12 July 2017

Are all book reviews valid?

by Alex Gerlis Guest Blog, Opinion

Spy fiction writer Alex Gerlis, author of Vienna Spies and two other espionage novels, on why book reviews posted on public sites should be treated with caution.

Literary agent and Curtis Brown joint-CEO Jonny Geller recently posted some sound advice for authors on this very blog, a handy list of dos and don’ts including ‘do not ask your family about your cover’ – which ought to carry the rider ‘but they’ll tell you anyway.’

Top of the list was ‘do not look at Amazon reviews that are lower than four stars.’ This is indeed sound advice. If only it were possible to adhere to it. I’m the last person who should be having a moan about Amazon reviews. My three novels (the third one, Vienna Spies, only published in April) have more than 1,300 reviews across Amazon and 85% of those are either four- or five-star reviews. My first novel, The Best of Our Spies, has more than 500 reviews on Amazon UK alone.

My general approach to reviews can be summed up by the usual clichés: if you can’t take the punches, don’t get into the ring… learn to take the rough with the smooth… if you can’t stand the heat – you get the idea.

I take the view that if someone buys your book and bothers to read it then they are entitled to whatever opinion they have of it. They may feel the plot is flawed, that the characters are unconvincing or the writing is dull but that’s their opinion and they are, of course, entitled to it.

But as an author you are allowed to at least assume they are giving their opinion in good faith. The least I think you should expect of a book review is that the reviewer has actually read the book. I have read many books where it has been a bit of a struggle but I have persisted and the ending has made it all worthwhile. But a recent review for my most recent novel – Vienna Spies – read thus:

After reading other reviews I expected a great story. Unfortunately after reading a couple of chapters I gave up as it is unbelievable.

So someone that reads two chapters of a 30-chapter book, just 50 pages out of 450, assumes they are entitled to review the book? How about this one for The Swiss Spy:

I found this a tedious and uninspired read. I didn’t bother to complete reading this book which is a rare decision by me. A complete bore.

You have to wonder about the motivations of such reviewers. Is it something personal? Maybe the clue can be found by clicking on their reviewer name and see what else they have reviewed. That first review – the person who reviewed the book based on just two chapters – was by someone called ‘Purple Buyer’. ‘Purple Buyer (which I suspect may not be their real name) gave me just one star. But what does Purple Buyer actually like? Purple Buyer recently gave a piece of bathroom equipment a five-star review. The title of that review? ‘Great shower head’. Mr Purple Buyer also gave a five-star review to some socks: ‘Bought for my wife as she has small feet.’ They were, he was able to reassure us, ‘a good fit’.

There is no doubt there is a tendency for some reviewers to set out to be negative, if not downright nasty. This does not just apply to Amazon. A friend of mine recently opened a neighbourhood restaurant near where we live. It’s actually very good and has proved to be very popular. One couple had an issue with not being able to get a coffee after the machine had been shut down. Their response in their TripAdvisor review? ‘This restaurant deserves to fail.’

Authors like myself are unlikely to attract very much sympathy for the occasional poor review but at the same time I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect some kind of requirement for reviewers to have least read a book before reviewing it. But maybe, in this age where everyone’s a reviewer, I’m being naïve.

To purchase a copy of Vienna Spies by Alex Gerlis, please click here.

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