Friday, March 14, 2014

The Benefits of a One-Star Review

Other than some reviews in newspapers and a few… we’ll say enthusiastic Facebook messages, I have as of yet to be in a position to receive any sort of criticism, let alone the “one-star,” or its equivalent. I am not a person who has had to overcome the pain of a bad review yet, so what I am about to say comes primarily from a reader’s perspective:

One-stars can be a good thing.

Okay, now I understand any skepticism you might have, but bear with me. I know they’ll ruin your overall rating, and it can establish a fear that maybe you just embarrassed yourself, and nothing’s worse than being told you’re wrong by someone who doesn’t “like curse words,” but you have to acknowledge the benefits:

1)      They make me spend more time considering the book, benefiting the “three times” rule.

Here’s how I tend to choose my books: raid my friends’ shelves, go to a bookstore, or happen across it online. I am most likely to give the books on my friends’ shelves a try, but you’ll note, I’m also not paying for them. I like to wander around bookstores, but I rarely buy anything unless I have a gift card (Or else I buy everything.) The most common way I find books, however, is by stumbling across them on the internet. I actually purchase far more self-published books than I do traditional ones. I bought three last week.

I’ve notice that for me, in all these cases, the “three times” rule is fairly true. This concept says someone needs to hear a label/name three times before they will notice it/remember it. Many books I will pass up the first few times. I see them, and then, seeing them again and remembering I’ve seen them before, I’ll start paying attention.

The reality is simple: The more I hear about your book, the more likely I am to buy it.

How does this tie into one star reviews? Because I read them.

Generally speaking, the Amazon pages for self-published works don’t contain a lot of information. Often times, we get a vague summary—attempting to keep up a hook and the mystery of the work—a cover, a couple of sample pages, and maybe a page count. You are probably not going to get me with your summary. They contain little information, little characterization, and little indication of voice and atmosphere. I am not a plot person; concepts and main conflicts rarely catch me.

So you have a book that may be my thing. Possibly. Keeping in mind I have twenty books on my nightstand (literally—Although it’s a kitty tree, not a nightstand), I don’t really need something else to read. I wasn’t looking because I need to buy something; I’m likely to pass. But before I do, I can get my jollies by reading some pissy rants. That means I’ll be spending more time on your book.

I’ll note they’re not always fun. They tend to piss me off just as much as they probably did the writer. Sometimes, however, they’re hilarious. But in either case, they make me feel things. And that’s why I like them. So I will entertain myself by reading bad review after bad review, long after I would have probably left your page and forgotten about it.

I don’t read five-star reviews. I might glance at a few. But they tend to all be the same. They don’t deliver new information, they talk about how they fell for the characters and couldn’t put the book down, but are polite enough to spoil it with why. Not only could the five-stars be absolutely full of it, but they’re uninteresting, and they rarely say anything more than what the actual stars did.

Every review I read cements the story in my mind. It makes me aware of the characters, repeats their names, maybe even the title. The more I read about your book, the more I remember it. And while I know I am not always typical, I will say that if people are reading your reviews, it’s probably the one-stars.

This means that without them, I would have given you three seconds. With them, you get ten minutes.

But wait! That’s a bad thing, isn’t it? People who know nothing about your book are reading what the naysayers hate? So your first impression will be about all the bad stuff, wouldn’t it?

Nope, because…

2)      I’m not going to change my personal tastes just because someone else doesn’t like the same things.

There’s a study in which two groups of people are asked to listen to songs they’ve never heard before. One group is told what their friends and peers liked, the other isn’t. What happened? Well of course the first group was more in agreement and the other was much more scattered. People are influenced by each other, there is no doubt.

So, yeah, one of the downfalls of only reading one-star reviews is that you do get a misguided idea as to whether or not the book was “good,” and I’m sure I have judged books unfairly.

But when someone presents their opinions straightforward and openly, many of us are going to argue with them. Sometimes just because we’re contradictory. I’m not going to be convinced that your book is bad just because someone says it is, and if he’s complaining about things that I thought I liked, I’m not going to question if I really like those things. That’s what writers do, not readers. He says, “Stop it with the goddamn love triangle,” I go, “Oooooooooh.” He says, “Way too much gore!” I say, “Ahhhhh!” He says, “There were swear words,” I go, “And?”

Plus, the thing about bad reviews? Most of them are stupid. And many of us recognize that. I swear if I see one more, “Real authors don’t do that, don’t you know?” I might actually respond. (For the most part, I stay out of bad reviews on other’s works.)

Most one-star reviews contain one of four things:

“There were typos and grammar issues.”
“The main character was a Mary Sue.”
“There was swearing.”
“The main male lead was a jackass.”

Okay, I take the typos and grammar thing relatively seriously. I have commitment issues, and I’m not going to place my emotions and faith in an author who doesn’t care enough to take the time making it easier for me to understand him. But honestly, that’s a preventable comment—for the most part. If that’s what your one-stars are all about, you know what to do.

As to Mary Sue and swearing, I don’t care. I really don’t. I’ve read a lot of books that I would have liked better if the main character had, say, a personality, but it’s never ruined a story for me, or made a story for me. And frankly, I like when the characters are overtly “special,” and I want them to be able to obliterate the competition (with some moderation, of course.) Secondly, when a reviewer says something indicating a knowledge and adherence to writing rules—Mary Sues, only use said, don’t have prologues—it says to me, “I’m a frustrated writer, which is probably why I was reading a self-published novel in the first place,” and not, “This will be your experience as a reader.” I don’t take that seriously. If it’s for a traditionally published author, I take it even less seriously, because, yeah, I’m that simple when it comes to reputation.

