When reviewers have conflicting views it gets really interesting…

You may have heard… I released a new book yesterday, Last Winter’s Snow. Congratulations to me! And for a couple of weeks or so, reviews have been coming in, and they have mostly made me very happy, because a lot of the things I’ve read were very encouraging, and positive. However, and this is the really interesting part, and this post will look at reviews from both a reader perspective and an author perspective, I’ve had two reviews that took opposing sides on a single issue. I’m not going to take sides, but let’s hear from the reviewers themselves:

The cover of Last Winter’s Snow.

One reviewer writes: “I would have cut out some of the “travelogue” passages about Swedish cities, flora and fauna, etc., in favor of some scenes to establish the couple’s unique personalities and why they were a good match.”

Another says: “One of my favorite parts of the novel is how Sweden is almost itself a character. I was utterly captivated reading about the different places, their history and culture. It was a little like a whirlwind tour, and it left me wanting to know more and to see the sights for myself.”

Did they really read the same book? 😳

Now, I had my reasons to include the “travelogue” aspects, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask my editor. We did discuss this at length. I won’t justify my decision here, not the point of this post. However, isn’t it interesting that one person’s “lowlight” was another person’s “highlight”?

Reviews from a reader’s perspective

Reviews can be a great tool if you are a reader on the hunt for your next great read. But unless you read a thousand books a year (it’s a thing apparently) and/or have an unlimited budget for DNFs*, you may want to do your research, before you “one-click”.

If a review speaks to you somehow, look at other reviews from that same source. Have your read the same books already? What was their take then? Don’t just trust a single review. I do this when I look at hotel or restaurant reviews. I spend a lot of time trying to find out who the reviewer is. If they only review ONE place and trash it, likelihood is they just had a bad experience which cannot really be applied as a thumb rule for an entire establishment. I would argue the same is true for book reviews. (*DNF – Did Not Finish the book)

Just the other day, my publisher noticed a two-star review on one of the books they publish, a book that isn’t even out yet! I’ve had the same happen to me before. Quite honestly, we don’t know why that particular reader did that, but trust me when I say that there are a lot of trolls on Goodreads. So don’t trust just any review. Learn what they say about other people’s stuff. It’ll help you determine if you really are on the same wavelength like the writer of the review you’ve read.

Once you know the reviewer is reliable and not a “troll”, this is really going to help you to find books you can trust. Just remember, reviews are kind of like the news: you have to be mindful of the source(s)! Personally, when it comes to books, I’ve never been a big fan of reviews to find the reads I like. Most of what I read isn’t “pleasure” reading, but part of my professional development, and I often read books outside my personal comfort zone. I read mostly ARCs** and review those here on my blog. But every now and then I’ll read a book for pleasure and I go either by personal recommendation (which I’ve lived to regret more than once) or I simply read the blurb and look at the cover, like so many others, and yes, I’ve lived to regret those, too. (**ARC – Advance Review Copy, usually an edited, but not finally proofed version of the book which is sent to professional reviewers before publication)

Reviews from an author’s perspective

I’ve written about this before. Here, for instance. When you get positive, constructive reviews, it’s easy to feel happy. I grinned like an idiot the other night after reading a beautifully crafted and very generous review. We’re all entitled to that, particularly if you don’t get that monthly check from Amazon to makes you smile… My check makes my bank weep, that’s for sure. However, and I think that is important, when you get two conflicting, professional reviews like the ones I quoted above, you, the author have to chill for a moment.

Why did they say what they said? Could it be that they don’t much care for descriptions of locales? I once reviewed a book by the insanely talented Posy Roberts. In her novel Silver Scars, Posy describes an amputation and the process of healing at great length. I had just published my own book Jonathan’s Promise, where I had described something “similar”, yet completely different. And just like Posy and I put our emphasis on different aspects of our characters, focus on different things, so will reviewers. One will miss the emphasis on character interaction, another will be happy that the focus wasn’t there etc. Don’t take that criticism personal. It’s not their book. It’s yours, and you’re entitled to write the story any way you damn well please.

