Book Reviews: Dos and Don’ts

Book reviewing as a profession and a literary hobby has evolved over the decades to keep up with the shift in market trends and consumer preferences. Over the last year, we have seen significant changes in the book reviewing process as a result of some major corporate decisions—full-time and part-time book reviewers were let go by retail book chains, and newspapers decided to forego book review columns altogether. While the reading community was initially dismayed, they took it in stride and moved on to other issues faced by the publishing industry in these turbulent times. These changes can be attributed to the dynamically shifting landscape of book marketing and sales.

With e-commerce giants like Amazon overtaking brick-and-mortar stores in terms of book sales, publishing houses are shifting their focus to reach out to more customers through these platforms instead of the deep-rooted traditional platforms like newspapers and book review blogs that prevailed earlier. Digital platforms have also streamlined the process for readers to share their reviews, thereby providing prospective customers with a wide range of opinions instead of having to rely on just one person’s, as is the case in a book review column or a blog.

Reading book reviews often left me with more questions than answers: Why was this book picked among the thousands of books published this week? How can I rely on the reviewer’s opinion about it? Is the review unbiased and transparent? Is the reviewer knowledgeable about the subject matter? Phillipa Chong’s book on book reviewing, Inside the Critics’ Circle, answered all my questions and more. With a logical approach, this book addresses all the ambiguities concerning book reviews and reviewers.

Reviewing books is not a one-person process and involves first choosing the book to be reviewed and finding the right person or platform to review it. There are many aspects that need to be factored in when evaluating the authenticity of a book review. One tiny misstep could result in a biased review, which is detrimental to the author and the sales. An inaccurate review, resulting from lack of interest or lack of subject-matter knowledge, could drive away potential readers, which is a huge disservice on the part of the reviewer.

For example, if a reviewer primarily interested in science fiction is assigned a nonfiction autobiography, or vice versa, the result could be one of two things: an unbiased review which might or might not be accurate since the reviewer is not familiar with the subject, or a biased review that is a result of the reviewer’s disinterest in the subject. Neither of these two scenarios is conducive to a bias-free review.

However, the burden of choosing the right book not only falls on the reviewer but also on the editor or person responsible for assigning the books for reviewing. The person assigning the book should make sure that the reviewer is familiar with the subject matter and genre of the book to ensure unbiased reviews, especially for books that need an authenticity read.

While maintaining a fine balance between being objective and conscientiousness with regard to editorial opinion is the key factor, it is also crucial to provide an honest professional outlook that is unbiased. Reviews play a great role in influencing readers to buy a book, and with this in mind, reviewers should focus on discussing the merits and demerits of a book but leave the choice of deciding its worthiness to the reader.

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