To Star or Not To Star: About Book Reviews

So, I'm working with an author who wrote what looks like a very interesting book which will be released soon.  They want to send me the manuscript and I want to read it.

However, they made the stipulation that I refrain from posting anything less than a five-star review on the book's Amazon page.  They want to ensure the page puts the book's best face forward.  I certainly understand this, but I don't agree with it.  I wrote them an email telling them all the reasons why.  

I have been recently mulling on the issue of writing negative reviews, and once I finished my response, I realized I had written today's blog post.  Here it is (more or less):
Dear  —:

First, insert your cover as the first page of your text in the manuscript and hopefully it will show up in the file.  Kindle does illustrations, but I don't know how they do it from a .doc or .docx file.
Second, I think you're doing yourself a disservice with your stipulation.  A book with nothing but five-star reviews can lead readers to misconceptions about your book.  I've been in the Internet advertising business, and I know that false reviews are put out there all the time, as do most people.  All glowing reviews are big red flags, especially to the people that count: the big search engines like Google.  
From my POV as a consumer, if I see a few five-star reviews and nothing else, I automatically think, "Ah.  Nobody but this author's friends have read the book.  That's telling."  It tends to put me off reading it.  
Case in point:  I am currently trying to read this book, ———.  This author has three five-star reviews (presumably from friends) and two one-star reviews written AFTER she had her Amazon giveaway.  It is, hands down, the most atrocious book I have ever read.  Her premise is absurd and her characters are ridiculous.   Her understanding of the social norms of the period is just enough to make the entire work a campy parody of the genre, although the attempt is sincere. The writing is strained and pedantic, the supposed period vernacular appalling and an annoying distraction.  [It reminds me a great deal of my first attempt.]  Below is a completely random quote:
[note:  quote deleted as a courtesy]
It only gets worse from there.  But Amazon gives her 4.5 stars.  The only reason I am trying to force my way through it is to support [a new writer], but I cannot write a review of it without blasting it out of the water.  So, I won't, and feel horribly dishonest about it.  Don't readers deserve to know what they're getting themselves into?
Sorry.  Got myself ranting.
My point is, if you're confident about your work and serious about building a loyal following, get your book out there and let the reviewers do their worstor their best.  A range of opinions and ratings will improve your standing.  It will also give you an honest idea of what other people think of [it].
As for me, I won't publish a review of one or two stars.  I think it's a disservice to the consumer, but it falls into the "if you can't say anything nice. . . " category.  You can find my reviews on Amazon hereand GoodReads here.  GoodReads is more comprehensive, with a couple more than I've posted on my blog.
I'm also stingy with stars, which is why I don't use them on my blog.  There are so many factors to a book, I feel it is impossible to rate anything on a scale of less than ten.  Does the author know their craft?  Is it written well?  Is it compelling?  What about the plot arc and character development?  Are there glaring factual mistakes in the content?  Is it simplistic or anachronistic?  Does it engage its target audience?  Is the premise feasible (which is a valid question even in sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction)?  Is it believable or trite or overdone?  Does it have me making mental asides or do I simply lose myself in the tale?  Technical issues bug me:  grammar, proofreading, formatting.  I take points off for gratuitous violence, profanity, and sexual content.  
Boiling all that down to five stars works like this: I give a work five stars if it is written well (my editor mode doesn't kick in) and does any of three things:  keeps me up all night finishing it, brings sniffles and tears, and/or makes me laugh out loud repeatedly.  If it is does all four, I would give it ten stars if I could.  I believe These Is My Words to be a ten-star book.
So, there's all the advice you didn't want.  I hope you take it in the spirit it is given.    Again, I would love to read and review your book, I won't publish anything lower than three stars, but I certainly understand if you decline.  Bottom line:  believe in your book and let the chips fall where they may.
I hope to hear from you soon.
Penny Freeman

How do you feel about reading or writing negative reviews?  Do you trust what you find on commercial sites like Amazon and GoodReads?  What about the common five-star rating scale?  Leave a comment below and let me what you think.  I really would like to know.

If you're an author with a story to tell, I would love to review your book. Click the contact button on the tool bar below and let's write something beautiful together.  

Addendum:  (06.23.2012)  Since posting this email, I have developed a rating systems and have outlined it here, on the About This Blog page.  

—A Chaotic Mind


Unknown said...

I agree with most of what you say here. If an author wants to control what, how, or where I post my review of his or her book, I will pass on reading it. If I agree to review a book, and have a negative experience with it, my review will state why my experience was negative, and I will post it in the same places I post my positive and neutral reviews. I do this because, in writing a review, my responsibility is more to the potential readers of the book than to its author. If people see only "three-star" or higher reviews from me, they have every reason to question my veracity, because I'm not being completely honest with them.

Unknown said...

This is only too true. I fear my procedure is still in development. I liked the reviews I read on your blog, especially those that are negative. They are honest and well thought-out.

Marsha Ward said...

LOL! Penny, you remind me of myself as a reviewer. Except that I have to keep a tight rein, sometimes, so I don't launch into teacher/editor mode and tell the writer how he/she can fix the problems. If only they'd contracted with me for an edit before publication!

From time to time, a bit of that still leaks out. I do try to find something good in each book I review (I'll pass on truly abysmal books), but I also am stingy with rankings. Not every book is impressive enough to be a five-star novel. Some are simply nice tales to pass the time.

On the other hand, as an author, I'm very gratified when readers have chosen to gush about my books and award them five stars, LOL! That's never because of something I've imposed on readers/reviewers. I do encourage readers to post comments, but never, ever tell them what to say or coach them on where to rank them. I'll take whatever they say, and try to learn something if the book failed to give them a good time.

Thanks for speaking your mind.

Marsha Ward
Writer in the Pines

Unknown said...

Marsha,I agree wholeheartedly! Dear Author:Why didn't you just ask?! Right now, two books come to mind that make me think, I'm reading this on the wrong end. I wrote a post about the need for a good editor yesterday.

As for yours, I can't wait to get my hands on "The Man from Shanendoah". Thanks for the comment.