Every now and then, the “authors shouldn’t read reviews” discourse kicks up again. Usually, this starts with an author getting upset about a poor review. Sometimes, the author gets mad because the reviewer didn’t even finish the book!
Aside from being in for a nasty shock when they realize most agents and editors decide on whether they want to publish your work by … not reading the whole book, these authors seem to be living in a bubble where reviewers shouldn’t say anything if they can’t say anything nice.
When this happens, most people break out some seemingly sage advice: writers shouldn’t bother reading their reviews. (You can see my own policy on that here.)
Some authors came up with an interesting excuse to continue reading their reviews, especially the negative ones: the negative reviews helped them improve their craft.
That opens up a boatload of questions about the role of the reviewer—and lemme tell you, that ain’t it.
What Are Book Reviews for?
Reviews, briefly, are a tool for readers to help other readers. They’re customer reviews: I liked this product, I didn’t like this product, this product sucked.
Occasionally, the product manufacturer can turn to customer reviews to get customer feedback. That isn’t entirely untrue. But, for the most part, the manufacturer isn’t the audience. It’s one customer writing to help another customer.
The same is thus true of book reviews. The point of the review is to say, “Yes, you should read this book,” or “no, you should not read this book.”
Are Reviews Helpful to Readers?
In most cases, reviews do not provide helpful critique. This sort of sucks for the reader—“this book rocked” doesn’t tell them much about why the reviewer enjoyed it or not. Five-star ratings and one-star ratings in that sense are the same. They tell us nothing other than the reviewer did or didn’t like the book.
Okay, so are reviews really helping anyone if people don’t leave their thoughts?
Yes and no. If a book has a 4.5-star rating and 500 reviews, there’s a good chance the majority of readers liked the book a lot. If I know some of those readers or I know a lot of those readers are like me, then I can take a fairly good guess that I’m going to like this book.
When people leave text reviews, they’re often not much more in-depth than the star rating. “I loved it!” doesn’t help me as the reader any more than “5 stars!” does.
Again, if I’m scrolling through 500 reviews and most of them say, “I loved it!” and I also have a vague sense of the demographics of the reviewers, then I can make a call about whether I will like this book.
More in-depth reviews are obviously easier to work with, which is why readers should appreciate them the most. An in-depth review can help me decide why this book might be for me—or why it’s not.
And yes, even a negative review can help here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone write something like “it’s just smut” or “all the characters are queer!”
Do Book Reviews Provide Critique?
The crux of this particular turn in the discourse was that authors read reviews to get critique and improve their craft. This thus justified their reading of reviews, even negative ones. It also allowed them to get mad at reviewers who left low ratings without any explanation.
The idea here is that authors can read reviews to glean information about how to improve their craft.
The question is, though, are reviewers providing critique? Is that actually their role?
In most cases, no. And there is no obligation for reviewers to provide critique.
So, if you want to leave a star rating—positive or negative—there is no obligation to provide more than that.
Why? Reviewers are for readers, not authors.
It is not a reviewer’s responsibility to provide critique or tell you how to make your book better. In fact, it’s not even a reviewer’s responsibility to leave a review—and many readers don’t.
Putting additional expectations on readers’ shoulders and complaining about reviews only discourages people from leaving those star ratings in the first place.
Reviews Cannot Be Critique—They’re Opinion
Reviews are, at the end of the day, the opinion of the reader. Reviewers are not expected to deliver critique, so what you get is not a balanced consideration. Instead, you’re merely getting someone’s subjective opinion with all their biases.
My above examples of negative reviews included “nothing but smut” and “all the characters are queer.” I know there are cases where the reviewer has either DNF’d or 1-starred a book for those reasons.
Is “nothing but smut” really a negative review though? If you’re a reader who loves smut, then no! Our smut-loving reader might equally have written this review—and left five stars.
Same with the “all the characters are queer!” complaint. Is that really a bad thing? If a queer reviewer were writing the review, maybe not! Maybe they’re commenting on the diverse cast or maybe they’re commenting on how “refreshing” it is to see a cast with nary a straight person in sight.
What one reviewer thinks is a good thing is a bad thing in another person’s opinion.
Most Reviewers Aren’t Critiquing
Beyond that, though, most of the opinions we see in reviews don’t really do much to help the writer improve their craft. After all, “nothing but smut” doesn’t tell me much at all. In some cases, the reviewer hated it; in others, the same comment means the reviewer loved it.
