I’LL KILL YOU! Amazon, Goodreads, and the Death of Criticism
It starts as a Facebook Wallpost:
-Why did you only give my last book three stars on Goodreads?
-I liked it, but it wasn’t my favorite of your books.
-How dare you, you fucking ungrateful little shit! I gave you FIVE STARS for your last book. FIVE. FUCKING. STARS.
-I told you I liked it, there were certain things that didn’t jell for me.
-I don’t care if you didn’t like ‘certain things’! I gave you five stars! I GAVE YOU FIVE FUCKING STARS, SO YOU DO THE SAME!
-I’m deleting this before you make a bigger ass of yourself.
Obviously the little interaction above is a dramatization. When it originally happened, it was far wordier, there were a lot more expletives, and it was by far a much longer thread. No, I won’t say who the authors were. They’re both writers who I respect and enjoy reading, and I’ll freely admit I got quite the belly laugh out of watching it unfold. In the same breath, it also made me sad. It made me lose a little respect for the author who initiated the exchange; it made me sad that the writer who wrote the review couldn’t be honest or forthcoming with his opinion. But more than anything else, it made me realize that I truly hate the politics of modern book selling.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Amazon. I know it’s not in vogue for writers to admit they love the book selling giant, that I should instead revile it; I should be stomping my kindle to pieces and screaming: “Print forever!”; I should be openly booing and spitting on Amazon while simultaneously earning the bulk of my writing income from it. (Quick non-writing/non-reading observation: Don’t Americans always end up hating what they love? Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and most likely Apple in the near future, are all Frankensteins that we created. But as soon as our little dandelions of commercial joy start becoming too big, we grab the torches and pitchforks, and start spouting how we’ve always hated such and such company, even though chances are while spewing our hatred, we are doing so on a product created or sold by these monoliths of savings and convenience. Okay, end of tangent.) Yes, I should be singing the virtues of independent bookstores and their hardworking, underpaid booksellers.
And I do this folks. I love the independent. I love discovering them, browsing them, talking with the staff, and finding little nuggets of temporary joy on its shelves from their recommendations. The fact is I love all bookstores, even the formerly hated, but the now much beloved and failing Barnes & Noble. (Americans also love underdog stories.) But, can I make it to these stores on a daily basis like I do with Amazon? (I’ll be the first to admit I have an Amazon problem. It’s the website I most consistently go to when I’m bored at work, or when I'm simply browsing the internet. Like I said, I’m a Book Lover, capital B and L on that one, people.) The answer is no, because most of my “area” indies aren’t exactly in my area. They’re actually an hour away from my happy little suburban home. So, yeah, the bulk of my book buying occurs online and on Amazon.
But over the years, the one thing I’ve come to dislike about Amazon are the customer reviews. Don’t get me wrong, I dig it that the reader has a voice, but I’m also a fan of criticism. (My go-to book for whenever writers block is kicking my head in is Jonathan Lethem’s book of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, which is largely composed of literary criticism.) I like cogent, thoughtful, detailed analysis of books and authors, and 90% of all Amazon reviews are as akin to the form as a Whopper is to anything made of meat. By extension, Goodreads reviews are the same. However with Goodreads, I’ll narrow the field and say 70% of Goodreads reviews are shit. But I get it, the bulk of the people writing the reviews aren’t critics, they’re just folks who loved something enough that they took time out of their day to put their opinion out there hoping other people will love it, too,
My real beef isn’t the random Amazon reviewer, but the commodified Amazon/Goodreads reviewer.
It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that a writer's first audience is their buddies. You send out copies to your buddies because, hey, maybe they’ll like it enough to give you a quick review or blurb, and better chance than not, they’ll do it because there’s a relationship. And no, there’s nothing wrong with this. But over the years of Amazon’s widespread existence, there are authors who’ve cultivated groups of readers who will most likely give a positive review even if the work is subpar. Copies go out, five star reviews are written.
