Creating a good book review isn’t easy. I know, I know – it all boils down to personal opinion, right? Well, kind of. The way I see it, book reviews are a balancing act between personal feelings and critical feedback. In one of my recent podcast episodes, I recommend Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Clothing of Books” but hesitated to call it a review.The reason is simple: I just gave my opinion; I didn’t offer any critical feedback about her work. As far as I can tell, that’s the biggest difference between a recommendation and a review.
I did the same thing in my 2017 Halloween episode but under different circumstances. In that situation, I had a list of books I enjoyed but didn’t spend very much time talking about them. With less real estate in the episode for each story, I didn’t have the space to analyze them critically. Hence, recommendations.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of my process, I want to clarify something: People don’t just read book reviews. They also watch and listen to them. Mine, for instance, are in the form of a podcast. That’s because I love podcasts and enjoy absorbing book reviews (and books) by listening to them. When I use the word “read,” I’m talking about principles that apply to blogs, videos, and podcasts alike. Additionally, I’ve made a handy-dandy infographic with the points outlined in this blog. Check it out and feel free to use it as a guide for your own reviews in the future!
Who is your review for?
Let’s talk about your audience. In most cases, your audience is the same audience as the book’s. In other words, people will probably read reviews of books in the genres they enjoy reading. Makes sense.
But audiences can be a little more complicated than that. When I first started reviewing books, I thought, “My audience is only people who are interested in reading this book and are doing a little research to see if it interests them.” In retrospect, I missed the mark. Sure, some (if not most) people check out book reviews to see if they’re interested – but this isn’t the only audience you want to reach. People are busy and reading a review takes a lot more time than skimming feedback on platforms like Goodreads. This doesn’t mean people considering a book aren’t interested in a review; it just means you’ll miss certain readership opportunities if you approach reviews with one audience in mind.
There are three types of people who read book reviews: people who might want to read the book, people who already read the book, and people who will probably never read the book.
I know what you’re thinking: Two of those categories are the last people you should expect to seek a review. But the reality is people read blogs because they want to engage with the content. If they haven’t read the book yet, they can’t fully engage; they’re just looking for a recommendation. On the other hand, people who have read the book want to know what you think about it. They want to know if you agree with them, and they want to know if their opinion lines up with everyone else’s. Most of the time, they probably want to talk about their thoughts, too. Obviously, none of these things can happen if they haven’t read the book yet.
The second group, people who might never read the book, is a little more complicated. From what I’ve observed, readers / watchers / listeners might check out a review because they want to be informed without reading something that doesn’t interest them.
An example. I reviewed “Carve the Mark” by Veronica Roth a while back. Simply put, I did not enjoy it. That said, there’s a sequel coming out and when it’s published, I’ll still want to be informed about the series. I’ll want to talk about it when it gets brought up in conversation; I’ll want to know what happens and how the “bookiverse” responded to it. Where will I get that information? I’ll either suck it up and read the book (cringe) or I’ll spend five or ten minutes reading a few reviews, consider myself mildly educated, then invest in a book I actually want to read.
All that to say, many people do read book reviews to learn more about books that pique their curiosity; however, they’re only one slice of the audience pie.
What books should you review?
The short answer to this question is “books you want to read.” Then again, choosing the right book to review can – again – be a little more complex than that. Let’s say you’re a big fan of a particular author. They’re pretty popular and they just came out with a new book. Hashtag review time! The only problem with this particular method is everyone and their mother will do the same. That’s okay, but it does mean you’re entering a saturated market. If you’re fine with that, then go ahead – especially if it’s a book or author you’re passionate about. Just know that visibility will be a challenge.
If you really want to get ahead of the curve with a popular book review, consider pursuing ARCs (advanced reader copies). ARCs are copies of books used by authors and publishers to gauge reader feedback before a title hits bookstore shelves.
There are a few ways to get ARCs (also called “galleys”). First, you can sign up for a community like NetGalley. NetGalley is free for reviewers and lets you request advanced copies of books in exchange for honest reviews. Keep in mind there is no guarantee that you’ll get to read a particular book; you have to build a reputation as a good reviewer first. If you’re just starting out, it’s probably best to seek new authors with books similar to ones you’ve read before and enjoyed. That way, you’ll understand the genre and have an informed perspective going into the review.
Another option is to reach out to the author directly. It never hurts to ask, right? I’ve done this before and gotten a positive response – and the process is pretty simple. Just go to the author’s website and see if they have a contact form or email.
As a general rule, it’s best to do this with books you’ll probably enjoy. I tend to choose ones that deal with topics or themes that are important to me. That way, I don’t risk stomping all over a book that the author personally let me read before it was released. If you absolutely can’t find something redeeming about the book, you can always be honest and ask to opt out of the review. Otherwise, weigh the books positive and negative traits in your review and be kind.
