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)