Improving the Value of Reviews

photo credit here
I’ve had the most interesting series of emails with a representative from a publishing house in Japan. In the process of putting together the pieces for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7, I was contacted to see of there was some literature I’d like to read and review for the challenge. I eagerly accepted, and after scanning the catalog, I requested four books.
In reply, I was told “I am providing you with review copies of these four books free of charge, on the understanding that you may choose to review them. There are no strings of any kind attached, and obviously you may choose to give them all terrible reviews.” 
To which I responded, “I never give a bad review; if I do not like something I’ve read, I simply choose not to review it at all on my blog.”
Now here is the thought-provoking answer, “You should consider giving bad reviews, too… it would improve the value of your reviews, I think. If you get a reputation as a reviewer who never writes bad things, then the implication is that you think everything is good. Which is certainly not the case…”
Bam! Out of the sensitive side of me, the side that never wants to be harsh, or hurt anyone’s feelings, or lack an acknowledgement of the hard work put into writing a novel, I have chosen to ‘ignore’ literature which doesn’t move me. But, now it occurs to me that I am not being a thorough reviewer on my blog.
When a child in my class makes an error, answers something incorrectly, or doesn’t produce quality work, I gently point out what does not meet excellence. Yet I have not critiqued literature with such an imperious eye. Perhaps I feel unqualified as a professional reviewer, though I have never professed to be one.
No, the only ground on which I stand in writing about books is the ground of my life as a bibliophile. All I have to offer is my opinion as a reader, one who has read literally thousands of books, in many diverse genres, over the decades of my life. But now that opinion will include books which I find lacking as well as those I find excellent. Agreed?
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60 thoughts on “Improving the Value of Reviews”

  1. Problem is, I stop reading books I don't really like, so that means I can't review them or give them a fair review, even a bad one…

    I don't want to spend time on a book I don't like or can't read as there are so many other books out there!

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  2. Now there's an unexpected reaction from a publisher! Now I am intrigued about his books.

    I'm sure you'd critique in a gentle and meaningful way too. 🙂

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  3. I really, really agree with that reply. I'm an outspoken believer in the negative review, pretty much for the same reasons: the honesty of the reviewer is often at stake. I've encountered certain reviewers over the years that I know I cannot trust because of their hesitance in labeling bad books as they are. It's one thing to not want to hurt someone's feelings, but sometimes it's over-praise because the reviewer just doesn't have an opinion… And not liking a book doesn't necessarily mean being rude in tearing it apart. I'm really glad you've decided to take on this other side of reviewing – I'm looking forward to the new frame-of-mind.

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  4. Agreed! But I'm going to watch and learn, and probably cling to my own 'life as a bibliophile' (emphasis on the 'phile') because I am SO uncomfortable writing them, and because I want books to make me happy.

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  5. Bellezza, very nice post. Here are some of my thoughts on this topic.

    I think book bloggers, and anyone else who posts on the internet, have a responsibility to “watch their words”. I think you can be honest without being brutal. Books, like people, can be beautiful without being perfect.

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  6. I review every book I read, and not all of my posts are glowing. It isn't always easy to be negative about a book, but it's actually better for all involved to be honest about it 🙂

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  7. Good point! I am often so compulsive about what I start, not to mention hopeful for a better place, that I read to the end. It's only just lately that I give myself permission to abandon a book.

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  8. It was unexpected to me, too, and I thought it quite lovely of him to be so open to all eventualities concerning the books they publish. I'd like to think my reviews would be gentle and faiir. 🙂

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  9. I understand your hesitation. I often find myself asking my husband to read my less positive review to make sure that they are honest about the perceived flaws without being cruel. Having read many of your reviews, I have full confidence that you will be able to find that balance. 🙂

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  10. See? “…the honesty of the reviewer is often at stake.” That's what has dawned on me! I never want my honesty to be compromised in any way, and by not giving a negative review I'm afraid it has. I don't think you'll be reading a totally new frame-of-mind, but you should be prepared to read once in awhile, “This just did not work for me.”

