Thursday, June 23, 2016

SM Johnson ~ Do reviews help readers?

How do I find great books to read?

How do you find books to read?

Amazon makes a lot of suggestions to me, and I get tons of book blurb promos from Facebook. If something gets my attention I usually follow a link to Amazon and check out the reviews (starting with the low star reviews) or see what people have to say about that title on Goodreads.

Five star reviews are meaning less and less to me, as a reader, at least.

It feels like every writer has sisters, friends, fans, and god only knows who else spewing out so many five star reviews that it's impossible to judge a book by its star rating. It's as if reviews are no longer geared toward readers, and are now just a mechanism authors use to game the system.

I can't even tell you guys how many terrible books I've given up on because the characters are flat, the narrative is boring, and the overall quality of a good read just isn't there. I really don't want to be with a character from the moment the alarm goes off, they roll out of bed, brush their teeth, shower, get dressed, drink coffee, put their cup in the dishwasher, etc etc etc. Unless they're thinking really strange and wonderful things, I don't need to be present for the drivel. I also don't need the same three sentence description of every person our character runs into on the street or in the office.

It is a task and a skill to leap into the narrative, to keep the pace moving, to allow your readers to assume that characters shower and dress and eat and poop.

I know it's a task and a skill because I work at it every day - the editing out of drivel and building smooth transitions from scene to scene. Keeping to the important bits is not as easy as it seems.

But the five star reviews of drivel are starting to get on my nerves. Give me a good solid wordy three star review - tell me what worked, what maybe didn't.

Not every book is a five star read. One good clue is when every single review starts with "This is the hottest book I've ever read." I start reading, kind of excited, only to be disappointed by an amateurish effort. There might be a really hot or perverse sex scene at some point, but if the narrative is shallow and poorly executed, I'll never get to it. When on page one, the main character divulges, "There are three things about me that are utterly true: I detest the alarm clock, and I love coffee more than life."

Pages later I'm still wondering what the third thing is. Maybe that the narrator doesn't know how to count? And the problem is... if you give me an idiot main character on page 1, I'm probably not going to make it to page 15 before I give up.

Sometimes I feel like authors are putting more time and energy into marketing and promotion than they put into writing their books.

So how do we find books that are actually good? The John Sandfords or the Stephen Kings of the erotica genre? That's what I want. A fascinating narrator who won't allow me to leave until the full story is told. A story can have a thousand great reviews, but if the narrative is boring, I'm not going to keep reading. I just don't have that kind of time. I've started downloading the samples from Amazon, and that does help me know what I'm getting into before I pay for a book.

I would like to find reviewers to follow who have liked books that I also liked. I enjoyed the Dear Author site, but there was some crazy blow up over there, and I haven't been back for awhile.

I've stumbled into some YA reads that have been great, and I'm finding that I typically tend to like books by the big publishers, too. Not because of the marketing, but the actual content of the books, the quality of the writing.

I am by no means a perfect writer. I'm the one who had a gay guy get a straight girl pregnant, remember?  So my characters have had their share of TSTL moments. It's an art, not a science, and sometimes we miss the mark.

None of my books have hundreds of 5-star reviews. And that's okay. The only time I've worked to solicit reviews was for the UnCommon Bodies anthology, and requesting reviews was part of the deal. Other than that, if they loved it or hated it, almost all of my reviews come from an organic response on behalf of the reader. And I have to say, I prefer it that way. They are honest. Sometimes brutally honest, but you know what? I can take it. And quite often there's some merit in a critical review.

I'm still learning how to write great books.


  1. You know, I do find that I have to disagree on this. I give out a LOT of 4* and 5* reviews, and the reason for that isn't because a book isn't perfect. It's because it compelled me, personally, and that's what I'm looking for. Something that one person might find poorly written might be right up my alley. I've 5*'d stuff other people have 1*'d, because it was to my taste. I enjoyed it. I try to write reviews that are about what I enjoyed so there's something more to go by... but we all have differences of opinion.

