books with Athena

books with Athena

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book Reviewers: the Good, the Bad, and Katie the Book-Eating Dog

Today we have a special mid-week guest post from international bestselling writer Jeff Carlson, author of the Plague Year trilogy (Ace) as well as the self-published bestselling Kindle novella “The Frozen Sky,” which is also on Nook and will soon be available on iBooks. 

Amazon reviews and book bloggers strongly influence any writer’s sales, so writers are usually grateful to anybody who takes the time to write an honest review. Even if they hate it, any honest, reasoned reaction is helpful. Trouble is, not everybody out there in Cyberia is honest...or reasonable. Here Jeff is going to talk about the nasties, wannabes and raving lunatic reviewers who can ruin your day…and your ratings.  

Remember: when you see a favorite writer under cyberattack, give the attack reviews “unhelpful” ratings and report the Nazi-crazies for inappropriate content. As Jeff says, "sometimes the smallest minds make the biggest noise."

by Jeff Carlson

For me and many writers, one of the most eye-opening changes since the e-revolution has been the rise and importance of book reviews on personal blogs and corporate sites like Goodreads, Amazon, and B&N.

To writers, strong word-of-mouth is catnip. Even bad reviews can be useful in honing your craft.

As a full-time author, I spend a lot of time alone in a room with a laptop listening to the voices in my head. That sounds like a joke, but it’s a large part of my job description. There’s no one to hang out with at the water cooler in my office. Heck, there’s no water cooler! That’s why it’s especially cool to get fan mail or to have my Google minions find reviews such as: “This novella was so fast paced and action packed from the very first line that I was sucked in like a two by four in a F5 twister!”

Reading that, I thought, Fantastic. She gets it.

Capturing the reader is exactly what I want — to connect, to entertain, to make you a 2x4 in my tornado.

When eight people say the ending is abrupt, that’s useful, too. My brain says to me, Okay, you thought you had every element in place, but you’d better add at least another paragraph to wrap things up. Readers want to walk away with a feeling of completion. Sometimes I move too fast, so I’m learning to take it down a notch.

Even the people who hate a story are right. No writer reaches everybody, and it’s perfectly fair for someone to leave a low-starred review if he doesn’t feel like he got his money’s worth. That’s expected.

But in today's brave new world of e-media, my inbox is also peppered with a steady dose of diehard political outrage, accusations, and messages from weird alternate realities.

When I swap emails with my writer friends or when we meet up at cons, the new game is Who’s Been Burned The Worst. It’s almost funny.

We all view the world through the lenses of our personal life experiences. Sometimes the world is rose-colored. Sometimes we're not even aware of how thoroughly our own demons shape our perceptions, so let me share some of the over-the-top experiences I’ve had with folks from the fringe.

The Illinois Nazi.

More than once I’ve received hate mail or nasty Amazon reviews for Plague Year because two of the main heroes are a Latino and a genius Jew. Worse, two of the villains are white guys. Obviously I’ve either turned on my own kind (I’m a white guy) or I’ve been so indoctrinated by the sinister liberal media that I don’t even realize what I’m doing...

Here’s the thing. The opening chapters of Plague Year are set in post-apocalyptic California. I don’t know where our white supremacist friends live, but the West Coast is one of the most ethnically diverse areas on the planet. If everyone was forced into the mountains to escape a runaway nanotech plague, there’s zero chance it would be only sparkly blond Caucasians who survived. More to the point, among my best friends growing up were Hispanic and Jewish families. I knew I could pull off those backgrounds competently, and a diverse cast added a bit of texture to what’s ultimately just a rock-‘em sock-‘em sci fi thriller.

The One-Winger and The Classic Old Knee.

As a writer, it's both frustrating and intriguing to have the same novel condemned as a subversive socialist pinko screed and as a right-wing manifesto. Yeah, it's nice to strike such a chord. Every writer wants their work to resonate. But reading is a subjective experience. People bring a lot of themselves to the experience... sometimes too much.

