An American Editor

March 28, 2011

Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust

Recently, on a discussion forum, the question was asked: “Would you trust a paid book review?” Most commenters declared an unambiguous “no,” but I’m not sure the answer is so easy or should be so emphatically given.

We start, of course, with what constitutes payment for a review. In the forum, the answers began with as little as receipt of a free review copy and moved on from there. What was never really addressed, although I did try to raise the issue, was the reviewer’s credentials.

The consensus in the forum was that the most trustworthy reviews are those written by a person who bought the book (which includes either print or ebook version), but studiously avoided the question of “What if the ebook was free?” Commenters didn’t detail what makes these reviewers and their reviews the most trustworthy other than to say, in the broadest terms, that the reviewer is not being influenced. It is truly a sad commentary on our society when we see corruption and influence in everything.

My take is somewhat different. I look at reviews written at Goodreads, Amazon, and other forums with quite a bit more than a grain of salt. As I have remarked in previous posts, anonymous reviewers do not inspire confidence, at least in my thinking, in the veracity of the review. It is not that the reviewer may or may not truly believe that a particular book is worthy of 5 stars or 1 star, it is that I have no idea what criteria the reviewer applied nor do I know what specialized knowledge the reviewer has. Who reviews the reviewer?

If you do not trust any paid reviews/reviewers, you cannot trust reviews in such publications as the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books (NYRB), Publishers Weekly, or the New York Times Book Review. In each of these instances, the reviewers are paid and the publications rely on publisher advertising. But isn’t the truth elsewhere? Isn’t it true that you can rely on these reviews, regardless of whether you agree with them, because of the credentials of the reviewers and the veracity and history of the publication?

When I read a review in the NYRB, which is my favorite review magazine, I know that the reviewer is knowledgable about the area under discussion. When Max Hastings reviews a book about World War II, I know he is competent to do so as a historian of and writer in the era. I expect he will be objective, or as objective as a reviewer can be, because his reputation rides on what he writes.

Importantly, the reviews in magazines like the NYRB are detailed and compare the book(s) under review with other books in the field that address the same issue. Isn’t such a comparison valuable? Doesn’t it add to the worth of the review? Isn’t seeing Max Hastings’s name at the top of the review important for determining the value of the review?

I know that Hastings was paid to write the review, whether it be in dollars or in writing credit for his career. I also know that Hastings writes similar books. Consequently, when I read his review I can evaluate the value of his review, something I cannot do with the anonymous and/or unknown reviewers we see popping up all over the Internet and at places like Amazon.

What I would like to know is how you decide to trust a review. Can you really just ignore all the 5-star and 1-star reviews at Amazon and just concentrate on the 2- to 4-star reviews? How do you feel about a book you have purchased that got rave reviews but when you start reading it, you find it riddled with spelling and grammar errors, and even incoherent in places — none of which was pointed out in 95% of the reviews?

Although a blog is a difficult place to have a discussion, I would like your comments on what you look for in a review and/or a reviewer, not where you go to read reviews.

15 Comments »

  1. […] Original post by americaneditor […]

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    Pingback by Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust « An … | eBook Reviews — March 28, 2011 @ 6:13 am | Reply

  2. This is a critical subject for me, because I have recently entered the arena of book reviewing. I do not yet get paid but am trying to build a portfolio and reputation that will lead to eventual income. A key concern is what, exactly, is the purpose of a review? And how do I become “reputable”?

    The outfits I write for are adamant about the Golden Rule, i.e., Don’t trash others if you don’t want to get trashed yourself. Noble thought but makes things tricky when you’ve got a lousy novel to write about! I had one of these not long ago, and spent two weeks wondering how to cast a pan without being a self-righteous bitch. Who I was serving, the reader or the author? Where did my opinion fit into the equation, and which opinion mattered, personal or professional — or both?

    As an author myself, I know that the purpose of reviews is to bring published books to the attention of potential readers, which is another way of saying, the purpose of a review is to sell a book. An established, reputable reviewer has the power to generate or prevent sales. In my opinion, a review needs to do both of those things, because other people may like a book that I think stinks, or hate a book I think is fabulous. So panning a book does nothing except serve my ego.

    I’m finding my way around this by wearing my editor hat when sitting in the review seat. I critique my books based on the craft elements of writing and presentation, always giving authors credit for their time, effort, intent, and strengths as well as any weaknesses. This allows me to make observations without getting too personal about it, and leaves potential readers with enough information to judge for themselves whether they want to acquire the book.

    Is this a wishy-washy approach to what is basically an opinion platform? Perhaps. So far, though, I’m making a lot of people happy without messing with anyone’s head or stepping on their toes. This serves my “employers” who are trying to build reputable, new review services (e.g., New York Journal of Books). And it lets me adhere to the one of the few things I believe in — the Golden Rule.

    I hope that this will build to the type of reliability readers want in their reviewers.

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    Comment by Carolyn — March 28, 2011 @ 6:38 am | Reply

  3. Reviews: blah, blah, blah.

    Isn’t a review supposed to help the potential reader decide whether or not to buy/read a book? Not edify the reputation of the reviewer?

    You can go into all the pedantics of what constitutes a good review from a professional reviewer’s pov or a totally non-professional pov. The question for the reader of review is the writer’s credibility.

    I often find the non-professional’s review much more honest. That does mean I have to dig through lots of reviews in a place like Amazon. I even have a madness of starting from the lowest ratings, which I find tend to be the most brutally honest. You can tell the rants from the intelligent thoughts, which are often posted by someone who has a similar knowledge base as I do.

