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.
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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