Book reviews are the cod liver oil of the writing world. Writers need them, and they can do an awful lot of good, but they can also leave an incredibly nasty taste in the mouth.
You can’t switch on the Internet these days without seeing an author giving out about book reviews and how unfair/mean/reprehensible/soul-destroying they are. There is always a writer whinging somewhere about the tears they shed over a nasty review, how personal it was, and why so-and-so was out to destroy them.
Now, for some writers of the thinner skinned variety, this might mean a review which says something unforgiveable such as “I didn’t like this book“. For others, it might take a little more venom. Such as an anonymous review which says “I would have used this book for toilet paper, but my soft under bits would have rejected it too.”
So, I got to thinking. If book reviews were always helpful, there would be nothing to give out about. And if reviewers followed some rules, maybe authors would have even less whining to do, which would be nice. To that end, I’ve written some rules. 5 of them, to be precise.
1. Have The Guts To Use Your Name
This is the hairy question of anonymity – where it is allowed. Anonymous reviewers or opinion posters are the second scourge of the Internet (after Facebook, obviously), and should never be allowed. If you wouldn’t want your name associated with a comment, don’t write it. But if a reviewer wouldn’t care to put their own name to a review, they have no business letting it out in public without a leash.
I have to admit that this doesn’t address the equally hirsute question of writing 5-star reviews for people you know. That’s a moral quandary you’ll have to sort out yourself.
2. Honest Is Not The Same As Judgemental
It goes without saying that reviewers should be allowed to offer their honest opinion. But this does not mean denouncing the book from a height even though it had 3 spelling mistakes and a thin blonde heroine.
There are a lot of grey areas as to what constitutes a fair opinion or not, but suffice to say that opinion is generally considered fair by a person who agrees with it, and not if they don’t. Authors are never going to agree with a negative opinion, but thankfully we don’t have to listen to them if we don’t want to.
3. Be Helpful, Or Don’t Bloody Bother At All
You could say it’s great that we can already grade reviews as being helpful or unhelpful, and ignore all weeping and wailing over what’s fair or unfair. But book reviews are not always helpful. Some of them are downright annoying. Some of them say nothing at all. And the helpful/unhelpful system is also open to abuse, when writers try to rally the troops to get someone’s review rated as unhelpful simply because they don’t like it.
Guidelines should be followed for review content, to make sure they are worthy of reading in the first place. To that end, I have appointed myself to write some, even though they already have guidelines on Amazon and GoodReads (because it’s clear that nobody ever reads them).
These questions should be answered. Anything else is just posturing.
(i) What made you buy the book? Are you glad you bought it? Why?
(ii) Was there anything in particular about the book which made you wish you hadn’t bought/read it?
(iii) Would you recommend it?
(iv) Is there any further information which can help explain precisely why you assigned that particular star rating?
4. Remember, Some Things Are Not Your Business
The purpose of a book review is not for the reviewer to tell the author what they would have done differently if they’d written it. It is not for the reviewer to tell the author what they think should have happened in the story. It is not for the reviewer to tell the author that their favourite character shouldn’t have died on page 94. And it is emphatically not for the reviewer to say that it was a great book because their friend wrote it. A book review should tell me why I might like a book and more importantly, why I might benefit from buying it.
5. Wait 2 Hours Before Posting
Write your review, and then come back to it. Do you really still want to say all that stuff? Good or bad? If the answer is yes, fire away. But you’d be surprised at how much you’ll want to hit that backspace key once you’ve let it breathe.
What about you? Do you rely on book reviews when you’re buying? And what would you like – or not like – to see?