    Something I find hot, you may not. So if I say "this is the hottest thing I've ever read," it might be that I haven't found anything hotter that I like. I've been told that one of my books is both too dark and not dark enough; it's all a matter of taste.

    But especially on Amazon, the ranking system goes like this:
    1: I hate it.
    2: I don't like it.
    3: It's okay.
    4: I like it.
    5: I love it.

    It's all subjective. *I* like a book, so I'm giving it a 4. *I* love a book and I'll be rereading it, so I give it a 5.

    Same on Goodreads.
    1: did not like it
    2: it was okay
    3: liked it
    4: really liked it
    5: it was amazing

    I don't discount books based on other people's 1* reviews because of that. These sites ask you to rate a book based on your personal taste. Leaving only a star rating is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. It's the reviews that actually help us as readers and as authors. If you give me a 1*, I'd like to know why. Is it the writing? Is it that you think the characters fall flat? Is it that you think the story isn't developed? What is it about the book that caused you to rate it that low? People are a lot more likely to criticize than to praise.

    So I'm going to have to respectfully agree to disagree here. I leave reviews based on what the stars mean--not how many they are. And unless I'm just really crunched for time, I leave a review about what I did like. There's usually a negative in there, one thing I didn't like, but it all comes down to personal taste. I don't put much stock in ratings--from 1-5*. And a lot of times, I don't pay attention to reviews unless they explain what exactly what was wrong with the book.

    Yet, it comes back to the same thing. One person's trash is another person's treasure. Let's not diss those who have 4 and 5 star reviews. It means the right audience is reading it and that it's probably not getting out of their niche, IMHO.


    1. Holy typos, Batman. Well, you get the point.

  2. Other people's 1,2,3 star reviews typically are what compels me to buy a book. That was sort of my point, although perhaps I didn't make myself clear enough. My other point was that 5 star reviews, in my opinion, of course, aren't giving me enough information. Book after book with a hundred or more 5 star reviews often disappoint because they lack qualities that I expect from a 5 star read.

    And your're right on that what I hate, someone else might love, or what I consider poor quality someone else enjoys immensely.

    I pretty much only wrote reviews when something blows me away. An interesting thing happened when I started publishing. I was informed quite clearly that being an author myself forfeits my right to give any book less than a 4 star rating.

    Wait a minute, what? I can no longer honestly review my reading experiences because I happen to be an author? Yes, Virginia. Critical reviews are mean and petty and you're "just jealous" and might be "punished" for your honesty with a whole bunch of negative reviews of your own work. Revenge reviews. It's not worth the risk. And so I whine about it here, lol. But srsly.

  3. Got it. Yeah, that wasn't really the impression I got from the post, but then, I can be a bit oblivious and I've heard the argument before that too many 4/5s seem fishy to them. Then again, you have people like me, who will redo entire books just based on feedback. *cough*

    I've been told the same, about how I shouldn't review as an author--all sorts of things. And hey, whining can be good sometimes. Cathartic.

  4. Perhaps my complaint is that it seems reviewers have become afraid to criticize? Or... perhaps they're just not being exposed to great books? What kicked this off is I was reading a book that had almost 100 five star reviews, cost me over $5 for the ebook, and it was very poorly written. The characters were flat and one-dimensional, the plot ridiculous, the climactic event made no sense to the story whatsoever, and about 80% of the book was the characters cooking, eating, and cleaning the apartment. It was one of the dullest books I've ever read to the end, and I only managed that because it was short. I'm not going to rant in a review (see above reasons)... but I actually feel frustrated that none of the reviews reflected these problems to help me avoid wasting my money, and I'm wondering why that is. I mean, I guess it's possible that the reviewers are only exposed to crap and more crap, and they haven't had the experience of reading a well-executed novel. If that's the case, I feel a little sad for them.