Are Online Reviews of Books By Customers Fair?

I was starting to research an article about Valentine Day mysteries, and began with looking up a title by Dorothy Cannell. I’ve sold the lovely Ms. Cannell’s books, and  always had the impression her work was enjoyed by most. Well, if you were to go by reviews up on amazon, you’d think she’d written the worst claptrap ever. A few people wrote reserved reviews, but most skewered every aspect of the book. Some reviewers were extremely nasty. Here’s an example:

“<<AVOID THIS THING LIKE AMOEBIC DYSENTERY>> A “book” not to be read lightly but to be hurled with great force into the furthest furnace. Abysmal.”

Naturally, the individual who penned this gentle piece does not reveal his or her name. In between those two sentences are vitriol thoughts–to an extreme. Is this fair? Is it fair to the writer, the other readers to slam a book this viciously? Or is this something new and prevalent on the web–people who have too much time, and not enough brains and soul to comment in a fair manner. I’ve seen this type of nastiness on a thing called yelp. I was checking an address for a really swell cupcake shop when I foundered upon yelp and the comments left about the store. I couldn’t believe what I read! The sheer venom, anger, was shocking. About cupcakes, for goodness sake! It began to dawn on me that these are not reviews from passerbys like myself, the comments left at these sites are attempts for the writer to gain attention. So they up the hostile quota until they feel they topped someone else whose sage words were the height of negativity before they posted. It becomes a contest of who can write the most dreadful pieces about whatever place they spot. Some of these people seem to do nothing but comment–I wonder if they actually leave their cesspools of disgust to visit the places they throw feces at?

Writing reviews doesn’t require leaving home, so I would think it’d be much easier to scan the plot summaries and then type out what appears to be a reader’s thoughts. I’m suspicious, yes, that many of the book reviews are by people who either never cracked the spine, or scanned the story they’re giving a scathing review.

I admit, I wrote one hard hard review of a mystery–only one, and for a very good reason, yet, was I justified in being this mean?

Here are parts of my review:

“I started reading this mystery of a pet sitter detective, Ms. Ballantyne and the facts regarding ferret behavior started off dead wrong, and continued along those lines throughout the book.

Granted, the detective lives in CA, ferrets are illegal, and she had to use the Internet to get info about them. Having done that, the detective still thinks it may be possible that ferrets ate a corpse. Not to the bone, mind you, but bites about the entire body. And she wasn’t thoroughly convinced they didn’t kill the victim to begin with.

Now, my question is, if the detective used the Internet, didn’t the author writing the novel also use the Internet for info? And if so, didn’t she read enough to understand that ferrets do not “make noise” when frightened-and wouldn’t have been frightened by a car crashing through a wall to begin with? More likely, they would want out of the cage to explore the bucket seats. I won’t even get into the likelihood of vampire ferrets. ”

I soldier on: “So, research is very poor for this book, something non ferret fanciers may be able to overlook.

Stereotypical characters. The author kept making pointed remarks about a couple of characters’ weight-to the point that the unpleasantness of one character’s personality was almost defined by her being fat. Someone needs to inform this author that stereotyping people like that in fiction went out with Simon Legree and Little Nell on the railroad tracks.
Other characters, such as the pain in the behind cop, the oh-so-sexy private eye (or law enforcer) love interest, the male best friend pet spa owner, are standard in practically every amateur detective novel. No originality here.”

If reviewing my own review I’d have to ask–was it necessary to add the ‘someone needs to inform this author?’ and ‘no originality here?’

I’m not certain it was fair. What I feel is fair–the criticism of not doing proper research on the main subject  of the book. If the author had done the most basic research she would have read about ferrets being domesticated thousands of years ago, that they aren’t wild animals and cannot survive outside therefore are unlikely to attack in the manner the author describes. Do ferrets bite? Some do, but never to the extent of killing an adult human being, or even mutilating them. They have the attention span of a flea, the inquisitiveness of a cat times a billion, and the energy and playfulness of kittens and puppies all their lives. They are not related to the Black Footed Ferret–another mistake in the plot. See, I’m all hot and bothered just reviewing my review. But does that justify the semi harshness in tone? And should I, just a reader, have this kind of say, and sometimes power?

