A Reviewer’s Manifesto

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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October 17, 2012

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.

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16 Comments

  1. Mris

    I make it clear to the publishers who send me books that a) a free book does not guarantee a review, and b) a review does not guarantee a positive review. On the rare occasions when authors send me copies personally, same deal. I do try to let readers know what the book was doing, not just “ICK,” in case they want what it was doing. The other thing that skews for me is that I am not professionally a reviewer, and I don’t finish books I hate unless they’re doing something fascinating. And I don’t review books I don’t finish. This occasionally runs me into moments of regret when I see, for example, my mother-in-law giving things one-star ratings on her Good Reads account, and I think, “Oh, honey, you should have asked, I could have told you to avoid that.” But I really don’t think it would be fair of me to make posts like, “I hated the first two pages of this and see no reason why you should subject yourself to even that much,” when the next 350 pages of it might be brilliant.

    • Natalie

      I really enjoy reading your reviews because you do try to go into what the book was doing and whether or not it worked for you. There’s also something very matter of fact about your reviewer-voice that I like, too.

      I think it’s tremendously unfair to write a review of a book you weren’t able to finish without disclosing that you weren’t able to finish it–I have a few DNFs in my GoodReads account and I make it clear that I wasn’t able to finish the book and why. I haven’t formulated a clear policy for myself here about DNF books–I suppose it’s going to be determined by the reasons for DNF. DNF due to boredom is different from DNF because of rapeyness, I think.

  2. Nicole

    So, you know I’m on the author end of this right now. Particularly for small publishers, the author IS the one contacting reviewers/book bloggers, not the publisher. Because of that, our attitudes about the role of a reviewer may differ a bit. Maybe. Even though I do see book reviews as PR for my work (in a sense), I don’t hand out advance copies of my novel expecting good reviews in return. Yes, that would be perfectly fantastic if it happens, but my expectation is honesty. My goal as a writer is to get my novel into the hands of someone who will love it. That won’t happen if a reviewer gives a false-positive review. All it will do is schnooker a reader who doesn’t enjoy thrillers or doesn’t dig the way I write to read my book…and then what? That doesn’t do anyone any good. Maybe I get some sales out of it, but it doesn’t earn me any credibility as a writer and it doesn’t earn me a group of readers who enjoy what I do. It also wastes a reader’s time and money, and it spoils the credibility of the reviewer.

    The bottom line is that I am not naive enough to think that every reviewer is going to love my novel. I have a thick enough skin to live through a bad review. Even a scathingly nasty review (and I am of the opinion one can dislike something violently without being a dick about it). I don’t need reviews to bolster my ego as a writer. But because reviews can be useful for title and name recognition, I do think of them as helpful for marketing. Does that make me the enemy of the reviewer or does that mean I come down on the wrong side of things? I hope not.

    • Natalie

      I don’t think you’re on the wrong side of things at all. From your perspective, reviews are definitely a way to get your name out there–the more reviews you can point at, the better! Reviews are certainly a tool that can be used for PR and in this world where authors are supposed to market their books in addition to writing them, they are valuable. But they’re not FOR authors. I think a lot of times the intended audience for the reviews gets lost in these discussions. I shouldn’t have had to raise my hand and bring up readers 3/4 of the way into a panel on the topic, you know?

      If I’m reviewing your book, I’m going to assume that you’re a professional and that you’re going to comport yourself as such regardless of what my opinion is of your book–and I’m going to do my best to not be a dick about it and to keep it to the book and not talk about how you knit a really ugly sweater once and how that makes you a bad person. In the end, it’s not about me and it’s not about you–it’s about the book.

      Although I will admit that I am reveling in being able to insert myself into my reviews more directly now and not have to resort to referring to myself in the third person. That gets pretty old.

    • Nicole

      :shakes fist: Damn you for bringing that ugly sweater into it! ;-p

      No, I totally agree–the review is for the reader, and it IS about the book. It strikes me this is a very Barthes-ian conversation we’re having. The author is dead, kookookachoo. Or should be, as far as reviews go, anyway. Heh!

    • donna

      Nicole, I obviously do not speak for Natalie (who would beat me senseless if I did!), but from my perspective, you are not on the wrong side of things here. Your attitude is downright refreshing.

