It doesn’t matter whether or not they share their reviews in public, on retailers’ websites or social media, or on their own (book) blog. They don’t even have to write the reviews down. But it will help them grow as writers if they at least pause after reading one book to consider and digest what they’ve read, before moving on.
Many reviewers, myself included, operate on the Thumper Principle, named after the Disney character in Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” If I can’t give a book more than 3 stars on Amazon, I won’t post a review at all. However, if the reason for my low rating is easily fixable, e.g. poor editing or layout, I message the author/publisher privately to suggest a quick fix.
Some reviewers baulk at such compassion, insisting “Book reviews aren’t there to flatter the ego of the author, but to guide the reader’s buying decision.”
I disagree. I think the review is for three parties:
- The reviewer (especially if the reviewer is also an author)
- Other readers who take their buying cues from reviews
- The author of the reviewed book (who, if he isn’t interested in feedback from his readers, jolly well should be)
How Not to Review a Book
First, avoid rookie errors:
- Don’t downgrade your rating because of a delivery problem. E.g. a book bought online arrives late or damaged – you’re meant to be reviewing the book’s content, not the courier service
- Don’t blame the author for your ordering errors. E.g. don’t criticize a book of short stories for not being a novel, unless the blurb was misleading. Last week I spotted a review of a 2013 diary, ordered in 2015. “Who on earth would want a 2013 diary in 2015?” raged the reviewer. My friend, for your shopping skills, I award you one star.
- If you’re an author, don’t agree to book review swaps. Inevitably, you’ll eventually hook up with someone who doesn’t love your book as much as you love theirs, or vice versa, and that way madness lies.
- Don’t review a book you haven’t finished, even when Amazon sends you a needy message asking “What did you think of x?” I’ve completely changed my views on a book at or after the final page, and you may too.
- Don’t give away the plot. Readers won’t mind you using cryptic comments to keep the twists secret. Remember, most readers will read the reviews [before they buy or read the book, not afterwards, and aren’t reading the review to find out what happens, but to decide whether to invest time and money in acquiring and reading the book. Don’t spoil their fun by telling them the it was Mrs White in the Conservatory with the Lead Piping. And don’t give false clues either. My daughter’s friend’s dad teasingly announced that in the new Disney movie Finding Dory (sequel to Finding Nemo), Dory dies. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “if that was the case they’d call it Losing Dory.” (This post isn’t being sponsored by Disney, honest!)
The Right Way to Review a Book
The best book reviews are personal responses, not high school crib notes aspiring to share universal truths. Here are some pointers to help you frame your review:
- Set the scene with a descriptive sentence or two, but don’t waste words on a chapter-and-verse plot summary. That’s not a review, that’s a synopsis.
- Be honest and analytical about your personal response to the book, considering the many component parts, as if you’re a surveyor assessing the value of a house.
- Mention any particular reason for reading the book. E.g. it echoes an experience within your own life, that adds interest to your review and illustrates your perspective.
- Seek out the good, even if it’s hard to find. It is dreary to read a review that is relentlessly critical, and a wholly negative attitude diminishes your credibility. Don’t be mistaken for a troll. There’s usually something to like, e.g. “I am always pleased to find a new novel about the wreck of the Titanic”. You don’t have to add that this turned out to be the worst one you’ve come across. The smart reader will pick up what you’ve left unsaid.
- If you hate a book, consider whether the fault may lie partly with you for choosing a book in a genre or style that you dislike. I have an aversion to violence, but it would be hard to tell a war story without its inclusion. Stories abound of historical novelists given one-star reviews for featuring the marriage of minors. Sorry, folks, that's how the world rolled in days gone by, and imposing the modern age of consent on medievals would be plain wrong.
- If you don’t like something about the book, don’t just complain, but show your evidence. The “show, don’t tell” rule applies as much to reviewers as to authors. So for a book full of typos, instead of “shoot the editor – if there even was one”, explain “it’s distracting to find misspellings of homonyms such as 'jugged hair' instead of 'jugged hare' on the dinner party menu”.
- If the book reminds you of another author’s work, say so. That’s a helpful shorthand to readers.
- Suggest what kind of person may enjoy the book, even if you haven’t much liked it yourself. “Will be enjoyed by fans of Georgian vampire romance” is a useful and valid comment, even if you aren’t one yourself.
How to Deal with Disgruntled Authors
If an author takes exception to your piece, stand your ground. He should not try to influence your opinion, other than by writing a better book next time.
Conversely, you may receive grateful thanks. If you do, bask in it! I am sometimes nervous as to whether I’ve fully understood an author’s work, particularly if reading outside my comfort zone, so it is gratifying to be told that I’ve really “got” what the author was trying to achieve. Those rare moments when the author and reviewer stand poised, arms about each other across the ether in celebration of a satisfying book, make it all worthwhile. As of course does the endless supply of more good books to read!
Am I naive to err on the side of generosity, never reviewing below 3 stars? Should I even consider the author’s finer feelings, when “the book’s the thing”, to misquote Shakespeare? What’s your approach to reviewing books? I’d love to know!
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