The One-Wingers are careful not to mention race like the Illinois Nazis, but they don’t appreciate how the conservative remnants of the government are perceived by the heroes. By the same token, The Classic Old Knees are certain I must be a big fat Republican because the government is enforcing martial law and the tough Special Forces guys keep pushing the scientists around. It’s crude symbolism, isn’t it!?!?

Uh, no. In Plague Year, the new U.S. capital is a Colorado town that originally had a population of 3,000 people. Now it’s been swamped by 600,000 refugees. There’s no food, no shelter, and if I was in charge I’d darn well have the few remaining supplies surrounded by Army units. That doesn’t mean I’m a liberal or a fascist or a purple polka dot Martian.

I think it’s a very human phenomenon that individuals on far, opposite ends of the political spectrum are able to interpret the same story in different ways, seeing exactly what they want to see in order to support their beliefs.

Sometimes the smallest minds make the biggest noise. That's because feeling angry is pleasant. It makes you feel important. Condemning a book as dangerous and shouting your warnings from the rooftops... let's call that the Revere Complex. Each of our archetypes the Nazi, the Winger and the Knee fall into this same category, a truth which might outrage them all over again if they realized it.

The Nutcake

Alas, these folks are even easier to explain. They’re nutty. Three times I’ve received emails or comments insisting that Plague Year was penned by someone else, namely the person contacting me, and that I stole the book before he or she could publish it. Unfortunately, other writers tell me such accusations aren’t uncommon, nor are personal threats. Welcome to my FBI file.

Slightly less bizarre but more fun, let me introduce you to the Owner Of Katie The Dog. Not long after my sequel Plague War hit stores, I received an email with two .jpg attachments. Hmmm. All right. Let’s read it...

A woman had felt compelled to say she liked the concept behind Plague Year, but (insert sneer), “it was written in a grocery-store thriller style.”

Aha HA ha ha! First of all, the cover has an ominous red tagline that shouts The Next Breath You Take Will Kill You. Plus the title letters are on fire. If you’re looking for a cozy literary novel, this ain’t it. Second, having my books racked in grocery stores and big box outlets like Wal-Mart and Costco is my goal! That’s what I’m striving for!

Yet she was so offended she’d spent $7.99 on this trash, she added that she’d fed Plague Year to her dog and snapped pictures of Katie eating it.

Wow. That’s wrong, isn’t it? I mean, that takes effort.

I had no intention of opening her .jpgs. Remember, I’d barely published my second novel. Being in stores still felt new and daunting. But my writer friends insisted I see what Katie had done. One accomplished old vet said, “You know you’ve arrived when you’re making people that crazy.”

Um... Thanks?

Conventional wisdom holds that authors and editors should remain above the fray. You’re supposed to ignore bad reviews, especially those that are off-topic or smell like fruit. I know writers who engage their haters in the comment fields on Amazon, but the reason to avoid such arguments was best put to me like this: Never wrestle with a pig. The pig enjoys it, and you get covered in sh*t.

Which leads us to the most craven of them all.

The Dread Saboteur

Since February, my novella “The Frozen Sky” has sold 20,000 copies on Kindle and Nook. That’s not a huge number, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s also gotten a lot of nice reviews, which is gratifying.

Unfortunately, “Sky” has also seen some attacks.

As the e-revolution evolves, the pages of successful books are experiencing not-so-subtle assaults by bitter would-be successes who post scathing low-starred reviews with as many dummy accounts as possible, then use the same dummy accounts to post five-star raves of their own novels in an attempt to draw traffic from the high-selling books.

Can the system be gamed so easily? My guess is no, not in the long run. Ultimately the Dread Saboteur’s work needs to stand on its own. If it's garbage, it's garbage. Cardboard plots, wet dream characters, bad dialogue, and the inability to spell or use punctuation are common pitfalls.

