7 Things That Are Ruining Amateur Book Reviews

Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing. I was excited when these outlets for amateur book reviews showed up. Finally, I could tell these snooty book reviewers, these Kakutanis, to take their five-dollar words and...ingurgitate them wholly.

But that excitement came and went a long time ago. It was a different time. I was young. Excited about the future. I hadn’t yet seen the horrors to come.

My mistake was thinking, for a brief moment, that something could be turned over to the crowd, and that the crowd would handle this new power well.

You all are screwing up your amateur book reviews. Here’s how.


I don’t care how you pronounce this word, just quit using GIFs in your book reviews. Notice I said "GIFs," as in "multiple." I can handle a GIF here and there, but it's getting a bit out of hand.

Take this review, for example:

All told, 8 GIFs. 8! All expressing the same thing: The Fault In Our Stars is sad.

No shit!

We get it, you’re a millennial, you’re uh-mazing, technology is woven into the fiber of your being, you love saying someone is “woke as fuck.” 4 soundless, out-of-context seconds of Supernatural can express the things you never dared say.

But can we compromise? Can we do a book review with less than 8 GIFs?

I know it feels like work to slap a bunch of GIFs around on a page, but this is not giving me ANY useful information about whether or not I’ll enjoy the book. Imagine if we were talking, I asked you what you thought of Catcher In The Rye, and you just started quoting Simpsons lines. Yes, I'd be somewhat delighted, but I wouldn't learn anything about the book.

GIF it a rest.


Let's take a look at how the newest John Green book is doing on Goodreads:

4.02. Did I mention that this book doesn't exist yet?

John Green's newest, writing that's not even finished, is a 4.02.

How? To who? Is it that the idea of John Green having a new book is a 4.02? Is 4.02 a good score for the idea of a book?

Why are people doing this? Who are you, people who've reviewed this already? What's the point? The fact that it's possible to do this is strange, but the fact that 483 people have gone ahead and rated a non-existent book, a book that's not even written yet, is just mind-blowing.

And the most baffling part is deciding who the worst offenders are here.

Is it the people who give the book 5 stars? They're optimists, which is good. But they're undeniably cooking the books here.

Is it the 3-star people? They're the most confusing, because why even bother to share this non-opinion with the world?

John Green's third-best book is one he hasn't even written. Do I even need to talk about how profoundly stupid this is?

Is it the 1-star people? 

Actually, it's not that baffling a problem. It's definitely the 1-star people who are the worst. What the hell is wrong with you? You 45 people sicken me.

The question it begs, what integrity do these reviews have? Hell, this 4.02 rating puts this untitled novel as John Green's third best! John Green's third-best book is one he hasn't even written. Do I even need to talk about how profoundly stupid this is?

Free Copies

“This reviewer was given a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.”

I believe in the goodness in all of you, but I don’t really believe in free copies for amateur reviews. And I’ll tell you why.

If a publisher is giving out free copies, it’s because they want good reviews. Not honest reviews. Nobody wants feedback. They want affirmation. And a publisher worth its salt is giving out these free copies to people who are likely to give the book a favorable review, based on their past reviews and interests. While you may have accepted the book on what you perceived to be fair terms, you really didn’t. The publisher is hedging bets here.

And while you may dutifully type in the text about fair reviews, be honest. We all know that reviewing a book favorably means more free books. There's something to be gained by both parties here.

I'm not saying it's wrong to be compensated or even to be given free books. I'm saying that this makes you a pro, not an amateur, and you've got no business pretending otherwise. And there are some inherent issues when you switch roles and become a professional reviewer.

It's something that's crippled film critics for a long time. It's rare to find a professional film critic who is reviewing a movie on the level of, "Was this worth my twelve bucks?" Because they aren't usually paying that twelve bucks. They're mostly looking at whether or not a movie made some impact on the world of film, a factor I couldn't care less about. And they very rarely acknowledge that their position as film critics, and the fact that they watch movies professionally, has taken them away from the opinion possessed by most audiences.

There are plenty of movies where the review chasm between amateurs and pros is huge.

And this cuts both ways, critics liking a movie that amateurs don't:

I saw Escape Plan. I was drunk. Stallone and Arnold blew up the Jesus guy with a rocket launcher. While this didn't change my life in any way, it was well worth the price of admission. But I'm not a film critic. I'm just someone who watches a movie.

Here's the ultimate point. The distinction between amateur and professional critics is important, especially when it comes to certain genres and targeted audiences.

If there’s a choice between being on fire and reading this, consider that skin grafts have come a long way.

By accepting free copies, you're crossing over into the territory of a professional, but without seeing yourself as a professional. It's dishonest and disingenuous, and it takes away from the purpose of amateur reviews.

Quibbling About Stars

“I gave this a 3, but it's really more like a 3.5…”

Stop with this. Your stars are not that precious.

Essentially, a 5-star rating system with half-steps is a 10-step rating system. So let's just pretend a 10-star system exists.

Tell me, what's the difference between a 3-star book and a 4-star book? Which books would you put next to each other as examples of what delineates a 3-star book and a 4-star book?

Furthermore, what's the useful distinction here? I'm not going to read a book that's a 3 out of 10, and I'm also not going to read a book that's 4 out of 10. Both are pretty far away from a passing grade. Flip side, I'll read a 9 or a 10. 

So why bother? Nobody cares about your half stars.

Maybe the problem is that the current system is not clear. Let me help by clarifying the 5-star system.

