Sunday, November 30, 2008

Honest reviews

I read a post about the objectivity of reviews on How Publishing Really Works, and it raised a great point about why honest reviewers are unlikely to be paid by publishers or writers*. But it also made me think of the reviewers and review sites which don’t charge for reviews and yet which I wouldn’t trust.

For me, an important part of being a reviewer is complete honesty. Many unpublished manuscripts may be unreadable, but even published books line up on a bell curve. In other words, everything published isn’t going to be an automatic great read for anyone. And if it is, then the reviewer is either

1. not discriminating, in which case I’m unlikely to take their opinion into account when deciding to buy a book, or

2. operating for some purpose other than to tell readers whether a book is worth their time and money.

The reviewer might instead want to please authors, and what better way than to tell them how wonderful their books are? Or the reviewer may want a high rank on Amazon and one way to get that was to comment on as many books as possible. I say “was” because Amazon recently changed its ranking criteria and now goes by how helpful reviews are to readers, rather than how many reviews are posted.

Discrimination, in the positive sense of the word, also matters a great deal. I checked out Ghostwriter Literary Reviews, which claims to offer “An unbiased evaluation of your work”, and I read all the posted reviews for November – ten reviews in all. Without exception, these were four- and five-star reads that the reviewers loved.

On the other hand, the grades for the books reviewed on All About Romance for November range from A to D-, and many of the reviews are Bs or Cs. Just like a real bell curve, and I know which site I’m more likely to trust. There’s not much value in a gold medal which is given out to everyone who competes.

For me, this is what helpful reviews do or don’t do.


• Repeat the blurb on the back of the book and tack on a few sentences at the end to say what a good read it was

• Veer into hyperbole or excessive praise, e.g. ”…is sure to be an instant classic that will be read for generations to come.”Children’s Literary Reviews

• Focus attention on the reviewer rather than the book (“The descriptions of life in Bellefleur-sur-Seine reminded me of my own childhood in France, though I didn’t find the farmer’s motivation believable when he blew up his own barn. My Oncle Rene was in the same situation with the local gendarmes…”)

• Contain errors. A typo or two is unlikely to matter, but several mistakes in spelling, punctuation, wording or sentence construction can make a review appear amateurish, unintentionally funny or both. Ghostwriter Literary Reviews provides an example : “Belle's father, Master Francois St. Clair wanted his unborn adolescent to become part beneficiary to one of the richest sugarcane Plantations… Her Master and Mistress in apprehension of demise; gave her no alternative.”


• Say what the book’s genre is. I’ve read dozens of amateur reviews which don’t even provide this basic information.

• Say who the main characters are and give an idea of the plot. I’ve also read reviews which were so vague they could have been applied to any book.

• Warn readers if there’s something they should know in advance, without (as far the reviewer is capable) giving away spoilers. If I were writing a review of A Game of Thrones, I would make it clear that this was the first in a series and that the series is nowhere near complete. I would also caution them that this isn’t a book with happy endings for everyone.

• Comment fairly and critically rather than focusing only on praise or only on what doesn’t work.

• Show familiarity with the author’s body of work, the genre or at least books in general. I read a review which noted that the main characters of a book had chapters from their different points of view, and this was “a most clever and unique way to tell a story in my opinion”.

There are many sites and reviewers out there which are honest about the books they read, even if they risk backlashes from authors or fans by doing so. Those are the sites and reviewers I take into account when deciding which books to read and buy.

*Examples of paid reviews include: Authors on the Rise Book Reviews and Children’s Literary Reviews (for anything over 18 pages). Ghostwriter Literary Reviews previously offered a paid fast-track service, and now offers other paid services such as an "Author Spotlight".


Jewel Allen said...

This is so helpful, Marian. I am just about to launch into a book review, and you have some great suggestions!

My dilemma is how to talk about some of the plot without doing a spoiler.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marian,

Oh goodness, yes. I hate the whole blurb and hyperbole thing. Especially when it's repeated ad nauseam. "I couldn't put it down!"
"I had to sleep with the lights on!"

As for I like to go there to read sample pages of a book I'm curious about. Many of the reviews themselves are terribly written. Please don't criticize another person's work if you can't take the time to write one grammatically correct sentence. Then you have the people who give away endings.

On the other hand, you'll have another person write a very intelligent, thoughtful post explaining why they did not like a particular book- and in return they receive negative marks from irate fans of said book.

writtenwyrdd said...

I agree with what you say, with the exception of casual "I liked this book" reviews on blogs that don't specialise in them. Like mine, actually. When I write a book review it's to say the book was good,and I generally start with the back matter to let them know what the story is and give a few sentences to say what I thought. It's what you say not to do, but which I will adhere to because it's perfect for a casual mention of a book.

Marian Perera said...

Hi writtenwyrdd,

I'd say that a casual mention of a book (or a recap along the lines of what The Agony Booth does for movies) isn't the same as a review and doesn't need to follow the same lines.

A humorous or snarky recap (which I've done) is intended to amuse readers by its take on the material. A brief commentary might be intended specifically to say a book was enjoyable and why the reader liked it.

An objective review, though, should be intended to give readers the facts about a book and a reviewer's considered opinion - whether those facts and opinion entice the readers to buy the book or not.

Heck, if the book sounds bad enough, I know I'll pick it up and flip through it even if I don't buy. I'm still keeping an eye out for the romance novel where the hero's horse changes from a "spirited black stallion" to a "big grey gelding" in the space of a few pages.

Becky Mushko said...

"Unborn adolescent"—What a hoot!

Thanks for some good hints. I occasionally post book reviews/opinions/what have you on my blog and am thinking about doing more.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Pink,

Glad you found this helpful. One thing I've noticed the reviewers on All About Romance do to avoid spoilers is to talk in generalities. For instance, "Readers who dislike Big Misunderstandings may want to avoid this book".

You're not giving away plot details here; instead, you're performing a service for your readers.

Personally, I can't do that. I always feel I have to be specific and precise. :) So I just write lengthy reviews that give a lot away, and put a spoiler warning at the top.

Marian Perera said...

I hate the whole blurb and hyperbole thing. Especially when it's repeated ad nauseam. "I couldn't put it down!"
"I had to sleep with the lights on!"

And the examples you provided were also personal responses (drawing attention to the reviewer, rather than the book).

Though sometimes these can be very idiosyncratic and amusing. I read a review on All About Romance where a reviewer shared the hero's cheesy post-coital dialogue with her husband. I believe that after he stopped laughing, he assured her that no real man would say anything like that.

Stacia said...

Oh dear Gods. I read that review about the plantation in its entirety--well, I attempted to.

I occasionally review books on my blog, but yeah, only books I like. But I also make it very clear that's what I'm doing; "I loved this, let me tell you why so you can buy it and love it too" rather than "Here's a review." I don't think it's really appropriate for me to do reviews, honestly. Or rather, I don't think it's politic for me to.

Which is a shame. I recently read something by a particular person you and I both know online, who is found it severely lacking in any redeeming literary quality. Shoot me an email if you like (if you know who I mean), and I'll send you what I wrote about it for a few friends. :-)