The Truth About Book Reviews – The Good, The Bad And The Really Ugly
Some readers hate reviews, won’t read them, and don’t believe them if they accidentally do come across a review that praises a book. That could be you.
You’re not alone. Reader prejudice against reviews isn’t unusual. Most readers are more easily convinced to go buy a book if a friend praises it, than if they read a good review. But…what if your friends have a literary taste that is completely different to your own? Have you ever bought a book she’s raved about, got halfway through, put it aside and secretly wondered if your friend was high on hand-made truffles when she read it? If this happens often enough, you learn not to trust your friend’s opinion about books. So where to you go for guidance on good books?
There are many readers who make their selection based almost entirely on reviews. Romantic Times magazine is proof of this: the bulk of the magazine is made up of reviews. But how reliable are reviews? Aren’t those reviewers paid to write a good review?
What’s the truth? Are reviews a waste of time? Is there any point to them? Consider some of these facts:
The ugly truth.
Just because a book fails to get a review on your favorite review site or in your favorite magazine, this doesn’t mean the book is beyond redemption.
There are hundreds more books out there than there is reviewers. Publishers and authors will submit a request for their book to be reviewed, and have to bite their fingernails waiting to see if a reviewer is interested in reading the book before they know if they’ll be reviewed or not.
In this instance, getting a review is a lot like making a sale: the reviewer has to be hooked by the sound of the book before they’ll agree to read it. If the book is at all unusual or outside the preferences of the reviewers, it’ll be rejected. Like the whole reviewing process, it’s a very subjective method for deciding what books get reviewed and what don’t.
Once a book is turned in for review, there’s no guarantee the review will appear any time soon. Some lead times on reviews are up to six months long, which means the review will appear long after the book is a distant memory in most bookstores.
Publishers and authors will work to get Advance Review Copies (ARCs) to reviewers with long lead times, so that the review has a chance of appearing when the book is on sale. Sometimes a book can’t be prepared in time, and therefore can’t be reviewed by that reviewer.
Writers and publishers don’t pay for good reviews. There are no review venues out there that I am aware of that will accept payment in exchange for a guaranteed good review, and I wouldn’t pay for one if such a venue existed.
I’m positive no other writer I know would pay for a good review, either. What’s the point in paying for a sure result? We, as writers, want to know if we’ve managed to entertain someone. Paying for the result doesn’t tell us a damn thing.
Authors and publisher often have to pay for a review.
This may sound like I’m contradicting myself, but there’s a profound difference: Venues like Romantic Times magazine, for instance, have a rule that says a small press book will only be reviewed if the publisher or author has purchased an advertisement in the magazine.
What the advertisement buys is a review only. The review will still be as unbiased as reviews can be, and there’s no guarantees that the review will not maul the novel in question. I speak from experience. Julia Templeton and my novel, Forbidden, was destroyed in a pitiful 2-star review from Romantic Times magazine, which had a double sting because we’d paid for a very expensive advertisement in that issue. And this is despite the fact that Forbidden had received 4 and 5 stars reviews everywhere else.
(By the way, Julie and I even came clean on this review — we included it in the newsletter for everyone to see. You can read it in the Romantic Times April/May 2003 issue, online, at <now defunct URL…but see the footnote at the end of this post for the warts-and-all review. Ouch!>)
If the publisher won’t, and the author can’t buy an advertisement, they don’t get reviewed.
Reviews are very, very subjective.
The reviewer may not have a strong grasp of the technical aspects of writing, and therefore can’t see the difference between brilliant writing and the merely average…and some reviewers are even blind to plain bad writing. They review based on gut reaction and instinct. And if there’s a character in there called, say, Mabel, and the reviewer’s hated, bitchy aunt is called Mabel, the reviewer may well feel resentment and prejudice against the novel.
On the other hand, reviewers who recognize good technique may well praise a novel for the technique and fail to notice that the plot really sucked, and the story was dead boring.
A good reviewer will try to analyze a book from all angles — technique, entertainment value, etc. — and if a book is weak in one area, but holds up in others, they will point this out. That’s usually a good sign that you’re reading a fairly unbiased review.
But all reviewers have prejudices that they’re not aware of, and these will affect their assessment of a book.
No book is so bad it’s unreadable.
There’s mean-spirited reviewers who have no intention of being fair or unbiased. They get pleasure from ripping a book to pieces. If you read one of these reviews, you get the same sensation you get from watching a traffic accident happen. It’s horrible, but at the same time fascinating — you want to keep watching to see how bad it’s going to get.
But as much fun as reading one of these reviews can be, you have to ask, afterwards, what’s the pay-off for the reviewer?
Almost without fail, there’s a hidden agenda there: Often, the reviewer is getting back at the author for something she, or her friends, or her publishers, or her fellow authors at that publishing house, have done to slight the reviewer or her friends, or her associates. Yes, it really can get that petty!
No book is perfect.
Some come close, but there’s so many factors that an author is juggling when they write a novel: plot, characters, setting, dialogue, grammar, punctuation, structure, rhythm, pacing, suspense, emotional intensity, narrative… all these factors can be combined in infinite ways.
