Friday, April 15, 2011

In Review

Long, long ago book reviews were an elite art form. They were written by professional journalists and established writers who were considered masters in their field—Mark Twain reviewing James Fennimore Cooper, for example, was a masterpiece in itself—and carried an appropriate amount of weight. The majority of book reviews appeared in newspapers, magazines and trade journals, and most readers never saw more of the review than the pull quote placed on the book cover by the publisher.


The internet has changed all that. Today the self published or small press book is likely to be reviewed by the same blogger who reviews top selling hard covers from major publishers. A hundred great customer reviews can easily overrule one mediocre review in the trades—and let’s not even talk about what a hundred one-star customer reviews can do. So in this time when everyone has an opinion about everything, and anyone with an internet connection has the means with which to express it, it might be a good idea to keep a few Rules of Responsible Behavior in mind before you sit down at the keyboard.

For Reviewers:

Be Honest. Don’t write a review on a book you haven’t read. Don’t give a book a one-star review because you thought the price was too high, because the author snubbed you at a conference or failed to answer your e-mail. An honest review takes the book as a whole, measures the positives against the negatives, and concludes with an overall impression of the reading experience.

Be Fair. Personally, I will not give any book less than three stars out of five. The reason is that if it was a two-star (hated it) or one-star (barely readable) book, it clearly wasn’t worth finishing, and as mentioned above, no review should be written on a book you haven’t read. If you feel you must post a review on a book you hated, be very specific about why. It’s fair to say, “the heroine was shallow and unbelievable”, not so helpful to say, “I hated the heroine so much I want to throw the book across the room”. I know, we’ve all felt that way. But sometimes it’s best to keep our feelings to ourselves.

Be Concise: A book review is not a book report. You can always tell an unprofessional review because it reads like a story outline: This happens, that happens, then something else happens and in the end other things happen. Never give away the ending. Never give away crucial plot points (also known as spoilers). The worst review I ever got was actually a five-star review that gave away both the unexpected plot twists and the ending of my book. I repeat: Don’t do that. Writers will hate you for it, and so will readers. A good book review gives as much information about the book as the back cover copy does, or no more than could be discovered if the reader downloaded a free sample for her Kindle (about 30% of the book). The rest of the review should concentrate on your reaction to the book—what you loved, what you didn’t—and why.

Be Quotable: This of course only applies to those of you who are doing professional-caliber reviews for blogs or print, or if you are an author asked to review a colleague’s work. The reason writers and publishers submit their work to you for review is so that they can quote you. This would seem to be self evident, but I am frequently amazed by reviewers who genuinely seem to like a book but whose writing style is so clumsy, or who are simply so rushed or careless, that there is absolutely nothing we can use to let readers know they liked it. We like pithy quotes. “This book reminds me of the long lazy novels of Jane Austen, in which the much-besieged heroine is pitted against the dark brooding hero in a deeply complex and troubling way” is nice. Who doesn’t like being compared to Jane Austen? But there is nothing, absolutely nothing quotable there—unless we want to try to pull “complex and troubling”, which might not portray the book in its best light. Why couldn’t you just have said, “Wonderfully reminiscent of Jane Austen” or better still, “The new Jane Austen!”. Toss us a crumb, guys.

For Authors

There really are only three rules for authors regarding reviews

1)Do not respond to reviews

2) Do not respond to reviews

3) Do not respond to reviews

I don’t care if the reviewer was so stupid he got the name of your protagonist wrong and misspelled yours. I don’t care if he reviewed your SF novel as a romance. I don’t care if he thought your techno-thriller was non-fiction. Do. Not. Respond. It’s unprofessional. Period.

Okay, here’s one more rule: If you submit your book for endorsement (which is different from a review request) to another author, or if your agent or editor does, and if that author takes the time to actually read your book and to craft, in his or her own inimitable prose, a publishable quote and allow you to use his/her words to promote your book—send a thank you note, or an autographed copy of the published book at least. Even if you get so many quotes from big-name authors you can’t possibly use them all, even if this author’s quote was the least memorable of them all… send a thank you note. It’s only good manners.

And one last note: If you think customer reviews don’t matter, think about the last time you considered purchasing a product you didn’t know much about. Chances are you looked it up on the internet, and were directed to a page filled with customer reviews (probably from Amazon.com!) designed to sway your buying choices. How likely you are to buy a product that no one has endorsed? Customer reviews do matter, and writers—and readers—depend on them. So if you’ve read something you liked recently, by all means, take the trouble to leave a review on one of the internet sites. If you read something in which you were disappointed, it’s okay to let us know that too—but do it in an effective, professional manner.

So go forth and review. We’re waiting to hear what you think.

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