Monday, February 2, 2015

Yes, I write 1-star reviews (and here's why)

I had an interesting experience last week on Twitter, after I shared some links to a 1-star review I had written on Amazon. This led to sharing other 1-star reviews, and soon all the people with whom I was speaking said something to the affect of, "Whoa, dude! I do not want you reading my books!" I think they were half-kidding...but half-kidding also means they were half-serious. Some people on Twitter became downright terrified of me because I had written some 1-star reviews. And not only that, but I had written detailed 1-star reviews, outlining everything I found wrong with the book. People were worried that I would find their book, find every tiny flaw in the style of the Cinema Sins YouTube series, and tear their book apart.

So yes, I confess that sometimes I write 1-star reviews. Now let me expand on that...

Let's first establish that if you read most of my reviews (especially if you've also read the books I've reviewed), I think you'll find I'm actually pretty gracious. When I read a book, even if it's in a genre I'm not particularly fond of (eg., romance), I ask myself this one question: "Is the author doing a good job in their role?" So take the example of the romance author. Are the characters likable? Can I relate to them as people? Do I care what happens to the characters? Is the description understandable? Is the plot interesting rather than tired and cliche? Do I want to finish the story? Even if I don't like the romance genre, if a romance author has fulfilled all this, then they can probably expect at least a 4-star rating from me.

I think part of the problem today is that so many people react with extremes. They didn't like something? Automatic 1-star! They sort of liked something? Automatic 5-stars! No one seems to think, "Alright, even if I didn't like this, it has some merit"; or alternatively, "Alright, I thought this was nice, but there were a few flaws." So, if you receive a 1-star review from me, it's because your book has reached a level where I personally do not believe it is even ready for the market. Which means yes, I really truly do believe your book deserves a single star rating. I try to reserve 1-stars for what I believe would be a complete waste of time for the average reader.

If I do write a 1-star review, do I make it thorough? Yes, I do. However, that's because I don't believe in writing negative reviews that amount to, "This sucks. The End." If I offer someone constructive criticism, I let them know my reasons for said criticism. The best professors I had in college were the ones who could look at my work and say, "You're bad at this. Don't do this as much. You're good at this. Hone in on this.", etc. I try to do that for authors, whether I like their work or don't particularly care for it, because I believe it is only respectful that, if you disagree with someone or believe their work has flaws, you attempt to explain to them why you feel that way.

But this also brings up a much larger problem within the Indie Publishing community, which is review fishing. That is, writing positive reviews in the hopes of getting positive reviews back. One might even lump in here writing positive reviews for friends just to help them out. While this isn't true across the board, some people think they are entitled to highly rated reviews. Keep in mind here that I am not saying if you like someone you shouldn't review their work. If you have a good friend and they wrote a book, go ahead and review it! The problem is when we begin to say, "OK, I'll write a positive review not necessarily because the book itself was good, but to give them a higher rating and make others think it's good." That's where our intentions become flawed.

And on this subject, I have a bit of a horror story...

Several years ago, I played a game entitled The Movies. It was somewhat inspired by The Sims, except here you could make your own movie studio and design your own movies from a collection of pre-made scenes. What was really cool was you could upload your movies to the game designer's website and get other people to watch, rate, and review them. One such person I had met on The Movies forum came to me and asked me to rate his film. I watched it, and I liked it. It wasn't a Kurosawa successor, but I thought it was alright, so I gave it 4-stars. When the guy saw it, he lost his mind! He contacted me on IM, and berated me for not giving him a full 5-stars. He claimed that his film "deserved it" and that I was an a--hole. When I apologized for upsetting him, I received a curt "Whatever" and was blocked.

Obviously this was over a silly computer game, but people can be like this about their written work. Some people go ballistic over negative reviews. Even more saddening is that there have been recorded instances where an author who has received a negative review from another author will gather up his buddies and go spam that other author's books with negative reviews. Yes, you read that right - some people do revenge reviewing. This instills a level of fear in some authors (and I'll admit, this thought has crossed my mind a few times) that if they write negative reviews, people will be out to get them. Perhaps there's even a fear that, if you review one author's work negatively, you may get backlash in the community and become the black sheep.

Brothers and sisters, things ought not to be this way.

When we review, we should review honestly. If you really did like the book, then fine and dandy. If you didn't like the book, you're entitled to your opinion. If you write a positive review just for entitlement, or to keep a good name for yourself, then you're being dishonest to potential readers. If you review one of my books, don't give me 4-stars or 5-stars because you think you're doing me a favor or you think I now owe you something. Give me 5-stars, 4-stars, 3-stars, 2-stars, or 1-star because you think my work deserves that score. Let other readers know if this book is worth their time and money. We should treat all authors equally.

And please, if you get a 4-star review, treat it as a good thing.


  1. Good article again, Ben.

    I've been saying this for some time. It seems that unless an indie-author gets a 5-star review from a fellow indie-author then they feel hard done by or insulted. In many cases, they then mark your own work down out of spite - as you say - revenge reviewing. Pathetic.

    There is a fear amongst indie-authors that they will be ostracised if they don't give a good review. Personally, I like what I like and don't give a damn if anyone else agrees or not.

    The way I have always given a review is to only provide stars. I will only write a review of a book if I enjoyed it enough to take the time to do so. I would rather focus upon my own work than waste my time writing about books that were just meh or plain bad. If an author contacts me and asks me why I didn't like the book then I am happy to tell them.

    I think a lot of indie-authors mistake low reviews as being an attack on their writing skills.That is not always the case. I might like the way an author writes, but I might not enjoy aspects of the story that was told. If I don't like a character's name then it kills the story a little. I am not a great fan of Stephen King's novels. I like the way he writes, but sometimes the stories are just 'meh' or rely heavily upon 'deus ex machina'.

    I am happy to come out and say that I would only give 2-3 stars for any of George R.R. Martin's "Game of Throne" series. I know he is currently popular, but Tolkien he is not.

    Admittedly, the books started strong (I bought them back when first published - not after the TV series) and the story was good, but Martin's technique of focusing upon individual characters gets a little tiring. I often found myself skipping pages just to get to the characters that I cared about.

    More importantly, I followed the series until it got to the point that the books were no longer forthcoming. Years passed and then a book came out. I would then have to reread the previous book to remember what the hell had happened. After a while I gave up. Now, I couldn't care less how the story ends (I don't watch the TV show).

    As an author myself, I am fully aware that not everyone is going to like my book. They may hate the way I write. They may hate the setting. They may hate the dialogue or the characters. Ultimately, it doesn't matter to me. I wrote the story that I wanted and was happy with it.

    Give me a 1-star and I'll just shrug my shoulders. Give me a 2 and I'll do the same. Give me 3 and I'll smile. Give me 4 and I'll be positively delighted. Give me 5 and I'll do the same as 3 and 4 whilst drinking a dram to you!

    1. My only complain with GRRM's writing is his world building can at times be a bit questionable. I mean...hundreds upon hundreds of years, and the Starks have reigned in the North that long? A study of the royal families of Europe shows that ruling house turnovers is way common than people realize (just look at the War of the Roses).

      And I agree, revenge reviewing is just terrible. It's petty and childish. If a book deserves a 1-star, give it that score because it deserves it, not because of your personal opinion of the author.