Saturday, October 17, 2020

Snake Oil: Book reviews

What makes a good book review? Do you read reviews before you buy or read a particular book? Or do you read some reviews when you've finished reading the book? Maybe a little of both. Do book reviews influence your decision to purchase/read a book? Do you trust book reviews? Do you write reviews? Why or why not?

Despite predictions to the contrary, the book industry continues to thrive. Bricks and mortar book shops perhaps not, but there is no shortage of books being written, published, read and reviewed. In fact, in the 21st century, the digital publishing age, there are more books available than ever before. Many readers have switched to e-books only, but most use both paper and screens while only a few remain resistant to the use of technology. 

Book reviews are coveted by writers as one of the most effective weapons in their marketing arsenal. This is not only because they are usually free, but because they are personal. Advertisers are always targeting you, even if you belong to a specific demography, they are still trying to sell something to you. It's the power of a personal invitation, a personal call to notice what is missing in your life and recognize from where, or from whom that need can be met. A book review is no different to any other sales pitch. 

What makes a good review?

I've been a member and a reasonably active user of Goodreads since 2009. I've read and reviewed 328 books in that time. I also have an author page. I always try to keep my reviews quite short because I'm a fan of being succinct. I write like I shop. When I shop alone, I know what I want, I go and buy it and then I get out. When I write, I say what I have to say in as few words as I need to make my point, then I finish. Sometime earlier in the year, I taught a class called What a Novel Idea during which I taught my students how to write a good book review. I did some research and found a process which I thought was very simple and very effective. In fact, I still use this style.

  • I write a brief introduction to the review, and a description of the plot or subject matter.
  • I write about the things I didn't like.
  • I write about the things I did like.
  • I write a closing sentence with a recommendation.
Do you read book reviews?

I never read reviews of books before I read the book. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, I'm afraid of spoilers, and secondly, I don't want a review to prejudice me. For example, if a review suggested there was a certain fault with the writing style of the author, I would read the book in detective mode. This would detract from my possible enjoyment of the book. Finally, I have a general suspicion of book reviews. 

On the other hand, I often read some reviews after I finish because I'm interested in other people's opinions. I'm especially interested in hearing different perspectives on what I read. Themes I may have not considered, features of the story or the characters which I missed or didn't think relevant. Stuff like that.

Do you trust book reviews?

I think there are an impossible number of five star books on the market. If it looks like a duck and quacks like one, it's probably a duck. The preponderance of five star reviews looks and sounds like snake oil. I mentioned earlier that I've read and reviewed 328 books in the eleven years since I joined Goodreads. Among that number, less than 10% have received five star reviews. Three stars is a good read, a recommended read, a quality read in my opinion. Four stars is next level: now I'm impressed. It's a cut above. Five stars is the kind of book which frequently stopped me in my tracks, astounded by the brilliance of literary expression. Five stars means it made me feel something to the extent I actually laughed or cried. Or even felt anger or real suspense coupled with an elevated heart rate. Of the books below, only two received a 5 star review from me.


I could be simply a hard marker, or lots of people are super easily impressed, or...these reviews are rubbish. Snake Oil. Call me a cynic, but in the era of the e-book and POD publishing, competition for readers is fierce and five star reviews glitter like gold.

Do you write book reviews? Why or why not?

Especially for unknown writers like myself, I want to help, so I write general positive, but honest reviews for books I rate at three stars and above. If the book is not going to make the cut, I won't review it, but I will reach out to the author with some constructive criticism. If the author is famous or dead, or both, I don't feel the review has as much clout. Certainly not with the author and probably not with any of that author's fans. Neither a good review or a bad review is likely to be noticed. So why do it? Just to join the vox populi? Out of habit? Yes and yes, but also writing a review helps me to remember what I want to remember about that book.

I always ask people who buy my books to review them, but very, very few do. I guess by faithfully reviewing all the books I read, I'm making myself more comfortable with requesting others to do that for me. So now, you're wondering why I care when I said earlier in this post that I thought reviews were generally not trustworthy, and in my case had no impact at all on my decision to read a particular book or not. Again, it's probably my wave of making sure that when I criticize others for snake oil book reviews that I maintain my integrity by writing genuine ones.

How would you answer my opening salvo of questions? I'd love to hear your views.




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