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Who Are Reviews For?

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At this point, I’m fairly firm on my review policy: I don’t read them. That can be discouraging to readers—why bother leaving a review for a book then? It’s a position that took me some time to come to, though, and every time BookTwitter rehashes the reviews drama, I’m only more convinced that my policy is a good one.

Reviews Are for Readers

That’s it. That’s the answer. Reviews are ultimately not for authors. Yes, we like receiving them—they help our books rank higher in search algorithms. And it’s always nice when you get a glowing review. Even seeing someone mark your book five stars can give you the warm fuzzies.

But at the end of the day, authors shouldn’t, to some degree, care about what other people are saying about their books.

Why? Don’t we need to care that we’re writing books people like? Shouldn’t we try to learn from our mistakes? Don’t we want to hear about what we did right as well?

The cover of Lions Will Tame Leopards, which features an orange silhouette of a lion on a yellow planet with six blue leopards running around the outside.
No mistakes here.

The problem here is that there is no such thing as a perfect book. You cannot write a book that will please everyone. Even if there’s nothing “wrong” with the book per se, it’s just not going to resonate with every single person ever. People have different tastes, especially when it comes to reading.

And that’s okay.

That’s why reviews have to be a space for readers. Readers need reviews so they have somewhere to openly express whether or not they liked a book. What didn’t work for someone will be The Best Book Ever for another person. Someone’s one-star review trashing your book is how some readers find out that it’s absolutely, 100 percent up their alley.

The thing is, readers need to have this space where they are not coerced. It needs to be free of the watchful eye of authors and publishers, so readers feel that they can openly and honestly communicate with each other.

Authors Behaving Badly

Every so often, we’re treated to another example of why authors needs to stay out of the review space. Most recently, there was a debut author published by a Big-5 publisher who flipped out about reviews. One reviewer rounded their four-and-a-half-star review up to five stars; another rounded down to four stars, and the author lost their mind on social media.

This is certainly not an isolated incident, although it’s one of the most heavily publicized. (Indeed, some people wondered if the author did it as a publicity stunt.) We see authors go after reviewers all the time. I’ve seen authors complain about readers who left one- or two-star reviews on the first book in a trilogy. The author complained that the reader should have kept reading; they had no right to leave a “bad review” because they hadn’t read the whole series and some of what they complained about was addressed in later books.

Look, no reader is under obligation to read your entire series. I hated the first Harry Potter book. I thought it was supremely boring. I’ve had friends tell me that the series gets better around Book 3, and I should just give it a chance.

My response has always been: why would I sit through three books waiting for the series to “get good”? Sorry, but I’m not going to waste my time any more than I have. I’m going to go read something I actually enjoy.

So, as much as it may be frustrating that this reader gave you a low rating and complained about things that are actually addressed in later books, they do not have to read the whole series to complain. What’s clear here is that they didn’t enjoy the book enough to keep reading. It’s too bad, because their concerns were addressed, but they have no obligation to read the entire series of a book they thought was boring or bad or what have you just to see if the author maybe addressed those concerns somewhere in there.

These are only examples off the top of my head. Authors run around bullying reviewers and complaining about one-star reviews all the time. Many reviewers have been run off by authors who get their backs up about “bad reviews.”

Yes, Bad Reviews Hurt

The authors’ upset is understandable, certainly. You work forever on your book. It is a labor of love. It’s scary to send your book out into the world, because you love it so much. And as much as you know there will be people who don’t like it (because it is impossible to please everyone), you also hope that most people like it. The book is, in some ways, an extension of you, so if people don’t like it … it can feel like a personal attack, like they’re saying they don’t like you.

We know, rationally, that’s not true. But emotions are not terribly rational things. So authors react to bad reviews, often in quite a volatile way.

But then wrangling our followings and fans to go after reviewers? To yell about it on social media, to demand that reviewers give us better reviews or only review after they’ve read the whole series (even if they didn’t like the first book)? That crosses a line.

It creates a toxic environment for reviewers. Readers become reluctant to review; they opt just not to review at all instead of risking harassment and bullying if they leave a bad one. They begin to censure themselves. We can no longer have an open, honest conversation about books we liked and books we didn’t.

The woman to the right of the frame clutches her head while the woman at the left yells at her. This feels like book Twitter arguing over reviews.
“How dare you express an opinion contrary to mine!” — an author, probably (Liza Summer / Pexels.com)

This is why it’s imperative authors and publishers stay out of the review space. As much as bad reviews can hurt feelings or, maybe to some degree, book sales, readers need to be allowed to express their honest opinions.
It’s the same principle as when we gift reviewers ARCs. As much as we may be upset if they leave a poor review, we can’t ask that everyone give us glowing reviews just because they got a free book. That’s coercion; it’s tantamount to buying reviews—just with a book and not cash.