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  11. Yeah, too much negativity is definitely not a good hing! And it's so true how a negative review can spark curiosity almost more than a glowing one. I've come to distrust quite a few of those (i.e. with Let's Pretend This Never Happened which received an unbelievable amount of praise across the blog-o-sphere and was utter rubbish in my opinion. There! A negative review! 🙂

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  12. I know, Audrey. I want books to make me happy, too. And the authors, and the publishers, and the reviewers, and the bloggers. But, ultimately why do we read? For the enjoyment of it, whether it's through the quality of the writing, the wonder of the story, or the lesson to be learned. Well, that's why I read anyway.

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  13. Suko, I like that: honest without being brutal. And there's a lot to be said for the imperfect. Just came aross the Japanese term 'wabi sabi' this week embracing that very fact: there is much beauty in the less than perfect. As you already knew.

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  14. Well, Diane, I have a strong feeling that you'll be reading just that! I actually enjoy reading about what didn't work for a (favorite) blogger, too. It's good to have a well-rounded opinion about books. It's funny, the converse has tbeen true for me, too though. For example, when I really, really love a book (such as Atwood's The Robber Bride) I can hardly review it. I feel my words get in the author's way, and along with that I don't want some blogger friend to leave a comment which says, “You liked that?!”

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  15. I really appreciate that this publisher seems to recognize the worth of the occasional negative review. I absolutely agree with their viewpoint. I know the bloggers I often end up appreciating the most when I'm choosing books to buy are the ones that are a bit more critical or exacting in what they expect from a book. Somehow knowing that a blogger will write a negative review of a book that calls for it makes their positive review even more powerful – if they seem a little tougher to please, then I know when they highly recommend a book, they're not just being over-generous. I like getting the sense that they're always telling it like it is even if it's sometimes not so good.

    It's hard writing reviews of books that didn't work for you, and I can't say that I enjoy doing it. That said, I've found the value added is totally worth it, and I hope it is for you, too!

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  16. I think – for myself – that if I take the time to read a book, and I write discussions of books I read, then I'm certainly going to discuss a book if I didn't like it, and I'm not uncomfortable doing so. On the other hand, I rarely go through someone's reviews to see if they have only given positive reviews.

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  17. I have so little time to write about good books, so writing about bad books seems quite a waste of time, but then editors do not have another jobs…

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  18. I love the publisher's reply! And, I think they have a point. I sometimes wonder about the bloggers' who gush about every book they read. I know that I've been doing that lately, but its because I've actually enjoyed every book I've recently read. However, I have also posted bad reviews of bad books. I don't like posting bad reviews, but sometimes I can't help it – some books are just not good. And if I've agreed to write about them, well, then I do. I say go for it Bellezza – you are not doing it to be mean or attack an author, but merely to point out how the book didn't gel with you or what you found lacking in it. You are expressing your opinion, which is what blogging is all about – sharing your thoughts on something. Good luck with the bad reviews! And, I'm excited to find out what these books are that you've chosen for this year's JLC 🙂

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  19. Your comment reminds me of how much I appreciated Simon's comments when he was one of the judges on American Idol. Since he left, I haven't watched it because there's been no harsh (true) critique. Everyone can't be great!

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  20. I haven't gone through mine, or anyone else's either; I couldn't even tell you who writes mostly positive reviews. I just know that I tend to avoid the negative, and that isn't fair. To anybody.

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  21. Wouldn't it be interesting to be an editor? …I wonder if I'd like it. Of course, if there's too much grammar to check, and punctuation to fix, and word choice to recommend, I don't think that's for me. Plus, who wants a stack of obligatory books continually waiting?

