time after time – even by assisted publishing companies who do not accept everything sent to them – who refuse to accept any constructive criticism, usually produce unreadable books because they will not accept the truth – that they’ve got it wrong.

    So what I meant was – writing is a talent, a gift, that’s why we have top authors who are best sellers, they have the gift of being able to write good stories. At the other end of the scale there are people who believe they are good story tellers – if only they had the time, or were given that break they would be a best seller as well. Totally failing to realise that a true writer makes the time, works all hours of the day, seven days a week figuring out the next scene, the next chapter, then edits and re-edits. Writes and re-writes.

    Look at it this way. Anyone can make a cake – but not every cake is edible.

    So, you said: “.... even if someone writes something terrible the first time, I think through study and critique, that anyone could write something interesting and readable.”
    I agree completely – unfortunately there are self-published writers out there who have written something terrible, who have no interest in studying or accepting a critique. They will never write something interesting and readable – because they are convinced their work is already interesting and well written. These people publish their book – and then wonder why no one is reading it.

  3. I agree with you, Helen, that not everyone can write a readable book. I have no problem with that, but feel you may have misread or displaced EB Black's real concern? That is, not everyone can write a book others will buy—en masse—or, not every book has the potential to make the author lots of money. I sense he/she simply meant to say that not all readable books become bestsellers(?)

    Anyway, for my part, I believe not everyone can read a book properly or, moreover, no one re-reads the same story in the same way, twice. In fact, this is somewhat like my baking, each time the cake flops differently. : )

  4. Hello Nicolaas - I didn't actually answer that bit of E.B Black's comment.
    Very few books make money, and those that do are big authors with big publishing companies - for the simple reason the big companies have the money to market the books.
    Any writer who goes into this game expecting to make money is going to be sorely disillusioned.
    Being cynical, it doesn't matter whether the book is well written or not - if there's money to spend on marketing it will become a best seller. (Not mentioning specific titles here - insert one of your choice! #laugh)
    I also completely accept that what one person considers a good read, another will think of as awful. That comes down to personal opinion - and thank goodnes we all have different views, because if we all liked the same thing, what a dull world it would be.

    My point was not to do with the above though - as one of our UK top agents responded to my post on Twitter - "My slush pile is evidence of your statement."

    What I am saying is: there are people who like to think of themselves as writers who have no idea how to write. Just as there are drivers who think they are good drivers & are a mencae on the road, or people who think they are fantastic singers but have no idea of what is the right key (watch any talent show on TV or listen to a Karaoke night as proof of this !)

    I am not knocking the serious writer here (mainstream or SP) just pointing out that there are people who are not going to make it as a good writer because they will not accept that they need to work hard at improving - because they don't believe they need to improve in the first place.
    Believe me they are out there! And sadly it's these non-writers who get the dedicated, really talented self published writers who do take advice, and who do work hard, a bad name.

  5. You have it spot on Helen. Being a writer, having friends who are writers, agents and publishers, as well as doing some editing myself, I have seen this from all angles.

    Talent is certainly needed, but talent alone will not create a good book. It is the tip of the iceberg. The rest, the bit that is underwater, consists of redrafting, taking advice, redrafting again, proofreading, learning the writer's craft. And all that takes time and dedication - something that the wannabes don't even think about (and yes, they are the ones who then blame agents and publishers, sorry, GATEKEEPERS! for keeping their opus magnum from being published mainstream).

    And then beyond the writer's craft, I feel it is also necessary to know something of the publishing process: what is needed, how things are to be presented, marketed etc. It's all one heck of a lot of work but at the end of the day it is worth it to have a readable book. There are many, many good writers out there, both mainstream and SP who take all this seriously and are worthy of respect. But sadly there are even more, especially in these days of easy self publishing on the net, who really have no idea.

  6. Thank you Jules - so basically it comes down to hard graft: and don't assume your work is going to be the next best thing since sliced bread.
    If its worth doing, its worth doing properly.
    And remember not to rant at reviewers - but do remember to say thank you to the nice ones!


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