You can read Part II of this post, on Book Critiques, here.
Join us, two authors, to discuss the ins and outs of reviewing books, from a writer and a reader perspective. We’ve both been reviewing books for several years and have about 30 years of writing and 9 books published (currently) between us. We’ll introduce ourselves first:
J.S.:I’m J.S. Fields, author of the hard sci fi/space opera series Ardulum (Forewords INDIES finalist and GOLDIES finalist in science fiction). I also write science nonfiction, and have an agent. I run a small, personal review blog on my website (jsfieldsbooks.com), and do formal reviews for the New York Journal of Books (NYJB). I review science nonfiction and SFF (adult) books for NYJB. On my personal site I stick to lesbian and nonbinary SFF, which is what I prefer to read. I review self-pubbed, small press, and Big Six books between both channels.
I got into reviewing at the start of 2018. I decided that since I had mostly wrapped the ARDULUM series, that I should spend some time reading other books in queer SFF spaces. It then occurred to me that if I was going to read them, I should probably compile feedback on them, too, since many of the books I was reading were not widely distributed. It was also very hard to amass my TBR pile. ‘Lesbians in space’ is not a well-known genre.
I began by posting reviews to Amazon and Goodreads. A few months later I branched out onto my blog, and then began sending reviews to a friend to cross-post on her blog as well. Mid-year I was approached by the owner of the New York Journal of Books to work as a reviewer, due to my history with reviewing and my background in science (and the Forewords finalist award helped, too). I accepted, and gained access to a much larger population of books (that I no longer had to buy! YAY!).
WCT: I’m William C. Tracy, author of a series of space opera science fantasies, collectively known as the Dissolutionverse, in which a series of planets are connected by music-based magic instead of spaceflight. The more I’ve written, the more I’ve included diverse people and genders to make my worlds more vibrant and real. I also have an epic fantasy coming out next year from NineStar Press.
I’ve been tracking the books I’ve read since 2003, and started reviewing every book I finish on Goodreads in 2013. I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy, with an occasional foray into biographies or informational books. As I self-publish books, I also try to read a fair amount of indie or small press books. I especially love the intersection of fantasy and science fiction, and weird space opera stories.
Let’s start out with discussing the anatomy of a book review:
J.S.:A book review is one person’s viewand opinion of your book. It is also not for the author. A book review is a dialogue between readers, wherein one reader lets other potential readers know what they thought about the book.
A book review may be positive, negative, or have a mixture of both elements. It may be completely meh, or be a DNF (did not finish). Generally, book reviews contain a brief synopsis of the book, followed with reader impressions and, on occasion, some analysis. Some reviewers use a star rating for books, others do not.
There are many places that reviews accumulate. Some people host them on their personal blog or submit to a larger review site. Some occur via trade review outlets like Kirkus, while others accumulate on reader sites like Goodreads. Most websites that sell books also have a mechanism for reviews, Amazon, Smashwords, and Audible among many others.
WCT:Personally, I try to review books a little differently, just because there are so many people who do review books. I tend to put less of a synopsis (because that’s easily available in other reviews and in the book blurb) and try to highlight one aspect of the book I thought stood out, whether good or bad. It might be that the characters have especially good emotional reactions, or that the worldbuilding fell down in a certain place, etc.
For a reader, it’s good to know the difference between a reader review and a trade review. Usually, the reviews you see on Goodreads are reader reviews. All the ones down at the bottom of an Amazon page are also reader reviews. However, there is a space saved on the Amazon page for “Editorial reviews,” and these are the ones that are placed right above the author’s bio. Because trade reviews are done by people who review things professionally, they are usually considered a different class than readers’ reviews. This is also the place where blurbs by famous authors are displayed, showing whether authors you like to read enjoyed the book.
To reiterate, none of the reviews are for the author. People who are interested in the book, however, can get a good feeling of how it’s received based on the professional opinion of the trade reviews, along with the combined power of however many individual readers have left reviews. Sometimes a book is very well or very badly received. However, there can also be a “love or hate” dynamic, where the overall book rating is in the middle because while many people really liked it, many others disliked it greatly.
How should you, as a reader, use reviews?
J.S.:I use reviews to help me decide what is worth my time to read. I don’t find the positive reviews all that helpful unless they have some analysis, but I do really enjoy negative reviews with some writing. These often help me know if there is problematic representation in a book, and sometimes actually help me findrepresentation, as books with queer content, especially books with neopronouns, can get some strong negative reviews on occasion. In these instances, negative reviews can help me go ‘Ah! There’s my book!’
Negative reviews also help me find books that genre-hop. A fantasy book with a negative review of something like ‘the magic felt like science and was too defined’ immediately sparks my interest. Three star reviews, if you do a sort on a place like Goodreads, are also helpful, as they tend to contain both likes and dislikes on a book, so you can get a rounder perspective.
In that same vein, I tend to stay away from books that have only positive reviews, especially if there is no writing to go with the reviews. And the more reviews a book has, the fishier it looks if they’re all positive.