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  22. There's nothing quite as infectious to read as the enthusiasm of the blogger who loves her book(s)! Your reviews of late have reflected just that, Nadia. It's thrilling to read! I like how you said that it's not an attack, in a negative review, just pointing out what felt lacking to me. That's a very fair way to put it.

    As for books to read for the JLC7, I have a stack already purchased and waiting (probably since the JLC2), as well as several incoming from this publisher. Which I intend to give away as prizes, too. xo

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  23. I have to agree with the publisher. Yes, I don't like to give a bad review, but if that is what I think, that is what I have to say. People are going to spend their money on these books, sometimes influenced by my opinion, and I can not have them waste it.

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  24. I never think of the end result of my review being the purchasing of a book, yet I guess that is the truth. If the review is good enough. I've always looked at my reviews as merely lifting up the literary quality of a particular piece, but I see it's much more than that now.

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  25. Speaking from a (different Japan-related) publisher's perspective, we don't necessarily dislike negative reviews. We welcome any review we can get! As they say in PR, bad news is still…. news. And personally, there are times when I'll take up a book reviewed negatively, because I either disagree or discount the negative aspects of that review for various reasons.

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  26. I don't pad my reviews, but I think I'm more gentle when it comes to a negative review. Like many, I don't have a lot of bad reviews simply because I quit those books I don't care for.

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  27. The answer you received from the publishing house is EXACTLY right! When a reviewer always gives good book reviews, I stop reading their reviews. That person is not believable.

    I need to know about the bad as well as the good books. You do your readers a favor when you tell them what to avoid. You do your readers a disservice, when you don't.

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  28. Honesty is the issue. If a book is poorly written, banal or boring, a reviewer who says so isn't providing a “bad” review, but a good review – one that helps the reader who is seeking guidance.

    As it says in Proverbs (more or less!):

    A good reviewer is hard to find,
    and worth far more than diamonds.
    Her readers trust her without reserve,
    and never have reason to regret it.

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  29. Another interesting point of view, David. Bad news is still news, to be sure. Even 50 Shades of Grey received attention from those (like me) who hated it. That had to help spread the word, even if it's infamy which is spread. People were, at least, talking about it. As I'm wasting my time doing right now…

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  30. I think quitting a book which qualifies as rubbish in our minds is a good idea. Who has time to pursue a rotten book when there are so many good ones?

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  31. Perhaps I'm misreading your intent, but I feel an accusatory tone to your comment. Are you implying I do my readers a disservice? I won't tell my readers what to avoid, they can make up their own minds about that. I will, however, tell them what I have found to be a work of quality both in content and structure as I have always done. I will also disclose the titles of books which I feel waste my time. From there, readers can judge for themselves.

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  32. Stu, I know that you have a heart which understands my point of view; we are both for the edification of writers and readers. Carry on, and I'll be reading what you write with joy.

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  33. This is such a difficult decision to make. Writing about a book that doesn't move me is a process I usually find boring, and I'm sure this must come out in my reviews. However, ignoring books I don't like does add a sort of bias to my blog.

    Perhaps I'll consider writing about the books I've found hard to enjoy, or gain something from. I guess other bloggers may react with well-reasoned comments that make me go back to the book and change my mind!

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  34. Lucy you sum my thoughts beautifully. I agree that I have unintentionally set up a bit of a bias on my blog by only reviewing those novels I like. At dinner tonight my family and I discussed how important it is for a reviewer to be trusted. As many have said in their comments here, if I don't like a book I often won't take the time to complete it. But, I can say on my blog, “This didn't work because of dot dot dot…” If there is one thing I want to be it's credible to my readers.

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  35. I've only occasionally written negatively about books because usually I don't finish books I don't like. But once in a while, I've stayed with books which didn't appeal to me, and I wrote about them as gently as I could but still stated my opinion. I've done so few that I can probably find them for you.

    http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-leavenworth-case-by-anna-katharine.html

    http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2011/11/two-george-gently-books.html

    http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2011/03/bog-child-by-siobhan-dowd.html

    http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2011/06/capable-of-murder-by-brian-kavanagh.html

    The last one was perhaps the hardest because I knew the author read my blog. And indeed he left a response.

