The Problem With Editorial Book Reviews

Nielsen, a company noted for its analyses of consumer trends, reported that 70% of consumers trust online reviews when making the decision to purchase. What does this mean for you as an author? It means that unless you’ve got a lot of positive reviews to counteract the negative reviews, you’re sunk.

You’re at the mercy of the first few people who decide to rate your books. If you’re lucky, good reviews will come first, and when that bad review finally hits (which it will), the review won’t sink your book like a boat full of torpedo holes. Woe to the author whose first review is critical, especially when it cites spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors. Nothing will doom your book faster because like the Nielsen report says, readers are going to trust that torpedo review and avoid your book like the Bubonic Plague. Few authors start out with a fan base that helps them override such a hit.

Maybe your book deserved the awful review, and it really wasn’t ready to be published. That happens. If your book is really bad, it could end up on a Worst Books Ever list, except that these lists usually focus on top selling books, and your torpedo review destroyed all hopes of ever becoming a best seller.

Horribly written books do exist. Books get published that don’t even rate being called a decent first draft, but is every book with a torpedo review one of these unworthy books? The trouble comes when people with good intentions, who just want to protect the world from an awful book, are the first reviewers of a book. Their negative review immediately sinks the book, and it might have been a book that other readers would have enjoyed.

Some of the most popular books on the market have some of the worst reviews for spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and yet people still love these books. They were blessed with four leafed clovers before the torpedoes hit, and they demonstrate the folly in determining which books are worthy of being read.

What about the debate over what should be called an error? The average book reader has no way of determining whether a reviewer really knows what they are talking about when they cite spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors. Even among professional reviewers, as well as the people who write the books that dictate the rules in the first place, there is debate.

Nobody would argue that forgetting to close a quote or punctuate the end of a sentence is an error, but what about the Oxford comma? The war is on as to what conditions require an Oxford comma, and even the new AP Stylebook won’t settle the debate.

Spelling errors are another hotbed of contention between writers and reviewers. In the 18th century, a man’s reputation was destroyed over a single misspelled word — wholesome — which was written as holesome. According to Lord Chesterfield, “Dropping the ‘w’ was as bad as dropping a baby,” as quoted in the article, “Does Spelling Matter?

Few would argue that holesome is a good substitute for wholesome, but what about words such as color versus colour, or gray versus grey? Both spellings are correct, but books get cited for spelling errors in bad reviews over their choice of which way to spell a word.

Books written in English and sold on the internet are marketed toward all English-speaking countries which include the United States, Canada, Australia, England, and others. Americans are accustomed to seeing the colors of the flag as red, white and blue, while the British expect to see the colours of their flag as red, white and blue. Neither should get flagged as a spelling error.

If spelling and punctuation debates aren’t enough, the debate over proper grammar really sends people over the edge. Grammar usage can get flagged as an error, even if it isn’t. The proper usage of a single word can spark an entire debate. To muddy the waters even further, the grammar rules change.

The experts cannot agree on what the rules should be, so how on Earth can the ordinary person who is rating your book make such a call? And should an author rely on such a review to take the book off the market and revise it? There’s no perfect answer because it depends on the nature of the errors being flagged.

These types of reviews, called editorial reviews, have become a commonplace aspect of book reviews and ratings, and yet they are controversial even outside the realm of public reviews. Professional peer reviewers have opinions and biases that may slant their rating and review of a book. Toward the bottom of an article about Hausergate and the politics of ideas, there’s an interesting segment on editor ethics and the power of politicking. If editorial manipulation is happening in the big institutions, is it possible that these same editors are reviewing your book if it falls under the realm of one of their pet subjects? This goes hand-in-hand with editors whose end game is to control the information that goes public.

Readers should be able to trust reviews when deciding whether to buy a book, but with all the articles about rigged reviews, both positive and negative, the truth seems to be a lost cause. However, there is good news for book buyers, in the form of a not-so-secret weapon that allows you to make an informed decision in spite of manipulated reviews. Every major book retailer offers a feature that either lets you read part of a book online before you buy it, or offers a sample that you can download for free.

There is no better way to make a decision on whether you are going to personally enjoy reading a book, than to read a sample of the book. That way, you can determine for yourself whether the spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors are problematic. You can get a feel for the author’s writing style, and whether it sucks you in to want more. There are so many factors that go into a reader’s enjoyment of a book, and no other reviewer can know what makes you happy. If book reviewers could read your mind, we’d have no debates on whether a book rates a one-star review or a five-star review.

Previous article in this series: Dirty Little Secrets About Bad Book Reviews
Next article in this series: Urban Legend: Bad Book Ratings Are Good For Authors

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    2 Responses to The Problem With Editorial Book Reviews

    1. Allie says:


      I turned the British/American issue into a post of its own, focusing on the issues that cause erroneous bad reviews 🙂

    2. John Chapman says:

      Good article. I’ve faced reviewers making comments about spelling in our books because they went out with ‘colour’ not ‘color’. As to that Oxford comma, well my co-author (who is from the US) and I (from the UK) agree to differ. Now we insert it if there is a pause in speech at that point.

      You didn’t mention idiom which changes across the pond. In the UK you might complain about the midgies – a small biting insect. In the US a midgie is a small person or a candy (sweet in the UK). Then of cause there is that phrase ‘I’ll knock you up’ which means totally different things in the US/UK.

      Then there are words known in one country but not in another. Quick – what does the word ‘tarmac’ mean in the US? (For the benefit of ELJ – ‘blacktop’.)

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