For general readers, I’d recommend using reviews as a secondary tool in book selection—the first being word of mouth recommendations from your friends who like the same types of books you do. Do remember that reviews can, and often do, contain spoilers, so don’t go down into the review rabbit hole if you absolutely can’t stand having some plot points given away.
WCT:Reviews are always good to give you some perspective, but take them with a grain of salt. For example, books that are older will naturally have more reviews than newer ones. You may want to read a book that just came out, but if no one else has either, then it’s hard to say whether it’s any good. But do you need to consider reviews anyway, if you’re excited to read something?
More reviews are always better, right? Well, not always. If you are undecided about reading the book, then there’s a certain amount of paralysis when confronted with too many reviews, especially if they are highly divided. There are so many people urging you to read this book because it’s the best thing ever, but there are also lots of people saying it’s not worth it. Who’s right? At this point, it might be better to see if there is a consistent theme to the reviews, such as, “the ending was too sudden, but the rest of the book was good,” or “this one character was really annoying, but I loved the rest of it.” As a reader, if you are excited by the cover and description, go ahead and try it out! Just be aware of what some people don’t like, and adjust your reception of the book accordingly. If you’re forewarned, you might be able to enjoy the book despite a known failing.
How should authors interact with reviews?
J.S.:They shouldn’t, because the reviews aren’t for the author. Remember that reviews are dialogues between readers. Yes, reviewers may get facts about the book wrong. They might misinterpret what the author was trying to say. They might have confused that book with another book. They might give spoilers in the reviews. Whatever the content of the review, suppress the urge to contact the reviewer. Not only does this reflect really poorly on the author, but it often intimidates reviewers and can drive them from review spaces. This then impacts allauthors, because there are then fewer reviewers to review the seemingly endless supply of books.
What an author can do is read reviews and see if any consistent trends emerge. Do greater than half the reviewers complain about pacing? Too many POV characters? Unclear plot? That might be an indication of some weak spots in the writing that the author could work on. Just remember, the reviewer is critiquing the work, not the author. It can be very easy to take a review too seriously, or to feel like it is a critique of an author’s entire life, not just one tiny collection of words. If you cannot read reviews without taking them personally, have a friend read them for you and digest the contents before delivering, or just ignore the reviews entirely.
WCT: Many authors will say they don’t read reviews, or only read the four and five star ones. After all, this is a work you’ve poured months or maybe even years into! It’s hard not to take offense at a reader dismissing your work without what you feel is a fair chance. But remember, the reviews are for other people to potentially purchase your book. If someone didn’t finish reading what you wrote because of a certain aspect, there are likely other people who will be warned off from making that same mistake. After all, would you rather have ten people review your book with the same negative comment, and push even more people away, or nine people who read the first person’s comment and decide to give it a miss?
There is one way authors can indirectly interact with reviews, and that is ask readers to post them. This seems like a big thing, to constantly remind fans to leave a star rating and even one sentence about what they read. Definitely don’t spam your readers about this, but it’s not an imposition to remind them every few months that they can make a direct difference in an author’s income for free, by simply leaving a review.
An author can even contact people who review a lot of books, or people in their mailing list, and send them a free copy of a book with the hope of an honest review. This does not mean they are obligated to give you a positive review, or a review at all. Nor does it mean they will even read the book. Do notcontact the reviewer asking when the review will go up. This is not only rude, but will turn the reader off of the story. Never do anything to lower the reader’s estimation of the work.
What an author cannotdo is pay a reader for a review. It ispossible to pay a trade publication for a review, as they are held to a certain standard. However, many trade reviews are quite expensive, and again, there is no guarantee the quality of the final review. This is up to the author’s estimation of whether they will benefit from the review. Basically, it pays to do your research.
On the other hand, paying a reader creates an obligation from the reader to give a positive review, which has its own problems, discussed below. It’s also ethically sketchy, getting into the territory of false advertising. The best reviews are from readers who are, ideally, excited enough about the story to tell others about it. It’s frustrating when reviews are few and far between, but keep at it!
How does one write a review? Why not give it a try?
J.S.:There really isn’t a formula for reviews. Most contain a short summary or synopsis, followed by either the reviewer’s direct feelings (generally ‘I’ statements) or critical analysis (more common in trade reviews). It can be worthwhile sometimes to compare the book to others in its genre to give readers a sense of place. Reviews often highlight problematic content, like racism or sexism, and extoll the virtues of a book, like a strong presence of marginalized characters. Some reviews are 1000 words, some are 50. For many authors, the length of the review is less important that the review’s existence.
On some sites, reviews can help the author get more visibility (there is a generally held belief that when a book has 50 or more reviews on Amazon, the company will place it in better marketing areas—this is likely not true, but who wouldn’t like at least 50 reviews on Amazon anyway?), while others, like trade reviews, help librarians select their new purchases. Trade reviews are especially important for things like dust jacket covers and Amazon pages, although reviews by well-known authors can also be placed in these areas.
