Should authors review books?

This post concerns the amateur reviewing of books, e.g. on Amazon or Goodreads, as opposed to professional reviewing for magazines, publishing trade papers or for publishers themselves.

I’ve been an avid reviewer my whole life, and in fact did use to review for several magazines in the UK. I haven’t done that for a couple of decades, but still publish reviews online. I enjoy it. I’m a firm believer that reviews are a critical tool in assessing whether to read a book or not.

I also believe that reviews should be honest. We all know that a certain number of glowing reviews are written by the author’s friends. That’s always going to happen. On a typical book, these should be dwarfed over time by legitimate reviews. There are also those odd 1-star reviews that are brutal attacks upon the author themselves. These are the extremes. A good review should:

  • Be constructive and fair
  • Concentrate on the book and not the reviewer’s opinion of the author
  • Be balanced – don’t concentrate on only the great or the worst
  • Make comparisons only if applicable, either to the author’s other books, or a completely different author
  • Not include spoilers without ample warning
  • Think very carefully about the rating. Even a rating of 3/5 is usually considered a liked book, though the tendency is to always give a 5 if you like it.
  • Never be an agreement between authors to trade 5-star reviews

I’m not a fan of spoilers, and avoid them, but I notice that many reviewers give away considerable plot detail.

To me, the reviewer must serve the reader as much as the author. I’m sure that many authors believe that reviews are solely there as validation of their efforts – he with the most 5-stars wins! It shouldn’t be a numbers game. I like to think that the content of the review is important too. When I write a review, I want to reward the author (if warranted) but also to educate the reader. I will mention bad things. The author may hate me for it, but I hope that the reader thanks me. Don’t you hate to pick up a book rated 5-stars and find it is written terribly? What happened to the credibility of all those reviewers? Certainly much can be left to opinion and preference, but I just can’t see how a poorly written book gets so many good reviews.

Which brings us to what goes into a review? Here it gets fuzzy. I’ve noticed that many readers can accept poor writing, typos, and bad ebook formatting if the plot is excellent. Definitely, plot and entertainment should prevail – that’s why we read. That’s no excuse for poor quality in my book (pun intended), and sometimes my reviews will call out errors in craft. But should I? Opinions are divided about whether readers (non-authors) care about this. I argue that they do. I accept that price point plays a factor, but even on a $2.99 ebook, I want to know that the author cared enough about his audience to edit his work and master his craft. I also accept that even best selling, superstar authors have typos in their books, and that we shouldn’t expect perfection from an author’s debut work.

It’s difficult for we writers to review a book. It’s too easy to empathize with the author, and know how we would feel to get a 3-star review or worse. It is tempting to give 5-stars even if the book deserved 4. Does that dinging of 1-star really matter? Aren’t we being mean? Just give 5-stars and our conscience is clear, and the author thrilled. Aren’t we all brothers in arms? If we dole out 5-star reviews, maybe those authors will reciprocate. Worse, will the author engage in tit-for-tat if we are less than glowing in our review? Oh, the stress of it all.

This is undoubtedly why many writers/authors do not review books. If we are “in” the industry, maybe we should bow out and leave reviews to genuine readers. This would be a shame, because I think writers can bring a unique perspective to reviews that can nudge all of us to hone our craft. But can we be honest with our fellow writers?

This Guardian article makes the case for only reviewing good books, and staying silent on bad ones. That could work, but is it fair for the reader?

What do you think? Do you review books? Are you unbiased? Do you always give 5-star reviews so as not to feel mean?

7 Responses to Should authors review books?

  1. James Piper says:

    “…a certain number of reviews are “faked”…That’s always going to happen.”

    Do you mean ALL authors? In may case, not one review posted on amazon or goodreads is by another one I know.

    • Graeme says:

      I realize that is a pretty inflammatory remark. Let me explain, that by faked I mean that it is only natural for an author to beg friends and family to review. In some cases those people might not have even read the finished book, but just want to help out their “buddy”. Even when they have read it, I mean, would you give your son or sister anything other than a glowing review? :) I really didn’t mean to imply that the author themselves is creating fake accounts and writing glowing reviews, though I have read about overseas services that you can pay to do this. Ugh.

      I definitely do not mean all authors, other than I expect at least 2 or 3 of every book are the friends and families type that I mentioned above.

      I just edited my post, because I certainly did not want to imply that authors are themselves faking their reviews.

  2. victoria limbert says:

    I am really becoming to LOVE your posts! they are extremely insightful. I am maybe quite a soft person when it comes to reviewing (this isnt so much my empathy with other writers but more my genetics/personality-I have never been one to insult or hurt unnecessarily) But if I am to give a book a low star rating I blooming well explain why and try to be constructive at the same time. I have an odd low rated review on goodreads and my website, though I am not a hardcore reviewer, I am only just entering in to this strange world.

    Though I am guilty of avoiding a review altogether if I really did not like the book, especially if there is not much in the way of good critisism I can give. This rarely happens thankfully. There is an odd book I have not even been able to finish because it hurt to drag my way through it….(not mentioning a certain ‘bestseller’ going around recently :/ :p)

    I would never give a rating of 5 if I was just avoiding being mean, its unfair to the author and doesnt help them improve their writing. My reviews are precious to me and I take on board EVERY bit of advice and even cross reference that advice with others who have read my book if I need a second opinion to understand the negative points in that review. In the end a reviewer who does not worry about hurting the feelings of an author will come along with his/her views and the author may get hurt.

    Well, these are my views anyway :))

    Awesome post, yet again Graeme :)

  3. Great post, Graeme, and one that’s debated in Christian writing circles heavily, where people really want to be “nice” and “supportive.”

    I do love to review books (though I have to rein in those SPOILERS!), and I’ve won quite a few Christian Book Assoc. books in blog contests. I try to save a 5-star rating for something I might read again. That said, I do try to be supportive of my fellow writers, since, as an author, I do know all the hoops they’re jumping through just to get that story on the page.

    I always point out outstanding prose (if I don’t point it out, it probably means I wasn’t blown away w/it). I also give high points for a plot wind-up I can’t see coming 100 miles away. Some genres, I just don’t read and critique, since they’re not my “thing” and I know I can’t do them justice (straight romance–like Amish romance).

    Thanks for this very helpful post! Someday, when and if it’s published, I’d love to get your thoughtful review of my Viking novel!
    Heather Day Gilbert recently posted..Guest Interview with JORDYN REDWOOD, Author of PROOFMy Profile

    • Graeme says:

      Thanks, Heather. You captured the core of the dilemma: We all want to encourage each other, as others have encouraged us, but surely we owe something to the readers too. What’s the point of reviews if everyone is only going to give high marks, or not review at all. I feel there has to be a middle ground, and that it is pointing out problems but ma,ing it clear whether it should put someone off the book or not.

      I absolutely can’t wait to read your Viking book. I loved Undercurrent by Griep.

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