If you want to enter a less competitive book review market, try discovering new writers. Indie authors, new authors, or books that went unnoticed deserve reviews too – why not take the opportunity to start a conversation about them? Most of the books I read and review don’t fall into this category, but if I wanted to pursue one from an indie author, I would try to find something similar to other books I’ve enjoyed. Goodreads and Amazon are great places to get this information; it’s as easy as scrolling through search results for a few pages until you find something that intrigues you and hasn’t generated a lot of buzz yet.
Read the book. (Like, really read the book.)
More specifically, read the book critically. Take notes. Think about the characters. Write down your questions. If you really love the story and want to get lost in it, do that – just don’t get so lost you forget the specifics and where to find them later.
In “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck said this about two of his characters, “…Samuel rode lightly on top of a book and he balanced happily among ideas the way a man rides white rapids in a canoe. But Tom got into a book, crawled and groveled between the covers, tunneled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands.”
Read like Tom.
First of all, don’t spoil the ending.
There’s no recipe for a perfect book review. However, I tend to follow a specific structure when I create mine. On Plotboilers, I plug a little disclaimer into the review before I start talking about the premise. If you’ve ever listened to one of my podcasts before, you know that I don’t shy away from every plot point, theme, or character – but I do want listeners to leave with the ability to enjoy the book for the first time after listening to the podcast.
Just make sure you let your audience know how much information you’ll give away so they can decide whether or not they want to continue reading.
Next, talk about the author.
Who are they? What else have they done? What have they contributed to the writing community as a whole? Where are they from? What are they like? If you can’t answer all of these questions, that’s okay. Do research and answer as many of them as you can. In some cases, you won’t be able to find more than a few lines about the writer– especially if you’re reviewing a book that hasn’t sold millions of copies.
When I reviewed We Are Legion (We Are Bob), I actually had a hard time coming up with this information. Looking back, I wish I’d reached out to the author directly and asked for some more biographical information to flesh out the review. Moving forward, I’m going to do this for authors who don’t have full or updated biographies online. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
Introduce the premise & summarize the story (but don’t spoil the ending!)
Even if your audience has read the book, it’s smart to give them a “refresher” course in the plot and premise. If they haven’t read it, this portion of the review will help them determine whether they want to invest the time reading it.
For some books, this is easy. By “some” I mean “books with clear, linear storylines.” For others, it can be a little more difficult. If the book isn’t linear, decide whether you’re going to talk about the plot points in the order they appeared or in historical order (the order they happened). On the one hand, I prefer to relay information in the same way the author did. On the other hand, I broke this rule when I reviewed “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. All that to say, choose whichever is easiest to convey the premise and plot and stick to it throughout the review.
Uncover the themes and plot structure.
Every book has a message if you read it hard enough. Even though some books don’t lend themselves to critical discussion, you can still talk about the plot and the message it sends readers. Maybe you’re reading a super fluffy YA chick lit sci-fi fantasy noir thriller spin-off. It might not be the next Pulitzer Prize winner, but it will open the door to certain discussion points. How does the story represent women? How does it represent ethnic and cultural minorities, if at all? How does the author represent religion? How do the characters react to it? What kind of example does the protagonist set for young readers?
You get the idea.
Talk about what you like (and what you didn’t like)
This is the fun part. Tell your audience about the things you liked and the things you didn’t like. If you ever feel stuck on a review, just ask yourself “what was my favorite thing about this book and why?” and follow it up with “what was my least favorite thing about this book and why?” That’s your springboard. Chances are the answer to these questions will provide a springboard for your more detailed opinions about the themes, characters, prose, etc.
If you’re like me, you will have a lot of things to talk about during this portion of the review. Go wild, but don’t let your personal opinion outweigh the rest of the review. If you spend more than half the review talking about your personal gripes, consider fleshing out other sections to create balance. On the flipside, spending too much time raving about how much you love a certain character can get (dare I say?) boring – so make sure you back up positive and negative critique with actual examples.
Put a bow on it (or don’t).
This part is optional. At the end of the review, you can give it a numerical rating. I use an X-out-of-five-stars rating scale. It’s simple and it lets the audience compare my opinion of one book with the others I review. It also lets them know whether I liked it or not.
On more than one occasion, I’ve wrapped up a review and realized that – even though I talked about the pros and cons – I didn’t really talk about how much I enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) the book. While this might not be something you’ll see on NPR, it’s something I look for in other book bloggers’ / vloggers’ / podcasters’ reviews, so I include it in my own. Either way, it’s good to have a nice little recap of the points you discussed to give your audience a top-level glance of your opinion.
As always, you can find me on iTunes or check on my book reviews here on the Plotboilers blog. If you’re an avid book reviewer, I’d love to hear about your process. Do you use a formula? What are your most important guidelines?