Let’s talk about book reviews. Do you review books?
Many people don’t. Some folks have grown up in a culture where professional critics review books or movies, usually in newspapers and magazines. It’s easy to forget that social media gives us all the power to influence others by writing a review. Other people just don’t feel comfortable writing a review online. They don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, don’t know what to say, or just flat out can’t be bothered.
There is some debate about the validity of online book reviews. Recent years have revealed cheating, where specific authors have gamed the system by paying for good reviews. These cases are (hopefully) isolated and we shouldn’t discount reviews because of them. Other readers disregard the first dozen 5-star reviews of a book, assuming they are written by family and friends. This “front-loading” effect has less of a bias as more reviews are left. It’s unlikely that all 100 of those reviews were written by friends and family. I’m sure every reader has a gut-feeling for how many reviews make a valid sample: 20, 50, 100?
Another debate: Is someone more or likely to review a book if they absolutely love it or hate it? Hard to say. One could argue that naysayers are more eager to get their opinions online, as can be seen by “trolls” and “flame wars” if you follow any topical thread on social media; but I’m not sure this effect carries across into book reviews. I would argue that there are many more 5-star or 4-star (overall) book reviews than 1 or 2 star, or maybe those bad books just disappear into obscurity? There are too many factors at work to tell. Better books get more visibility on Amazon, in the form of sitting higher on the Top 100 and Top 10 lists or being recommended to people who read similar books. This suggests that better books tend to rise to the top, pushing bad books out. What about all those books in the middle with an average of 3-stars?
I’m more more likely to review a good book, both to reward the author and to encourage other readers who might enjoy it. I have given 3-star reviews, but if the book is terrible then I rarely review it unless I can be constructive. That’s me. If most people are like me, then yes, reviews are biased.
Do you judge a book by reviews? Most “experts” talk about the “gun”. This takes the form of a lot of 5 and 4 star reviews (the barrel), and a tapering number of 3, 2 and 1 (the gun handle). This is what you would expect of a good book. A lot of good reviews, a reasonable amount of so-so and just a few haters. You’d probably read that book. What if 90% of the reviews were 3-stars. Clearly the book doesn’t stand out, but neither does it suck. In that circumstance you probably want to actually read individual reviews. Many people have commented that even bad reviews do not stop them buying a book, as long as those readers explained what they didn’t like. Maybe you don’t care about the same things. “Lots of typos but a great story“: Would you read it? “Great action, not enough romance“: All depends on what you enjoy, right?
See how you can leave a bad review and it not be devastating? I always encourage people to leave a review, preferably on the major players like Amazon, iBooks, GoodReads, etc. Or all of them! Not only can you help other readers decide if the book is for them, but authors REALLY appreciate reviews. They do help the recommendation engines like Amazon and give our books more visibility. We’re not Stephen King; we need more readers. It needn’t take long either. At the very minimum, please give books a star-rating. That’s anonymous and very easy now that most ebook readers will prompt you at the end of the book. It takes 2 seconds.
“I don’t know what to write“: Fair enough. Keep it simple. You don’t have to be a New York Times reviewer and get all pithy or artsy. Just say what you liked. Say who would enjoy the book. Example:
Loved the characters and how they outwitted the bad guy. The twists and turns kept me turning the pages. Read this if you love spy thrillers.
Simple. Effective. Here’s another:
I rooted for Helen all through the book. So glad she found the right guy in the end. Super book. I wish there hadn’t been so much swearing and F-words though.
That’s fair, and warns easily-offended readers not to waste their money. Authors won’t hate you for saying that. Better for the reader not to waste their time and money and maybe pick up another book by the same author, than to read it, get upset and leave a bad review.
Of course if you want to wax lyrical for several paragraphs and go into detail, then great. Authors and prospective readers will love you for that. Sometimes it’s good manners to warn up front if you are going to give out spoilers. You should be reviewing the book, not giving the whole plot away and ruining other’s enjoyment.
So… do you review books? Do you pay attention to reviews? Let me know in the comments.