Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Review of Bad Reviews by Clive West

Before we dive into Clive West's wonderful and spot on blog piece, I wanted to take a moment and let you know how excited we are that Clive and his friends from Any Subject Books are joining us. They have a talented staff of writers with wonderful observations on the writing life. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do!--Mary Ann Loesch

Have you been the victim of a lousy review? In all probability you have because it's a simple fact of life – if you raise your head above the parapet you should expect to get shot at (why should you?) Not only that, there are plenty of people out there just dying to pull the trigger.

Once upon a time there were just two sorts of bad reviews. Top of the heap were those dished out by the official book critics employed by newspapers, magazines and other publications and organizations. Their profound opinions would be splashed all over the media and then judiciously quoted by the books’ authors. You know the sort of thing; there's a famous rejection letter sent to Charles Dickens' by the Saturday Review back in 1858:

"We do not believe in the permanence of his reputation... our children will wonder what their ancestors could have meant by putting Dickens at the head of the novelists of today."

I don't know what Dickens made of it but he could have quoted it as "The head of the novelists of today", Saturday Review in his own publicity material.

Now that's not exactly a true summary of what the Saturday Review was saying but the 'rose-tinted' quote reflects the game of shadow-boxing that has gone on since some hirsute individual first thought of making rough drawings in the sand with a stick: an author creates something and someone else tears it down (or tries to).

The other type of review used to get written by Joe Public. In the unlikely event that Joe was ever given any serious airtime in the media, it would be confined to the 'Readers Write' section where it was usually seen as the ranting of some eccentric. It was a fun bit of reading but only a few people would pay serious heed to it.

Now it's all changed. Joe Public, through the likes of Amazon, Smashwords et al can vent spleen to his heart’s content and, worse still in many cases, his opinions will adversely affect your sales. Unfortunately as has been well documented, getting into a sparring match with him, no matter how well-deserved, is always going to be a losing battle.

Should you pay any heed to his reviews, though?

There are essentially three types.

Firstly, there are those who have a perceived grievance with the distributor:

     "My book arrived late"

     "The parcel was damaged and the pages were creased"

     "They sent me the wrong book"

It ends up with the (entirely innocent) author getting 1 or 2 stars because of these alleged events. If you're the victim of this then, apart from getting rightfully hot under the collar, try hard to put it from your mind because the criticism has nothing to do with you.

This could easily be partially solved by expanding the 'star' system to offer stars for:



     Other service

Only the first would then be attributed to the author. I don’t suppose it’ll happen but it’s a nice thought.

The second sort of reviewer has read the book and not liked it but has lost sight of what their function is. For example:

"I didn't like the violence and I thought the settings were dark and dreary. I'm glad I was able to download it for free - I certainly would not have wanted to pay for it. I will not be reading this book again."

What does this tell you?

Precisely nothing. The reviewer has written subjective drivel. They're so keen to get their opinion heard that they don't bother to substantiate any of what they say. There is nothing of substance here and who is to say that the reviewer was even right to have purchased the book?

Too many reviewers lose sight of what they should be. If you can't be completely objective about any book, irrespective of whether you would normally read or even like its particular genre, then your opinion is going to reflect your taste and not the quality of the book. What you are supposed to be reviewing is the quality and appropriateness of the book for its target market, nothing else.

Sure, some pious people will say, "A book should be aimed at everyone" but that's blatant rubbish. A bodice-ripper historical romance is not a Western, a crime story is not a fantasy, and a teen romance is not a fairy story. Does that statement get me the prize for stating the obvious? Therefore I stand by my argument that any meaningful review needs to be written by someone who is able to see the book objectively from the point of view of its target readership. It also needs to substantiate itself with some details of where the book is perceived to fall short of reasonable expectations.

Much of this problem could be solved by proper guidance notes to reviewers telling them that unsubstantiated opinions risk removal and a blocking of their reviewer's account for repeat offenders.

Finally, there are the well-constructed opinions which go into detail about what is wrong - the anachronisms, continuity errors, spelling and grammar mistakes, plot holes etc. These opinions are vitally important to quality control and even if an author is on the wrong end of such a drubbing, they should recognize that reviewers like this are helping keep the bookseller from getting clogged with dross.

Not only that, if you get one of these, consider taking the book down and giving it a major overhaul paying careful attention to the points the reviewer made. If you think of them at all, do so in a spirit of gratitude.

Why can't the reviewers be reviewed? Amazon's 'x of y people found the following review helpful’ goes a little way towards this but nowhere near far enough nor will it until it is accepted that many of the bad reviews need deleting just as those that will remain should inspire some heavy duty revision.

Until then us authors will be dogged with damaging subjective, prejudiced, unsubstantiated and ill-considered opinions.

About the author

Clive West is marketing director for Any Subject Books Ltd, an indie publisher always looking for new and aspiring talent. Follow them on Facebook


  1. What great info for writers! I love the idea of different subject matter for the stars but, like you, doubt that'll happen. Thanks for the post.

  2. Good article! I had a horrific review that was so personal that I figured out who wrote it by her long nonsensical rant. Nothing she wrote made any sense. I once employed her. It's a long story and I won't bore you with details, but I do agree that reviews should be helpful to readers and not simply a method to hurt authors. We could all use more quality reviews, but at the present time we're pretty much unprotected and have to have tough hides. I also agree that if I read a review and it lists specific problems, I go back through the book and make notes so that I don't continue a bad practice.