Sunday, November 30, 2008
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 Many unpublished manuscripts may be unreadable, but even published books line up on a bell curve.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".