• Do Book Reviews Influence You?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 37 comments

    I have a friend (I know; shocking!) who is getting back into reviewing books after a nearly two-year layoff.

    He quit because he decided that nobody reads book reviews anymore, even in (or especially in?) major newspapers and magazines, and so all of the time and effort he puts into a review — for little to no pay — is pointless, because the review itself passes like a fart in the wind.

    He hasn’t changed his mind, but he’s giving it another chance mostly because he misses doing it.

    My own layoff has now exceeded two years. Sometimes I miss it. Reviewing is how I got my start writing professionally, so I’ll always have a soft spot for it.

    Still, it often did seem pointless.


    I used to read reviews all the time; I subscribed to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and Bookforum, all at once, and I read lots more reviews online.

    (For the record, I’ve always disliked the New York Times’ reviews section.)

    Occasionally I’d buy a book because of a review; occasionally I’d avoid a book because of a review. Mostly I read them out of curiosity about what kinds of new stuff was coming out, or because I enjoyed a particular reviewer’s style, or because it’s admittedly fun to read hatchet jobs.

    (I also wrote a couple: It always made me feel awful, though, and I don’t think I’m clever enough to make them colorful.)

    When I stopped writing reviews, I also stopped reading them. I don’t miss it, and it hasn’t affected my visits to the bookstore: I still manage to find books to buy.



    This has all been a rather irrelevant lead-up to my questions for the week:

    1. Do you read book reviews? If so, where?

    2. How often does a review influence your book-buying decisions? And share a recent example!

    3. What do you look for in a review? Meaning, what are you hoping the reviewer will touch on: plot, style, influences, the book’s comps, the writer’s life?

    4. How important is a reviewer’s style? Would you rather read a dry review that covers all of the basics, or would you rather read a review that’s entertaining but might leave out some standard information?

    Let us know in the comments below.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Marcia Drut-Davis

    When searching for a book, I usually use Kindle. I do read the reviews. They may or may not sway me because it’s all about personal perceptions. We know what that means! However, you can download a sample of the writing. I’m very critical. If I find I’m bored to tears, not interested in the topic or see too many grammatical mistake, it’s gone!

    David Duhr

    Hey Marcia. At what point do you usually give up on a book with too many typos or is too boring? I used to have a real problem with being able to put down a book: I could be bored to tears, but for some reason I would force my way through the rest of it anyway, Which was frustrating, as I’m sure you can imagine. It’s something I’m working on.

    DB Bradley

    I’ll sometimes look at goodreads, but it’s hard to find a book that’s not rated somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. There’s a magazine (bookmarks?) that publishes snippets from all a book’s reviews in papers and magazines, which is Okay for a quick summary of reviews, like Rotten tomatos online for movies. But I buy most of my books just by browsing the new releases as the store.

    David Duhr

    Thanks, DB. Bookmarks is the name of it. My mom loves that magazine. I’ve had a snippet in there once or twice.

    You’re so right about Goodreads. It’s like every book is 3.6 stars. I’ll scan a few reviews sometimes, but the ratings mean nothing to me.

    Barbara A Mealer

    I used to read the reviews in my local paper, but I moved and there is only a weekly paper where I live now. As to reading them to buy a book, I did pay attention to the reviews on the book, but it wasn’t the whole reason why I would read or reject a book. That was determined by the blurb and the first couple of pages of the book. If I liked the writer’s style and I met a character I wanted to know more about, I would read the book. What I look for is how the… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Thanks for the feedback, Barbara, as always. When you say “blurb” do you mean the plot summary on the back or flap, or do you mean the praise from other authors that are sometimes printed on the front cover?

    I like a review that places the book in some kind of wider context. New York Review of Books is excellent for that reason. But I found myself incapable of writing that way; my reviews were always about the book itself, and only the book itself, as a self-contained thing. It got boring.

    Barbara A Mealer

    I read the blurbs on the back of the book. I look at the reviews, but most don’t tell me a thing, so I ignore them. I want an in-depth review which gives me the good, the bad, and ugly of a book, not that I agreed with their conclusions, but it gives me a good idea of the book, characters and what they thought about it.. I ignore those one liners on the book cover and all the so called awards. They don’t tell me anything. It is all about personal perception. I generally read the first couple of… Read more »

    David Duhr

    “I ignore those one liners on the book cover and all the so called awards. They don’t tell me anything.”

    What’s even worse about those author blurbs are that many of the blurbers don’t even finish the book — they’ll write that promo blurb after only ten, twenty-fives pages.

