Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

Reviews For Books: WTAF

Reviews — meaning, in this case, usually a star-driven text-based evaluation of a book by an author — are curiously controversial. And understandably so! As authors, we don’t precisely know how to grapple with them, if we should look at them ever, if we should engage with them in any way, if we should ask for them, or pretend they don’t exist, or god, do they even matter at all? As readers, more questions ensue: where should they go, what do star ratings mean, who are they for, what is their ultimate purpose, and are they increasingly more noise and less signal?

I sometimes pop on THE OL’ SOCIALS to say something like, “hey, reviews are nice, so if you’ve read one of my books or any book and liked it, leave a review somewhere, and if you didn’t like it, still leave a review by yelling it into an old hollow stump where the goblinfolk will carry it to us on a palanquin made of gull bones.” And I did a similar one recently and a couple-few authors added that the reviews should be five-star reviews only, and — well, needless to say, that inspires some, um, conversation.

So it seems like it’s time for a (probably too long, sorry in advance) post about reviews from the POV of an author, though right up front let’s get ahead of this with a vital tl;dr —

In my opinion, reviews are for readers more than they are for writers, and in that wide open review space, you should feel free to type whatever you want, be as honest as you care to be, and give the book whatever star-rating you feel most soothes your wild soul. There are no rules, and you are under no obligation to a writer, to a publisher, to a bookstore, to anybody but yourself. I patently do not agree with the FIVE STARS OR HIT THE BRICKS attitude, because books aren’t restaurants on Yelp or a survey to tell the car dealership how your service experience was today. It’s not a Doordash or Uber rating. It’s a whole other thing. So, go with the book gods, write the review you wanna write, give it the grade you wanna give it, the end, goodbye.

With that said, let’s scratch the paint on this, see what’s underneath.

What are reviews?

In this context, reviews are an evaluation of a book left at a site like Amazon, Goodreads, Storygraph, B&N, or other sites designed for this kind of thing. Generally they are also governed by some kind of rating or ranking — stars, usually. We’re not talking about trade, media, or professional reviews (the kind you might see in Kirkus, the NYT, NPR, etc., sometimes written by another published author), nor are we talking about the marketing blurbs written by writers for other writers (“Tour de force! Magnum opus! Tingled my britches with its literary masterpieceyness!”). These are the kinds that an average reader can go and deposit online somewhere.

Certainly we’re also talking, to a lesser extent, about the reviews you might leave on TikTok, Threads, Bluesky, IG, Tumblr, Faceyplace, Grindr, Cubezorp, LinkedIn, MySpace, YellZone, or recorded upon the ancient internet papyrus known only as “blogs.”

Are reviews useful?

Sure! Probably! Not always! I don’t know!

Useful is a teleporting bullseye. I am quite certain that readers use reviews written by other readers to gauge whether or not they’re going to read a book or not. I’m sure some use it as their sole metric, whereas others incorporate it into an overall vibe, influencing them but not fully directing them.

Obviously, there are… *looks left, looks right* problems.

First, as authors, we’ve all gotten the reviews that are like, “this book arrived late, one-star,” or, “book smelled weird.”

Second, it’s easier to parse a book’s individual reviews when there are fewer of them. Once you get to a certain point — over a hundred, maybe, certainly over a thousand — it starts to be like sand on a beach. You cannot possibly pore over every grain and gain meaning, so they become more useful in aggregate — “Ah, this book has a 4.3 rating,” you say, and that means something to you specifically, though likely something slightly different to someone else. You might pierce the aggregate and look at a handful of reviews — either the ones that are algorithmically floated to the top, or maybe the ones that are most recent, or even a sampling by star rating.

Third, there is of course no meaningful standard to reviews — which is to say, I’ve read glowing reviews that present the book as flawless that give the book four stars. I’ve read very thoughtful, helpful three-star reviews. I’ve read one-star reviews that are manifestos against “woke.” I’ve read reviews that read like they hated the book, and then, ding, it’s a five-star review. Goodreads and Amazon each carry a different vibe to their reviews, too, with Amazon reviews at least seeming more generous, and GR reviewers being… less so, usually leaning a little lower, overall.

(This even persists in trade reviews. I’ve read middling-seeming reviews that gives the book a star — a star being like, a gold star, a THIS BOOK IS SPECIAL tag, essentially — and I’ve read glowing reviews that eschew the star entirely, for some random reason or another.)

The problem here is also the thing that makes this all so interesting: we’re all people and people who make art and who write reviews of art are all a glorious, wonderful mess with minimal constancy or unity to govern our whims. We’re bringing life experience and mood and baggage to the table. And maybe the book really did smell weird.

A fourth problem is that reviews and ratings sometimes aren’t even reviews or ratings. Review bombing is a thing — and Goodreads seems particularly vulnerable to this, as you can find even right now if you visit Cynthia Pelayo’s Instagram at present. Or, look no further than the Cait Corran thing.

