Book Reviewing: Further Thoughts

Since I started blogging, I’ve written at least half a dozen posts about book reviewing, the most recent ones in 2019. I just read over them, but didn’t think I’d finished with the topic. A recent post by a fellow writer inspired me to revisit it.

I read a lot of books and write some sort of review about almost all of them. I also assign star ratings. Sometimes I have reservations about the whole process.

Seeing Stars

One of these is the familiar 5-star system used on Amazon, Goodreads, and by many individual reviewers. It’s a blunt instrument, reducing the worth of a complex piece of writing to a number. It has been used for malicious attacks, in which a group assigns a bunch of 1-star ratings to a book in order to pull down its overall rating. But many potential book buyers (including libraries) use a book’s star rating as an indicator of quality when deciding to buy or not.

Many reviewers avoid 1- and 2-star ratings. This is the opposite of the malicious attack. Low ratings are considered unkind. Sure, but if a book is badly written, doesn’t it deserve a bad rating?

If 1 and 2 stars are avoided, that leaves only three ratings: 3 stars (OK), 4 stars (good), 5 stars (excellent). I assign 4 stars more often than any other rating. Sometimes I look at my list of 4-star books and realize how different they are from one another, in quality, genre, and voice. How dare I equate all these books with a number? Imagine rating your friends that way!

One idea is to decouple the star rating from the review. Even if the review points out problems with the book, the rating is benign. But doesn’t this muddy the reviewing waters and mislead potential readers who pay more attention to ratings?

Then there’s the rating without a review. As both a writer and a reader, I disapprove of this practice. I suppose 5 stars without a review is a quick way to indicate a reader liked the book, but any other rating, especially a low one, needs an explanation. The “Before You Go” prompt at the end of a Kindle book, that asks the reader to instantly supply a rating, may account for some reviewless ratings. It’s too easy to rate and run.

Book Reviews or Reading Experience Reviews?

In the old days before the internet, book reviews were written by literary types and appeared in magazines and newspapers. They were lengthy and serious, and were mostly about “important” books. Popular mass-market books weren’t considered worthy of such reviews. Many of them had endorsements by other authors in the front, but that was more like advertising.

Now anyone can write any kind of review of any book, on Amazon, on Goodreads, on their blog, or on social media. Writers plead for reviews at the end of each book, earnestly informing the reader of their importance. They seek out book bloggers and “BookTokkers,” hoping one of them will supply a review.

The word “review” covers everything from a couple of sentences to multiple paragraphs of praise or condemnation. For some readers, a book review is suspiciously similar to the book report of school days, or the paper for the college course on Literature. Especially an objective, analytical review, that compares a book to standards for its genre and examines its place in the author’s ouevre or a literary canon. It’s much easier to write an emotionally-based review, which isn’t so much about a book as the reader’s experience of reading it. Let’s face it, it’s easier to express feelings than organized thoughts.

Reviews by writers are instantly recognizable by phrases like “too much telling,” “too many filter words,” and “needs a developmental edit.” But a review of a published book isn’t the same as a critique group comment or a beta reader’s report, something reviewers should keep in mind.

Types of Reviews

My reviews fall into several categories.

First are quick, casual reviews for trad-pubbed books that already have hundreds or even thousands of reviews. A few remarks, or even a rating without review are enough, unless I have strong feelings about a book that simply must be expressed.

For most indie-published books, I write longer, thoughtful reviews.

I’ve participated in several Reading Rounds on Goodreads in the last few years. The deal with those is you don’t select the books you are obliged to read and review, which means a book may not be a good match for its reader. In such cases, I evaluate the book by the standards of its genre, more than my personal views of it. This is also a good approach when I dislike a well-written book for some reason.

I write my short, casual reviews directly on Goodreads and copy them to Amazon or Smashwords, depending on where I bought the book. Goodreads Reading Round reviews must be posted on both Goodreads and Amazon, regardless of where the reviewer obtains the book. I always write my RR reviews on Word, as well as any others I want to brood over for a while before posting. If I’m making critical comments about a book, I want to make sure they are precisely worded and not flippant or malicious.

Positive Reviews Only?

Some readers write only positive reviews. Three stars or better, with few critical remarks. If a book has serious problems, they simply don’t review it. In the case of books by fellow writers, a personal communication with the author replaces a negative review.