This is even more the case when you receive bad reviews. I have long ago stopped reading my reviews on Goodreads. I have my trolls, I get my one-star reviews and that is fine. I actually quite enjoy them, or at least knowing they’re there. I means someone is really upset with whatever success I have, which means I’m getting noticed. Just getting such troll attention lends my authorship credibility. And as long as my composite score on Goodreads is higher than Shakespeare’s, who am I to complain? Really? It’s all a matter of perspective. Then again, I’d readily accept a lower score than the great poet if it meant larger sales. Again, a matter of perspective.

But if you insist on reading bad reviews, ask yourself this: why are you doing it? What do you gain from them? Apart from a potentially masochistic pleasure? I’ve had more than one writer tell me that they gain insights on what works and what doesn’t work in a novel. I guess that is also why so many authors use beta readers, to finely tune their product to a specific market. Nothing wrong with that. But you didn’t see Michelangelo do beta studies of his Davide. If your writing is a craft, and you write to a specific audience, cater to a carefully developed niche or genre, I understand the need for beta readership to make sure a product will work. But as you can pick up from my choice of words, such books aren’t works of art, they are a craft, a product, aimed at entertaining, pleasing a very specific audience. No one else will care. Ain’t nothing wrong with that approach! It’s usually the approach that sells, right?

However, artsy books are different. They tell THE story they’re supposed to tell, whether people care to read it or not. They’re what we sometimes call “literary”, aka “books no one reads”. Do they have a readership? Yes, but they usually don’t climb the charts, neither at Amazon nor at the New York Times. And they piss off an equal amount of people they please. It’s what art does: it provokes. It asks the important questions in life. Can crafty books do that? Yes, but they do so within the well specified parameters. Allow me to explain:

For instance, you could write a romance novel about “death”, but there are certain things within the genre you have to stick to, e.g. the relationship is paramount. Not death. And there may be other details to consider, how much sex you need to include, how explicit it may be. Heck I’ve even read somewhere that “monogamy” is a core ingredient in hardcore romance novel recipes. In an artsy book, you can still have a relationship, but it doesn’t have to be THE theme, death can be. And you can include sex, on the page, off the page, or leave it by the wayside, and the characters can fuck whenever with whomever, as long as it makes sense to the story you’re telling. There are no rules to follow, as long as your editor is happy, and they look primarily at things like:

  • consistency: leave home in a Volvo, you better come home in a Volvo (or explain what happened)
  • believability: why is there an Alien spaceship in the back yard?
  • credibility: she died and came back from the dead? How is that possible?

Reviewers may take “offense” at anything in everything you write, and if you break genre rules, I’m sure you probably already knew you were going to be trashed for it. The same is true for artsy books, the only difference is that you can readily dismiss such comments. Why? Because some people are just really stupid. Sorry if I’m being harsh, but if a reviewer complains about a non-romance book “not being romance” or a “thriller” being too exciting, then it’s not the author or the publisher who is to blame, but the reviewer for simply being too damn stupid. Yes, it’s still upsetting to read, and you may still need to have that review on your book’s Goodreads page, but honestly, give readers some credit, too.

If your book is listed as a “mystery” or “thriller” (or whatever), and a review complains that it wasn’t a “romance”, don’t you think people will disregard said review as exactly as imbecile as it is? Quite the contrary, it will even make sure that other romance readers won’t pick up your book and be disappointed by said lack of loooove, sending more bad reviews your way… Incidentally, you might actually get other readers to pick up your story because it was dissed as a non-romance. Imagine, there is such a thing as a readership for non-romance novels. Two sides to every medal.

Author Hans M Hirschi reads quite a few books and has published ten novels. He also reviews books on this site, regularly.

Reviews aren’t easy, for readers, for authors nor reviewers. But they are an essential part of our strive to reach our readers (old and new), and I am very grateful for the reviews I get, particularly the ones that I ask for, where we, as part of the marketing effort send out ARCs to professional reviewers. They don’t know what heads their way, which is why some will like it, and others won’t. That is part of the business. Nevertheless I’m grateful for the professional courtesy they show to our work. Naturally I’m also happy for others who review one of my books they’ve loved (or hated), I just may never see it. So thanks! 🙂

What is your take? How do you see reviews? As reader? Author? Let’s hear it…

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Have a wonderful weekend,

Hans

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