In today’s online world, I think of book reviews differently than I did years ago. It used to be that people mostly bought books based on reviews in newspapers, trade journals (such as Publisher’s Weekly), magazines and book inserts like the NYT Book Review. While getting reviews in these outlets is still very important, they are harder and harder to come by. Professional reviews are shrinking. Some newspapers don’t do them at all. Others don’t include many pages for them. The New York Times Book Review only handles certain types of books. For instance it won’t review self -help books.
This used to be a sad and dismal situation, but the online world has started to change that. Now more and more amateur bloggers will review books, mostly because publishers like to give away free copies to their readers. And, of course, Amazon, Goodreads, BN.com and other sites include reader-driven reviews. These reader-driven reviews are probably just as important (if not more so) than professional ones. But they are also problematic.
1. People who have an axe to grind with an author will often go onto Amazon and leave one star reviews, even though they haven’t read the book. The best example is this one: Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story. Of course, who wants to read his book, right? But still, at least 100 of those reviews are from people who are reacting to the scandal, not the book. Amazon will not remove such reviews. I know many authors who have tried.
Another example of this is the review left by Ann Pace here:
Such reviews really are not helpful for readers since they are not about the book.
2. People who are friends with authors will leave glowing 5 star reviews of books they (a) have only skimmed (b) didn’t really love. These are loyalty reviews and, again, they don’t help readers. I can often sort them out because they saw “This book is awesome. I recommend it for everyone!” without offering any substance to back that up.
3. Real reviews written by real readers who are reacting to any number of things. I think, as a book buyer, all of these are helpful. It’s easy for me to tell when a reader is reacting negativity to something that I personally wouldn’t be bothered by. For instance I see many people leave reviews like “I liked this book, but I would have liked it more if it had a Christian perspective.” That usually tells me that I will love the book.
That was a lot of rambling. Take or leave any or all of that. As an avid reader and book lover, what I look for in a review are:
* A short description of the book, but one that doesn’t repeat the book jacket or publicity materials from the publisher.
* A personal reaction of how the reader/reviewer connected with the book. I want to know why the reader loved it or hated it.
* Adjectives that tell me what I can expect. Is it a fast read? Or are the first 100 pages slow? Is it high brow? Or dumbed down? Will I cry on my Kindle screen? Or laugh until I worry that other people are staring at me? Is it so provocative that I’ll find myself talking about it where ever I go? Will it offend me so much that I have to read it just so I can tell others why I hate it? Those are the sorts of things I want to know.
* An honest reaction to a flaw in the book. For instance, if I were reviewing Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (which is extremely funny in parts), the honest flaw would be that the chapters didn’t flow in chronological order. They also were not out of order for any logical reason. It seemed she had slapped some material from her blog into the middle of the book and hadn’t done the work to edit it to make sure the sequence would flow in order. That said, I didn’t find this disconcerting. As a reader, it was easy to follow her plot development.