On the face of it, this seems like a good policy. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Good advice from Mom. But is it really helpful to writers and readers? If readers write only feel-good reviews, doesn’t that distort the picture for everyone? If a book has no reviews, does that mean it’s undeserving, or merely undiscovered? In the absence of negative reviews or ratings, how would a reader know the difference? I believe it’s possible to write critical reviews in a way that benefits both writers and readers.

That said, I have never given a book a 1-star rating, or written a totally negative review. If I find a book to be that bad, I generally abandon it soon after starting to read it, and I don’t review books I haven’t read in entirety.

As a reader, I tend to pay more attention to thoughtful critical reviews than enthusiastically positive ones. I uniformly ignore 5-star raves (especially those with attached gifs) and 1-star condemnations (especially those with profanity).

Reviewing Friends’ Books

This can be a tricky one. A bad review from a friend can damage the friendship, especially if it’s unexpected. In such cases it’s probably a good idea to communicate one’s concerns about the book privately and not write a public review at all. There’s always the option of the hypocritical good review, but that has its own problems.

Have you noticed the contradictions in this screed about reviews? Negative reviews are okay, unless they’re for books by friends. Ratings without reviews are irritating, but fine for books with hundreds of reviews. Avoiding low ratings distorts the review process, but I’ve admitted I rarely give 2 stars, and have never used the deadly 1-star rating.

If nothing else, this shows how complicated book reviewing is. So…

Why Write Reviews?

Writing a review takes time and effort. Readers with TBRs bursting at the seams are eager to get on with the next book. Finishing a book means we have to marshal our thoughts about it and express them in readable prose. This can feel more like a duty than a delight, especially for books that don’t generate enthusiasm.


  • Well-written, thoughtful reviews are helpful to writers and readers.
  • Reviews are a great way to validate our fellow authors’ achievements in writing and publishing.
  • Reviews are a great way to display our writing skills.
  • Writing reviews for the books we read is a writing assignment we give ourselves, a discipline that reinforces our role as writers.

In conclusion, I encourage writers to write reviews for the books they read, especially those of fellow indies.

For those who haven’t had enough, here are links to some of my old posts on reviewing:
Views on Book Reviewing from November 2010
Book Reviews and Readers’ Appetites from January 2011
The Elusive Review from July 2015
Book Reviewing: a Murky Business This one, from 2019, is so similar to the current post, I think I’ll just shut up about reviewing, already!

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  1. To misquote, “whenever I see a 1 star review I reach for my revolver”. In fact I sometimes reach for the “buy now” button as I’m intrigued to know why someone has awarded 1 star. This is particularly the case where the review is full of vitriol aimed at the book and/or author. Thanks for this interesting post Audrey. Kevin

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m usually disappointed when I read super popular books, so I now make it a point to read the 1 and 2 star reviews before I buy. If they’re well written and fairly dispassionate – i.e. by someone who doesn’t appear to have an axe to grind – I’ll give the book a big miss.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. In my opinion Audrey there can never be enough posts about Reviews. Leaving aside the professional ones, which I feel have an air of ‘fashionable’ or ‘editorial agenda’ about them, it is down amongst the Readers’ Reviews where the chance of getting a true feel of a book lies.
    As you point out the 1 star – 5 star system is fraught with shortcomings and abuses particularly where a commentator is not obliged to add a justification for their rating. But I suppose even mighty Amazon’s system could not cope with 500 + comments on each best seller.
    That said the one -word review could be argued as worse than useless. ‘Amazing’. ‘I enjoyed every page’ ‘Spectacular’…Well I am glad the reader had a positive experience, but could they be a bit more eloquent as to why…..there again Heaven forfend that those remarks were just there as marketing ploys, could it be so? I would be shocked!
    Then again they all pale on my irritation gauge against the dreary, sterile 1 star and the word ‘meh’. OK it’s a current ‘word’, but to use it with maybe an extra word, suggests the reader either had a very short attention span, or was letting the world know how fashionably world-weary they are; I am more likely to get the book on that judgment.
    Readers should therefore support those unpaid reviewers who supply some detail as to how they felt about the book, at which ever end of the scale. True it is difficult not to sound ‘mean’ on a 1-star review, but I have seen it managed (long review though), and some long 5-star reviews can sound like breathless fandom. That said the majority of reviews which do show effort are always useful. You can even have the experience of encountering a review where the writer gives a high rating solely on the skill and artistry of the work and still end up saying ‘not for me though’. Some are an entertaining read in themselves.
    Reviewers do give away their own selves too. Thus you can gain something about the reviewer too, and discern that maybe the book is for you or not for you, despite what the rating and comments show. After all we all have different experiences and tastes when reading a book.
    Thus a reader should not be swayed by one review, but judge by the whole evidence to hand.
    Thanks for a most informative and thoughtful post.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Just keep at it! We need sensible guides through the many tomes being issued. Having reviewers who can suggest why we should consider something of merit can steer essential readers in its direction rather than lingering in obscurity. On the other hand, snarky negative reviews can be fun to write or read, but in today’s market, they probably add to the
    clutter rather than clear it. The star ratings are a dilemma, but they’re not derailing your overall strategy. At the moment, five stars are kind of like the standing ovation at the end of nearly every concert today, rather than reserved for performances of rarest heights — four seem like a good course correction.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, Jnana. You’re right–those snarky reviews can be entertaining even when one doesn’t care one way or the other about the book being reviewed. I find it hard to be consistent with the star ratings, but to me 4 stars means a book is pretty good.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I justify not leaving a 1- or 2- star review (unless it’s a hateful book, then I would to warn others) by thinking that any publicity is still publicity, so by not leaving a negative review, I’m not promoting the book.

