Are reviews the pure vital force driving book sales? Or more like a Half-blood Prince, born of ‘self-interest’ out of ‘malice’ (often masquerading as erudition) slithering from shadows to wound authors’ souls?
When buying a book, like many readers, I seek more than a publisher’s blurb, often devoid of reference to quality of language, plot plausibility or depth of characterisation. Finding such detail by word of mouth is slow. Press and media hype however, may hurtle a title into the limelight as one ‘everyone must read.’ I once jogged in a gym beside a girl asking if I’d read Fifty Shades ‘yet.’ Replying, ‘No, couldn’t get past page 3 in a bookshop,’ she retorted, ‘But everyone’s reading it!’ before admitting she found it hard going.
Reviews do drive book sales, though less than 10% of readers leave reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. US Today asserts they drive 20% of sales in America (2017). Berkeley researchers Chevalier and Mayzlin (2006) found one-star reviews more influential with readers than five-star. Yet retailers don’t care: browsers simply move on, choose another title. Some bookshops (like Waterstone’s) show little personal book reviews from staff. Nice, a retailer whose employees enjoy their own products. Sadly, I’m miles from a bookshop.
But reviews can be spurious: Amazon has sued companies selling fake reviews. Rumour alleges they’ve taken down reviews left by Facebook friends of authors, yet some malicious ones remain. I’ve seen a review trashing an author not her writing, personally vindictive if not libellous. I’d like to think most reviews are altruistic readers wanting others to enjoy a good book. Curiously many derogatory comments are full of bad grammar and spelling: glass houses? And as for pseudonyms, sheer cowardice.
Reviews are transmitted by many other means. Book bloggers often adopt a policy of only reviewing books they like. But why not say gently why it’s not their cup of tea? Too sentimental? Someone may buy it for that. Too disturbing e.g about child abuse? Someone may want to understand it. In my humble opinion, reviews positive or negative should be informative and useful, not malicious. There is much to be gained from my writing group’s mantra in peer critique- what’s good, what’s not and what would make it better?
Apart from readers and bloggers, there are professional critics in newspapers and periodicals like The Bookseller, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement. These may be less indulgent of popular works, but I have seen an eminent Oxford academics’ life work cruelly savaged in a Sunday Supplement: I suspect they had history. Belittling others as a means of ego-enhancement in the literary world isn’t new. One victim got his own back. On the death of critic Edgar Alan Poe, his victim of the ‘red pen,’ one Rufus Grinwald, weaselled in to manage his estate and pocket his royalties.
I like John Updike’s suggestions for reviewers. ‘Has the author achieved their aims?’ ‘Directly quote, show the work’s language.’ ‘Don’t give plot spoilers.’ ‘Don’t try to enforce ‘party’ standards: times and fashions change.’ Purely entertaining literature has as much merit for readers at large as the obscure and innovative. Grahame Green knew this, dividing his books into entertainment mystery-thrillers and literary novels.
My ideal reviews don’t over-analyse themes/meanings (often unintended by an author) or critique style, but suggest it’ll be a book compelling me to keep turning the pages, draw me into the setting, engage me with vividly-drawn characters so enthralling that I can re-engage instantly if I’ve had to leave it for a few days. Then there’s Ruby Wax’s radio advice: check out page 66! Curiously informative. And I no longer finish a book just because someone’s told me I should. Life’s too short. And a source of annoyance is that women buy 2/3 of books, but the vast majority of critics are still male  according to the Independent and Guardian.
I’ve reviewed more since my debut novel. Reviewers have been kind, but I await the bad ones, taking solace from learning Wuthering Heights ‘’would never be widely read,’ while Dance with the Dragons (aka Game of Thrones) had 740 Amazon one-stars, Harry Potter 410. Best maybe to heed John Steinbeck: ‘Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the b****rd!

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  1. I agree with most of this, but I have to say that lately, I’ve had less trust in some of the mainstream media book reviews, like the New York Times. First, they seem to only want to review books published by major publishers – indie and self-published books are totally ignored. Second, while they do have some professional reviewers, they sometimes let authors review works by fellow authors. This often comes just before that author-reviewer is just about to publish their own next novel. What happens then is, all too often, the review ends up being a plot summary of the whole book (spoilers abound), and ending with some very critical lines that are essentially telling the readers “don’t bother with this book, wait and read my next novel instead.” Harumph!

    • It is such a minefield, isn’t it?
      I think it was always thus and the best review of all is a friend saying ‘You’ll love this book!’
      I also totally agree about press reviewing featuring only major publishers. Same for the big prizes- many of whom require a large fee for entry.

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