If you write a book review, and no one reads it, is the prose still stunning?

I’ve wanted to talk about book reviews for a while. There are a couple of specific things on my mind, like the idea that book reviews are too positive, or that reviews must be critical, or diversity in book reviews. But, as my son would say, “put first things first*.” Do people even read book reviews?

 

Book reviews are dead. No one reads them and they don’t sell books.

This statement was (falsely) attributed to Edmonton author Todd Babiak by his former English professor, Ted Bishop. Todd was helping Ted launch his new book Ink at LitFest back in October. A vetern book-launcher, Todd’s advice was to forget trying to get the book reviewed, that he better create something shareable if he wants to get anywhere. And he did; Ted and Todd filmed a cooking-show-style demonstration of how to make your own ink and we served as the studio audience. We even got to use a mortar and pestle! Talk about reader engagement!

I laughed at the thought that no one reads book reviews, but I laughed because it’s true. The only people who comment on book blogs, reviews especially, are other book bloggers. And as for traditional reviews in the newspaper or literary journals? I don’t even read them. I’ve become a reverse-snob when it comes to book reviews; I find a lot of “straight” reviews boring. They’re all plot summary or this:

Lately, I just don’t care about the luminous prose etc. I want to know what a book did to the reviewer. If you cried, or laughed inappropriately, I want to know. I want to hear how a book reflects personal experience.

Despite my own misgivings about book reviews, I still thought Todd made a pretty bold statement, so I went to the source. Luckily Todd Babiak is super nice and accessible, and he immediately told me that he never said those words. Ted exaggerated. He has noticed that a prominent review in The Globe and Mail, though, doesn’t exactly give a book the lift it once did. Things are changing. Todd remembers when there were 19 professional reviewers employed by newspapers in Canada. Now there are just a handful.

There are plenty of people trying to make book reviews fresh and exciting. The National Post runs a weekly feature in The Afterword, where readers get a book to read and then fill out a survey. I did one earlier this year. It’s a nice feature, but it’s not really a review (plus their book choices are weird.) And there are all the almost-review formats we bloggers use: hauls and monthly wrap-ups and so on. But reviews they ain’t.

This isn’t news to book bloggers. James Reads Books blogged about this a couple months ago. I like his challenge to read more reviews, but, should we even need a challenge? Isn’t that why we’re all here?

So, dear readers (who I assume are all book bloggers,) I want to know: Do you read book reviews? Where do you read them: on other blogs, the newspaper, or somewhere else? How are your stats when you post a review?

As for Ink, I haven’t seen that video kicking around YouTube, but I did see a nice review in The Walrus. Maybe there’s hope for the book review after all.

*My son is in Kindergarten and they are learning the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, of which this is one. I have a five year old who tells me to “syngergize” and “be proactive.” This is weird, right?

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48 comments

    • lauratfrey

      Women’s mags have great book sections! I’m going to write about that at some point too – less obvious places to find book reviews. What lit journals do you like?

  1. Spectacles

    I do read the book reviews on blogs. I try to engage an audience in a conversation, but most of the time people don’t comment much. So, I try to do different things other than just review, like my crafts series using books as the medium.

    For me, I don’t really care much if people read my reviews. I mostly like writing them for me to look back on. It’s a way to practice writing in a fun way and if people like reading them, cool. But, it’s not the primary reason I review books.

    • lauratfrey

      Yes, good point (and plan to write about it later) – we don’t all write book reviews to drive traffic. Many times they are just a way to record our experiences, as in a journal, or a way to practice writing. I get that!

  2. eileendandashi

    If I’m interested in reading an author, I’ll look at the reviews on Amazon. As I am a book reviewer, self-proclaimed, I often wonder how many people really read the review. And I’ve asked myself would I write the review even if I have no readers? The answer is yes, because it’s my way to support the author community. I also enjoy rethinking about the book and talking about the characters including the gems or wisdom I can take away from the read.

    • lauratfrey

      This is kind of the flip side to Spectacle’s comment above – we write reviews for ourselves – but we also write them for the author or the publisher, whether we want to or not.

  3. Emma

    I read reviews in papers and magazines and blogs. I tend not to read Amazon or good read reviews but just look at the ratings. Not sure why but there you are. The other thing I don’t do is read reviews of authors I already like or books I want to read through word of mouth in case the review puts me off because sometimes reviews can be a bit dry. Emma

    • lauratfrey

      Yes, I hate it when I’m excited about a book and read a bunch of “meh” reviews and them I’m like… was I stupid to get all worked up… I try to hold off on reading reviews till I’ve read the book, or even better (but usually don’t succeed) till after I’ve reviewed it myself. Too much chance of being influenced otherwise.