Horse puckey reviews won't carry a flawed story beyond a few extra sales — and if those readers feel duped, well, let the bad karma begin! The fake five-star raves will be overwhelmed by genuinely unhappy reviews.

There are more archetypes and goofy anecdotes I could share, but we’re out of time.

Here’s a final thought. Things are changing fast in publishing, but I hope it will always be true that it's the fans who carry the day.

The loonies and the saboteurs want everyone to wear their demon-colored lenses. Don't let it happen. If you like a book, bang out a quick ranking-and-review. That positive feedback may be enough to see your favorite author through his next encounter with a Nutcake From The Eighth Dimension.

Readers can find free excerpts, advance news, contests, and more on Jeff’s web site at
What about you, scriveners? Have you got any review horror stories to add to Jeff’s list?  


  1. This....was by far one of the best posts I have seen on this topic in a long time!! I mean just, wow! I loved how you described the different types of reviewers and I was laughing at each one and nodding my head in agreement!!

    And I love your job description. I have often given the same one when meeting new people - it is a writer thing!! =)

  2. Mr. Carlson, that was the best post I've seen in days and I thank you. You remind me, as I've been reminded by flame wars over reviews, that there is humor and pig manure out there and it's best to treat reviews with thanks and humor or the pig manure will fly.

    I haven't written thrillers -- yet -- but I do write a wide range of genres. I like to diversify (read: have lots of interests and like to indulge as many as possible). The bad reviews, especially the over the top ones, don't hurt, but they do aim to maim. The worst one I've had so far is a reviewer who said she thought my novel was slow and sketchy and she didn't get it at all. It wasn't her kind of book and she wouldn't recommend it. Okay, thanks for playing and for giving me your views. Then five or six more reviews were posted immediately taking my lowly 2 star status back up to nearly 5 stars. It's a strange old world. Nice to know there are intelligent people out there -- like you -- to remind me I'm not alone.

    J M Cornwell
    Among Women

  3. I blogged about the rising power of 'user' reviews a while back, but it wasn't stated half so eloquently. Great perspective and thoughts, Jeff. I do think it's very important for an author to maintain some perspective, but to do that you kind of have to understand the 'why' and 'what' of people's motivations.

    The most important thing? If you read a book you enjoy, offer a review. It can REALLY help the author.

    Thanks, Anne, for introducing me to Jeff!


  4. I took what some reviewers said about th first book and used it to (hopefully) improve the second.

  5. Great post, Jeff. We've not yet had any photos of dogs eating our book, but maybe that's because it's only available in e-format.

    Familiar with all the rest, though, especially the Monday lunch-time trolls who make us pay for their being back at the day job they hate.

    Occasionally we get one-star reviews where we can accept the reader honestly just didn't get it, but some are just downright malicious and clearly they've never read a word.

    The funniest one-star I've seen is that given to fellow writer Prue Batten. Prue has a lovely fantasy novel entitled The Stumpwork Robe. Someone mistakenly bought it thinking it was a non-fiction book about embroidery. And gave the author a one-star neg' because of the reader's mistake!

  6. Wow, what a bunch of nuts! This article was pretty funny for me to read, but understandably not so funny for Jeff to have to endure. I've seen some crazy reviews before... Sometimes the internet seems to be a virtual dumping-ground for crazy. In an online forum I once saw a guy claim that he'd read over 10K books in his young life, and now only read his own (unpublished) manuscripts because every other book in the world was trash in comparison. I don't think any book has much hope for a good review from such a person! LOL

  7. Jeff, Frozen Sky is often linked with my story Progenitor on amazon. Now I'm scared lol. Great post. My last blog was on getting reviewed and so far I've had a great experience. Can't wait until I'm selling as well as you are...I think.

