Good Karma Book Critiques: 9 Lessons
Writing book reviews is good karma. Do it. Authors enjoy the feedback, and appreciate the possibility your review may just entice someone to check out their book.
You don’t need to start a blog or land a steady gig at some national publication. Instead, focus on two well-read sources: Amazon and Goodreads.
First, yes, I said it—Amazon. Sorry, but they’re the gorilla that doesn’t go away. Amazon accounts for roughly 41% of all new book sales, and 65% of hard copy and e-copy online sales. This gives Amazon reviews a distinct advantage. First, they are available to the general public and easy to access. Even when not purchasing online, readers can still read story synopses and reviews on Amazon for nearly any book. Second, as the statistics say—people do buy books from Amazon, and often those buying decisions are immediately preceded by checking out the book’s reviews.
Of course, it’s Amazon, so there’s a catch. To post a review you must have purchased at least $50 of something/anything from Amazon in the last year. Those who refuse to buy on Amazon can’t post reviews.
Which brings us to Goodreads. Goodreads members are avid readers—dedicated enough to seek out books and reviews as well as chat and share recommendations with other readers. Goodreads is full of true bibliophiles whose mission it is to share info about books, including tips about what next to read.
So how do you write a review? Here’s a few thoughts:
- Make a Short List of Your Credentials. A short list, because you only need one: You read or listen to books for pleasure and understanding. One book a year, one book a month, it makes no difference. Either way, you’re qualified.
- How Much do I Have to Write? Brevity is sweet. No need for an opus. A few lines, a few paragraphs, you’re done. People reading reviews look for recommendations and a few reasons why they should read a book. In depth reviews are appreciated, but not necessary. Write a review like you might talk to a friend—in your own words, with your own enthusiasm.
- Why Write Reviews? Reviewing gets you more intimate with your reading. Ooh la la. Book reviewing is essentially a discussion between you and yourself—what did you like or not like about a book. It’s self-examination. Consider that, because there’s a lesson there. You’re never just reviewing the book. Every reading experience tells you something about you. Open yourself to that. Isn’t that why we read? Because of what it tells you about you?
- What about Reviewing a Book I Didn’t Like? Okay, here it gets hard. You have just finished a book you either loved or hated or somewhere in between. You want to post a review, but without sounding petty or snarky. How do you avoid being the mean critic? First, re-read the paragraph above (Why Write Reviews). This is what it’s all about. Honesty unpacked of its emotion. Each book reading experience is at least 50% book and 50% reader. One good first step: Avoid writing sentences that begin with the “I” word. “I” didn’t understand it. “I” don’t like when characters act that way. “I” don’t like books about people writing mean book reviews. De-emphasize the “I”. People are not reading reviews to find out about “you”. They want to hear about the book. Focus on the book. How do you do that?
- Remember: The Buddha Says Everything is Empty. And he or she is right. Including the book you are reviewing. Just like humans and other natural phenomena, books have no self. Huh? What’s that? Yeah, no self. That means they do not stand alone. Books exist in interaction with their readers. When reviewing, describe that interaction. Don’t rate the book—one star, five stars, thumbs up, thumbs down. That’s not an experience, it’s a short cut. There are critics who mistake critiquing with pointing out the negative. Every book may not be your style. But each is a lesson. Because in the end, you are not reviewing the book and you are not listing your own personal reading preferences. Reviewing is an exploration of the shared experience between you and book. So what’s that mean?
- It Means Keep an Open Mind. Maybe this is just a different way of saying that. Experience the books you read and review without preconception. If it’s a mystery, don’t expect it to fit staid and standard notions of how mysteries are supposed to go. Why? Because mysteries are mysterious, and not stodgy repetitions. No book is a rerun, no matter how formulaic. If you want reruns, buy a television. Read old love letters from your shoebox in the closet. Chew gum. If you want to explore your own creative mind, open your mind to it. Read.
- Readers create the book they are critiquing. Say what? Yeah, same thing again. If the reader is at least half of the book-reading experience, then the reviewer bears half the responsibility for either liking or not liking the book. Do not let your criticism block getting to know who you are. As a critic you are not an authority, you are a participant. In this way, reading is like meditation. It opens a side of us we do not know. It re-creates us into who we are. Make it good. Keep It Real. Critique the read, not the book.
- Criticism Opens Us to the Unexpected. Marketing people will tell you. Readers, viewers, listeners respond to experiences that are 90% familiar and 10% unique. That’s a formula, I’m not good at math, who knows if it’s true. But it’s interesting. What’s familiar soothes readers into reading, making it comfortable. What’s unique hooks readers into wondering what’s next. The two work as one. What should you focus on in a review? Tell your reader how the familiar seduced you, and how the unique hooked you into wanting more. Reading is an activity. That means it’s active. Write about how the experience stayed active for you, pulling you in, making you read more.
- Which Brings Us Back to… All Writing is Empty. That includes reviews. After all, they are just another phenomenon. They come alive only when read. When writing reviews, focus on the imagined and unseen audience. The person not there, except in the experience of reading your review. Writing a book critique is a gift you give. A little bit of yourself re-imagined by another through the review the two of you share. Thank you for that. It’s an important thing to do. That’s why we write reviews, and that’s why we read them.