  4. bellarah

    I read the reviews on blogs and in history magazines if I’m interested in the book, it’s content or if I know I have similar taste to the reviewer. I’ve given up on the reviews in newspapers though, though I sometimes flick through to see what they’re covering.
    I don’t mind if people don’t read my reviews- I just like getting my thoughts and feelings about the book down!

    • lauratfrey

      Me too. I don’t mind and would do it anyway.I get the same happy feeling I used to get writing an English paper, and no one was reading that except a burnt out teacher who’d already read a dozen or more that day… haha

  5. Cedar Station

    I was just thinking about this last night. I don’t enjoy reading book reviews in blogs, and usually skip over them. Lately, I’ve stopped writing them as well. It’s just not interesting to me, and usually doesn’t give me much information about whether I would like the book or not.

    • eileendandashi

      Cedar, I’d like to understand more about your comment, if I might be so bold. I review books and thoroughly enjoy the process. What do you find missing in a review? Is it that every reviewer uses the same words to share their ‘delight’ with a book? Thank you for taking the time to answer my question.

    • lauratfrey

      And that’s the third purpose of reviews (see above, as a personal journal/writing exercise, or as a support of the book industry) – to actually recommend books. I think it’s an important one! As a reviewer you’d better think about who’s reading your review and what they’d like out of it!

  6. Naomi

    I’m glad you wrote about this! I am curious about what everyone else thinks about it, too. I love reading reviews. I read them anywhere, but mostly blogger reviews, because, like you, I especially like the personal reactions to books. I’m not as interested in the plot or writing analysis. Another way I like hearing about books is on the radio. It’s a good day when I just happen to be driving the car (which is the only time I get to listen to the CBC radio) and an interview with an author comes on, or some other book ‘event’ on the radio. I almost always come away wanting to read the book they’ve just been talking about. (I also love it when I catch one of Stewart Maclean’s stories.)

    As for my own blog, most of what I post are ‘reviews’ of the books I’ve read, because it’s the reason I started my blog in the first place. I write them for 3 main reasons: 1. As a way to think more about what I’ve read and to get my thoughts out. 2. To ‘talk’ about the book with anyone who wants to comment. (Sometimes this happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.) 3. To spread the word about the good books I’m reading, and hopefully get more people reading them. Especially in the case of Canadian books. I love it when I can get them read across the border. I don’t always assume no one is reading my review just because there are no comments (I’m thinking positively!).

  7. Naomi

    I’m glad you wrote about this. I have been curious to know what people think about this, too. I love reading reviews, and I read them anywhere. I prefer blogger reviews, though, because, like you, I like to hear personal reactions to books. I’m not as interested in the mechanics. Another way I like to hear about books is on CBC radio. It’s a good day when I happen to be driving the car when an interview with an author comes on, or some other book-related topic. I almost always come away wanting to read the book they’ve just been talking about.

    On my own blog, I mostly post book ‘reviews’, since it is the reason I started my blog. I write them for 3 main reasons. 1. To get myself to think more about what I’ve read, and then to get my thoughts out. 2. To ‘talk’ about the books I read, if there’s anyone out there who wants to comment. 3. To spread the word about the good books, and get more people reading them. Especially the Canadian books. I love when I see them getting read across the border. I don’t always assume that no one is reading my reviews just because there are no comments (I’m trying to think positively!).

  8. Christine @ Moonlight Reader

    Sometimes I read reviews, sometimes I skip them – it all depends on the book. I am much more likely to read the review if I have read the book than if I haven’t. I like seeing how other people’s experience compared to my own. If the book doesn’t interest me, I’m not going to read the review (this means I only read reviews for books I am already familiar with).

    Overall, though, my favorite posts on blogs are not reviews. They also aren’t cover reveals (hate those) or promo posts (hate those even more). They all read like marketing, to some degree. I like the posts where the bloggers tell me a story about how a book impacted them – if they read it on vacation, if they read it when they were ten, whatever. The natural history of a book, through the eyes of this one reader.

