Hunting for Good Books: Judging Books by Reviews

A while back, I discussed judging books by their covers and how cover art influences out decision to purchase books. I have also discussed my approach for writing reviews. What I haven’t discussed is how I use book reviews to help me determine whether or not I’ll be interested in purchasing a book.

Everyone is different. This is my approach, and being completely upfront, I really have no expectations others will benefit from my method of hunting down a good book. That said, there are a few things I watch out for, and I think it might be helpful for those who aren’t confident in picking out which reviews are legitimate and which ones have been purchased.

I’m going by Amazon reviews for this. Goodreads has a different reviewing system, and honestly, when I’m looking to purchase a book, I don’t use Goodreads. I’m browsing Amazon, actively looking for a title to one-click purchase. Goodreads reviewers often skew towards lower reviews, which doesn’t help me pick books as easily.

I have only one piece of advice to give, yours to keep or discard as you want: read the sample first. If the cover and description attract you, open the book and read the first page. If you’re undecided after you have read a bit of the sample, move on to the reviews. It’s a bit more time consuming, but let your first impression of the book be formed by the merits of the book. Reviews are a great tool to help decide if you want to invest in the entire book or not… but they’re a tool.

They’re not the book. If the sample doesn’t grab you, the reviews aren’t going to make that much of a difference. Really, they won’t.

The rest of this post, as always, involve opinions–my opinions. They probably won’t match your opinions. If you find my perspective useful, great! If not, toss my ideas out with the trash. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you, and that’s a great thing. We’re different people. While I hope this helps someone, it may not–and that’s okay, too.

amazon’s star ranking system

Generally, 5* equals the reviewer loved the book. 1* equals the reviewer hated the book. 3* is an average book.

3* is most typically a critical review, detailing why a reader liked and didn’t like the book. However, some people view the 3* category as a place to be noticed by reviewers. It can be a mixed hat, but if you want to see what readers didn’t enjoy about a book while still liking the title, you’ll want to go over the 3* reviews.

I want to read a book I will love, so I tend to wade into the 5* and 4* sections first. 5* I skim to find out why people loved this book so much. (I know some people will argue 5* are biased reviews. They are, in the sense the reviewer loved the book. But I want to read a book I will love. There’s nothing wrong with using biased reviews to help me figure out if the book might be up my alley. If I see a lot of “great sex! hot!” reviews, I am probably going to skip the book… unless I happen to be looking for an erotica at the time. (This is not usually the case.)

I look for things like great characters, fast-paced reads, and so on.

4* reviews come from people who still really enjoyed the book, but it wasn’t their absolute favorite. These often have tidbits of critical information in them, so they’re really useful.

But, let’s face it, a truly stellar book isn’t going to have a lot of lower-star ratings… and they shouldn’t. So, how do you tell when an author is just really popular versus having written a great book? It’s hard, it really is. You’ll have to use your judgment.

There are a few ways you can determine what sort of review you’re looking at, however, which can help simplify getting the most out of book reviews.

verified verus non-verified purchases

Authors rely on book bloggers for reviews, especially debut authors or experienced authors launching a new pseudonym. I fit in the latter category. I have relationships with several book bloggers. These people receive advanced reviewer copies of my novels (ARCs) in exchange for an honest review.

They are never paid for the review. My involvement with them typically follows this process:

  • I inquire if they want to review my title. Depending on their reviewer guidelines, I may send along a copy of the cover art and the back-of-book blurb.
  • If they are interested, I send them an ARC.
  • They review (or don’t review) the title and post their review on Amazon (and often their website.)

Now, here’s the problem with non-verified reviews. While there are a lot of legitimate book bloggers, there are those who pay people for fake reviews. These reviews often tell nothing about the book (or reference things from the book’s blurb) and are meant to boost a novel’s star rating on Amazon.

I find this practice extremely unethical. In short, it’s cheating. It’s one thing to approach bloggers, fans, and readers to ask for reviews, but another to give ‘reviewers’ money to review your book–usually without them ever having read the title. The good news? It’s usually easy to tell these reviews from others. They’re often short, they don’t say anything about the book or the reader’s experience with it, and thy are very generic.

These ‘reviewers’ don’t actually love books, and it shows when they review.

Now, there’s one caveat with this. A lot of readers simply aren’t comfortable leaving reviews. Some will just say, “I loved this book!”

That’s where verified reviews come into play. This is when Amazon verifies a customer has paid for a title before placing their review. Generally, especially if it’s a book costing $2.99+, if the ‘verified’ tag is there, there’s a good chance the review is genuine. It would get extremely expensive for an author to pay a fake reviewer $2.99 per review plus the reviewer’s fee for posting the review. Now, some people are willing to do this, but they’re few and far between.

While there are cheaters out there, many authors aren’t.

it’s okay to love books.

The main thing to remember here is that you shouldn’t automatically discard 5* reviews. Maybe you won’t use them to determine whether or not you’ll buy a title, but remember this: the people behind honest 5* reviews loved the book.

We’re all book lovers, and we go into a novel wanting to love it. When our expectations are met and a book is great to us, it’s appropriate to leave a 5* review.

You loved the book. The same applies to those leaving 5* reviews. When I love a book and want to read it over and over again, I rank it at 5*. So, yes, 5* reviews are biased. The reader loved the book.

I check out the 5* reviews to find out why.

If I’m suspicious of the 5* reviews, I will check out the 1-3* reviews to find out more about what might be wrong with the book.

Beware of 1* reviews

I almost never look over 1* reviews. I don’t want to go into a book hating it, and those who leave 1* reviews hated the title–or its author. I don’t find this very conducive to finding a book to love. So, beware of them. Real Me has received several 1* reviews, and quite a few of them were people with personal grudges against me. As an author, I disregard 1* reviews, usually without reading them.

They hated the book, and nothing I can do will change that. In some ways, it’s easy to want to treat 5* and 1* reviews the same, but here’s the key difference:

SnakeHeadGlyphWe buy books to love them, not to hate them. For that reason alone, 5* reviews, at least, are worth skimming. If you want to go into a book to hate it, by all means, 1* reviews are definitely a useful tool to use to set a bad first impression of the title. But, here’s the thing: if you’re so unsure about a book you want to look over the 1* reviews to see if you might hate it, you probably won’t enjoy the book. Move onto the next title and find something you’re confident you’ll enjoy.

Happy reading, book lovers!

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