I review books, and have a few hundred posted in the public domain. Writers constantly request me to write reviews of their books. Of late, I have resorted to writing reviews only of the books I like and politely turn away many that I don’t, author notwithstanding. Why? Because reviews sell books, I’m told. But what I have experienced is that while good reviews do not necessarily sell books, a bad review by a respected reviewer can stop a book in its tracks. And I do not want to hurt anyone’s career, unless they are established writers now resorting to writing junk and riding on their fame, and who are direly in need of a wake-up call. Therefore, I decided to explore the practice of review writing that I began as a way of reminding myself of the books I had read; a practice in which there was once only a few trusted adherents, but which today has become a flood with no barriers to entry or quality of content, it seems.
It is important to understand the reviewer’s background and agenda before submitting a book for review. We all have limited experiences, and our backgrounds colour our views on the world and how we respond to literature. Different reviewers from different backgrounds and with different levels and types of education may review the same book differently.
Why do we write reviews? Like me, to remember what we have read so we can refer back to our review in conversation? To enter the literary debate and provoke discussion? To make a name for ourselves, particularly in this social media universe where we have to publish frequently in order to stay relevant? To take a power trip and destroy writers that have made it through sheer luck and influence while our own literary ambitions have languished due to a different combination of luck and influence? To have followers and admirers who pick their books based on our comments? For money, even though there isn’t much there anymore? To extend the maxim of “those who cannot do, teach” – thus, “those who cannot create, criticize”? Perhaps it’s due to a combination of all of the above.
Once a book is in the public domain it is impossible to control who says what about it, and many camps could be at play: clever publicists who gather a raft of supporters to write nothing but glowing reviews (the sameness shows after awhile and can be a turn-off); the popular writer who has a stable of sycophantic fans who cannot say anything bad and can quickly flood a Goodreads or Amazon posting with nothing but plaudits, making a critical review look out of place – another turn-off; the revengeful reviewer, planted by an enemy, who says nasty things with no means of backing it up but who serves to create confusion in the minds of neutral readers looking for a good read; that erudite power tripper I described earlier out to make a name for himself at the author’s expense. Some authors even create alter-ego reviewers to review their books and post the most spellbinding reviews of their own work – it has a neutralizing effect on all those bad reviewers, and may place a “cease and desist” order on those considering posting a “not bad, but not terribly good” review. This all leads one to the question: “Can I trust book reviews?”
I read somewhere that a book is an argument between a writer and a reader that the latter can never hope to win. And a review is the opposite; the writer cannot win, especially when faced with a negative review. I have often believed that it is better to have one’s book read widely than to have it reviewed widely, for the wider you cast the net, the easier it is to catch one of those reviewer types I have described above and face the issue of reader trust (or the lack of it) and suffer the opposite consequences to what was being sought in the first place. And yet, the current trend is to try and gather as many reviews as possible because the number of reviews seems to correlate with the number of reads. And while that wisdom may hold true in some cases, I wanted to provide these counter-points that authors may want to consider as they go on a tear trying to gather as many reviews as they can to promote their work.