Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Designing Better Book Reviews

Reviews--any kind of reviews, whether it's film, music, or books--varies from publication to publication or author to author. Perhaps the advantage of reviewing in a publication is that there's already a template for you to follow, how the review is going to go about and what you need to indicate there.

Personally, when I review books, it's quite different from how a professional reviewer would write it. In many ways, we have different criteria. Personally, what I keep in mind when writing my reviews is what kind of readers I have--in this case light fantasy/science-fiction readers and then there's a recommendation to more "literary" readers. So in many ways, that's how I write my book reviews.

A good chunk of book reviews, however, isn't just the review itself. There's usually a photo of the book (which I tend to include now to give people a visual image of what my book looks like and to make the blog less text-intensive). Then there's the author byline and some include all the relevant publisher information.

I work in a music magazine and there was a time when our music editor suggested doing away with the rating system. On one hand, he has a point--ratings make people lazy. Instead of reading the whole review, they just skip to the rating and don't bother to read why the book was rated as such. On the other hand, because of that very fact, ratings are sometimes indispensable. It's what some readers look at second after the title of the book you're reviewing. In a newspaper, it's the equivalent of the headline--it can sometimes be misleading but it's certainly what people look for. That's not to say people can't write book reviews without ratings--they can, it's just that ratings are crowd drawers and if you're just establishing yourself, ratings are a good way to make yourself popular. (Also check out the Amazon.com reviews--not everyone reads every review but checking how high they rated a book is much more quicker and simpler, especially with the average customer review score.)

Lately, I was thinking, what can I add to that template? The writing will take care of itself as people have different standards and priorities (how critical the review will be, who your target audience is, whether it'll include spoilers or not, quoting specific lines or not, long or short, etc.). The good thing about bookstore propaganda publications (i.e. PowerBook's Read magazine) is that you know where to buy the book that gets reviewed in its pages. So perhaps when doing book reviews on the local level (i.e. writing for Manilenos especially in the Manila-centric Philippines), it might be useful for book reviews to indicate where they purchased or found the book instead of simply defaulting to "get your books at Amazon.com". Chances are, even if there was just one copy of the book in stock, the bookstore where you bought it might be able to stock the book again. There's nothing worse that recommending a book and as a reader, you discover that it's unavailable or don't know where to reasonably get it (I say reasonably because living in the Philippines, I don't find the cost of shipping a book from the US to the Philippines via Amazon.com to be reasonable).

Personally, I still don't know whether you should indicate the price you bought it, not because we're displaying the price, but because if other bookstores stock the book, they might have a different price for it (whether higher or lower) and so might disappoint potential book buyers if the prices do go up. Still, I think that's a feature that's up for consideration.

Any other features you think will make reading a book review easier or more efficient?

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