meddling—but in a good way

Do you like book reviews? As a reader, I’m sometimes ambivalent about them, especially for fiction. I don’t want my impression of a work to be polluted by the thoughts of someone else who has already read it. Reading is an act of intimate engagement between the mind of an author and the mind of a reader; no matter how many readers there are of a given work, that engagement is one on one between the writer and each of those readers. To try to influence the quality of that engagement, as a review could be said to do, is like trying to tell someone what impression to have of a person he is about to meet for the first time. It seems, I don’t know, meddlesome.

But of course that’s not the whole story. Reading a book takes a long time. If you read 50 of them a year, I’d say you’re reading a lot. If you could keep that up for 70 years, then you’d go through 3,500 of them. Not bad, but there are millions of books out there—how do you choose among them?

In these days of online shopping, there are keyword searches and bestseller lists and book rankings. There’s the cover art of a book and the flap blurb—the copy the publisher puts on the cover of the book to entice you to buy it. There are also the recommendations of friends, so-called word-of-mouth promotion, said to be the most powerful stimulant for a book’s sales. But a book might come to your attention that no friend has read. Now what?

Ideally a book reviewer, whether professional or amateur, is your peer: a fellow reader who has had the experience of reading this book, and who now stands in the place of a friend who either gushes that it’s fantastic or says with a shrug, “I couldn’t finish it.” By sharing their reading experience with you, they’re trying to help you make the best use of your own reading time. And that is a valuable service.

But, like books themselves, not all reviews are created equal. At the bottom of the scale, a truly bad review is one that is biased, is poorly written, contains spoilers, and spends too much time talking about things other than the book. It follows that a truly good review is one that is objective, well written, spoiler free, and focused mostly on the book itself. A good book review is one that sets out to genuinely help a fellow reader make an informed decision about whether to buy or read the book in question.

I really try to write good book reviews. I start out by putting myself in the prospective reader’s place, and asking, “What do I wish someone had told me before I read this book?” I don’t always succeed at achieving this level of objectivity and altruism—but I always wish that I had. And, accordingly, my reviews tend to be fairly highly rated. Amazon no longer shows the reviewer his “helpful” percentage, but up until they took that feature away, mine was always about 90%. I know that I myself appreciate a thorough, objective review, especially when I’m looking at a book that is expensive. Then I really do want to know what other readers think, and not just what the publisher wants me to think.

The aspect of reviews is to look at them from the point of view not of readers, but of authors. Positive reviews have always helped to sell books, but reviews of any kind help to raise awareness of them, which is beneficial for an author. I remember reading an article by a self-published author who described how a terrible review of one of his books send him into a depression for day—but then he discovered that people were buying his book anyway, sometimes because of the bad review! The stinging review is a provocation, and makes the would-be buyer wonder, “Could it really be so bad?” Ka-ching! a purchase—or anyway a sample download.

In general, getting reviews of any kind is difficult for an author, at least if he is not yet famous. They take time and effort to write—I myself have cut down on the number of reviews that I write because I just have too many projects on the go. If I think it’s important to review a book, I’ll type a short review on Goodreads. (My most recent was a review of Malcolm Lowry, a biography by Douglas Day.) And I’m an author, a publisher, and a keen advocate of book reviewing—how much more difficult must it be for others to get to it?

Happily, nonetheless, many do, and for that we writers and publishers (and fellow readers) are grateful. One interesting approach is being taken by Reading Deals with their Review Club. Authors making use of this service provide an e-book edition of their work, and the Review Club offers this to the club members, who get a free copy in exchange for committing to provide a review of it on Amazon. You only read and review things that you want to (which might be nothing), and you place a disclaimer in the review to the effect that you have received a free copy of the book in exchange for writing an honest review.

Personally, I think this is a great idea, and so I am trying it with my own newly published story, A Tourist Visa. If you think you might like to read and review this, then go to this signup page to join the club and get your free copy. Go ahead—you even have my permission to hate the story! I only ask that you put it in writing.


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