One author, given the same criteria, will write a totally different book than the next. For any book, regardless of how good it is, there are other ways it could have been written, that could have been more effective or equally as effective. (This is why a writer is always learning his craft).
So, a review that states the book is “perfect” is probably overstating the case just a bit. Such a glowing review means, simply, that for that reviewer, the book struck a deep chord, and you should bear that in mind. For you, the book may not strike the same note at all.
If there were no reviews, there are many books you would never hear about at all.
For some publishers and authors, reviews are the only way they can promote their books. Other avenues of promotion cost money they don’t have. As word of mouth is the most valuable sort of promotion there is for a book, reviews are a means of getting the gossip going.
Amazon reviews or any on-line bookstore reader-supplied reviews are the most subjective reviews in the world.
They’re written by readers who have no interest in being prejudice-free or unbiased. They have no empathy for the authors, and will not tone down their language or spare the author’s feelings.
Often the review will focus on the author personally, rather than the book in question. I’ve even had Amazon reviews where the reviewer didn’t agree with what the previous reader had said … and marked my book down because of it! (Now there’s an interesting traffic accident you can check out for yourself. Go read the fascinatingly horrible reviews for my book CHRONICLES OF THE LOST YEARS on Amazon. You’ll witness readers calling each other names and fighting amongst themselves, all on that page. I’ll even give you the link. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
Amazon, in particular, will not remove damaging or offensive reader reviews, regardless of how blatantly incorrect or personal they are, as everyone is entitled to their opinion and their right to say it publicly. Despite their subjectivity, these reviews, taken as a whole, may be a good guide to the value of the book.
Authors DO read their reviews.
They also weep over them — both the very good and the very bad. Authors also learn something from reviews. If a good reviewer has pointed out a flaw or a weakness in the book that the author wasn’t aware of before, you can be sure they’ll never make that mistake again.
Reviews will provide feedback to an author that they often don’t get from readers. Not many readers will tell an author what they thought of their book, unless they happen to have been deeply moved, and even then the reader may not be able to find the words to explain why they liked the book. A good reviewer does find the words to explain why a book works.
So what’s the use of reviews?
Reviews help take the risk out of purchasing a book.
Especially these days, on-line and small press paperbacks can cost nearly twice as much as the standard mass market paperback (the books in the racks), you don’t get the option of flipping through the contents before you buy, and there are some very small e-publishers out there who don’t quite have the same standards of quality as others.
On the other hand, there are some absolutely fantastic novels that are only available through the on-line and small presses, and it would be a shame to miss them. But which ones are they? Reviews are a great way to gauge where you should plonk down your money.
There’s dozens of review sites, many of them catering to a single genre (e.g.; romance, mystery) or sub-genre (paranormal romances, fantasies, cozy mysteries). Then there’s industry magazines — for romance in particular there’s Romantic Times, Affaire de Coeur, and the new Arabella Romances. You may already have a couple of favorite sites and magazines.
You need more, though.
Find a handful of review sites that seem comprehensive and professional. With a dozen sources of reviews, all reviewing the same book, you can gather together six or more reviews on a book you’re interested in. What are they all saying in common? Do they all love it? Do the majority seem to find it trite? Figure out what the majority opinion is and you’ll have formed a consensus opinion on whether the book seems worth buying.
If you continue to read reviews from all these sites, you’ll soon get to know individual reviewers’ tastes quite well. This one likes pirates, this one hates anything with babies in it, this one is squeamish about blood & guts adventures….
You may even be lucky enough to find a reviewer whose opinions seem to match your own, book for book, and you can start to rely on her opinion as a fairly fool-proof guide.
The trick is to sample across the range of available reviews to pull together a general assessment of a single book. One person’s opinion is just an opinion. A group of people saying the same thing is how elections are won, and how you know if a book is as wonderful as you want it to be — before you read it!.
From the Apr/May 2003 newsletter — the cringe-making review from hell:
And we must wince and take a deep breath and confess that we received a miserable two-star review from Romantic Times. This shocked the hell out of both of us:
With his father’s engagement to the younger Elisa, Vaughn Wardell, Viscount Rothmere, is forced to return home. It is the only foreseeable way for him to see his mother’s property returned to him. Elisa agrees to marry Rufus Wardell because he promised to find her son. But once Vaughn appears, her commitment is shaken.
Vaughn is immediately attracted to Elisa and sets out to seduce her. She doesn’t want to jeopardise her relationship with Rufus, but Vaughn continues his campaign of seduction until she can no longer resist. Will she lose her son if Rufus finds out?
The characters seemed too shallow and their motivations weak, especially in the case of Vaughn. The story failed to grab my interest, and the author’s attempt at creating sexual tension missed their mark. Perhaps FORBIDDEN would have worked better as a historical romance.
Jill Brager, Romantic Times
Have you ever read a book you just loved, only to find it was mauled by a reviewer? How did that make you feel? What’s the worst review you’ve ever read? Let us know! We’d like to hear others’ experience with really bad reviews.
First appeared on Stories Rule! in February 2003
Tracy Cooper-Posey © 2003. Cannot be copied or distributed without permission, or without this copyright notice attached.