Behind Reviews: Part 2 Spoilers

March 6, 2013 Articles and Opinions

No Spoilers This was going to be the third part of the review series but I’m moving it up to second.  Spoilers are a hot button issue among reviewers and authors.

In case anyone is not familiar with spoilers, spoilers are reviews that give away the ending – e.g. revealing the murderer, how the cast get out of their fix, or vital plot twists – effectively spoiling the story for the reader. While some readers don’t mind these, there are certain genres e.g. mystery, where they can damage a book’s sales badly.

The effect that spoilers can have on a book’s sales can be shown by reviews where the reviewer states that they are deliberately giving spoilers to make sure no one buys the book. However a review with a spoiler in it does not need to be negative, for example an enthusiastic fan of an earthquake rescue story might give a five star review saying they were so glad when [Character X] lived, but for someone who has not read the book, that means they know that character will get out of whatever fix they are in and kills the tension.

"Spoiler alert." - New Yorker Cartoon
“Spoiler alert.”…
Harry BlissBuy This at

Indicating Spoilers
Most reviewers mark reviews that are going to contain spoilers, so that the readers can choose whether to reader the review or not. A lot of review sites will indicate reviews containing spoilers with warnings, or make users click to view the content so that they have a choice.  Other sites simply remove them outright. Amazon does neither and leaves it up to the reviewer to mark the spoiler. In fact their guidelines suggest that if an author receives a review with a spoiler they should vote it “unhelpful” or contact the reviewer to request the reviewer amend or remove it.

I vote down unmarked spoiler reviews as unhelpful. Always. No exceptions. There are people who state that no one would vote down a four or five star review, or ask for it to be removed just because it contains spoilers. This is untrue, and to date  I know at least three authors who have done exactly that, including myself.

Do Spoilers Spoil stories?
There was an interesting study done, that apparetly showed that readers who were spoiled enjoyed the book more (View here). There is however one logical flaw with it: While readers who read the book who were spoiled enjoy it more first time, readers who were not spoiled can then read the book spoiled and enjoy it that way. Readers who were cannot do the reverse. Note that the study excluded people who had already read the stories – those who could be said to be already spoiled.

Handling Spoilers: As a Reviewer
As a reviewer, if you are going to put spoilers in, please mark them – it is polite to the reader. While some sites have a Spoilers Y/N tag, the standard method is to put a warning at the top “** Spoilers**” or “This review contains spoilers”.  In some cases the reviewer will put this part way through, right before the spoiler content. If you do this, put anything important above that mark, as readers who don’t read spoilers tend not to read the rest of the review.

If an author asks politely that spoilers be removed, please consider it. They may be right, they may be wrong, but it is their livelihood that is most directly affected.

Handling Spoilers: As an Author
As an author, if someone leaves an unmarked spoiler review of your book, you have a few options. You can report it to the site for spoilers, depending on their policy, or you can politely contact the reviewer and ask them to amend it.  If you take the latter route, be polite and accept a “no” gracefully. There are some horror stories out there of authors throwing fits. You do still have the right to mark it as unhelpful.

Ethics of Unhelpful
This is a minefield, since people’s definitions of what is unhelpful and who the marking is intended for varies widely. I go by the view that a review is useful if it affects your decision to buy the book whether you actually do or not, but that unmarked spoilers actually hinder my ability to make a free choice. I also view helpful/unhelpful in the same light. There are others who say that unless you actually buy the book you should not mark the reviews, a view I disagree with since some of the most helpful reviews I have seen mean I chose not to buy the book.

One of the most interesting reviews I saw recently, thankfully not on my book, actually contained a major unmarked spoiler and still managed to not be useful deciding whether to purchase. There was no discussion of characters, writing, length, or even whether the reviewer liked it – the review was literally just the spoiler. And yet, there was a huge debate over whether it was ethical to mark it as unhelpful, or as some said, ‘down-vote’ it.

Closing thoughts
I will leave one closing thought: If spoilers are so unimportant, why did certain UK magazines seal their television review sections (you use a ruler to rip the edges of the pages apart), not because of adult content, but to prevent readers accidentally spoiling themselves on show that had not reached the country yet?

"Did you read my review on Amazon? Four out of four people found it helpful." - New Yorker Cartoon
"Did you read my…
William Haefeli
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