I can hear the arguments about this already from authors. They’ll describe it as relationship building; but for the writers out there, ask yourself this: Would you send a copy of your next book to someone who publicly state they didn’t like your last book? Or would you leave them off the mailing list? Or would you go after them on social media or via e-mail? (By the way, gang, I’ll be the first to admit, I was caught up with this kind of behavior at one time, and I’ve had more than a few try to bring me into their fold of influence. Thankfully I’ve gotten to the point that if I don’t like something, I simply don’t review it whether I know the writer or not.)
Anyway, I could charge further into the other reasons why I dislike the online review system, like clowns such as one-star troll champion Chris Roberts or the shenanigans committed by British novelist R.J. Ellroy. But what I really want is your opinion. Do you read Amazon reviews? Do they help you form your opinion on what to read and buy? Do you read reviews outside of Amazon from venues such as the New York Times and lit websites such as LitReactor? Do you write reviews? And if so, will you write a negative one if you don’t like a book? And if you’re getting the book from the author, do you fear a poor review will sour your relationship with the author? If you’re a pro/semi-pro critic, what are your thoughts on customer reviews?
More or less, anything goes, just don’t be a dick, so let ‘er rip.
To leave a comment
I generally won't review a book I didn't like, particularly if it is someone within my genre or within my "writing network." It the person could have any influence on my career in the future, I don't think it is worth the negative review. I did it once, and the writer cut all contact with me. The problem is, three stars isn't even a negative review. It means you liked it. But the way people react to three star review, you might as well have spit on their book. I worry about burning bridges when all of the sudden that person is editting an anthology I want to get in to, or is hired as an editor at a small press, etc. Honesty, unfortunately, isn't worth the aggravation. As a result, almost all my reviews are four or better, unless the person is a big enough name that they would never notice.
So. I rarely review a book on Amazon, and hate having to solicit them, but as an author I have to, as that directly reflects my book's rating. Which makes me feel icky and dirty and like I want to take a shower.
And with the trolls out there these days, saying hurtful things just for the sake of trolling, I don't feel like you can really trust any ratings.
If I really love a book, I'll review it on my blog, and blast it out on social media. If I commit to reviewing a book and don't love it, I'll give it as fair a review as I can, and post it whereever I promised to post.
But no. You'll not catch me reading reviews on Amazon, because I don't trust them - the good, the bad, or the ugly.
Amazon reviews are a curse and a blessing. I read them if I want to buy a blender, a floor jack or tent poles. In those instances when I need an inanimate object to perform a task, I want to see the good, the bad and the ugly. When it comes to books, movies or some other item that as created by a person or people for the sake of entertainment, I'll read them but purely out of curiosity. If it's something I want to consume I reserve the judgement until I experience the product.
As a writer, I feel like leah_beth. I hate trying to get readers to review my work. That being said, I want the reviews because I want the readers to make my work better. I'd rather read a thoughtful 2-4 star review of my book than a glowing 5 star that doesn't bring any new information to the table.
I do reviews on occasion. At one point, because like you, I love books, the writers, the medium, I wanted to share. But that was squashed when a writer who I'd gotten to know complained to me over a 4 star review. It was a little disheartening. I liked the book, it was entertaining, but was it worthy of that penacle of 5 stars? I didn't think so, and I still don't. But I caved and changed my review and since then I rarely leave reviews. On occasion, but you look at my Amazon profile, I have like 5-6 reviews total, and Good Reads less than.
When I review or recommend a book now it's on my site without a rating. It's personal enjoyment to read and I don't want or need the headache of having to please friends.
As far as following reviews. I do, a few old reliables. And I look at the 3-4 star reviews on Amazon if it's a book I'm not sure about.
