When is a review not a review?


I wrote this in response to a friend who had recently downloaded from Amazon an e-book that had six stellar reviews – it was apparently “brilliant”, “fantastic”, “should be made into a film” and was written by “a wonderful author”.

Now he’s what I’d regard as a fairly sophisticated and switched-on person, but he was ignorant of how Amazon ratings and reviews work.

The plot was non-existent, the characters unbelievable, the prose embarrassing, the formatting all over the place, and it was full of spelling and grammatical errors.

“How on earth did this tripe get so highly rated?” he asked. “From the reviews it sounded like a great read.”

So how did it gather such glowing praise?


For a start, anybody can leave a so-called review on Amazon. They don’t need to have any qualifications, not even proof of having actually bought or read the book they are reviewing. They don’t even have to reveal their identity.

We had a look on the Amazon page for the book in question, and noticed that none of the six people who had left reviews had actually bought the book. You can see whether they have, because it will say “Amazon Verified Purchase”. If it doesn’t, the chances are that it was probably given to them in exchange for a review. That’s common practice. Most authors do it, just as the large publishing houses send out free copies to selected people well before publication date, so that when the book is published it already has reviews and ratings to encourage sales.

We  looked at the history of each reviewer by clicking “See all my reviews”. This shows how many products the person has reviewed and gives an idea of their personal tastes. In this case, all six had only ever reviewed this one book. All six reviews had been posted within 24 hours of each other.

From this you could conclude that the reviews are likely to be from friends of the author, giving him/her a helping hand to promote their work. All writers have to start somewhere. It doesn’t mean that every book with 5-star reviews from people who have never reviewed any other book is a bad book. After all, just as everyone has to write their first book some time, everybody has to write their first review.

There are also people who write paid reviews. As it’s unlikely that an author would pay for poor reviews of their own work, it’s safe to assume that a paid reviewer will rate the book highly.

Reviews that contain similar phrases and are of similar length can also indicate that the writer has written the reviews and fed them to other people to post. Common phrases that often pop up are: “I can’t wait for the next book”, “(Author’s name) is such a wonderful writer”.

Here are a couple of examples of reviews for 5-star rated books.

Example 1:

This is such a wonderful book. I found it extremely interesting and couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.”

Example 2:

Widowed unexpectedly when she is still a young woman, Daisy finds herself gradually excluded from her previous social circle, as friends fear that she may steal their husbands. Her children are off the rails, and her financial position is precarious.

Daisy feels that when she lost her husband, her whole identity went with him. Without him she no longer knows who or what she is. She must take her courage in her hands, and learn to stand on her own two feet.

As an attractive widow she is not short of suitors. When her best friend’s husband continues making advances, Daisy is torn between her loyalty to her friend and the temptation of finding happiness again.

Her journey to a new life is in parts laugh-out-loud funny, in parts cringe-worthy, and in parts touching. Daisy’s character is well-drawn, and I could identify with her fight to build her self-confidence and start living again.

From the sleepy Somerset countryside to the bustling exuberance of Spain’s Costa Brava, the story swept me along on a feel-good wave.

Entertaining, well-written, and rather thought-provoking.”

If you compare the two, the first tells you nothing upon which to form an opinion, while the second discusses the book and its merits.

On the other side there are the negative 1-star reviews that downgrade the overall rating of a title.

It isn’t unknown for rivals to try to damage each other’s reputation by leaving savage reviews. There are of course readers who genuinely don’t enjoy a book, and people who miss its point. There may be a particular section of society who are offended by some element, in which case they will persuade others who share their beliefs to attack the book. Books containing even mild sexual content, profanity or criticisms of religious beliefs can invoke a shower of poison arrows.

Here are some 1-star so-called reviews:

“I didn’t find this book at all funny and will not be buying any more books written by this author.”

“What a total waste of money. I was too bored to finish it and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”  

It never arrived so I cannot tell you what I think of it. Therefore I can only award it one star.”

“This book is quite awful and I wish I hadn’t bought it. Why would anybody want to write such an awful book?”

“This book was ordered by mistake and is not the type of book that I read.  So I didn’t read it and cannot write a review of it.”

While everybody is entitled to express their opinion, statements like those are meaningless in helping potential customers form an idea of the book. Yet by giving it just 1 star these people degrade its overall star rating, which is what many people, including my friend, look at before deciding whether to buy.

