Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, March 14, 2011

What Is the Future of the Book Review?

Friend of the blog Stephen Parrish passed along a PW link about Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles and his popular (and funny) video reviews.

Here, for instance, is his review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen:

It got Stephen (and me) to thinking... what is the future of the book review? Do you read reviews? And which kind?

Is Charles' embrace of a non-print format a further sign this is the end of the road for the print review? Or is he breathing new life into them?


Munk said...

It does seem odd that we are becoming reliant on videos in the world of printed books. Along with video reviews comes video trailers.

Ted Fox said...

The video is hilarious. I have a hard enough time doing 1:30 vlogs without a teleprompter; this was seamless and great at every turn.

I don't tend to read book reviews and see this more along the lines of a package from "The Colbert Report." I just hope he isn't expected to start cranking one out each week. There is a mountain of work behind those four minutes.

Jonathon Arntson said...

A decline could be caused by the reason why some people write reviews these days. Most people write reviews to expand their name and platform, or for a friend. I am not saying they are disingenuous, but I miss the days of the honest and unrequested review.

But for every 1up review out there, there is an excellent one waiting to be discovered.

Laurel said...

1. I heart Stephen Parrish

2. I read book reviews when they cross my path, like a link from Twitter or a blog, but I don't typically seek them out. I don't credit them with much validity unless I know something about the reviewer's preferences.

If I do know a bit about the reviewer, I can read a negative review and still know that might be a book I would like although it didn't work for the reviewer. And the opposite is true for some of the "professional" reviewers on Amazon who never post anything below 4 stars.

jim graham said...

I'm increasingly fed up with reviews that amount to little more than outlines of plot.

In fact I rarey ever buy a book that has the plot given away by a review - Freedom is a good example. I'd read so much about it there seemed little room to read the thing.

There are good reviewers around, a few, but on the whole, what with the bloggers glogging the scene, it's inevitable that reviewers - good ones - are going to need to do more - as the vlogger suggests by way of presentation - no bad thing.

Hillsy said...

Reviewers I think are excellent for tracking what's coming out and other certain things (Such as length of novel, age group targetted, slow or fast paced).

However, a reviewers opinion is less helpful. I mean I follow "fantasy book critic" and they have 3 categories for A-Rated books (A, A+ & A++) And I think the lowest review I read on there was a C.

A reviewer HAS to thwack stuff they don't like or, for me, it's totally irrelevant.

Shawn Lamb said...

Reviews on the blogosphere are a double-edge sword for authors. We need reviews and want reviews, but anyone can slap a review together and put it on a blog, give stars on Amazon, B&N or other site.

In the long term, what profit is it to an author or reader? Can too many actually cheapen and create irrelevancy?

Maureen said...

The video review was entertaining and though I own Freedom, I still haven't read it. I think I missed that initial wave of discussion.

I subscribe to the NYT, I read some of their book reviews. Their real value is that they inform me about interesting books that I might otherwise miss. It was pretty hard for anyone (even a non-reader) to miss the debut of Freedom, but not many books get that star treatment. So I pick and choose the reviews that seem interesting to me and on occasion I buy one of the books reviewed.

And while I read some of the Amazon reviews, I don't tend to trust them because so many seem to be at the extreme ends of the star scale. Love it or hate it.

I'm hoping book reviews stay around in one form or another.

Matthew MacNish said...

I don't look at reviews, at least not professional ones, but I have to admit that was entertaining.

I prefer recommendations from friends when it comes to deciding on books.

Erin said...

I'm sure this isn't the end for book reviews; we depend on them too much. Seriously, I didn't realize just how much I depended on them until I went to a "remainders" bookshop and couldn't find any of the books I'd recently read (or heard) about. I was at a complete loss. There weren't even any shelf-talkers pointing me to books that staff members enjoyed. I actually had to read the first couple pages of books to decide whether I might like them or not. Call me a drone, but I don't think I'm alone in being swayed by a good review or media hype around a book... umm, Freedom?

The experience really made me take stock of how much I enjoy and rely on book bloggers' and critics' reviews ... not that I always agree with them, but that's half the fun.

Book reviews are here to stay, but yeah, the form is changing. But as long as they inspire people to go out and buy the book, I don't care what form they take. This guy is awesome.

Sommer Leigh said...

Four words: Young Adult Book Bloggers. These people are the heart and soul behind why books that might otherwise go unnoticed get so much online love. These are the people I turn to for advice and new book ideas. Most of these bloggers are not in it for the fame or the fortune (goodness, certainly not the fortune) and do it because they LOVE books. Many of them don't even keep ARCs and free review copies they receive from publishers and authors. They usually go to giveaways to readers or donations to libraries.

I've narrowed down my book review blogs by how much in sync my tastes are with the blogger. My absolute favorites are:
Love YA Lit
The Story Siren
Steph Su Reads

If they have a book reviewed that I haven't previously heard of, you bet I'm probably going to check it out and very likely order it up on my Kindle.