    To your point, if I’m trying to decide between two books to read, I’ll pick the one with no reviews.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Fiction is so often a matter of taste that a review is only good if it can relate the writer’s “voice” and style to another writer whose work you know. A couple of times friends have given me books they loved, and I’ve…not.
    I’m more likely to leave a review for non-fiction, especially longer books that take ages to read.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. You bring up some valid and honest points, Audrey. I think my background as an educator has given me some practice in leaving negative reviews (e.g., report cards). Even then, there is a tactful way to do that. I always made a point of pointing out the things my students were doing well while also being honest about their deficiencies. It’s tricky ground for sure, but it was my job to communicate honestly but professionally.

    I don’t understand why some people browbeat any book/author. The writer may not have executed the final product well, but their effort should count for something—at least a level of respect. I’ve never left a one-star review of any book, but last year I left my first two-star review (written by a very popular and financially successful author.)

    I prefer comments with any review. If a book receives five stars, I want to know what about the book the reviewer liked best. At the same time, if someone gives a novel a low-star rating (especially if it’s a story I thought was great), I want to know the justification for the score. It could be an honest difference of opinion (We all have different tastes in literature and food. It doesn’t make one person right or wrong.), or perhaps the other reviewer will point out something valid that I didn’t see.

    I find it hardest to review friends’ books because I never want to deliberately hurt another person’s feelings, particularly someone I like. I’ve also learned not to ask non-writing friends to read my manuscripts as beta readers. It puts them in a very awkward position. Instead, I rely on my critique group for honest, constructive criticism.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Report cards are similar to book reviews, aren’t they? Except the purpose is to help the student improve, which isn’t always the intention behind book reviews that regard books as “products.” I guess reviewing books by friends would be quite similar. Acknowledging the positives is absolutely necessary in both situations. Thanks for your unique perspective, Pete!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I hate stars or any form of quantitative review scale. (I’ll make a one-time exception for H.R.R. Gorman’s Discoball Snowcone scale.) It’s meaningless; there are too many ways a book can be good, or bad, for that matter.

    Mostly, I write reviews for two reasons: (1) To draw attention to books I want more people to know about and (2) to entertain. Hopefully, people enjoy the reviews enough to want to check the books out. Some of my reviews are more positive than others, but I would never write a purely negative review of an independent author’s work. I might occasionally decide to rake some famous and/or long-dead author over the coals, but while that’s fun to write once in a while, it’s not very useful or productive.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks so much! I’m glad to hear that.

        All the major book review places require stars or something similar, so I think readers more or less expect them with reviews. I sometimes wonder if I did add some sort of numerical scale to my reviews whether it would be helpful to some readers… but, nah. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  8. If you gotta have stars, I think it should be more stars. 8 or 10? There are so many times I want to go halfway between 3 and 4 or 4 and 5. But I can’t because of the stupid limit. But I do like the star system because it can be a shorthand system for communicating a perspective on the book. That said, I also hate how many ratings I get on Amazon now that aren’t accompanied with a review. Why? Because other than being counted, they are invisible.

