The Trouble With Book Reviews

To judge by a flyer from the just-inaugurated New York Center for Independent Publishing, book reviewers are in trouble. “SAVE OUR BOOK REVIEWS!” pleads its headline. “Over the past five years, one by one, newspapers have begun to forsake books and their readers. At dozens of papers, book coverage has been cut back or slashed altogether, puffed up with wire copy, or generally treated as expendable. The Board of the National Book Critics Circle has launched a campaign to try to combat these changes.”

Assuming that the freefall needs to be stopped – what should be done?

When any industry is hit by a malaise, it helps to do three things. First of all, just to stave off precipitous decline, it makes sense to assure investors of the overall viability of the enterprise, and ask them to advance additional funds to help restore its profitability. Book reviews being hardly a strong profit earner, it would be less then realistic to put much hope into this step.

Of far greater importance is the second step to be taken – expanding customer base to increase the value of the enterprise. Usually, this cannot be effectively done without first implementing the third step – that of changing enterprise’ entire business model.

In fact, book reviewers need to completely re-orient themselves, switching to an altogether different set of customers.

At present, reviewers are servants of big publishers. Rather than sifting through the mass of newly-published books in search of interesting and original ideas to present to the public, and acting as referees of merit, today’s book reviewers earn their bread by hyping up books published by big houses, and turning them into “bestsellers.” Some book-covers are just plastered with admiring quotes from reviews, with ecstatic “oh!”s, “ah!”s, and “how great!”s spilling from the covers to the first few pages of the text itself, while other books earn not a single review. Are the former adorned with superlatives because their merits were obvious to every reviewer in the country, while the latter were found, upon being read by the same reviewers, sadly devoid of merit? Not at all. The difference is due solely to the respective publishers’ connections, the former being able to push their wares to reviewers’ desks, while the latter having no such long arm.

A couple of years ago a novel called “The Memory of Running” was sold to a big publisher for around two million dollars – after fifteen years of having been rejected as junk. The lucky break came after the author came into contact with Stephen King while making an audio book for him. A nod from Mr. King did the alchemical trick of turning trash into gold – and, when time came to hype the book into bestsellership, every major reviewer published an opinion – an opinion of a book which would never have reached his desk had the author published it himself – since major reviewers have a stated policy of not considering author-published books for review. “The Memory of Running” made it not because of what was in it – that never changed since its trash years – but because it was published by people who were in a position to make book reviewers jump.

About half a year ago, during a panel discussion by the New York Times book review staff, I had a more direct confirmation that this is how book reviewers operate. I was eager to ask a simple question – “if all review submissions were made anonymously, leaving no clue as to the identity of author or publisher, wouldn’t an altogether different set of books be chosen for review?” My turn to ask the question never came, but I buttonholed two members of the panel as they mixed with the crowd. Each one answered in the affirmative, even suggesting that this might be a vastly superior way of doing things, and confiding that a recent novel by a household-name novelist would have never been reviewed under such selection policy.

Interestingly, this is precisely how book reviewers used to work in the past. In early 1900s it was possible for a book anonymously published by its author to get some half dozen magazine reviews simply on the merit of its provocative ideas. (Far later, “What is Man?” proved to have been written by Mark Twain.) In the current book review climate, however, this would be inconceivable, reviews being an exclusive prerogative of publishing establishment, and having nothing whatsoever to do with book’s quality and merit.

Perhaps, to save their industry, book reviewers should seriously consider extricating themselves from the far-too-close embrace of big publishers, and of choosing as customers the public, instead of the publishers – by basing their selection, just as it used to be a hundred years ago, only on merit, and completely ignoring irrelevances such as the identity of author and of publisher.

The Illegitimate Book Reviewers And How to Spot Them

The author needs book reviews to sell their books, and of course they want great. Authors who study their expertise, conduct research, and produce quality and well-written books, deserve good support, and by putting the right time and effort, such writers usually receive praise from reviewers. But even good books can accept bad reviews – and I don’t mean reviews that say negative things about books. I am talking about what is written by people who do not qualify, no matter how valuable, to write it down. Why don’t they qualify? Because they don’t read books.

Let’s face it. Books are businesses, and reviewers know the authors need them. Free reviews are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Reviewers are now paid for their services, and they should; their time is valuable, and reading books and writing decent reviews can take hours. The author must be prepared to pay for the service and to realize that it is a business investment, such as advertising and marketing, where money is invested in the hope of generating book sales.

But irresponsible people – let’s say they are illegitimate book reviewers – are willing to prey on the needs of the writers. They realize that they can make money from an author without providing legitimate services. Let’s say you make $ 100 for each book you review, and you need eight hours to read a book. That’s $ 100 a day. But isn’t it good to make $ 200 or $ 400 or $ 1,200 a day? What if, instead of reading a book, you just took it, or did you just spit out what the back cover said? Think about how much counterfeit money you can make, and how much money you can make, while giving the writer what they want. So what if the review is only four sentences? As long as you give it five stars on Amazon, the author will be happy, right? Cha-ching!

