Mar 3 2011 12:00pm

The Review-Reading Unicorn: Are Meaningful Book Reviews Just a Myth?

Reading unicorns—is that what people who read reviews are? Mystical, ever-elusive types who only exist in someone’s imagination?

I'm starting to think that, which one might think is ironic, given that I'm a book reviewer myself. But it's not. Why? Because I've been open from the start on how I feel about reviews. Generally I avoid them. Why? Too often they contain spoilers. Or at least that was my experience when I first started reading them, and I guess I take the whole “once burned, twice shy” to a whole new level. (Although obviously it happened way more than once.)

I will say, though, that every so often, when I'm really torn on a book—as in, I want it, but the author has no information about the book beyond a blurb—I'll try to hunt down some reviews (hint to authors: excerpts help!). There are a few sites I go to, and I'll skim, then make my decision.

Why am I saying this? Or why I am I saying this now? It appears to me that there are definite lines between authors/readers/reviewers that were established in the sand some time ago, and viewpoints have only become more entrenched.

It seems very few people read or care about reviews. I tried to take a different tack on it a few weeks ago on my own blog, basically asking people if they compared books they read to each other, and if they reviewed, did that factor into the review/grade at all. The magic word seemed to be “review” because most the responses I got weren't answers to my question, but how people felt about reviews.

I called it the dead horse subject every loves to beat and—that’s true, yes? Everyone claims to be sick of the topic, and you get the requisite “I'm above it all and sick of the sniping” (and inevitably such a person gives his or her opinion . . . sometimes without rising above the snark him/herself, ironically), but the point is people keep bringing it up. Again and again. And again. Ad nauseum. Post naseum. (Okay, so my Latin is rusty. If ever there even was enough to rust. But to coin my own phrase, beyond the point of disgust.)

My H&H editor asked if I'd be willing to write a post about reviews, and I, being the cheeky (and idiotic) person I am, I immediately responded, “Really?” But then . . . I couldn't get it out of my head. Also, I counted no fewer than four different links in my Twitter feed on blog posts discussing reviews. Likely there were more. We love to hate it, and discuss it.

Readers claim they don't read or care for reviews; whether it’s because they're just opinions and they already have their own opinions on books or because they don't really care and take it with a grain of salt.

Authors say they don't care about reviews and don't even check them—and you get the “tough hide” and “they're just opinions” comments as well. (Of course, these are only in response to “negative” reviews. Or shall we call them less-than-glowing ones? You never, or rarely (there's only one sensible soul out there that has ever said to me, “I don't believe or care for a glowing review if that's all the site does”) see the author complain about a “good” review. Even if every book is 50 sparklebunnies on that site. Including the one that wasn't actually edited and mistakenly put out for sale. (I don't know that this has actually happened before, but I'm sure each of us can think of one publisher where that might have happened before.)

When I first started out, I naively and idealistically thought my in-depth consideration and contemplation of the book would help people decide whether or not they would want to read a book. And an even loftier belief, that I might provide constructive criticism to an author. As you can see, I've become a jaded old thing and don't believe either really happens.

It's . . . well, it’s not fun. It's a lot of work, actually, and incredibly difficult to keep reviews fresh and new and interesting without being repetitive. You have to be specific enough to make it so each review is obviously about the book you're reviewing and only that book, yet vague enough to not give away any spoilers. It's a fine line, and the balancing act is not always successful. Then there's the tactful and intelligent aspect. If you loved a book, you have to give reasons why—and put it into words. You can't just say “ZOMG IT WAS AMAZEBALLZ! . . . KTNXBAI.” I have been tempted to do that before. Or, if you really disliked the book, you can't say “this book was a travesty and a crime against nature—I consider it murder on the part of the trees that were used to print that book.” Well, not so much can't, but it's my personal preference to not do that, for a “real review.” Snark is fun and entertaining, and draws the most hits and attention, but I'm one of those thin-skinned people, and have a personal policy of not putting anything in my review that I wouldn't be okay with someone saying to me.

I do understand constructive criticism is a part of life. Which is why I personally post the “negative” reviews. If I didn't like a book I'm not going to hide it or lie about it. Even with your best efforts, you might mess up. For example, I love cooking, but if I make something that just isn't that good, I'd be okay with people telling me that. It's difficult to not internalize the response to reviews. It's also hard not to take it personally. I get that.

