WRITING: Why I Read One Star Reviews


WRITING: Why I Read One Star Reviews

A note: this is me talking to y’all as a reader and not a writer. I’ve had some awakenings lately as to what actually DOES make me buy a book on Amazon.

A second note: I’m probably not a good example of the majority. I have, for a while now, stubbornly bought indies with low review-numbers because their samples and blurbs are well written, and I don’t give six fucks and a half dozen dry humps whether the rest of the world liked it or not. But I’m not the only person more or less like me I know, so. There you go. Encouragement onward!

I was paging through Goodreads yesterday, looking through books for something new to spend my time on. I’ve been stuck in this fantasy/sci-fi loop for like a month, and it’s time for something different.

I found a book, mentioned several times in my feeds, called Slammerkin. Don’t ask me how it is; I haven’t read it yet. But I sure as hell bought it.

No, I’m not just telling you how my day went. What made this blogworthy–what made it worthy of discussion–is the reason why I bought it.

It wasn’t the numerous high reviews, the critical ratings, the sample (though that did help persuade me–the lady can write). It certainly wasn’t some bookspamming yahoo on Twitter. No, no. It was the numerous negative reviews.

Did you read me right there? It was the negative reviews.

Some people–not all, but some–passionately hated every character in there. They hated the premise. They hated the vapid and superficial main character. They hated the raunchiness, the depressing view of the world, attributed misandry, greed, and formless ambition to the author (!!) as well as her main character.

The negative reviews were eloquent, glowing in their expressive contempt for this novel, its characters, and even its author. Which would make you think this is a book to avoid, right?


Hell no. Hell to the no. What those reviews tell me is that a lot of people read it through–and apparently cared enough to remember quite a bit in the way of detail–and formed some very passionate opinions. If they hated it, holy shit, they had fun on the way. This book made them think. It made them care enough to hate.

And that–that caring–is more important to me in choosing a book than whether or not some assistant football coach in Choochaneechee, Iowa liked it.

These negative reviews, I have to admit, said things I liked about this book. Grungy? Count me in. Not a sentimental, gibbering bunch of pastoral holier-than-thou garbage? Sweet. Unlikeable main character? Big deal, I don’t like people anyway. And even the negative reviews admitted, the book is well written and well researched. And those two matter a lot more to me than this liking the main character garbage.

A note–if a book has several one-star reviews complaining about writing quality, plot continuity, or editing, it’s a little different. Even I’m not going to revenge-buy a bad book. But when it’s personal–oh buddy. I don’t care what some random person thought of the book, when I’m debating whether or not to buy. I care whether or not they cared. And if they passionately disliked several things that sound like things I’d like, well, one star be damned.

I’d say, as a reader, I actually look for groupings of one and five star reviews. If there are a lot of those, and few three and four star reviews, I’m happy. If, on the other hand, there are a lot of three and four stars–if, in essence, people didn’t feel strongly about it, but didn’t super duper love it, either–I avoid. Like everybody, I’ll read a book with a large percentage of five star reviews. At least, unless those reviews are badly spelled or obviously fake. Or something.

I’ll be honest, I don’t put too much stock in a negative review that cites its main reason for negativity as dislike of the main character. I mean, this is a novel, not a tea party. Nobody said you had to like everyone in it. And, to be honest again–I don’t much trust the truth of one-star reviews anyway. If you hated it that much, you probably liked it a little, deep down inside.

You liked it enough to devote about thirty minutes to ranting over it. Anyway.

I wanted to share this for you sad-face indie folks who just got your first nasty review on Amazon. Some of us DO check the one-stars, and we check them to buy, not to avoid. So, when that crazy mouth-foamer posts a one-star review with MY CATS ALL HATED IT in all caps as the title, don’t despair. It might destroy your average a little bit, but most sensible people aren’t going to let a bunch of personal (purrsonal) opinions they may or may not share shadow their view of how good something might be.

When I want to know what a book is about, what it says to people, I check the one-star reviews. When I want to know if it’s well-written, I check the sample. People give different star-values to things they like–a book with one bad typo which a reviewer otherwise considers perfect might get three stars, where another person might take pity on an author and give a steaming pile of garbage five. However, the stuff you hate only gets one rating, and that’s one star. MAYBE two. Usually one. And me, I want to know what you felt strongly enough about to hate.

Hopefully this cheers somebody up. I know it certainly did me, when I realized what I’d been doing. Like I said, no one star reviews yet, but I know that day is coming. I hope somebody one day hates my book as dramatically as these folks hated Slammerkin. That would tickle me almost as pink as someone loving it–I mean, at least they noticed, right?

21 thoughts on “WRITING: Why I Read One Star Reviews

  1. Reblogged this on Suffolk Scribblings and commented:
    What a great and refreshing view on the thing most writers worry about, the one-star review. I don’t necessarily hunt out one-star reviews, but there have been times where I’ve read polarised reviews and thought “all those reasons you hate the book are going to be reasons I’ll love it,” and bought the book.
    Great post!

