Recently, on a discussion forum, the question was asked: “Would you trust a paid book review?” Most commenters declared an unambiguous “no,” but I’m not sure the answer is so easy or should be so emphatically given.

We start, of course, with what constitutes payment for a review. In the forum, the answers began with as little as receipt of a free review copy and moved on from there. What was never really addressed, although I did try to raise the issue, was the reviewer’s credentials.

The consensus in the forum was that the most trustworthy reviews are those written by a person who bought the book (which includes either print or ebook version), but studiously avoided the question of “What if the ebook was free?” Commenters didn’t detail what makes these reviewers and their reviews the most trustworthy other than to say, in the broadest terms, that the reviewer is not being influenced. It is truly a sad commentary on our society when we see corruption and influence in everything.

My take is somewhat different. I look at reviews written at Goodreads, Amazon, and other forums with quite a bit more than a grain of salt. As I have remarked in previous posts, anonymous reviewers do not inspire confidence, at least in my thinking, in the veracity of the review. It is not that the reviewer may or may not truly believe that a particular book is worthy of 5 stars or 1 star, it is that I have no idea what criteria the reviewer applied nor do I know what specialized knowledge the reviewer has. Who reviews the reviewer?

If you do not trust any paid reviews/reviewers, you cannot trust reviews in such publications as the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books (NYRB), Publishers Weekly, or the New York Times Book Review. In each of these instances, the reviewers are paid and the publications rely on publisher advertising. But isn’t the truth elsewhere? Isn’t it true that you can rely on these reviews, regardless of whether you agree with them, because of the credentials of the reviewers and the veracity and history of the publication?

When I read a review in the NYRB, which is my favorite review magazine, I know that the reviewer is knowledgable about the area under discussion. When Max Hastings reviews a book about World War II, I know he is competent to do so as a historian of and writer in the era. I expect he will be objective, or as objective as a reviewer can be, because his reputation rides on what he writes.

Importantly, the reviews in magazines like the NYRB are detailed and compare the book(s) under review with other books in the field that address the same issue. Isn’t such a comparison valuable? Doesn’t it add to the worth of the review? Isn’t seeing Max Hastings’s name at the top of the review important for determining the value of the review?

I know that Hastings was paid to write the review, whether it be in dollars or in writing credit for his career. I also know that Hastings writes similar books. Consequently, when I read his review I can evaluate the value of his review, something I cannot do with the anonymous and/or unknown reviewers we see popping up all over the Internet and at places like Amazon.

What I would like to know is how you decide to trust a review. Can you really just ignore all the 5-star and 1-star reviews at Amazon and just concentrate on the 2- to 4-star reviews? How do you feel about a book you have purchased that got rave reviews but when you start reading it, you find it riddled with spelling and grammar errors, and even incoherent in places — none of which was pointed out in 95% of the reviews?

Although a blog is a difficult place to have a discussion, I would like your comments on what you look for in a review and/or a reviewer, not where you go to read reviews.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog


  1. In one word: History.

    Reviewers need to have a track record I can look at and say, “Yes, their opinions mirror mine, and they’re knowledgeable about what they review.” This is also important in order to know who not to listen to; I know a renowned Washington Post reviewer who despises all action and SF films, so when he reviews them (always negatively), I know how far to take that review… or, rather, to ignore it completely and look for a reviewer that has a known appreciation for that genre and can therefore provide a more balanced review.

    I’ve always believed that web anonymity is usually a bad idea, because it encourages people to say and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do in public… like lie and falsify credentials, opinions and facts. (Obviously there are caveats to this, such as those who knowingly face persecution for speaking out in public. Most of us, however, do not fall under this category.) Any areas where a person reviews or recommends a product should be done by people whose identities can be verified, to prevent most of the lies and falsehoods that could otherwise be spread. That’s exactly why reviewers in periodicals are well-known and trusted, whether you like their reviews or not… because you know them.

  2. “credentials of the reviewers” is worthless
    “knowledgable about the area under discussion” is also worthless.

    As Steven correctly says above, what matters is history. And that history can only be connected with an individual. What was their taste like with other books. What is their politics. What is their world view. Only such a history can instil any kind of confidence.
    I know some people use Amazon for getting reviews from individuals that match their taste but I also think there is a market out there for individuals to set up independent sites where they review ebooks they like or don’t like, and enable click through purchasing. (Yes I know they are already out there, though many are not actually based on personal taste)

  3. For non-fiction books, I look for reviews by experts in the field, preferably more than one review to account for possible reviewer bias. The fiction I read is rarely the high-tone sort that gets reviewed in major publications. My strategy for these is to use the reviews at Amazon. I read the five-star reviews and the one-star reviews (or two-star, if there are no one-stars). I then decide if the positive comments out-weigh the negatives. If I see a lot of “poorly formatted” in the negative comments, I pass. If the negatives have more to do with not liking the story, I’m inclined to weigh the positive comments more heavily. Finally, price is the ultimate deciding factor. This system has been working quite well for me.

  4. Steven wrote:”history of the reviewer is what establishes their credentials and knowledge about the subject.”

    Knowledge about a subject is a subjective term. Either someone knows what they are talking about or not. Credentials are usually associated with academia.
    Both are irrelevant and worthless to me. It is their personal taste, their political viewpoint and world view that matters. “Do they like what I like”. “Do they think like me”. These are what matter. In non fiction both are a presumed given, but not the criteria for a purchase.

