The Problem With Positive Reviews
For several years, I was the New Age Editor at the second largest women's site on the web. We once had a discussion about reviews and someone asked me why all my book reviews were positive. (At that time, I focused solely on reviewing books.)
I answered that I happened to be reviewing books that I liked--and that I didn't want to "send out negativity" into the Universe by writing a negative review. Knowing how time-consuming and, at times, excruciating the creative process can often be, I certainly didn't want to be responsible for discouraging an author, either! Not only that, just because I didn't like a book doesn't mean that someone else wouldn't benefit from it.
A few individuals shared with me that readers would take reviewers more seriously if they posted both positive and negative reviews. I was reluctant to begin writing "negative" reviews, but I eventually began doing so and I'll tell you why.
For those of us who live in rural areas devoid of any New Age bookstores, the closest one may be an hour or more away. Although some larger chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders may carry a few decks and metaphysical titles, the selection can be pretty darn paltry--even in more populated towns.
And the local libraries in my area? Utterly devoid of occult titles, except for the occasional Sylvia Browne book. But forget trying to find a book or deck on Tarot, let alone serious tomes on esoteric subjects. The librarians tell me that occult books are the ones that get stolen as soon as they’re added to the shelves.
This means that those of us who live in rural areas but love to collect Tarot decks or devour metaphysical books lare crap out of luck.
That is, of course, except for the wonderful world of the Internet.
Folks like me often must buy books and decks sight unseen and rely heavily on reviews. We hope they're honest, we trust that they'll be comprehensive, but...guess what? Sometimes, they are not.
Although I can, and do, get tons of decks and books directly from publishers for review, I often spend hundreds of dollars a year on similar items. Why? Because I may not want to wait or I may have communication glitches with publicists/publishers, so I just go ahead and buy them myself. (Not to mention the dozens of impulse buys. Yikes!) I have spent thousands of dollars over the years on such books and getting many free isn't stopping this trend!
In other words, I was a consumer before I was a reviewer of metaphysical books, decks, DVDs and CDs. And, I still am.
Now, here's a scenario for you explaining why I happen to write "negative" reviews: Some time ago, I received The Fantastical Tarot and The Crystal Tarot from Amazon.com. While The Crystal Tarot isn't so bad, The Fantastical Tarot isn't my cup of tea. I bought the former because I saw some attractive (but small) images in The Tarot Bible, and the latter because I saw it at a "Which Card Are You?" online quiz.
No, I didn't read the reviews first because I rarely, if ever, read reviews of items that I think I'll someday review myself. (Just my way of not wanting to be influenced, even subconsciously, by the views of others.) However, I did look at an online site that features card images and reviews.
Not surprisingly, the card images displayed by that site are NOT representative of the whole deck. Only the most attractive images are featured, and if the Minors happen to be Pips only (e.g. the 6 of Wands showing 6 actual wands or the 8 of Swords showing 8 actual swords), only selections from the Majors, Aces, and Court Cards are (conveniently) shown.
In other words, the most decorated and intricate cards in the Tarot.
I've noticed this skewed trend of only showing the pretty cards, which is one reason I try to pick 15-18 representative cards from a deck to accompany my reviews, even cards that I don't like.
Yet I do believe that was the first time I've been burned on my own purchases. Now, that would be bad enough, but there are two other details that bug me about the site I'm referring to:
1. It only publishes positive reviews
2. It is an affiliate of several outlets that sell books and decks
How do I know? Because none of my (submitted) "negative" deck or book reviews have been published on that site--only positive ones. And, I don't recall ever finding a negative review on that site. Ever.
While this may be good for deck creators and authors (not to mention the site publishing only positive reviews and attractive images who get money from every purchase), it is NOT good for consumers. Not only does this cheat people out of their money, but it also engenders a sense of distrust among readers towards reviewers in general.
Is it easier to write positive reviews than negative ones? Absolutely! And more fun, to boot! Positive reviews fly off my fingers while critical reviews take longer, especially since, at the very least, I try to point out the positives of a book or deck if there are any redeeming qualities.
But this latest experience of getting burned on on-line purchases reminded me (and encouraged me) as to why I write critical reviews: My sense of ethics compels me to be honest. My first loyalty as a reviewer is to the consumer, my fellow book and deck enthusiasts—not the publisher, not a publicist, not an author or deck creator (even if such happens to be an acquaintance or colleague!)
In my mind, a critical review—an objective, balanced review—isn't a "negative" one. (Obviously, what determines "balanced" is subjective!) In fact, there are times when readers email me about a "negative" review gushing, "Thank you so much for this review. I went out and bought the book and LOVED it!"
Yes, you read right.
This shows me that critical reviews also serve the public for the simple fact that what I may consider a "downside" may very well be an "upside" for someone else.
So don't we reviewers owe it to the public to provide balanced, honest reviews? I think so. At least, this is what my personal ethics compels me to do.
Otherwise, reviewers just serve as publicists. It is the publicist’s job to describe the contents of a book, deck, or product and then to apply the most positive, compelling spin possible in the hopes that someone agrees to review the product or interview the author for the ultimate purpose increased sales—not mine.
