The Only Way to Get a Review Wrong

Reviews are lifeblood to us small-time authors. The good ones are amazing to get: They’re gratifying, flattering, humbling and most importantly, helpful. They drive those vital sales. But the bad reviews have a use, too. No author is infallible, and we all have weak points we can work on. Sure, it would be great if even the negative responses were phrased politely — as though they were written by a reasonable person expressing a logical concern to another human being – but this is the internet. We’ll all ride wish-granting unicorns to work before respect and restraint become commonplace. I try to not to comment on negative reviews. People have the right to their opinion, and nothing good ever comes of yelling at them about it. Further, I try to divorce myself from emotion when reading bad reviews from snotty, shitty people. If you can figure out a way not to be offended by their words, they might just have a point in there somewhere. If somebody tells you your book is a fucking mess and you should kill yourself – maybe what they really mean is that it has some pacing problems. That’s fair, and even if it’s not true, it’s a point worth considering. There’s no real way to do a review completely, objectively wrong, save for like this:

review
Note: Please don’t go looking for this reviewer to yell at them or anything. It’s not going to change their mind or help them grow as a person. That only happens on Full House.

That’s pretty low, trying to call into question every other thing your fellow readers have said about a book, just because you didn’t like it. It’s disrespectful, not just of the author, but of all the other reviewers and, indeed, the entire review system in general. It’s self-righteous, to imply that anybody disagreeing with you is cheating somehow. And more troublesome: It’s very, very common. You’ll see this all over the place, wherever consumer reviews are allowed. The second somebody comes across a product that they didn’t like, but has overall positive reviews, they will immediately jump to “well, these are all fake.” They’ll then treat is as their solemn duty to try to “warn” their fellow readers about the scam being perpetrated, because it honestly never occurs to them that some people may enjoy a thing they did not.

“How could anybody like something that I deemed unacceptable? I am the alpha and the omega, the sun and the moon, the swirling vortex at the heart of the cosmos – my opinion is law. If I don’t like something that a lot of other people do, the only logical conclusion is that there is a vast conspiracy at work to dupe these, my people. I must save them – to the conceit-mobile!”

This is a particularly dangerous attitude, because fake reviews and gaming of the system does actually happen. And it should absolutely be stopped – paid reviews are ruining the integrity of the industry and making all of the earnest, honest, positive reviews worth a little bit less. But just because it happens sometimes, that doesn’t mean you get to assume it’s responsible for anything you don’t like. If you absolutely have to be rude in your negative review – fine. Somebody might still get something helpful out of it, despite your best efforts. But if you try to invalidate everything about a book because you didn’t enjoy it, that is plainly and objectively wrong of you. It is a false accusation based on nothing more than your “gut feeling.” So do me a favor, if you’re ever considering calling a book’s reviews into question, do some extremely detailed, expansive research first, and then make sure you present valid proof to the proper authorities (Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Goodreads all take this stuff very seriously) before ever opening your textual mouth. And then do me another favor: If you ever see somebody saying shit like this in a review, don’t lend it any credence. Then do me a third favor: Flag it. This behavior is not okay, and it should be stomped out whenever you see it.

Then do me a fourth favor, and help me move my fridge. I don’t know, you seem to be in the mood to do a lot of favors lately; figured I’d press the advantage.

21 thoughts on “The Only Way to Get a Review Wrong

  1. SteveySteve

    Annoyingly for somebody who calls themselves “voracious reader” they have no other reviews. I assume they just created an account specifically to be a dick. That said, I marked them down as “unhelpful” as there was no button marked for “choke on an endless stream of electric dicks”.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Well, an unhelpful vote is probably fair, though I seriously did not intend to start a movement against the review or the reviewer. It would be weird and disrespectful to the other reviewers to afford one bad review more weight than the many awesome and humbling good ones in there.

      Reply
      1. SteveySteve

        I think any review where the reviewer announces he or she is your “caveat emptor” is automatically unhelpful. If you’re going to leave a review, try not to do it with all the preening grace of a Team Rocket villain.

        Reply
  2. Matt Armstrong

    I have thought there was a conspiracy a few times when leaving a review. Mainly because I am the alpha and the omega. But I kept my findings to myself and did not post them. I do not want them to know I am on to them and will soon break their criminal positive review ring.

    Reply
  3. carter627

    At the risk of sounding like the Devil’s advocate, I’m going to throw this out there. Not to stir the turd, but to offer a counterpoint (actually, two counterpoints):

    1. Several of your 5-star reviews would cause me to be suspicious, and that’s coming from someone who does online marketing for a living. Proclaiming a book to be a “page-burner” that “couldn’t be put down” or “insert buzzrowd here” without any supporting details screams BS. I’m not saying any of them are actually fake, but they’re wearing the uniform.

    2. You’re not helping your argument by slicing up the review in the screengrab above to make the reviewer sound like the most bitter of pricks. That person actually did provide reasons for their opinion, and cutting them out here only serves to make you look suspicious (or more suspicious, in the reviewer’s case.)

