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How to Avoid Bad Book Reviews

23 June 2012

From Indie Author News:

After self-publishing my first novel I was forced to think outside the box. Getting my words noticed was understandably difficult. No one cared about my first novel. Why should anyone spend ~6 hours reading it?

Clearly, gathering a collection of reviews would help. I contacted book bloggers who were partial to literary fiction. I found some, but, in general, they were hard to come by.

At this rate it would take forever to get a conversation about my book going.

. . .

So . . .

I joined a reading group on Goodreads after learning about it on another site. It was an active group. I figured it would be a good place to meet new readers and share my thoughts on a few of the books I was reading.

One of the discussion threads welcomed and supported new authors. Basically, the moderators of this group promoted any authors willing to mail a copy of their book to interested members.

I volunteered a few copies of my book, and one member chimed in, asked for a copy to be mailed to him, so I handpressed my 162-page non-linear memoir concerning a young couple moving to Austin, Texas and I wrote him a personal Thank You note on official Tiny TOE Press [Michael Davidson’s Imprint] stationery.

Sent the package Media Mail.

A few days later I got my first 1-star rating/review on Amazon, and it was from the member of Goodreads who requested my book. He liked nothing about it. He couldn’t even finish it.

After reaching the bottom of his review, I went back to the top, where it screamed:

**Review Copy Provided by Author**

This was what killed me. I supplied him with my book. It was my choice whether or not to mail it to him. He wasn’t forcing me. Knowing this, why didn’t I bother doing some research beforehand, inform myself, at least look at his profile on Goodreads to get a better idea of his behavior when it came to selecting books? In the past I had only sent my book to reviewers who enjoyed literary fiction, some even read the same books as me. If I had done my due diligence this time around maybe I would’ve known in my gut he wouldn’t like my book out of principle.
. . .

In the true fashion of an amateur, I decided to stalk him after the damage.

Immediately I could see he preferred romance books. On Goodreads he was also a member of the Kindle Smut reading group. The majority of his books had sexually suggestive covers, which was why he figured he’d like my book, because it’s cover is ‘sexually suggestive’, although not in an obvious or overt way, like the covers of the other books in his ‘to-read’, ‘currently-reading’, and ‘read’ lists.

Look, I don’t blame him for wanting to read my book, for thinking he might even like it. I blame myself for not taking the time to first learn his reader preferences.

. . .

Tools like Goodreads allows authors to reach out to readers in a variety of ways. But just because these tools make it easier to think outside the box and do crazy creative marketing, doesn’t mean you should be irresponsible and get trigger happy.
. . .

– Michael Davidson – 

Link to the rest at Indie Author News

Guest Post by Bridget McKenna

Reviews, Self-Publishing

45 Comments to “How to Avoid Bad Book Reviews”

  1. This story highlights how important a book cover is — it needs to target the right audience.

  2. So…I think the author seems like a really decent guy, and everything he says sounds right, and like good practice, and so on.

    But I’ll just say it: the reader seems like kind of a jerk, to me. Like, as a reader. Someone sends you a free book, because you requested it, and it turns out not to be your cup of tea, and you trash it? Seriously? Like, this is an obvious miscommunication, and you’re going to mess with this guy’s book just because you can?

    You can always, you know, not review things.

    I’m glad the author isn’t pissed off, and I’m glad he’s not pissed off at the reader. None of those things would be good. But man. That’s kind of a nasty thing to do.

    This is why I don’t participate much at Goodreads. Besides not loving their social tools (feels clunky?), it almost seems like the community element encourages criticism as, like, a competitive sport. Like hunting game. Just seems ugly a lot of the time. (I know there are a lot of people who get a lot out of Goodreads, and there must be a lot of awesome things about it. It just doesn’t seem worth the effort of finding the good stuff for me at this time.)

    • I dunno — if the cover lied to me, I’d quite possibly feel bound to say, “This book is NOT what I wanted!” and give it a matching review. I think the author was kind of daft to assume, “oh, these covers are like mine! he’ll like it!”

      I’ve actually done something akin to that on a short story that I got which… wasn’t what I was expecting, and wasn’t what was telegraphed by the cover or the blurb. I was expecting SF, slightly fluffy. I got Twilight Zone!

      That said, I said as much in the review: three stars because it wasn’t what I thought I was buying, but if you like Twilight Zone stuff, it could probably use another star. Because I wanted people to buy it who would like it and not feel betrayed.

      • Yeah, I actually remember that guy’s cover — it was a close up of a partially (barely) exposed midriff, I think. It was way too tame to be erotica or erotic romance. Like, none of the usual genre cues, with a definite litfic-y vibe. I wouldn’t have called it misleading if what the guy got was litfic.

