Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Review Conundrum

                                                                     Milton C. Toby photo

by Milton C. Toby

Book reviews come with an inherent contradiction that I have never managed to sort out to my satisfaction. We love the good reviews and pass them around shamelessly to anyone who’ll pay attention, while hating and hiding, as best we can, the bad ones. The mostly unspoken assumption is that the author of a favorable review is erudite, intelligent, and discriminating, a literary heavyweight whose opinion matters. A bad review, on the other hand, almost certainly was written by a person residing somewhere south of us on the evolutionary scale, a knuckle-dragger whose opinion can be safely ignored.

But does the perceived distinction between a good review and a bad one actually make sense? Probably not. (I’m ignoring the trolls who surf the internet and post scathing reviews just for the sake of making authors miserable. The trolls truly are the bottom-feeders of social media!)

I enjoy a good review as much as anyone, but the satisfaction is fleeting. The critical reviews, on the other hand, have been far more valuable.

Dance’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, was an award winner with positive reviews—all except one. In a post-Derby epilogue I summarized the career of Hall of Fame jockey Bobby Ussery, who won the 1967 Kentucky Derby with longshot Proud Clarion and who finished first in the 1968 running. Although Dancer’s Image subsequently was disqualified for a controversial medication positive, Bobby Ussery still thinks of himself (rightly in my opinion) as the winner of back-to-back runnings of the most famous race in the world. I named the other back-to-back winners—it’s s short list—but in the process somehow managed to leave out the most obvious one, Ron Turcotte, rider of Riva Ridge and Secretariat.

The 1968 Kentucky Derby            George Featherston/Keeneland Library photo

One Amazon reviewer who happened to be a big fan of Turcotte’s took me to task over the omission. Getting a fact wrong is the kiss of death for a nonfiction author, and I was annoyed and suitably humbled by the one-star review. But I got over it. The bad review hurt, but it gave me the opportunity to correct the error for the book’s second printing.

A "good book, but . . ." review for Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky, proved to be even more valuable. The reviewer pointed out a couple of minor—but annoying nonetheless—factual errors. The review again gave me the opportunity to have the errors corrected, but it also demonstrated a fundamental shortcoming in my writing process.

I needed an independent fact-checker who knew the minutia of Thoroughbred racing and who was willing to pick through a manuscript with an eye for errors that neither I nor my advance readers noticed. I contacted the reviewer, thanked her for pointing out the issues with Noor, and asked her to check the facts in my next book, Cañonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner. She did a great job vetting the facts in Cañonero II and has agreed to serve as fact-checker on a book my agent is shopping around now, a history of racing’s addiction to performance enhancing drugs. I never would have connected with Val if not for a critical review.

In the end, a book review—good, bad, or indifferent—is what it is, one person’s opinion that we as authors can do with as we please.

Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien perhaps said it best:

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

If you’re an author, how do you balance the good reviews with the bad? If you’re a reader, how important are reviews to your book selections?


  1. Milt - what a great story. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons! How cool that you contacted the reviewer and asked her to be a fact- checker, It must be a tremendous responsibility to produce a lengthy non-fiction work. Fiction writers have enough trouble keeping track of the made-up parts of their characters' lives (what they are wearing, their friend's names, etc.) As for reviews, I've only received one 1-star review, which said the story was "boring," but noticed an uptick in sales right after that. Tastes in reading materials are so personal, after all, and perhaps some of my readers wanted to see for themselves. Ha!

    1. I've never tried to match reviews--good or bad--with sales, mainly because I'm too lazy to to keep track! I'd like to hear from some readers to get an idea of whether reviews actually influence buying patterns. I have authors that I like and rely on to produce a good read, and I'm not certain that I've ever bought a book (or decided not to buy one) because of a review. One downside to not reading reviews is that I probably miss out on some good books from unfamiliar authors.

  2. I got two new reviews today on two of my books on Amazon - both from the same person, both 3-stars. Well, you can't please everyone, but one comment called it "A fun read - if you don't do math. (due to horses' age)." That made me stop and think. I'm pretty sure that the book never even mentions the pony's age... I wonder what she found that made her think that? Anyway, I've left a comment and will see if I get a response. I'm the first to admit that maths isn't my strong suit, but I'm pretty sure that there aren't any glaring contradictions... If she's right, I'll fix it right away!

    1. Please let us know when--or if--you get a response from the math critic. I'm amazed by readers' ability to obsess about one tiny aspect of a book, to the exclusion of everything else.