    I do agree with you that accusing other reviewers in of being plants in your own review is pretty weak and can almost always be ignored by other readers. I also like your book. And I would help you with the fridge but the drive over from Minneapolis is a killer.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      At the risk of sounding rude: You seriously think it’s on you to judge how earnest the other reviewers are? How delusional is that? There’s no defense for throwing out serious accusations like paid review scams. Not without proof. If you have suspicions, bring them up with Amazon, or Goodreads or whoever. The burden isn’t on the author to “prove” their reviews are real. How would they even go about it? It’s on the reviewer and the reader to not start hurling around conspiratorial accusations because they don’t like something. And I’m not slicing up the review to make them sound bitter – if anything, I cut out the more venomous parts. More importantly, I cut out the parts that have nothing at all to do with what we’re talking about – the accusations of paid reviews — as well as their user name AND included a warning note to leave them alone. Sometimes it’s not worth playing devil’s advocate, homey. There are better games out there. Been having a lot of fun with Borderlands 2, for example.

      Reply
      1. carter627

        I will apologize if I implied that any of the reviews were not authentic. That wasn’t my intention. But I do think several of them are low-quality, and I understand how they might make someone else suspicious, especially if they held a less-than-sterling opinion of your book.

        I’ll also apologize for misconstruing the argument. While I do think it’s completely valid to question other people’s opinions (it’s the Internet, for Christ’s sake,) it’s reckless to accuse someone of doing something unethical without proof. You’re absolutely right about that, and I pretty much glossed over that with my first comment. This isn’t an attempt to kiss up – if I were a star-fucker I’d be going after someone less, um, wiener-ey – just admitting my mistake.

        However, I’m sticking to my guns with regards to your screengrab. At minimum that should have been two images, with something like “And later…” in between as a separator.

        I’m late to console gaming, so I’m smack in the middle of Fallout 3 right now. Surprisingly good for a 7 year-old game. I should get to Borderlands about the time the PS5 hits.

        Reply
        1. Robert Brockway Post author

          Well, the point was to highlight the only objectively wrong thing you can do in an amateur review. So I only posted the parts I took issue with – the rest is completely valid as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t want to post the valid parts of a critical review in a post about how to get reviews wrong – seems to confuse the message. People might think I’m saying “don’t say shit like the formatting was off, or you found it disjointed.” That was fine; it’s just and only the practice of assigning any differing opinions to some vast incalculable conspiracy that’s wrong. Perhaps there’s some more professional way to cite screengrabbed information, but this is a personal blog, and I’m not wearing pants, so I’m not doing anything professional.

          Reply
    2. Robert Brockway Post author

      Aaaaand because I’m really trying to make a conscious effort not to let the negative stuff outweigh the positive, in all aspects of my life, let me say thanks and that I’m glad you liked the book. I do think there were legitimate points in that review – especially about the formatting (much more of a bitch than it seems) and possibly biting off a little too much for a first novel. I got that sense myself after it was done, and I have plans to continue the series that will (hopefully, sort of) retroactively fix the larger storyarc problems.

      Reply
  4. Amy Goalen

    I can’t imagine how difficult it is to read a rude and shitty review of your work. As an artist myself (photographer) I put my heart and soul into my work and for someone to come along and shit all over it just because they personally don’t like it would be soul crushingly awful.
    I agree that you can write a negative review without being a complete dick.

    For what it’s worth, I read your book AND reviewed it. I loved it! So one of those 5 star reviews is not written by the author.
    …I’m still reading your first book. Some of the chapters made me laugh so hard I had to stop reading so I wouldn’t wake up my daughter.

    And no, I won’t help you move your fridge…without beer.
    Amy

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      I won’t lie, it’s rough to read negative reviews, period. They sure have a place, and I try to take even the shittiest ones under consideration. But yeah, it’s worse when they’re impolite. And totally intolerable when they start questioning your integrity on top of it all.

      Reply
  5. Mary Raugh

    All other points aside, it took the guy 120 pages to decide he didn’t like the book enough to stop reading? I consider myself an avid reader and I’ve read some really crappy books (none of which were written by you). There have only been two I disliked so much I put them aside without finishing, and it sure as hell didn’t take me 120 pages to hit that point.

    If he could make it through the first chapter, it can’t be all that bad, can it? Some people just like to go for that hyperbole, I guess.

    About the fridge – I’ve had several back surgeries, so helping you move it would probably not be a good idea, but I can lend you a hand truck and a minion to do the deed while I watch with interest.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Some people really commit, regardless of whether or not they like something. I know people that won’t walk out of a movie, no matter what. I’ll walk out in the first half hour if it looks like it sucks – I guess I value my own time too much.

      Reply
  6. Gray

    I’m starting to suspect all the comments on this post are really from Brockway too. Including this one.

