Reviews – the cold hard facts.

I went to check something on Goodreads this week and noticed that somebody had dropped a one-star rating on one of my books. Now, for those not familiar with the process, on Goodreads, you can leave a star rating for a book without saying anything. Unlike Amazon, where as well as a star rating you must write something – even if it’s only one word – and that is exactly what some people do. I kid you not, I have a one-star review on Amazon for my exciting fantasy book, Erinsmore, that simply says “Disappointing”. Precisely what they found disappointing they don’t elaborate on. For all I know, it could be that delivery took a day longer than usual or they didn’t like the colour of the cover. Not that I’m too concerned, it’s the only rating lower than four stars that Erinsmore has ever received, so let them be disappointed. Maybe their whole life is one big disappointment, but because they couldn’t be bothered to write any more, we will never know.

Anyway, to get back to this one-star rating on Goodreads. No clue is given as to why they felt they had to leave such a low star rating because they didn’t choose to share this knowledge with me, the author, so, if you think about it, this defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. Yes, they’ve registered their dislike or disapproval, or even disappointment of the book, but I have no idea what the problem was. And that takes us to the whole thorny issue of reviews.

Once they have finished a book, readers can communicate directly with the author their thoughts, feelings, and impressions of it. Many don’t bother to take advantage of this, either because they are unsure how to review or even because they are afraid, they won’t do it right. It got me thinking about reviews, about how obsessed many authors become with them. Below is an image that I frequently see popping up on social media that many authors quote as being gospel. But is it?

You do not have to have purchased a book on Amazon to leave a review there.

Well, this isn’t strictly true. Amazon has many rules about who can and cannot leave a review, and one of their stipulations is that you must have spent a limit of £50 that year on Amazon. So, if you haven’t met that criteria, then regardless of whether you have purchased the book or not, they won’t let you review it. Even if you have spent the required amount and they let you review the book, it won’t be marked as a verified purchase and therefore, won’t be considered as important. Amazon regularly cull reviews from authors that they consider might have been acquired by nefarious means, and sadly non-verified purchase reviews often fall victim to this practice.

Amazon is like most retailers; they want you to review products you have bought from them. In the same way that Tesco would be annoyed if you left a stinky review on their site for a product you bought from Sainsbury’s, that’s how Amazon feel about it. Now, I buy, read, and review a lot of books. I also buy many other products from them – especially during this year of lockdown – so if I sneak the odd review through on a book that maybe I won in a giveaway or was a gift – they tend to turn a blind eye because I’m a good customer. But, if you rarely, if ever, buy from them why should they extend this courtesy to you? It makes sense when you think about it.

You do not have to read the whole book to leave a review.

No, you don’t have to have read the whole book, but honestly, wouldn’t it be better if you had? It would be like switching off a film halfway through and then thinking you could make a judgement on its merits. And besides, the book may have an ending that completely changes your perception of it – for the better or even the worse – so unless you have read it all, how can you possibly review it?

Reviews can be as simple as “Loved this one so much! Can’t wait for the next!” THEY DON’T EVEN HAVE TO BE SPELLED CORRECTLY.

It’s true – authors would rather have a one-line review than no review at all – but they would also appreciate slightly more than that. If you loved the book but felt there was one area that maybe let it down, then a helpful critique may alert the author to the issue. Especially if it is mentioned in several reviews. But a single line saying – I quite enjoyed this – doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the author improve the book and it certainly doesn’t help any other potential readers.

Because that is the main purpose of reviews. They aren’t just to help the author; they are to tell other people whether this book is worth reading or not. In this respect, a one-line review is no help at all, and if you’ve gone to all the trouble of rating the book and writing a single line, then really, how much more effort is it to say a little more. Why did you like/or even not like the book? How did the book make you feel? Was it a satisfying read? Remember, your comments could influence someone to buy or not buy this book, so be fair but also try to be impartial. Just because the heroine’s name was Daphne and you were bullied at school by someone called Daphne so it put you off the book, not everyone else will feel the same way. Because you didn’t enjoy the book, for whatever reason, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else won’t love it. That is why a one-line review doesn’t mean anything because you’re not expanding on why the book was “great” or even “disappointing”.

As for the not having to be spelt correctly part, well, no, nobody is a perfect speller and autocorrect and predictive text are friends to no one, but it wouldn’t hurt to just cast a critical eye over your review before you hit publish. After all, many authors share their reviews on social media, and you don’t want the world and his wife to know you can’t spell.

Authors need reviews on Amazon to get better placement in the algorithms. (And a crazy amount of other things you wouldn’t believe.)

I can’t comment too much on this because nobody seems to know if it’s true or not. I think it is true to an extent, that the more reviews on a book, the more Amazon will take notice of it. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the algorithms take more notice of book sales than reviews.

Algorithms are not reading and grading your reviews. They just look at numbers.

Now, this I do believe. An algorithm isn’t capable of personally assessing the quality of your review and it’s certainly not going to take away points for bad spelling and grammar.

But are there unwritten rules to writing reviews?

