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self-published book reviews

For the past two weeks I’ve been subscribed to BookBub, a free service that delivers daily deals on digital books for the Kindle and Nook on Amazon. I’ve been enjoying the service so far.

One thing I’ve noticed – and I’m not sure if this is by design, or if it’s just the way it works out – is that most, if not all, of the books I’ve found on the service have been self-published books. The vast majority is self-published young adult urban fantasy written in the first person, with lots of angels, fae, hunky vampires, and time travelers. A lot of these books have been available for free, so I’ve downloaded a few of them just to check them out. I love to read, and reading other people’s writing is fun and frequently fascinating.

I should preface this next part by saying that I have great respect for people who write, self-publish, and market their own books. It takes a lot of time and effort to write a novel, and then to share and market your work online takes dedication, not to mention guts. I should also mention that I realize that I’m not the world’s greatest writer, so I’m certainly not trying to get across that I’m a better writer than anybody else. Finally, I should mention that some self-published books are fantastic. I’m not out to bash all self-published books, or self-publishing in general… I’m simply pointing out the trend I’ve noticed in some self-published material.

So with that out of the way, I will tell you that I’ve some of the self-published books that I’ve found on Amazon have been complete crap.

This post is not about those terrible books, however… it’s about the reviews for those books. I’ve noticed that a lot of these books tend to get their fair share of five-star reviews, even if by reading the preview alone you can quickly discover the terrible writing and stilted dialog. What is even more interesting is that the high number of five-star reviews is often accompanied by a high number of one-star reviews.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

A typical book’s reviews

First, here’s what I’d consider a “normal” distribution of reviews for a book on Amazon. This is the graphic novel for Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. It isn’t unanimously loved, but the distribution of ratings seems to follow what I would consider a typical pattern.

A typical book's reviews

A self published book’s reviews

Meanwhile, here is a book I started reading that, to be honest, I found awful, and couldn’t finish. The book did not have proper flow, the dialog read like it was written by a third grader, and the pages were riddled with grammatical errors. I won’t tell you which or whose book this was, because the point of this post isn’t to bash any particular individual’s hard work, but here are the reviews:

A self published book's reviews

Notice the major difference between these two sets of reviews. The self-published book’s reviews do not follow what I would consider a typical distribution. There are a number of people who adored the book, and also a number of people who detested it. What is interesting is that the two books have approximately the same average review score (4.0 compared to 3.8), but looking at the distribution of reviews, it’s not hard to figure out which one is the self-published book.

So why is this the case? I have two theories:

Friends of the author are writing the reviews

I think it makes a lot of sense that friends and family of the self-published author are writing many of the reviews that you’re seeing on the book’s page. And to be honest, I don’t feel that this is a deceptive or unfair practice – at least to a point. The author of this book has worked hard to create his or her personal masterpiece, and naturally his or her friends and relatives are proud and supportive of their loved one’s chef-d’oeuvre. They want to support the author however they can, and the most obvious way to do that is to buy a copy of the book and give it a five-star review. Perhaps it’s somewhat misleading, but such practice keeps friendships intact, and if it isn’t overdone I’d hope that the reviews would eventually even out over time. I think it’s most evident when books are first released online.

You can often tell when a five-star review comes from a friend or family member because it will read like an advertisement for the book. While a normal review might read:

“I thought this book was pretty good. I enjoyed the story, and the characters were believable. I liked Captain Spaceheart, though sometimes he was a bit of a jerk. I really enjoyed the action scenes where he fought the Ok’Bok (the aliens), though I felt the ending could have been better.”

A review might instead read:

“Terror in the Heavens!!! Captain Spaceheart and his valiant band of space marines must forage deep into the heart of enemy territory to fight the ruthless and deadly green-skinned Ok’Bok aliens in this stunning premier novel. Will he emerge victorious, or will the Ok’Bok turn him into space goo? Read this book and find out!”

Even books that many people seem to love – the books in the Harry Potter series, for example – don’t have reviews like this.

There’s also the notion that authors themselves are creating Amazon accounts to review their own books. Sometimes you’ll see glowing reviews from reviewers who have only ever reviewed one single book… this one. What’s funny about this is that in another review for the same book, you’ll see a one-star review from someone who said, “this is my first review… I normally don’t write book reviews, but this book was so terrible and all the five-star reviews were so misleading, I felt I had to let the truth be known!”

Naturally, while I think writing reviews for your friends and family is okay, writing your own stellar reviews is certainly not okay.