    Reply
  7. Chris

    This reminds me of writing workshops I had in college. I needed a minor to graduate and chose Creative Writing. All the classes I took had the workshop structure, where a bunch of kids write stories and the class reviews them. The purpose of the reviews is CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Roughly 95% of every class misunderstood the constructive element and opted to turn the criticism element up to 11. The saving grace is they normally had to do this in class, staring straight into the eyes of the author while they shit on the work. The impossible-to-handle rule was the author could never speak, even after we went around the class. So I guess in retrospect, there was no saving grace. My point is, like you said in your article, in any review, an author should be able to use it to better their writing style or in the case of my workshops, the stories we were tasked to write. Their opinion isn’t the end-all/be-all just because there’s an outlet to share it.

    The problem, like your reviewer who just had to accuse all your positive reviews as propaganda, the lazy assholes in my workshops’ “reviews” were an average of: “I didn’t get it,” and “I didn’t like it.”

    That’s it. Like, they really expected the only way the writer could improve their craft was to tailor the story specifically to the critic’s liking. Which I think is elitist, conceited, and completely defeats the purpose. Much like your reviewer’s comment of “I didn’t like it, so every positive review is not just wrong but carefully constructed to trick people into buying this book. Shit, it must be the author!” These people were: “When I like it, then you’ve figured it out.”

    I know I definitely wasn’t God’s gift to writing, which is why I was in that class. However, I was in that class to become a better writer, or learn something because, you know…school. Much like I’m sure you just want some insight on how you could better your craft.

    Sorry this is so long. I guess I could have said that I totally agree with, but I probably wanted to hit the point home that if you can’t say anything useful or helpful in a forum specifically tailored for that (Amazon asks if reviews are helpful), then start a damn blog or bitch about it on Facebook and Twitter where only your mouth-breather friends can keep their confirmation bias in a smaller circle.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      That’s part of the larger problem, which is that you can only place so much weight on the opinions of strangers. How much heft should the criticism of a total stranger in a college writing workshop have? Maybe it’s the first one they’ve ever taken. Maybe they hate every book that’s not about homoerotic Nazi apes. Same with sites like Goodreads and Amazon: You see all these stars and what do they mean? Do you have similar tastes to the reviewer? Similar priorities? Do you respect their opinion and their ability to give it? If not, amateur reviews can still be a good sounding board. You can get a little value from them, but not nearly as much as they’re assigned on the internet lately. Goodreads, if you use it right, addresses that problem: You add friends or people whose reviews you like, and you can choose only to see those. However, most readers will go to the work’s general page to get the larger consensus of a randomly assigned group of amateurs. People that, in any other situation, they would never listen to.

      Reply
    2. Cynth

      It’s worse in an online course. I’m sorry to say, but in that context I become part of the Grammar Gestapo. My bitch-ass prescriptivism comes out and I forget the part about being ‘constructive’ in my interaction with my peers. Oh, I’m learning the hard way to rein in my tendencies. I’ve ground down what’s left of my teeth as a result, but it helps to realize that I’m not on Reddit or Facebook. There is a rubric I need to follow, and follow it I must.

      Reply
  8. Kyle

    Is there a meta site that reviews reviewers? And, i suppose in turn, the reviewing reviewers being reviewed by the jedi counsel. But seriously, as mentioned you see these posts on Amazon that appear to be written by the marketing company that sells the product with glowing reviews…then you have it destroyed by someone who received the merchandise thinking it was a dildo instead of a phone and give it 1 star because they didn’t get the one they wanted (I’m guessing dildo phone?). The whole affair seems skewed.

    On a side note, I’m not saying we should have a gov’t run counsel of reviewing reviewers, only that some sort of order is assembled from the chaos. Last thing we need is the gov’t in the hands of a CoRR board. Costs appear to be the problem. Maybe start a website that tally’s reviews from said reviewer over the span of their reviewing career. Hypothetically, if someone orders the wrong dildo phone every time, you know it’s human error not necessarily the error of the product. Although, it could be argued that not all dildo phones are created equal.

    I’m guessing this has been done already.

    Reply
  9. Cynth

    I’ve posted quite a few reviews at Amazon.com, which left me open to a curious ‘query’ letter on behalf of an author. I was offered a free copy of a book in exchange for a review. This is how I responded:

    Thanks for your request.

    Please be advised that if I do review this book, it will be an honest review. I don’t like to either puff or slam (unless the book is worthy of either approach–only the most dreadful books deserve a one-star, IMO, while only the finest merit five), but I do prefer to offer pros and cons. If this suits your purposes, then you may send me a copy. If all you want is a five-star review as a quid pro quo, perhaps it’s best if I pass on your generous offer.

    BTW, they never got back in touch with me…I wonder why?

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Well, don’t let that dissuade you from accepting other review offers, or looking down at the whole practice as shady. That is a totally normal and standard tactic — you see somebody whose reviews/page/publication you trust, and you offer them a free copy in exchange for a review. It sucks that they didn’t follow through after your response (which should have been their assumption from the beginning), but everything else about this seems legit.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *