Review Bias

If you’re an author or book reviewer, I’m sure you’ve given a lot of thought to the subject of book reviews. A bad review can ruin an author’s week, while a good review can inspire an author to finish that next book in his series. As an author, I know how important a book review can be. I know how sensitive authors can be when it comes to reviews. I’ve often wondered if reviewing books is a conflict of interest for an author. Can I really give an impartial review when part of me is reluctant to hurt an author’s feelings? This is something I’ve struggled with off and on for a couple of years. While there were times I’ve considered giving up reviews, I decided against it.

As an author, I’m biased. This is a fact. I do allow my feelings to cloud my judgment. But I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. All readers are biased. We all bring our baggage to the table. It’s impossible NOT to be biased when we read and review a book. Every experience we have as a human being changes who we are, not only as a person, but as a reader.

Image courtesy of nuttakit via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nuttakit via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve often heard non-author friends say they won’t read books that depict any sort of child abuse. Before they became parents, they could read such books, but since having children, they found they could no longer do so. This is a bias they bring to the table every time they pick up a book. If they happen to start reading a book and come across a scene where a child is being abused, they might stop reading. They might give the book a bad review based on their own perception of the book. Does this make them biased? Sure. Does this mean they should stop reviewing books? Absolutely not.

A reader who happens to be a doctor will probably leave a negative review for a book that inaccurately depicts medical procedures. A social worker might leave a harsh review if the book they just finished reading is riddled with inaccuracies about the foster care system. Your police procedural thriller might get five-star reviews from police officers who are impressed that you did your research, while you might get one-star reviews from readers who are upset because the scenes in your books are contrary to what they learned watching television. While one reader might hate your book because the main character doesn’t spend enough time with her children, another reader might love the fact that your book’s romantic heroine is a single mom. Every aspect of who we are–our profession, personality, past, hobbies, interests, and even our religion–will affect the way we perceive a book.

For example, I read Fifty Shades of Grey despite the fact that I knew I probably wouldn’t like it. A friend from book club LOVED the book and insisted that I try it. I ended up hating it more than I ever could have anticipated. I hated it more than any book I’ve ever read. When I began reading the book, I could tune out all the negative things I’d heard about the book from other authors and readers. What I could NOT tune out were my own personal feelings and life experiences that made me detest nearly every aspect of the hero’s and heroine’s characters. I hated their relationship because in my opinion, it was abusive. I hated Anastasia. I hated Christian. I hated the fact that some of the scenes were straight out of Twilight. I could find no redeeming qualities in the book. When I told my book club friend how I felt about the book, she said, “Well, you have to read the rest of the series to see how the relationship evolves.” I told her I’d take a pass. Even though I hated Fifty Shades, I still like and respect my book club friend. I can understand why she might like the book because she has had different life experiences than I have had. My one-star rating of the book is valid and justified, just like her five-star rating is valid and justified. We just happened to disagree on that particular book.

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Image courtesy of photostock by FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As authors, we have to brace ourselves for negative reviews. Sometimes readers will hate our books because we overuse a word they don’t like. Sometimes they hate our book because some aspect of our main character’s personality reminds them of a girl who bullied them in high school. They can hate our books for any reason–or for no reason at all. Sometimes a reader doesn’t gel with a certain book and they hate it, but can’t quite put their finger on why they reacted so strongly to it.

As a reader, I”m not always going to like every book I read. When I write a negative review, I try to offer helpful criticism. I also try to point out areas of the book I did enjoy. But sometimes, my strong dislike for a book makes it difficult for me to find a nugget of goodness within the pages. While some authors believe a reader should refrain from reviewing if they can’t find anything nice to say, I disagree. Every reader has the right to give their heartfelt, honest opinion of a book they’ve read. As long as the reader doesn’t cross the line and become verbally abusive toward the author, they have every right to say whatever they want about the book.

Authors, how do you feel about negative reviews? As an author, do you think you judge books more harshly than the average reader?

Reviewers, do you leave negative reviews? Have you ever had a strong negative reaction to a book that everyone else seemed to like?

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31 thoughts on “Review Bias

  1. I have struggled with this question too, Tricia, because I haven’t wanted to hurt an author’s feelings. But I ultimately decided that negative reviews aren’t necessarily bad. First, a negative review is still a review, and we know that just having reviews is important. Second, if the reviewer, like you, offers helpful criticism, then the author can learn from that. My remaining silent for fear of hurting an author’s feelings deprives that author of an additional review and potentially helpful feedback.

    • That’s very true. Critical reviews don’t necessarily have to be bad if you do it the right way. Any criticism might hurt an author’s feelings, but there is a chance that your feedback might help the author. It’s tough. I’ve wavered back and forth on the issue many times. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer on this. We just have to do what we feel is right at the time.

  2. On the whole I’m reasonably adept at picking books so, apart from 50 Shades, which I loathed too, I think that I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve read. I have so little time that I choose them very carefully. However there have been books where even I’ve picked up grammatical errors and typos. In those cases, I’ve tracked down the author and contacted them with the details of the proof reader I use – which is how I found him, by the way. I’ve promised to review the book when it’s fixed or offered to review it and upgrade the rating when it’s fixed – much as Awesome Indies did with both mine. ;-)

    I feel guilty though, that I often give books 4 stars and some of the authors have given mine 5.

    Cheers

    MTM

    • Recently, most of my reviews have been at least a 3 star, but that’s because (like you) I try to choose carefully. I read samples before I buy, so I can generally tell whether I’m going to like a book or an author’s writing style before I commit to reading.

  3. Interesting post, Tricia, thank you. I also have wondered whether I should give up reviewing, but, you know I don’t think I would. Even though I won’t now read a book I honestly don’t like – not enough years left to do that – so my review ratings tend to be on the high side. That said, it is what I enjoy, so I will keep doing it.

    I think that writers tend to be a bit harsher, perhaps, than the average reader, because they notice things that others will overlook. On the other hand, their crits are usually less visceral and more about the content, so, I might prefer their crits to those of a member of the public who might say, for example, “I hate reading James Bond books because they are misogynistic rubbish”.

    Much to ponder. XXX :-))

    • I tend to rate books on the high scale too, but that’s due to the fact that I pre-screen books before I buy them. When I first began writing, I was more critical of books, but now I’ve mellowed out. I think I’m more forgiving since I’ve self-published a couple of books. I know how hard it is to find reliable and affordable editing, so I’m willing to overlook errors.

  4. I’m not sure a bad review is ever helpful. Once a book is published the author isn’t going to take it apart and rewrite it on my say so. If I can’t say more good things than bad things about a book then I won’t leave a review. Best selling authors get their fair share of critical reviews but a bad review doesn’t affect them; their books will sell anyway. A couple of bad reviews for a struggling unknown can be death.

    • Sometimes a bad review can be helpful. The author probably won’t rewrite a book based on my opinion (nor should they), but it might give them food for thought as they write their next book. If I can’t find anything good to say in my review, I usually won’t review the book at all because like you said, a bad review can be the kiss of death for an unknown author.

  5. I try to avoid leaving bad reviews for new or struggling writers.
    But I have to admit, it drives me crazy when someone publishes something that has clearly not been edited. And I don’t just mean for punctuation. I mean they wrote one draft and shoved it out there. I wrote a scathing review a few months ago for a book like this. Okay, maybe not scathing, but I was honest. I still feel guilty about it, actually, but I feel like other readers had the right to know. And if the author is just not going to put the effort in, I don’t feel I owe him or her anything in terms of support.
    I also kind of feel like in cases like that, a negative review might be more helpful. Maybe the author will realize that for the next project, they need to put more effort in. Of course, that is probably just wishful thinking.

    • I agree–I hate it when an author publishes an unedited draft. You can tell the difference between an author who self-edited and missed a few things, and an author who didn’t edit at all. If errors are excessive, I will mention it in a review, but I’ll try to balance my criticism with positive comments as well.

  6. Great post, and thought provoking as always Tricia.
    I have to say that in the past critical reviews have helped my own writing to improve, but that was when I was seeking critiques. I guess once you publish, you feel like you’ve put your heart and soul into making it the best that it can be, and are ready to launch it to the world. Then the negative reviews are hard to take, because you feel like you’ve done all you could, and its a sour pill to swallow, knowing someone doesn’t like it.
    But, as you say, you are never going to please all the people all the time, and nor should you. That’s what makes writing a creative, artistic process, and we should, even though its hard, welcome any kind of review, as long as the review isn’t out of spite or for some ulterior motive.
    I actually read a lot of negative reviews, once I’ve read a book, just to see what others didn’t like. It’s kind of a learning process in itself to see what readers have to say, and sometimes, it does give you clues in how to improve your own writing. I don’t know where I read it, but some famous writer, gave the advice, that you should read books you like and books you don’t like, and then work out what it is that makes you like them or dislike them, and then apply that lesson to your own writing. It certainly is an interesting exercise, and makes you think a bit more.

    • Negative reviews hurt, but they can be helpful. I’ve agonized over negative reviews, but once the hurt fades, I can usually find elements of truth. It’s always good to re-examine your writing, otherwise, how will you learn and improve?

  7. I’ve given a lot of very negative reviews, and while sometimes I cringe when I post them, I do–always–post them. I make no qualms about my very blunt opinions. Sometimes those opinions are vastly different from everyone else who read the book, but like you said, that doesn’t make me any less entitled to have my opinion, nor does it make my opinion wrong. Every once in awhile I’ll genuinely seem to upset people who don’t agree with me, but after a year of reviewing, I can generally shrug it off and plod a long. As long as I know I’m being honest, if not tactful, I try not concern myself too much with whom I may offend anyway.

    • Yes, you are absolutely entitled to your opinions and you have the right to express them! One reviewer actually said she hated me in her review. She had nothing good to say about my book. I spent a week feeling hurt over it, but I was still able to find elements of truth in that bad review. Though I didn’t rip my book off Amazon and totally rewrite it as a result of her criticism, I have considered some of what she had to say and I’m applying it to future books.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • The way you handled it is exactly how I wish everyone would. Take the nuggets of insight and run with them,and forget everything else :) It’s a shame that negative reviewer chose to comment on you personally rather than staying professional :/

        • I don’t think she meant to attack me personally. I think she just hated my book so much, she went in to “rant mode.” Oh, well. Not everyone is going to like my book, right? :)

  8. I’ve always been able to find something positive in a book, even the ones I personally would prefer never saw the light of day. Since I’ve started writing, I am even better at finding the great/good elements in a story or writing style.

    I have made a choice that when I review a book I will say what I did find positive about the book. You may like this book if….or you may not like this book if….

    There are plenty of negative reviews out there. More than positive reviews often times. Plus, the tend to be longer and more detailed. I don’t need to add my biased two cents into the mix. I fully acknowledge that what I treasure & enjoyed someone else may find objectionable.

    What I’m striving to achieve is sounding as unbiased as possible, so a reader can possibly decide if it is worth their time to read. It may not have been my cup of tea, but if someone else loved Fifty Shades and it got them to reading why would I stand in their way? I don’t see a review as an opportunity to shove my personal opinions down someone’s throat. Most people can make up their own minds.

    I’ve liked several books with horrible reviews. Bad reviews don’t stop me from getting a book, but negative reviews can bury the book in the recommendation queue. Not good.

    I’ve recently decided to not do a “star” review. If I really enjoyed a book beyond measure and will re-read it again in the future then I give it 5 stars. Nothing less if ever offered in a star review.

    • That’s a very good approach to reviews, and you make a very good point. A specific element that makes one person hate a book might make another person hate it. I like your idea of “you might not like this book if…” Give readers the facts and let them make up their own minds.

  9. I write reviews, both good and bad. One reason is I know that the number of reviews a book has makes a difference for the type of publicity available to them. (Some places won’t accept advertising of books with fewer than 10 reviews, for example.) If I can’t find anything redeeming about a book, or it’s so littered with editorial problems that it’s obvious the author didn’t put much effort into their craft, I won’t leave a review.

    When I receive a negative review, it hurts. I generally walk away for a few days and then come back and see if there is anything I can learn from the review for future books. The ones that burn me are the ones that complain a short story is short. Or a book entitled something like “Iowa Dreams” is too Iowan. I vent and move on…but I do vent…in private. :-))

    Good post, Tricia!

    • Hi Trillium! Negative reviews certainly do hurt. Some negative reviews are very helpful and other are not, especially the ones that aren’t specific in any way. But as authors, we have to take the bad with the good. That’s funny that you mentioned reviewers who complain about short stories being too short. I’ve seen reviews like that, and i have to wonder if they read the book description before they purchased the book.

