A Tale of Two Reviews

On my review blog we sometimes have what we call a doubleshot, our normal review that is published in the morning (US time) and a review of the same book by another of the site’s reviewers later the same day. It started because there are some “pals” (when the site is called “BigAl’s Books and Pals” it is the obvious term for the other reviewers, right?) who are fans of the same authors and more than one person wanted to review some of the same books. It seemed like a no-brainer since both were going to read the book regardless and I thought it would be silly to turn down content. They were non-controversial, with little disagreement (possibly a 4 star versus a 5 star). Kind of predictable given how they came about. But they were also interesting in comparing the focus of the different reviewers. The readers, reviewers, and authors all liked the feature. Enough so that I started looking for opportunities where I thought a book would be a good fit for this format and propose it as a doubleshot to a pair of reviewers.

That was bound to bring an end to the predictability, and it did. A book was submitted for a potential review that appealed to me. I’ve gotten fairly good at guessing which books are going to appeal to Keith Nixon, one of the pals. When he’s perusing what is available for reviewing, Keith likes thrillers and “crime fiction” if it is spiced with a bit of humor, even better. This looked like the perfect fit, so I asked Keith if he was interested and he agreed to give it a try.

I read the book and wrote my review. Then waited for Keith’s. (I make a point if I’m one of the reviewers doing a doubleshot to have my review in the can before looking at what the other reviewer has to say, for the obvious reasons.) When Keith’s review came in, I found a significant difference in our rating (I gave it 5 stars, Keith gave it 3). So why the difference? Who was right?

As I looked at what Keith had to say and the differences in our two reviews the answer to the second question was obvious. We were both right.

Keith had two major issues with the story, the first was with the two main characters, who (to put words in his mouth) he felt were exaggerated, a bit too over the top for him. The second was that an event that was critical to the overall story (an oil spill on a river) and its aftermath wasn’t believable to him. I had no problem understanding Keith’s concerns and although my reaction to the story was different, I thought his take was also legitimate.

Another pal, Pete Barber, and I discussed some of our respective theories for the different reactions in the comments. One of Pete’s ideas was a difference in the genres we typically read. My initial inclination was this was dead wrong. Keith and I both read a lot of books in a wide range of genres, with this book falling in the genre neighborhood that is a favorite for each of us although lately I’ve read more thrillers than crime fiction, which I think sometimes requires a reader to go further in suspending disbelief. So possibly a larger dose of thrillers has made me more willing to suspend disbelief in borderline situations. I also took the over-the-top aspects of the characters as being a satire on the hard-boiled detective. I’ve found that I’m much more willing, if I perceive something as satire or farce, to put on my blinders and take a lot more on faith than I typically would. I think that, along with my attention focusing on the more literary aspects of the story (another theory Pete proposed) probably accounted for most of the differences in how we felt about the story.

Next up was a doubleshot with Pete and I as the reviewers. The book in question won a publishing contract in a literary contest twenty seven years ago and then more or less died at publication for reasons having little to do with the book. The author had arranged for the rights to revert and republished it himself. This book was billed as like Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code (although pre-dating it by several years) except more literary. I guess you could call it a historical literary thriller. Once again, there was a significant difference in our ratings. I gave it 4 stars, Pete gave it 2. And, as with Keith’s, I thought Pete’s review was also a valid take on the book.

Despite the difference in rating, we both mentioned the slow, meandering start. To me, this was more an issue of genre convention (the literary fiction part). I pointed it out to warn off readers who wouldn’t be a good fit due to this. Anyone expecting a pure thriller would be put off the book well before anything thrilling kicked in, as Pete was. I also said the plot stretched my ability to suspend disbelief to its limit while it went well beyond what Pete was able to go along with.

As an author, you’d probably rather receive reviews like those I gave these books and skip those like Keith’s or Pete’s. I understand why, but I think it is in your best interest to have a mix. The value of reviews for those readers who use them are to find the books which are the best fit for their tastes. After reading either set of reviews, those readers who find they often can’t suspend disbelief would be dissuaded from reading either of these books. Those readers who gravitate to or at least appreciate a literary writing style (something I was surprised to discover about myself in this exercise) and who know they’re more willing to go along with the author’s vision even when it conflicts with their real world experiences would do well to read either of these books. The multiple viewpoints, both positive and negative, make it easier for the right reader to find the book that is right for them. It makes it easier for the readers in your target audience to realize this book is one they want to read while convincing others to move on. Without reviews telling potential readers not only what they might like about your book, but also what they might not, many readers aren’t willing to take a chance.


Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

23 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Reviews”

  1. Very interesting take, Al. I think this is why honest reviews are so important and why you need many to get a balanced view. Personally I am pretty good a suspending disbelief (to a point) as long as the story holds me and I can relate to the characters.

    1. Thanks, Yvonne. I’m obviously good at suspending disbelief, too. At least in some situations. I find that what gets me is if a story takes place in a very specific place, time, or (sometimes) culture if the author gets the details wrong, especially somewhere I’m very familiar with.