I think the key is to find a reviewer you trust to tell it like it is.

Unrelated: My word verification today is: Whatsy which I think is just a fantastic word and one I intend to find a good use for.

Cathy Yardley said...

I haven't read a "professional" review in ages, but I do like book review blogs. It's not only the review, but the community of readers that develops around the reviews. Look at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books or Dear Author, and you can see the tribe of readers that actively participates. I don't see those types of reviews "declining" at all. If anything, I think that authors ignore them at their own peril.

Henri said...

I hope it's the latter.

Kelly Bryson said...

I pay attention to a few reviewers on Good reads whose tastes are similar to mine.

I belong to an ARC sharing site, and when I'm deciding whether or not to sign up for a book. I'll chack goodreads and glance over a dozen or so reviews. (I have to review the book and pay for postage whether I like the book or not, so I'm picky.)

It's just like finding a restaurant- I disregard the rants and the raves and look at what the bulk of people say.

Anonymous said...

He's trying to be funny, and he might be trying a little too hard because not everyone cares for this type of humor.

Most book reviewers don't think with words like "awesome, cute, and ginormous." These are words for the Food Network. Book reviewers think with their tongues pressed to their cheeks.

The majority of book reviewers wouldn't do this and I'm sure most rolled their eyes when they saw it for the first time.

terryd said...

Made me smile, but is this VidRev perhaps more about Mr. Parrish than it is about FREEDOM? The form itself suggests that the subject at hand is the guy in the window. Still, he took the time to make it, and it's vastly superior to the drive-by reviews books often get on Amazon and Goodreads.

I'd like to see more professional print reviews by impartial reviewers who don't live in their mothers' basements. Google "book reviewers" and it appears as if networking and profit are more important than the quality of the reviews themselves.

Online reviewers are stepping up to the plate as newspapers blow away in the virtual wind. (Moment of silence for newspapapers.)

But the VidRev is probably a trend. So, okay, I suppose ReviewTainMent is better than the raves/rants available at the retail level, but there's still a market for more serious print reviews. I'm sure we'll get both, in time, but quality often suffers during revolutions.

Michael Offutt said...

I'm pretty selective of the reviews that I read when it comes to books. I've noticed that you really can't trust fellow writers for an informative review because they always rave about everything. I can understand this behavior as they are writing and don't want to be truthful about something and give it a bad review since it may reflect badly upon them someday. Either that, or they legitimately like everything that they read which seems kind of strange to me (and in any case that isn't valuable to me because I certainly don't absolutely "OMG I LUV THIS"!!! enjoy everything that I read).

Mostly, I inspect a book blogger's site for any negative reviews. If I find one, then I know that at least the reviewer has the cahones to come out and say what they really think about a book. This helps build trust with me.

S.P. Bowers said...

I never seek out professional reviews but I somehow I still have a six page to be read list from word of mouth reviews on blogs and from friends. And I don't write down everything I hear about.

I liked the video book review. He gave me a good overview of what to expect in the way of writing in the novel. Is it sad that I pay more attention to what the writing is like than the plot?

Anonymous said...

As a mystery fan, I read reviews in EQMM and AHMM. With so many options and so little time, reviews help me to find new books that are more to my taste and to avoid one that aren't. I imagine that reviews might be more necessary in the future since the options are only going to increase. The format won't matter. People will learn to look for who reviews their favorite genre online or in print or in the app that I'm sure will be developed. You could probably have the top 20 book reviews for your selected genre sent to you weekly or monthly. For all I know, such a service already exists.

Mira said...

That was so funny and witty! What a great video. I especially liked how he demonstrated 'voice'. Very clever.

I will watch anything Stephen Parrish ever makes. I'm a fan! Hopefully he branches out from book reviews and makes documentaries or even little movies or goes on T.V. He's talented.

That's part of the wonderful change with the internet and all of this new technology - people can expand creatively. Stephen can make a video review, where a few years ago, the technology and access just wasn't there.

In terms of book review format, I think people will experiment, like this. It's fun to watch. I imagine that we'll end up with a wide variety of formats - something for everyone. Print reviews have the advantage of being quick to read, video reviews have the advantage of being creative, interesting and/or fun, and who knows what else people will come up with?

For example, I've come up with something new. I'm going to pioneer a new type of review.

I'm going to review my own book.

Hopefully in as many formats as possible, so people just can't get away from me.

The advantages of reviewing your own book are awesome, the most obvious and important being how efficient it is. You write the book, you review it. Can't beat that for being on top of things.

Of course, there might be a few other advantages as well, I'll have to think about it.

I'm alittle worried, though, that I'm going to be too hard on myself, so I'm saving up in case I have to grease my own palm, just to keep myself happy. It might be expensive, but one can't be too careful in these days and times.

