Choosing a new read is an art form, especially online. We’ve all been there, teetering on the edge of buying a book, mouse hovering over the buy it now button when suddenly you think – oo, I should check the reviews. Ten minutes later you’ve resigned yourself for looking for another book because ‘user_765’ said that it was the worst book they had ever read, and they can’t believe it has three-hundred five-star reviews.
The thing is that it may well be the worst book ever – for user_765. That doesn’t mean it’s the worst book ever for you, and here’s why.
First up is the psychology of the motivation to write a bad review. People are far, far more likely to write bad reviews than good ones. It’s just human nature, good things are expected so you read the book, perhaps give it some stars (if you remember) and move on with your life. Bad things are outside expectations, which makes us angry, and anger incites a reaction so a disgruntled reader is far more motivated to go out of their way to write song and verse on the book they did not like. This means that whilst the good reviews may outnumber the bad (in stars at least), the bad will still be proportionally unrepresentative.
Secondly, is the matter of projection. Stories are open to interpretation by their very nature, and this means people will project their own meaning on to them. In school we’re even encouraged to do this, and I’m sure many of you have written variations of ‘the blue curtains in the main character’s house represent depression’, or something equally desperate in the last-ditch attempt to get the homework done ten minutes before hand-in. Sometimes a projection of an issue onto a story, especially an issue the reader is passionate about, will clash so severely with the book, that they will feel enough rage to write a bad review, calling the story out on things the author had never intended. As a side note, if there are several reviews with the same interpretation then that should be treated as a red flag.
Thirdly is the matter of expectations not met. You don’t know what our example user_765 was looking for. Maybe they were after a gritty police procedural and found that it was a paranormal crime book instead? Maybe they really don’t like romantic subplots? There’s any combination of things that they don’t like but you do like.
And then there is you. The human brain has an uncanny ability to take any negative criticism and give it the highest priority. Even if there are ten good reviews saying ‘it was a good book’, the long rant with the 1 star rating will be immediately bumped up in priority by your brain. Worst still the review will have burst your little bubble of hype you’ve been so carefully crafting, and you’ll start reading already dis-enamoured.
This doesn’t mean that negative reviews aren’t still useful – they are but they should be approached with caution. For a start they offer authenticity, a book with 500 five stars looks fake, whereas with a few negative reviews thrown in the mix we tend to trust the rating more. They also offer a filtering advantage, especially in the Amazon world of ‘frequently mentioned’ tags which act like red flags without you having to trawl through the bile.
This is especially useful if you have a pet peeve, or you’re looking for something very specific from a book. I personally get annoyed about Americanisms being used in books set in the UK. Trivial, of course, but it’s something that really pulls me out the story and so I try to avoid it, the frequently mentioned tags will often pull this up as an issue. You can also look for red flags like ‘slow start’ or for particular trigger warnings.
So, if I’m advising you not to just go and read the reviews when choosing a book, what should you do instead? Well, I can tell you what I do, and maybe it will work for you too.
Step 1. Read the blurb. Is it something that sounds interesting?
Step 2. Check the stars but unless it’s lots of negative reviews don’t give it much weight.
Step 3. Sample the book. If you can ‘click’ with the main character and you are intrigued by their situation by the end of the first page then you’re on to a winner.
Step 4. Check the reviews for red flags important to you but try not to get drawn into people’s own emotions and biases. Remember, they’re not you.
And that’s it! Happy book hunting!
Stick a pin in it