  5. I consider the reviewer’s knowledge about the subject area and the reviewer’s credentials exceedingly important. They are particularly important when I don’t know the reviewer, by which I mean, I haven’t read any previous reviews written by the reviewer. For example, if you had read a review written by David Irving of The Eichmann Trial (Deborah Lipstadt’s just-released book), wouldn’t it be important to know how knowledgeable he is about the subject (Nazis and the Holocaust)? Without that knowledge would you trust his review of the book? And if he negatively reviewed the book and you didn’t buy it even though it interested you based on his review, only to subsequently learn that he has no recognized expertise in the subject matter and is a Holocaust denier, would you be pleased?

    OTOH, if the review had been written by Saul Friedlander, an award-winning historian of the Nazi era, and author of The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 and Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, or by Richard Evans, author of the trilogy The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, and The Third Reich at War, 1939-1945, wouldn’t you think better of the review — whether positive or negative — because these authors are knowledgeable about the subject area?

    I also want a subject-matter-knowledgeable reviewer because such a reviewer is likely to compare the book under review to books previously written in the area. For example, I think it is valuable to know how Lipstadt’s new book compares to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which was written at the time of the trial.

    It is because I want to know more than whether a book is well written or whether a reviewer likes it or not that I prefer the types of reviews found in places like the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books.

  6. In the case of Amazon reviews, I frequently read the negative reviews first because they give me insight into the problems of the book, which may or may not be important for me. For example, I’ve seen lots of negative reviews that are more or less like this:

    “This would be an excellent book for someone who is unfamiliar with the subject area but is worthless to an expert such as myself. For this reason, I’ve given the book 1 star.”

    Even though this is a negative review, it tells me as someone who is unfamiliar with the subject area that it might be a good buy.

  7. The initial thread was not about whether reviewers get paid a salary from a magazine or newspaper or something. It was about whether they get paid by the author of the book being reviewed. As in “send me $25 and I will review your book.” That to me is a very different situation!

    For once, I agree with Steven 🙂 It’s about their track record and how you find, via that, that your tastes intersect. ‘Credentials’ beyond that are meaningless, especially for reviewers of fiction. The most important thing is that you find you read ten books they also read and felt the same way (for instance). So you can wager that if they share a recommendation, it is likely to be a book you’d enjoy. I see this all the time on my exercise video message board. You find over time that certain people post about the same kinds of things you do and have similar tastes and comfort levels. So if those people say ‘I found a great new video I loved!’ you’ll pay more attention since odds are, you’ll love it too.

  8. Instead of a 5 star limit I would prefer to give a numerical grade between 1-10 or 1-100. And allow decimals like 8.5 for the 1-10 option. This would help differentiate the reviews better.

    I generally ignore the one-star and five-star reviews and pay more attention to the threes and fours. I find them more balanced and these reviewers often state both what they enjoyed and what they didn’t. Many one-stars complain of the high prices, not available in their country, so bad they stopped at page 25, “just awful”or “boring.” These statements don’t help me any. And the five-star ones are so over glowing with praise usually ending with “best book I ever read.” Really? Since you can’t give better than 5 stars these books must be among the best humanity has ever produced. Unlikely.

  9. I usually don’t pay any attention to *who* the reviewers are (aside from ignoring Harriet Klausner). What I look for is consensus or disagreement among reviewers. And when I write a review, I try to be detailed as to the strengths and weaknesses as I perceived them.

    Accordingly, I pay little to no attention to star-ratings, or to “Loved it” or “Yuck” comments. But if a number of reviewers comment that a particular title has lots of spelling and punctuation errors, I’ll pass on that one because I know I’m overly sensitive to those problems.

  10. Much as I rag on Amazon, I have to admit that Amazon has transformed reviewing and reader comments. They have made it easier to have access to feedback. Some of this was inevitable as a result of the Internet, but Amazon implemented it beautifully.

    I really don’t have a problem with getting paid for reviews. The problem is what kind of review copies are available to reviewers. If a reviewer on Amazon is only reviewing what he/she gets directly from publishers or through Amazon Vine, that misses about 80% of what is going on in literature these days. Another problem is that more experienced reviewers are still ignoring ebooks/creative commons books/indie press books. That is an intractable problem, but a good reviewer will make an honest effort to become informed about new and overlooked books.

    Another problem is handling conflict of interest issues. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, as I write in my article Literary Disclaimers and Conflicts of Interest 101 , but they need to be dealt with in the right way.

    Finally, we need to address the scarcity of book reviews about the books which matter. There are many outstanding books & ebooks out there which have not received a single review! Please — let us not overlook those books! When I wrote about Jack Matthews for Teleread last year , I was shocked to discover that none of his 20 books had ever been reviewed on Amazon. (I am personally taking steps to rectify that; I’ve created a fan site and am even helping him to publish some new ebooks).

    Many great book reviewers are bloggers, and so it is great to have access to their RSS Feeds. But more fundamentally, we owe it to ourselves to publicize books we love (through facebook or the social media du jour) especially if we see that no one has reviewed it. I love writing two or three line synopses about books or ebooks which have not been reviewed yet. Most of what reading is about is discovering/rediscovering overlooked books.

    Ironically, what has replaced reviewing in importance is having access to sample chapters via ebook. That has really helped me to decide what to buy/read.

    One more thing. Of course, NYROB, LYROB are excellent sources (of reviews) and online the Literary Saloon and Quarterly Conversation have set a high bar for reviewing. But let us not lose sight of how wonderful “reader comments” can be. I write indie books, none of which will ever be reviewed by a well-known review mag. At the same time, I’ve received valuable feedback and insights from my readers online. These people maybe wrote only a few lines, but their collective insights into my stories have definitely shed light on my fiction — for better or worse.

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