Well, yes, I would say there are. For a start, don’t give any spoilers. This is unfair, unnecessary, and is guaranteed to make the author’s blood boil. If the whole point of their book is the shocking plot twist in the penultimate chapter and you go and blurt it out in the review, you have effectively said “Don’t bother buying this book, because here’s what happens.” It would be like going to your local cinema and walking up and down the queue waiting to go in and see the latest blockbuster, shouting out the plot twists and the ending. It would soon get you punched, or at the very least, asked to leave by the management.

It is possible to write a concise and illuminating review of the book without revealing that Debbie has a secret twin, the demon isn’t dead but comes back in chapter nine, or that the butler did it. Write what you liked about the book, without blabbing that you loved the ending because Sam and Delilah get together or that the ring is recovered, and the quest is a success. Think about how much enjoyment you got from finding these things out for yourself, and don’t spoil that enjoyment for other readers.

Don’t simply quote the whole blurb as your review. There’s not much point in doing that. The blurb is there already, the potential reader can see it and read it for themselves, they don’t need you to reproduce it. What they need is for you to tell them why they should or shouldn’t read the book. For example, you wish to purchase a new vacuum cleaner and you’ve narrowed it down to two brands. Both are equal in price and spec, so you go to read the reviews to see what people who have already bought them think. Imagine how you would feel if instead of reviews telling you how the vacuum performs on a thick carpet, picking up pet hair, or on lino, every single review is the product description repeated over, and over, again. Is that useful to you? Of course not.

Do not say you know or are related to the author in any way. Amazon has very strict and rather draconian rules about this. Personally, I think if your Great Aunt Nelly has spent her pension money and bought a copy of your book, then she should be allowed to review it, but Amazon sees it in quite a different way. The name of the game as far as they are concerned is impartiality. If you have friends and family reviewing your book, the odds are they are going to give you a nice review, and that’s not what Amazon want.

So, if you are reviewing the book of someone you know or are related to, for heaven’s sake KEEP QUIET ABOUT IT! Oh, and don’t fill your review with endless gush. Not only will it make Amazon suspicious, but it also doesn’t add to the book’s credibility. Yes, you can say how much you enjoyed it and why, but paragraph after paragraph of how this book is wonderful, fantastic, superlative, and generally the best thing since sliced bread, will simply make the person reading the review wonder if Great Aunt Nelly had been at the sherry before writing it, and they will probably dismiss it as not worth taking any notice of.

Be careful about asking family members who are linked to your Amazon account in any way to review your books. Have they ever bought off a wish list attached to your Amazon account? Have you had packages delivered to them? Is their address listed anywhere in your details? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then don’t let them review, it’s simply not worth it. Not only will Amazon probably pull the review, but, once their interest in your account has been aroused, they may go on to pull any other reviews they think look suspicious – even if they are perfectly genuine. It may seem unreasonable, but I’m afraid it’s their house, their rules. I do not even state if I received the book as an ARC (A Readers Copy) from an author, because Amazon is sometimes funny about this as well. In their opinion, if a free copy of a book has been given in exchange for a review, then that review has been purchased and is against their rules.

And that leads us to the whole thorny issue of paying for reviews. Is it possible to do this? Yes. Should you do it? No, never. Any author who has been on social media for more than five minutes will find his or her inbox bombarded with offers to review their book – for a small fee – although, beware, that fee is usually not small, I have been quoted £70 for one review! Now, if Amazon considers giving away a book free in exchange for a review a breach of rules, just imagine how they feel about authors buying them. If you are caught buying reviews, you risk having that review pulled, other reviews pulled, and even being banned from selling on Amazon. This is too serious a punishment to risk for the sake of a single review. It’s not worth it, don’t do it.

Of course, there are a few reputable review sites where you can purchase reviews which Amazon will grudgingly allow, but they are expensive and, at the end of the day, not worth it.

What you need to remember, is that Amazon keep a track of dodgy reviewers and will know if they post a review for one of your books on your account. It could raise a red flag over your account, which you don’t want. My answer to the myriad offers I get to review my books for a very reasonable fee, of course, is that I NEVER pay for reviews. They usually go away then. Strangely, 90% of the time these reviewers come from India and their message is always so badly spelt and full of grammatical errors that, to be honest, I wouldn’t want them to review any of my books.

It goes without saying, you are not allowed to review your books on Amazon, although you can on Goodreads. They mark it as the author’s review and it doesn’t count towards your ranking or star rating, but it’s a wonderful chance to give background information about the book, if it’s in a series maybe a quick overview of the series. I wish Amazon allowed authors to do this too, but they don’t. Their house, their rules, remember.

So, what should you say in a review then? If you are going to write a positive review, and if you obey the guidelines we’ve already discussed, it honestly doesn’t matter. Don’t gush, don’t give spoilers, be impartial, but most of all, be fair. Remember, authors are people, sensitive, and creative people. Their books are their babies. They have taken months, years even, to create them. They have helped them develop from rough ideas into fully-fledged books ready to take their first steps in the big, wide world, and if you come along and stomp all over their precious baby, it can crush them.

