The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Perplexed by Some Reader Reviews

customerreviewsI came across a novel released a month or so ago and read a glowing review of it on NPR. The novel sounded interesting. But when I went to Amazon, I noticed what seemed like two universes of reviews.

  • A long list of highly positive editorial reviews.
  • A mixed bag of reader reviews that, as a group, averaged out to 3.5 stars with about an equal number of 5-star and 1-star reviews.

How do you react to this dichotomy when the book you’re considering isn’t by an author you know anything about?

Some readers have said that 1- and 2-star reviews help them because they: (a) make the group of reviews seem more trustworthy than a book with nothing but 5-star reviews which might come from family and friends, and (b) point out styles or character types or plotting methods that they love but that the reviewers hated.

I expect more of editorial reviews because they’re written by professionals who purportedly are used to the books within the genres they’re reviewing. Reader reviews are often written by people who are reading out of their comfort-zone genres and so they’re often critical of approaches that are standard within the genre.

With the book in question, which seemed to be literary fiction, many of the reader reviews were critical of things that are often standard in literary fiction such as a slower pace, more inner monologue, and a lot of back story.

I wish Amazon reviewers had to fill out a check box wherein they said what genres they normally enjoy. Then, when I read a review of a romance from somebody who seldom reads them, I can take many of the criticisms as coming from somebody who doesn’t really like the genre–or at least doesn’t understand what publishers expect/require in a romance.

Amazon likes to point out the fact that certain reviews were written by readers who bought the book from Amazon. I wish they’d also note whether the reader typically reads the genre they’re reviewing. On balance, I tend to trust the editorial reviews to lead me to the books I want to read because professional critics know how the book fits within the genre, within the author’s body of work, and within contemporary writing standards.

Put another way, you won’t see a major reviewer giving, say, Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy” a one-star review because they’re ticked off it isn’t more like Harry Potter.

Reader reviews are fun to read and, as writers, we all depend on them when we’re not well known enough to be reviewed by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Book Page and the Washington Post. But at times, they are a bit challenging to decipher.

How do you wade through the reader reviews when they’re all over the spectrum from 1-star to 5-star and don’t seem to be about the same book the editorial reviews were considering?


KIndle cover 200x300New Jock front CVR full sizeMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “The Sun Singer,” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.” He admits that these books are so diverse, they look like they were written by different people.



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7 thoughts on “Perplexed by Some Reader Reviews

  1. I personally no longer trust professional reviews of books or films, or restaurants, for that matter. I decide whether I would like a book largely from “look inside” – like dating, I could tell right away if I’m going to fall in love with it 🙂

  2. chellecordero on said:

    Ignore the ratings and read the words. One of my books that had 4 and 5 star reviews once received a 2 star review because, as the reviewer wrote that my style reminded her too much of Danielle Steel and she doesn’t care for Steel’s books. Reading what was written rather than noting the stars will tell a prospective reader so much more. And as noted above by Ana Spoke, a look inside is a terrific sampler.

  3. Sometimes I find the words irritating; you’re example is a good one for a “non-review.” But at least there’s a reason in such inane comments to explain the rating.

  4. I read the one star reviews. People who like a book or product like it for similar reasons. People who don’t like a book or product all have different reasons. Sometimes it’s because the order to took too long or, as you say, they didn’t like the genre. Sometimes the very things they hate are the things they like. And sometimes one star reviews are very intelligently and impassionately written, giving me a truer idea of the book than the glowing reviews. The best reviews from a reader’s point of view for 50 shades of gray are the one star reviews.

    If a book only has a few reviews, then I read them all and hope I learn something.

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