    As for review writing policy… I almost never rate or review a traditionally published book. Particularly when the book already has hundreds or thousands of ratings/reviews. With indie authors, I am more willing to write a review and the one thing I don’t shy away from is a negative review. Although the book has to be really bad if I’m going to do that to an indie author. But that’s exactly why I’ll write that review — if a book is really bad, at least from my perspective, a warning seems appropriate.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I guess my reason for rating and sometimes reviewing (briefly) a popular trad-pubbed book is as a reminder that I’ve read that book and what I thought of it.
      Some years ago when I wrote reviews of books from authors in my area on my blog, I did use a 10 star system. Now I sometimes find myself wanting to assign 3.5 stars, so I go with 4 and say “3.5 rounded up” in the review. I see this done quite a lot on Goodreads, so in effect there is a sort of sneaky 10-star system.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I was thinking about this. I wanted to add that the reason I occasionally will write a negative review of an indie book is when it is so bad I feel like readers should be warned. And I try to limit my criticism to objective things. I also occasionally will use a negative review of an indie book as a means to encourage all indie authors to do better, and won’t name the book or the author when I do.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. That would be a helpful approach if a book’s description isn’t accurate, e.g. if it has objectionable stuff (graphic sex, gore, or violence, etc.) that isn’t indicated in the blurb. And mentioning tropes or trends you find overdone or badly done without naming specific books can be helpful to writers.

          Liked by 2 people

  9. On Goodreads or Amazon I read the 3 star reviews, as I think they are the most informative, since you typically get both the good and the bad. I hate long reviews that recap the story. That is not what I’m looking for in a review. That’s what blurbs are for.

    These days I review all the books I start on my obscure blog, rating them on the A, B, C, D and DNF scale, with pluses and minuses. I try to keep them short and say why they did, or did not suit my taste. I will post a review for indie books on the site where they are published and on Goodreads.

    Traditionally published authors have to take the rough with the smooth, but for indie authors, especially ones with less than several hundred reviews, if I can’t say anything positive about my experience with it, I won’t say anything. No author has to please me, and shouldn’t be penalized if they don’t. But truth be told, I don’t read many indie books, which is probably a good thing, since I am a born critic.

    As an author, I like reviews, of course, but I also realized that you can’t please everyone, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, so I too, have to take the rough with the smooth. One of my favorite reviews is a one star one. She stated exactly why she didn’t like my story, and I appreciated that. The one star ratings only are cop outs.

    I think we all appreciate the effort you put into your reviews, Audrey. Keep up the good, and thoughtful work.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. How these thoughts resonate with me, especially as I am preparing to start reading a round of short stories written by my classmates in my writing class. While I will not be writing book reviews per say, so much of this advice applies, as it is difficult to find that balance between useful feedback and honesty. Thank you so much for sharing!! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, Layla. Comments on works by fellow writers are both easier and harder than reviews at a distance. One must be more nuanced in the face-to-face situation, as well as kinder. I’ve witnessed someone being harshly critical in a group situation. It was pretty awful for everyone except the “critic.”
      I’m glad you found my post helpful!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Audrey, a terrific essay about the minefield of reviewing! When I started off blogging and reviewing books I realised I was rather naive and thought there wasn’t much to it! Quickly I learnt from others about the consideration that needed to be taken into account. You mention all these. I too find I am giving mainly four stars (and yes, it is a crude system but better than the one Netflix changed to years ago of a thumbs up only!). Also I never give a one-star review – although there have been a couple of books I’m tempted to but rather I’ve just given up reading them. Early on I realised I had to give the stars according to the genre of the book -otherwise, it just wasn’t fair. As a writer, I appreciate every single review and I am trying to become more committed myself. Perhaps, doing short snappy ones sometimes as well as the more in-depth ones for indie published ones.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Annika! I was thinking maybe thumbs up or down would be simpler, but knowing me I’d want a halfway up option! 🙂
      I’m always delighted when someone reviews one of my books (well, almost always). Short reviews are fine, as long as they mention some specific aspect of the book that was good or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Ugh, back to this, are we?
    I do like your finishing thoughts though: write reviews for selfish reasons, self-improvement reasons. Or to boost a friend’s ego or help them progress.

    Here’s what I’d like to see we all start with on our next review:
    • Read it / or don’t—reading is a binary choice, right?
    • If it’s a “read-it”, then two additional suggestions:
    •• but, read this better one first (if you haven’t read the better one)
    •• and, read the one in question before you read this lesser one (if you haven’t read the lesser one).

