Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Writing reviews for ebooks: a beginner's guide.

Even if you've only read a handful of ebooks, once you've reached the end, you've no doubt noticed authors often ask for reviews. Some readers embrace the invitation, while others just close the book and move on to the next.  If you've ever hesitated as you close the book, and wondered if you should take up that invitation, here's a reason why.

Let me begin by clarifying that first and foremost, I am a reader. I have been a reader much longer than I've been a writer… decades longer, in fact.  And as a reader I am relatively new to the world of ebooks and digital publishing, as many of us still are.  It is a world that has drawn me in and got me hooked.  I am feverishly devouring books at a rate I haven't done since I worked in a library, and I'm spending less money than ever on them.

Unlike a bookshop, where you can walk in and caress each book, have your eye caught by a gorgeous cover and an intriguing blurb on the back, or open them up and have that new book smell tantalize your olfactory, ebookstores are less tactile and a much more disembodied experience.  At first, it's hard to have a sense of how big a 300 page book is when you're used to making that assessment by holding it in your hands. And when you're sitting alone at your computer in the wee hours of the morning, there's no one to ask, 'is this good?' 

But let's face it – there's often no one available to answer that question even if you are in a physical bookstore.  Which is why they have a tendency to pre-empt the question and litter the store with staff recommendations.  And that is exactly what online reviews are – they are the recommendations of other readers intended to answer that eternal question - 'is this good?'

There are millions, nay squillions, of books available through online bookstores.  And for us readers, this is a marvellous thing.  Did I mention I'm reading more but spending less than ever?  Ebooks are much cheaper than physical books and an astute reader could make the most of 99c sales or free promotions and reduce their reading budget even further. Still, as they say, time is money, and even if it's free, you still want to know if it's worth your time.
And that is what reviews do – they tell you, more than the blurb on the website will, whether or not this is your kind of book.

You don't have to leave reviews, it is merely something nice to do.  It's nice for other readers and nice for the author of the book you've just read because it helps him or her reach a broader audience. We could all use a few more niceties in our lives, couldn't we?  What goes around comes around and all that.
So now we've covered why you should leave a review, here's a few basic tips to help you write one.  It's much easier than you think.  It's not a school assignment and you're not doing a book report.  You don't need to write a 500 word essay.  All you need to do is focus on the things that appealed to you most about the book and comment on those. 

I am a big fan of the short and sweet review and generally I comment on three key aspects:

1.      The characters.  I love a character-driven story, so this is the most important thing for me.  When you are writing your review, ask yourself if you liked the characters, and why?  Was it because you like a damsel in distress, or was the female lead strong and determined?  Was the male lead an arrogant git who changed his ways with the help of a good woman, or was he the guy-next-door?  If you're keen, you can also comment on the supporting characters, did you like them too?

2.       The story, not the plot.  There are a range of common 'tropes' authors tend to fall back on, particularly when writing romance and/or love stories.  Examples include a reunion with a childhood friend/previous lover, the 'I-should-hate-you-but-I'm-really-attracted-to-you story', or the 'everyone-can-see-it-but-them' story.  Some readers have a preference for certain tropes, others like to pick and choose according to their mood.  You don't need to know what the tropes are summarize a storyline in one sentence, and an avid reader will recognise them readily enough.  A short and sweet summary of the interaction between the two main characters will suffice.

3.       The language and writing style.  This is easy.  Was the book an easy read, a page-turner?  Or something to savour and immerse yourself in over a period of weeks.  Again, as readers sometimes we want to mix it up, depending on our mood and what else is going on in our lives. 

Here's an example for you – my recent review of The Bad Girl's Club, but Kathryn O'Halloran.  You can see in this one that I didn't cover all of the aspects above – I didn't comment on the language and writing style. (So I will add now, that Kathryn is a master at the craft of writing. She's such a pleasure to read!)

"I loved this book. First and foremost, this is a story about female friendships, and it's beautiful.  Kathryn O'Halloran excels at characterisation, and in the Bad Girl's Club, creates three very different but equally loveable female protagonists. This isn't a book for nice girls though, these are modern, flawed women who sometimes do foolish or thoughtless things.  But the way they work through their mistakes makes them so easy to relate to and adore."

Of course, you're always welcome to cover more than the three aspects addressed above, and you'll most likely find that some books draw more out of you than others.  Some you will gush about and you'll want everyone you know to go on the journey you've just been on.  Others will enjoyable enough, but you probably won't mention them to your friends.  Still as a reader, I sometimes need these books, and the reviews other readers leave always help me choose them.

You've probably noticed that my suggestions above focus on what you liked about the book.  But what if you didn't like it? The nice thing to do in these cases is to choose not to leave a review.  Silence speaks volumes and all that.  But it is possible to provide constructive criticism, and if I put my author hat on for a moment, I've got to say, it's very useful.  If you want to write a critical review, you can still use the tips above – why didn't you like the characters, maybe you just don't like that trope, maybe you were hoping for a page-turner rather than something slow.  Said in a kind and positive way, critical reviews can still help people find books they like.  One review I received for Set Me Free was scathing about the raw language and sex – which some readers actually look for.  Admittedly, this isn't an example of a 'nice' critical review and the reviewer may given me 1 star, but it probably did as much for Set Me Free as a 5 star one. 

And now I'm curious, have you ever read any left-of-centre reviews that made you buy the book?  And if you already leave reviews, do you follow a formula that you'd be willing to share?


  1. Thanks for the shout out :)

    I've sometimes left a bad review on a book that I've thought is so awful that other readers need to be warned about it. I've read a couple of books that not only weren't edited, but hadn't even had a spell check run over them - eg. no space after full stops!

    Mostly, if I write an unfavourable review, it's a 'not for me' type of review.

    1. Thanks Kathryn. True, it is good to issue a warning and the 'not for me' approach is a good one.

  2. This is such a good post and not a topic many people have written about so thank-you. I am a writer too and the trouble is it makes me hyper-critical when reading other work. I agree that if you really don't like something it's kinder not to leave a review or just to say 'not for me' but if something just hasn't been professionally edited with spelling mistakes etc. then I wouldn't feel so bad about pointing that out because it's just sloppy from the author's point of view. But if you do enjoy a book then to recommend it to others is a lovely thing to do. I've been putting off writing a review for something I've recently read and I'm off to do it now!