This week The Author CEO, Naomi Blackburn, continues her series on book reviews. Last week, Naomi talked about reviews that give a little too much away. This week she talks about key things to avoid when writing a book review.
Naomi is founder of the Goodreads group Sisterhood of the Traveling Books, as well as the Nordic Noir group, dedicated to discussing Scandinavian mysteries. Last year, Goodreads ranked her at #11 on their top reviewer list, in both the U.S. and in the world (based on 2011 rankings). As a reviewer, Naomi is brilliant, insightful, and, as she puts it, “brutally honest.”
Please feel free to leave questions for Naomi, as well as any suggestions you may have for future posts. I hope you enjoy the column!
The Author CEO: What A Book Review Isn’t
by Naomi Blackburn
I must admit that I had a tough time outlining this edition of The Author CEO. I can easily say what a book review should be, but when I tried to think about what it shouldn’t be my mind wandered!
Here is the way THE FREE DICTIONARY defines a book review:
A critical review of a book (usually a recently published book)
Next, let’s break down CRITICAL:
1. Inclined to judge severely and find fault.
2. Characterized by careful, exact evaluation and judgment: a critical reading.
3. Of, relating to, or characteristic of critics or criticism
Here, using that definition as a starting point, are five things a review should not be:
A review should not be an emotional response to a book
Last year, one of my favorite authors released a novel in his Nordic Noir series. I had eagerly been awaiting the release of this book, as the main character is one of my favorite protagonists in a series-deep down, despite his deep broodiness and imperfections, the main character, Kari Vaara, is a good guy. As I read the book, I found myself feeling open-mouthed and ANGRY! ‘My’ Kari Vaara would NEVER do what the author had put him on a path to do. How could the author do this to Kari?!?!
I will never forget my comment to the author: “You threw Kari under the bus!” Broken-hearted and confused-as always with this author, the book was impeccably written-I gave the book a one-star review and ripped the author on doing what he had done to Kari.
As my Goodreads friends were giving the book 4 and 5 star reviews, I knew I had to process my feelings and so I reached out to them to get their ‘take’ on the book. One gentleman’s very simple, yet candid response hit home: “even when it is most difficult, a review is not your emotional response to a book.”
This gave me pause. Despite my being an avid reviewer and a HUGE fan of this author that was all my review had been: an emotional response. What I had done to the author and the readers of my reviews was as bad as what, in my view, the author had done to Kari. As a reviewer, I had to remind myself that it is up to the author, not the reader, to put characters on a path. This can be hard to remember when you are so emotionally invested in a character!
A book review is not a bully pulpit
Lately, I have been seeing more reviewers using their reviews to voice personal opinions. As a reader, a reviewer’s personal beliefs mean nothing to me and can actually deter me from seeking out that person’s reviews. A book review should never be used as a ‘bully pulpit’ for the reviewer to preach to others about his or her own beliefs. Not only is this type of review unfair to the author, it’s also unfair to readers. A reader reads a review to determine your opinion about the BOOK not about the book’s topic.
Jodi Picoult, for example, writes about current events. In a review of My Sister’s Keeper, I’d want to know the reviewer’s response to character, plot, theme, and so on. I’d have no interest whatsoever in knowing the reviewer’s opinion on bringing a child into the world as savior for another child.
A review is not a synopsis
If a person can read a book, blog or a review, she can read a book jacket. A review should tell readers what the reviewer thought of the book from multiple perspectives, which will be discussed in our next installment.
A review is not a PR or marketing piece
About a year ago, someone commented on a post I had written on reviews. “I don’t use stars and I don’t post negative reviews,” the commenter said. “My purpose is to promote authors who don’t get much publicity help from their publishers.”
My response was “this is not the role of the reviewer”. What the commenter considered her role is actually the role of publicists or marketing professionals.
A review is not an opportunity to criticize an author’s personality or to stroke his or her ego
The commenter mentioned above went on to say, “Every reader comes to a book with their particular prejudices, both positive and negative. My reviews are positive because I don’t want to cost an author a fan because of my quirks.”
I can’t count the number of times that I have commented negatively on something I didn’t like about a book only to discover that my negative comment actually drew readers to the book. As a reviewer, I run negative reviews by authors and publishers, but their reaction doesn’t stop me from publishing the review.
Which brings us to the most important point: A REVIEW IS FOR READERS! A book review SHOULD NEVER be written to stroke the ego of the author nor should it be used to get a dig in at an author. Once a reviewer finds herself (or himself) doing this, she should realize she’s lost perspective and stop writing reviews on works by that particular author!