On the flip side, at a workshop I attended, authors said how important reviews are. (Some who at other times have said they don't check reviews.) The workshop said readers should post reviews to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other bookseller sites. Even posting to those sites in addition to the reviewers’ own personal sites.

This seems disingenuous as well, as though someone is trying to have it “both ways” almost. You should write reviews—but I don't want to look at them or know they exist. Other than that they're there. Oh, and that they’re positive.

Let’s discuss that positive catch for a moment; the “you can't say anything mean or bad about books because the author worked really hard on it” idea.

Are you kidding me? I don't know if it's some author who led the charge on that idea, but these days it's almost readers/reviewers who are harder on each other.

You're a mean person who is obviously dissatisfied with his/her own life and inability to publish a book which is why you have to take your bitterness and vitriol out on others. *blink* Frankly, I don't think every book out there is amazingly fantastic. I do think the majority out there are okay, and probably a sound business decision, or what one thought would be. The “no criticism because hard work was put into it” dumbfounds me. I'm almost beyond livid—almost speechless.

That logic—if logic it is—just can't fly. What about the time the reviewer took to read the book? And then review it? Which I've already noted to write a “good” review (regardless of a positive or negative response to the novel), is difficult. Authors should appreciate that. (As in, understand and know.) Then there's the editor. Where's the editor's kudos? He or she worked hard on the book. (Though I'd like to note this isn't a call for editors to wade into the fray. Dear God, please don't.)

Does the person who presents that “logic” ever criticize the government? Or a corporation? Let me tell you, yes, there's some aspect of nepotism, but generally each president—regardless of party—has worked incredibly hard to get into that position. All that hard work means nobody can criticize him. That's the theory. And if you're starting to recoil . . . well then, you'd best apply that across the board. You can't pick and choose where reason works and doesn't work.

Author response is also mixed—and I'm not even talking about responding to the content of the review. (I think we can all agree that's generally not such a good idea across the board.) But do you comment or email with “thanks for reading my book?” I always wonder about those when the review grade is bad—my paranoid mind thinks “is s/he trying to shame me or make me feel bad?” Especially when it's just an average/okay grade—the whole “I'm sorry you didn't like my book.” Gah. Some readers say author comments chill speech. Others look forward to it and like seeing accessible authors.

Reviews aren't “interesting” either. So what's the point? Are you the reader unicorn? Do you care about and read reviews? Even more, do you respond to them or comment? Authors—do you ever respond to a review, not even to the content, but just a “thank you for reading my book?” How do you feel about that?

Limecello is a reader, reviewer, lawyer, foodie and discusser of all things random. You can also visit her at her blog or Twitter.

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Natasha Carty
1. WickedLilPixie
I write them and I rarely read them on other sites. Hell, I won't even read the blurb on the back of the book because I feel they give too much away! They do take a hell of long time to write & format, it's all good for an ARC but I don't think anyone wants to read a review of a book over 2 months old.

I've had authors come over & say thank you, I've had authors come over & try to change my opinion when I gave the book a negative review. Whoever said authors don't look, I don't buy it.
Lime Cello
2. Limecello
WickedLilPixie - Ooo on the last line - definitely. Otherwise, why all the anger? For "timeliness" - yes, definitely important for an ARC... but I think it's just as good, if not important, to review older books. The whole backlist effect, and all. In fact, usually I find myself trying to find reviews for older books because there's a deluge out there about newer books, but nothing on older ones, and the authors have removed all information on the older book from their website. head --> desk!
Heather Waters
3. HeatherWaters
I'll read a review if I've heard some buzz already and am interested in learning more (or am eagerly awaiting the book), or if I find the cover/topic intriguing, but other than that...yeah, I have to agree that I don't read them often. However, I have to say that I'd miss 'em if they were gone, you know? When I'm desperate for any news on a book, reviews are the first place I go.
4. MarnieColette
I write them and I read them. I read reviews all the time because that is how I learn about new authors and new stories. I take them as they are Opinions - when I am familliar with the reviewer and have taken recommendations before from them - their opinion does play into if I buy the book. I also like to see how other people feel about the book I might have already read... great discussions have ensued!