  8. This was a most informative and enlightening post, Anne. Thanks for inviting Jeff to be your guest. A blogger friend a while back warned me about Amazon forums and how nasty some people can be. So I decided I wasn't going to get into any of them. I haven't had a bad review yet, but if I get one I hope I can discern how to take it. Not everyone will like what we write. When I read a book, I try to honestly assess what bothered me, and to give good feedback if I feel there are flaws in the writing, i.e. style, structure, mechanical problems, etc. Unfortunately, as Jeff says, not everyone in cyberspace is honest and reasonable. The rest of us are simply doing the best we can; trying to BE the best possible writer, AND person. In my 16 months of blogger, I've met many of these great writers and people!!
    Ann Best, Memoir Author
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

  9. p.s. Anne: I enjoy your story in Notes from Underground. You're a GOOD writer!

  10. Bonnie--I loved that too. Try telling people, "I sit alone in a room and listen to the voices in my head" at your next social event.

    J.M.--That's a very good point. I think sometimes a really nasty review will prompt people to write good ones. If they loved the book, the nasty reviewer is attacking your fans,too. So they want to defend you (and themselves.)

    E.J. You're right that the main thing is to remember to leave reviews for the authors you like. They don't have to be long. And it makes so much difference.

    Alex--So good to remember there can be positive effects of negative reviews.

    Mark--I see that a lot. In fact Jeff's novella has some one star reviews--all by people who said it was too short for a novel. Um. Right. (BTW Mark is guest posting his great success story over at Kristen Lamb's blog today.)

    Rick--I'm lucky in my guest posters. So happy you'll be guesting for me in October about your new MG book.

    Ranae--that "expert" who only liked his own stuff: I suppose he wouldn't think being called a "narcissist" would be a bad thing.

    Christopher--I'll check out your blog. So glad to hear you've had good ones.

    Ann--Thanks a bunch for the mention of my story in Notes. I'm so glad you liked it. And you're right that the overwhelming majority of book people you meet online are smart and honorable.

  11. This is a *brilliant* post! My first reviews are just starting to trickle in and this has put it all in perspective!! Katie the book eating dog will live on in my memory every time I get a sucky review. I really want honest reviews, but it's nice to know that I'll get some entertaining ones too!

    Thanks Jeff and Anne!

    Judy, South Africa

  12. When you get right down to it, reviews are as subjective as the publishing industry is. An editor or agent might reject your work not because it isn't good or even well written but because they had a fight with their spouse, are having problems with the kids, can't get a date, had a headache, hangover, etc., or just don't feel like working that day and reading anything when they've been denied vacation, raise, or whatever.

    Most people would like to be honorable, but life gets in the way. Add other people and it's chaos. Don't take it personally. Sometimes it's just someone else's bad day spilling over onto your brilliant novel.

  13. Great insight as to what the "crazies" are saying! I especially like the one about the dog. Talk about going to a lot of work over a book you hate!

    I tend to avoid the nutcase reviews when looking at who likes and hates a certain novel. There's a certain way of going about whether something was worth your time or not. Going on a hateful binge is not the way to do it!

  14. Thank you, everyone!

    As usual I'm late to my own party. It's been especially busy this week, but I appreciate the encouragement and the in-the-trenches reports from other writers.

    As more than one commenter said, I've learned (well, I'm still trying to learn) that a good dose of perspective can be a very healthy thing.

    It's not a matter of being thick-skinned. For me, at least, it's more about being slow-skinned. Don't overreact to hideous reviews. Look for the subtext. A lot of the time, the nasty commentary isn't really even about the book. Fascinating, captain!



  15. This post is great. I recently started writing book reviews on my blog and I think it's working out fabulously. Of course, I tend to only write reviews on books I enjoy, so I hope I'm helping authors out in that regard. :)

  16. After reading everyone's comments, I almost want to ask, what more can I add? But, I've got to at least say, thanks. Great article.

  17. Great post. I know it sounds horrible to say it, but I take solace in the fact that others get whacky reviews too. But like you said it's so subjective. A couple of my sucky reviews were total opposites of each other. One was because I used too much description and another was berating me for not using enough! ??

