Who should write reviews?

An interesting article here on an interview with John Grisham, writer of legal thrillers. Some of the things mentioned:

He got 15 rejections before his first book, “A Time to Kill,” was published.
He made $9 million last year.

He says: “I’m not sure where that line goes between literature and popular fiction.(…)I can assure you I don’t take myself serious enough to think I’m writing literary fiction and stuff that’s going to be remembered in 50 years. I’m not going to be here in 50 years; I don’t care if I’m remembered or not. It’s pure entertainment.”

And I like this point:

“When I start getting good reviews, I worry about sales (…) It’s a better day if I don’t read any reviews. It’s the only form of entertainment where you’re reviewed by other writers. You don’t see rock stars reviewing each other’s albums, and you don’t see directors reviewing each other’s movies.”

What do you think – ought we ban fellow writers from doing reviews? Hmmm…..


Who should write reviews? — 11 Comments

  1. I think you must recognise that there are reviews and reviews.

    Reviews such as published in major newspapers etc have nothing to do do with how good a book is. Those reviews are a marketing tool, often by paid writers and paid for by the publishers (in cases where books get special attention). In this case, the writer of the review had better not say anything too critical, or he/she will bite the hand that feeds them. The only thing such reviews do are alert the potential reader that a book is out.

    When I am looking for something to read I will use (in order of preference):
    1. My own judgement (did I like the previous book by that author – do I like the info on the blurb – I will have a quick squizz at the style, too)
    2. Word of mouth (a friend of mine who usually likes similar things to what I like has read the book and recommends it)
    3. Informal reviews (given by people with no vested interest – just ordinary readers posting on their blogs for example)
    4. Truly independent review sites (who do not pay reviewers and whose reviewers at least give the appearance of not wanting to butter up the authors)

    So in short – I don’t really care who writes the formal reviews. Whoever you get to do them – as long as these people are paid for their work, their review will always serve their employer, just like those little recommendations on front covers. I wish publishers wouldn’t disturb their pretty covers with them. There are only so many superlatives in the English language. After a while, they all sound cheap.

  2. Absolutely not.

    One of the reasons I gave up doing Emerald City was because it became clear to me that a few words of recommendation on a famous author’s blog would do far more good for a book that me spending a couple of hours writing a review.

  3. Patty – not sure that I think you are right – in my experience, major newspapers do not get paid directly for their reviews! On fact it is the despair of at least one of my publishers that it is so hard to get sff reviewed at all in the newspaper. Reviewers are paid by the newspaper, and the newspapers often don’t regard readers of novels as a particularly important sector of their buyers, so reviews are considered relatively unimportant. A generalisation I know.

    Publications like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus etc are another matter. They get their income from subscriptions. I believe Kirkus at least will accept payment to review a particular book … Whether that means they pull their punches, I don’t know. I know I have read some pretty scathing reviews. And at least one reviewer from PW stated that he had a few reviews changed – even substantially – after submitting. Why, he doesn’t know.

    Online review sites of readers are generally paid no more than the free books they get. I’ve never heard of payment being involved.

    Creating a “buzz” for a novel using a lot of money is doubtless possible, if a lot harder than for non-fiction; the intriguing thing is how a buzz starts all by itself.

    Cheryl – I would think that an author would have to be very very famous to make a difference. I would rather read a review by you any day…

    The bad thing about novelists reviewing other novelists is this: frequent reviewing should mean that there would be the occasional unfavourable review. And that sets the reviewer up for having his own work slammed in revenge. So usually if the reviewer doesn’t like a book, they won’t review it. Which is a sort of self-censorship that is annoying to the reader.

  4. Glenda: No, you don’t have to be that famous. I suspect that a Scalzi will be more effective than a VanderMeer, but even Jeff is at least an order of magnitude more valuable than me.

    Look at Patty’s list. You might see me as a friend (ie a 2), but to Patty Emerald City is at best a 4, and probably not even that after people staring spreading stories about my taking bribes. Simply by stopping doing formal reviews and just making the occasional recommendation in the Mewsings I’m back up to a 3.

    And here’s the rub. If an author has a popular blog and interacts well with her fans, then those fans will see the author as a friend, which will put the author at #2 on Patty’s list.

    So thank you very much for your vote of confidence, but while you might enjoy reading my reviews they don’t do a lot of good.

  5. I do not give much weight to book reviews of any form because most reviewers have agends of some form.
    They are either biased, have a grudge against some authors, are literature snobs, tools of the publishers, friend of the author, deeply religious, fanatical fans of certain authors who flame the “pretenders” or are just plain ignorant of a good read.

