Some Thoughts on Reviews and How They Help Readers
The Helpfulness of Negative Reviews
As a book review blogger, it is incredibly important to me to be able to provide an honest review about each book I read. It isn't often that I read books that I don't like to some degree, but it happens. I hate having to write negative reviews, but I hate not being honest about something I read even more. I always feel terrible because I know that authors work really hard to write and publish books.
But the more I've read other people's reviews on tons of different books, the more I realize that negative reviews can be helpful. I can't speak about the impact of reviews on an author because I'm not one. But I am a reader and I know what impacts my decision to read a book. And sometimes, a negative review makes me WANT to buy a book.
Now, not ALL negative reviews are helpful and it's the same with positive ones. I try not to get too hung up on what I rate a book out of 5 because it ultimately doesn't matter that much (in my opinion) if I don't say WHY I rated the book that way. The reviews I find the least helpful are blank reviews with a star rating or short one liners. Saying "OMG THIS BOOK IS INCREDIBLE!!!!" sounds great and all, but WHY? That doesn't really tell me if I will love the book or not. I don't like reviews like that. And it's the same with negative reviews that say "This book was terrible." That sucks, but why? What made it so terrible? That doesn't really tell me if I will hate the book or not. I like to hear more about what made a person feel the way they do about the book. Everyone has completely different tastes.
Recently, a friend raved about Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Reading the synopsis, I was unsure if this was going to be a book I would enjoy. I’m not really into historical romance, even with the element of time travel thrown in. I was reluctant to read it. My friend’s sister was in town and I told her I was reading Outlander and she made a face. She told me she didn’t like the book at all. My heart sank. And then she told me why. She said it was too realistic. In most romances, the hero saves the heroine in the nick of time and no one gets hurt. In Outlander, the hero isn’t always there in time and vice versa and the characters end up getting hurt quite a bit. She said it was much too graphic and real for her to enjoy. Immediately, my ears perked up. I went home and picked the book up right away because I was super excited to read it. I love realistic characters and I love when an author is able to place them in real danger. One of my issues with a lot of fiction is that the main characters find themselves constantly in danger, yet escape without a scratch. In Outlander, the characters were deeply affected by the events they went through and there were times when I wasn’t sure they were going to be okay. And their characters became more real and believable as they grew and were shaped by their tragedies. This is the perfect example of why I think negative reviews are helpful. My friend’s sister didn’t like the book, but her reasons were the same reasons I loved it. Her negative review made me want to read the book even more!
I also look at it from a different point of view. Sometimes, I love a book so much, I'll check out tons of other reviews. I get curious as to why someone didn't like the book and check out the negative reviews. Frequently, I notice the same reasons I loved the book were the same reasons someone else didn't, or things that bothered them are things that wouldn't bother me at all. Of course, some books are different and I can't really gauge whether or not I'll like the book until I read it myself, but in those cases, negative reviews may not help, but they don't hinder my decision either.
The Helpfulness of Honest Reviews, Whether Positive or Negative
I wish I always had positive reviews because I love to love books. It's sad when I read something I don't enjoy because I always (for the most part) go into a book expecting to like it. But I hope that when I'm at least honest and clear about what I didn't like, it helps someone else make an informed decision so that they can purchase a book they truly enjoy.
One of my friends, I'll call her Alice, is a huge reader. She relies on book reviews to help her purchase decisions because she's on a limited budget. Alice's friend gave a book 5 stars and raved about it all over the place. So Alice bought the book and shared the news with her friend. Alice's friend immediately apologized and said she actually couldn't stand the book, but didn't know how to say that, so she praised it instead. Alice was not happy. Here she was with this book she expected to love, since she had similar reading tastes as her friend, and her friend pretty much lied about liking it.
I don't want to be that friend! I want my friends to read my reviews and be able to purchase a book without worrying if I really liked it or I'm just promoting it because I feel bad. I think if I wasn't an honest reviewer, my opinion would cease to matter. I would be the boy who cried wolf and none of my friends would trust the reviews I place online. My friends would wonder if I’m getting something out of reviewing and view me as a dishonest person. And if the word spread from my friends to other people, in the end, I would have a bunch of positive reviews that NO ONE would believe. Which I think is more damaging to an author, a book blog, any reviewer, and the whole reviewing system.
As much as it sucks to not enjoy a book, I think it's always best to be able to at least explain why so that negative review ends up helping other readers make a decision. One honest negative review beats a thousand dishonest positive ones, I think. And one detailed review beats a ton of blank ones with star ratings.
I don't know how authors feel when their works receive negative reviews. I'm sure that must be awful sometimes. I know a lot of effort and emotion goes into writing a book and then showing it to the world and I respect that tremendously. I do what I can by giving my honest opinion, hoping that it is as helpful as possible, regardless of whether it is negative or positive. When I first started book blogging and received my first author review requests, I knew there would come a time when I'd wind up not liking one of the books. After talking to the author, one on one, how could I tell them I don't like the book?! It was such a struggle internally, as I'd only ever reviewed books I'd bought, without ever meeting or talking to the people who wrote them. There was distance there. It's a bit different when that's not the case, but I think the end result should be the same. Just be honest. It's helpful to all kinds of readers, and that's the reviewer I try to be.