I will briefly look at the Amazon reviews, but they don't really have an impact on whether or not I purchase something. I will write positive reviews, but I don't write negative reviews. I usually write those positive reviews on Goodreads simply because I find their platform easiest to use. Ironically, I don't read reviews at Goodreads because, uh, that place can feel like a middle school hallway much of the time. But I have a hard time putting much weight into the reviews at either site because, as you mentioned, we all know that there are writers out there gaming the system in one way or another. I don't mean that necessarily as a deceitful thing, but I think too many reviews are offered without the reviewer really having thoguht about the book - a reveiwer loves the writer, so he/she automatically gives the book the highest rating possible. I do put more weight on reviews in the NYT, Entertainment Weekly, blogs/sites I read regularly and by my friends simply because I think the vetting process is more honest.
You mention the commodified reviewer and I think that's really the crux of it all. Reviews are no longer looked at as opinions or critiques of what the reader has read - they are now looked at as a way to help sell books. Everyone likes to point the finger at Amazon, but I think the same finger should be pointed now at advertisers who set thresholds of minimum ratings and minimum number of reviews in order for a book to be eligible to be advertised. So a two star review is no longer looked at as the opinion of a reader who was disappointed - instead, it's viewed as something that hinders a writer's earning potential. I think that has a LOT to do with the thin skin some writers are exhibiting.
This is why I never say I'm reading a book by an acqueintence until I've finished it, and decided I liked it. Then I'll review it. Otherwise, it never happened.
I read reviews of my books out of curiosity, and have been lucky with how well I have been received; no ego beating has gone on. I know if I stick around long enough it will, and that's life. My family loves me, even if ryh23922 thinks my book is a piece of shit.
I almost never read reviews of others' books, no matter the venue, with the rare exception of non-fiction, when I'm trying to get a feel of whether the author knows what he's talking about.
I used to write a lot of reviews for a web site; now I only do a couple a year, and only if they approach me. In that case, I'll write an honest review, and hope the author accepts any criticism in the spirit in which it's intended, which is, "We're all in this together, but in this case my first allegience goes to the potential reader." I've been lucky there, as the editor knows my tastes well and only sende me books she thinks I'll like.
I do post reviews of books I like at Amazon and Goodreads. Those are the Internet versions of word of mouth, and that's always been something I've been happy to do.
My two cents:
I remember getting a critique from one reviewer on Litreactor (I think it was Dwayne) who started with 'I didn't read any of the other reviews. I like to come to the story fresh.' That's pretty much how I feel about Amazon reviews, and most other reviews there are. If a book/story appeals to me, I don't want to read it with anyone else's comments in my mind before I've made up my own mind what I think about it. Granted, this isn't always possible, because sometimes I've discovered books through someone else praising them or criticising them, both by word of mouth and by picking up magazines.
I don't write Amazon reviews and I've never looked at Goodreads, even though I too am a fan of readers having a voice, because as an writer myself I'd welcome it - some readers will post shit, but it's worth sifting through for the ones who provide the gold that make you think 'Hell that's brilliant!' Trouble is that I think in the digital age writing reviews has become the new fanmail - a way of connecting to the author and telling them what you think, even though you know there's a good chance they won't look at what you've written, and now it isn't just the author who sees this but other readers. When I see this as another reader I wonder why I should care what someone else thinks about someone else's book.
The thing where writers get it into their head that someone else owes them praise just because they've given it is horseshit. I've given out plenty of praise in the workshop only to get criticism from the same people the next time I've posted a story, and that's often how you know you've found someone worth talking to. There's no point posting dishonest reviews just because someone either kissed your ass or kicked it.
Another great piece.
And an pretty good explanation on why I don't send out free copies of anything I publish on Amazon to friends--first, they're beholden to give you a good review; second, most of them write like chimps. I do see Amazon (which I also admit I love) differently from Goodreads, though. There's something about being able to buy the book on Amazon that differs from Goodreads where you just get a suggestion / link on / to where you can buy it. A faint distinction. I'll write a review of a book on Goodreads; I won't write one on Amazon.