I’ve seen authors so demoralised by a bad review they’ve been on the point of chucking it all in, likewise, a kind review can lift an author and fill them full of renewed optimism, so think carefully about what you’re going to say. So many times, I’ve seen reviews that are mean, and spiteful for no reason. It’s not necessary to be cruel. Okay, you didn’t like a book, but there are ways of getting across your dissatisfaction without ripping to shreds both the book and the author.

Be sensible. What exactly are you criticising? Believe it or not, I have seen low star reviews complaining that the book took three days to be delivered, or that it had been damaged in transit. Issues like this are not the poor author’s fault and should be taken up with Amazon. Venting your spleen in a review this way will not be seen by the real culprit – Amazon – but instead will hurt the author significantly. And really, is it fair to make the author suffer over something that is not their fault?

Be realistic. If the book is simply not to your taste, then state in the review that this is the case because it may very well be someone else’s favourite read. I received a one-star review on Black Ice – my fantasy steampunk retelling of Snow White – that ripped the book to shreds because, and I quote, “I hate all retellings, even song covers are theft.” If this person hates retellings that much, I wish she hadn’t bothered reading mine. It’s a bit like someone who hates curry ordering it in a restaurant, then complaining because their meal tasted like curry.

Above all, when writing a review, be kind. When writing reviews, I tend to work on the principle of if I can’t say something nice, I don’t say anything at all. And remember how important this review will be to the author. Would you criticise a child to its parent? No, of course, you wouldn’t. Likewise, remember that this book is the author’s child, so try to be tactful if you’re going to say anything less than stellar about it.

I’m sorry if this has been a boring blog for all non-authors and non-readers, but I return to work this week and will be working three long days – Thursday, Friday, and Saturday – so I won’t be having any time to write my normal ramble about the week. But my shift patterns change weekly so I will have time next week to fill you in on how going back to work after nearly four months off went.

To everyone in the UK who is emerging from lockdown and attempting to resume normal life, good luck. Be sensible, stay safe, keep your mask on and your distance from one another.

Julia Blake

10 thoughts on “Reviews – the cold hard facts.

  1. All common sense really.

    I’m glad you raised the issue of Amazon and not saying you received an ARC, I’m sure alot of authors aren’t aware of that fact. A large portion of authors give out free copies, saying, can you put a review on Amazon, I’m wondering how many readers have got caught out by saying “gifted by the author in exchange for an honest review” on Amazon and then finding their review has been declined.

    Another good point you raised Julia, re the one word review, a review is like you say, a selling point to others, also … I find, you must be honest as well as being diplomatic, because it works the other way around too, an author might be reading a readers review and thinking, well she wont like my book then, so that reader could be nailing her own coffin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s okay, it will be there waiting for you when life has settled down a bit. Thank you for commenting, I think reviews is such a thorny issue for many authors that it sometimes becomes the elephant in the room, as it were.

      Like

  2. Loved this blog Julia. I think it was very helpful and very accurate. I learned quite a few things myself and I think many authors would appreciate this. I hope a lot of people come over and read it.

    I learned the hard way about Amazon not excepting reviews from anyone you are linked to or have sent some packages to. I have had writer acquaintances who would’ve been perfect for reviewing my book who couldn’t leave a review. Maybe I sent them flowers because I heard their mother died. Even though they are an acquaintance and not a close friend by any means, they can now not leave a review. I’ve also had people try to leave a review and couldn’t because they were gifted the book. They probably haven’t spent enough on Amazon.

    In my husband‘s business, he sometimes sells products on Amazon. The algorithms are definitely linked to Sales not to reviews. Of course good reviews can help sales, but it’s sales that impact the algorithm. It was even suggested to him that there is some kind of business relationship you can have with Amazon where you spend money for them help you find out what products are great to come up with on the same page as yours. When they find those things out they can increase those kinds of connections. Something like that; so you are paying for their help in figuring out how to improve their algorithm with your product. He didn’t do it, it wasn’t worth it as it’s not the best way to sell his food products, but there is obviously some kind of business program you can do with them. As they find out what things increase your algorithms through other like-products and who you are selling to, you can slowly increase how much you want to spend and see how the next step works. It’s some kind of an escalating program of that nature. Of course you don’t have to escalate and can discontinue. I think it was for a month at a time so you have to complete a month ‘s program before you quit if you don’t want to do it anymore. They’re like little short term contracts. Since he didn’t pursue, I don’t know too much more about it.

    Anyway, that’s my and put on this very important subject for what it’s worth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really liked this post Julia. I rarely ever leave bad reviews (hopefully ever), but you really made me think about the result my words could have on someone unseen. It reiterated my belief that, as you said, if you can’t say anything nice, or helpful, then you just shouldn’t say anything at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They can destroy an author – literally. As a writer yourself, seeing cruel and unkind words about your work on a public site such as Goodreads and Amazon, would really hurt you. I always try to be mindful of peoples feelings when reviewing.

        Like

    2. I think for books the only thing like that is Amazon ads which I will be looking at in the future. They appear to be a complete gamble, and you need money to spend on them – money I don’t have right now – but maybe in the future I will.

      Like

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