  10. A good post and great point. I do try and review every book I read, because I know how important reviews are and want to show my support to writers. But, being a writer myself it is hard sometimes.
    Recently I read a book and it just was… not good at all, it was the first time I felt a book was really bad. Yet, I know how much heart and soul must have gone into writing the book, so it was hard to give a low review. The book did get some 5 star reviews, and some 1 star reviews, so it shows that not every book is for everyone and personal feelings are always a factor in this.

    • Yes, personal feelings are always a factor. There are some stories that are well written,but I still don’t like them. Maybe it’s a character I dislike, or some element. When that’s the case, I will usually forgo reviewing the book. If I can’t find something nice to say, especially when it comes to an indie book, I won’t review it.

  11. If the negative review is truly about the book itself and why the reader didn’t enjoy it, then I as the author can use that knowledge in future writings. However, there are a number of reviewers that hate Indies and automatically give a poor review and there have been reviewers who personally don’t like the author so they give bad reviews.
    A bad review based on the content of the book is the right of any reviewer. Not everyone will like our works. I rarely give less than a 4 star on a book, but I will never read Fifty Shades of Gray for personal reasons. That, as you said, plays into whether we like the story or not.

    • I’m glad you brought up that point, Donna. There are some people who nitpick indie books to death. And there are others who wage personal attacks on the author. If a reviewer sticks to the book itself–characterization, plot, grammar, etc–they have a right to criticize it as much as they’d like. It’s never okay to personally attack an author. A book review should be strictly about the book, not about the author.

  12. Another fabulous post, Tricia. Book reviews are tricky aren’t they? At the end of the day every individual has their own take, their own perspective on something, so as much as I may listen and take note of some reviews, I also take them with a large pinch of salt!

    Totally agree too, too many reviews end up as an excuse to abuse the author, which de-values the whole process of reviewing books. As you said, it should ALWAYS be about the book and never about the author. For me, the thing that gets my goat, are people who have no real interest in books or literature who start reviewing books just to get attention and notoriety. I had a 2 star review of my book, the reviewer kept referring to things that weren’t in the book at all then admitted that they only read 100 pages! Ugh…the idiot then made a point of re-posting the same inaccurate tripe on Goodreads and LibraryThing. I don’t mind people not liking the book, that’s personal choice, but if you’re going to review it, then READ IT, be accurate!! Hey ho, just have to take a deep breath and try not to tear your hair out! :D

    • Sometimes reviews just aren’t fair, but as authors we have to deal with it. When a review is full of inaccuracies or talks about things that never happened, we wonder if the reviewer is even talking about our book. I used to belong to a book club where we thoroughly discussed our book of the month. There were times we all hated a book and we were able to discuss why we disliked the book without ever saying anything personal about the author. There were also times when some of us loved a book and others hated it, and we were able to discuss the book without insulting each other. It is possible to discuss literature without falling back on personal attacks. The nasty reviewers who say they have the right to say whatever they want are simply choosing to be cruel. I think you’re right–that they like to get attention, especially when other nasty reviewers jump on the bandwagon and like their review, or comment on it. Some of these reviewers belong to cliques where the nastier the behavior, the better.

      Thanks for commenting, Sophie!

      • So true, sadly. Yes, there are a huge amount of wannabes and those that choose to be cruel probably make that choice in other areas of their life to. Anyway, yes, a very frustrating matter sometimes. Brilliant post honey. :D

  13. Tricia, quite right that we bring biases to the table as readers – how can we not, as we are a collection of our experiences and development? We also bring biases as writers, drawing on our pasts. I understand fully that not everyone likes what I write. Just the other day, I wrote an article about a celebrity update and a few people said ‘who cares?’ — I think ‘well they don’t like the subject matter, and that’s fine.’ I know that books are a bit different, especially since we hold those manuscripts so close to our hearts. You have started great discussions here!

    • Thanks, Christy! Yes, we bring our biases to the table not only as readers, but when we watch the news, or movies, or a sporting event. Our experiences shape our opinions. Most of us are able to respect the opinions of others or recognize that someone else’s experiences might be different than ours. Some subject matter (like your celebrity update or my paranormal fiction) won’t appeal to everyone, but that’s what makes the world an interesting place–we’re all different. :)

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