Honest reviews, better reviews


This week I’m going to address something I’ve thought about for a while. I have never written about it, however, the time seems right.

Stack of Library Books

A Twitterstorm hit last week after author Matt Haig hit out at all the positive reviews out there in Internetland. As is the usual way of things he was congratulated, ranted at and possibly threatened with a wet haddock or similar. These days you can’t have an opinion without the trolls coming out to play.

But what is so terrible about his opinion? He’s right. Well, in my opinion he’s right.

I occasionally fall into the trap of just saying how wonderful a book is… if I genuinely love it. Sometimes a book really has nothing bad you can say about it. Well done, five stars (actually I hate the star system, but that’s a topic for another day). And I hold my hands up to being selective and sometimes not reviewing the books I buy and don’t like, or just find OK. I really shouldn’t do it, but sometimes I feel life is too short to spend ages reviewing a book I hate. It also goes without saying that I will never, ever review a book I’ve worked on.

However, if I get given a book to review I will review it honestly. Whether gifted by the publisher as a review copy, or given by the author as an advance look, I will be honest in my appraisal. I feel it’s the right thing to do.

Too many five-star reviews can actually do the publishers a disservice. Whether books are sent out for review, or whether readers review for themselves, the publishers deserve an honest appraisal of their work. If everyone constantly gushes praise for a book, whether it’s good or not, how are the publishers to know if the book is actually doing its job? If they think everyone loves the book they may commission more of the same, and false praise, somewhere down the line, will result in disinterested readers or worse, ridicule.

fab wow

A lot of work goes into creating a book (and if it doesn’t you’re doing it wrong), so don’t the people who work on the book deserve your honesty? Authors give up a sizeable chunk of themselves with every book they write; despite what people may think, writing is not an easy option. It’s hard, damn hard.  But how will they grow as artists without honesty? I’m sure most would be happy with honest feedback rather than sycophantic drivel. Just because you may get your book for free doesn’t mean you have to lie.

Really, think about it… how many books are perfectly perfect?  When you review your books, be constructive. It may be difficult to dissect the text when you are carried away by the plot, or the facts are compelling in a non-fiction book, but afterwards think carefully about what you read.

Below are a few thoughts on how to create a really useful book review. I’m sure someone, somewhere has written a better guide, but here you are…

  1. Be constructive, not destructive. If the book was awful, why was it awful? What could be made better? Don’t just jump in and berate the author, explain politely and calmly where things fell down and how you feel they could be improved. If the book was wonderful, was there anything that wasn’t quite right. If it was all wonderful that’s great, but if it wasn’t don’t pretend it was.
  2. Be respectful. I suppose it’s easy for some people to wade in, be personal and be offensive. If you feel passionately, step back and go back to the review when you feel more detached. You may have spent a lot of money on the book, but don’t be nasty. That is hurtful and really, honestly won’t get you anywhere. It may backfire anyway and you will look like a fool. This also applies to authors responding to criticism… it works both ways.
  3. Look at the book as a whole. When you have finished, look at the physical item in your hand. Is it ‘right’, is the printing up to standard (or if it’s an ebook is it formatted properly), is the cover attractive to you? Next go to the contents – if it’s non-fiction is there a good index, can you easily find what you want to find, are the illustrations good quality? If it’s fiction does the story flow, are there many mistakes, does the story grab your attention?
  4. A good book review needn’t take all day. Write honestly, say what you think and not what you think the publishers want you to say.
  5. Don’t ignore the cover. Cover art is hugely important. A good cover will entice the reader, but it will also convey the feel of the story, or hint at what’s inside. Did the cover lead you to buy the book? Did the cover blurb? They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but believe me, people do!

So there you go, a few reasons why honest reviews are better reviews, and a few tips on how to write a good one.

How do you feel when you review a book? Do you feel that if a publisher gives you a book for free you have to say it’s good? Do you have problems being honest without feeling bad? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

4 Comments on “Honest reviews, better reviews

  1. I choose a lot of books from reviews and I find some are better than others, I still buy 4 or 3 star books and even the odd 2 star books, unless there is a reason that 1 star is given, and noted, and yes I have bought the occasional 1 star book! I love books and I do find the odd book that is hard to criticize which is interesting to then find the bad, but you get very picky doing it. I would try and find the better bits to comment on if I had been given it to review but I love my local book group which allows me to say how I disliked a book and wont be reading any more of it etc…

    • I like to weigh up the good and the bad points if I use a review before a purchase. Some of the 1 star reviews are for really silly reasons.
      Perhaps try to write a review as if you were talking to your book group?

  2. Sometimes I’ll put up with a book that’s bad because some aspect of it catches me 🙂 I think this too much of a good review thing happens with tarot decks also (except my reviews, naturellement 😉 ; apart from one reviewer who is notorious for slating decks with vicious reviews.

    • Yup, it happens with all sorts of things, books, tarot deck, cosmetics etc.
      Anywhere someone has the potential to get something for free you will find gushing praise where sometimes it isn’t due.

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