Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Best Reviews Money Can Buy

A New York Times feature article in the Business section of Sunday’s edition reports of the appearance of a new service industry--providing rave book reviews online for authors needing publicity to boost sales. This development raises a bunch of issues this blogger feels obliged to address. As someone who has reviewed books regularly for more than a decade—hundreds of customer reviews at amazon and lots more here on this blog—I have a few rules about reviewing.

One of them is never to accept compensation for reviews I’ve written. I also routinely turn down offers to write reviews for pay at online publications. The only payment I occasionally accept is a free copy of the book I’ll review, either paper or an ebook. And I don’t agree or offer to write a favorable review in exchange for that free copy or any other consideration.

The reasons for this should be obvious. But apparently they aren’t to a lot of people. So I’m using this space to clarify some of the rules I try to follow when reviewing a book.

When I’m reading a book to review, I read every word of it. Seems only fair. That means not skimming or skipping through or not finishing.

If I make a judgment about something in a book, I clarify it by giving examples. Otherwise, a reader can’t know for sure what I’m saying. “Exciting,” for instance, will mean something different to nearly everyone without a for instance or two.

I don’t use a single standard of judgment. Instead, I evaluate a book against what the writer seems to have set out to accomplish. A historical novel about the West, for instance, should show an effort to be historically accurate. A mystery should really keep me guessing to the end.

I look for “added value.” In a novel, that may be some ingenuity and originality, even if it’s constrained by the requirements of a genre. It could be ironies and unexpected plot turns. Humor. Really, a gift of any kind.

I’m not trying to sell books. Instead, I want the reader to get enough of an idea of a book to decide whether it’s for them or not. If it’s slow paced, for instance, I’ll say so and explain how that works for the story, but I won’t pretend every reader is going to love it.

As a former teacher, I tend to use a review to expose readers to different ways of enjoying fiction. Someone reading just for the storyline can miss a lot of the art that a good writer brings to the craft of storytelling. I think of these as “pleasures of the text” and try to raise readers’ awareness of them.

I don’t believe in giving stars. Never mind that amazon requires them and goodreads encourages them. Someone gives a book five stars, and I’m thinking, “Compared to what?” Similar books? Books currently in print? All books ever written? An ideal book? Some general standard? The current best sellers? The literary canon? The reviewer’s favorite authors? Shakespeare? John Grisham?

I know, stars are important for authors’ sales, but when The Great Gatsby can get a one-star review at amazon, you know they don’t mean much for the serious reader.

I don’t review books I don’t like. For me, four or five stars mean: “Don’t know about you, but I got a lot of enjoyment from this book.” And surveying my reviews at amazon, you’d find almost nothing but four- and five-star reviews. I prefer not to bad mouth a book that wasn’t written for a reader like me in the first place.

To be honest, I just want to help books find the readers they deserve. I don’t bother with bestsellers. They don’t need my help. So you’ll often find me reviewing books that haven’t had their 15 minutes of fame. They may even be out of print. Like introducing two good friends, you believe book and a certain kind of reader would enjoy getting to know each other.

So, no, I don’t take money for my reviews. Payment cancels out all of the legitimate reasons for taking the time to write and publish them. Worse, it destroys the integrity of the reviewer. If Orwell were here, he'd probably add that when words are grounded in falsehood, damage is done to language itself. As writers, we should care about that.

Finally, I’d like people to think, Scheer will be honest with them. He’ll expect you to make your own choices, but you can trust what he says. It's an aspiration not easy to achieve, I know, but like the frontier cowman’s code of ethics, I want my word to mean just that and nothing less.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer (1906)


  1. Excellent post. And I think you have succeeded in the aim stated in your last paragraph. After reading your detailed and thoughtful posts here for a long time, a review from you means a lot.

    I found a lot to think about in your guidelines, too. I have been occasionally frustrated with vagueness in customer reviews that doesn't give you a clear idea of what a book is like, yet I know I've been guilty of similar vagueness myself! And I've occasionally felt the limitations of the star system. I've given lots of books that I enjoyed four stars (really-liked-it, as Goodreads puts it) and yet there are finer shades of liking a book; I didn't respond exactly the same way to every four-star read.

  2. Great post, Ron.

    I think this entire "scandal" raises a lot of issues about how the whole reviews-for-attention model has kind of made a mess of publishing. I don't see any difference between paying for positive reviews and having a legion of friends/followers post 5-star reviews whether they've read the thing or not. Or, "review this book and get entered into a drawing to win a free gilded copy of the next book!" contests. I'm not passing judgment on these activities; writers, especially self or indy-published ones, almost HAVE to do things like this just to compete. But it's a busted model at places like Amazon where some wag giving one star reviews to books (they likely didn't read) because they showed up late in the mail has the same impact as someone who actually read and loved a book.

  3. You are staying with the grand tradition of evaluating a literary work on its merit, which is done as a service to readers and prospective buyers. That lies at the heart of integrity in reviewing. That used to be the norm, but those days seem to be sliding away. A critic I deeply admire is Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. A look at his fine reviews illuminates what good reviewing should be. And here you are, lucidly reviewing titles in the same fashion. My deepest appreciation.

  4. Glad to know there are reviewers with integrity out there. Paid reviewing is too much like bribery for my tastes.

  5. well said, man. I'm probably not as thorough as you are in reviews but I dont take compensation either, other than occassionally a copy that someone sends me. .I don't always review those I'm sent, though, or feel I should review them positively.

  6. I fear the revelations about book reviews also pertain to reviews of other goods as well as services. I think have developed sensitivity to the likely fake reviews on Amazon (and not just books but all the other junk readily available there), on-line shoe purveyors like Zappos (recently purchased by Amazon), as well as sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, that do not make their money from commercial vending . When all the reviews of an item start to sound remarkably alike, that's a signal to ignore them. What a shame, good user/reader reviews are so valuable.

    Your reviews continue to be meaningful and interesting, and your integrity shines through without need for explanation.

  7. Your reviews are always a pleasure to read, and after reading a review, a reader darn well knows what the book is about, plot, writing, etc.

  8. Good post and I'd thought about doing something similar. I really wonder about the "scandal," however, as there are now more reviews than ever. And I wonder why no one has offered me money... just kidding, but I have been offered copies of the books and that's nice but it doesn't impact how I write the review. Like Charles, if I find it terrible, I just don't write the review.

  9. Good policies - I have very similar rules.