This is also a 1-star rating:

As a long-standing fan of this author, having read all his previous books, I waited eagerly for his latest title to be published.

Unfortunately it has not lived up to my expectations.

None of the characters come to life, and the plot weaved and waved about all over the place. This book seems to have been written very hurriedly, and felt as if the author had lost his way. I found it rather confusing how the timeline jumped around, and certain parts seemed slightly unlikely and contrived.

That said, I read it at two sittings, always hoping that it would improve, but sadly it didn’t.

I would highly recommend all the author’s previous books as excellent reads written by a master wordsmith, and I shall await his next book with impatience. I can’t help feeling he didn’t really have his heart in this one.”

That’s a review by somebody who has taken the trouble to explain what they disliked about the book and why they gave it a low rating.

To have any value, a review needs to be a critical appraisal, written by somebody who has read it and taken the time to share their opinion for the benefit of other potential readers.

Amazon customers are able to “Look inside” both paperbacks and e-books, or download a sample from the e-book. It costs nothing, and is the equivalent of browsing a book in a bookshop so that you can see whether it’s to your taste or not.

Rather than seeing how many stars a book carries, make your decision by reading a sample, and by recognising the difference between a helpful review and a couple of dozen words that tell you nothing about the book.

To go back to my friend and the highly-rated book of which he had high hopes. The cover was gorgeous. But as the saying goes: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” 😀

And equally, don’t judge a book purely by its star ratings.


11 thoughts on “When is a review not a review?

  1. My husband used to use ratings…and wondered why he was so often disappointed.
    Then he did what you describe….made an analysis of reviewers – and his buying habits changed.
    I do review books I enjoy,..but cannot be bothered with books I throw down in the first hour.

      • An excellent article, Kathleen. Like you, if I don’t enjoy a book, I prefer not to leave a review at all (in fact I very rarely persevere with a book I’m not enjoying). One star “reviews” generally come across as spiteful and malicious, their only purpose being to hurt the author’s feelings and damage their sales. Those kind of comments say much about the person who writes them.

    • It’s all very misleading. When you think of a review, you think of a critical analysis by a person qualified to critically analyse. The Amazon review system would be more useful if there was some way of qualifying the reviewers themselves.

  2. If a book has been widely praised by the critics in the press I go on Amazon and look at the most critical reviews – discounting the ‘I don”t like this sort of book’ ones of course. They’re often a welcome rush of fresh air, especially when the book has been described as a ‘literary masterpiece’ and you find several detailed reviews which include words like ‘turgid’, ‘too long’ or ‘pretentious’.
    I get a lot of my book recommendations these days from book blogs.

    • I do agree with you, Victoria. We are aware of the incentives given to high-profile people to promote products, and often those self-styled critics are swollen with self-importance and take pretension to new heights. I find reading a few pages tells me whether it’s going to be my kind of book. After all – agents and editors base their decisions on reading the first few paragraphs, and if they don’t grab them – it’s off to the slush pile.

  3. I always check out the reviews, including the negative ones, and also sometimes check out the reviewers as they can be dodgy. I love the way some comments develop into an avalanche of debate.

    • That’s something that makes me squirm, when a negative review attracts a stream of angry responses from the author and their supporters. It’s a part of the game and we all have to accept that there will be people who for one reason or another will knock us. It’s not really that important in the greater scheme of things, and reacting to it makes authors seem terrible precious.

  4. One of the main problems with internet reviews of any product (not just books) is that assuming they’re written by a “verified purchaser” there has to be a reason why the person bothered to write the review in the first place.
    There are two main reasons:-
    1\ The buyer is so incensed by their poor experience with the product that they vent their spleen by warning others about it. Unfortunately this sort of review is often written by people who don’t read instruction books or don’t really know what they want in the first place.
    2\ The buyer is so pleased with their own taste and discretion in choosing the product that they want to show off and share their delight with everyone on the planet.

    Moral, take internet reviews with a pinch of salt and make an effort to read between the lines.

    • That’s a good summing up, Robin. Although, of course, there are many reviewers who genuinely want to share their feelings about a product for the benefit of others. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Let’s Give Them Our Support! | The Sunshine Factor

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