Why? Not sure, but I think it's because I know people on Goodreads. Perhaps they don't look at it the same way as I do, but when I write a positive review, it's because I want these folks to know I liked the book. If I write a negative one, I want them to know I didn't like it--and why. It also gives me a lot of pleasure, as a guy with a couple of degrees in English, to tell my friends that The Sun Also Rises is a piece of shit while The Stand is a monumental moralist tale and not have the Dean of the English Department call me on the carpet for it.
If one of my fellow non-known writers sends me a book and asks for a review, I'll give it--but if it's negative, I always check with them first. Invariably, they say, "post it" and invariably, I don't. I'm not in this business to lose friends or hurt people just because my opinion doesn't match somebody else's. I've been trying to get through Ulysses for 40 years and haven't done it yet...so what do I know?
I love Amazon. If my neighborhood bookstore had something I want to read (talk about a rare event), that's cool, but, evil empire or not, Amazon is dependable.
I rate books on Goodreads sometimes. I used to write reviews on Amazon. I don't pay that much attention to reviews because, at this point, almost every review seems somewhat suspect, be it a positve or negative review.
I do enjoy a good round of bad author behavior, whether it's a writer on writer spat, writer on reviewer, or the classic "In the interest of fairness, here's a link to bad review. I'm not posting this so people who like me will defend by book. By which I mean, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE go dogpile on the bad review!!!".
Hi Keith, you know me and have probably read some of my reviews, if not my books. If I really hate a book and it is written by a friend or a stranger, then I just do not review it. I know what it takes to write a book and I feel loath to dismiss someones hard work in some glib way. I have given luke-warm reviews to some books but generally I only read books I think I will like or are by an author that I like. I truly dislike the star rating on Amazon. It is simplistic and misleading. That said I find it hard to not endorse friends work. If I did not like the work they do then I probably would not be friends with them in the first place. As you say, it is a tricky and sticky business but we all clamor for traction and notice. It is hard to sell books these days so I try to do my part as much as I can. Speaking of that, where the hell is that novel you've been working on? I've got stars in my pocket just waiting for you. Thanks for the thought provoking article.
I had a bad experience with writing a review on Amazon. A few years ago, I wrote a review of an anthology and highlighted the stories that I thought were the strongest of the collection. The editor of the collection was an author I loved, so I made a comment about her books and compared the short story she included to the original book it was based on. Fine. Nothing wrong there. So, I get an e-mail, several years after this review was written, that someone had commented on my review. The comment struck me as odd because the person was ranting about my review being in the wrong place. I went on the site and searched for the anthology. It was no longer listed on Amazon because it was now out of print. The Amazon gods moved my review, and it was now listed under the author's first book instead of the anthology. After this happened, I decided that there was more wrong with the rating system than the reviews written by people who were paid, friends, family, just didn't get the book at all, or were trolling.
I wrote a few reviews on Goodreads (which were more like literary analysis) and had one of my reviews plagiarized by some girl who copied it and pasted it on her book review site and claimed it as her own. In other words, I have given up on reviewing because it is clearly a very shady business. However, I do still read reviews but only after I've finished reading the book. I like to see what other people thought of it and if anyone had a similar reaction/thought about it.
When I look at them--which isn't all the time--I tend to look at the 2- and 3-star reviews, because they (sometimes) have the balance of what was liked versus what was not. Still, mostly none of the reviews are all that nuanced, so they still may take low priority over word-of-mouth.
I am like you, Keith. I like insightful, deep analysis; but, in this day and age it's very hard to come by. Most people don't review what they don't like anymore, and I think we as a society have lost something important with our devaluation of the critic.
But why threaten to kill someone over a bad review when you can just bribe them to click 'like' with the chance to win a free Kindle?
That said, killing negative reviewers *is* cheaper.
