What do you look for in a book review? The answer probably depends on whether you’re a reader considering buying a book or the author of the book in question! The vast majority of those who read reviews are people who want more information about a book before buying it. Chances are, your last purchase was informed by reviews by previous readers, who were informed by those who came before them.
Book reviews are your chance to enter the chain of literary satisfaction! You can help others learn more about a book before committing to buy. You can warn people away from a book that may not be for them. You can help to get a book in front of an audience that would never have found it on their own. You can even help authors to improve their books.
The key to writing a useful review is clarity. Your review doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t have to be impersonal. Nor does it have to praise the book; sometimes a critical review is more helpful to other readers than one that praises the book to the skies but without explaining why. A truly helpful review gives other readers a glimpse into your meeting with the book; it’s your chance to tell others what the book did—and didn’t—do for you.
It’s also your chance to help authors in ways you might not have thought about. In the internet-centric world of today’s publishing, even fairly large publishing houses don’t put much work into publicizing and marketing a book. It falls to the author to get word out and find readers. How? Via reviews, among other things. Some advertising venues won’t even accept books that don’t have a threshold number of Amazon reviews. Those same reviews also enter into Amazon’s placement algorithms—the more reviews—provided they’re positive ones—the higher the book’s placement and the more people are likely to see it. Nothing succeeds like success!
So how do you write a helpful review? Here are a few tips, in no particular order:
- Give some idea of who might enjoy the book. This can take the form of telling potential readers who you are and where you’re coming from.
- “As an avid reader of restaurant-themed mystery books…”
- “My family went through the great depression, so this book’s setting resonated with me…”
- Give a brief overview. This isn’t the same as a synopsis; you’re writing a review, not a school book report! Tell readers what the book is about or what it tries to do. Did the author appear to have some goal in mind? How well was that goal met?
- “Popular Martian Meals provides a good overview of Martian cuisine, but I was unable to follow any of the recipes because the author doesn’t explain where to buy the Martian ingredients. Recommended only if you have access to space-going delivery services.”
- “Murder in my Back Pocket is a rousing mystery set in rural Kansas in the 1800s and will appeal to readers of Zane Gray.”
Here it’s important to avoid spoilers; other readers won’t thank you for giving away major plot twists or the answers to Whodunit! If the main female character later turns out to be man masquerading as a woman, you don’t want to reveal that in your review. Instead, you can say, “I was not at all prepared for the protagonist’s astonishing transformation.” This lets potential readers know that the book has some unexpected twists—something that will appeal to some readers more than others.
- Distinguish between subjective and objective. Sure, writing style is a matter of taste, but it’s possible to describe what you did and didn’t like about a book in ways that tell others what to expect. “I hated the author’s style” isn’t terribly helpful. Instead, you could write: “The story is told in a fragmented, rather chaotic style to reflect the worldview of the mentally ill protagonist. I found it hard to follow.”
The same goes for characters and settings. “The main character is a jerk” is entirely subjective and uninformative. Instead, give some basis for why you consider him a jerk: “The main character steals candy from babies and lies to his mother about where he got it.”
- Lastly, though this shouldn’t need to be said, don’t mix up book content with content provider. If Amazon shipped the book to you late or Barnes & Noble sent you a damaged copy, that isn’t the author’s fault. I’ve seen a few one-star reviews of books claiming the book arrived in bad condition and ranting about customer service. These reviews penalize authors for things over which they have no control.
On the other hand, if the book is badly edited or contains multiple formatting errors, that’s something that other readers, as well as the author, should know. I recently reviewed a book that was full of minor typos, and yet was an incredibly good story. In a case like that, it’s fair to write: “The first edition contained multiple typos, which I hope will be corrected in later editions.”
To help get the book more readers, post your review on the book’s sales page on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Itunes, or any other venue where books are sold. In addition, copy your review over to the book’s page on Goodreads. You can also vote for the book on various Goodreads lists, or start a discussion about it in any number of Goodreads groups. You, the reader, are in control of whether other people read the books you liked.