Negative and Positive reviews are both useful to me at least. Sometimes a negative review sparks my curiousity and I have to pick it up just because and yes sometimes I agree with them and sometimes not!

I really think it shouldn't be called reviewers -- because I always felt that term implied unbiased fact based review. Maybe Opinionater of Books ...
Susanna Fraser
5. Susanna Fraser
I don't know who these authors who don't look are, because I certainly haven't met any. I look. I've been lucky enough to not get any truly negative reviews yet (though I'm sure my time will come!). I wouldn't try to change a reviewer's mind, because what's the point? I'd only challenge a review if it contained a MAJOR factual error--like, if some reviewer said my setting details seemed all wrong for a book set in 1899, I might gently ask them if they'd misread the header in Ch. 1 that gives the date as 1809.

Putting my reader hat on, I do read reviews, and have done so since before I started to write. They're one of the main ways I find out what books are out there, since my friends and family don't necessarily share my reading tastes. But it's not as simple as, "Dear Author gave this book an A, so I must buy it now," or, "All About Romance gave it a C-, so it can't be worth reading." Instead I try to figure out why the reviewer liked or disliked it, and how her tastes mesh with mine.
Amber McMichael
6. buriedbybooks
I must be a mutant. I DO read reviews. I may skim some just to get the gist, then scroll down for the overall grade. I may also just look at the title to see what's coming out, what people think in a general sense about an author.

I also think that reviews directly on bookselling sites may have more direct impact on book buying decisions. Something that has 3 stars or less on Amazon makes me less likely to buy it.

And I think reviewing older books is important, too. I will Google a book title I'm considering to get a consensus on what reviewers think.

And sites that only post positive reviews hold no value for me because it's clear they are either not at all critical in their reading or are just afraid of being mean. Neither of which is helpful when trying to avoid tropes that annoy, bad writing, or other things that might make me waste my book $.
7. JillSorenson
My favorite dead horse! *hugs beaten horse to her chest*

I love reviews. I read tons of them and write as many as I can. I think it's because I'm a newish author. I find the criticism constructive, even when it's not directed at me. I also love to try out "new to me" authors, based on thorough, articulate reviews. Maybe I'm hoping that someone else will do the same and take a chance on me. Book review karma. Reading unicorns. I believe in you!

I've responded to reviews of the positive or mediocre variety, mostly with just a thank you. I'll chime in on "discussion points" if I feel like it. I once engaged in a brief exchange over a character detail on Amazon. I mean, why not? As long as authors are respectful in our comments we should be able to express our opinions on negative reviews or anything else. The trouble comes when we act insulted or overly cheery or disdainful. Authors should remember that reviews and book discussions are a reader's space, and intrude at our own risk.
8. Melodie
I look for reviews to help make my buying decisions. I live in an area with few choices to physically look at books so most of my purchasing is e-books. When I can't pick up the book and skim through it a blurb isn't enough to decide. Most blurbs are just a random collection of marketing buzzwords anyway. When presented with thousands of nearly identical blurbs I rely on trusted reviewers to leave me a trail of breadcrumbs to the good ones. Even if they give more of the plot away I know why they liked or disliked a book and have something more to base my purchasing decision on than a glorified Tweet provided by some marketing guy who never read the book.
9. akajill
As a librarian I read professional reviews to consider books for purchase. I have learned to take some with a grain of salt (I am looking at you Kirkus!) and to trust others greatly.

For myself as a reader, I read reviews only when looking for new authors. I read so much, I hate to waste time on a bad book. Reviews aren't fool proof, of course, but they give me a hint of the plot and can be a great guide. I have learned over the years which reviewers have tastes similar to mine and if I am undecided on a book, these help a lot.

After I have read a book, I don't review it, exactly. I will offer an opinion or reaction. I don't take it apart and analyze it, but I will tell you what I personally liked or disliked in a general way. For every book there is a reader. I feel that reader has to make their own decision about a book using their personal experiences. Reviews can be one element, but they shouldn't be everything.
Laura K. Curtis
10. LauraKCurtis
I write reviews, and I read reviews, though I tend to pay more attention to negative reviews than positive ones both in reading and writing. Why? Because by the time I am at a page reading the review of a book, chances are I already *think* I want to buy it. (And yes, I am one of those weirdos who buys books because she's kind of a germaphobe about library books.) What I am looking for is not confirmation of that, it's any reason that doing so would be a waste of my money.

