How to Write a Fair (and Helpful) Book Review on Amazon (or anywhere)

October 6, 2020 at 12:01 pm Leave a comment

One of the most helpful things readers can do to help writers (and publishers, and everyone else who works with writers to create and produce books) is to write reviews of books on Amazon, GoodReads, and elsewhere.

Most readers are not aware of just how helpful this simple thing can be. (And it really is simple, as I’ll explain in this post.)

I really love the fact that thanks to the democratizing effect of the internet, readers no longer have to rely only on professional reviewers to tell them what they think about a book. I think it is absolutely wonderful that this information can be shared reader to reader.

The only drawback for writers, to the free and easy conveying of our personal opinions about books is if we write reviews that really are not fair, either to the author or to other readers.

Let me explain what, in my view, a fair book review does. In my view, the main responsibility of anyone who is writing a book review is to judge the book on the basis of what kind of book the author intended to write, not on the basis of what kind of book the reader expected to read, or wished to read.

Being fair, in this regard, means understanding at least a little bit what kind of tone the author wished to convey. For example, it would not be fair to judge all the things an author says in a book that is meant to be humorous as being meant to be taken seriously. (It might be fair to say, however, “This book is supposed to be funny, but to me it really was not, because…” It’s important to say why, so that other readers will have some basis for figuring out whether they might feel the same way.)

It’s also important to take into consideration the genre when judging a book. For example, a memoir is usually a quite personal story about some aspect of a person’s life. So an unfair review of a memoir might say something like, “This book is just about the author and his own life. How self-centered!” There certainly are memoirs that are overly self-centered, and/or arrogant, or just a bunch of name-dropping, and any of those criticisms might be perfectly fair to share with other readers. But it’s important to think it through a bit before blasting the author of a memoir for focusing on their own life. For example, is the author really “name-dropping” to impress readers? Or is he just telling stories about famous people he has encountered, or known, that others might find interesting? Is he telling stories about others that seem self-serving or unkind to the people he’s writing about? (If so, it would be fair to say that.)

Likewise, thrillers tend to have violence in them. So an unfair review of a thriller might say something like “This book is just too scary.” It could say, for example, “I generally love thrillers but the violence in this one just seemed over-the-top to me. I couldn’t read it.” That could be fair, because it acknowledges that most thrillers are at least a little bit scary, and they are supposed to be.

This also goes for content. Is the book about South Dakota, but you have absolutely no interest in South Dakota? Well, in that case, I think it would not be really fair to say that the book was boring because it is about South Dakota unless the book title (and more importantly, the book description) claimed to be about North Carolina, but then most of it was about South Dakota. In that case, it would be perfectly fair to point out to other readers that the book description was misleading. (You might want to say in such a case, “This is a really good book, but it is NOT about North Carolina.”)

Now, how easy is it to write a brief review? It really is easy, and you don’t have to necessarily have bought your books on Amazon to write reviews there. (It depends. It seems that sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.) In any case, all you have to do is go to the Amazon page of the book you want to review, scroll down the page (past Product Details, past More About the Author), and click on the bar that says “Write a customer review.” A window will open up and invite you to choose from 1 to 5 stars and then write a headline and a brief review–and it really can be brief! Remember, all most readers want to know is did you like the book or not? And if so, why? This can be said in just a few simple words, no need to be fancy, though if you want to elaborate, that’s up to you, and that’s fine.

You don’t have to use your own name to review books if you don’t want to. You can make up a name. Some people prefer to do that, and that’s fine too.

I will say, I really don’t like the star rating system. The only thing I dislike about teaching literature in college classes is having to assign letter grades to my students. It doesn’t make any sense to me. To me letter grades are strictly (and narrowly) judgmental, and they don’t really provide my students with very useful information: it is my comments that hopefully will do that.

Likewise, I don’t think the star rating system is really very helpful to readers, and it can be quite harmful to writers if reviewers aren’t fair. But sometimes you have to work with the system that exists, not the one you wish existed. And the fact is that those stars can apparently be quite important for some people when they are trying to decide whether or not to buy a book.

In my honest opinion there are very few books that merit either five stars, or just one star. But I often award five stars even when I think a book is less than perfect. (I mean, how many perfect books are there in this world? NOT MANY!!! But there are SO MANY very good books, and they deserve to be bought, and read!) And it’s hard for me to imagine ever assigning a one-star review. I would have to really hate a book and think that everyone should know how awful it is in order to do that. I personally would be much more inclined to just not review such a book.

So I would suggest, as you choose the number of stars to award, maybe try not to think so much about whether you loved, liked, kind of liked, kind of hated, or absolutely hated this book. Try to give at least a few seconds of thought to how much effort the author put into writing the book, and allow that to help you decide. It’s important to also remember that how you liked the book is not necessarily the most important thing about it: is it a book that someone who is very interested in South Dakota would love? If so, then why would you give it only one or two stars? Why would you not just make it clear in your review that the book is not really about North Carolina?

Finally, please don’t let your own ego get in the way of writing a fair and helpful review. Does it make you feel powerful to judge someone else’s work harshly? Does it make you feel smarter to say that the author of such and such a book is not very smart, or is not a good writer? If you are about to write a very negative review, I would urge you to ask yourself whether these kinds of ungenerous thoughts might be lurking somewhere in your mind. And if they are, I would hope that you would reexamine your reasons for writing the review.

In my opinion, the reason for writing a book review should really be just to help readers find books they will enjoy, and writers to gain new readers. And in my opinion, there’s plenty of power in being part of that kind of conversation.

Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

Entry filed under: About Writers and their Work, Neither Here nor There.... Tags: , , , .

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