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The Art of the Book Review

Both Reviewers & Authors Can Benefit from Thoughtful, Kind Reviews

by G G Collins     (Copyright 2014)

There is a discussion on the Shelfari forums about the book review rating system and the best way to review a book. If you want to read or take part:

Here are my thoughts on the art of book reviewing.

I’ve been on both sides of publishing; working at a book publisher and as a writer. I began writing jacket and PR copy, then book reviews, moved on to reporting and now I write books too.

Mystery Scene Ed Gorman BookNo one ever sits down to write a bad book. Ed Gorman who is an award-winning author and former editor-in-chief of “Mystery Scene Magazine” once said: “You have to give the writer something.” Not just because that author may someday become famous, or that word will get around about your reviews and publishers will avoid you, but because it is the kind thing to do.

Book reviews should never be emotional in an angry or punitive way. Think how that author looks forward to seeing those reviews–with great anticipation! Having someone enjoy your book is better than money. It validates your hard work–and writing a book can take months, even years. Even fiction involves research.Book AP Stylebook

That said, you should be kindly honest. If the punctuation is poor (and make sure you’ve checked the “Chicago Manual of Style” or the “The Associated Press Stylebook” or some other good reference), then say something. Keep in mind not every book is meant to be “literary,” but it also shouldn’t be illiterate. Some books are written to be fun or adventurous or even fluff. That’s okay. If it’s not your thing it’s alright to state that, but don’t down grade for that reason alone.

I’ve never given a book less than 2 stars (or chiles or martini glasses). If a book is very poorly written, I don’t review it. And even if I do (rarely) give only 2 stars I always find something good to say about it too. So here’s how I assign stars:

1 star   –  I never give them. When I’m asked why by the publisher or author, I explain kindly–but not publicly.
2 stars – I explain what needs work and find something wonderful to say too
3 stars – Enjoyable and why, criticism might be a lack of research
4 stars – Good with a small criticism, maybe a chapter or plot element lost its way
5 stars – Excellent and why, what was that extra something that made it 5 stars?

Authors need to know what they are doing right as well as areas for improvement. If an author knows that readers really like their characters, that’s helpful. She/he will know that’s a strength and flesh them out all the more. If readers comment on the location, great, the author will dig out more local color. Maybe the climatic scenes are especially compelling. Terrific, add more suspense.

Book Tombstone CourageAnd if you’re a reviewer here’s a tip for getting “blurbed” on jacket copy and promotional materials: Always write a short catchy line that encapsulates the story. This is one of mine and it was blurbed over and over: “Every woman in America is obviously not a sheriff, but Joanna Brady is every woman.” (From J A Jance’s Joanna Brady mystery series.)

Reviewers and authors need not be an adversarial relationship, but a nurturing and helpful one that both can enjoy and learn from.

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