Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Star Chasers

or How You Shouldn't Overreact to a One-Star Review

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Recently, I came upon this post, expounding on the importance of the one-star review, and how detrimental it can be, especially to indie authors. What particularly caught me was this quote:
Despite her not even having read the book, she has managed to bring my 5 star rating down to 4 stars. This means a great deal of indie book sites will now not include my book in their free lists or advertising lists of the day.
Now, I've blogged about reviews before - the importance of leaving them and the importance of being honest. And if you've followed this blog at all (and I assume you have because, hey, you're here), you know I've done reviews - and posted them to Amazon and Goodreads.

But honestly, everyone take a pill and calm down.

In another article (which of course I now cannot find), it was posited that approximately a third of readers will love a book, a third will hate it, and a third will just feel ambivalent. This sounds pretty logical to me. People are different. They all like different things. Heck, isn't that why there is such a plethora of genres and sub-genres in fiction? Some people like sci-fi, some like romance. Some like light romance, some like erotica. And even within those sub-genres, not every fan of the genre likes every book. Some find the characterization well-drawn and the plotting compelling, some don't.

To this I say: to each her own.

There's a popular saying that the sure way to fail is to try and please all people. It's true for a lot of things, including writing. People are so varied that it's an impossible task. Now, the author of the above quote bemoans that this four-star rating is going to exempt her from certain promotional channels. Having looked for those same channels for my own book, I have to say I've never come across one that demands a five-star rating average. Four stars, four and a half stars, but never five. But since I certainly haven't explored the nooks and crannies of the Internet for every possible channel, for the sake of argument I'll assume they exist.

What do you suppose the real problem is here?

To me, the problem is the channels. By insisting on a five-star average (which means every blessed review is five stars), they have set the bar impossibly high. No author in existence can do this. And I embarked upon a little research to see if I'm just out there or if I'm right. I picked four authors considered "greats" and four "great" books. I put "great" in quotes because really, it is kind of subjective. But as a lit major, I feel generally comfortable saying these four authors rank at the top of the literature pyramid. Here is what I found

  • Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice: Amazon rated 4.5 stars
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: Amazon rated 4.2 stars
  • Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls: Amazon rated 4.3 stars
  • William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet: Amazon rated 4 stars (random edition)
So right off the bat, these four pillars of English literature would be exempt from these promotional channels insisting on a five-star rating. So I wandered over to my own book, which currently has a 4.6-star rating. Now, am I honestly a better author than Austen, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Shakespeare?

I'm not that proud/egotistical/delusional.

Now let's look at those reviews. Right off the bat, I see a lot of "This sucks," and "Worst book ever." I agree, these are not helpful. But really, I think readers are intelligent enough to weed these out.

For the Shakespeare, a number of one-star reviews were given because of the book condition (it clearly said "used" in the product description, so why give a book a one-star review for not being new?) and because it did not have line numbers as advertised (I assumed these were needed for academic purposes). A legit gripe if that is indeed something you required - but a one-star review gripe?

And then I found this gem of a review for Romeo & Juliet:
This was by far the worst science fiction novel I have ever watched. While the story of two lovers may seem romantic to some people, the use of spaceships and alien robots was very unneccesairy. The worst part of this play had to be the end where both charaters joined up with Marty McFly to save the universe. Thumbs down to you sir! The remix WAS better.
Obviously a joke, right? (Or at least I devoutly hope it was a joke because if it's not, wow, just wow.) But it's still a one-star review. Amazon's engine is not smart enough to filter out a joke review. So poor Will got slammed because some doofus simply didn't like his play and decided to make a joke about it.

I believe readers are smart enough to gloss over this, too.

Speaking of readers, I do a lot of that too, you know. Personally, I am suspicious of books by relative unknowns with nothing but five-star reviews. Because while a review that says "this sucks" is not helpful, neither is a review that says, "Most awesome book ever!" Neither provides any details, why the reviewer felt that way.

And seriously, with all the millions of books in print, "most awesome book ever"?

As a reader, I don't give a lot of five-star reviews. To me, five stars is "I couldn't find any major flaws and any fan of this particular genre should definitely read this." More common is four stars, "An extremely enjoyable read and I highly recommend it to fans of the genre." A couple times I've done three stars: "Enjoyable read, worth picking up, but get it from a library."

The only time I have left one and two-star reviews is when the book is only available for a scandalous amount of money (a hardcover for $35-$40) and there are what I consider major flaws that I think someone should be aware of before spending that money - and they are usually things I wish someone had told me.

So yeah, do I wish more people would learn how to leave a useful (not a good) review? Sure. Is it likely to happen? Probably not. What I wish more is that authors, particularly indies who are already under pressure (self or otherwise) would take a deep breath and realize that a one-star review is not the end of your fiction career. Into every life a few one-stars must fall. It's just the Way Things Are.

If there are promo channels insisting on five-star averages, shame on them. You are not helping. And you are not making me want to work with you anyway.

And at the end of the day, they need me more more than the reverse.

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