      I spent 8 years reviewing for the same publication as Natalie. In that time, I had some, let us say, interesting experiences. Most notable was receiving a request to rewrite a review that wasn’t “positive” enough–the publisher had purchased a huge ad to promote the book. When I refused to do so, the publisher gave a second copy of the book to a second reviewer, and it was her more positive review that ran. What I’m saying is that there was an expectation from the publisher that, because a large ad was purchased, the book would be given a positive review. That, I think, is part of what Natalie is driving at here. When that sort of thing happens, it does no one any favors–not the author, not the publisher, and especially not the readers who put down cold hard cash expecting one thing and finding they’ve bought something entirely different.

      I try to be honest when I write a review. If I’ve got some issue with a book’s structure, I specifically say what it is. If I think the character development could be better, I say so. In 8 years, I can think of fewer than 5 books I didn’t finish that I ended up writing reviews for–3 of those were 600+ page epic fantasies that, because of deadlines, I couldn’t get the whole way through. The other two were so bad I simply couldn’t read them, and I was, I felt, obligated to say that anyone reading the book might struggle to finish it and why. In the end, as a reviewer, I’m with Natalie: reviews are for readers first. If an author or a publisher can use what we’ve said to market the book, that’s great too. But I feel my obligation is to the people who will pay money for the product–is it worth their time? Is it well-written, does it tell a great story, does it have some really interesting ideas, etc? That’s what I think my job as a reviewer is.

    • Nicole

      Part of why I rarely pay attention to Amazon reviews anymore is because of the practice of paying for good reviews. So your story about the publisher’s ad purchase somehow entitling them to a positive review makes me a little ragey. I have to wonder if decent reviews in some media outlets are tied to revenue of that sort, and it makes it hard to know WHO to trust.

    • Natalie

      I wasn’t shocked in the least by the recent article in the NYT about review-buying.

      I can think of two occasions where I was assigned self-published or vanity-published titles for review. Neither were very good and my reviews reflected that–I believe I gave them one star each. Neither review ran in the magazine, either, because at that time authors were given final approval of the reviews that came as part of their advertising package. I do not know if that’s still the policy but there is an unspoken pressure to be generous with books that came with advertisements. And there is no differentiation between reviews that were purchased by publishers/authors and those that were not–which always struck me as being a bit misleading.

    • Nicole

      Yeesh. That gives me the hives.

    • donna

      A BIT misleading? It’s fundamentally dishonest. As a reader, if I read a review of a book and think “Yo, that sounds good” and go out and slap 25 bucks down for it, get it home, and find out it’s been completely mischaracterized, then I’ve been cheated. I mean, you start getting into things like personal preferences here, and writing skill, and the fact that some people have actually never met a book they didn’t like, and I accept that as a reader and realize it’s a chance I’m taking when I rely on someone else’s opinion of things. But. When there’s a lack of disclosure about whether or not the publisher or author has paid for the review, well that makes a difference. Because then the publisher can say things like “I don’t like this–get someone else to write it” (which is what happened in my case) or buys and ad/review knowing full well that they’re a “friend” of the publication and aren’t going to see one negative thing about that book or any others in their stable because everyone knows where the bread and butter for publications is–it’s not in sales, it’s in advertising. It makes me want to put my fist through a wall. Because it’s not fair to the reader at all.

  3. Gar Lipow

    Hi Natalie, First time to comment on this blog.

    I have a book published by an academic publisher (Praeger Press) and so reviews are pretty much responsibility as author. Though I’m non=fiction, like some others who have comment I do have to try get reviews just so that someone hears of my book.

    I don’t expect reviews, let alone good reviews in return for a copy of my book, though naturally I hope that is mostly the result. If I offer a review copy, my expectations are:

    1) The person I off a review copy will only say yes if the topic interests then and there is a decent chance they will have time to look at it.

    2) Once they get it they will open it and apply some reasonable test to decide whether or not to read.. For example some places use the “page 69′ test. They read page 69 and if that has something worthwhile on it, they will start the book from the beginning and give it a fair chance,. There are hundreds of possible equivalent tests.

    3) If the person I sent it to reads the whole thing and finds it worth engaging with, approvingly, critically, or both I hope they will actually engage with it by writing a review – positive, negative, or in between,.