Unfortunately, yes, in many cases, the author is happy. But most of them are self-publishing writers for businesses who are fortunate to get accurate descriptions of their books. I already know many writers like that are raving about how their books are rated by one of these “honorable” or “top” reviewers, often close to the top ranks on Amazon.

Initially when I started offering book reviews, I realized that there was no way I would ever rank in the Top 10 Amazon, not because my reviews didn’t have quality or I didn’t cover the book enough, but just because I wasn’t a robot, and I actually read books . If you look at the list of Amazon’s top Amazon reviewers, many of them have reviewed more than 5,000 books. If you are a service with several staff reviewers, that number is understandable, but most of the top ranks are individuals. How could this happen? Even if it’s your full-time job and you can read books a day, or even two books a day, it’s only ten weeks or about five hundred a year. You have to review on Amazon for ten years to break 5,000. Okay, I think it’s possible, but look at some of the top ones on Amazon. Some of them have been posted up to fifteen books a day. Yes, some of them are legal and write quality articles, so I don’t mean to underestimate those people.

Indeed, some of these people may be speed readers, but the jury is still out on the legitimacy of reading speed. I have a friend who claims to be a speed reader. I gave him three mystery novels to read that he returned to me the next day. When I asked him if he already knew who the killer was in a book, he could not remember “whodunit.” If you read very fast you can’t maintain the basic flow, you don’t really read a book.

Even worse, some of these papers have nothing to say that an author can even use them. I have seen some that are only three or four sentence summary plots without anything that says the book is “good, good, interesting, or not to be missed.” An author cannot get a description for the back cover if the review only summarizes but does not assess the quality of the book.

Even worse, much of what the authors expect will be useful support for their books to end, because books are not read but text is quickly rewritten from the back cover, with misspelled character names, factual errors about the plot, and sometimes sometimes even mistakes about the theme, content, and all points of the book – all the dead gifts of a book are never read. Sometimes a plot summary then only produces confusion, and if a reader is confused, he won’t buy a book or spend his time reading it.

Some writers may not care about such details. If the reviews are good, it’s good enough to sell books, right? But if it’s misleading, readers won’t be happy when the book they buy doesn’t reflect what is said about them. Hopefully, when readers have that experience, they will know better than trusting the reviewer again.

Unfortunately, as long as money is involved, unauthorized reviewers will not leave anytime soon. But as a paying author, you have the right to read your book. Most writers, including myself, want legitimate feedback about what readers think about our books. We write our books as much as to entertain, inform, educate, or invoke emotional responses from our readers as we did to sell several books. As writers, we have the right to get better.

So what can the author do about this situation? I don’t see any point in being angry about this situation because I don’t think it will change anything. You can write to these people and complain, but it’s impossible to do good. Some things you can do are:

1 Do Your Research. Look at the history of the reviewers and what they have written in the past. How well is their work written – is it more than just a plot summary? Ask yourself whether it is worth your time and money to pay for such services, or even just pay shipping fees and give free books to such individuals.
2 Request Correction. If you review it, and the report has an error such as a misspelled character name or the book is incorrectly listed as a sequel to your last book, contact the individual and request that the correction be made. I have known several writers who have successfully corrected — especially when they paid for the initial work.
3 Sounds. Every review posted to Amazon gives you the opportunity to choose whether or not it helps you. Review ratings are not only based on how many posts they have. While finding out how Amazon ranks this remains a mystery, assessments affect rankings. Voting may not help or hurt a reviewer a lot, but it is better than nothing.
4 Learn from Experience. You have studied your lesson, and that may not be a difficult lesson, but you now know in the future to stay away from these immoral people. If you are traditionally published, your publisher might use such a review but you can ask otherwise. However, remember that publishing is a business and that makes it a dollar game; Unfortunately, an accurate representation of your book may not be as important as your publisher to make money.
5 Share Your Knowledge. Share with your colleagues your experience. That does not mean you are gossiping about reviewers. You help other writers make legitimate business decisions about how to spend their money. Legitimate business decisions may not end with illegal results.

Many good book reviewers are out there. Find them and build lasting relationships with them; then you don’t need to rely on the unauthorized to find readers and sell your books.

How to Write an Effective Book Review That Helps Readers Decide If They Want to Read a Book

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who review books for publication in magazines and newspapers, many more who review books on the Web. If you add in those who review magazines, newspapers, movies, theater, blogs, websites, Facebook styles, Twitter tweets, what have you, it may reach into the millions (well, that’s an overstatement but you get my point).

Some reviewers are good enough at reviewing that they are paid and paid well for their thoughts on what they’ve read. Some do what I might characterize as a journeyman’s job, competent but not inspired, while others are absolutely, abysmally awful, and shouldn’t be allowed near a pen, pencil or computer when they’re in a reviewing mode.