    There may be a few more but these four give the flavor of my more 'negative' write-ups.

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  36. I could not agree more with the publisher – I place much greater weight to a positive review of a title from a reviewer that I know points out weaknesses of titles if they have them. Even if I do not finish a book, I try to at least explain why I chose not to. And even when I am disappointed by a book and explain my reasoning clearly in my reviews I often get comments from readers who are still interested in giving the title a go… mature readers understand differences of opinion and how one's personal experiences greatly influence our reaction to books.

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  37. This article and the ensuing comments have been so interesting to read.

    I have an easier time reviewing books I didn't like vs. ones that I loved. Why is that?? That said, I don't LIKE to review books I didn't enjoy.

    Anyway, this is all very interesting food for thought 🙂

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  38. interesting discussion here! i've pointed out that i give honest reviews, and i usually have a positive and a negative to every review. pointing out the negatives which may or may not be considered a “bad' review by a publisher or author. i think i naturally choose books that i'm drawn to in some way, so negative reviews are rare. i do have some though, you can check out my “don't bother” tagged books:

    http://guiltlessreading.blogspot.ca/search/label/don%27t%20bother

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  39. Bellezza
    Wow…I read the title of this post, then your post, then all the responses… Now I need a bit of time to digest everything!

    But basically I guess I have done the same thing….I've been writing positive 'reviews' and abandoned books I don't enjoy. Suko's response really resonated with me though…. (May 21st comment)

    I think I will opt for tactful truth…as though I were talking to a close friend about an issue that needed changing, but knowing I could hurt them. I will endeavour to be careful with my words. I think I will consider what the Japanese Publisher has said to you Bellezza…but I'm not quite ready yet. 🙂

    What about the silences? What is left unsaid? What we leave out speaks volumes as well…irony coming from me who has just rambled on again….

    Thanks for the food for thought. You've got an interesting group of readers…

    Sincerely,
    JKS at Three Books On The Shelf
    …ooops wrote a letter again….old school…..

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  40. I am skeptical of reading reviews who consistently rated everything at 4 and 5 stars. For me those reviews are not thoughtful enough and do not separate the good from the mediocre.

    We only have a limited time to read the million books on earth. I appreciate someone who could tell me the good and also pick some holes about a book. I try to talk about more of the good (otherwise I wouldn't read and finish the book in the first place!) and then talk about the not so good bits.

    All the best in your journey to add value into your reviews! 🙂

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  41. Yes, absolutely, agreed. There's another side to that, as well. If you don't talk about books you dislike, you're not doing the author a favor. Bad publicity is still publicity. I've actually found that people *love* knowing that you disliked a book and why — and that confessing your dislike doesn't necessarily drive them off. Sometimes, just talking about a book and what you didn't love about it is enough to pique the interest of a reader whose taste is different than your own. I couldn't count the times people have said they want to read a book for which I'd written a negative review.

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  42. I'm in the middle of a book called Contagious, by Jonah Berger and he basically provides evidence for both sides of the discussion above…maybe some of you have already read it or mentioned it in previous posts. Hopefully I'm not being repetitive. Berger writes, “In contrast to the notion that any publicity is good publicity, negative reviews hurt sales for some books. But for books by new or relatively unknown authors, negative reviews increased sales by 45 percent.” (81)

    So….I guess it depends on the purpose of your reviews and blogs. Are you trying to help readers make informed choices based on your criteria of good literature? Do you want to encourage the sales for new authors? Do you want to spend your time on the positive or the negative? Bookfool and Contagious have helped to convince me that negative reviews might be good sometimes. But, I'm not currently willing to spend my free time reading books I don't like. Thanks to everyone who has written to Bellezza about this topic….it's helping to crystallize my views as well!

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