    I have to admit to checking out the reviewers other reviews when I get a bad one. Most of the time you find out they rarely give a book more than 2 or 3 stars at the most, so they are obviously very hard to please in the first place.

    As much as you try, though. It's hard not to feel a little sting when someone is being downright mean. As a personal policy, I don't leave a review unless I like the book. I live by what my Mum used to say, "If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all".

  18. Judy--Glad to hear you're getting reviews!

    J.M. "Sometimes it's just someone else's bad day spilling over onto your brilliant novel." Great advice!

    Mary--Actually, I sometimes read the 1-star reviews when I'm deciding whether to buy. If the reviewer misspells every other word and says it's got too many big words I tend to buy it.

    Lari--Yay for book review bloggers! You're the author's best friends. The huge majority of you are honest, kind and smart, and we love you to pieces.

    Thanks Annette! Even just a short comment means a lot.

    Alison--I think mean reviews are almost always about the reviewer, and not the book. Like Jeff's Nazi, who's going to see pathetic, victimized white guys everywhere he looks. I guess we need that diversity for some reason. As a contrast to good people, maybe.

  19. A good and informative post, Jeff. The world of writing and publishing sure has changed in the last few years.

  20. bob--It's changing by the minute. Kinda makes your head hurt.

    And thanks to DONNA K. WEAVER, my 700th follower!! Thanks to you all. I remember when I thought if I could just make it to 42 followers, then I wouldn't look so lonely out here...

  21. Thank you for sharing your insight, Anne.

    I noticed in today's book news that authors and illustrators of children's books are having a rough time of it and thinking about letting agents go since they are doing the work themselves. Most have second jobs and other creative job markets are drying up. There is no substitute for a well done children's book with brilliant illustrations. There just isn't.

  22. Anne & Jeff...

    Wow. Makes me wonder if these nasty reviewers were contest judges in a previous life.

    After reading your post, my dad's
    favorite Chinese quotes comes to mind.

    A barrel half-full makes more noise.


  23. This is an awesome post. And so why do we want to be published? *shudders*

    "Sometimes the smallest minds make the biggest noise."

    Love that statement.

  24. OMG, flat out hilarious! I'm posting "Sometimes the smallest minds make the biggest noise" on my frig.

    And I'm buying the book solely based on this article. WTG, Jeff!

  25. Thank you, Jo! Thanks everyone else, too.

    And... speak of the devil. I've got a bads news comment for y'all today. ;)

    Another boner has come along and started posting one-star reviews of "The Frozen Sky," killing its average score. I'm sure the two ugly reviews posted so far were both written by the same guy because he uses similar phrasing, one of the main tell-tales of a saboteur. Also, one of his accounts has never reviewed anything else before, only his blasting of "Sky."

    If anyone here as read the novella and enjoyed it, please do sway "Sky" back to a positive trend.

    A short review takes about as long to compose as a FB post -- and as fellow writers, reviewing books is a great habit to develop in our brave new e-world.

    You guys rock.

  26. J.M. You're right about children's picture books. No agent seems to want them any more. No idea why.

    Jen--Love the barrel quote!

    Donna and Jo--That definitely belongs on a fridge magnet and/or a tee-shirt.

    Jeff-I went over and read those two one-star reviews and it's obvious they were written by the same person, who's trying to bring down your ratings.

    EVERYBODY--even if you haven't read the book, you can go over and see for yourself (click through the book cover on this post) If you're registered at Amazon, you can report the two one-star reviews for abuse. "The writing style was not to my liking" isn't something two people would coincidentally think up. It's sad how a one-sentence, pointless "review" can ruin an author's sales.

  27. I really love your blog!

    Mostly because I feel like I can hear you through your words. It really makes me feel like I am sitting here and listening to you speak.

    One of your posts about agents really made me decide that self publishing was the way I wanted to go.

    If you're every looking for a great epic dark fiction read with a thrilling twist, I'd love it if you'd read The Shade and The Nine Lower Levels!

    Some honest feedback from a great writer is always appreciated.