I've been reading a lot lately, which means I haven't been writing. It was so bad that I considered quitting a few weeks ago. The thought lasted less than 10 seconds, but it scared the dookies out of me. I mean, WTF?

But I'm back on track, writing every day. I'm also trying to keep time open for reading, because I had missed it. In fact, I think it was reading Bruen and Starr, Westlake and Gischler, one after another, that got me back to the keyboard and inspired me to keep going.

I just wanted to thank these fine gentlemen.

But I read another book that didn't inspire me to do anything except toss the damn thing across the room. This book was by a Big Name, one who has won Big Awards, armloads of them, and written a series I'd rather enjoyed in the past. (No, it's not anyone who normally reads the Planet, at least not that I know).

With apologies to David Montgomery, I don't read reviews often, and never before I read the book. But after, I'll often read reviews to see what others think, especially if I thought the book was particularly good or bad.

And in this case, I thought the book was more than just bad, but given the author's past work, it was awful. So I casually took a look at what readers said about this book on Amazon and I have to wonder, did we read the same book?

Most of them gave this guy five friggin' stars. Five! In spite of some of the lamest dialogue I've read in years, unbelievable characters, handy-dandy clues right where the hero needs them, a plot that depends on the hero being an idiot, and an ending you've seen in a dozen direct-to-DVD movies.

What gives? Is it just because I read guys like Westlake and Bruen that my expectations are so high or is it that others' expectations are so low? Could it be just the strength of this author's reputation that makes people give the book a break? I don't know.

So let's talk about reviews.

Do you read them before you read a book or after? Or at all? Do you ever read a review and wonder what the dude was smoking? Do you ever give someone like Crumley or Leonard (and it was neither of these gentlemen) a break because of the body of their work, overlooking what may be a single stinker in a string of gems?

As always, talk to me.

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Of course there are biases based on preference. I'm talking about personal biases for or against the author. You don't think some of those great reviews on Amazon are from friends or family members? Some of the bad ones from scorned enemies?

Come on, John. It's like almost everything else on the internet. You have to consider the source.

I don't usually write reviews, but I just posted a nice one on JA Konrath's new book here.

Is it biased? Only regarding my preferences. While I like Joe and want to see him do well, I wouldn't have written a review if I wasn't truly impressed by the effort. Where fellow writers are concerned, I try to live by "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Not so with some of the online bookstore reviews. Some of those cats obviously have an agenda.
That' fair enough, but does that mean that bad reviews shouldn't be allowed? "If you can't say something nice..." is good for you, but if everyone did it then reviews would be useless, because they would all be positive.

Maybe these good and bad reviewers have an agenda, but does that make their criticism inaccurate or less valuable? You like JA Konrath, so does that mean I should disregard what your praise for the book, simply because I know you're in his corner? Your praise may be well-justified, regardless of your opinion of JA Konrath. The same is true for bad reviews and negative feelings for an author.

You're right though; you do have to consider the source. Now most user reviews on Amazon are unverifiable. I mean, you're not going to know most of the time where that person comes from or what his/her personal biases are, but that shouldn't matter anyway. If I read a scathing review that doesn't give much evidence to support its claims, then I know that this particular review should not be one I base my decision on as to whether to buy the book or not. The same goes for glowing reviews that give little evidence. And I think the average consumer is intelligent enough to do the same.

The whole agenda thing can work both ways too. A reviewer may have his own agenda (or ax to grind if you will) and post a bad review, but the author could have his own ax to grind. Maybe Bill gets a slew of bad reviews from Amazon and therefore thinks Amazon reviews are worthless and unfair and whatever else. Is that a personal agenda? I think so. Just because Bill got bad reviews, that doesn't necessarily mean that its because the reviewers had it in for Bill. That could be the reason, but it also might not be. It's possible that Bill's book just isn't that good.

The point is that we don't know for sure. There is more than one reason why a good or bad review can be given, and since its mostly impossible to tell which reason it is, why get so upset about it? If you get upset about it, you might then have your own personal agenda against the reviewers, and then you're no better than they are.

So whether a review is good or bad, fair or unfair (we could go into a whole other debate about what that means), they should all be there. Jon Loomis's reviews should not have been removed, no matter how scathing they are. It's like what I.J. Parker stated above, you just have to live with it. If you put something out into the public realm, there's no other choice.

On a lighter note, I had a teacher who published poetry, and I looked up one of his books on Amazon, and his wife had posted a review (I know this because she used her real name). I had already read the book, so the review wouldn't have any affect anyway, but of course I didn't take hers very seriously. So I agree that personal bias in reviews does happen.
As an author, you'll drive yourself nuts if you pay attention to Amazon reader reviews. As a reader, you'll drive youself nuts if you pay attention to Amazon reader reviews. So, ultimately, what good are they?

None, IMHO.

The good thing about Amazon reviews though, is that they are made by the average reader. These are the majority of people who will be buying your book, so you get to see what the average person thinks of it. These reviewers don't jump on any bandwagons and have no reason to. They just tell as they see it.

I think it's good, and part of our democracy, that the average reader gets to voice his/her opinion. I just don't think it's very wise to change purchasing decisions, or--and this is where it hits home for us writers--editing and content decisions based on criticism from readers who may or may not have a personal agenda. If you do, you'll be chasing your tail till Kingdom Come.
So even the people who give positive reviews have an ax to grind?

Do you think you would feel the same way about Amazon reviews if all your reviews had been favorable?
Meh. I don't usually pay much attention to them. But then I don't have a book out, yet.

I'm much more interested in the opinions of people who know and share my tastes.
I read reviews, and sometimes I find they're spot on, and sometimes I have no idea if we're reading the same book. I had the same sort of experience you're talking about with a debut novel that everyone was raving about. The buzz was amazing. This was the Next Best Thing. I found it unreadable. I did not expect to find it unreadable, I went into it with a totally open mind and expected Great Things. I gave it a fair shot.

And David, while I am reluctant to say what book this was, I will say it was not BENEATH A PANAMANIAN MOON. I loved your book :)
Karen and Margot can both expect checks in the mail.

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