    1. Thanks for the reblog, and glad you enjoyed! I *do* hunt them out, if only because people are far more specific about things they hate than they are about things they like–a little more to go on, I guess you could say. 🙂

  2. I received a 1 star review for my first published collection of short stories, “The First Time”. I have, since then received a variety of ratings but always recollect that 1 star review which is, I guess unsurprising. I will buy a book if I feel that a 1 star review of the work is unfair, indeed I am intrigued by such reviews. Kevin

    1. Ha, you know, that’s another good point–I’ve often wondered if just being a writer influences how I look at one star reviews (in essence, I see it and feel a little bad for the writer). I’ve never had it happen to me, but I do see somebody get a terrible review because someone disliked something about the story and feel a little sympathy pain. 🙂

  3. Two comments:
    1) it’s much easier to write a negative review, saying why a book is good/brilliant can be difficult
    2) the other problem with reviews, as you suggested, is there is a big difference between a) this book is well/badly written and b) I loved/loathed this book. Most reviews fall into b). A few are a) and some actually touch on both.

    1. Oh, totally agreed! It’s funny, I was actually just saying something similar to Dylan Hearn on here–people tend to be a lot more specific about negatives than positives, and it makes it a little easier to figure out what the book actually contains. I’ll listen to ‘the main character is a selfish, surface-driven whore’ with a much more attentive ear than ‘this is a well-spun tale’. I guess in reviews, as in writing: show, don’t tell. 😛

  4. I generally look at the top and lowest ratings of books I’m looking to read and compare crticially – more often than not there’s a polarity to what was loved and hated and I usually go with the OPINION I can respect most.
    And that’s what reviews are – opinions. If they’re reasoned ones then pay attention to the why factor and make your own decision on purchase accordingly – it’ll probably save you some money in the long term… 😉

    1. Very true. 🙂 Even whether a book is well written or not tends to be an opinion rather than a solid fact–however, I trust peoples’ why nots more than I trust their whys on that subject, if only because the why nots tend to enumerate the reasons more totally. Trust me, I look at the five stars too! If someone’s super excited, it encourages me.

  5. I’ve often wondered how valuable glowing, gushing five star reviews are to self-pub’d authors. As a reader, I discount them immediately. Let me see what the three stars and below are saying.

    1. My self-pub’d ego would like to answer this one. It says: very valuable. In fact, I think my self pub’d ego feeds almost entirely off them. 😛

      I wouldn’t say I discount a five star review–if there are a lot of them, it’s either a good sign you can write or you’ve got enough money to pay people indefinitely. But I’ll agree that the low-stars are more instructive. Honesty. It’s a great equalizer.

  6. I always like to see why people don’t like them, because often it is for reasons that wouldn’t resonate with me…and yes, sometimes what somebody thinks is bad (usually the high end grammar/literary snob), actually floats my boat!

    1. Haha, I’m a bit of a grammar snob myself, but I wouldn’t say the buck stops when a participle phrase dangles or anything. Have to say, I’ve always thought it was a little much when someone gives some poor guy one star for missing a comma here and there–I mean, there’s a lot more to a story than just grammar.

  7. Stumbled here through the Magic of WordPress Tags and was delighted to see someone expressing an opinion I’ve often thought myself. I love books that inspire passion and, since my passions often don’t line up with other people’s passions, hate reviews are excellent for finding books that I will love.

    You’ve expressed it far more clearly, but I’m a love of a number of various small niches, especially in fantasy literature. As someone who loves character-centric, not-romance-focused, fast-paced fantasy-adventure, I am drawing from a *very* small pool.

    Hate reviews help me find what I’m seeking.

    So a big thanks to the person who hates “women with knives” (true quote, true review). I am in your debt for my enlarged reading list.

    1. Heeeey. I know who you are. Loved your book!

      I’ve gotta say, hating women with knives pretty much wins in the ‘reasons for one star reviews’ category. I mean, I hate small children with shopping carts. But when they crop up in a story, I somehow swallow my hatred and continue reading.

      1. Oh, wow! I’m glad that you enjoyed the book! If you don’t mind me asking, which one did you enjoy- the first or the second?

        I just looked at “the women with knives” comment and instantly fell in love- both with the book and the reviewer. I half-wanted to follow him around and buy all his hate reads. I have to say though that I don’t run into very many small children with shopping carts in my fantasy. Maybe I should try to correct that myself just so that I can inspire some passionate one-star reviews!

      1. It does kind of help to keep the ego in check and a few rare times those bad reviews pointed out something I had missed in my tireless edits.

  8. I’ve heard 1-star reviewers often leave feedback that tells more about themselves than about the book. I got one for TFD that basically said they didn’t like the budding affair. They stopped reading and wrote the review as a warning to others. Ha.
    btw – I missed this post earlier, and the title in the sidebar caught my attention. So it works, in case you were wondering. 🙂

    1. Haha, always good to know. I’ve gotten a lot of views and feedback for this one–never an unwelcome sight!

      And you’re right, a lot of one star reviewers who’re kind enough to go into detail seem to talk more about what I’ll loosely call story politics than the quality of the story. I guess that’s a reviewer’s right–shame it messes with ratings so hard. (PS–Michelle was like my favorite character, and the ‘budding affair’ was like my favorite part).

  9. I must say…I read the negative review for phone apps and pay particular attention to those one-star reviews. There’s gotta be a reason for them, and often those are the most entertaining reviews to read. Even when an app has significant obvious-internal-physical-operational flaws, the reviewer wrote better examples that say more about the app than the five-star “Loved It!” reviews. You’ve given me a new reason and a fresh outlook on reading negative reviews. I hope to someday have a plethora of eloquent, thoughtful, detailed 1-star reviews that help sell my books 🙂

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