There is a growing trend in some reader spaces to only leave positive reviews. This is problematic for several reasons. First, no book appeals to all readers, so books with only positive reviews can appear as if only the author’s family and friends have read it. Second, reviews don’t mean as muchif they’re all positive. How is a reader supposed to sift through a genre to find a book they like, if all the books are 5 stars? Often times, negative reviews give more quality information about a book than positive reviews, and there are plenty of readers who read the negative reviews only, before deciding on a book.
Larger review sites, such as the New York Journal of Books, have strict policies on honest reviews. It is easy to imagine how such a site would not be taken seriously if every review that came from it was positive. What would be the point? In that same vein, if reviews are a dialogue between readers, how could another reader trust a reviewer who only left positive feedback? How would the reader know that they actually shared the same taste in books?
WCT: Honest reviews are a big deal, actually. More and more, you will see a set of reader reviews that start with a statement about how they got the book for free in exchange for an honest review. This is one of the reasons Amazon cracked down on reviews a couple years ago. Many reviews were removed, and now they now check to see if the reviewer has some personal connection with the author. Reviews might be removed even if the reader is a Facebook fan of the author, which isn’t really a conflict of interest. All this stems because people were abusing the system, so if you’re a reader and are approached by someone wanting to pay you for a review, don’t take them up on it!
In fact, the best thing you can do as a reader (if you are comfortable with it, of course) is to just leave a quick star rating or a one sentence description of why you liked a book on your favorite review site. If you want to leave a full review, even better! You could also leave the review specifically at the place you purchased the book, especially if it’s notAmazon. Often other retailers get left out since Amazon has taken so much of the book market, and even a single review in a place like Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or Nook can give that author a boost, and give other readers searching that site another perspective on a book.
J.S.:It’s almost one full year in since I began reviewing books. I love it but I… think I might stop reviewing small press and self-pub. I don’t want to, because these are the books that need the boost but dealing with authors has become problematic. I’ve reached the point where when I post a negative, or even mildly critical review, I’m too anxious to sleep for a few nights. Reviews are not for the author, and yet many authors do email me, asking for changes to the review, pointing out where I missed something that led to me giving the book fewer stars, or telling me I didn’t read the book right.
So I guess, this is my open letter to authors. Authors, I didn’t write those reviews for you.I wrote them for people who might share my taste in books and want a way to screen potential reads. If I ended up skimming and missed something, it’s because a book bored me, and that in itself is good feedback to have. If I posted spoilers, I either A) thought they were critical for readers to know about or B) didn’t consider them spoilers. If I misunderstood what part of the book was trying to convey, that was just my interpretation of the words. It doesn’t make it wrong, it’s makes it my opinion.
WCT: I’m going to keep reviewing books I’ve read, but I’ll always review them on my schedule. As my books reach more readers, I anticipate more people might pay attention to the books I read. If my books were to take off suddenly, I might even need to take into account myreviews affecting readers more than other reviews do. I’ll figure out what to do about it when and if that happens, though.
Where I’ve had more trouble lately is reviewing books by authors I know or follow. As I grow as an author, naturally I meet more authors. I still want to keep up my trend of reviewing everything I read because I know it helps out the author, and helps readers find new and exciting books. My problems comes about when I really like an author but the book was either not my thing, or just wasn’t as good as I expected. For all readers, it’s important to write an honest revieweven if the story wasn’t as good as you thought it could be. Tell other readers about that, and maybe the author will also take it into account and grow into a better writer. As I said above, readers may still pick up the book, and now they’re forewarned about a potential problem, it won’t surprise them and take away from their enjoyment.
Authors, if we can’t be honest with a review, then it’s not worth leaving. Especially with self-publishing, there are a lot more authors out there these days, and it’s inevitable we will cross paths. Just be honest, and expect that other authors who are readers will also be honest. If not, direct them to this article!
J.S.:Authors, trust me, I know what you’re going through. I’ve seen reviews for ARDULUM that made me cry. That made me throw heavy objects at walls. Sometimes reviewers just don’t get what you were going forand it is maddening. You spent so much time with your book! It was perfect! And then you sent it out into the world and some hack with an internet connection breezed through it, didn’t get it, and had the audacity to tell the world they thought it sucked. ARGH. THE NERVE!
Yes, it is okay to be angry. It’s okay to vent. Find a group of friends that you trust and over a DM, tear that review to shreds. But don’t post about it in large groups and neverbash a reviewer in a public forum. Never ever ever. That’s a quick way to never get anything you write reviewed again. Reviewers talk. Trust me, a lot of us that do this for larger groups know each other. We share our experiences with bad authors. We don’t like you in our spaces, because our spaces and your spaces aren’t the same. Yes, there is deep intersectionality between authors and reviewers, because many authors are also reviewers, but the actual spacesdo not overlap.
Please just remember that reviews, good or bad, raise the profile of your book and help readers. If you find yourself with negative energy to burn, write another book! And then go read a book and leave a review, because really, everyone could use a little boost now and then.
You can read Part II of this post, on Book Critiques, here.
Here’s where you can review ourbooks!
William C. Tracy: