Reader Reviews: Are They Helpful?

After watching Alexa Donne talk about Goodreads, authors and reviews, I decided to write about reader reviews. It’s an issue that I find frustrating, for several reasons. This is something of a rant, I suppose, and mostly based on my experiences as a librarian and reader. I found a lot of reviews unhelpful at best. Let’s get to it, shall we?

My problems with reader reviews:

  1. Readers rarely know how to write a review, and most do not want to learn how. It’s a skill, like any other–and no, “I loved it, it’s the best book ever” or “I hated it, it’s the worst book ever” isn’t a review, unless it’s backed by examples of why. If a reader is scanning reviews and these two phrases are back to back, which one are they going to believe?

    There’s another issue with the “I loved it” review (I’ll get to the hate one in a few)–it’s cotton candy, all fluff, no substance. “I loved it” might give the author a nice warm feeling, but it neither tells them nor another reader anything of import about why a particular story is good.

    I see the same kind of reviews attached to the hidden objects games I indulge in. “Enjoyed it” means what? Did the reviewer like the puzzles? Was the story kinda quirky? Was the 3D movement actually semi-realistic? The negative reviews are worse. “I’m quitting this genre of game play because all games are like this” tells me absolutely nothing about a particular game. What, exactly, is “this”? Boring puzzles? Decent gameplay until the trial ends, then the game devolves? End boss isn’t much of a boss? Weird glitches? Computer voice-overs stilted and horrible? If such reviews are meant for players, they fail miserably at informing them about the game–just like similar reviews fail in the writing sphere.

    Reedsy has a good article on how to write a good book review. Check it out!

  2. There are far too many troll reviewers who see their job as harming authors. They have no interest in creating a review to help other readers judge whether a book is a good fit for them, they are interested in tearing the author down because it makes them feel good to cause harm–and others laugh at their antics. Minority authors and indie authors make easy targets–and just try to convince moderators that a review was targeting the author’s ethnicity or religion, not their book.

    Look how the troll reviews against Patrick S. Tomlinson’s 2019 unpublished book were handled by Goodreads. Hint, hint, not well. The trolls stole the identities of other authors to write their bile, and created sock puppet accounts to support their destruction. While this is an obvious case of troll interference against a known author, what happens when those trolls target an unknown for abuse? If you don’t have the clout of a name, you will drown.

  3. Too many people delight in troll reviews at the expense of authors. They’re the types who watch programs like “Hell’s Kitchen” and laugh at the abuse. Their harm is just as bad as the troll reviewer’s, but they think, because they are one step removed, it’s OK to hate. Their support perpetuates the abuse, because without it, the trolls would have no reason to troll.

  4. The 5-Star system is abused and used. For instance, authors create street teams to bump up their Goodreads score. If you want an average reader’s opinion, this won’t even come close to providing it. While it’s nice that people support an author (SUPPORT YOUR FAVORITE AUTHORS!) as far as I can tell, many street teams aren’t avid fans but people given a freebie in exchange for a 5 Star rating.

    What? you say. Aren’t street teams supposed to be fans? Yes. Does it work that way? No. Authors send out calls for participants on forums, or use paid services to find them (similar to beta readers). And if a person is part of a street team, do you really think they’ll give a bad review? Again, this doesn’t help other readers decide whether a book is worth their time, so claiming these reviews are for readers is amusing.*

    There’s also the problem of review swapping, which can skew positive and warp the general consensus towards 5 Stars when, in reality, a book is maybe 3 at best. These reviews aren’t directed towards readers, either. They’re created to make the author feel bubbly and look good, not to provide a true and worthy look at the book.

  5. Ah, the paid reviewer. Note to new authors: it’s against Amazon’s TOS to use paid reviews. Use them at your own risk.

    I’m not going to talk about companies like Kirkus, who provide a review for marketing purposes. I’m going to cover book influencers who want money for their review. Many tout themselves as avid readers and feel their opinions are worth something. That’s fine, have at. But when money exchanges hands, authors expect a good review. And for the most part, that’s exactly what is delivered. Once someone starts tossing out bad reviews, authors won’t pay them for the service. Why would they? So don’t expect an unbiased opinion from influencers, because their bottom line depends on good reviews.

  6. If a reviewer writes a 15-20 page book review, that isn’t a book review, it’s a book report. Including things like, “The author used this word this many times” is petty crap. Being snarky can be put to better use by the reviewer writing a novel of their own. If someone writes a 20 page review, they have the chops to turn out a manuscript.

  7. I read a comment on a Goodreads thread about how a reader gave out 1 Stars because he was using the star system as a personal rating system, and that his stars were not meant for other readers. Which is silly, since those 1 Star reviews get lumped in with all the other reviews and brings down the average rating of the book. If reviews are only for a reader’s personal use, there’s no reason to have a public 5 Star system in the first place that is used by Amazon and others to grade a particular book for marketing etc. purposes.

  8. You think being a reader makes someone literate? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Please *gasp* dying here.

    I guess it depends on what you call literate. If you mean, someone who can read words on a page, sure. If you mean, someone who can understand what they read and make informed opinions based upon past experiences with similar material, let an ex-librarian abuse you of that notion. Or talk to any teacher, or any professor.

  9. What about reviewers who hate the author, and use the platform of a book release to scream at the world about their dislike? Are their reviews trustworthy? No. And while there are legit reasons for poorly reviewing a book, “I hate the author so I hate the book” isn’t one of them–and no, Goodreads isn’t all that interested in culling this crap either.

  10. Reviewers firmly believe that their reviews are for other readers, not for authors. But if a reviewer doesn’t write their review in a useful way, then it isn’t for the readers either, is it? Nope. Which, I believe, is the crux of it; reviews are for the person writing them, and no one else.

It’s true, everyone wants to have a voice, a say. They want to be listened to. But sometimes, they just don’t have anything important to relate. Most reviews fall into this category (professional ones, too. And don’t get me started on the shitshow that is academic peer review). It’s true, sometimes reviewers catch a problem with a book, but that doesn’t happen as often as some might think.

This is why I think the push for reader reviews as legitimizing a book is misguided at best. More often than not, they don’t add anything to the conversation, and can do a great deal of damage along the way.

*On a side note: one of the ways conservative authors have reached best seller status in nonfiction is by having bookclubs around the US purchase huge quantities of their books, artificially bumping up the numbers and making the ideas expressed in these books appear more popular than they are. These bookclubs don’t normally read the books, they donate them to places like their local library. When I was a librarian, I hated when this happened, because those books would sit on the book sale shelves FOR-EV-ER, and other second-hand booksellers wanted nothing to do with them. A lot of times, they ended up in the recycle bin. While not to this extreme, this is basically how I look at street teams–ways for authors to artificially bump up their popularity.

Image by PatternPictures from Pixabay

Shiobe Rising: The Wellspring Dragons Book 1 and Trouble in Tindrel: The Wellspring Dragons Book 2 are available in Kindle format. Lapis of Nicodem, a serialized dark fantasy, is available for free at World Anvil. Follow me, Kwyn Marie, on Facebook and Instagram. Check out my author website, and the Wellspring Dragons book site as well as the Lapis of Nicodem book site. And if you like what you see, buy me a KoFi!

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