It seemed to happen with my first Star Wars book, Aftermath — the book launched at midnight and by like 2AM, the book had already aggregated a steady flow of one-star reviews. (And here I note that people are free to not like that book for whatever reason, but of course a non-zero number of those reviews seemed particularly obsessed with the gay characters in the book. Though the early surge may have been attributable more to people cranky that this was New Star Wars and not EU Star Wars.)

Alternatively, some people rate books one-star on Goodreads just because they’re using them as a placeholder on their shelf.

Chaos reigns.

How should writers interact with reviews?

The easy and incomplete answer is, “They shouldn’t, and should run away, very fast, and if the review pursues them, kill it with fire.”

Again, we must assume reviews are by readers, for readers.

They are not for the writers.

Admittedly, some people want to tag writers in their bad reviews, which is fucked up, and don’t do that. I don’t email you to tell you I hate your shoes or that I think your child sucks. Don’t tag me to tell me how much you disliked my book. That’s just weird behavior. And some reviewers also think writers need the bad reviews as a “corrective,” which is double weird, because by the time you write that review, the book is done. You realize that, right? It’s over. We can’t do shit about it now. We probably can’t even change the next one because that one is done, too, just not on shelves yet. So, writers need to internalize that reviews are not for them, but some reviewers also need to recognize that the reviews are not really for the writers.

I’m happy to see positive reviews, because of course I am. I love to know something I wrote connected with someone. And I’m happy to share those kind of reviews if someone sends them, though I damn sure don’t seek them out. (I confess I usually look at my books’ reviews in the first week of release, then I nope the fuck out after that.)

Generally, the goal is for us to stay away from and out of reviews. It is not our world. We of course transgress, but we are needy magpies whose beaks long for shiny things to peck and to steal. It’s understandable, I hope.

(Also, this is my personal opinion, but authors should try to avoid negatively reviewing books by other authors. I recognize this is a controversial opinion and not universally shared, but to me it enters into “ethically questionable” territory while simultaneously being just a little bit gross. YMMV.)

Above all else, writers, leave the reviewers alone. This shouldn’t need to be said and the people who need to hear it won’t read it anyway, but hey, don’t insult or stalk or mess with reviewers ew fuck what is wrong with you.

Do reviews have a meaningful effect?

Which is to say, are they tied to anything? Do they do anything beyond existing individually or in aggregate for other readers? Or is it just the knob on the toaster that pretends it will make your toast darker?

Like, are they tied to any algorithms?

Do publishers care about them?

If a book gets X number of five-star reviews, do we get a plaque or a pony or even a digital high-five from a marketing robot? (We do not.)

When it comes to evaluating their precise effect, witness my hearty shrug.

This is, at this point, purely anecdotal — but once upon a time, I spoke to A Man From Amazon at one of the ComicCons. I wanna say NYCC but might’ve been SD, not sure. He was asking me questions about author experience with how Amazon handled books and also the back-end of reporting, and I had questions of my own and so forth and in the course of that conversation one of the things that came up was that, in essence, a book’s page was almost like a single social media item. Say, a tweet. (God I still can’t believe Elon Musk shitted up that crucial branding, but then again, he’s King Midas except more like King Shite-Ass, given how everything he touches turns to turds.) Anyway. A tweet or an IG post gains traction based on, essentially, how much interaction there is with it. Looking at it, commenting on it, favoriting it, resharing it, and so forth. Doesn’t matter if that interaction is positive or negative. It’s interaction, and it gooses the algorithm into paying attention to it. Amazon product pages were purportedly similar at that time, whereupon simply interacting with the page mattered for the algorithm. Leaving a review was one such interaction. Trick is, at the time, it didn’t really matter if the review was positive or negative — it was, in the ALGORITHM’S UNBLINKING EYES, a net positive, going in the + column that the product obviously had “attention.” And in the attention economy, that meant something, and so it was likely to juggle the page into algorithmic searches.

Is this still true? I have no idea. Was it ever true? I also have no idea. Certainly these days an individual book’s product page is a fucking nightmare at Amazon — it’s so much noise and so little signal. I have no idea how reviews factor into Amazon’s algo. I know Amazon’s own published books can end up having tens of thousands of reviews before the book even publishes given the way they give access to the books early to certain Amazon subscriber-types, and some programs, I believe, require a measure of reviewing to happen, so it ensures that more reviews mound on top of those books, which arguably generates more algorithmic attention — then again, I was once to understand that Amazon’s own published books already had a boost in the algorithm — a thumb on the scale. Again, who knows! This is all behind closed doors and the more quote unquote “AI” enters the equation, the more all of it is inscrutable even to the people who work there.