        Your treatment of a worse situation sounds a lot more fair.

        • Lol, a shirt pulled up with her lower back showing, pants slightly low and no belt, and barely readable text, leaving a heavy focus on the image. It’s about the norm for the DIY erotic cover for a more literotica amateur, who couldn’t afford a picture with those jeans a little lower. Also, the title “Austin Nights”. Night + place + skin showing (Boogie Nights, anyone?) Hmm… must be lowbie porn.

          (The male character also gets a bit rowdy about sweaty thighs and cold lattees in the sample…) 🙂

        • Personally, I wouldn’t have equated a bare tummy with litfic. Especially with a provocative title like “Austin Nights”!

          *digs around and finds the book*

          …yeah, without the literary fiction note in the blurb, I would’ve assumed that it was at least borderline romance. Possibly paranormal romance/erotica, with the line, “Michael had a hankering after immortality” — but I may’ve been browsing too many vampire/werewolf/weredragon/whatever paranormals.

          *reads the 1-star* Yeah, that’s a very fair one-star. Doesn’t say anything mean just to be snarky, but explains what threw the reviewer for a loop.

    • “You can always, you know, not review things.”

      Not really. The author has given the reviewer a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. If the reviewer doesn’t review, it’s like they’ve stolen the book, because they haven’t fulfilled their part of the bargain.

      Yes, the reviewer can go back to the author and say they’ve declined to review, but is that fair to other readers?

      I’m currently in this situation, as the reviewer. I’ve just finished what is probably the worst book I have ever read, yet the current Amazon reviews are 11 5-stars and 2 4-stars. By declining to review, I potentially sentence other readers into paying $17.99 for a self-published unedited paperback (no Kindle version, no look-inside, so potential readers can only judge based on the reviews).


      • If I review a book and dislike it enough to only give it one star. I just don’t review it. The lowest I normally rate is three. I would feel miserable that I dashed someone’s hopes and dreams. The day I write a book and publish it, might be the day that I really could be qualified to rake another author over the coals with a one star horrible review. I think sometimes, the threes are bad enough, especially if examples are given of why the book got a mediocre rating. If I don’t like where a book is going and I struggle with it or if there are a zillion typos, I stop reading it and don’t review it. I don’t feel comfortable with dragging a new author’s book through the mud. I save that job for people with no conscience, of which, there are many, but I can breathe easy knowing it isn’t me.

  3. My best reviews have been unsolicited. They’re slow to arrive, but so great when they do.

    On the other had, I’ve had very few reviews, and I’m not smoking up the bestseller charts. I see indies with dozens of reviews and know it would probably help me to promote more heavily in that area.

    One thing to note: Goodreads has a slightly harsher standard for stars. A 3-star on Goodreads seems to line up with an Amazon 4-star (as per the site definitions.) So if reviews are cross-posted, you get weighted downward on the mighty Amazon.

    • Oh, yeah. I had great reviews for one of my books, and I decided to try out the standard advice and see if soliciting some reviews would do anything. (I did this against my better judgement. Sigh.)

      The solicited reviews did not lower my star rating — still all fours and fives — but the reviews were all short, thoughtless reviews, and yes, they all had the disclaimer “I got this book free in return for a review.”

      I do not object to this phrase. It’s an attempt to be fully honest, and comply with ethical standards….

      But it sucks for me, because Amazon now has a new “feature” which pulls common quotes from the reviews as highlights. And because of that little effort in which I sent the book to five or six volunteers — who all used the exact same phrase — THAT quote has become one of those highlighted by Amazon.

      I might submit to professional book reviewers in the future, but I’m going to go with my first instinct and never solicit reviews again.

  4. Goodreads is a site that I’ve come to dislike. (My opinion only). The majority of my communication with them has been pretty negative. An example is one where they, on the one hand, advertised advertising on books you think you are similar too, and, on the other, subtly laid out how I can interact with their user groups: Indicating I could only do so as a reader and not as a writer (except for in a very narrow way restricted significantly).

    That annoys me as I think “Yes, writers need rules as a percentage of us spam it up and degrade their target user group experience”, but also think “If they want my money to advertise then they should give me more communication with my readership beyond interviews and free books.”

    Speaking of that, I also think the free book system they use benefits Goodreads as a business (a draw to bring in users) much too much. There must be some way to make it more worthwhile for authors, but all I really see is Goodreads taking authors for a ride and costing them money. They are (in my opinion) using authors for their own ends are not honest enough about the drawbacks of their system (given its a choice to use it there’s no real blame on them, but I believe in responsible business. If you use authors like this, you should give back something too.)

