Friday, March 9, 2012

Read Any Good Book Reviews Lately?

Book reviews are of vital importance to the publishing industry. Readers need someone to be their advocate--aid them in making informed consumer decisions. And authors deserve to be given a fair shake through the sieve of opinion. But to be frank, not all book reviews are helpful.

I'm sure you've noticed by now that reviews can vary drastically from person to person. Just about anyone can sign up for an account on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, or Goodreads--there are no competency qualifications beyond figuring out how to register. And so, the quality of reviews can vary from eloquent and thorough essays, to the ever rousing: "THIS BOOK SUCKS!!!!!!!"

There are a number of reasons why I decided to become a book reviewer:

I was already doing a good deal of reading, and the chance to be one of the first to read an up-and-coming book had a certain appeal to me. As did the prospect of discovering a new author whose style I might particularly enjoy. And then there's the perk of expanding my personal library and feeding my addiction...

While I was initially concerned that reviewing might become yet another time-sucker -- devouring precious minutes I could instead devote to my own work -- I've discovered along the way that my writing has benefited from the investment. On default, reviewing trained me to dissect and study what I was reading. Picking out the strengths and weaknesses in other people's works has gone a long way toward taking off the blinders--helping me review my manuscripts with more objectivity. I'd heard that reviewing could have this effect, but now, I can vouch for it personally. If you're looking for a way to strength your writing, consider reviews as a possible tool for honing your craft.

(And don't worry! If you're afraid of losing friends and alienating people with your honesty, however mild and well-intended, there is always the option to review under a separate moniker. :) )

When I started out reviewing books, I kept a pen handy and marked my place with a blank sheet of paper. As I went, I'd jot down any notes or thoughts that I was even remotely tempted to write in the margins. I then used a few personal guidelines when it came time to organize my accumulated commentary. I put them together after reading countless reviews--trying to determine what made them either helpful or useless to my ultimate book purchase decision.

#1. I will not limit my review to one or two sentences.

I almost always end up ignoring excessively short reviews. Whether they be glowing endorsement, or venomous denouncement, they tend to be emotionally charged and unlikely to express what people actually need to know.

#2. I will avoid extremes in rating, unless I REALLY meant it.

1-star and 5-star ratings have always made me a little suspicious. Okay, a LOT suspicious. Whenever someone raves/rants of how a book was the best or worst piece of literature they've ever laid eyes on, a snarky little voice in the back of my head goes, "Really? And just how vast is your pool of reading experience?" Yes, that would be the little voice I have to (and should) switch off when I get down to doing my own reviews. Ah, tact...the final frontier. >.>

In my mind, everybody gets 1 free star just for finishing and publishing the book. They get another automatic star if they've had enough respect for readers to have the book edited in any credible capacity. All additional stars must be earned, preferably in 1/2 star increments, through prose, plot, finesse, emotional conveyance, guile, etc. It's pretty rare that I hand out a 5 star rating to anything that isn't in some way a classic. (For the most part, you need to be dead and/or happen to have the last name of Tolkein, Lewis, Bronte', Herbert, or Lee. I assure you, it's nothing personal!)

#3. I will justify my rating without giving away the ending.

Spoilers. I sometimes have to let a minor one slip here and there--particularly when I'm taking issue with logic or consistency points. I might even express my rapture or dissatisfaction with the story's sense of closure. But I have no desire to be 'that goober' who ruins the mystery for everyone.

Those were my basic rules of review conduct, up until I took an extensive 3 week workshop on the art of book reviewing. (Many thanks to Lowcountry Romance Writers! ) Since then, I've been able to add a bit more structure to my methods. My new and more comprehensive modus operandi looks something like this:

Hook + Summery + Analysis + Closure = Book Review

The breakdown:

-A hook statement, fact, quote, etc.--draws readers in and, in a more professional capacity, can potentially give authors a snippit to work with later in their promotions. (Unless, of course, I don't have especially positive feelings about the book overall. Then I will likely be more bland with the opener.)

-A quick summary of content, preferably without repeating what is readily available in the book blurb.

-An analysis of the writing itself (comments and criticisms), providing a detailed evaluation along with justifying examples. The goal being to touch on at least half of the following: Plot, descriptive elements, dialogue, target audience, grammatical & editing elements, characterization, character development, conflict, pacing, prose, flow, and point-of-view.

-A closing statement serves to tie everything together. This is also an opportunity to supply one last encouraging push of recommendation or, in some cases, regretful warning.

Given everything I've picked up recently, I think I have a few old reviews to go back and adjust. Ah, well. We learn by doing. :)

Tell me about how book reviews affect you! Do reviews have any bearing on how you decide to spend your time and money? Where do you like to get your reviews?