What Does a Book Review Really Mean?

What is the real purpose of reviews? What do they really mean and who are they for?  Recent circumstances have led me to question the nature of reviews in a way that I never have before.  Let me back up a bit and explain…

Since publishing my first novel earlier this week (woohoo!), I have transitioned from stressing about formatting to stressing about reviews. Or, more accurately, my lack of them. I imagine I’m experiencing exactly what every new indie author goes through: we labor over the book itself, and then the editing, and then the formatting / cover; we hit publish, recover from our post-celebratory hangover, see the small burst of friends and family sales, and then watch as the book plummets deeper and deeper into the anonymity of the Amazon store, starless and obscure.

I knew going in that this would be a challenge. I think I underestimated, however, just how many other indie are out there, seeking those golden stars of endorsement. In my search, I discovered a new Facebook group: Book Review Depot.  The basic idea of the group is this: you buy and review three books. Once you’ve done that, your book gets added to the list until you have received 10 reviews of your own. And as the difference between 0 reviews and 10 reviews is massive—for me, as a reader, its the difference between giving the sample a peruse and moving on—I was a bit giddy upon finding this opportunity.

So, I happily purchased three of the books on the list and set about reading—and not just reading, reading like a reviewer (something I’ve never done before). And that is how I found myself having this sudden theoretical quandary.  Because, normally, I only read for pleasure. I pick books because I am the  target audience, and therefore my level of enjoyment is a fairly accurate reflection of the quality of the book.

Unsurprisingly, when given a selection of only ten books of various genres, I was not going to find three that appealed to me as a reader.  Which is 100% fine—I read them all carefully. I took notes. I formed opinions. I wanted to write honest reviews that would be helpful, both to the author and potential readers.  But once I was sitting there, with the review screen in front of me, I found it very difficult to proceed.

Because—if I am not the target audience—my level of enjoyment doesn’t really reflect the quality of the book, does it?  For example, you could have written the very best vampire erotica there is, but it isn’t something I’d enjoy. And I’ve seen reviews like this in the past that, even as a mere browser, tick me off.  We’ve all seem them—the one star review that boils down to “this isn’t the book I wanted to read” or “I don’t like this kind of thing” or “I thought it was going to be different.” These have always bugged me—and now, as a new author, scare me—because they are entirely unfair. I always want to shout at the screen, “then read a different book, dummy!”

I had no intention of doing anything like that—nor could I, the rules stipulate that less than 3 stars are sent as messages instead of reviews.  But how do you review a book that isn’t really for you? What does a 4 or 5 star review really mean? Does it signify that I loved it, or that I think others would?  Am I meant to, as a reviewer, try to assume the mentality of the target audience—imagine myself as the ideal customer and review based upon that false persona?

I am incapable of being disingenuous but also incapable of being unfair—which left me in a real state of confusion.

(And, just for the sake of clarity, I am NOT knocking the books over at the Book Review Depot. I was impressed with the professionalism and writing in most of what I saw. I by no means think a book is bad just because it isn’t my kind of book.)

And then, to confuse the matter a bit further, I am also suddenly unsure who my review is really for.  In the past, I’ve always written reviews with the reader in mind. I won’t beat around the bush or soften the blow. If the book was bad, I was trying to give potential buys a heads up. But now, with the explosion of indie publishing—and with myself a new member of that community—it seems that reviews have taken on a new facet, an extra layer.

Indies use reviews as feedback to help them improve their craft. In a way, they are almost like a critique.  But the problem is, the way I would point out a problem to a writer is really different from the way I warn potential readers that a book is of low quality. The motive and the language are different.  So what do I do? Going forward, as I write reviews for indie writer, do I soften my language and take on the encouraging tone I use in a critique? Or do I go with brutal honesty because the work has already been published?

All in all, I’m feeling a bit unsure what purpose reviews serve, and what version of myself I’m meant to be while I’m reviewing.  I’d love to hear what other reviewers think—how they approach this issue.

unsplash-logoEvan Dennis

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