    I’ve even heard of people who will ask the book’s author to write the blurb on his/her behalf, and that he/she will sign off on it. How disgusting is that?

    Jerry Schwartz

    I blow hot and cold about reviews of all kinds: movies, books, plays, restaurants, and so on. For me, the key is to find a reviewer or critic whose tastes and opinions match my own. That’s something that can only be determined over time.

    I’m leery of crowd-sourced reviews of all kinds.

    David Duhr

    Hey Jerry. Who are some of the book critics whose reviews you seek out? I have a feeling that you and I have some favorites in common.

    Mary E Jeffredo

    I read book reviews. But sometimes I just ignore the bad ones and read the book anyway, to my sometimes happy surprise. I just had a book published. I’d love you to read it and review it, but only if you really read it. :-) It’s called; “Castle Fehn: A Visit With Mother Earth.” By Mary Jeffredo.

    David Duhr

    Hey Mary. Congratulations on the new book! If I ever get back into reviewing, I’ll definitely consider it. And maybe some of the other reviewers here will see your note and take a peek.

    So when/how do you decide to disregard a negative review and try the book anyway?

    Joe Giordano

    David, I’d like to answer your question, “Are reviews valuable?” from an author’s perspective. Reviews create “awareness” and “favorability,” precursors to “intention to purchase.” A blogger’s review reaches fewer people than the New York Times, but still creates awareness and favorability for potential readers. Consulting avid-reader friends, perusing “Best of” lists, and referencing Amazon reviews are some of the tools readers use before book selection. For most authors, amassing Amazon (and to a lesser extent, Barnes & Noble) reviews is the only option they can influence. An independent (unpaid for) review has more credibility than advertising and costs less. While… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Thanks for the feedback, Joe. I’m sure a lot of people here would love to hear about your strategies for seeking reviews. Because I know that you always put a lot of work into that.

    Do you think Amazon reviews are more fruitful for the author than a review in, say, a few big-city newspapers? For instance, would you rather have twenty-five positive Amazon reviews and zero newspaper coverage, or zero Amazon reviews but coverage in, say, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Dallas Morning News, and Miami Herald?

    david lemke

    I don’t go out of my way to read book reviews, however they can have a minor influence if I run across one as long as it is not clever and egotistical and if that critic has interests similar to mine. I.E. a critic who doesn’t get SF won’t have any influence over my interest in a SF work.
    I’ve rarely written reviews. I don’t read negative reviews.

    David Duhr

    Hey David. Nothing is more annoying than a critic who reviews a book in a genre he/she doesn’t enjoy and/or understand. It’s such an odd decision. Unless it’s woven into the review’s approach, I’m not on board.


    I subscribe to reviews from debbish.com. She reviews for publishers. And I have bought off her say-so. And not regretted it.
    I like a review to be informative and can usually tell when a reviewer’s bias is in evidence.

    David Duhr

    Hey Liz. Thanks for the feedback. Do newspapers in Australia still devote a good deal of space to reviews? Or is like here… shrinking, ever shrinking?


    I read Goodreads reviews because I can find a lot of reviews in one place that usually end up providing a balanced picture of the book after one has read enough of them. I am looking for information, not opinions, nor do I want to know the whole story step by step. I don’t use specific reviews to determine if I am going to read a book or not.

    David Duhr

    Thanks for stopping by, Bob. Do you find that a lot of Goodreads reviews do give too much away about a book? Not necessarily plot spoilers, but just blow-by-blow accounts of the plot?

    Denice Moffat

    I do read a couple of good 5-star and a couple of 1-star reviews before purchasing a book. Sometimes with the 1-star reviews they will give a really good recommendation for a better book worth the money and then I usually delve into those suggestions and purchase a book that way.

    David Duhr

    Hi Denice. Thanks for the comment. I always feel like one can get a better idea about a book by reading equals parts rave reviews and pans, rather than a bunch of mixed reviews. So I like your approach: A few five-star reviews, a few one-stars.

    Mark S Johnson

    1. Do you read book reviews? Yes, iBooks, Amazon, Goodreads, Kidsread, The Children’s Book Review 2. How often does a review influence your book-buying decisions? And share a recent example! As an author searching for best writing practices, i scrutinize the reviews not only by number of stars but the elements of the writing that the reviewer feels are exceptional. 3. What do you look for in a review? Meaning, what are you hoping the reviewer will touch on: plot, style, influences, the book’s comps, the writer’s life? Plot, how the writer’s life experiences influenced the theme, critique of characters… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hi Mark. Thanks for sharing with us. I appreciate in particular your take on reading reviews as an author rather than strictly as a reader. I’ve never really thought about that, but it makes sense: Read reviews in part to see what tends to work and what doesn’t.