As a writer, I can’t do anything with that. So, the person who loved the smut wants me to write more. Cool. The person who hated it wishes I wouldn’t write smut—or maybe they wish I wouldn’t write at all.
Same with the comment about queer casts. What am I going to do with that information? Make my casts less queer to satisfy Joe Bigot and Nancy Homophobia?
In short, these reviews don’t tell me anything about “how to improve” my writing, my book, or my craft.
Occasionally, you get someone who gives you more in-depth feedback. Maybe they say something like “the writing was really weak” or “full of typos” or “the plot was really predictable.”
These are trending more toward critique, but they still don’t tell me anything useful. I can’t really do much with them: practice writing more, hire an editor, try to write “less predictable” plots.
Critique Is for CPs, Betas, and Editors
What’s more is that authors are going to reviews for critique and tips on “how to improve.” Sure, maybe you can improve the next book. But once reviews are rolling in, the book is already published. Maybe if it bombs, you want to take those reviews and look at them and see if you can find a path toward making a better edition of the book. Maybe.
But we return to the issue of reviewers not really giving authors much to go on. And that is fine—because critique is not the reviewer’s job.
In fact, there are about three other people you should turn to before you look to a reviewer to give you feedback on your writing:
- a critique partner
- a beta reader
- an editor
All of these people provide critique. That is their role: to work with you to improve the book and, while they’re at it, your writing more generally. This is literally their job, so why are authors looking to reviewers? CPs and beta readers can be hard to find, sure, and editors are often expensive.
That’s still no reason to turn to reviewers—who are doing this for free, without you even asking—and ask them to provide you with in-depth critique of your work so you can “improve” for the next book.
A Reviewer Can’t Do What an Editor Does
Reviewers and editors are similar in some senses. They are both readers, usually, and they are both reading critically.
There are a few key differences. One is that reviewers are often informally trained—they read a lot, with a critical eye. Many of them are very insightful and perceptive, and you can often walk away from their review work with some “tips.”
Editors are trained to tell you what is wrong and why it’s not working. Reviewers often cannot explain why something is not working—they just know it’s not working. “Pacing is off” can be helpful, but where is the pacing off? Why is it off? Is it too slow, too fast?
An editor can give you more insight into those things, and they often make suggestions about how to fix it. (On a point like pacing, readers often can suggest a fix, although their feedback is less in-depth.)
The other reason reviewers and editors are different? Editors are in the author’s corner. They see the vision for the book, and they understand what the author is trying to do. They want to help the author get to the best possible version of the book.
A reviewer is not necessarily in your corner. They’re not obligated to tell you what’s wrong with the book. Heck, they don’t even have to leave a review if they don’t want to.
Like editors, CPs and betas are in your corner. Their role is to help you, the author. Their feedback is not for public consumption. It is not content, nor is it entertainment. It is for you, aimed at helping you improve.
If You’re Looking to Book Reviews for Critique, You Are Barking Up the Wrong Tree
That brings me to the crux of the argument: what are you doing, looking to reviewers for critique? That is literally not their job, nor is it even the point of reviewing.
The book is already out by the time reviews go up. Reviewers are interested in creating content for their audiences, entertaining them, and helping other readers decide what to read.
They’re critical and smart readers who read a lot, but their comments are often based in their own opinions. If you want a reviewer to play editor, then hire them as an editor.
In short, reviewers don’t owe you anything. To complain about someone not leaving more stars or not leaving a text review is ridiculous—because you are not entitled to the reviewer’s time, effort, or thoughts.
Even when reviewers do take the time to leave in-depth reviews, they’re not angled at helping the author improve. That, in turn, means they’re not always terribly useful to the author in that regard.
Complaining about that is silly. It’s like complaining your car does a really bad job mowing your lawn. What the heck are you doing, trying to mow your lawn with your car? It doesn’t matter that the car is “bad” at it—it was never meant to do it in the first place. Of course it’s not going to work! Go get a lawn mower.
Same thing here: why are you trying to use reviews for critique? That’s not what they’re for, nor is it what they’re meant to do. Go get an editor or a critique partner.
And authors, if you can’t take low star ratings or bad reviews, then stay out of them. They are not for you, they never were, and you’re only hurting your relationship with your readers by acting out.