That, again, limits open, honest conversation. Readers are not stupid; they catch on when a booktoker or booktuber is constantly giving five stars to every book they received for free: “You’re being bought off.” The reviews are no longer honest; the reviewer loses credibility.

Do Bad Reviewers Actually Hurt You?

Some people feel the need to police bad reviews. They argue that bad reviews lead to poor book sales. To some degree, that is true. In the age of the algorithm, books are pushed based on how many reviews they have, as well as what their aggregate rating is. So a bad review can knock down your average rating, which then means Amazon shows the book to fewer people.

In that case, yes, you absolutely want five-star reviews and nothing but. Again, though, we realistically know that it’s impossible every single person who reads a book will think it warrants that rating. A three-star and even four-star review is still quite good, actually. If it’s not, then we hollow out the meaning of a five-star review—these books are no longer stand out, cream of the crop. They’re just “good.” (That’s what the three-star review is for.)

The problem with this kind of policing, as I’ve pointed out, is that it limits open and honest conversation. Reviewers are coerced into sharing only good reviews or giving every book a glowing review. They lose credibility with readers, who pick up recommended book after recommended book and find they disagree. They grow suspicious of the reviewer’s motivations in saying every book is great.

In some instances, bad reviews can actually help readers find books they like. I’ve seen plenty of instances where someone trashes a queer book and readers who are looking for that kind of material excitedly read that one-star review, thinking, “This is exactly the kind of book I’d like to read!” So then they go one-click it.

As much as bad reviews can hurt your book sales, then, they can also help. They also lend credibility to your rating. If readers only see five-star reviews, they may suspect you’ve bought them. They then suspect that the book isn’t as great as everyone says.

What about Fake Bad Reviews?

There’s a lot of concern about fake good reviews—reviews that authors have purchased. Fake bad reviews tend to get less press. There’s a notorious GoodReads user who runs around one-starring any queer book they can find—obviously, without ever having read the book. They just ding it for being queer.

GoodReads is a notorious cesspool at this point (which is why many people are turning to other alternatives, like StoryGraph). GR has demonstrated they can police reviews. After our debut Big-5 author pitched a fit, readers rushed to ding the book with one-star reviews. Most of these were “fake” in the sense the readers hadn’t read the book. They were simply rating out of spite. GR reversed many (if not all) of these reviews. So they could easily have dealt with some of the one-star trolls; they simply don’t.

Amazon (which owns GoodReads) is likely the same way. Amazon will remove books when readers submit complaints about spelling and grammar errors. Readers who don’t like a book can simply flag “errors” (such as the use of they/them pronouns) to get it booted. Amazon is much more likely to remove good reviews they feel are “fake” or didn’t come from proper channels, versus “fake” bad reviews.

So there is some argument that authors and publishers do need to be vigilant in watching for trolls that begin one-starring their books en masse. While you may not be able to do much about a lone troll, you might be able to report what appears to be a coordinated campaign. How much Amazon or Goodreads or the other powers that be will do about it is another story entirely.

Thus, there is some feeling that authors and publishers do need to be vigilant about their reviews, at least to some extent.

I Don’t Read Reviews

That brings me to my own policy regarding reviews. Which is to simply say I don’t look at them. I do, occasionally, look at aggregate rankings on Goodreads. I do not look at individual ratings, nor do I read text reviews.

Some probably find that a bit disheartening, especially if they’ve left a good review. I also know it’s not great, because I can’t use pull quotes from those good reviews to promote my books.

My thinking here, though, is that reviews are ultimately a reader space. I don’t belong there. And I don’t ever want my readers to feel like they can’t be open and honest in their reviews, because I might happen to see it because I’m looking over your shoulders. I’m not, and I won’t read reviews—so you should feel free to say whatever you want about the book. If you loved it, that’s awesome. If you didn’t, then you can say so without worrying about me charging into your mentions, looking for a fight.

I also do this to preserve my own mental health. I love my books dearly. Hearing that people didn’t like them gets my back up. My instinct is to defend my books, even if the reviewer has given perfectly legitimate reasons. I also know some people just aren’t going to like my books, so sometimes “didn’t like it” or “couldn’t get into it” is completely valid criticism. I can sit here and worry about that all I want. Or get angry about it.

But that does no one any good. So bad reviews put my blood pressure up, making me angry or sad. And that means I’m more liable to become an author behaving badly. My readers don’t want or need that from me, and I don’t want them to feel that I’m always watching them either. Review spaces are for readers, and I am not a reader in this capacity. So I don’t look at reviews. It’s not my place nor my concern.

I wish more authors would recognize that. Our readers and reviewers need safe spaces to have conversations about our books. They can’t have that if we’re standing there, ready to censure them if they say one kind of negative thing.

Now, if you’re a reviewer and you tag me in your review … then we have a totally different story on our hands.
But, by and large, reviews are for readers—and I, as an author, intend to keep them that way.

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By Cherry

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