Book Reviews: What's Helpful, What's Not
by Susanne Dietze
Ah, book reviews. Love 'em and hate 'em at the same time? You're not alone.
Among the things I've heard from readers (and perhaps even thought to myself while I'm perusing book reviews for potential reads on Amazon):
"I really want to know what people think of a book, but some of these reviews sound like they were written by the author's friends. That means their reviews aren't honest."
"Why did this reader give it a 2-star rating and then say they liked it?"
Or, from an author's perspective:
"Someone gave my book a 1-star rating based on the packaging, not the story!"
"Someone gave my book a 1-star rating! It's fine they didn't like it, but why did they have to be so mean about it?"
Earlier, I posted on my blog on ways to help an author. Writing book reviews is one of the things I mentioned specifically as something that can help authors gain new readers--by letting readers know if the book is of a genre they like or worth their time, especially considering the price of purchase.
Reviews are also sometimes viewed by others in the industry, like editors. I'm not saying editors read every review (they're busy people) but some editors pay attention to authors' social media stats and reviews, along with sales and awards.
I'm not saying reviews make or break an author's career. But they can prove influential to prospective readers, and they often let authors know what's working in their writing...and what's not.
(Full disclosure: I only have one book out, and it's an anthology. Others are waaay more qualified to speak on this point, but here goes anyway.)
So what's helpful (according to the people I talked with) when writing a book review?
- Know that readers, authors, and editors appreciate the time you're taking to write a review. Your gift of service is a blessing!
- Some sites, like Amazon, require a review to accompany a rating, but others, like Goodreads, don't. Try to write a few words to explain your rating, anyway. I recently contemplated purchasing a sequel to a book I enjoyed. The reviews let me know that several readers finished the book feeling frustrated about their perceived regression in the characters' developments. That told me so much more than a 3-star review without an explanation.
- State the facts about the story and why you enjoyed it/didn't enjoy it. Was the story engaging? Was there a specific reason you didn't like it? Is the issue you have with a book a major stumbling block... or personal preference? I've liked a few movies that critics graded an F, and disliked a few well-regarded movies, but I'd read reviews in advance and determined the critic and I judged on different merits. Same with books. One reviewer's three-star rating might be my perfect cozy afternoon read. Saying something's just not your cup of tea is perfectly ok.
- Consider the book's audience. It's not fair to criticize a book for being what it's supposed to be, ie, by disparaging the spiritual elements in a Christian book, finding the hero too young when the book is a YA, or for bemoaning the lack of blood and gore in a cozy mystery.
- Mention if you received the book in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. This is the law.
- It's not an unhelpful thing, but don't stress about recapping the book. Some reviews summarize the plot or back-cover copy, which can be helpful to readers, but it isn't necessary.
- Don't rate the packaging, shipping speed, book cover, or other things an author has no control over. Sometimes this extends to the title, too.
- Refrain from spilling the author's private info. You may be the author's Facebook friend. Or their relative. You may know where she went to high school or where she gets her hair cut. This information, spread on the world wide web, is an invasion of her privacy, and to many readers, it negates anything positive that was mentioned in the review because it makes a review sound inauthentic or biased.
- Just like sharing personal info about the author makes it sound as if a positive review is done by a positively-biased crony, cruelty or foul words can make a negative review sound equally biased, but to the other extreme. Harsh language isn't polite.
- Avoid spoiling the plot. Announce if you're divulging anything twisty or pertaining to the end with an all-caps SPOILER ALERT.
- Yes, authors do review their friends' work sometimes. Authors are big readers, too.
- Mean-spirited reviews do hurt authors' feelings sometimes. Other times, not so much. But I think it's fair to say authors don't expect everyone to love their books, but nobody likes to be called names.
- Book reviews last forever. Or until the internet explodes. Just as in real life, our words stick around.