When I write a negative review, therefore, I try to be very specific about the things that I don't like. After all, someone else may not care about grammatical errors. Massive coincidence may not bother some readers. Plots that hinge on big misunderstandings may not cause dents in other readers' walls.

Do I think authors read reviews for constructive criticism? No, now that I don't think works. Most authors have already moved on to not only the next project, but the one after that before reviewers write their reviews of a book.
11. Dee Tenorio
I look. I look all the time. I've gotten a couple negative reviews that make me upset--offline, because I've seen what that can do--but I do ascribe to the "tough skin" thing. After a while, one does eventually laugh at these things. (It helps a lot of the awful review is on a site with horrendous site glitches, I have to admit.) Though, I have to say, I didn't look before I started publishing. I've just always gone with my gut on reading and watching movies and such. Though now, if an author I read often has a new book come out, but that author has had some books I've wished I hadn't bought, I do check the reviews to see what others think before deciding.

Though, it must be said, I know an author who doesn't look at reviews or want to know about them. Even the good ones. She doesn't want to get caught up thinking about it--or get a big head. She just wants to concentrate on her writing. She actually gets mad at me when I point her in the direction of one, so I do it from time to time just to keep her on her toes, lol.

12. Eva / TXBookjunkie
I read reviews - but mostly on GoodReads since it's so easy to see various opinions in one place on a book. I'll also occasionally read reviews on book blogs - especially if it's on a book I'm really looking forward to reading (yes - I'm a total spoiler whore) or a book I'm unsure about. I'll admit I've bought books based on reviews alone that I've enjoyed, but there have also been a few I've been disappointed in. It's about 50-50. So, now if there are a lot of good reviews for a book, I like to look for the bad reviews to contrast the good ones (and hopefully give me a fuller picture of what I can expect in the book).

I occasionally write mini-reviews (mostly on GoodReads since it's so easy while my poor blog languishes from disuse) - mainly on books I really liked or books I hated or just couldn't connect with. If it's only OK or a nice, standard read I'll just give a 3/5 star review and leave it at that. I don't know how reviewers do it. Can't I just say "OMG! This was amazing!! Hero=To die for! Gimme the next book in the series NOW!" and leave it at that?
Victoria Janssen
13. VictoriaJanssen
I read reviews of books I've never heard of, in the hope that the books will sound interesting and I can add to my TBR. I often avoid reviews of books I've already bought, or plan to buy, until after I've read them.
Lime Cello
14. Limecello
redline - Yup, I know what you mean. I think reviews are the something we don't care for until we need/want them. In fact I'm always a little disappointed if/when there's a book I'm considering and there are no reviews out there. (Because, hey - it's such a rare occasion, I should be able to get what I want, right? ;))

Marnie - Interesting - maybe it's the terminology people object to then? Or the label? I agree on the whole reviews are opinions, but at some point there are objective factors that are considered. Or... there should be ones that are used. Thanks for your insight.

Susanna - I definitely agree with the author being able to point out mistakes. If the review is "mean" it might be difficult to leave it at that - and I think that's when the train wrecks we see happen. And, I think that's a system most people have adopted - find a reviewer who has reading tastes similar to yours, with the understanding that even so you won't be 100% in accord, and go from there.

buried by books - you're the magical mystical creature! *glomps* ;) For books I'm considering, 95% of the time I google the title + review. Sometimes even a particular review site. Sadly, it's a rather hit or miss process.

Jill - Heh - poor horse carcass. We all love and hate it so! Book review karma - now that's an interesting one. And, I have to say I've noticed you write reviews and like that- there's the whole "authors can't review books" but... authors are also readers...
And personally, I'm someone who loves it when an author chimes in - whether for in depth discussion or otherwise. Granted, I'm also totally jazzed when *anyone* leaves a comment, so you know. I'm easy :P Especially with the online community and net, I think everyone appreciates an *actually* accessible author.

Melodie -Yes! Blurbs aren't very helpful at all - often misleading and even worse full of spoilers! In fact, even excerpts can be rather misleading, which is why if I'm looking, I consider all three - blurb, excerpt, and reviews. Generally if one is missing, I must consider very carefully.

akajill - Ah, a whole other topic - the "professional review." And it seems you've already developed your system. I definitely agree reviews aren't the end all be all - in any sense. When considering a book, I think most people check the blurb, the excerpt *and* reviews, and an author depending solely on reviews for promotion is going to... well should re-asses.

