09 December 2019

The Book Review Jungle

Years ago, publishers sent out about 6000 advanced reading copies (ARC) two or three months before a book's release. Those copies went to the reviewers at newspapers and magazines, and some radio or TV stations that promoted books they liked. I remember when I could open the New York Times and read a thoughtful review by the likes of John Updike or another literary icon. Today, authors still review, but not as frequently.
The prevailing wisdom was that good reviews sold books, which was why publishers produced and distributed so many ARCs. But as fewer and fewer publications have reviewers, you're pretty much on your own getting a review, and if you're indie or self-pubbed, good luck. I invite reviews in the back of my book (An idea I borrowed from another writer), but seldom get them.

Kirkus Review, a once-revered arbiter used by libraries to guide their purchasing, now will review your book for a price. They charge $425 for a review that may appear in 9 weeks, and $575 for a review with a 4-6-week turnaround. They seldom if ever star a review anymore, even for a well-known author, and your review may be buried by hundreds of others with no ranking. They don't guarantee a positive review, either (If they did, I wouldn't even mention them because they would be promoters, not reviewers). For that money, you might have better luck with a blind date through a hook-up site.

Michael Sauret (Google him and his article) discusses his fate with Kirkus and lists other alternatives. Some charge $125 for an 8-10-week return, and some go higher. Some are free, but I've never heard of them. The point is, you may not get what you think you're paying for.

The literary equivalent of Gresham's law has taken over, and bad reviewing has driven out the good. If you don't believe it, look at Amazon or Goodreads. People give a one-star review--sometimes without reading the book--and the entire review is something like "It was stupid/boring/dumb/wrong. I didn't like it."

Even a five-star review might have only a few sentences, and they may use buzzwords, too. "Thrilling, clever, couldn't put it down" seem to say it all.

Those aren't reviews. They're either a puff piece or a drive-by. A few years ago, a Publisher's Weekly article explained at great length why most Amazon reviews were useless. Nothing has changed. I used to review there, but after a couple of ugly clashes with trolls, I removed about 80 reviews from the site and now seldom read a review there for any reason except morbid curiosity.

I do occasionally review for an online site, though, and it reminds me that writing a serious positive review is much easier than writing a bad one. A good review almost writes itself. I give a brief plot overview that shows how well the story works, discuss the major characters to prove they're well-drawn, and mention a few details that make the book either unique or a good representative of its genre. My standard review is between 600 and 800 words.

Bad reviews...wow. Writing a review should be like teaching. Anyone can bash a kid's paper and give him a low grade. But if you're really a teacher, you have to show him WHY something is a weakness or bad choice. Then you have to show him how to make it better. That's hard. And it's why most reviews I read fail.

I have only written three or four very negative reviews over the last two years, and I remember all those books clearly. Why? Because I can write a glowing review after reading a book once, but I always read a book two or even three times before going low. I need to be sure I didn't misread or skip over an important point before I call a writer to task. Sometimes, I find that I did miss something, and it changes my outlook. If I don't find it, I've now read the book two or three times and I'm ticked off about wasting all that extra time.

If you read one of my negative reviews, it should be like the notes I wrote to students back in my classroom. This is what I see you did, this is why I think it's a bad choice, and this is how you can make it better. It's not an exact science, but praise is easy and seldom challenged, while criticism demands proof. It's like a courtroom.

Recently, I did a Highland fling all over a book, and one of my concerns was that it introduced a deus ex machina three pages from the end...which would lead to another book as a sequel. It was a cheat, but I couldn't reveal what it was because it would be a spoiler. Sometimes, you have to find a way around that, too. That review ran to nearly 1200 words because I needed to justify my disenchantment.

Do reviews really help anymore? I don't know. I don't think any of my books has more than four or five reviews, but they're mostly positive (Before writing this, I noticed that one negative review of my last book has actually been removed). Maybe they help, maybe they don't. In a good month, my royalties will fill my gas tank, so who knows.

I suspect that my bad review won't hurt the perennial  bestseller. If it does, maybe the RNC will buy thousands of copies to keep the book on the New York Times bestseller list anyway.

Me with one of my former students and her daughter at a workshop. Time flies quickly.


  1. Reviews are a quagmire, a nightmare. Some are good. But many are not and unintelligent reviews hurt writers. I prefer not to review anything and I do not read any reviews. I stay out of the swamp.


  2. One of the dismal side effects of the triumph of the internet over print has been the death of book reviews in the daily papers. Even papers that do run reviews often run the same ones that their parent chain produces. I think this is part of the reason that, as with so many other things, the rich in writing keep getting richer.

    I did not know Kirkus charged for reviews- that is truly dismal information. Of course, they used to be known for being harsh on books!

  3. Great column, Steve. They're the words of a teacher, and when an experienced teacher speaks (or writes), I listen (or read). Thanks for the insights.

    I first learned about Kirkus's new policy a couple years ago, from one of my students. Sad trend, there.

  4. A lot of this is why I am seriously thinking about getting out of reviewing. There just does not seem to be any point anymore and I get lost in the noise.

  5. A thoughtful discussion of the current state of reviews. For library orders, reviews given by LJ, PW, Booklist and even Kirkus are necessary. But unless you're with a big five publisher, they are not easy to obtain. Kirkus does charge these days if you're with a small publisher or self-published. Not worth it in my opinion.

  6. Steve, I always read the reviews in The New Yorker, on NYT, and any other publication I can get my hands on. How else am I going to have a clue about a good book in the Niagara Falls of publishing?

  7. Good piece, Steve. I used to review for a number of publications, including Drood Review, PW, Women's Review of Books, Mystery Scene, and some others. This was a labor of love for the most part, and I did love discovering new writers and their stories. But there are few outlets now for reviews, and fewer people willing to take the time to write them. I don't know what the answer is, but I hope the pendulum swings back. I still review books I've enjoyed and post them on my blog and FB page.

  8. It's interesting to note that while I know Susan and O'Neil write both novels and short stories, most of the comments here come from people I associate more with short stories. I find myself moving more in that direction, too.

    How many reviews do short stories generally get? Well, Kevin reviews markets on the SMF blog, but outside of that, not many.

    Years ago, Susan Oleksiw bought my first short story to see print, too.

    I guess we're all in this together.

  9. My short story review work is a bit erratic and only on my blog. I do not review anything on the SMFS blog. Robert Lopresti does a short story review each week for his Little Big Crimes Blog.

    I am open to running guest reviews on my blog if anyone wishes to contribute. As it currently stands, Aubrey Nye Hamilton reviews every Monday, my son every Saturday, and Jeanne of the Bristol Public Library on Wednesdays as she can.


  10. I seldom read reviews and almost never write them. When I do read them, I only read the first and last paragraphs. The first one tells me about the protagonist and usually gives me an idea of the kind of story it will be; the last one tells me what the reviewer thought of the story. The paragraphs in between tell me some of the things in the story. I'd rather encounter those things as I read. Despite the foregone, I recently wrote - in my own style - a review of Jan Christensen's new novel.


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