    My reading choice is very close to Patty’s preference. Some authors earlier works can be a bit ordinary but improve greatly in subsequent releases while a few authors have instant success with their first book.

    Each reader (and reviewer) has their own preferences and tastes in what they consider to be a good book.

  6. I have published, and I have paid to get my books featured. I agree with your that a general review (where your book is lumped with all other reviews) doesn’t cost anything except a free copy, but if you want to be sure your book is reviewed, or you want to give it more than standard coverage, you (the publisher) have to fork out. So IMO those reviews are compromised.

    I do agree with you about the retaliating aspect. This is why I suppose reviews by authors of other authors are all so boringly bland and uninformative. Read this book, it’s the best I ever read. Oh yeah – pull the other one. That’s not a review. As I said, these are publication notices. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but I don’t think authors and/or publishers should be surprised that such ‘reviews’ generate little new interest (as in readers who haven’t read this author before). That, I am certain, is mostly done by word of mouth and informal channels. Attend a con or two. Cultivate relationships with readers and have an interesting blog.

  7. Who buys books? Readers surely and libraries. As a reader, I don’t give a damn what is said about the book by reviewers, all I want is a good introductory synopsis of the story on the cover, not to know that someone else (unless I know them) enjoyed the book. If advertising is required, advertise, but reviewing is, to me, a waste of time.

  8. These comments have been rather depressing reading.

    I love a good review and a good reviewer (i.e. someone who really understands how to review a book) – which is why I enjoyed Emerald City so much. There are too few such around.

    I have never paid for a review, never begged anyone to review me, never said to a fellow author “you review/blurb me and I’ll review/blurb you” and as far as I know none of my publishers have either. I have never been asked by another author to do those things either.

    Those little recommendations on the covers? My UK publisher saw that Kate Elliott (whom I have never met) wrote on her blog that she enjoyed my writing, and asked her to blurb my new book, which she did. Similarly, Trudi Canavan (also unknown to me at the time) came by The Aware in a roundabout way by someone who was asked to blurb it, and didn’t have time to read it, so passed it on to her. I heard though someone else that she loved the book and decided to blurb it. (Note that the first person would not blurb it without reading it – which would be easy enough if it was simply a matter of choosing a few superlatives!!)

    So I find what you guys are saying very very depressing, and not – as far as I know – true. (Although it may sometimes be.)

    A truly good reviewer does not just say “I loved/ hated this book because-“, they will tell you whether YOU will like it. Not easy. And I find it sad that such people are not appreciated.

  9. Glenda,

    I am sorry that you find this depressing, and I do not doubt the sincerity of people who do enjoy a particular book, but picture yourself in the shoes of a bewildered average book buyer in a bookshop, not knowing too much about authors and certainly not knowing any of them personally.

    There are 100’s of books on the shelf, and one after the other screams at the poor buyer ‘the most stunning/amazing/heartbreaking story you’ll ever read.’ So after having read three such recommendations and noticing a distinct similarity to them, the poor buyer goes ‘yeah – right’ and chooses the book that appeals most to him/her for personal reasons, whatever they are.

    As for the cover recommendations, there have been, and probably still are, cases of reciprocal deals, so I think readers are correct in being a little wary of them.

    Reviews: IMO a good review should outline the story, so the reader can decide whether or not to try the book on that basis. Unfortunately, reviews in major newspapers rarely cover that aspect, and are much more about whether or not the reviewer enjoyed the book.

    Some review sites are good, but yeah, being in the SFF community, I usually know what I want to read before it’s out, so I don’t need the reviews.

    I didn’t really mean to make you feel depressed. I still read the books, I just go about finding out about them in a different way.

  10. Cover blurbs and excepts from reviews are a minefield. Some authors are very conscientious about doing blurbs, others much less so. I’m not surprised that readers pay little attention to them, because it takes quite a bit of experience tell which ones are worth taking note of.

    As for extracts from reviews printed on book covers, they can be very misleading. It is entirely possible that the reviewer wrote, “the publicity for this book claims that it is Smith’s best book by far, but that’s complete nonsense” only to find herself quoted as describing the book as, “Smith’s best book by far”. You have to be very careful what you write, because publisher PR people will twist it.

    An outline of the plot is not a review, it is a synopsis. If that was all that was required, there would be no need for reviewers. (And perhaps there isn’t.)

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