Laura - I'm pretty sure a number of people have said similar things to me before, regarding the negative reviews. However, I'm going to have to disagree with you on the constructive criticism. Of course it's too late for the specific reviewed book, but it's something that might be useful for the author - or any other writer for future projects. For example, weak conflict, plot gaps, character foibles, and the list goes on.
I do want to say though, that even though I think that, and write reviews... I can't think of a single review I've ever sent directly to the author.

Dee - How interesting you didn't read reviews before you became an author. Definitely something you think more about after that step, yes?

Eva- ah, GoodReads. That's one place I actually don't usually check for reviews, unless my google search takes me there. I've just seen too many amazon-ish reviews there, so that's my personal experience. And of course you can do that if you want ;) in fact, I don't even write reviews on GoodReads - I only just started using my page to try to keep track of all my reads for the year.
15. Eva / TXBookjunkie
Limecello - I agree regarding the amazon-ish reviews on GoodReads, but they're like any review - you can't believe everything you read.

I like how some of the bloggers I follow also cross-post their blog reviews on GoodReads though. GoodReads is a really nice way to keep track of reads (and t0-buys). It's all I use now.
Sarah Hale
16. shale
I do read reviews. It is one of the ways I find ideas for new books to read. My favorite kind of review, however, are reviews of old books, like the fantastic ones Jo Walton does over on She picks a lot of books and/or authors that I have never heard of, and she tries to give a feel for what the book is like without giving too many spoilers.

I think the reason a lot of readers might not read reviews is because most reviews are not well written. I'm not suprised by this--as you say, writing a review is a lot of work, and I generally do not write reviews because I find it so difficult to put to paper all the feelings I have about a book.
17. EvangelineHolland
What's funny is that I tend to read reviews of books I'll never buy. I guess I just like the "conversation" of a review, sort of like asking someone "well, what's the book about?" simply because you're both prodigious readers. So for me, I guess a book review is meaningful when it tells not only about the book, but the reviewer and their tastes as well.
Jackie Morgan
18. LiteraryEscapism
I have a hard time believing any site that doesn't post a negative review. How they can love every book they come across is beyond me. Just doesn't seem realistic.

I actually prefer writing reviews for novels that haven't been published recently. Like Limecello said, when a novel, say HIT LIST, comes out, there are going to be a dozens of reviews loving/hating it and why would I want mine lost in the shuffle. I'll actually wait a good month or two before posting mine. Not only does that allow it not to get lost, but it's more time in the spotlight for the author. I would find it hard to believe an author wants their book forgotten two months after it's been published and this helps to ensure that it isn't.

I'm not a fan of reviews. Ironic I know, but I like to make my own mind up and I don't want to be influnenced by others. Now, that isn't to say I haven't read reviews, because I will. If there's a book I'm conflicted over, I'll hit up a few trusted sites to see what they think and then determine whether I want to get it or not. Most of the time, the book still gets added to my TBRList, but I don't make a conscience effort to get it.

I prefer reading the discussion posts on books rather the reviews though. I can't get behind the short reviews that give the basics. I can get that from the blurb, so I love the reviews that read more like discussions. I want to be convinced to pick up a book, not just told how it was. I also like spoilers. Half the time, they make me even more curious because I want to know how the characters got to that point or what lead to that event.

@Marnie - I've had negative reviews make me curious too. Most of the time its because what someone didn't like, I actually do.
Lime Cello
19. Limecello
Eva - Hmmm cross posting I might do. Maybe :P But I'm one of those sluggish blogger types :P Thanks for the heads up on how useful it is though.

shale - Yes! More love for the reviews of "old" books! :D I'm so with you there. And... I'm glad you brought up the point - that many reviews aren't well written. Of course that makes me paranoid and question mine, but that's a me issue and I'm definitely not going to link to them so you can confirm my thoughts. ;) son.

LiteraryEscapism- Yes! This! I don't get the... I dunno. It seems many people don't check reviews until after they've read the book, for the discussion aspect. I think we also have the same approach to reviews and reading them.
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