  2. Great article, Al. It’s all in the mind of the reader/reviewer, and depends on taste and genre experience. I recently received two reviews that categorized my latest thriller, Yucatan Dead, as chick-lit crime, which I thought interesting. When I put it to my writing group, all of them disagreed with the moniker, citing other chick-lit books which were much lighter, and, you know, involved shoes. Personally, I’m fine with whatever anyone wants to call the books I write, as long as they read them 🙂

    As for general taste of the reviewer, I always tell myself I can’t please everyone. And really, why would you want to? I want my work to elicit a strong response, not a “meh”.

    1. Thanks, DV. That’s interesting. If I had been told Yucatan Dead was “chick-lit crime” in advance, I don’t think I’d have been disappointed. But I’m not sure I could get to that description either. The female protagonist isn’t enough.

  3. “Who was right?

    As I looked at what Keith had to say and the differences in our two reviews the answer to the second question was obvious. We were both right.” –

    and besides being a value to a potential reader, they provide a great reason why, they were both constructive in their “review” justifying the respective ratings, crucial and very important

    1. Thanks, Felipe. That’s how I saw it as well. Any review, *if* they justify/explain the reason why they felt that way, helps capture the right readers and repel or dissuade those who aren’t a good fit. Everybody wins in my mind.

  4. I completely agree with you, Al. The very thing that makes one reader give a book 1 star might be what makes another reader love it. Neither is good/bad or right/wrong; each just adds to the information available.

  5. Big Al: I love this post about reviews and how different readers approach a book. I have sister authors who go into a blue funk when one of their titles receives a one or two star review. Next out of their mouths is: “How the heck did [another] book get so many five star reviews? I couldn’t stand it!” It behooves us to remember that each reader brings a different dynamic to his or her reading enjoyment. Good post.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jackie. I’ve been a part of many conversations just like that. I even understand it, to a point. If it’s venting in private, I even see it as a good thing.

    2. And just remembered, Jackie, one more comment I was going to make that yours reminded me of. One of the authors commented very positively on both reviews. She understood both our reactions and saw how they were each reasonable and valid.

  6. What a great exercise, Al. We authors love to get those multi-starred reviews, but we need to remember that the ones with fewer stars can be good for our books, too. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Lynne. Personally, when I’m looking at reviews and trying to make a buying decision I pay much more attention to the negative reviews because they usually tell me more. If I see a 2 or 3 star that says, “too much swearing and sex, but good story otherwise,” it will probably sell me on the book. 🙂

  7. This is an excellent article. I think it’s high time we authors began to realize those low-star reviews just may be the Brussels sprouts of the meal – yucky, but still an important part of a balanced diet.

    1. Thanks, EM. I completely understand an author being upset from a low star review with nothing but “it sucks” and no explanation of why they felt that way. That doesn’t do anyone any good except (maybe) the reviewer blowing off steam. I view those as no different than an internet troll. Of course, the reviews that only say, “I loved it” aren’t any more valuable, albeit, less upsetting to an author. But I think you’re correct about being part of a balanced diet. Readers are suspicious of books with only positive reviews, many interpreting that to mean that no one has read the book except a small number of friends and family of the author. Once you start seeing more than the initial five 5-star reviews then all of the reviews seem more credible.

  8. Great exercise, Al. Like DV, I had similar “this or that” issues with my latest. It’s interesting to see the different takes on the book, depending on whether a reader was expecting more romance or more literary.

    1. Thanks, Laurie. I think an author who has a handful of negative reviews *might* be able to target their ideal audience in a better way by tweaking their blurb based on what people didn’t like. I’m not sure I’ve heard of anyone trying that with once exception, but I’d think that might be an idea for someone to try out. The exception I’ve seen is some non-US authors have added and starting including as a matter of course that they use UK, Aussie, or Canadian spelling and grammar after having issues with reviews saying a lot of words were misspelled (which they weren’t, based on spelling conventions in their native country).

  9. Great post, Al. This comes on the heels of having almost a dozen beta-readers giving feedback on my latest, and no two people had the same issues or gave the same suggestions. So much of what we see is colored by the filters of our own expectations and experience. Nice reminder to keep that in perspective.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. I’ve heard that about beta readers from others. One author told me that the perspective she takes is that if a beta reader makes a suggestion or says there is a problem somewhere that she considers it and, if she disagrees, may leave it as is, but if two people have the same comment she figures there must be something there even if she’s not seeing it.

      Where it gets fun is when two beta readers have conflicting comments. Maybe one thinks the hero is too sweet and the other thinks he’s a jerk. 🙂

  10. I loved this straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth article Al, and it highlighted something I’ve been thinking about recently, namely that reviews are not objective measures of ‘value’. They are more like dating agencies bringing books and readers together. As such, poor reviews are really valuable as they can help us [authors] establish the niche into which we fit most comfortably.

    1. Thanks, AC. I like the way you put this, a great analogy.

      If I *know* something is an issue for me largely because of personal tastes or opinions that are a hot button of some kind I try to be dispassionate about it and not give a low ranking on that basis, as long as the story holds together. But complete objectivity is impossible once you get beyond the extremely basic technical stuff (spelling is right, etc) and even some of that isn’t always straightforward (US versus Aussie spelling and language is an example you’d understand).

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