And the hell I catch for some of my reviews? Unfreakinbelievable. And all from the Tarot community. They harass me on forums, stalk me on Twitter, complain about me to publishing companies, send me anonymous emails and stir up pitchfork mobs. It’s bizarre, really. No wonder people think Tarot users are whack jobs!
Instead of appreciating the other 1,200 reviews I’ve written to help consumers, they focus on the one they disagree with—or, sometimes, a “negative” review of a book penned by author they adore or are friends with. They call me a bully, repeatedly, hoping the perception sticks. Then, any OTHER author or fangirl that gets disgruntled picks up the whining buzz of these Twalkers, further perpetrating the droning “Janet is a bully” line.
I’ve been reviewing books for almost a decade because I love books! Same with Tarot decks. But I benefit from honest reviews, too. Before you start to rag on me or any other reviewer, consider:
1. We aren’t paid for our reviews
2. Free stuff is NOT commensurate the time and energy spent on reviewing
3. A book isn't an author’s “baby”, it’s a product
4. A negative review isn’t personal
5. Literary criticism is a respected art form
6. Public harassment by an author makes the AUTHOR look bad, not the reviewer
7. Negative reviews can generate buzz and exposure, too
8. One review isn’t going to sink a book or a career
9. Honest reviews do consumers a great service
10. Reviewers are real people behind the screen, just like the author
I am beyond appreciative of your thorough and honest perspective on book reviews. I live in a small town, and we do have a wonderful bookstore but I tend to buy specialty books that aren't necessarily available there. It's simply faster to purchase via Amazon, and I do read reviews thoroughly before making my purchase. I appreciate the rave reviews, but especially appreciate the balanced reviews that show the good/bad of a title. I find reviews that explain why the reviewer feels the way they do to be quite helpful in making my purchasing decisions.
Posted by: Krissybrady | 06/27/2011 at 07:16 PM
You are so right, Krissy! Not only that, there's what's called "shill reviewing". These are reviews posted on Amazon that are written by the author--or the author's friends, family, publicists, etc. They are glowing and five star, often posted en masse to "counter" any negative or lukewarm reviews.
They're usually easy to spot (no "Real Name" attribution, for example), and are often posted at the same time.
But yeah, those of us who enjoy and buy speciality books--and live in rural areas--are usually crap out of luck with getting these titles in a timely, affordable and/or convenient manner.
Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Krissy!
Posted by: Janet Boyer | 06/27/2011 at 11:54 PM
ATF refers prospective reviewers to an article written by Bonnie Cehovet on how to write reviews, which contains the following note about negative reviews:
"There is no reason to do a completely negative review. If it looks like this is where your review is headed, then you might be better served by returning the book and declining to do the review."
Posted by: Mywingsofdesireblog.blogspot.com | 06/28/2011 at 02:45 AM
I've seen that "article" and disagree with it. That may be a good approach if you don't want to offend anyone in the Tarot community or hurt anyone's feelings...but it doesn't help the consumers AT ALL (which was the point of this blog post).
How else will our fellow Tarot enthusiasts and consumers tell the difference from a bad product or a good one? Saying nothing doesn't inform anyone; conclusions canNOT be drawn for a product with no reviews.
And to be quite honest, many professional reviewers and Tarot authors laugh at certain individual's reviews, because they are basically word-for-word repeats of the TOC, back of the book, the Intro., etc. Boring as hell, too. Hard to take someone seriously when they write positive reviews about EVERYTHING that comes across their desk. It reeks of sycophantism and shill reviewing on the behalf of an author/and or publisher.
I can see why some like those types of reviewers, though: authors and publishers are assured a POSITIVE, glowing review each and every time.
Personally, I'd rather be respected and trusted than liked and laughed at by serious writers and reviewers.
And, some of those types of reviews are on Aeclectic.net--the site that I referred to that ONLY posts positive reviews. Again, a great disservice for those wanting, and needing, honest reviews.
Posted by: Janet Boyer | 06/28/2011 at 02:54 AM
Janet, thank you for all your reviews! Sometimes I wait for your review before I'll buy a book because I know you will give an honest and thorough assessment. I recently purchased an ebook on amazon that had two, what must have been, shill reviews. Boy was I pissed off when I found out that you had reviewed it but your review was somehow missing! It would have saved me time and money. I may not agree with every review but I so appreciate an authentic perspective. And I resent reviewers who give dishonest/positive reviews just to be nice. They aren't helping anyone in the long run. Even the author (especially the author) deserves the truth.
Posted by: ~M | 07/10/2011 at 12:20 AM
I get pissed when I see a shill review, too, M! The only reason I didn't post the review here was because the authors were already stalking me on Amazon, Lunch.com and even here on my blog! I didn't want to deal with any more shit.
Thanks for your encouragement, M! It's so gratifying to hear that I provide informative reviews...and help save people their hard-earned money on less than stellar products.
Posted by: Janet Boyer | 07/13/2011 at 03:44 AM