    Yes/No + Ranking

    Sure, ranking comes with risk that the alternates won’t be recognized. But, if we all started doing this, we’d come to understand the general landscape of tastes, both societal and reader specific.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. But is read or not read really binary? What if I start reading and a few pages in decide not to continue? Even fuzzier is when I stop reading with the intention to continue “later,” but never do. I guess in such cases I wouldn’t rate, rank, or review.
      As for ranking, I don’t know of too many readers who would think of doing that, unless whatever platform they were using prompted them to, in which case it might work.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Personal opinion: I’ve always thought that the Sunday NYT book reviews had little to do with the actual book and more of a platform for the reviewer to show off intellectual (pseudo or otherwise) prowess and any actual reviews were accidental or coincidental. Less exalted platforms often do a better job of reviewing and/or analyzing the book.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. another great post Audrey. full disclosure, I didn’t finish but that my time constraint. I’m bookmarking it, Also I loved the way you described the 5 star rating system as “blunt instrument.” And you gave examples to explain that. So I agree it is.

    Hey I just wrote a “review” of this blog post. 5 stars
    *giggles and run away

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Reviews are a conundrum, and star-ratings are worse.
    When I buy books, I try to ignore the star ratings and just read the reviews, except in the case of ‘block busters’ where I /always/ read the negative reviews to balance out all the hype.
    For myself, I can’t take the emotional angst of leaving negative reviews. I think I’ve written maybe 2, 3-star reviews in my entire life. My take is that I’m expressing my personal view of the books I’ve loved. If they help others, great, but that’s not my purpose in writing a review. That said, I do try to make my reviews a bit more in depth than ‘Loved it!’. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I get what you mean about not wanting to write negative reviews, Meeka, even though in theory I think they have a place. Let’s hope that in the aggregate the mass of reviews out there adds up to something useful for readers and writers.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. When there are so many books/stories to choose from, there has to be some way of filtering out the ones you won’t like, but the star ratings just seem to muddy the waters even more, especially when a book receives a rating without any kind of explanation.
        Maybe what would work better is if we could get a snapshot of other books the reviews generally read. If they’re mostly fluff, you’d know to stay away. Maybe.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Another commenter (Anonymole) has suggested readers supply titles they would rank just above and just below the book they are reviewing. Since so few casual readers actually bother to review, I wouldn’t expect them to do that, but if the reviewing site prompted for that, some might.

          Liked by 2 people

  16. I don’t write bad reviews, not only to not discourage the author, but also because I think that people’s tastes are different. What I like might be bullshit for someone else, and the opposite. In fact, I did bought a book because of the most negative review convinced me it was a masterpiece 🤣 True story. All the problems the reviewer pointed out, were things I love. That experience contradicts what I said above, but, still, I don’t want to write a bad review.

    I only once gave a bad review and 1-star rating, and would give a -10-star rating, if I could, because the blurb was a lie. Romance, promising a happy ending, in the blurb, and it had a tragic one. 🤨

    Re books rating above and below would discourage me from reviewing. Books of similar feeling would be more helpful for me. I know, though, that were this to happen, some people would abuse that by simply promoting irrelevant books, so I don’t know if, in reality, it would be a good thing or a bad one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that a misleading description can make for a bad reading experience, prompting a bad review.
      That’s a good point about books ranked above and below being used dishonestly, or at least in a way that isn’t helpful. I’ve noticed that about the automated recommendations on Goodreads. Some of them make no sense.
      Thanks for your thoughts on this!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I can relate to your problem with reviews of books. I do reviews of restaurants and encounter the same problems. I typically do not rate places below 3 out of 5, although I have done so once or twice. Four is my standard rating unless I really didn’t enjoy the meal at all and it wasn’t just a case of my not selecting the the right items from the menu. So you see, reviews are difficult no matter what it is that we try to review, books, restaurants or whatever. I suppose that as long as we try our best that is all that can be asked of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Dear Audrey,
    thank you very much for your interesting thoughts.
    As an author and somebody who writes reviews as well I see clearly the problem of a good 4 or 5 star rating. The first idea of a reader is that this is a review written by a friend. Another problem with reviews is that everyone can write a review and therefore lots of reviewers just retell the plot. We hardly ever read about the style.
    Before I retired I let my students (PHD programme) analyse reviews and their effect. You wouldn’t believe it but negative reviews have the best effect. Readers remember them. A review in social media has hardly any effect because it’s mostly read by the tiny market of self publishers but hardly ever beyond.
    I still think reviewing is an interesting topic and it’s hardly ever written about in social media. Thanks again for your post
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I also suspect that many high ratings and positive reviews for books that aren’t particularly well-written probably do come from friends of the author. I have other theories as well, which I may write about in yet another blog post.
      Like your students, I’m more interested in negative (or at least critical) reviews, especially since I often read reviews only after I’ve read a book.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments!

      Liked by 1 person

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