    As for written reviews from the NYT (and others), I’ve just totally given up because its such a cliquish place. Instead, I ask people (including total strangers) about the book they’re reading.

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    Comment by Nick Jamilla — March 28, 2011 @ 8:48 am | Reply

  4. […] this article: Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust « An … […]

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    Pingback by Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust « An ... Books Empire | Books Empire — March 28, 2011 @ 11:46 am | Reply

  5. Fiction: I don’t trust a reviewer until I have read several books that said person has reviewed and find that either agree or disagree with the review. If the reviewer gives a book 5 stars and I give it 1 – regardless of criteria – then I don’t trust the reviewer – paid or otherwise.

    Non-fiction: I use the above as well as the reviewer’s background (per your Hastings example) to determine whether they can be trusted to do a good job.

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    Comment by Jackie — March 28, 2011 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

  6. Jackie beat me to it.

    Although, for me, it’s not so much about trust but taste. I first look to reviewers with similar tastes in literature to me. If he/she disliked a book I loved, then the reviewer is not one whose reviews I’d give any credence.

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    Comment by Vicki — March 28, 2011 @ 4:46 pm | Reply

  7. […] See more here: Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust « An … […]

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    Pingback by Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust « An … | ReviewTica — March 28, 2011 @ 5:50 pm | Reply

  8. […] post: Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust « An … This entry was posted in Books and tagged answer, book-review, discussion-forum, easy-or-should, […]

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    Pingback by Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust « An … | Pulplit Magazine — March 28, 2011 @ 5:57 pm | Reply

  9. Carolyn, if your goal is ‘to make people happy’ than you are a promoter, not a reviewer. The goal of a review should be to serve the reader, not the author of the book. In some cases, especially with indie books, there is not a lot of information available on the book. The reader might not have the crowd-source of 500 Amazon reviews to give them a sense of whether the book is commercial quality or not. Reviewers are a vital part of this screening process. But they have to be honest, or they do no good.

    I was the original poster in the thread Rich mentions, and I think he missed the point a little, no offense intended🙂 My question was not about whether to trust a reviewer who gets paid for their job by an editor (e.g. an employee of the NYT book review who draws a salary for their work). It was about whether to trust a reviewer who gets paid by the author of the book! I did have someone send a review to me where the blog which posted it charges authors for a review! That, to me, is completely untrustworthy. But it’s not the same thing as being a salaried employee of a newspaper.

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    Comment by Joanna — March 29, 2011 @ 6:33 am | Reply

    • Joanna, I understood the point of your original post on the MobileRead thread, but the discussion morphed to a broader discussion on the topic. I’m not sure that I see much difference in the criteria to be applied to the reviewer who is paid by the author directly, which was the thrust of your original post, and that to be applied to the reviewer who is paid by an intermediary for the author. As people noted in the MobileRead discussion, payment in the form of advertising is still payment. I don’t see that there is any stronger (inherently, that is) firewall when the New York Review of Books hires Max Hastings to review a book published by Oxford University Press that is a regular advertiser in the NYRB, something of which Hastings would be aware, than when a reviewer is directly paid by the press or the author, either in cash, in advertisement revenue at the press or author’s website, or via free review copy. It all boils down to the integrity of the publication, the website, and the reviewer.

      You use the example of the salaried employee of a newspaper, but newspapers live and die on advertising revenue and the salaried employee’s livelihood is dependant on that advertising revenue stream. If the reviewer regularly pans books published by Penguin, how likely is it that Penguin will continue to advertise in the newspaper? One cannot assume that because one is indirectly paid that one is neither influenced nor pressured by the knowledge of the indirect payor.

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      Comment by americaneditor — March 29, 2011 @ 6:52 am | Reply

      • Fair point, Rich. Thanks for clarifying.

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        Comment by Joanna — March 30, 2011 @ 6:29 pm | Reply

  10. Unfortunately or not, Amazon has become the largest single marketplace for listed and delisted books. Its book review community has become something like the wild west, without real rules and standards and an increasing use of book reviews as calculated marketing tools. Please see http://www.thebigriverreview.com

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    Comment by bookwriter — March 30, 2011 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

  11. In response to Joanna’s comment — “if your goal is ‘to make people happy’ then you are a promoter, not a reviewer”:

    Allow me to clarify my statement. I think there’s plenty of room to make people happy without shorting one party at the expense of another. Note my use of “people” in plural. If I were a promoter, I would care only about serving the person/company I was promoting. But when writing reviews for an organization, there’s the organization, the author, perhaps the publisher or associated agent/publicist, the reader, and myself to consider. How does one serve all those people who have invested time, energy, and/or money into making a book happen and putting it out there for review?

    By presenting intelligent commentary about a work. I try to do this by highlighting elements I admire and avoiding outright trashing of elements I think are lousy, without ignoring them. If I do it right, then the following will happen:

    * The reader will learn enough about the book to determine whether or not they want to read it, which over time I hope will inspire them to trust my reviews and seek them out.
    * The organization I write for will like my stuff and ask for more.
    * The author will not only learn something from their writing experience but also have a decent ego experience — stroked because my opinion was positive, or not demolished because my opinion was negative.
    * The publisher and any associated parties will take note of respectful reviews of their titles so they’ll send more of them to me or the outfit I write for, and keep the cycle a-churnin’.

    So I see “making people happy” to be a win-win experience. I like such things and strive to achieve them wherever possible. If that’s being a promoter, then so be it.

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    Comment by Carolyn — March 30, 2011 @ 3:12 pm | Reply


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