“Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich! This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.” Rayner Unwin’s review of The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
In 1936 a ten year old boy was given a book by his father. This was not just any book, nor just any boy… Rayner Unwin was the son of Sir Stanley Unwin, founder of the publishing firm George Allen & Unwin. The lad was asked to write a report on the book, something he did regularly and for which he was paid the princely sum of one shilling, his father believing that the best judges of children’s books were children. Rayner wrote a reader’s review …and on the strength of that report his father published the book. A legend was born that continues to hold a place in both literature and our hearts. Without that review The Hobbit might never have been published and J.R.R. Tolkien might have remained an obscure professor.
Without the publication of that children’s book that has captured so many young minds, would we have ever known the greater story of the Lord of the Rings… and would the fantasy genre be what it is today? Who knows. But it just goes to show how important a review can be.
Books need reviews. We’re always hopeful… writers… we all would like reviews. Preferably good ones, of course… hopefully starting with something that says the reader loved the book/story/writing style/ideas… something, anything that allows us to heave a sigh of relief and know someone has seen something in the book the author had tried to put there. They make our day… or ruin our month if they aren’t so good! Either way, I doubt any writer is blasé or indifferent.
Yet many readers do not leave a review and there seem to be many reasons for that. I never did either… until I started writing and realised just how much they can mean to the author. These days I get little chance to read, but I will always leave a review when I have enjoyed a book or found it useful… even if it takes me a while.
I suppose, like many, I didn’t feel that I… a mere reader… had any right to leave a review. I wasn’t qualified to do a book review! They are, after all, things people who work for newspapers and magazines are employed to write… professional people. But then, they are critics, who can launch to stardom or consign to the wastepaper basket of literary history the blood, sweat and tears of writers. No, I realised… eventually… that no one is more qualified to write a review that a proper reader who has actually read a book because they have chosen to do so… and who has engaged with the writer’s words and imagery. It is, after all, only the imagination of the reader that transforms the words from mere ink on paper to a vivid tale.
Of course, I had always bought a lot of my books second-hand. So I couldn’t leave a review on Amazon. Except… you can. Even if you haven’t bought the book from them. And there is Goodreads too… and for bloggers and users of social media there are plenty of other options. So I had no excuse.
But how on earth do you begin to write a review? I read other reviews… got a feel for the type of things people looked for and mentioned. That was a start. Overview of the basic premise of the book, things they really liked, any things they didn’t… and how much they had enjoyed it. It seemed simple enough. I had a go and found that it really was.
On the other end of the scale, as a writer, I realise how hard it is to get reviews. People… especially on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads… do look at them and although they may not be the final factor in whether or not a book is purchased, for many they are a major influence. I also know how I feel when someone leaves even the shortest of positive reviews… especially when they come from people I really don’t know.
Bad reviews I will not leave. Stating that a book was not to your personal taste, or highlighting something that didn’t really work for you is one thing; lambasting an author is a different matter altogether. There is always something positive to say… one of the worst books I was asked to review… and which shall remain nameless… had obviously been thoroughly researched and it was obvious the writer had put heart and soul into their work. I stand with Thumper on that…