    • lauratfrey

      Yes, this is me exactly. I don’t follow people who do cover reveals and promos. I didn’t even know what these promos were till recently, then I found out and visited some blogs that do a lot of them – what on earth?? Haha.

      Sometimes I “force” myself to read reviews for books I havent’ read – I’m like you and mostly want to see how other’s experiences compare to mine – and I’m often pleasantly surprised. A good writer can make a review interesting even if you don’t care about the book.

  9. Stefanie

    I do read book reviews. I read the print versions of the New York Review of Books sometimes. I read Rain Taxi review of books. And I read reviews online at NY Times and Los Angeles Review of Books and Tor as well as a few other places. I also read book blogs 🙂 As far as blog stats on my own blog when I post a review, it depends on the book but I could not tell you in advance which books will get more comments, that, to me, is always a mystery.

    • lauratfrey

      Isn’t that the truth about stats! If I’d know a review of The Fault in our Stars, written 2.5 years ago, would consistently be my top post every month since… I dunno what I would have thought 🙂

      You are very well read, review wise… never heard of Rain Taxi.

  10. Shan

    I read book bloggers who write reviews like I write mine, they tell me briefly what the book is about, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like, etc. I don’t like reading newspaper reviews because I absolutely do not like a review that tells me everything that happens in a book, up to and including the ending. I want to discover all of that myself. Everyone has their own way of reviewing books and which reviews they like to read, I lean more toward bloggers because they don’t spoil as much of the book for me.

  11. Jen

    I’m not a book blogger (I tried, but it’s just not for me) and I read reviews for pretty much every book I consider reading – especially if I’m going to be buying it. Very rarely do I read ‘professional’ reviews; I mainly check out Goodreads or Amazon reviews. There’s just so many good books out there, and I don’t want to waste time or money picking up something I won’t enjoy.

  12. Laurie

    I tend to avoid reviews before reading a book. For the reasons you’ve mentioned, but mostly because so many reviewers just recap the storyline and I don’t want to hear the story from the reviewer! I do read the reviews on Good Reads and Amazon after I’ve finished a book.

  13. Naomi

    I will read reviews anywhere, but I prefer to read blogger reviews for the same reason as you; I like to hear personal reactions to a book rather than the plot and the mechanics of the writing. Another way I like to learn about books is on CBC radio. It’s a good day when I happen to be driving around and a book-related topic comes on the radio. I almost always come away wanting to read the book they were talking about.

    My own blog is mostly made up of reviews, mostly because that is the whole reason I started it in the first place. I didn’t know anything about book blogs then, and all the other stuff people post on them (some of it excellent and some of it not). There are 3 main reasons I like to write reviews. 1. It helps me think more about the book I’ve just read, and to get my thoughts out (for my own satisfaction). 2. To ‘talk’ about the books I’ve read with whoever out there wants to leave a comment. Sometimes there are a lot of comments, sometimes not. I never know what to expect (which is part of the fun). 3. To help spread the word about good books, and get more people reading them. Especially Canadian books. I love seeing them get read across the border. Also, I don’t always assume my reviews are not being read just because there are no comments (positive thinking?).

  14. Geoff W

    I read them occasionally, but usually after I read a book if I want to know more information. The good thing about the old fashioned reviews (magazines, newspapers, etc.) is that they provide excellent context for historians and literary researches. They provide poignant and contemporary comments that might not be evident when you are reading them. I used them a lot doing research in undergrad.

  15. Alice

    I tend to solely read reviews on blogs, I prefer a more comprehensive description of how someone enjoyed a book over a more professional review – which tends to be more about the style so not to spoil the reader. There are some wonderful long form professional book reviews, but they are only enjoyable when there are spoilers involved.

  16. td Whittle

    I read reviews on Goodreads mainly, as I am active on that site. This is a daily event for me. I read some professional book reviews. As a former book buyer in NYC, back in the nineties, I used to read dozens of professional reviews every week. But these days I find myself less interested in those and more interested in what ordinary readers have to say. Due to lack of professional guidelines and expectations (and zero remuneration for their efforts), they are able to say simply what effect the book had on them, intellectually and emotionally. I like the variation: some are erudite and their reviews peppered with subtle insights; others are simple and straightforward “I loved it / hated it because …” Overall, I find the amateur reviews to be more colourful, less restrained, and peppered with personal commentary which I find engaging. I do like some professional reviews, too, when they are not dry and formulaic in their approach.

