On Reviews: “This Book is Bloody Awful”

I’m com­ing late to the brouhaha that sur­rounds cus­tomer reviews. The social web, it seems, is crawl­ing with examples of sharp prac­tice, where reviews are not writ­ten in good faith. If you want more back­ground on the present storm, read this art­icle from the New York Times about reviewers-for-hire and this from Forbes about the beha­viour of author Stephen Leather.

Customer reviews are import­ant. Without them, products with estab­lished brands would have too great an advant­age. The Stephen King brand shifts many books; the Ian Hocking brand shifts few. The sources of pro­fes­sional review — news­pa­pers, and so on — can help, but if I want to buy a product, I’ll be happy to know what other buy­ers thought.

As a writer, I do soli­cit reviews. I have after­words in Déjà Vu, Flashback, and Proper Job that point out that I pub­lish without the bene­fit of a pub­lisher, and I need all the push I can get. People do try to help me out. Many of my reviews begin with ‘The author asked me to write a review, so here I go’.

Here’s one such, from a reader called Kvsir:

I’m no critic. I’m just a guy with who like his SciFi/Fantasy stor­ies — a lot! Ironically, con­sid­er­ing my open­ing sen­tence, I gen­er­ally buy on the strength of the cus­tomer reviews which is what promp­ted me to down­load Déjà Vu in the first place so after read­ing Ian’s acknow­ledg­ments and blog excepts at the end of the book I felt moved to add one here for him as I know he’s going to read it. …I’m off to down­load Flashback, hope you make enough coin off that sale to go buy your­self a beer. Cheers!

So I soli­cit reviews in gen­eral. I also reply to tweets and emails ask­ing for reviews. I keep to the form: ‘Hi, this is Ian Hocking. Thanks for tweeting/writing. If you could pop a review on the Kindle store, I’d appre­ci­ate it. No wor­ries if not’. I try not to ask them for a pos­it­ive review, but my replies are typ­ic­ally eli­cited by tweets that praise the book in the first instance.

If someone emails me to say that they liked a book of mine, I’ll often ask them to post up their thoughts as a Kindle store review. Here’s an email I received two days ago:

I just want to tell you, [Proper Job] is one of the fun­ni­est books I have ever read! Last night I was read­ing it in bed and almost chok­ing myself with try­ing to laugh silently so I wouldn’t wake up my hus­band. I can’t remem­ber the last time I read a book that made me laugh so hard!

I asked this reader to post up a review, and she did so — almost word for word. So there’s cer­tainly a pos­it­ive bias in these reviews, and I help to cul­tiv­ate it. Do I feel any eth­ical qualms? Some, since my actions are help­ing to engender this pos­it­ive skew. However, I don’t know these people; I offer them noth­ing in return ; and they’ve already estab­lished that they like the book.

Like any writer, I have fam­ily and friends who want to see me do well. I have ten or so reviews from these, er, ‘inter­ested parties’. They are rarely five-star reviews, how­ever, and those friends/family who did not like the book remained silent. All reviews in this sub­cat­egory are truthful.

I have a simple rule for reviews of my work: they need to be an hon­est reflec­tion of what a per­son thinks, so that a pro­spect­ive reader is get­ting an accur­ate pic­ture of how the work has impacted upon a sample of people. No money should change hands. Any prompt­ing from the author should be of the ‘It would be nice if’ variety.

A word about neg­at­ive reviews. I hate it when a critic writes one, because (i) they haven’t paid for the book, and may not be one of the tar­get audi­ence, (ii) they assume a pos­i­tion super­ior to the writer, and (iii) the effect of their words are pro­por­tion­ate to their reader base. I’m much more inter­ested in neg­at­ive cus­tomer reviews. They are — most times, but not always — genu­ine, unadorned thoughts, and use­ful. Here’s a neg­at­ive review of Déjà Vu, this time a one-star review from Goodreads:

Sub-adolescent prose fails to lift the ped­es­trian plot. Where there were attempts at twists, they were obvi­ous and sig­nalled to the reader in neon lights from sev­eral miles away. Cardboard char­ac­ters per­form series of actions in loc­a­tions described in halt­ing state­ments. They have stil­ted con­ver­sa­tions with each other and the reader is left hard pressed to care what hap­pens to any of them. The crass back­story provided for the (beau­ti­ful, sexy, female) lead prot­ag­on­ist is unne­ces­sar­ily graphic and reads like filler mater­ial while the author is try­ing to work out how to proceed.

An irrit­at­ing thing for me to read, to be sure, and it annoys the hell out of my part­ner, but there is some use­ful feed­back here — not feed­back I agree with, but com­ments I’ll drop into the melt­ing pot of exper­i­ence from which I’ll draw sub­sequent books. If this were a critic, I’d be annoyed, but he’s a pay­ing cus­tomer and he has every right to share his opin­ion. You should have heard me mouth­ing off about Tom Hardy’s accent in the latest Batman film. I’d be embar­rassed if Christopher Nolan heard me.

A second point, which need not be made, is that reviews do not neces­sar­ily reflect the qual­ity of the work. I’ll head over to Amazon right now and pick a review of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

I dont know who decided Hemingway was a great writer but it couldnt have been a decision reached on the basis of this book because its bloody awful.

11 thoughts on “On Reviews: “This Book is Bloody Awful””

  1. Great post Ian. And too true. Criticism stings, but it helps you grow as an author. It’s a harsh les­son to begin with …

  2. Thanks for stop­ping by, Matt. Got to suck it up and take the medi­cine! Particularly if it comes from an hon­est, pay­ing customer.

  3. Criticism hurts but is neces­sary when it is true; as for crit­ics, I agree with you, although I read them every bloody week!! Great post.

  4. I down­loaded and read “Deja Vu” as a free ebook and thor­oughly enjoyed it, even though I had some trouble keep­ing track of where (when) I was in the book. I attrib­ute that trouble to myself rather than the author. I then had to pur­chase “Flashback” as I had to know what happened to Saskia. Now I’m on the hook wait­ing for the Amber Room, so when is the pub­lish date? I haven’t enjoyed any books of this genre more since I read Creighton’s “Timeline” some years ago.

  5. Hi, DeWain — thanks for your kind words. Really glad you liked the books. The next one is on its way. I’m plan­ning to get it prop­erly proofed by the end of the month and will aim to release it for Xmas. I’m keep­ing an email list of inter­ested parties who’ll get a note when it comes out. Shall I add you to the list?
    Cheers
    Ian

  6. Sorry, I for­got to add that if you pop up a brief review for either, or both, of the books on the Kindle store, I’d really appre­ci­ate it, but no wor­ries if not.

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