Magical book

Magical book

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Those Blasted Amazon Reviews

When writers talk among themselves, where those "others" -- readers -- can't overhear or see their listserv posts, many voice complaints about Amazon reader reviews.

Those reviews have become vital to sales (or so we believe). If a book racks up at least 100 reviews, Amazon gives it greater prominence. It will show up more often on readers' screens as a recommended book, or on a list of results when a reader searches for titles within a genre. And, of course, we all believe that four and five star reviews impress both Amazon's soulless computer programs and potential buyers.

Many writers rant and rave when someone posts a one star "review" that says only, "This book is filled with bad grammar. Skip it." Or a review that pulls out a single sentence or paragraph as proof that the books is virtually unreadable. They may conclude that this stranger couldn't possibly have read the book, at least not much of it, and has posted such a "review" for malicious reasons that defy understanding.

I tend to think all this angst is a waste of energy and time.

Let me tell you about a thriller I've just finished in audiobook format, and explain why, as a writer, I could be picky and negative about it but instead am inclined to admire it. Hang in here with me, and I promise this will be relevant to the Amazon review issue. The book was written by an internationally bestselling author, someone whose novels instantly shoot to the top tier of the bestseller lists as soon as they're released in hardcover. I'd never read anything of his before, and I was curious about the reason for his success.

I laughed out loud when I heard this sentence: "[She] closed her eyes and looked down."

Now, I could make fun of a writer who thinks a person can look anywhere while her eyes are closed, and I could certainly ask why an editor didn't catch a glaring error. I could also point out several equally laughable sentences. But, to tell you the truth, the book was entertaining -- shallow, yes, and no great work of art, but thoroughly entertaining, with great narrative drive, an intriguing premise, and plenty of those twists and turns we love in thrillers. It was exactly what I needed to take my mind off a personal problem that was driving me batty. What more can you ask a thriller writer to do for you? I'm not going to condemn the novel because a few sentences were poorly phrased. But a lot of writers, I must say, would delight in using those sentences as examples of the "junk" that readers seem to prefer.

So why should writers be surprised and annoyed when readers pick out one or two flaws in our books and condemn the books as a whole because they aren't perfect? We do it ourselves, to other writers. I won't get into the motives behind this. But we do it, undeniably. When readers who are not professional reviewers cite bad grammar and awkward sentences, I believe they're grasping for some concrete reason to explain why they didn't enjoy the book. If the grammar were perfect and the writing flowed smoothly, they probably still wouldn't like it. And that's their right.

Maybe some people are weird enough to post negative comments about books they haven't read. But I can't assume that a negative review of one of my books must have come from someone who didn't read it. I accept that not everyone will love everything I write. After all, I don't love everything I read.

Speaking only for myself: If a book is, on the whole, badly written AND boring, or well-written BUT boring, that's one thing. I usually just stop reading. I give up on a huge number of books (including books by writers I know and like) because life is seeming, these days, increasingly short, and I don't have the time to waste. But if a novel has flaws -- what book doesn't? -- yet still holds my interest and entertains me all the way to the end, then I count that book as a success. If it's a bestseller, I say it deserves to be one.

I don't normally read Amazon reviews. They don't influence my book-buying in the least. I haven't looked at reviews of my own six novels in so long that I have no idea how many have been posted or whether most are favorable or not. I obsessed about such things when I began publishing. I don't anymore, and I feel better for having cut this one source of stress out of my life (although plenty of others remain).

Writers can't control readers' reactions to our books. We can't control what strangers say or post online about our books. Tearing our hair out over one or two nonsensical Amazon reviews seems pointless to me.

Other writers, of course, may (and do) have a different view.