Book Reviews: How Important Are They?

A few days ago, this article came out on Consumerist.com. If you don’t want to click over and read it right this second, allow me to summarize: There are companies that sell five-star reviews to authors, and Amazon is suing these companies.

I think almost everyone would agree that paying for fake 5-star reviews is a detestable practice. It undermines the entire purpose of reviews and is one reason many readers say they don’t pay attention to 5-star reviews (as both a writer of and recipient of legitimate 5-star reviews, I find this annoying). Why are reviews so important that some authors are willing to cross ethical boundaries to get them?

Let’s go back in time twenty years, when the internet was a newborn entity. We bought books by walking into bookstores, finding a book in a genre we liked and that had an interesting cover, read the back matter, and if we deemed the story interesting enough to continue reading, we purchased the book. Reviews were probably not involved, though friends’ recommendations likely were. If I had to choose between two books and a friend had recommended one of them, I’d choose the one my friend liked.

Enter the internet and the massive wave of independently published books hitting the market. There is a perception that independently published books are substandard – I mean, if they were good enough to be published traditionally, they would have been, right?

Wrong. As an author working both sides of the publishing fence (traditional and independent), I can tell you there is a myriad of reasons why an author would choose to go indie that have nothing to do with their work being “good enough”: traditional publishing works at the speed of glacial erosion, there are elements of the book that make it unappealing to agents or publishers (length, unique characters, etc), or they want more control over pricing and marketing, to name a few.

Bogus or not, the perception is there. With no marketing support coming from a publishing house (which I’ve heard is waning for the majority of authors) and certainly no big name appearing on the copyright page, indie authors are quite literally at the mercy of readers and their reviews. Having skipped the “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing, indie books depend on the words of readers to persuade others to buy.

Frankly, I don’t care how a book was published. I just want a good story. So how can I find one?

The first and most important factor in whether or not I decide to read a book is if a friend recommended it. I’d say 90% of the time, I’ll read a book a friend suggested regardless of the reviews it’s received. Granted, I’ll still read the blurb and consider if this is an author I enjoy, but the odds that I’ll purchase are strongly in the book’s favor. This is like the pre-internet days, when word of mouth was king.

If I don’t have recommendations handy, I’ll search my favorite genres and read samples. I’ll consider price, and yes, reviews, but only if there are dozens of crappy reviews that outnumber the positive ones. I’ve heard many people say they don’t look at 5- or 1-star reviews, because 5-stars usually came from friends or family or were purchased, and 1-star reviewers often have their own issues that have nothing to do with the book. Add to this the fact that different sites have different review criteria – an average score on Amazon is usually higher than Goodreads, because Goodreads has a more specific rubric, if you will. Four stars on Goodreads means “really liked it”, whereas four stars on Amazon just means four stars.

The whole reviewing process is murky, to be sure. So are reviews as important as we think they are?

review pleaYes and no. Many positive reviews help an author pursue listings on promotional sites like Bookbub, which can boost sales into best-selling territory. I use snippets of good reviews in my own promo material (especially if they’re funny). A high rating on one book can support the sales of another book by that author.

But I think the primary driver of sales even today is word of mouth, which if you think about it, is what a well-written review is, regardless of the number of stars associated with it. Before I read the first Harry Potter book soon after it was released, a friend told me the first few chapters were slow. Know what? I agreed. Had she not told me that, I wonder if I would have made it to Hagrid telling Harry about his lineage, when the story really picks up. I knew what to expect because of my friend’s review, and I devoured every Harry Potter book after that.

So maybe when we consider reviews, both in reading and writing them, we should think of our friends telling us about books they’ve read. What made it awesome? What were its shortcomings? Is it worth reading in spite of those?

Word of mouth is still king.

What do you think? How much weight do you give reviews when deciding whether or not to read a book? 

11 thoughts on “Book Reviews: How Important Are They?

  1. Reviews are critical for my book selection – there are so many books, I rely on trusted reviews to narrow down my choices. Doesn’t mean I don’t select outside these reviews or try entirely new books, but I hold trustworthy reviewers in high regard.

    I also try to give trustworthy reviews, although I sometimes feel I’m occasionally overly generous:)

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    • So do you follow book review bloggers for your trusted reviews? I would think following specific reviewers on Ammy would be tricky.

      I totally get feeling overly generous at times. 🙂 If I’m reading something teetering between 4 and 5 stars, I’ll usually give it five and write in the review what might have taken it to 4 stars (not written like that, of course). My hope is someone will read it with an idea of what to expect, like with the Harry Potter experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good point. I only post 4, or 5 reviews, and anything less I try to contact the author (it’s surprisingly easy these days, but it’s also because I’m reading mostly indie stuff) and explain what the “poor” rating will be and why, and how to fix the book to improve it to 4 or 5 stars. Many are grateful to have the feedback, with suggestions; some are not. In any case, if they want, I’ll go ahead and post the 3 or 2 star review. Their call. Most books that would get a 1 or 2 star review from me either get returned quickly or didn’t get past the sample point. I don’t need to read 125 pages and find an illicit love scene and decide suddenly that the book now plummets from 5 stars to 1 because of my alleged high moral standards. I review a book – any book – on how well it accomplished what it was supposed to do. (Last I checked, authors weren’t asking me what my whims were before they started writing their books.) Did a horror book scare me? Does a comedy make me laugh? Does a mystery make me… mysterious? Does an erotica book produce steamy love scenes in line with what most readers of that genre would approve of and expect and enjoy? I can deal. Plus, with most 1 star reviews, if they are read at all, it becomes pretty obvious that the review wrier is a jerk. Not always, but often enough. Even if it’s me (I use my own name, even for most of the sleazy stuff, because I’m honest and unafraid. Or stupid.). Sometimes I just don’t “get” a book.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Before I started blogging myself I ‘followed’ 1 or 2 book bloggers who showed similar interests as well as those I who did thoughtful analysis. Nowadays I follow way more and look for more diverse interests – but I still want thoughtful insights 🙂

        I find them through WordPress, Twitter & goodreads – I’ve not bothered with Amazon reviews much.