As for the “main male lead was a jackass”? GOOD. I like that. I’m sarcastic, I’m not afraid of men or assholes, and I have an affinity for people who don’t give a shit.

Which brings me to my point: Someone will write a tirade on how crappy your book is, I’ll read it, and every point they make will make me want to read it, because personal tastes are a thing, and one man’s trash is another’s treasure. Or I agree, I don’t want to read it, and that’s good for you because I didn’t just pick up a book that isn’t my thing, and now I can’t be pissed about it.

In all honesty, most of the current books I’ve picked up, I did so because of a spectacularly bad review.

Because of the passion and conflict and humor, and even at times cathartic trashing, I will have made an association with the good feelings a well-phrased rant and your book. I feel so good after the review, I want to keep reading. What else is there on this topic? Oh, right. The actual story. For the same reason I’ll read comments after an article, I’ll pick up a trashed book because I want to maintain that feeling, even if I know it’s not really the same. (Seriously, what is the point of comment sections?)

Often times it will give me the exact information I need to hear: “Then she goes in there, guns-blazing, fearlessly obliterating the place like a moron.” And I’m hooked. Your summary will leave out the important elements that will come into play later, but many times, that information is exactly what makes me want to read it.

If the reviews are stupid, the people reading them will be more inclined to side with you. If the reviews are accurate, then people who like that kind of thing will realize it’s their kind of thing, even if the person speaking implies they’re stupid for liking that kind of thing.

3)      I don’t trust anything without one.

Being that I buy self-published books, I know having only a few reviews isn’t the end of the world. Having no reviews is an issue, for the most part because again I’m just left to the little information given, and I have to make an immediate decision (instead of having the time it takes to read over the reviews and think about it.)

I’ve never come across a book with a lot of five-stars and no one-stars. That being said, if I did, I’d probably buy it to figure out what kind of shenanigans are going on. I have come across a few with a decent number of three to five-stars. In that case, I usually read the threes and then move on. The threes are generally well informed and genuine; they’re also boring.

If you have no one-stars, it tells me you have no strangers reading it. That makes me even more inclined not to take a second glance at the fives because they’re all going to be insincere. You’re going to get a one-star review no matter what. If you don’t, it’s an indication to me that—one—no one else is wasting time on you, and—two—you’re not doing anything interesting enough for someone to be bothered by it.

So if you have five reviews and suddenly a one star ruins your five star, it’s actually says you’re getting people who aren’t just there to be “nice,” which is important to other readers.

4)      Most people who care about other people’s opinions aren’t looking at the main star ratings.

I’m actually not the sort of person who is… let’s say “a follower,” to put me in good light. I’m not one much for blind faith, I like the security of knowing why. There are benefits and consequences to this, but what you need to know is I don’t spend a lot of time seeking out other people’s opinions on something before I buy it. I like it or I don’t, and I don’t care what you think. As indicated above.

(I will point out I am easily influenced subconsciously, but that’s another issue.)

Certain people in my life are the exact opposite. I pick a movie because I go, “That looks good,” or more likely, “That is starting right now.” My brother picks out a movie because of what Ebert and Rotten Tomatoes had to say about it. (Or did. Rest in peace, Ebert.)

Some people like having someone more knowledgeable inform them before they waste their time on something. These people do care about ratings. But few actually care about the main star review. Why? For one thing, it’s almost always four.

I’m not kidding. Go to and see if you can find anything that isn’t between 3.5 and 4.5. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

It doesn’t matter if it has ten reviews or ten thousand. Humans are relatively simple, and we like simple “Bad or good,” and “Most things are good until proven bad.” Which is one of the reasons why most reviews are either one or five stars with very few in between, and there seems to be five five-stars for every one.

The people who really take ratings seriously are looking for something more valid, something they can trust. They’ll believe book review blogs or their friends’ accolades before they really take it seriously. So it doesn’t matter much if your five-star suddenly became a four. It’s to be expected.

Of course, the downside is if you do have a three star or less, people will notice. But I will say if that happens, there’s something else going on. Lots of horrible books get four stars and very few books get a bad average at all, so whether the book is terrible or not, I’m going to say you attracted the wrong sorts of people (frustrated writers), or just ticked a whole bunch off by something seemingly unrelated.

You didn’t call yourself a “best-seller” with only two reviews did you?

5)      There is no such thing as bad press.

So, Chelsea Handler made a racist comment. You know who I hadn’t been hearing about before that? Chelsea Handler. Do you know who is blowing up my Facebook feed? Chelsea Handler. Of course, I’m a firm believer that no attention is better than bad attention, and there is no way in hell I would try and label myself as racist just to get everyone to notice me. I want to be a full time novelist with the money and reputation to write what I want, but I don’t want Stephanie Meyer’s career of dissension and ridicule, or the reaction to Miley Cyrus.

But after it happens, there is something to be said for embracing the benefits. The hatred of Twilight has perpetuated its name far more than the love of it. Miley Cyrus managed to break the barrier of child-actor into pop-star.

You’re going to get criticized. You have some control as to how, but you can’t prevent it from happening. So when someone gives you a really bad review, know it’s going to garner more attention than a good review ever could, that not everyone’s going to agree with it, and that it’s not the end of the world. In many ways, in fact, it is a good thing.

While there is something to be said for not deliberately attracting bad press, you can embrace it when it comes. It will might be exactly what gets you a few more sales.