Thursday, January 26, 2017

Let's talk Amazon reviews

This post is directed primarily at writers, but others may find these thoughts enlightening, too. I think every writer -indie, traditional or hybrid; fiction and nonfiction- faces this struggle. It's the nature of the beast. When you work hard on something that's personal to you, and then you put it out there in the wild, you open yourself up to a whole world of hurt. It can be painful seeing the harsh words of a complete stranger as he or she systematically destroys something you spent months or years creating. It can be baffling, too. We've all read books we hate, but most of us don't feel compelled to race out and slander the author or the work, and try to destroy them on a personal level. Why bother? Why waste energy on something so trivial? Yet some people do.

But not always for the reasons we might immediately suspect.

A particularly bad review might make you feel targeted: "This person must have something against me... maybe it's someone I know, maybe it's a competing author using sock puppet accounts to sabotage my sales, maybe its that nasty agent who rejected me a couple years ago..." Or, it could be simpler than that. Maybe it was a different genre than what the reviewer usually reads. Maybe it just wasn't her cup of tea. Maybe a reader was offended by something in the book. In one of my books, Erased, a villain says something bad about cops. A reader took offense at that in a review. (Sorry folks, villains are supposed to say stuff like that!)

Sometimes people get upset because the book went in a different direction than they expected. (Harry Potter married the wrong girl. Oh noes! I'm one-starring this trash...) I got one of those the other day, and the reviewer was quite clear about the fact that my story sucked because it didn't go in the direction he thought it would. Some people really do seem to think you're a mind reader; that you have an obligation to write what they expect of you, not what your imagination tells you to write. It's disappointing, but not worth pulling your hair out over.

Sometimes reviews get posted to the wrong book. I've seen it happen, more than once. My wife has pointed out several reviews on my books that bear little or no resemblance to the actual story. Sometimes a reviewer has some other problem, and the review really isn't about your book at all. It's just a way for them to vent. There are also trolls who are just fishing to get a reaction. Many online trolls have mental or emotional issues. They feel vindicated when they attack a stranger, because this is justice for all that's gone wrong in their lives. They have a skewed sense of the world, and of the person they're attacking. There's no reason to take that personally.

There are many more reasons you might get a bad review that has nothing to do with the quality of your writing. Maybe it's a kid, or maybe the reviewer is mentally ill...

If you're even thinking about responding to a review like this, that last statement should give you pause. Many children and mentally ill people have access to computers, cell phones, and the internet. They can write reviews. Nobody's stopping them.  Do you really want to take a chance on responding to a negative review only to learn that you just retaliated against a child, or a mentally disabled person? No, you don't. This alone is a good enough reason to shrug it off (and in my opinion, you're going to be better off for it). What do you have to lose?

Just for kicks, I'm going to repost one of my all-time worst reviews. Here's a one-star review of The Tinkerer's Daughter by WLJ on Amazon (formerly known as SHE):

"I was really disappointed in this book and regret spending money on it. The summary makes the story seem exciting. It sounds like a steampunk adventure with eccentric characters that change the tide of a war. I cannot stress enough that this is not even close to how the book really is. It was very slow and very dull. The characters were bland with no distinctive personalities. There was absolutely no world-building. This read more as a creative writing assignment than a well-thought-out book. It is at a preteen reading level and not for adults who like some depth.

The book begins when Breeze is four. She looks older, but since she is an elf, she is mentally a child. However, she quickly grows up into a teenager within months, and for some unknown reason, her maturity level and emotional age now match her body. That was inconsistent and also just not believable. Her character is best described as a bland, preachy goody-goody, and I hate reading about goody-goodies. She eventually goes to school, and of course, all the girls hate her and the popular guy likes her. Oh, and he is rich, and that's why all the girls like him... because they are gold diggers. The awful gender stereotypes and the cliches made my brain hurt.

The plot is indiscernible, and the story dragged. She is captured and imprisoned multiple times, and don't think she uses her own cleverness to get out of these situations. She is too dimwitted and simple. I will not even get into the illogical parts that were just lazy on the author's part (as with her father just pawning Breeze off on a guy he barely knew). I dreaded picking up this book and eventually tried to skim it to see if it got better. It didn't. I was too bored to even skim till the end.