        I’m still learning how to do proper reviews – there’s an art to making them useful & entertaining (& avoiding spoilers of course). I do full reviews on the blog & short ones on GR, but I try to write few words on every book I read. And I’m the same – I want a person reading my review to have a sense of what the book offers.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Another outstanding post, Allison. You make a lot of great points. For me it’s not the number of stars, but the review itself, the depth of the characters, the breadth of the story, the overall writing. What did you like or love about the story and why? Give me a tidbit, not too much, but something to draw me in, to make me believe there’s a great story written on those pages.

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  3. I can’t really say how I arrive at buying a book. I don’t read.

    My friends’ recommendations have always been hit and miss. With movies, you can at least see a sample in the preview and decide whether to buy a ticket or not, but let’s face it: we’ve all seen way more good previews than we have good movies.

    As a kid, whatever book “everyone” was reading, I read. So word of mouth played its part then. Just as often, though, I read stuff that my eldest sister, nearly ten years older than I, was reading. Also, my Dad read lots of really intense books. And all the family’s books ended up on some bookshelves upstairs where anyone could read them. So at a young age I read a lot of material intended for adults (as opposed to adult material.) The Hardy Boys didn’t cut it when Michael Crichton was right down the shelf.

    In college I pretty much read Playboy, and what do you know? There really are articles in it. Or were; ever since I could see naked women for free on the internet, I didn’t need to continue my subscription. I also got referred to Stephen King’s short story The Body (it became the movie Stand By Me). I never thought about King as a writer because of oddball movies like Cujo and Carrie. But I read that book cover to cover.

    Post college, I bought and read biographies of all of America’s great industrialists and most of the presidents. No referrals from friends, no slick advertising. (Many had really interesting stories; wonder why they never got to that in history class?) I bought a used hardback copy of The Shining, because I loved the movie. It was a great book, and even though I agree that King is the greatest writer alive today, I don’t like most of the rest of his books.

    I also revisited a lot of classics from high school, like Catch-22, another piece of brilliant writing. So I guess those were referrals; teachers said they were supposed to be good. Some were; some just had an agenda that our teachers agreed with. I bought and read many of the classics. Steinbeck (commie). Hemingway (meh). Shakespeare (yuck). I read The Great Gatsby (this is a classic?) and Canterbury Tales. Well, I tried to read Canterbury Tales. It sucked just as much as it did in high school, only post college I got to read the racy parts. That helped a little.

    For a long time, I didn’t read recreationally, just devouring five or six newspapers online each day before breakfast and a long day at work. On weekends or vacations, I’d grab the latest bestseller – and think it sucked most of the time. Turns out, sucky books can have great marketing departments.

    I never read Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Fifty Shades of Grey. And I won’t likely read the next big thing that comes out, either.

    What do I read?

    I belong to a critique group and I read stuff by a lot of people who want to become writers. I try to help them tell better stories.

    I have a friend I met there who wrote a pretty decent debut novel that is currently selling well, and I’m encouraging other good writers I find to do the same thing. She could end up being something special; we’ll see.

    Steering newbies around the rocks and toward success is joyful to me for some odd reason. Helping people avoid the many mistakes I made en route to getting published just feels like my Jacob Marley moment, while it lasts – “mankind was my business.”

    I tell people I don’t read. I couldn’t tell you the names of most of the stories I read over the past year.

    But I read. A lot. Especially for a guy who doesn’t read.

    I will read a few lines of a story, its opening, its grammar and punctuation, and skim a bit to see what’s there. If it catches my eye, I go for a few paragraphs. If not, screw it; on to the next one.

    I have a damned good eye for talent.

    I also recognize that too many authors I like won’t make it. Not because they lack talent or a good story, but because the deck is stacked against them – right now. I hope to play a small part in changing that. I recently read a piece by a lady that I believe may be a masterpiece, a best seller, and a truly unique and amazing story that millions will want to read. That’s an exciting thing to see it its inception. And to possibly be a small part of its success.

    What I do with books is, I read the opening and a few paragraphs, and see where it’s going. Then I see if it’s gotten reviews, and what a few say. I don’t know the writer’s mom or cousin or friends, so the top reviews might be those, and the rest might be purchased. I wouldn’t know.

    I read the story. Amazon and others let me read enough of a sample for free that I can see if it’s for me or not.

    Usually not. ‘Cos I don’t read.

    But the ones that are for me? Great stuff, each and every one. Good reviews and bad reviews are of passing interest, if that. An interesting cover? A good title? They help.

    Give me a good opening to your story and I’ll decide if it’s a good book. I’m arrogant that way. Just like the reviewers for big newspapers. There’s just one difference between me and them.

    I don’t read.

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    • I love the insistence that you don’t read. Ha.
      It’s interesting that you find King to be a great writer but don’t like many of his books. I read The Shining after hubby and I stayed at the Stanley Hotel, where he wrote it. I think that made it spookier.
      Good for you for reading the unpublished stuff, especially with a good eye. It’s needed.

      Liked by 1 person

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