    In the end, I understand that Goodreads is a READER site, but they also offer a ton of paid ways to ADVERTISE my books. Their site is a business, but I feel they offer too little for too much. It’s an excellent service for readers and that’s awesome, but I stopped caring about them a long time ago, except when I’m curious how readers are rating my work. That’s about the only use I have for them and I’m glad I don’t have to deal with them more.


    On the subject of the writer above. I agree, but I think giving review copies when not sourcing them from a traditional publisher is costly and cuts into profits. I mean everyone makes decisions with their own business, but this is one of the most expensive ways to get a review. Although I don’t think soliciting friends and family is a good idea, he could have found a few friends of friends (two degrees of separation) who have e-readers and paid for an honest review or two with few beers or dinner vouchers. Sure that seems dodgy and I wouldn’t (don’t have to) do it myself, but there are more effective ways than sending an expensive paper copy to someone you have no idea about. Sure, he didn’t do his research, but he has to live with the one star and if that’s all he has and the reader response was valid then he’s in serious trouble.

    (Weird as this sounds, I am anti-reviews. I’m making nice money – a living wage by next year – and I have almost no reviews on Amazon and friends. Reviews can hurt if they are 1-2 stars. 3 is ok. Anything over 4 is great. However, it’s a perception game. It’s just too easy to lose.)

    • One of the problems with reviews is that many people seem to think that anything less than five out of five is bad. Three is ‘average’, which should be nothing to complain about, but so many indie books have only four and five star reviews with overall ratings much higher than established classic novels that three has come to be seen as ‘oh my god, I’ll never sell another copy’.

    • OUCH. I JUST READ THE REVIEW. The author has 12 other reviews, mostly high, but almost all dated prior to this article’s release date, so not pity reviews it seems. What I want to say is THE REVIEW IS FAIR: Well written with examples and clear reasoning. That one star review was the clearest of all the reviews he had and the reader had clealy given his book a reasonable shot. If I got such a review, I would be saddened, but I can really respect the reviewer here. This was a fair review of his work from their perspective. (That, of course, makes it worse as people are very likely to read a well written and thoughtout review and make a decision of it. I wouldn’t buy the book based on that and other’s reviews. I can see it would annoy me a lot.)

    • I just use my Goodreads account to review other stuff now and again, and to drag my books onto it when I get the ISBN, so they’ll be there in case anyone looks. Passive advertising, not active.

    • Pike, I’m with you on that. I don’t just dislike GR, I’ve come to loathe it. I left a few months ago and don’t intend to ever go back. What I noticed about that site is the large troll population that seem to be very anti-author. I’m not at all surprised that this happened to this guy by someone on GR. So many of the members there are horrible (but not all – there are some nice ones).

      As for me, I stick with Amazon and will never place my books on GR ever again. I’m glad they split with Amazon. This way it will be easier to ensure my books are never placed on that site.

      • How do you figure that goodreads and Amazon parting ways will keep your books off of goodreads? Amazon was only one source of book information, goodreads has others. In addition, any member of goodreads can add a book. Your books are there to stay.

        As to the rest, if you publish a book, you will get Reviews. Some will be good, some less so. It comes with being a published author.

        I’ve requested books I was I would like and then didn’t. Apart from painful a reviewer, there’s no guarantee of a glowing review.

        • I agree with you, there will always be bad reviews. But, I’ve noticed on GR that there is a large group of people who relish in tearing down authors. With them, it goes beyond book reviewing, into author hatred and stalking. It’s weird.

          I publish my books in the kindle store (kdp select.) More than likely they won’t end up on GR, but you’re right, someone could add the book. I just don’t think it’s likely.

  5. I am a member of Goodreads – my books are listed there and I have an author page. I didn’t list my books, nice readers did.

    I barely use the site other than for a few giveaways when I have extra books.

    While many users of Goodreads will disagree, I think the site is unwieldy, clunky, and unpleasant. I’ve witnessed some very ugly discussions and read some unnecessarily nasty reviews. It’s as if some groups of people are vying to see who can post the worst review for a given book– who can be the biggest book-basher. There are even specific groups a reader can join whose only purpose is to trash a genre, like, say, Romance.

    On the other hand I’ve noticed that authors with large posses get five-star reviews across the board for books so poorly written I wouldn’t even be willing to use them for kindling.

    The truth is I’d rather keep my distance. Remember slam books? Goodreads, while I do believe it was formed with the very best of intentions, has come to remind me of one big slam book. Or if you’re too young to remember slam books, think the movie… Mean Girls.

    • Yup. My comment above probably could have been condensed to “an online slam book for Mean Girls who read.”

