Reading is an extremely personal experience. A book can be a waste of time for one reader, yet the same book can have the power to change the course of someone else’s life. Why then should people spend precious time of their short lives reading other people’s opinions on an experience that is supposed to be unique to the individual? Why do authors and literary agents fret over bad reviews and praise great ones?
Rosemary Clement-Moore, 2009 RITA Award winner for Best Young Adult Romance and of author Texas Gothic, believes book reviews do serve an important purpose. “Reviews can be great when you’re on the fence about whether to buy a book or not,” says Clement-Moore, “to get an idea of the feel or mood of a book.” However, she does have a warning for avid book review readers. “But I hope readers don’t automatically look at a star/no star review without paying attention to what people are actually criticizing. If someone says, this romance was really silly, and it’s a madcap romantic comedy, well, it could be that the book is what it’s supposed to be, and the reader doesn’t care for that particular flavor.”
New York Times bestselling author of The Eternal Ones series, Kirsten Miller, shares the same opinion. She believes book reviews and book reviewers help readers navigate in a market inundated with thousands of books published every year. “A good reviewer will help direct the reading public to those that are most deserving of the public’s time and money—while steering readers away from books that aren’t worth the paper on which they’re printed,” says Miller. “A good reviewer will also call attention to great books that might otherwise get lost in the hubbub surrounding the latest Steven King novel or the addiction to the Divergent series.”
However, both authors hesitate attributing importance to book previews or mini book reviews on back covers. Rather than evaluate a work, they advertise. Miller admits, “I often rely a great deal on back cover copy to give me a sense of what the text has to offer. But I would never expect it to provide an honest critique of the book’s merits.”
What constitutes a good book review? Clement- Moore said, “I think it’s really helpful (though not necessary) to give some comparison, like “I think people who like John Green would love this book,” or, “This book is like if Nancy Drew had superpowers. But what is more important is to use words that give the tone of the book.” And to recap she advised, “Be honest, be specific, and be descriptive. Think about the potential reader of the book. Who would like it? And remember that critical is not the same thing as cruel.”
Kirsten Miller also contributed to the advice with a similar sentiment. “From an author’s point of view, I would prefer to be reviewed by someone with intelligence, honesty and charity. The importance of the first two traits is fairly obvious. But charity is just as key. So many reviews are needlessly cruel. Few writers ever set out to cheat or annoy their readers, and writing is a terribly difficult profession. If you dislike a book, that’s fine. Just remember that book may represent years of someone’s life—as well as his or her hopes and dreams. Critique the book, but don’t eviscerate the author.”
And certainly book reviews are not the only factor that affects how many readers will get attracted to a literary work. In response to the question of what makes a work attractive, Clement-Moore cleverly answered, “If I knew the answer to that, I would be living in a castle next to J.K. Rowling. But honestly, we’re talking about human beings, and it’s impossible to predict what’s going to hit. The marketing departments put a lot of time and energy and money into trying to figure this out, and they can only do so much.”
However, one tool that can push book sales sky high is word of mouth. Clement-Moore uses the book Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L James as an example. “Look at Fifty Shades of Grey. That book was self-published, had no publicity other than the people who read it when it was Twilight fan-fiction. But word of mouth made it into a sensation. It wasn’t new (erotic romance has been around for a long time) but all the hype made it SEEM new, because people who didn’t read romance were all, ‘You have to read this, oh my gosh.’”
So all in all, book reviews give a wide range of audience a glimpse of what a book is about and serve to help sway undecided consumers. They can be thought of as the literary equivalent of food samples at Sam’s Club. If you like it, you’ll buy the product. If you don’t, you’ll politely pass. The abundance of blogs on the Internet – Bookish, Writer of Wrongs, BookCatPin, KinnaReads, etc. – prove that there is definitely an appetite for book reviews, but this isn’t to say someone else’s opinions should dictate whether you should choose a book or not. But if you’re looking for something new, debating on a book, or just wanting to check out what people are saying about the recent releases, those reviews are definitely worth checking out.
Image Credit: Johannes Jansson via Wikimedia Commons