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In the world of reviewing, “reader reviews” are a relatively new phenomenon…depending on how you look at it.
Every time Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Globe Theatre in olde London towne in the 16th century, and the audience got to pelt the performers with rotten tomatoes if they didn’t feel they were being sufficiently entertained, you could argue that this was one of the earliest forms of reader reviews.
Readers have been “reviewing” books informally forever. Every time you read a damned good book or a total stinker and just have to tell everyone about it at work the next day, that is a form of reader review. Authors call it word-of-mouth and pray to the literary gods for a good — and positive — harvest of it every time they publish.
The Internet modernized reader reviews and made them mass audience accessible. They converted the word-of-mouth and audience approval systems and made them text-based and less fruit-dependant.
But in many respects, it also opened up these now massively influential systems to forms of corruption and manipulation that the old versions were immune to:
1) Authors have admitted to “buying” good reviews (John Locke, for example).
2) It’s known — but not freely admitted — that authors and very loyal readers from competing publishers will leave anonymous nasty 1-star and 2-star reviews torpedoing rival titles.
Despite these drawbacks, the reader reviews still function as an excellent barometer to help a reader make buying decisions over titles. Why?
1) Readers vote with their wallets. They want to be entertained (especially with the romance genre), so if a book fails to entertain, they will leave crappy reviews reflecting that broken promise…and so they should.
Readers are not in the slightest bit unbiased. They are not interested in being unbiased. Most readers have not the smallest understanding about how a book is written and aren’t interested in character building, plot development and the intricacies of literature, theme and symbolism. They want a good story told well. Period. They do understand when that fails to happen.
2) Related to (1) readers have personal hot buttons, so if a story hits those buttons (they can’t stand red-headed heroes, stories set in Hollywood piss them off, heroines with British accents really cool their jets), they are going to mark the book down because of it — not because there was anything wrong with the story, but because it didn’t appeal to them personally. This is as it should be, too. Reader reviews aren’t meant to be unbiased literary critiques. They are opinion polls — or, to look at it another way, popularity polls.
4) One reader’s version of a 5 star book is another reader’s version of a 3 star book. Readers’ understanding of ratings vary wildly and is very subjective. How different retailers rank ratings (Amazon, ARe, etc) is also different, but not many readers will take the time to figure out those differences and change their rating from site to site.
For all of these reasons, you, the reader, trying to decide whether or not to buy a book should probably not set great store in any one individual reader review. Readers all have very personal opinions and they’re totally biased.
Having said that, reader reviews are probably the single most useful measure of the worth of a book out there today…if you take the collective average of those reader reviews into consideration.
A large number of reader reviews, averaged, will give you a truer indication of the value of a book than any single review possibly could. Reader reviews are raw, honest and brutal, completely biased…and readers are the ones who get the last say in the publishing world because they’re the ones the authors are writing for, so everyone should be listening to them, including other readers.
But we should listen to the collective voice, once the outliers (those with an agenda, readers whose hot buttons have been pushed and more) have been smoothed out and a trend has been established. The larger the number of reviews that go into making up the average rating, the more reliable that average rating is going to be.
Many retailers and review sites average out their reader review ratings now — Amazon, Goodreads, ARe, for example.
Next: Alternatives to Reviews
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