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?