I do not recommend this book!"

So what's wrong with this review? Well, anyone who has read this book can tell you that a number of facts are just wrong. The story takes place over years, not months, and while Breeze does age about twice the speed of a human, her maturity certainly does not match her age. She's quite emotionally immature, and she points this out in the story. In fact, this flaw in her character is the primary motivating factor for all she achieves. A mature adult wouldn't go to all that trouble just to prove something, or because of a need to be liked... then again...

Moving on. Is Breeze a "bland, preachy goody-goody?" I don't know. I didn't try to write her that way. She did struggle against racism, bigotry, and willful ignorance. She was not "captured and imprisoned multiple times" but was jailed once, for a day or so, and was almost killed at one point (no spoilers). The reviewer wraps it up with: " I dreaded picking up this book and eventually tried to skim it to see if it got better. It didn't. I was too bored to even skim till the end." 

Ouch. In other words, this book sucked so bad WLJ didn't even bother reading it. Huh. In her own words, this reviewer admits that she only skimmed the book instead of reading it, didn't finish it, and that she dreaded picking it up in the first place. Obviously, this story wasn't her cup of tea. But this review is from an Amazon Vine Reviewer! Why use her bully pulpit as a Vine Reviewer to try to destroy my book? This review has 102 helpful votes... that means another 102 people (at least) found this book so repulsive that they came back to Amazon after reading it just to thumbs-up this inaccurate review. Fascinating. You'd have to look a while to find another book review like this, with so many helpful votes. 

Responding to a review like this is almost always a bad idea.Unfortunately, as an author, you don't have much recourse. You can thumbs-down the review as "not helpful," and you can flag it as "abuse," but its arguable as to whether Amazon ever really looks at those complaints, at least not until they come in significant numbers. Well, I did respond to the review in question. I pointed out that unfinished drafts of some of my stories were published erroneously (as described in a previous post) and that perhaps WLJ had an incomplete copy. I also politely pointed out a few of the inaccurate statements in the review, for the benefit of other readers. I tried to do this politely but firmly. I didn't want to pick a fight, but to give readers an alternate perspective, without raising too many hackles. And of course, I pointed out the flaws in the review to Amazon, hoping they would at least look into the inconsistencies. Unsurprisingly, their response was no response.

I could go on and on with this subject. For a couple of years, every time this book got a good review, a bad review would follow within 48 hours. Sometimes it would go weeks without any reviews at all, but when a new 4 or 5 star review appeared, a 1 or 2 star would immediately follow. These reviews almost seemed intentionally calculated to keep the book's rating at about 3.8 stars. Why would someone do that? Well, 4 stars is the breaking point for a lot of reviewers and book promoters. I missed out on chances to promote this book when it was new, because the star ranking was too low. I commented about this problem on a popular blog (The Passive Voice), and finally raised my concerns with Amazon. Within days, the behavior had stopped and the rating jumped up to 4.2 stars, where it now resides. 

Seems too much to be coincidental, right? Yes, it's sketchy, but my case is far from extraordinary. Stuff like this happens on Amazon all the time.

Here's the thing (and finally, the point of this post!): Despite all this, The Tinkerer's Daughter has been downloaded tens of thousands of times. This series has always been and remains my best-seller. In fact, one might even argue that the conflicting reviews, the mediocre star-rating, and the preponderance of 1-stars on the front page have actually influenced more sales. I think people know right away that something doesn't seem quite right. This alone is enough to make them give the book a second glance. In other words, if someone has been trying to sabotage this book, their efforts have succeeded in doing the exact opposite! 

That is why I say you should let this stuff roll off. Readers know all of this already. They know when they see a particularly nasty review, or something else that doesn't add up, it says more about the reviewer than about the book. They know about mental illness, online trolls, and sock-puppets And these days, readers are more suspicious of a book with 4.8 stars than a book with 3.8. Readers are smart. Give them credit. Some of them will thumbs-down the review, and that helps, but most importantly: Don't stress about this stuff. Don't take any review too seriously -not even the good ones.  More reviews will come, the trolls will lose interest, and you might even find at some point that they've helped you. Instead, put that energy and emotion into your art. Keep writing!

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