Yes, but is it any good? - Karen Bush

If writing a book is hard work, writing a review of one – although much shorter – can be equally difficult, presenting its own particular challenges. Most people write a review because they like a book and want to recommend it to other readers: but if you really, really hated it, please let me ask you not to write “This book stinks” even if you feel it deserves it. The ease of digital publishing may have meant that everyone can now be a published writer, but it has also given new responsibilities to online reviewers.

It takes time and practice and multiple attempts to produce your first decent book; and in the past, unless you resorted to vanity publishing, your initial scribblings were unlikely to see the light of day. They may not always have got it right but between them, agents, editors and publishers did help to weed out the not-so-good stuff, were able to suggest re-writes and improvements, checked on grammar and spelling and sorted out layouts and technical stuff.  Nowadays you can bypass all these folk: e-publishing has made it very easy to get your book out there, whether or not it is ready or even readable.

"The plot is a little light on gravy bones ..."
But we all have to start somewhere, which brings me back to the point about reviews. I was lucky enough to start my writing career back in the days of traditional publishing. I had many rejections – most were standard slips, some were returned with helpful covering letters detailing the reasons for the rejection, but all had the effect of making me work harder to produce something that was worthy of publication, and succeeded - I hope - in stopping me from being sloppy and satisfied with producing less than my best.
I trusted the knowledge of these professionals. None of the rejections contained derogatory comments: any criticisms, if occasionally blunt, were entirely constructive in nature, aiming to educate and elucidate. Nowadays, self-publishing writers miss out on this chaff-sorting process and have to rely entirely on getting all their feedback directly from readers instead: it’s not always very helpful, and sometimes can be spiteful and offensive. Hence my plea – if you don’t like a book, but feel the need to post a review of it somewhere, then make it useful. Focus on detailing what you felt to be the strengths as well as the weaknesses, giving proper reasons and not just dismissing it out of hand. Insults and lazy reviewing contribute nothing, but constructive criticism will help a writer to write better in the future.

P.S. It's my birthday this month, so a review would of course, make a nice present ...



This post should be read far and wide. It is all too easy to say 'I hated this' without even beginning to think about why. I don't post negative reviews at all these days because if I really dislike a book I don't read beyond about 50 pages and I always think it's unfair to slag something off if I haven't read it properly. As you say, thoughtful criticism can be very helpful, although I think many new authors get very hot under the collar about it. Well, let's face it, we all hate it, but the trick is to ignore it if it isn't in any way helpful and learn from it if it is. Seth Godin's maxim 'it's not for you' is quite a good one if you think criticism is genuinely unjustified. Nobody can please everybody. Sometimes, if I find myself disliking some over-hyped book I'll click on the one and two star reviews just to see if anyone agrees with me. Occasionally I've found some excellent, thoughtful piece of analysis - from somebody with well honed editorial skills - that helped me to understand what I so disliked.
Dennis Hamley said…
Couldn't agree more, Karen. There's no point in reviewing a book you don't like unless you have a criticism which is worth making. But you're not that writer's mentor, which I think is the only relationship which gives you the right to say exactly what you think, unless of course you are the actual editor. One is so powerless in the face of a bad review. Replying to it is futile and demeaning. However, many years ago I had a stinker in the Guardian. A few months later I met the reviewer in a lift - I knew it was him because it was at a conference and he had a name badge. I wouldn't let him out until he apologised. He then made the great confession - he'd been so busy he hadn't read it properly. It didn't help the book but it sure made me feel better. Sadly, such epiphanies are rare. Someone recently apologised to me for giving a book of mine only 4 stars. He said, quite reasonably, that too many 5-stars devalued the currency. In a way, that's true - but generally I only review books which I've decided are worth the full five, so I believe the crucial critical judgement has already been made in secret.
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
Dennis, I don't agree. Reviews exist primarily to serve the reader, not the writer. A good review is one which gives potential readers a sense of whether the book is for them, be the review positive, negative, or anything in between. (Personally, I'm quite happy to read so-called bad books too. There's a lot to be learned from them, and certainly some pleasure to be gained as well.)

Anyone who publishes in whatever form has to be prepared for criticism - genuine criticism, of course, not just self-serving blather if the reviewer hasn't even bothered to read the book. Once made public, a book belongs to everyone, not just the writer's personal mentor!

And fear of offending someone else does not encourage the richness of diversity.
Kathleen Jones said…
Anyone who thinks a spiteful review only exists out there in the land of trolls is mistaken - in the world of books writers use the broadsheets and the literary papers to play games the reader isn't always aware of. It's a dog-eat-dog world. I much prefer the ordinary reader who occasionally has a hissy fit, to the 'professional' reviewer with points to score.
Áine said…
Happy birthday, Karen. Your pups are adorable and obviously discerning readers. For which one would you like a review?
Lydia Bennet said…
good points Karen and happy birthday when it comes! I'd like to address the stars issue again, it doesn't 'devalue' the system to give on five stars or four - I wish people would read the amazon definitions of what the stars mean - five stars doesn't mean 'this is genius, the best book ever written', it means 'Loved it!' which could apply to lots of books and many of us only choose to review books we love regardless of how many we read. There is a nasty trollish pleasure in some of these spiteful reviews, instead of the typical troll one-liner one-star, it's quite an essay in how crap the book is. If I don't like a book, I abandon it. I don't spend valuable time slagging it off on amazon. The fact they try to put others off is significant - you could say 'this didn't do it for me' but that's not enough for the nastier reviewers, who also often try to devalue all the good reviews by accusing them of being relations of the author. You could just as well distrust the nasty one for being an enemy of/envious of the author.
madwippitt said…
Thank you Aine! And any book you like - you can find them on my website (link to it is at end of the blog)

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