Saturday, 3 August 2013

Can Anyone Write a Review?

Okay, if you take the question posed by the title of this post literally, the answer is obviously yes. However, I am more concerned as to whether people understand how to write a review. It is not as easy as many may think; just a case of stating what you thought of a book and giving it some stars. There is much more to it than that.

When I joined Goodreads, like everybody, I was presented with a selection of books and encouraged to rate the ones that I had read. At first I found this to be fun, but after a while I began to notice a pattern emerge to the ratings that I was awarding, which troubled me. For example: Book A, I gave 5*. Book B, though very enjoyable, was not as good, I thought, as Book A, so I awarded Book B 4*.  Likewise, Book C was given 3* as I thought it not as good as Book B. The problem was that I was comparing the books against each other and not judging them solely on their individual merits. If Book C had been ranked independently, it would certainly have been worth greater than the 3* that I gave it. The problem was that I downgraded it, because I was bulk reviewing, a process, which I now realise does not work at all.

We can still rate individual books, though, can't we?

Well, this is where the tricky part comes in. I will use a hypothetical example. Say that I have a friend who is a big fan of Epic Fantasy novels. He loves a good swords and sorcery storyline, but I my myself, find them to be a bore. A real turn off. However, when my friend recommends such a book to me, thinking that it is so good that it will convert me to the genre, I give him the benefit of the doubt and agree to read it. The book has received 130 reviews on Amazon with an average score of 4.86 and does seem to be one of the best of its kind.

I read the book and I hate it. It simply reconfirms to me why I find the genre so terrible. If I had to give it an honest review based on what I thought, it would be along the lines of this:

"A terrible story. The plot was unbelievable and incredibly dull. I will not be reading any more books in this genre ever again." 1*

Now, is the above fair? Of course it isn't. It may be my honest opinion, but it also one that I should really have kept to myself. It is of no use to potential readers. A better comment would have been to state that I was not a fan of the genre, but read it on a recommendation from a friend in a hope to convert me. It did not and therefore I believe that whilst people who enjoy this kind of book would no doubt love it, anybody who does not normally read Epic Fantasy should give it a miss.

The comment is still honest and it no longer unfairly implies a bad book. However, there is still a major problem with this review. How many stars should be attached to such a comment? I cannot give it a 4 or 5 because I genuinely did not enjoy reading it. To give it 1 or 2 would be morally wrong, as it is a very well written book with a large fan-base. The conclusion that I have come to, is that I should simply not review the book in question.

I have noticed that many respected reviewers often give 4 or 5 stars to a book. Does this mean that they really like everything that they read? Are they being generous? The truth is that they are merely being selective in what they recommend. That is what somebody thinking of posting a review needs to bear in mind. A review is a recommendation. They are often the make or break factor as to whether a potential reader will become an actual reader. Many reviewers use the process to recommend books that they like and are not interested in talking abut the ones that they do not.

Does this lead to books only getting 4 or 5 star reviews?

In theory, this could happen, but is that such a bad thing? In a perfect world the good books would come with informative reviews to help us to decide whether to read and the bad books, well, they will languish in anonymity where they belong. Of course, this is not a perfect world and there are always authors who will get friends and family to post unjustly glowing reviews and sometimes even pay unethical reviewers to write what they want them to write.

I do not have the answers to the above problem. All that I have control over is my own choice to post a book review or not. When I make that decision, I will bear in mind that the author has put a lot of effort into writing their book and as a common courtesy, they deserve somebody to put a lot of thought into what they say about their book. And as the song goes, sometimes "you say it best, when you say nothing at all".

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  1. Ratings and reviews are different things.
    An author friend of mine has 156 5 star reviews, all of which are one liners like 'could not put it down', 'best book ever'.None of them even mention the plot or say why it is good.
    Those reviews mean nothing and I think almost everyone will recognise them as pointless marketing exercise. People are not fooled into a cheap trickery like that.
    A glowing review has to have substance and we all can figure out quite easily how genuine and credible what's been written really is.
    It may bring up the rating average but for anyone who looks closer this has probably an adverse effect because they feel they are being lied to.

    In a good review a lot can be said between the lines and a lot is said by what is not being mentioned.

    1. I agree. I used an example of how poorly considered negative reviews are meaningless, but I too have come across 5* reviews that are counter productive. I once came across an author who bragged about the number of 5* reviews that they had received, but when I checked, quite a few had the same comment attached to the 5* - "the author gave me a free copy of this book in exchange for a review". What is the point?

      At the other end of the scale, I have seen 1* - "I do not have time to read this book"

      I suppose that the reviews are indicative of self publishing as a whole. There are some real gems out there that offer a great deal of value to both author and reader (both benefit from a well thought out and informative review. The author from the sale and the reader from discovering the book), but we sometimes have to sift through a lot of rubbish to get to them.