Oh, man, giveaways for reviews drives me up the freaking wall. I get giveaways such as if you buy the new book and e-mail the receipt to the author, they'll send you an autographed book. But giving giftcards/e-readers away for reviews seems so whorish.
Be honest with each other. If something sucks, say it, don't blow smoke up your friend's ass. They'll never know and never improve. People used to get onto me all the time for "burning bridges" or they'd say the publishing community is smaller than you think but it's really not. Your work will generally speak for itself, whether you've negatively reviewed something or not. I was writing and on my way to getting published by myself, i didn't need someone's help because they're editing an anthology or had some small press thing published. Who cares. Tell the truth. If you can't take negative reviews, go to a self help seminar instead.
If someone asks you for a blurb, that's different. That's when you can blow a little smoke.
I have a system I use for reviews. I'm a writer, so I have friends, and I know that reviews are helpful in attracting more people to buy a book. I review on Amazon, Goodreads and my own site. But I only review once, and copy it to all three.
I don't write bad reviews. If I read a book I really can't find something good about, I don't keep reading it. And if I haven't finished it, I can't give a completely fair review. So I don't. I also don't like to review books by request. I know authors, and they advertise their books on Facebook, and I'll go pick it up. Price is a bigger factor for me than how many reviews it got, so I don't look for them. Just the mini-synopsis.
If I like a book, I write my own paragraph mini-synopsis (have to do this for my own site), I write a paragraph on the overall themes present in the book, and I find some part of the writer's style that is new, or done very well, and I write a paragraph or two about how their style made their telling of the story unique, and worth reading.
It's fair, as I use the same method for everybody, and it's honest. Do I like some books more than others? Absolutely. But the authors whose books I'm reviewing are just trying to get out there. And for all I know, Amazon may use the number and ranking of reviews to enable advertising and affect an author's bottom line. So I usually give five stars, (or four stars, because a book that only has a bunch of five star reviews may be seen as suspect.)
I have three reviews on my latest book. I asked a couple of people to review it from online, but the best reviews I'm getting are local, word-of-mouth, and requests to order more books directly. My local fans don't buy the books from Amazon necessarily, and they're strictly readers, with jobs and kids and bills and all that, so I may ask them to review it on Amazon if they can, but I don't push it much.
As far as reading reviews, I'm with SammyB and Beverly. I read reviews after either finishing the book or putting it down, and I look at the 2- and 3- star reviews first.
For myself, I kind of think it's bad form to post reviews on other peoples' books because I don't want them to feel obligated to do the same for my books. I even stopped blogging because I was feeling weird about it. I'm starting it back up again, but I think my rule is gonna be that I'll happily nod at shit I like, but I won't claim to do anything like real reviews.
I did ask for reviews for Satan Is Real on FB and Twitter, because my editor asked me to. But I made it pretty clear, I think, that people should just say what they think. I'll probably have to do the same for Cry Father, and I'll probably feel weird about it, so I hope folks will be honest. I definitely don't keep tally of who has said what about my books. I'm blessed with a pretty poor memory, anyways. And if somebody wants an ARC and they request it, I'll forward that on to the ARC gods. If they don't like it I'll just hope to get 'em with the next one. Or not. If I wanted to write stuff that everybody liked, I'd be writing something else.
Also, I always feel kind of embarrassed for an author when I see a book on Amazon or Goodreads with sales rankings somewhere around mine (meaning, negligible) but 100+ five star reviews.
I only review books I like and not often then. I know there are a lot of nasty people hiding under pseudonyms that love trashing books. I see their names pop up over and over. I only read amazon reviews now if I am trying to decide if a book will work for my book group. It just upsets me too much. So many reviews seem to have no understanding of the book at all. Or are trying to hurt the writer.
It seems insane that someone would initiate a conversation like that in public on facebook rather than in private.
Bradley - It was, unfortunately, very, very public.
