If you peruse a selection of the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads you will find that they are largely positive—as in 4 or 5 star ratings. Considering that it is now, due to print on demand, possible for anyone to self-publish with no upfront costs, can it really be that the majority of books are “really liked” or “loved” by most readers? Or is it that society is gradually conditioning us to avoid confrontation or negativity in favour of a more positive and uplifting approach?
As an evangelical Christian I am obviously in favour of encouragement and of trying to see the good side of things. But shouldn’t we also be honest and say what we really think about something? What value is it if we say that things are good when they are not? What will happen to the quality of our literature if we follow each other in enthusing about books that we actually found dull and monotonous in order to fit in? Is that what is happening or is it that we’ve lost the ability to think critically, having been instructed from an early age that we need to build a person’s self-esteem through affirmation?
Hopefully, you can now appreciate why this is an important issue worth writing about. This is my list of reasons for writing honest book reviews.
1. Maintaining a good standard of quality literature. This is particularly important with the massive rise in self-publishing in recent years. If readers were honest, those poor quality books that are badly edited or just not worth reading would be banished forever.
2. Time is valuable. How many times have you downloaded a book or picked one up cheaply in a charity/thrift store only to read the first few chapters and abandon it? How many books do you have waiting in your “to read” pile? How many other ways are you wasting time due to not really knowing whether or not a book is worth reading due to the lack of honest reviews?
3. Money is scarce. E-books and the ability to “Look Inside” a book partly negate this issue as you can “try before you buy.” But there are still some over-priced e-books out there. And what of those who prefer paperbacks or who aren’t internet savvy? Honest reviews prevent people wasting their hard-earned cash on something that will inevitably disappoint.
4. Offensive content. Standards are lowering across the globe as people depart from biblical values. What was offensive twenty years ago is now considered acceptable. I appreciate that readers will have different opinions on what is and isn’t offensive. Wouldn’t it be useful to know in advance if there is bad language, blasphemy, sex, violence or drug-taking in a book? There are various Christian websites that evaluate movies but none that I am aware of for books. Readers rely on reviews yet I rarely see comments about this type of content issue.
5. Authors want them! Most serious authors want to know how they can improve their writing. They want to know about content or editing issues. Changes are easier to make now than ever. The pain of receiving a 1 or 2 star rating is somewhat negated with an explanation as to why the reader didn’t enjoy the book. Sometimes it will be unavoidable or a mismatched genre preference—I have had non-Christians offended by the Christian focus of my books. But most authors want to know anyway. One author contacted me after I left a relatively negative review on Amazon to ask me to be a BETA reader for her. She told me that I had raised all of the issues that she had felt uncomfortable with when she had published the book.
6. Encourage critical thinking. An honest and thought-provoking review may cause others to re-examine their own position on an issue. My most popular review to date was of the best-selling Christian book The Shack. Wincing at the numerous 4 and 5 star reviews, I gave it 1 star due to the bad language and erroneous theology. My review generated a great deal of discussion on Goodreads which led to someone recommending a Youtube documentary examining the book in light of Scripture. Surely it is good for all of us to be challenged in this way.
7. Fostering reliability. Readers still look at reviews when deciding what to read, but how many are being put off by the grossly inflated statistics? If a book is rated 5 stars it should be something exceptional, but many are not. This has come about partly due to review swaps between authors who then cannot bring themselves to be honest for fear of damaging their own chances of success. This also occurs due to authors paying for reviews—yes, this does happen despite big companies like Amazon clamping down. But I would suggest that readers could easily over-ride these misleading and in some cases fraudulent stats by simply being honest in their own reviews.
8. Increased success for indies. Good self-published authors can be lost in the tide of drivel. Readers become reluctant to buy indie books after a few disastrous purchases. If only they could rely on the reader reviews they might take a chance on a new author.
9. Bucking the trend. Okay, maybe this is just me, but there’s definitely something satisfying about drawing attention to a little known author after a great reading experience; or, conversely, departing from the acceptable path of popular opinion by slating a “classic.” A word of caution here—only do this if it is what you really think. Ulterior motives tend to expose themselves in the end.
10. It’s biblical! I had to of course mention the most important point. We should be “speaking the truth in love.” At times, that might involve contacting an author and offering feedback privately rather than a public review. It might also involve explaining publicly why a book is offensive or theologically inaccurate to steer others away from it. It doesn’t generally involve remaining silent and it definitely doesn’t involve giving an untruthful opinion about something to please an author, blend in with the crowd, or to avoid being controversial.
Let’s be honest in our reviews so that we can all enjoy our reading experiences.
Ephesians 4 vs 15
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ
Proverbs 16 vs 13
Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right.
Ephesians 4 vs 25
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another.