Whenever a book piques my interest, the first thing I do is go on Amazon or Goodreads and read the bad reviews.
Because, for once, I believe that by reading the bad reviews you get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t in that particular book. Also, I’ve found that those who didn’t like the book are particularly more detailed in their reviews. They aren’t just raving about how awesome and freaking amazing that book was. And then I suppose it’s simply because I’m more likely to buy a book that also has some bad reviews. All five star reviews looks pretty suspicious (like my novel, Jazz, on Amazon.com) and I just guess that reading about a book’s flaws makes me want to buy it more.Also, reading those one star reviews that were given even to the best of novels is a fantastic tonic for my confidence. No book is perfect, and no book will ever please everyone.
I think that there are basically two kinds of reviews. Not just about books, but about any type of product and/or service. You either have good ones, from those who loved it. Because that’s a basic impulse – when you find something you love, you want to let the world know about it. And then there are the bad reviews, from those who didn’t like that product and are trying to warn people about it. That’s another basic impulse.
That’s why, as a percentage, there are few 3 star reviews on Amazon. If something’s just good enough to be functional, not to make you feel like you’ve wasted time and money, odds are that you won’t write a review about it. Unless asked for specifically, that is.
Who writes those bad reviews?
- People who didn’t enjoy your story. We know that preferences are different, but there are other elements as well. We can safely assume that not everyone can read Faulkner, or Sartre, or David Foster Wallace. If you’ve read light fiction all your life, odds are you probably won’t understand much. And then, also, these three writers might actually make you feel uncomfortable.
- Readers who’ve bought your book even though they’re outside your target audience. This is basically the only thing I’ve liked about John Locke’s book on how he’s the shit and how he sold a zillion books in 23 minutes and 56 seconds. He’s idea is more or less the following: that if your book sells well enough, it will eventually fall into the hands of people who weren’t meant to read it in the first place. People who won’t enjoy it, because they don’t like that genre, that style, or simply the type of story you wrote. And this happens more often than possible. Maybe some readers get the wrong impression from the blurb, or the cover, or any other misleading information, and they buy the book, and then they find out that it’s not chick lit, it’s actually Magical Realism. And it’s not an easy on the brain, lots of dialogue, type of story, it’s actually more like a paragraph long novel.
Of course, when it comes to your own books, you shouldn’t really think too much about it. I mean, it would be pretty egocentric of you to think that everyone who gives you a one star review was just too stupid to understand your story.
After reading those bad reviews, some of which are quite witty and funny, I usually search for a review in Publisher’s Weekly, New Yorker, or other prestigious publications. That’s how I get to properly weight the book, to see if it’s worth buying or not.
But the sad thing is there is no sure fire way to know if you’re going to enjoy a book or not. No matter how much you read about it, no matter how long the sample or great the blurb. Sometimes even our favorite authors somehow manage to disappoint us (like Chuck Palahniuk did with Damned.)