      Just a really bad vibe.

      • GoodReads can be a little like Roller Derby.
        But I connected with someone there who read one of my books 20 years ago and her comments were so touching that it made all the incomprehensible reviews recede in the distance.
        You really can change someone’s life.

      • Genevieve – you do have a way with words!

    • “While many users of Goodreads will disagree, I think the site is unwieldy, clunky, and unpleasant. I’ve witnessed some very ugly discussions and read some unnecessarily nasty reviews. It’s as if some groups of people are vying to see who can post the worst review for a given book– who can be the biggest book-basher. There are even specific groups a reader can join whose only purpose is to trash a genre, like, say, Romance.”

      Exactly! But there are also groups that have been created for the sole purpose of trashing authors and tearing down their books. There is a long list of authors who have been stalked and harassed by GR members. It’s sick.

  6. Man, I thought I was the only one who has an iffy feeling about Goodreads. I have two books available there: a novel that averages a 4.5 at present, and a short story collection that’s hovering at about a 4.00. Still, the reviews tend to skew more towards the negative side when compared to either Amazon or Barnes & Noble. There’s something about Goodreads that just rubs me the wrong way.

    As to the article itself, I think the author learned a good lesson when it comes to soliciting reviews, and it’s along the lines of the old lawyerly adage “never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to.”

    In the interest of full disclosure, I’m rabidly against solicting reviews, but that’s just me.

  7. I guess I’m in the minority. I like Goodreads both as a reader and a writer. Clunky interface, yes. Some very nasty people, yes. I ignore all that and find the places where I’m happy. My books are on people’s To Read lists. Maybe it will result in a sale now and then. I review books and get into interesting conversations with commenters. And I give books exactly the same ratings on GR and and on Amazon.

    • I agree, Catana. If you can’t filter out the crap, how can you survive on the internet? I’m a member of several groups where I have lots of friends, interesting discussions, and great book recommendations. (The groups I pay attention to are fairly narrowly genre-specific.) I also connect with friends from other places and see what they’re reading, and, perhaps most importantly, keep track of things I’m reading, things I’ve read, and things I want to read. Sure, it could have a better interface, but it does most of the things that it’s supposed to do competently.

  8. I’m so glad to read this, since I was just kicking myself because I hadn’t done a book giveaway on G-reads before the 6-month deadline. I hardly ever spend time there, because it’s so hard to use and I never have the time to wade through the clunk.

    On the other hand, I have had some lovely unsolicited G-read reviews. But I also got several two-stars (with no review) from people who are way out of my target demographic.

    Because people can give stars without reading or reviewing a book, I think these are probably a negative reaction to my genre, or just somebody being mean.

    That isn’t terribly useful to readers, as far as I can see. I love the “slam book for Mean Girls” definition from Julia and Genevieve. I think I’ll keep not having enough time to figure out how to navigate there.

  9. It seems to me that they only possible way of avoiding a bad review is to write a good novel. But even at that you’ll never please all of the people all of the time. Not everyone is going to like your efforts. Once you put it out to the public you can expect anything. Some people will hate your work. I don’t mind that so much. What I hate are the one star brigade who slate anything and everything and they do it quite viciously. Sadly there’s nothing you can do about it. Hang on, there is one thing …. if you don’t want a bad review well …. forget all about writing that novel.

    • I have sometimes amused myself, after reading a novel that I really love, by reading the 1-star reviews of same. Many really good (IMO) books have nearly as many 1-star reviews as 4-and-5-star ones. I have come to the conclusion that some reader occupy an entirely different planet than I do, but are somehow able to visit long enough to pen reviews that have no opinions in common with my own.

      Hey, it could happen…

    • Roger Parkinson

      You’ve said pretty much what I was going to say. There’s no book everyone will like so there actually ought to be a mix of ratings (hopefully with useful reasons: ‘I liked/disliked’ this because…’). You can sometimes see the reason for the one-star is something you feel quite the opposite about (there was not enough sex in this…) so okay you’ll read it. Conversely people might really like a book for reasons you don’t go for. It’s fine.
      What is suspicious is when ALL the reviews are very high because just maybe someone has found a way to game the system. Or maybe it really is a book everyone likes, or maybe the mix of cover, blurb etc represents the book so well that the people who don’t like this kind of thing don’t pick it up.
      But a few one-stars should not do too much harm.

