This may sound strange from someone who writes book reviews for this blog. But I typically don’t read reviews in order to influence my decision on whether to purchase a book. I have been told that 80 percent of readers use reviews as their decision point, but I’m not in that group. Here is why.
The enjoyment and appreciation of a book, versus say, cars, or a hotel room, or a pair of shoes, is subjective. All experiences of products and services are subjective, but with a hotel room, you can say whether the bed had bed bugs or the shower’s water pressure was weak. You might lash out at management and management was perfectly nice to another guest, and maybe that reviewer was just experiencing the same service in a bad mood. In a car, you can point to its fuel efficiency, its reliability. Maybe you don’t like the color or body styling and another person would.
But books are different. Just look at all the writing advice out there and all the people who say all writing rules can be broken. Readers have just as many rules and they are often not writers. They respond to the text based on their experiences, their knowledge of writing and literature, their emotional, gut reactions. They also respond to the text from the lens of their sensibilities, their cultural, ethnic, and generational background, and what they like to read. Someone who likes to read vampire romance, say, may love a book about vampire romance, whereas someone who loves to read hard science fiction would hate the vampire romance book. Does that mean the vampire romance book is bad, just because it wasn’t someone’s cup of tea?
Also, I see this with Goodreads and Amazon in particular, but I find all too many reviewers to be overly critical. I was reading a book the other month that I was enjoying. Then I made the mistake of reading some of the reviews on Goodreads. They weren’t bad reviews, or axe-grinding reviews, just pointing out things in the book that didn’t work for them. I started to notice these elements, like how the point of view switched from first to third person between chapters, and they started to color my enjoyment of the book. Those elements, which I had previously ignored as not important to me because I liked the writing style, soon become glaringly obvious. I didn’t end up finishing the book because it didn’t have a Kindle Overdrive edition and I was switching from my phone to Kindle, but maybe it was because those reviews had biased me, even though I wasn’t sure we had read the same book.
Which brings me to another aspect of reviews that is important to discuss. A lot of reviews seem biased to begin with, besides that subjectivity in appreciation of art. There is the phenomenon of revenge reviews. Here’s one example: People don’t like a book because they feel it is prejudiced. The author doubles down on their position on social media. So the people organize a protest and slam the book in reviews. Then the author’s friends jump in and write glowing reviews. All those reviews are worthless, but they do skew the algorithm. Enemies or friends of the author writing reviews based on their support or criticism of the author, not the book.
Overall, I think the main reason why I don’t read many reviews is that I really don’t do much online shopping. I find it to be addictive. What’s not to addict? You can buy stuff with magic plastic in a swipe and a click. You wait in breathless anticipation, following the tracking progress. Then when your package finally arrives, you get to unwrap a present and tear into the box like it’s Christmas, spreading Styrofoam like chaos. Dopamine every step of the way. I just won’t do it.
But I can understand why reviews are important. I write reviews to support authors. I put them on my blog because if people see what kinds of books I like to read and start to learn my tastes, they will know whether they will appreciate what I recommend. I started reading ebooks since my library closed, and I have realized that Amazon’s algorithm is based on reviews. On the Kindle, you are shown books based on what’s highest rated and most popular. I never look at these books seriously because they hardly ever interest me, because they’re popular and over-hyped. But I do scan them, just in case.
And besides, the problem with online shopping is that the choices are overwhelming. There are literally hundreds of thousands of books out there. Especially if you want to support indies, how do else you wade through the choices? We are killed by the phenomenon of choice.
I prefer going to a library, touching books, and walking around the shelves. I can talk to a librarian, a real live human being and not an algorithm, and they can tell me, “If you like X, you’ll like X.” I know the librarian loves books, understands literature, and knows their stuff. If I’m purchasing books, I prefer to go to indie bookstores. They are curated according to the bookseller’s tastes. The limitation of choice creates better choices.
I also prefer talking to people. Word of mouth. I have bought books before because I get to know an author on Twitter and I like what they have to say and how their mind works. It is not about their spelling or grammar or how many typos they make or the formality of their writing style in that medium; it’s just branding. It is about their perspective on the world. I find an author’s thoughts on social media are often reflected in their works. I can read their voice on Twitter in their voice in their novel. A book should be separated from its author, but an author does not create a book in a vacuum from their mind.
If I get really stuck I will read NPR’s best books of the year and have found some great reads that way, or sites like Kirkus Reviews or Library Journal. I find those reviews to be higher-quality and less biased than those on Amazon and Goodreads.
Mostly what I do is I look at the cover art, which influences my choice far more than a review, I’m sorry to say; I’m not perfect, I do judge a book by its cover. I read the first few pages. I read the back blurb and cover flaps. And that will help me decide, because books versus any other product are a meritocracy of sorts. If I am hooked by the first few pages, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll sit down to the end.