A Good “Bad Review”

It’s an inevitable part of being an author: people will ask you to review their work. I volunteer for it, and sometimes am solicited to do so. You might be too.

And this can’t go without saying: not everything you read will necessarily be good. If you’re an author, I can also tell you that not everyone will like what you have written. But you knew all of that.

There is a certain protocol that I follow for giving reviews, which is pretty dependent on whether or not the book is good.

If the book is good: I not only put up the review on Amazon, but sometimes on my own blog, and nearly always on Goodreads. I love, love, love Goodreads; it’s an excellent reading and reviewing community, and the book discussions get quite interesting. A good review on Goodreads is – at least to me – worth a lot more than a good review elsewhere, and it is also much more personal. A self-published author is, very likely, a Goodreads author, and so are many trad-pubs as well, so you can be sure that the reviews go appreciated.

If the book is not good: I finish reading it, ask myself why I didn’t like it, and then give my opinion to the author privately. When I do so, I make sure to outline concise reasons for why I did not like the book. If the plot is poorly paced, I say so. If facts don’t pass muster – which I do check – I point it out. I rarely put up a bad review on Amazon, because of how it affects the book rank, but I will put one up on Goodreads. If it’s bad enough that I don’t finish it, I simply put it away, delete it out of my Kindle, and let the author know I couldn’t finish.

My tests for a good book are simple:

1. Is the plot believable, written concisely, and paced well?

2. Are the characters believable, and can I relate to their thoughts, even if they’re nothing like me?

3. Is the writing good, thorough, and grammatically correct?

That is all. But once in a while, I still have to give a bad review or two. It happens, because let’s face it: while there are a lot of good books out there, there’s also a lot of not-so-good books out there. While some people fervently want to and believe they can write, they had not been taught to, or the story that they want to tell is just not thought through, or planned properly. Other people just plain lack the talent to write.

One thing to note, though: I don’t make it personal, nor do I take it personally.If I have to point things out to an author whose book didn’t strike me as good, I do it with as much understanding for their style and structure as I can. And since I read quite a good bit, I can wrap my mind around a lot. If I thoroughly dislike a book, I just do not finish it. It’s rare that this happens, but in those cases, I generally don’t bother with leaving any sort of feedback unless asked.

Now, I have three books out. So far, I did get a lot of good feedback on all three, and my first being the first, and definitely not being the best of them (yes, I admit it freely), gets the most feedback. So far, I got a couple of negative reviews, mostly in private, and I will now bring you a little lesson:

How to Write a Good Bad Review.

Ignore the oxymoron in the middle. :) Just work with me here for a second.

Suppose you read a book. Suppose it didn’t resonate with you for whatever reason. You feel that you have to leave some feedback. What do you do?

1. State your reasons clearly, eloquently, and neutrally. If you did not like the pacing of the story, didn’t like the characters, thought it is entirely too much like something else by another author, say it as clearly as you can. “The pacing was not good”, “I couldn’t relate to the characters” – whatever the reasons are, state them as clearly as you know how.Whatever you do, do not say, “I don’t like it, it needs work” and don’t say why. It will do you no favors, and makes your review look petulant. The whole “it’s stupid because I say so” doesn’t work past a certain age.

2. Do not insult. I cannot say this enough. Do not insult the author. They had poured their time, blood, sweat, tears, and effort into making this book work. Be respectful of that. If you can’t do it, don’t review. Period.

3. Before you click “post”, put yourself into the author’s shoes. Not due to the whole “how would they feel?” bit, but because the author is the person who knows the story best. Before you click “post” on your review, ask yourself if you, even though you did not like it, understand what the author had set up to do in this book. Do you get the story? Yes? Are you sure you got it? Not sure. If you’re not sure, hold that negative review, and don’t toss the book. Some time later, when you’re bored and you can’t find anything to read, you may well look at this book in a different light.

4. The plot stays the way it is, and the reviews won’t change that. Believe you me, if there is more than one negative review, the author knows the issues of the book already, but the plot is the one part of the book that is effectively a sacred cow: no matter how bad the conventions, how flat the characters and the writing, the plot stays. You can say, “I like and this is why”, or conversely “I don’t like it and this is why”, but you cannot tell the author what to do to make the story better – the “better” in here is subjective. The author has a plan for the story, and has followed it in order to execute it. You are not the author. Your review does not, under any circumstances, obligate the author to change an already published work. If the work is unpublished, however, and the author is asking you specifically to review the book and point out what to change in the overall plot, then that is another ball game.

Remember this: your review is your review. It is your opinion. It is not fact. It will be interpreted as the reflection of what one person feels, and no more and no less.

Going back to Book 1 of my series for a second, I mentioned that it is not my best. Yes, it has issues. It’s flawed, far from perfect, and I had actually briefly pulled it off the market to revise the grammar and conventions. But under no circumstances did I change the plot. Nonetheless, I have received more than one negative review, and some were great bad reviews, but others made me laugh and shake my head.

One of the best bad reviews I got is that my plot was good, but the entire thing seemed so choppy that it made the book hard to follow. In part, this was intentional; I was setting up the seeds to wrap up in later books (which actually also made writing the follow-up sequels that much easier). In another part, it was also a flaw; would someone actually be curious enough to look at the other books? That was the dilemma. In the conventions edit, I did look through it, keeping my follow-ups in mind, but decided to leave most of the book as it was. Moreover, the plot was already cemented by the other books, so that changing the first book was no longer an option.

In the laugh-and-shake-head department, someone had read Book 1 and then, in an attempt to “constructively criticize” (a choice of words that I honestly detest, because if it’s constructive, it’s hardly a criticism), has emailed me to with a whole bunch of questions about Book 1 that were rife with assumptions that did not at all apply. Those assumptions, mind, could’ve been easily dispelled if the person had actually read the book and tried to follow the characters’ line of thinking or maybe, you know, just for a giggle, read Book 2, which answered a lot of the assumptions about the personalities. As a final note of that correspondence, I got a suggestion to rewrite the book, which had elicited a raised eyebrow and a, “how about no?” This person was firmly aware that I have written a series, and had not even thought to maybe, just maybe, skim through the free sampler. Moreover, let’s be logical: there is no force in the world that would make any author pull a published work from the market that has been there for the pastĀ three years for a revision just because one person couldn’t be bothered to do a little more thinking and a little less assuming.

Another great negative review I got was that the writing was exquisite, but the plot is so confusing that it’s going to take some serious work to get through the series. Yes, I am aware, but you know what – it’s something I encountered while writing the books as well. And one of the reviewers who had identified my book as “very much a first book” had continued to ask me for spoilers (which aren’t given).

You might ask yourself, why am I even talking about my bad reviews? For one, because I can – hey, that’s the best reason there is. For two, because if a book gets consistently great reviews, it makes some people ask the question, “What will I dislike about the book?” and this in turns starts them out looking for flaws, which is never a good way to read a book. And for three, in the self-publishing world, reading and reviewing self-pub books goes hand in hand. I’m not afraid to admit that my work isn’t perfect, because it is the truth. Moreover, every author knows that there’s Room For Improvement. Let them actually see how the work affects someone, not hear what that person feels that they have to fix.

One thing above all: good or bad, if you’re reading a book, you’re in the perfect climate right now to make sure that your voice is heard. Amazon and Goodreads have excellent platforms for feedback, and since most authors have gone online, it is a great way to let them know your thoughts – whatever they may be.

K.G.