A Reviewer’s Manifesto


Stack of thin flexicover books on reflective table
photo credit: Horia Varlan, licensed under Creative Commons

Recently, my husband and I went to a small SF convention in our area. We had a pretty good time and met some cool people and I talked John Scalzi into buying a Loretta Chase novel (Mr. Impossible-the-best-romance-novel-ever). So as far as I’m concerned, the weekend was more or less a success. Frankly, I was amazed that he actually listened to my recommendation considering what I gave him the last time our paths crossed at a convention. But hey, the more people I can talk into the wonder that is Mr. Impossible, the happier I am.

One of the panels we attended was about reviewing and the purpose of reviews. This being extremely relevant to my interests, I was looking forward to a discussion about the process and hoping to pick up a few tips as I forge into the big scary world of independent reviewing (I have Goals, you know).

Instead, the panel more or less mirrored a lot of the discussions I’m seeing online about reviews. Questions included:

  • What can we do to get more reviews?
  • What can we do to get more positive reviews?
  • How do we deal with negative reviews? Should an author engage?
  • What is the purpose of reviews, period?
  • How do we game the system?

The consensus of the panel really left me somewhat discombobulated. I’ve reviewed books professionally for nearly a decade. And I very much believe that reviews are for the benefit of readers. Instead, it seems to be that reviews are perceived by many content creators as a way to promote their work (and some venues encourage this symbiosis). Have I been doing it wrong all this time? And no one told me?

Are reviews actually thinly disguised promotional tools? I suspect that some would say that they are–I know that it is definitely possible to purchase coverage in some publications, although they do not guarantee a positive review.

I mean, I do understand the author’s dilemma: you spend a lot of time and energy writing a book and getting it published and then some jackass on Amazon gives it one star because they don’t like the price or the font or something that is more or less beyond your control. And that crappy review then sits on your Amazon page and you can’t do anything about it. It must be such a temptation to ask some friendly souls to read your book and then say nice things in order to push that one star review down the page or to drive up the average ranking. Although honestly? If I’m looking to buy a book and the only reviews are someone complaining about something I know that the writer can’t control, I’m not taking those reviews very seriously. In other words, unless someone can definitely prove to me that the one star review of pettiness actually tangibly affects your placement in Amazon’s search results (i.e., I want numbers), then you can safely disregard it. Attempting to divine the mysteries of Amazon’s algorithm is, quite likely, time you can spend doing other things–like writing your next book.

So if reviews aren’t promotional tools intended to move large volumes of books from seller to consumer and thereby help to fuel the capitalist engine that is our economy, then what good are they? The answer is actually very simple.

Reviews are for readers. Reviews are not for authors, they are not for publishers. Reviews can be used as promotion, but ultimately, a review is written to let the reader know if a book is worth their money and, more importantly, their time.

I’ve seen recommendations that reviewers try to write reviews that can be used for promotion and just, no. That’s called blurbing and that is a different beast entirely. Conflate the two at your peril.

The instant a reviewer starts writing with the intent of being pull-quoted by the author or publisher is the moment when they are no longer a credible reviewer.

Let me phrase it a bit differently: The moment the audience for the review becomes the author or publisher, the reviewer’s opinion can no longer be trusted by the reader.

I am not anti-pull-quote. What I am is anti-writing-for-the-pull-quote. A review should be authentic and you shouldn’t be looking to content creators for validation.

Perhaps, you think, what greater validation can there be for a reviewer than seeing their words on the back of a book? How about:

  • What you wrote convinced a reader to give a book a try and it turned out that they loved it?
  • Or that your review let them know that their time and money would be better spent elsewhere?
  • Or that they completely disagree with your review and proceed to give you reasons which convince you to give the book another chance yourself?

These are all great things to have happen as a result of a review. They are, in many ways, much more satisfying than seeing four words from your review on the back of a book. At least to me they are.

At its best reviewing is a conversation between readers. At its worst, it is the regurgitation of press releases and a hard sell.

Authors have many different venues by which they can get criticism. And while authors are becoming more and more responsible for doing their own publicity and I do understand how frustrating that must be at times, they shouldn’t try to co-opt reviewers into being responsible for saying snappy things that will move copies off the shelves and servers and into people’s homes and e-readers.

I am also troubled by authors offering free copies of their books to readers in exchange for reviews. The implication there is that in return for the free book, you will say something nice about it in public or refrain from saying anything at all. The only time I think it’s okay for an author to offer copies directly to readers for review is if they are explicit about expectations and that expectation should always include the possibility that the reader did not like the book.

Review copies from publishers are a little bit easier to negotiate–there’s distance from the author and while the publisher is hoping for a positive write-up there is definitely less chance of blowback onto the reviewer, at least from the publisher and author’s direction.

Probably 70-80% of my reading material over much of the last decade has been in the form of review copies and I’ve written close to 600 reviews during that time. And there have absolutely been times when I’ve felt that I should “be nice”—because the book was advertised in the magazine, because I liked the author personally, because the author had a longstanding relationship with the magazine, because I didn’t want to deal with potential fall-out, because I was writing for an audience where niceness is the accepted form of public social discourse.

And then, after a while, I noticed other things: more and more often, I found myself selecting books that I knew I would probably like over those I knew I wouldn’t—so my average rankings were starting to creep upwards. I was challenging myself less. I felt like my writing was become flatter and more formulaic. I simply wasn’t enjoying the reading or the writing anymore. And that is when I knew it was time for something to change. And that change is this website.

I would like this post to be the start of a conversation–what do you think the role of reviewers should be? What kind of landscape do you think readers should encounter when they look for a book to read? I welcome responses from everyone involved in the peculiar transactions that are reading and writing–this is something that concerns everyone who loves books.