About Naomi Blackburn
Naomi Blackburn, owner of The Author CEO, a consultation firm dedicated to helping independent authors navigate the development of strategic business plans and the marketing world, holds an MBA and has worked in the field of business development, sales and consulting for 12 years. A former social worker, she has helped hundreds of clients meet their life goals. An avid reader and top Goodreads reviewer, she comes to the world of books from a reader/reviewer’s perspective. She strives to help authors achieve their goals by teaching them to think of themselves as CEO/entrepreneur of a small business and helping them negotiate the business side of selling books.
You make excellent points, of course. As an author, I am pretty thick-skinned when it comes to reviews but I admit that it irritates me when a reviewer gives a low rating with no substantive reasons – “this books sucks, nobody should read it, I hated it.” I can take real criticism but that kind of review is not helpful. Also, a few of my books (Each Angel Burns in particular) have drawn ideological reviews because of the religious content. There is nothing a writer can do about that.
However, as a reviewer I have learned a few lessons. I no longer give 1 and 2 star reviews for the simple reason that if a book is that bad, I wont finish reading it and I don’t review books I don’t read. I have also discovered that, because I am also an author, a poor review is often an open opportunity for friends of the author of the book in question, to spam MY books with negative reviews.
We can only hope that your guidelines will be adopted by many reviewers.
KathleenValentine I just had the opportunity to review a book and gave it two stars. This book was Christian literature that was HEAVY on Christian and was a “self-help/memoir” of a person’s survival of a traumatic event in her life. Reviewing it from the perspective of a former counselor, I found that fine; however, it would have been imperative to have it identified as a Christian book as these books are frequently used in a therapeutic setting. In my review, I did make a comment to the frequent use of religion and that I thought it should have been part of the title or identified as Christian literature, but I also blamed the publisher for not labeling the book correctly.
I think it is interesting the comment you bring up re: author’s friends negatively reviewing your book. Again, it is those behaviors that I would ask an author if the publishing world is truly for them. I am reminded of the other post by Terri today re: the acceptance of Indie authors. One of the negatives of that though is that the buffer/advice that is given by traditional publishing on “acceptable” behavior disappears. As the books become more “popular” and the potential for negative reviews are higher, the need for a thicker skin is more necessary. It is almost as though the author is his/her own worst enemy.
My biggest pet peeve are book reviews that are really nothing more than a summary of a book, which strikes me as a very middle school approach. I guess some approaches do boil down to user preference in book blogs, but when I see the book blurb, followed by an excerpt, followed by an author bio, and only finally to scroll down to a review, I'm already tired and ready to move on! I'll take the meat and potatoes of a critical approach any day so long as it is done professionally. Plus, when I go to Amazon to read reviews I will always ignore five star reviews and go straight to the three and two star reviews to get a true sense of whether or not a book may be the right fit for me.
JeriWB I do the same thing Jeri. Five star reviews that are one or two sentences long are too suspicious. I find a whole lot of authors don’t get that.
Kathleen Valentine taught me a very important lesson when I was a young reviewer. I think I mentioned this story somewhere but she and I were discussing a 2 Star review someone made on her book “The Old Mermaid’s Tale” . This person panned the book because of its strong sex scenes. Now when I read the book, it was clear that the book doesn’t have these scenes and I was going to go in and make a comment to that effect. Kathleen sent a resounding “NO!!!”. She stated that type of review actually helps her to sell books! You never know what a person is going to clue in on when choosing to read a book. It is not up to me as a reviewer to decide that only to give unbiased information as to what my opinion of the book was. What I may hate in a book, other people may love. I can’t, nor do I want to, control that.
nblackburn01Â KathleenValentineÂ Well, as I said, my skin is pretty thick. I also think most readers are smart enough to know when a review is valid and when it is just snarky. I agree with you about labeling Christian books. I do not think of Each Angel Burns as being Christian/Catholic but some reviewers have objected to the religion in it. My question would be, when the descriptions says one of the main characters is a Catholic priest, why would you even buy it if you are opposed to religious content? It is far from a religious screed in that there is also plenty of sex, adultery, and murder.
In fact, it has kind of fascinated me that some people have gotten very upset over the sex but are just fine with all the dead bodies…. curious thing that.
KathleenValentine I think the assumption is simply made. To me the title of the book would say…look a bit deeper, but, again, that is me. Again, I would question, what are their motives as a reviewer and inserting emotions/beliefs (religious or otherwise) into the review? Did they come in with an agenda? In my situation, I kept the religious aspect out of my review and focused on the therapeutic aspects of how the book could be used in therapies and actually cause more issues. It is not my job as a reviewer to pass judgement on religious beliefs or one's spiritual side.