    • eileendandashi

      tdWhittle, I enjoyed your comments. I was approached by a magazine to do reviews for them, not putting reviews on my blog. They would become their property and also gave me certain specifications on what I should talk about and what they wish me to avoid. I opted to continue reviewing for myself, telling what I feel and saying what I want to say with no remuneration,– just the joy of a reader connecting to the imagination of a writer.

  17. CurvyJ

    I say that I don’t read reviews very often, but I practically live at goodreads so I guess I do. I read reviews from people I trust to tell me the truth about the book. The only time I read an unsolicited review is if I’m checking to see if I’m crazy for not liking or loving a book. This helps me to determine if I should dump the book or keep going.

  18. roxannemfelix

    So, I am NOT a book blogger, and to be honest, I don’t “seek” to read book reviews – unless of course, I’m trying to find an age appropriate book for my 13 year old niece, and I want to know what is in the book I’m buying for her. So – you may ask, yourself, Laura – Roxanne, then why are you reading my blog? For me – your blog is like a book club that I don’t have time to get to… I want to know about good books – but I want to know about them from people I know! Word of mouth is so much better than anything! Now, if I “come across” a book review (on the radio, in the paper, in a magazine) … sure I’ll read it. Maybe I’ll even pick up the book. But I don’t SEEK out book reviews, because I don’t a thing about the author – so whether or not she/he likes it means nothing to me. She could be a genius. She could be a fool. How the heck do I know?? But – you – I know you – and I like your prose – so I read your blog. There is my honest to goodness answer!

  19. ebookclassics

    I love reading reviews by bloggers and on Goodreads because they are personal, usually funny and give me a better idea if I will enjoy a book. However, I still skim professional reviews in newspapers and literary websites.

  20. rivercityreading

    I read reviews in blogs and in other types of media, but I’ve definitely created a pretty curated list for myself, which means I like reading a certain type of review. Like you, I want to know more than just a plot summary and approval/disapproval, I really want to know why. I think there are many bloggers that feel obligated by publishers to post reviews and end up doing little more than giving a verbal star rating in order to do so.

  21. Kristilyn

    I agree with you …. I’m more into how a book made someone feel vs. the more technical aspects of the book. For me, so long as there aren’t any HUGE glaring mistakes and errors, it’s all about the feels, regardless of genre. And I usually get my reviews through Facebook, Twitter, or, of course, blogs.

    • lauratfrey

      I’m into the technical aspects, but I guess I don’t care what other people have to say about them, if that makes sense. People’s emotional reactions are more interesting because they vary so much, and often reveal a lot about the person.

  22. Pingback: I went to a bunch of literary festivals and all you get is this lousy blog post | Reading in Bed
  23. Brie @ A Slice of Brie

    I kept meaning to come back to this and comment. I find this whole topic pretty fascinating, especially when I hear book bloggers admit that their least read posts are the book review ones. There are very, very few book blogs I still read (you and Kristilyn to be exact), and that’s only because I enjoy your writing and the stories you tell while also reviewing a book. I get most of my reviews on goodreads because they are usually short and sweet and I can search for a review of the book I’m interested in reading at any given time. Often, the book(s) the book blogger has reviewed, aren’t books I’m reading or have read. I find it really tough to leave a meaningful comment when I haven’t read the book.

  24. Michael

    When it comes to reviews (book, movies, TV, any artform really) I tend to gravitate toward those who have a similar taste to myself or whose recommendations I’ve come to trust.

    Stephen King will recommend books in EW from time to time and I tend to seek those out because based on his previous recommendations, odds are I’ll like the book. He’s had a good hit ratio for me. There are other book bloggers who have similar tastes in books as I do and I will often take their recommendation for something as well. I will admit I’ve come to know the voice and preferences of many reviewers for EW and I tend to trust them a bit more than I do other media reviewers.

    But then again, this is the crazy person who thinks you don’t have to be confined to the recommended or accepted list of what’s “classic” or “good” to enjoy something. Part of what makes something memorable or “good” to one person may not necessarily apply to another person. For example, I love Doctor Who. I’ve read a LOT of tie-in novels to the series over the years. Are they great literature? Not really. But some of them, at the time I read them, moved me or invoked a feeling in me that I’m sure a great piece of accepted literary work does in English scholars. Does that make their experience more valid than mine? Probably not. Does it mean I’m going to do an academic paper on that tie-in novel? Again, probably not.

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