[This post assumes that you write book reviews. If you have never written a book review, please know that authors truly need your reviews. Amazon reviews are so important for authors today. Don’t be intimidated – a book review can be brief, and need not be long and interactive.]
Authors ultimately need more encouragement than discouragement. Therefore, please think twice before writing a harsh or scathing review – particularly for new or smaller authors. Big authors have feelings too, of course, but if you’ve sold millions of books, it is a different situation. There are times when a critical review is warranted (I’ve written some) – but please be sure it is really warranted, or at least try to write a fair review.
A book can be “bad” for different reasons…poor writing, a disjointed theme, bad theology. If you find a book to be that bad, it may be best to simply not write a review. If it is a self-published or small-press book by a new author, it is realistically not going to sell many copies anyways (100 copies is typical) – so why further discourage an already discouraged author with your negative review? If you are a person of influence, your review could damage their chance of success. Maybe you did not like the book, but others might. Bad theology is a more serious concern, but if the book’s influence is going to be minimal, it may be wisest to ignore it.
Here are a few thoughts on writing fair and gracious reviews…
- Is your main concern with the writing or the content? Maybe the author’s writing ability was good, but you could not agree with the thesis. Or you thought they had a good thesis, but the writing was sub-par. Perhaps the author’s passion for the topic was really evident, despite other problems. State the positive. Critique will be better received when balanced with the positive.
- Critique can be offered in a veiled way (hinted at) – and the observant will pick up on it. Or keep the critique brief, without belaboring it. One or two sentences about the book’s choppy writing should suffice, rather than a whole paragraph.
- Be diplomatic. “The writing style was not for me, but I know some readers appreciate this style of writing.”
- It is not fair to negatively critique a book due to an unfair expectation on your part. What type of book is it supposed to be? Who was the intended audience? Did you expect it to be something the author never intended for it? You may need to adjust your expectation. I once saw it summarized this way:
“A good book review appreciates and critiques the book that is written, not the book that the reviewer thinks should have been written.” Or I just read a book review where the reviewer stated: “I value this book for what it is, rather than heavily criticizing it for what it isn’t.”
- It is important to keep experience level or credentials in mind. Is this the author’s first book? No one’s first attempt at anything is the best it could possibly be. However, it may nonetheless be exceptional for a first attempt. Would you judge your 5th grader’s art project by the standard of a professional artist? Uh, no. Don’t miss the potential!
- On a related note, consider the purpose of your critique. Will it help the author in future writing endeavors? If not, what is the point exactly? Remember you are writing a book review – the book is already published. It is too late for the author to make changes in the book. But appropriate critique can help their next book be better. Would you read another book by this author, despite some of the problems? Yes? State that!
Another option is to offer your review privately (rather than publicly), depending on your relationship with the author. I once got upset about critique given to me in a public setting. The person who gave me this critique said I had a problem for not being able to take it, and this person shared an example of critique they received and accepted – unlike me who got upset. However, the critique they received was given to them privately! Big difference.
Please don’t crush an author, especially a new one. They could give up writing altogether and a talented voice that just needed a little development might never be.
** I came across this recent review, which I thought was a good example of writing a critical review as fairly and graciously as possible. Problems were stated in a factual way. And note statements like “To be fair, this book was not written for me…” and “Spufford is a talented author, but this book was not for me.” – The reviewer Stephen Bedard has a worthwhile blog and ministry – check it out.