Reviewers-whether their interest is fiction or non-fiction, pop music or classical, television shows, movies, magazines, blogs or what-have-you-all have their own reviewing styles. I’ve been writing, for pay and for fun, for many years. And I’ve been reading. I’ve read hundreds of thousands of words in print and on the Internet, and have developed strong opinions not only on what makes good writing, but what makes a good review of writing.

What follows is an overview of my personal reviewing style, “reviewing style” meaning how I prepare to write a review, not the actual words I use. But make no mistake, the actual words come from the preparation.

Because I specialize in book reviewing, primarily mysteries and mainstream, with only a smattering about blogs and similar activities, and have never reviewed music or a movie-except among friends-I’m going to limit myself in this post to my thoughts on reviewing books. Another note for complete disclosure: I am not talking about reviewing textbooks, or technical or scholarly tomes that are written for a specific and equally technical or scholarly audience. I am talking about novels, anthologies of short stories, the kinds of things we read mostly for pleasure. So here is my answer to my own question. What makes a good review?

The first thing I do when I review a book is: I READ THE BOOK! Don’t laugh. To write a review by snitching from other reviews or copying what booksellers advertise about it is not at all funny. It is not only unfunny, it’s unfair to the writer, and it’s dishonest. It shouldn’t happen.

Yet I’ve read more than one book review that wasn’t much different from a CliffsNotes. In such cases, it’s easy to see that the reviewer had not actually spent time with the book, except possibly the jacket blurb. In recent days, I’ve read reviews of the same book in different publications that used identical language with no credit to a reviewer, so I couldn’t tell if they were written by the same person or if others were “borrowing.” Sometimes, reviewers apparently skimmed through the book, began to write too soon and in doing so, missed critical points.

Note, however, that I do read ABOUT a book before I settle in to read it for my review. I look at the publishers blurbs, knowing of course their biases. I read the jacket notes, and I always read the foreword and the afterword before I start the actual reading. In books that are heavily footnoted-such as the Teddy Roosevelt trilogy I’m reading now-I look at those back-of-the-book pages also, before I begin reading. I suspect that some writers would prefer that readers not read their afterword until afterward-sorry, couldn’t resist-after they have finished the book, but I find that it makes the story more pleasurable to read, and that’s what, to me, this kind of reading is about.

As I read a book for review, I note chapters and pages to read a second time. I don’t make extensive notes because that interferes with reading; from the earliest pages I want to get a feel for the flow of the story, so I make more mental notes than physical ones. The times when I let my intent to publish a review of the book interfere with reading is when I find a sentence or paragraph that I may want to quote, or if there is a significant philosophical or cultural point being made that I don’t want to lose.

Among the mental notes I make are my reaction to the writer’s style, effectiveness in pulling me in, making me part of the tale being told. I look for idiosyncrasies in people and places that take them out of the ordinary. I note particular turns of phrase or uses of words or descriptions that charm me-or scare me sufficiently to include in the review. And I look for personal characteristics, about the tale being told or the writer, that I can describe that will give the reader additional insight.

My goals in writing a review are two-fold. First, I want to speak to the reader as if we were sitting at my kitchen table sharing thoughts about what we’ve been reading. I don’t pontificate or lecture as if I possess some kind of arcane knowledge about what the writer was thinking. I use first person quite a lot-“I thought… I liked… I hope the reader… my reaction….” and so on. To sum all that up, I want some of me, some of my personal reaction to the book, to come through clearly.

Then, I want to capture the overall feel of the book, share a hint of what I learned about the actors in the story, and the settings in which the author put them without giving anything away that shouldn’t be. Books, I believe, have their own unique personalities beyond their plots, even though they are paper and print or words on a screen, and I want the reader to sense that personality. That’s what makes people want to read something.

If I really don’t like a book at all, I won’t write a review. I am a reviewer, not a literary critic. That’s my own choice. I want to always treat a book’s author with respect, and can usually find a delicate way to put a light critical touch in a review, if necessary. The writer has put time and effort into the work, I respect that, and my not liking it doesn’t mean others won’t.

But I will never resort to sarcasm or nastiness as some reviewers do. I recently-on this blog-wrote a diatribe about a major flaw in a book I had just read. It wasn’t a review, it was just plain old-fashioned blow-off-steam criticism, and I did not use the writer’s name or put any identifying material in it. And I will continue to read that writer’s output.

I’ve had years of experience of having my own writing reviewed and reviewing that of others, accepting and giving criticism, and I’ve learned the importance of saying what I think, but saying it kindly. So that’s how I look at my challenges as a reviewer of some wonderful books, some ordinary books, and some that are, well-unreviewable.

About Marcia Applegate

Retired communications consultant with major firms, writer, columnist, blogger, living in Asheville N.C., moved here from Chicago, love Asheville mountain scenery and people, still miss Chicago, though. Children, Grandchildren, greatgrands scattered across the country. Love reading, of course, love reviewing what I read, and have lots and lots of opinions on this and that.