1 star: Garbage. Do not read. If there’s a choice between being on fire and reading this, consider that skin grafts have come a long way.
2 stars: Pretty much also garbage, but I feel bad giving this 1 star for some reason. Most likely because the author is still alive.
3 stars: Passable, inoffensive, but didn’t light a fire. Maybe had a shining moment like Jesus being blown up by a rocket launcher.
4 stars: Good to very good. Would read again if I got Men In Black mind-wiped.
5 stars: Fave.


"Full Review At My Web Site"

I don’t give a damn about your web site, and I’m not clicking over there. You and your screwy web sites.

I can barely click the thing that shows me the entire review. If you think I'm going to your completely separate site with its crazy layout and Google Adsense nonsense, you're out of your mind. Don't bother.

Not Reading Any of the Available Information

I read a review of Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, a book which has fossils on the cover. The reviewer was mad because the book had nothing to do with fossils.

Here are a few other books that have covers that might confuse this reviewer:

Catcher In The Rye is not about the science of rainbows.

The Godfather is not a treatise in marionette operation.

The Hunger Games is not a book about a golden bird that carries an arrow around.

But let's not just pick on this one person. Let's look at another dum-dum who was ALSO confused by Memory Wall:

Um, should we take a closer look at the book's COVER?

Computer: Enhance!

It's slightly obscured by the aforementioned fossils. But the word "stories" is definitely right there, on the cover.

In general, there's not a lot of reading required to know what a book is about. You've got the cover, you've got the flap/online description. And yet, this kind of thing comes up in amateur reviews ALL THE TIME. Can you all please, for the love of god, please read this very small amount of text before picking up a book and reviewing it? 

Wasting Everyone's Time With Summary

I wrote an entire column about this once, so I won't get too preachy about it. But damn, there's a summary of the book right above the spot where your review shows up. Not to mention the fact that most other reviews are summary-heavy, so why do we need yours? We have plenty of outlets for summary, and the thing is, summary isn't as helpful as you might think when it comes to reviewing a book.

Let me make a comparison. I live in Colorado, home of the craft beer. Which is awesome, except sometimes you just want to drink a goddamn beer and not hear the entire story of a beer. 

When you mosey into a taproom and ask "What's Beer X like?" you'll hear two different kinds of answers.

The Good Kind: It's light, refreshing. A hint of citrus. Maybe a little like a Blue Moon, if you've had that.

The Bad Kind: The story of this beer starts with the water. Fresh Rocky Mountain springs sluice through the natural world all around us. Meanwhile, on a nearby farm, hops are growing with the perfect mixture of sun and shade, creating an ideal plant structure for extracting the beautiful flavors for this beer...

The good kind of beer review tells me a little bit about what it tastes like. The bad kind is all plot, A to B to C, and no flavor information. 

Hearing what makes something good is different from hearing what it's all about.

What are your amateur review pet peeves? I know I haven't covered everything. Let's hear it.

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Nick Sweeney's picture
Nick Sweeney August 19, 2016 - 8:44am

I hate it when they give away major plot points. Not just applicable to amateur reviews, in fact - lots of pros do it, too. Do they really think they're the only readers clever enough to spot how a plotline developed and resolved?

I also hate reviews by people who have obviously not read the book, just the cover blurb, or the summary. They are generic to the point that they could be about any book ever written, and very transparently. I used to be puzzled, thinking, 'Why did they bother?' I guessed that these reviews had obviously been promised to the author for whatever reason. Then I saw a FB group in which self-published authors were taking turns to review one another's books, and the reviews were exactly like this.

Amateurs are seriously fucking up publishing from both sides of the fence.

Rebekah Mays's picture
Rebekah Mays from Austin, TX is reading The Shell Collector August 19, 2016 - 2:48pm

Very helpful post. I myself have not encountered many GIF-infused book reviews, so I count myself lucky.

I think your most useful tip for new reviewers is the point about summary. It feels like you *have* to summarize, like that's part of what's expected of book reviewing, but you're right that most of the time it's superfluous. What people want is to know if the book is a good fit for them, which doesn't usually come through in a plot regurgitation.

Curious, whose reviews do you take seriously? I usually only act on book recommendations from friends and from larger, more respected sources of book reviews. And of course I'll check out a book from a small publisher or individual writer that I like. But maybe there are great websites I'm missing out on.

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman August 21, 2016 - 2:53pm

Hmm...you know, I think what's worked best for me is a small group of online "friends." I put that in quotes because these are people I know only because we read the same kinds of things. Usually I find that I can follow a few people who I think have similar tastes and find great things I like. Also, I'm with you on the writer and publisher. I've been slowly working through everything Hawthorne Press does, and I don't think I've read anything I hated.

I'm also lucky. I work in an office where my officemate spends about 75% of her workday recommending books to people (we're librarians). She knows my taste pretty well, so as she's looking around, she'll send me anything that looks like it might be interesting to me. She's usually right.

If you're stuck, I recommend checking if your local library provides reading recommendations. Lots of libraries are doing this, and the advantage is they have no real economic reason to recommend certain books, and they are more focused on recommending books YOU would like as opposed to books they think people "should" read.

If your local library doesn't do it, I know some library systems take requests from outside their area. Denver Public Library, for example, doesn't even ask where you're from. https://www.denverlibrary.org/reads 

smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. August 23, 2016 - 7:09pm

Thanks for the article. I have been avoiding doing a review for a  writing buddy, because I don't want to do more harm than good, by posting a less than professional review. The best way to figure that out is to go read a bunch of these reviews I guess and try to avoid the pitfalls.  

I want to help, as he says reviews are necessary in order to be visible....Guess I'll go take a look at Amazon and see what it all looks like, and give it a shot. I can't /won't do GIFS so at least I don't have to worry about that.  Thanks again.