      • Actually it’s pretty easy to do it so people don’t know (most times). Just write 5 reviews between 1 and 5. Skew it upwards. 2 should be short and meaningless. You know review and run. 1 should be great. Someone loved it. The other two should be balanced towards the negative. You should end up with 1 x 5, 2 x 3 and so on. Make sure you review some free books as well on the accounts. You’ll also need your book in KDP and your reviews should be cut and pasted from other book reviews with modification to make them fit yours (patch work). What this means is you won’t need credit cards on the account as you can buy free books without one. All you need is a fake address in America (choose a park). The patchwork hides you personal voice. You may also want to use British and American spellcheckers. Lol, some people are probably doing this right now.

        [Full disclosure: I have never done this, but have considered it. In the end, I’m too busy writing stuff to do all that work.]

        • Don’t forget to use bad grammar on one or two. Particularly the lower ones. Flesh it out by saying something that links to the fake persons life.

  10. This may not be the place to ask, but I’m curious as to whether the same feeling exists about LibraryThing? I’ve found LibraryThing more reliable (as a reader) for reviews that GoodReads (which I poke at once in a while, but don’t use as I hate their interface).

  11. The first book of my series has 141reviews–this is over a 2 year period, really not a whole lot when thought of in terms of how long it has been available–so I haven’t sent it to any reviewers since early last fall. I still love to hear from readers, so I revamped my author bio at the end of my books back in March when I uploaded my third book. Since then I’ve tripled the number of emails I’ve received in just three months compared to the 21 months prior. A lot of people don’t like to leave reviews, but many, especially with a Fire and a mail link right there, will send a little note. I know it might not help sales, but I LOVE getting emails from readers. :-)I read John Locke’s book on how to sell a million ebooks, and he advocated asking those who email you if they would mind leaving a review. I forget to do this about 96% of the time, but on the 4 occasions that I did, 2 left reviews and 2 did not. So, those of you looking for reviews, try revamping your author bio. When you get an email, if you feel comfortable, you can say something like ‘If you feel comfortable doing so, a review on Amazon would be greatly appreciated.’

    In case you’re wondering what I did to my bio, instead of just a short boring blurb written in third person, I wrote mine in first person like I was just talking to them on a message board. I mentioned that I loved hearing from readers, and since I’m a web junkie, they’d most likely get a reply really quickly. (Which is true. Sometimes I even wait an extra half-hour or so after I receive the email just so I don’t seem *too* needy. ;-))

  12. It must be book review commenting weekend. I just finished participating in discussions over on Facebook – Book Junkies.

    And that prompted me to write today’s blog post on the subject http://pawilson.ca/book-reviews-who-are-they-for/

    I’m on the fence about GoodReads. Yes, they are clunky and the recent change to their data source makes it hard to load self pubbed books. What I find odd though, is the giveaways are only print books. I’d be happy to give away 20 ebooks, but if I have to deal with ordering and mailing print books, the cost gets out of control pretty fast.

    Anyway, great discussion. It makes me feel much better about the amount of time I spend researching reviewers before I send a request.

  13. Such is a risk taken with every review, solicited or not. And as you ask for a review, you have to hope the good ones outweigh the bad, because not everyone will like your work.

  14. I think the lesson to take from the article isn’t what the writer thinks. Actually, I see two:

    1. Your cover is a sales tool, and your customers will get mad if it misleads them. This guy’s cover isn’t too racy, but it doesn’t really suggest anything else, either.

    2. Bad reviews can be a tool to show you that something is wrong with your book. Read them, decide if they are giving it serious thought, and then decide if it’s a matter of taste or a real flaw in your book.

  15. Wow! This same thing happened to me when, like a dummy, I asked someone who reviews books (19-20ish year old kid) to check out one of my books. Later I see a silent one star review. Then I decide to do my homework and see that she reads nothing of the type of work I write. The thing that irritates me is, okay, it was my fault for not doing my homework on the blogger, but shouldn’t a blogger be able to tell the difference between a badly written book and one that is outside your tastes?

    People like to throw one star reviews around, but that implies there is nothing good about the work.

    • The problem is that reviewers these days are their own little culture/club, and they have self-promotion and such to do too. That is, it’s a form of social networking game for some people. They try to score status points.

      One thing they’ve learned is that it’s bad for their reputation to leave all 5-star reviews. But because they are doing it for status in their fan group, they can’t give bad reviews to anything their friends like, so they look outside their genre for things to trash.

      And yeah, sometimes the behavior is not even that conscious, it’s just what they’ve learned to do. They run around all day voting everything, everywhere up or down, and doing it fast and thoughtlessly.

      The thing we need to remember is that lots of activity is generally recognized by most algorithms as either good, or if it fits certain recognized patterns, it’s simply removed from the algorithm.

  16. I read Austin Nights last year and absolutely loved it. I wrote a 5 star review that was quite emphatic.

    Last week, someone commented on my review – she called it “pompous and elitist.”


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