People don’t notice that a book is crap

I’ve read plenty of book reviews where the review itself is poorly written. This is frequently the case with young adult books. This doesn’t prove anything of course, but it does make me wonder if the people who are reading these terribly written books and giving them five-star reviews don’t realize that the books are terrible… that is to say that they actually are enjoying the books and giving them the reviews they feel they deserve.

The thought-provoking thing about this is that, in a publishing landscape where many people feel that the aim is to write polished, high-quality books featuring proper grammar and sentence structure, in some cases these things may not be all that important. If you’re writing a vampire novel for 12-year-old girls, for example, it may not be worth the time and effort to go back and perfect it – just get it out there, then go and write five sequels. If you’ve got the right mix of quirky protagonist, brooding love interest, and a healthy dose of teen angst, you may have a winner on your hands even if your writing is the pits.

Hmmmm.

Maybe I should go write a book…

08. Mar, 2013

5 Comments

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  1. Rebecca Enzor
    08. Mar, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

    Ok, first, I’m a friend and I give your idea of going to write a book (or, in your case, finishing a book ;P) FIVE STARS!

    I’ve also heard of people who won’t read a book if it *only* has five star reviews, because they assume all these reviews are from friends and family.

    I will say I have a hard time giving my friends any less than five stars, even if I mention weaknesses in the review. And I think you’re right about some people actually enjoying books with a certain element they like, even if the rest of the book is crap, and giving a five star review specifically for that element.

    Generally, this is why I don’t read self-published books unless a) I know the person who wrote it (and I know a LOT of self-published authors who write great books!) or b) it was recommended by someone I trust as a reader.

    Great post, Brian! Now send me some of your book 😉

    • Brian
      09. Mar, 2013 at 6:15 am #

      Thanks Rebecca! I’m still working on my own writing, slowly but surely… I’m definitely looking forward to completing it.

      I agree that it is a lot of fun to read books written by your friends. I think you can learn a lot about a person, their beliefs, and their outlook on life by reading their works of fiction. It’s like entering an amazing, unexplored world of somebody else’s imagination… I love it.

      Best of luck with your own new novel – I hope to see more of it soon!

  2. Kisanthe
    09. Mar, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    I putter around in the reviewer forums on Amazon occasionally, and there are at least three other methods of getting those reviews. Some authors swap reviews with each other: I’ll give you five stars if you give me five stars. Others pay ‘book review services’ to find people to read and review their books. Some authors will e-mail specific Amazon reviewers asking for reviews. They’ve been known to then get annoyed and even hostile if the review is negative. I don’t know whether it’s always self-pub authors doing these things; the stories of bad reactions always seem to involve self-pubbers, though.

    The problem I have with the friend/family reviews are when those five stars come from affection for the author rather than honest appreciation of the book. Sometimes you can tell the reviewer didn’t even read it. Reviews aren’t *for* authors. They’re for readers. Deceiving readers for the sake of authors is bad practice, and I’m not sure it does the author favors either, since if a book is truly bad the biased ratings are rather transparent.

    As for not taking the time to get grammar right, regardless of audience–ye gods! I learned most of what I know about grammar and sentence structure by absorbing it from the books I read. The thought of anyone knowingly feeding young readers poor English makes me shudder.

    The Amazon forums have given me a pretty bad impression of self-pubbed authors, honestly. At least of the ones who seem to think a book having been written entitles it to be read and loved, and who cares whether it’s actually good. The writers who don’t think that way–and I know they exist–get drowned out by the roar of those who do.

    • Brian
      09. Mar, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

      Hey Kassi, those are some wise words.

      I agree with your problem that giving five star reviews for people because you care about them and not because their book is any good is problematic. But it seems to me that doing the reverse is going to break up friendships and cause family strife. I hope that in the long run this sort of activity is kept at a minimum and the “true reviews” start to even out the curve!

      Meanwhile, I also agree with you that it’s through reading the good quality books that kids learn to write, and it’s worrisome when kids are reading books that have hit their eReaders without being properly edited first. With my own kids I make sure that I buy tried and true, published material to put on a Kindle or iPad… I stay away from books that may pique their interests (books about ponies or robots, for example) that went through the publishing process and received positive reviews to boot.

      I appreciate your three other methods of getting reviews… though I have been skimming through some self-published books, I know very little about the “publishing world”, and I didn’t even know there were forums on Amazon! So it’s great to learn about those things.

      And don’t worry – I’m not going to churn out drivel and corrupt young kids’ grasp of the English language… though you have to admit sometimes it’s kind of tempting! Even if only to see if such a book would actually sell…

  3. Fronzie
    10. Mar, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    urban fantasies about fairies, written in the “first person”
    = high school girls.

    Reviews = other high school girls who are at the same slumber party!!!

    😉

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