Thursday, September 22, 2005

Puzzling out reviews

One of the more interesting and controversial features of Amazon (copied by other bookselling sites as well, but most significant on Amazon) is the ability of readers to post reviews of books they have (supposedly) read.

There have been many horror stories, of course, of trolls posting sham negative reviews, of stalker/"fans" obsessively slamming certain author's books, and even of low-life-types who post reviews that are thinly disguised ads for their own books. There are reviews that express a reader's anger at something besides the book itself: the publisher, or the editor, or some political leaning different than their own. Some just seem to be listening to the angry voices in their head.

Of course, the truth is like the disclaimer on those web polls, "this is not a scientific survey." A huge number of positive or negative reviews may say something about a book, but neither will insure that your opinion will go along with the pack. Not that the reviews are useless, but they're most useful when you read skeptically, looking for the poster's real agenda before taking their opinions over seriously.

Trouble for some authors is, people are lazy. They don't read any of the reviews. They look at the "rated three stars out of five based on six reviews." Thing is, with a low number of reviews like that, it only takes one crank giving you a one-star review to really throw off your curve. If you get they guy with the voices in his head that day, you're SOL.

Some of my writer friends say I shouldn't look at them at all, and they have some valid points. The commericial importance of these reviews is dubious (though I think there is some), and a writer can't let a bruised ego stop them from writing. But I'd rather know that not know, and at least be able to try to deal with a nightmare review if it comes my way. Generally, I find the posititive reviews to be encouraging, and I'm able to ignore or dismiss most of the negative ones (and sometimes even learn something from them).

But speaking personally, the Amazon reviews have been pretty kind to me. Looking at Amazon USA, my novels average a solid four-and-a-half stars.

Anthologies with my work do a little poorer, but the worst-ranked one is three-stars. That one has a one star-review, a two star, and two four-star reviews. The one-star guy just diagrees with the premise of the book (in a way I can't totally disagree with, but I wasn't the editor), and the two-star guy doesn't even realize that it's an anthology, repeatedly calling it a "novel."

Still, not much to complain about.

But it gets more complicated when you can't even understand the review. I'm speaking of the German release of my MechWarrior novel, "Fortress of Lies." I'm very excited about this book, as it's my first foreign translation of a novel (assuming you don't count the novel-length fiction that I wrote for the Sierra PC game "Outpost 2"). I also have a lot of German ancestry on my father's side, so it's kind of nice to appear there.

Well, there's a review there now. Click the link there if you want to read it yourself. If you can read it yourself.

I can't.

Okay, I admit to taking two years of German in high-school. But I didn't do that great the first year, and nearly flunked out the second year due to the deadly combination of my poor study habits and girlfriend problems (don't ask). What I did retain from all that consists of a few words and stock-phrases. But this review is well beyond my poor abilities.

I can read the stars, of course. Three of them. Not that bad really, but one hopes for better.

I could blame the translator of course (a cop-out, and an unfair one, but usually a safe bit of denial for the author), but I don't think that works in this case. See, I pasted the text into Yahoo's "Babblefish" translator program, to get some idea of what the review said. Machine translation is a very inexact business, but it's better than nothing (and better than my grasp of German). At least some of it is understandable. But some of it comes out like this:

"But in addition far down more. It is at the beginning of surely unusual to read itself in in the MW:DA universe above all, if one, as I, over one decade Classic BattleTech read."

But I can puzzle out enough to know that the reader seems to object to the books supposed similarity to a classic BattleTech novel. There seems to be an implication there that I copied it. Fact is, it was published here a decade ago, maybe longer, and I've never even heard of it, much less read it. It's possible that the main connection the reader sees is in that it has father-son issues between characters (well, it's uncle-nephew-cousin issues in the case of my novel).

If so, that's annoying, as at least half the novels ever written come down, on some level, to father-son issues (or at least parent-child issues). Of course, it could also be that they're saying the writing sucks. Hard to be sure.

Why is this so annoying? It is a three-star review, after all, which isn't that bad. It isn't as though I attach huge importance to these reviews. I generally enjoy the good ones, and ignore the bad ones. It isn't as though I intend to prepare a rebuttal for the review. It's ultimately one person's opinion, and you can't write a rebuttal to that.

I guess, finally, that it is because I can't understand it well enough to know how to respond to it.
It's not knowing exactly how I failed to satisfy the reader. It's not being able to prepare a defense of the book (valid or not) in the court of my own head.

Damn. There go those voices again...

1 comment:

  1. Hey J.,

    I know what you mean. In 2001 I had a horror novel published independently, which means hardly a ripple of notice -- then some "reviewer" thrashes it. I don't even get the luxury of an advance to throw in his face.

    The "Reviewer" :

    It's also kind of joke how many good reviews are out there for novels. You can't trust them to be authentic, or share your own tastes.

    2 cents.

    BTW, I liked your opening chapter for Anok on