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How to Write the Perfect Book Review (Without Being a Jerk)

How to Write the Perfect Book Review (Without Being a Jerk)

Book reviews are the lifeblood of the publishing industry. Without people saying nice things about a book, it’s just not going to do very well, no matter how much marketing goes into selling that book.

As such, publishers and authors are constantly looking for reviewers, and people routinely search for reviews before they choose whether or not to buy a new release … or an old one.

With so much money flowing into the system, and with writing being one of the most obvious (but not the only) medium for a book review, it pays to know how to write one.

If you’re a writer, that is. But we’re all writers here.

If not, get out.

Okay, j/k. I still like you. Nevertheless, the following post will be most useful to two kinds of people: a) those who love to read books and want a never-ending supply of freebies they can devour and then post on their blogs, or b) those who write reviews for clients to post on their websites, with the goal of building authority in their niche and generally looking like a cultured smartypants.

I used to write a lot of book reviews, back when I had a blog dedicated to that. Once I decided to read mostly for pleasure, I took the blog down (though I still maintain an Instagram account dedicated to the craft).

Point being: I know a thing of two about ze reviewing of ze books. Since it’s such a lucrative service to offer to clients, I thought I’d put up a quickie here to guide first-timers through your first review, and old-timers towards a better product.

Let’s get started.

Wait … coffee. Okay, now let’s get started.

The Point of a Book Review

First, let’s get clear on what the point of a review actually is. I’ve read so many that made me want to stab my eyes out, and I thought perhaps it would help to go into exactly what your goal should – and shouldn’t – be.

First, a few don’ts. The point of a review is not to:

  • Summarize the entire book
  • Delve too deeply into character motivations or themes
  • “Spoil” a book … even nonfiction
  • Talk about yourself. Ever

Got it? Good. Okay, now here’s what you should do when reviewing a book:

  • Summarize the main hook, i.e. the heart of a novel or the main premise of a nonfiction book
  • Discuss the author’s voice
  • Offer a brief overview of strengths and weaknesses
  • Demonstrate that the writer understands the ideas of the book, and how it relates either to other literature or to an industry

If that last one sounds a bit self-loving, too bad. Especially when you’re writing for clients, the goal is to make them sound like the type of person who has the right to opine on the worth of this book. Otherwise, why bother writing it at all?

Like all other content marketing, this book review is a tool to help your client show their clients and customers that they know what they’re talking about. The book review needs to say:

I read this shiz. I understood it. I now know more than you, at least about this particular book, which is why you’re coming to me for my expertise. Oh btw I offer other expertise too. Pay me for products and services!

Which is verbatim the blurb I use at the bottom of every review I write.

… kidding.

How to Review Books Without Being a Jerk

Before we move on to the formula you should use when writing reviews, I wanted to address a sad reality of publishing: Sometimes books suck.

Given the plethora of self-published books out there these days, this is only getting more true. Now, I’m not knocking self-publishing. I’ve put out both a nonfiction book about creative fear and a YA fantasy, and I believe strongly that authorship should be a democracy. As in, it’s your right to put your story out there. Good on you. I also believe that these books can be just as strong as their traditionally published counterparts (hello, The Martian?).

That said, I admit that without the full backing of an agent, editor, publishing house, et cetera, books tend to suffer in quality.

And unfortunately, there’s a good chance the book you’re reviewing is such a book. Clients hoping to build their industry expertise and partnerships can do so by reviewing their colleague’s books, and new book reviewers often start with self-published authors.

So then … how to review a book without being a jerk?

The answer is pretty simple, actually: Be honest, but keep it short. If you really can’t say anything nice about a book, it’s probably better to just contact the author with a quick, “Hey look, I could review this, but I doubt you’d want me too.” If your standards don’t permit that, fine, but that’s what I do.

If you thought it suffered in parts but was good in others, say so. Be clear about what you didn’t like, so that others can clearly see if there are any dealbreakers. Then offer up kudos for what the author did well. That way, you serve people who are genuinely seeking advice, and still help the author as much as you can.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to a quick formula for book review writing.

Your Crash Course in Solid Book Review Writing

Luckily, like any other piece of writing, book reviews follow a formula. At least, the good ones do. Also luckily, this formula is not complex. To wit:

  1. Start with a hook. Not “This book was sent to me by … ” or “[Title] addresses the problem of … ” but a real hook. Imagine if your review had intense movie preview voiceover of the “In a world … ” or “Nita thinks she’s just an ordinary girl … ” persuasion. Make it jump out, just as you would any other blog post. This isn’t hard journalism, folks. You can feel free to bury the lede.
  2. Introduce the premise. Once you hook your reader, lay it out there. In fiction, you’ll want to share the main dramatic element: What is the protagonist struggling with? What effed up stuff have they discovered about their past? What’s up with their romantic life? Etc. In nonfiction, this is straightforward: What is the author discussing?
  3. Share your immediate reactions. Spend a paragraph or two talking about your reaction to the ideas. Were they sound? Spotty? Totally full of holes? What could have fixed this?
  4. Address the strengths and weaknesses. This is different from your reactions to the story or premise. You should cover how the author writes, whether characters are relatable, whether nonfiction books follow a consistent flow, and how moved you were overall by the content.
  5. Summarize and offer advice. Now tell the reader whether or not they should buy the book. It can be a simple yes/no, a letter or number grade system, or a more nuanced approach. Check out some of the most popular book blogs to see how they do it, then select your own. I’m always up for a lighthearted twist, such as, “Buy this book if you plan to be stuck somewhere cold without hot water and need a spicy romance to heat things up.” Or “Get this book for your mother-in-law if she’s been particularly heinous this year, then tell her how important it is to you that she read it.” Or whatever. (I’ve said this before: I love my mother-in-law. Really, I do.)

And that’s it!

So now you have a handy-dandy little outline to follow when starting your own book blog or writing reviews for clients. What do you think? Will you get started?

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