    If I am considering buying a book I don’t know much about, then I will read the 5 star and 1 star reviews (like Denice). I will sometimes check out an author based on the fact that another author or artist likes them. (I read Red Dragon because Roberto Bolaño admired the pacing in the Thomas Harris novels.) Here’s a blog idea: maybe ask every now and then what people are reading and what they think of it?

    David Duhr

    Hi Teresa. Thanks for the input. And the blog idea! I remember asking somewhat recently about favorite books of 2017 (maybe around Thanksgiving?), but it would be a good idea to do it more often. We’re all always on the lookout for new recommendations.

    Glynis Jolly

    Reviews do influence my stopping for certain novels. Although I will pick a book at random at the local used bookstore, when I fork over that extra dollar for a brand new novel, I was some sort of reassurance that I’m not buying a dud. Who is reviewing the book doesn’t matter as much as what the review says and I want at least three reviews.

    David Duhr

    Hey Glynis. I’m glad you touched on the “extra dollar.” When I was more involved in the business, as a reviewer and as an assigning reviews editor, I was exposed to a lot of slimy stuff: Friends reviewing friends; people reviewing books by authors as a favor; publications that refuse to run negative reviews. And much more. Which seems extra off-putting when you consider the fact that a review is intended, at least in part, to inform a reader whether or not he/she should consider spending hard-earned money on the book in question.


    I was afraid of that.

    Chris Timmersq

    I have wide and varying interests and book reviews are a way for me to filter the vast array of newly published works that hit the book stores every year. I, too, got started writing professionally via book reviews. My main interest is military history, but I enjoy reading/reviewing books on mathematics, language, and sports. And yes, I definetly read book reviews in the magazines I subscribe to. I read them in the Wall St Journal, the Weekly Standard, Chronicles, and the Times Literary Supplement. The review of I Kiss Your Hands Many Times by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak was very well… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hey Chris. I’ll check out that National Review piece; thanks for the tip. Do you still review books? What’s (or what was) fulfilling about it for you? I appreciated at least the idea of contributing to the conversation, but often I found myself wondering if there really was a conversation going on at all. I used to publish a lot of reviews in a publication with a circulation of nearly half a million, and yet I almost never heard a peep from anyone about anything. Not that I was waiting for fan letters to start pouring in, but it seems… Read more »


    I must admit the occasional sway by a competent reviewer. Concerning movies, there is a certain critic in the newspaper who is on my wavelength, and I love the way he writes. He carries a modest amount of weight whether or not I see that particular movie, especially if I’m on the fence about it. He will touch on something I had not thought of, or give me useful background, why it was shot like this or written like that. I like book reviewers to do the same. I want to know why you think it’s good or not. Details.… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hey E. I’m glad you touched on rereading. Several times I’ve taken a post-review look at a book and discovered changed feelings. Sometimes only a few months after the review has run. The circumstances of a reviewer’s life at the time he/she writes the review can have an impact. I’ve always thought it’d be an interesting project for me to reread the books I’ve reviewed, reread the published review, and then write a second piece — sort of an update on my original thoughts. Has my view changed? If so, what does that mean? Because the book itself hasn’t changed… Read more »

    PIa Manning

    Hey, I guess that depends upon which one of me is answering. As a reader, nope. Not at all. I tend to gravitate toward an excerpt and back cover synopsis. As a hatchling author, definitely. Nothing makes my day like a good review, especially a review from a reader. As a fledgling reviewer, they scare me. I find review protocol, for lack of a better word, confusing. I found an error in an ARC; now what? How soon before publication should a review be released? I always want to be respectful but sometimes the work is just awful. Now what?… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hey Pia. Thanks for stopping by.

    This made me smile: “this author stuff was certainly a lot easier when I only worried about writing.” It’s so true.

    Those questions about protocol: The frustrating thing is, if you ask ten reviewers you might get ten different answers. But a lot of it depends on what readers you have for reviewing books; i.e., what’s the purpose, what are you trying to achieve/contribute, etc.

    But you’re right, eventually you’ll find your own way.

    Until then, if I can help at all with any questions, feel free to drop me a line: david{at]writebynight.net

    David Duhr

    “But a lot of it depends on what readers you have for reviewing books;”

    Was meant to be:

    “But a lot of it depends on what *reasons* you have for reviewing books.”

    […] The same goes for last week’s discussion, “Do Book Reviews Influence You?” […]

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