  4. Rosary

    A very interesting piece Natalie! This isn’t just a popular fiction issue. In 1996, I was the grad student Book Review Editor for an academic journal (unnamed because it still exists), and I can tell you this sort of thing happens in the academic world of reviews too. One of my tasks was to assign books to reviewers, and I always had to make sure I didn’t send review copies to experts, but not rivals. Also, the editor would sometimes want a negative review to be softened, so it wouldn’t hurt anyone’s career. The worst came when she asked me to ask a reviewer (who had beena former student of our program) to revise her review to make the review less negative because the book’s author was a friend. When between us the reviewer and I still didn’t soften it enough, the editor made her own revisions. The academic audience, of all audiences, should have fair reviews because so often research begets research.

    In a non-academic world, the reviews really need to be for readers–they are the ones who will spend the money on the text. Indeed, a reviewer’s role (to me) needs to be that of the uber-reader–someone who reads to let other readers have a heads up on where to spend their hard earned money. Unfortunately though, commoditization of the reading experience has also become popular as more and more people see blogging as a career path and see nothing wrong with selling their opinions.

    Primarily, on my blog I review whatever I want because I want to (I count it as a professional development thing). Most of the books I’ve reviewed I’ve either bought, checked out through a library, or stolen from my husband’s stash of review books that he gets from Blogcritics. He gets sent books by publishers who so far have made no demands on him even to read them. He’s lucky on that I guess, but neither of us makes any money–we review because we love books and want to share that love. That’s ultimately what reviewing should be about. (I should note I usually read reviews on Good Reads or Amazon only after I’ve read a book. I think I’ve chosen to read a book from a review in a such a place once or twice.)

    • Natalie

      Thanks for this perspective, Rosary! I had a suspicion that there were related issues in academic reviewing but, of course, since I have no experience in that arena I wasn’t comfortable saying anything in my post. I think there’s really something to be said for anonymous reviews a la Kirkus or PW–the editor can be sure to assign titles to avoid conflict of interest and since the reviewer is anonymous, they are free to be honest.

      I think “commoditization of the reading experience” is a really good way of putting it. Reviewers–especially bloggers–are starting to have a financial stake in the game and it doesn’t seem to be an unqualified good thing.

      One thing that both Donna and I are enjoying here is the freedom to read and write about whatever we want. I can’t speak for Donna in specifics, but it’s really lovely to not feel guilty for reading a romance novel or rereading something that I’ve been wanting to reread for a long time and then write up 750 or 1000 words on it. Before, I always felt guilty when I read a book that wasn’t specifically a review book.

  5. dichroic

    I agree with you that reviews are for the reader. It follows that what I want from a review is to get a sense of whether I’ll like the book, regardless of whether the reader is. So I do look at Amazon reviews, but the ones that just say “I loved this book!” or even “This is beautifully written” are useless to me. Thus I don’t care much if the review was written by a friend of the author, just what information it has. If the review says it was well written but the review itself is terribly ungrammatical, I won’t trust it. If the review says something like, “What I like about this book is that it’s really long, so I didn’t finish too fast” (some Robert Jordan reviews aren’t far from that) then I know that the reviewer isn’t rating the book on things that matter to me. But reviews that talk more about what’s in the book and how it flows are really helpful. They don’t need to be long – I’ve bought many a book from M’ris’s capsule reviews – but I want them to have content.

    • Natalie

      Oh yes–I have my own personal rubric for grading reviews, too. From one star reviews of pettiness to five star reviews of sucking up. I take a lot of the same things into account that you do, too. Sometimes the negative reviews make me want to read the book because the negative write up makes it clear that while it wasn’t the reviewer’s cup of tea that it would be mine.

  6. Ephemeral Pleasures

    Fascinating, thank you. So far, whenever acquaintances have suggested that Amazon reviews of their books or iTunes reviews of their music would be appreciated, I’ve ignored their hints – and I didn’t hate the books or music, I just felt funny about the request. As a new blogger (I mostly write about local theatre and food), I’m working at developing credibility and being interesting – and for that I need the reputation of someone who isn’t indiscriminate.

    I’ve wondered what the culture of expectations is in different genres. For example, I was flattered to be offered some comp tickets, but I wonder what it means to accept them. I know that “real” restaurant reviewers often work at being unrecognizable and pay for their own dinners, but I think that travel writers might accept perks.

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