As with the cupcake shop–bad reviews will take a toll on business, deserved or not. And, here’s a really sad and scary thought–what if competitors are writing the nasty stuff on these sites? Granted, competition among authors wouldn’t involve this type of thing–I mean, some other author whose detective is a pet owner wouldn’t trash this book thinking it may win them more readers. Would they? Hm, it is a thought. I am sure trolls ramble through amazon and other book review sites stamping on positivity like ants, and doing as much damage as they can manage, satisfying whatever sick need they have to be cruel. But I believe most reviews are true–meaning, they read the book, but decided to trash it as brutally as possible. It isn’t necessary to be nasty in a review to get your point heard.

I’ve reviewed a total of three books on amazon. Two are of a friend’s book that I honestly love and enjoyed. The third is the one above. When I was selling mysteries, I made it a rule never to trash a title in print or to a customer–you never know whose taste your dealing with–and if a customer likes furry things that talk and solve murders, who are you to tell them differently? But wrong facts are troublesome, especially to a ferret owner who sees nothing but lies regarding their pet.

What would the proper way to review a book you don’t like, but shouldn’t decimate? I would think you’s simply explain your problems with the plot or writing style, and let it be. And many reviewers on amazon and other sites do just that. Another disturbing idea–positive reviews by friends of the author to bolster the favorability of the book. Or, disingenuous reviews by fans even though a particular title didn’t muster enthusiasm, a fan will rave anyway, just to support ‘her’ or ‘his’ favorite author.

I’ve heard of some authors asking friends and fellow writers to say something positive on amazon to counterbalance a bad or vicious review. Is this any better than writing a false bad review? I’m not sure. But if the bad review is obviously planted or wrong, it can’t hurt to have someone write an opposite one. My  point –how can a customer possibly believe what the final ‘stars’ a book ends up with? They can’t, and in my opinion, shouldn’t.

There are no indie booksellers lurking behind the walls at amazon having read and reviewed many titles, so that you as a customer can rest assured their opinion is trustworthy. Skill and experience and intelligence and trustworthiness is not found within the nasty, applauding, grammatically incorrect, misspelled  paragraphs under the synopsis of a title. As a consumer, don’t be taken in by manufactured accolades from people whose motives are impossible to know. Trust your own taste–buy what you like–or better yet–call up an online indie and ask a knowledgeable seller what they think of your possible picks, and buy buy from them. They won’t steer you wrong–they count on your coming back-and bad customer recommendations is not the way to assure you do.

4 thoughts on “Are Online Reviews of Books By Customers Fair?”

  1. I read the book reviews provided by our library consortium’s plug-in: Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, among others, and find them impartial for the most part and definitely geared towards giving the reader just a taste of the book and a very brief summary. Otherwise, I steer clear of reviews unless I want a good laugh. The review you quote at the beginning is a good case in point! Silly waste of space.
    It’s too bad that Amazon and other online shops ask customers for reviews. I think that’s a job better left to folks who review books for a living.

  2. I much prefer to read book reviews on book blogs, where the reviewer at the very least has some accountability. That isn’t to say that they still won’t trash it, but nearly every review I have read on a book blog has been honest yet fair, and the reviewers always make a point of acknowledging their own biases.

  3. Diane, excellent article as usual. I had the occasion once to have someone write a highly negative review about one of my books, yet the reviewer admitted that he never even read it! He was simply upset that so many others have rated me highly and thought the positive reviews were fake—they weren’t.

    Fortunately, I was able to convince Amazon to remove the inappropriate negative review; as should all authors do when harmful, inaccurate, and unwarranted reviews are written about their work.

    It’s one thing to read a book and not like it, and then share your reasons why in a review. It’s another matter entirely when trolls scour online marketplaces looking for opportunities to do damage for kicks.

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