6 Rules for Writing Book Reviews


A couple of author blogs that I follow have had some great recent posts on the role of the book reviewer. First, Mark Charan Newton weighed in with a discussion on the value of hype. And then Sam Sykes on reviewing authors on their own merits rather than through comparisons with other authors. One thing that doesn’t seem to be open for debate is that the reviewer has been yanked out of the ivory tower. No longer is the club limited to those with access to a publishing outlet. Today, anyone with an internet connection can join, and start posting reviews far and wide.

I love this egalitarian approach. It makes for an interesting precursor to what we’re likely to see happen with the book itself over the next 10 years. But as is so often lamented on this topic, quality will vary greatly. We’ll need these egalitarian reviews to help us figure out what to read as the number of books published in the English language soars past the 1-million-per-year mark. As someone who used to review books for The Seattle Times, I’ve likely thought a bit more about the subject of the book review than most.

Here’s my two cents on the essential elements of a book review:

1) It all starts with book selection. Reviewing a book puts it above the other books published by both traditional presses and independent authors. This is why I harbor such angst for Kirkus Discoveries. They’ve abdicated one of the most important roles of the book reviewer: choosing what gets reviewed. They’ve prostituted this out to anyone willing to cough up $500. There’s also the slew of review factories willing to write reviews and post them on Amazon for a fee. In some ways I find them less reprehensible though. They’re at least up front about the prostitution part of their work.

2) Read the book. Yes, the whole dang thing. It’s amazing how many reviewers–even those of the professional ilk–don’t do this. I feel that I have two options if I’m not liking a book that I intend to review. One, finish it and write the review. Two, throw it across the room and review something else.

3) Convey an impression of what the experience of reading the book is like. This is the most important aspect of the book review. People read reviews to decide if this book is worth their money, and more importantly, their time. The reading experience is intensely personal. No two readers walk away from even the same book with the same understanding of it. The most valuable thing a reviewer can do is not christen a book as good or bad–thumbs up or thumbs down–but let readers know what a book is like.

4) Review the book that’s there. The desire to review the book that the reviewer wishes was there, instead of the one that actually was written, can be huge. It doesn’t do either the author or the reader any favors. The review should demonstrate that it understands what the author set out to do, and then comment on how well this was achieved. If it’s a thriller, review it as such with plot and pacing paramount. If it’s a literary novel, look at language and style and theme. If the book is overly hyped, ignore it. If you’ve heard the author is Charles Dickens reincarnated, ignore that too. Just read the dang book and write about what’s there.

5) No spoilers. Again, this should go without saying. While a bit of summary is good, anything more than what’s revealed in the official publisher blurb is too much.

6) Understand that every review reviews the reviewer as much as what’s reviewed. A book review says as much about the person writing it, often more, than it does about the book itself. This to a large extent is why I stopped writing reviews for The Seattle Times. As I got into my own writing and came to understand how much work it is to write a novel, I came to question if I had any right to say anything at all about what someone else had written.

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