Here I join in with Jennifer Ouellette in ranting about lousy book reviews on Amazon (or the like), and add a consolation for writers that some of us put them to positive use.

Over at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer Ouelette reviews samples of the worst reviews of some recent popular science books at Amazon and concludes that

The lesson to be gleaned from all this, for all those who’ve written books, or are contemplating doing so, is this: just as you can never really believe your own publicity, so, too, you should never take what reviewers – especially of the anonymous variety on Amazon – say to heart.

So true.

newton and the counterfeiter

I’d like to add a consolation thought for writers (and publishers) that not all is lost.

Some of us put those terrible reviews to positive use, using the reviewer’s errors figure out what the book is not.

This might seem dead obvious, and in some ways it is, but there is a slight bit of subtlety here.

A ‘classic’ mistake I’ve seen (year after year…) is buyers of, say, computer programming literature who have bought a reference book thinking it to be a textbook then score the book poorly complaining that the reference book didn’t teach the subject, it ‘only’ provided the material in drier form to be looked up if you already knew the basics.

Of course: that’s what computer reference books are for.*

If you’re looking for a reference – you already know the know the overall concepts of the subject and you want a source book for the specifics of how to use each method – the negative review positively confirms the specific nature of the book.

In a similar way, computer programming books choose to target those already familiar with programming or those starting out; their needs are very different.

Galileo’s Daughter

Some of the reviews Ouellette holds up as examples make this ’I bought the wrong kind of book’ error too. Her complaints about them strike a chord.

Ouelette’s first thoughtless reviewer complains that Newton and the Counterfeiter ’was about the science behind many of his philosophical discoveries’ rather than a mystery thriller. If you’re after popular science this nicely confirms the other reviews are on target, the book is about science and you are it’s target audience.

Likewise the review she cites of Galileo’s Daughter clearly make a mistake, thinking she was buying a novel, not a biography:

The title is a total misrepresentation of the novel. It is a straight biography of Galileo and very little more.

You don’t say? Looked at positively, this makes it pretty unambiguous what the book is. It doesn’t deserve the negative review for the buyer’s error, though.

Reviews really have to be within the context of the book’s intended audience. If the reviewer screwed up and bought a book for which they were clearly not the intended audience, well gee.

the god delusion

More seriously, it really is not right for a reviewer to put down a book because the reviewer made a mistake. They can certainly draw attention to it, especially if the publisher’s material is ambiguous or misleading, but that’s not a reflection on the book itself.

Then there are those reviewers that really are arguing about a personal disbelief in the subject matter, rather than the book itself. Try Dawkins The God Delusion as an extreme example. This can extend to some academic topics that are still under debate, although less often.

Oullette offers plenty more examples of this from more recent publications. I’ll let you wander over her way to pick them up.

You really do have to feel sorry for the authors and publishers when you read some of these reviews. They really are off-base and I imagine that without a little care on the part of those buying, the negative reviews would have an impact on sales.


* Some works prefix a reference work with a high-speed introductions for experienced programmers, which I guess confuses some thinking that these introductory sections should teach beginners.

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