As to whether publishers care, again, no idea. My guess is that, similar to the algorithm, they care more when a book is getting no attention rather than when it’s getting some attention. And they probably care about review bombing campaigns, though whether or not they hold an author in any way accountable there I assume depends on the publisher. It’s also very possible that they have AI aggregators now to summarize for them massive swaths of review information. We’re seeing that at Amazon for other non-book products where all the reviews are summarized by the magic robot (who has no nuance and who probably just makes shit up, let’s be honest). It also wouldn’t shock me — though it would certainly make me sad and upset — to learn that publishers might use such systems to output for them reports that help determine whether or not an author gets a new book deal, and at what price point advances are offered. “Sorry, the robot says your reviews online could be better, so we’re cutting 20% off your advance.” Is this happening now? No idea. Will it happen? No idea, but again, wouldn’t be shocked.

Does that mean there are ethical considerations to leaving reviews?

In the sense there are ethical considerations to everything we do, sure. Certainly there’s a possibility, even a likelihood, that bad reviews will start to have a programmatic effect on our publishing environment. TechBros definitely want everything to feel SUPER DISRUPTED, BRO, turning everything into an algo-driven numerical ranking used to concentrate power away from labor and into the hands of the companies. (“Sorry, bro, you’re only at a 4.7, so we’re going to have to take away your healthcare, since the threshold is a 4.81.”) Certainly you should absolutely leave a glowing review for your Uber driver, your Doordash driver, any labor worker you can review individually, because anything less than that absolutely fucks them. I’m not yet aware of this happening to authors, though again, it is possible that it will have some clandestine effect — or is even having an effect now we’re unaware of. (The ground is moving fast under our feet.)

Even still, I think suggesting that readers have an obligation to leave only positive reviews is weird, and sets a dangerous precedent that only feeds the above problem before it gets going. (And if our books only get five-stars, then nothing really matters anymore.) Selfishly, I’d love if we all rounded up our reviews — you know, hedge our bets a little bit in case The Robots decide to start executing all authors below a 3.5-star rating. Doubly so when we’re talking marginalized authors who often are the ones who suffer the most at the hands of review-bombing campaigns. But I don’t really think readers owe writers anything at all besides procuring the book from a bookstore or a library fair and square.

I do think that leaving any review is a good thing, operating under the assumption that attention for the book is attention for the book regardless of the numerical factor of the book’s rating. Though maybe one day I’ll change my tune on that once if I learn, say, that our advances are literally affected by negative reviews. That sounds too evil to be true, but I guess in this day and age, you’d lose big betting against the dystopia.

Where is best to leave a review?

The two usual suspects are Amazon and Goodreads. Goodreads feeds into Amazon, too, which is weird. (GR is owned by Amazon, remember.)

Obviously, both are problematic in a few ways — here, an article about how the world is turning against Goodreads.

You can leave a review at Amazon without having purchased the book, though they indicate that such a review essentially weighs less in terms of the algorithm. Worth reading Amazon’s review note, actually:

There’s also more information at this link.

The Goodreads review policy (and “philosophy”) is here.

I think Storygraph is pretty interesting, but I see now they’re learning into some kind of AI — and I don’t know if it’s the good helpful kind or the kind where it’s just gobbling up all manner of human interaction and art in order to barf out a bunch of shitty information-shapes.

Posting your DEEP BOOK THOUGHTS to social media is good, too. I note that a single post on social can have dramatic effects — look no further than how Bigolas Dickolas completely bent the arc for This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I know that TikTok is also a place where backlist can end up flaring bright in the darkness of obscurity, and any hope for renewed interest in older books is a huge win.

So what does any of this mean?

Forgive my flailing, but I really don’t know. Currently, my feeling is this:

Leave reviews when you can. While we can’t speak to the exact value, they certainly direct attention to a book.

I personally might suggest trying to ensure that reviews are fair-minded, even-handed, kind when they can be. Even a bad review doesn’t have to read like a manifesto of spleen, is what I’m saying. You’re free to write ONE STAR, TURDS, as your entire review; you do you. Your mileage can and should vary and I think the review space is all yours, and what you put there is between you and your gods, and you’re under no obligation to us. (We’re also under no obligation to you, either. We write what we write, you write what you write, and hopefully in the middle of that Venn Diagram are some fulfilled readers and unstarving writers.)

Again, this may all change — if we start to see that reviews are actually moving the needle and hurting writers (and writers are labor), then I do think that equation might need to shift in terms of ethical ramifications.

I don’t know how much reviews ultimately matter. I do know I’m gracious that anyone would read one of my books and feel affected by it enough to go say something about it somewhere, anywhere.

Ultimately, again, there’s no obligation to review a book at all, and certainly no obligation to review it favorably. But I do think that there is value in helping curate a healthy bookish ecosystem by leaving reviews, and being thoughtful about those reviews in some way.

Hey, it’s my birthday!

So I mean if you wanna get me a present and leave a review of one of my books somewhere, that’d be super cool. Or you could even buy one of my books! That’d be nice. Or don’t! I’m not your father. I am merely your weird uncle, and my words carry no authority at all.