Every so often, shit hits the fan when it comes to commentary on reviews. Most of the time, the stuff that generates big news are the times when authors and/or agents take serious exception to the fact that somebody posted actual criticism of a book instead of a glowing review. We’ve all seen it happen. It generates hits for blogs, it causes controversy, and usually results in a load of bad publicity and people vowing never to purchase that author’s books.
But there’s some more subtle backbiting going on when it comes to reviews, too. Not so shit-stirring, but still enough to make my smack my forehead with my hand and wonder how people actually justify this stuff to themselves.
Most of the time, I see it happening on Amazon. People post reviews. Then other people come along and have the chance to vote a review as helpful or unhelpful. Which seems like a great idea in principle, until you realize that damn near everyone uses those buttons as the equivalent of Facebook’s “Like” button. If they agree with a review, they say it was helpful. If they disagree with a review, they say it wasn’t.
Never mind that plenty of negative reviews ARE actually helpful. They’re helpful in the way that they can influence whether people purchase a copy of that book for themselves. They’re helpful in the way that authors can know what people are saying about their works, and perhaps note areas where they may need improvement. Not agreeing with something doesn’t automatically make it bad, worthless, or unhelpful.
But I see it happen time and time again.
I’m reminded of a passage from one of A J Jacobs’s memoirs. He mentions that his father would often go on Amazon and look at reviews of his son’s books, and then mark every review that gave it a rating of 3 stars or less as unhelpful. This was supposed to demonstrate that Jacobs’s father was loyal and supportive to his son. But it completely ignored the fact that that isn’t what the buttons are there for. It’s not a “Like” button. It’s a button to critique critique.
That sort of behaviour reminds me of a subtle version of people getting their panties in a twist whenever somebody says anything bad about them. I used to hang around a lot on fanfiction.net, and the amount of times that people would send hate mail to me because I didn’t rate their story very highly, or because I actually gave critique on grammar and spelling and pointed out plot holes… Well, let’s just say there’s a reason I stopped bothering. It became pretty clear to me that people wanted little more than to be praised, preferably for as little effort as they could get away with.
This isn’t the case with everyone. But I do see echoes of that kind of mentality in the people who will bitch that somebody didn’t rate a book higher. The ones who will comment on reviews and leave deliberately inflammatory and personal comments to the reviewer because their opinions on someone else’s work happened to differ.
If there was ever such a thing as purity of reviews, it certainly doesn’t exist on Amazon.
I understand that low ratings on major sites like that can kill a book’s chances at succeeding. It’s a tough world out there, and I can completely respect that. But misusing the “Helpful” button and leaving snide comments to reviewers isn’t going to do you any favours. If you’ve got something to gain from the book, then you’re being unprofessional. If you have nothing to gain from the book, then you’re likely just being a troll.
Maybe I’m ranting about this because I came across some inflammatory comments on a review I’d posted, including one person insinuating that because I hadn’t purchased the book through Amazon.com, then my review was somehow suspect and shouldn’t have been posted. But that, I think, was just setting the spark to a pile of tinder that has been growing for a while. This is something I feel rather strongly about, and have been wanting to go into detail over for a while now.
I’m sure some people will disagree with me. They’re welcome to. I welcome some debate on this, because someone might say something to change my mind, or add some greater depth to the ideas that I’m playing with here.
Which, I think, might just go to prove my point in the end anyway…