I rarely do Amazon reviews, which immediately makes me feel bad because I should do more there. Writers may not spend too much time checking out reviews, but readers do, especially if it's a book by someone they've never read before. I never write negative reviews, and I do not review every good book I've read. If I did that, I'd never have any time for writing my own stories. I usually only review books that thoroughly impress me, and trust me, I'm picky as hell and can usually find fault in every book. Nobody is perfect.
As far as the public argument between the two writers, there's a simple equation that is rarely proven false, Ego = Asshole.
Once a publisher was giving away 3 books free as PDFs. I linked to it on facebook, but only mentioned 2 out of the 3 books by name because I didn't care for 1 of them (I recommended them). The author of that book got mad and expressed his anger in the comments section of the thread. And I responded (and kept the conversation going) in public rather than in private, which is where I should have taken the conversation. I know better now, but it's really easy to forget when it's a comment on a facebook thread (rather than an initial post) and emotions are flying. But making an initial post on someone's wall is a lot more extreme than responding to someone's facebook post. Both in bad taste, but the bad judgement of a comment is less outrageous.
Oh yes, I've seen some ridiculous meltdowns and meangirl/boy fights. I just don't get involved in reviews for people I know. Otherwise, if a book has a very small number of reviews and I don't like it, I won't review those either. I just don't want to be that person who trashes someone's attempt, nor to ward off any other readers that may come their way. I realize all that cuts down on what I'll get in return but to me that's the lesser evil.
You say 'commodified reviewer', I say CASUAL READERS. One of my favorite books is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and I remember looking up reviews for the book out of curiosity. There were so many that decried this book as ugly, with poopy language and bad people that I had to write a scathing review of the reviewers. I did the same for a book (can't remember which one) by DeLillo. The only other reviewer was bemoaning the fact that this novel had one review (his) and the most reviewed novel on BN.com is The Davinci Code. I hear ya brother.
Casual readers simply aren't savvy and don't know or care about literature. They don't look for meaning in anything--films, books or television (or life for that matter). It's the reason so much of what makes it in all of those forms is shit. I now read reviews out of curiosity alone; they don't sway me one or another.
As for Chris Roberts...he is an ass, but at least a fraction of the time he is right. Still, to pan books just to pan them is a dick thing to do; I don't write bad reviews unless the author was unconscionable in their promo or I was told I had to read their work and found it ridiculous (see POTE). I unwittingly read and mulled over Roberts' review of Wiley Cash's new book without knowing Roberts was a troller. Now that I know, it sheds new light on what an ass he is. And I'll be sure to read Cash's new book.
I guess I feel strange here - I write reviews often! I happen to love Amazon (I know I know, it's totally popular to hate on them right now, despite earning a good chunk of income from them) and I really adore reading reviews. But I go straight for the two and one star reviews - fuck the five stars! I want to know WHAT DID YOU HATE? HOW DID THAT SHIT MAKE YOU FEEL? WHY OH WHY ARE YOU SO ANGRY AND WRITING IN CAPS?? I find myself buying more books based on what livid reviewers HATE than on what flowery reviewers love. Espeically if the points that someone hates are all my love-buttons - I'll buy the work on the spot, even if it's fat historical gay vampire erotica! And the well-written lamblastment is a delight to the senses, even if I end up not buying the book as a result.
I know a reviewer who refuses to buy 4.5 or 5 star average works - she much prefers the split reviews, a work that both delighted and angered, one where the "hump" of reviews falls right on 3. In her opinion the worst thing you can do is write something that someone goes "meh" to and drops altogether - much better to get the burning vitriol OR the epigonic love!
Now then, I've some Amazon gazing to do...
As a writer of two published novels (with only a few reviews each) when I read a book that was one of the clumsiest works ever, not even one star's worth, I would have liked to can it by review, but didn't think it was worth the grief that might return to me. Maybe if Amazon introduce a checking rule that discloses to the reader, who reviewed whom first, with a warning or something.
Of course, that will never happen, but...