So, that's my method.

Thanks, Nathan - wonderful video and fun to think about!

Jeannie said...

Some bloggers will not review books they don't like, in an effort to avoid making negative comments--which, I think, contributes to the five star/one star culture.

Setting that aside, I do regularly read a couple of reviewer blogs: one in my subject area and one more general. Both have pointed me to books of interest. So I really hope the print review never goes away. I'm not terribly in love with the video format.

Jeannie said...

P.S. It might be worth adding that I find new review blogs by checking out links that my favorite reviewers have listed on their pages. If you blog, this is where networking counts.

Mr. D said...

A very good review, actually.

Elisabeth said...

I typically read book reviews to find out a little more about content if the synopsis looks interesting. Most customer reviews I've found fail pretty miserably in this department. Nine out of ten will rave in vague terms about how wonderful a book is and never bother to mention that it's littered with profanity, which is absolutely no help to me.

Personally, I enjoy writing reviews of obscure or lesser-known books that I've read and loved. The latest hits will always have plenty of reviews, but a forgotten gem deserves the help.

D.G. Hudson said...

One problem I can see with video reviews is the same as for politicians - that the visual presence of the reviewer will influence the listener. e.g.,If you don't look credible in your video review, why would I listen to you?

Book reviews are valuable and most writers do like to receive favorable ones, but are the bad reviews a problem? It depends on whence they came, IMO. (was it the 'New Yorker' review, or an Amazon reviewer?)

As for the impact of book reviews on readers' choices or an author's ego, we must recognize that it is one person's opinion.

Book reviews will survive as long as people want that snippet of the product, but I hope the online reviewing systems become less susceptible to manipulation.

Mira said...

Oh, whoops. I meant Ron Charles. I'm a fan.

He's the guy in the video, Stephen is the guy who sent the video.

Anonymous said...

Great review: he gave the gist of the book without spilling everything. FREEDOM sounds like a socialist work of propaganda. I'm not surprised that the President pointed it out.

I liked Stephen's increment of Beanie Babies. Nice touch!

John Wiswell said...

I read reviews largely for two reasons. The first is if I'm uncertain I want to purchase a book; the second is to help reflect upon it. While my subscription to The New Yorker lasts, I read their reviews, but don't find them useful for consumer advocacy, nor stimulating for reflection. I also browse the NY Times Book Review and whatever friends link me to around the web. Most reviews that I read are written by amateurs at I go there because, while they're seldom holders of PHDs in Lit. Theory, they are candid about what they liked and saw as worthwhile in the books, usually with much less pomp and filler than major magazine reviewers. Sites like Goodreads also have the advantage of letting you respond directly to the reviewer, stimulating conversation with him/her. The quality of top-rated reviews on such public sites are a gamble. If they fail me, I'm more likely to flip around for the professionals again. In both professional and amateur settings I prefer longer reviews, though that length should be warranted by substance. Another attraction for Goodreads is that if people don't have much to say, they'll stop. Tragic as it is for book review sections to shrink, it often seems like their writers don't mind wasting space with biography, trivia and unnecessary plot description.

I enjoyed that video. More entertainment than review, but it was novel. It reminds me of something I deeply wish the books press had. In the videogames press many journalists don't take themselves too seriously and will host podcasts that last well over an hour discussing industry news and the titles they've been reviewing. runs a weekly podcast of this sort, and their discussions serve as secondary reviews, listening to well-versed critics going into their personal experience with less defenses than they have on the page. It can be jocular, but haven't most of us been jocular about our passionate fields? I've never heard reviewers discuss books with similar enthusiasm. The critical level remains, but more relateable personality shines through. It's the best part of discussing books with friends, and the most crucial part missing from mainstream criticism, barring when someone hates a book and goes off the handle ripping into it (which is the least appealing part of their personality for me).

Tana Adams said...

I LOVED that video! And yes I agreeeeed with him on all points. I found Freedom both engaging and yet highly irritating.

On to you question. I look at reviews on amazon and weigh the ones in the middle with the most heft. I read the one star reviews just to amuse myself.

Backfence said...

Thanks, Nathan, for turning me on to Ron Charles. Am I the last person in this country to discover him!?? He's hilarious. And I loved his review of FREEDOM. Have to say, I shared his take on that one.

As to book reviews, I do read them, mainly to get a sense of the story line to determine whether it's my kind of book. But I don't take them too seriously. Even people who seem to have everything in common clash when it comes to their opinions on books and movies.

E. L. Psomiadis said...

I read book reviews quite often, but I rarely go looking for a book review. I happen upon them in a magazine or online newspaper. That said, I often come upon them as I am taking a mental vacation from my day job, so a video book review doesn't work for me in that instance. I don't need to announce to my co-workers (esp. in this day and age) that I'm not always 100% focused on my job at work. And at home, well, my computer needs better speakers ;o)

Anonymous said...


Sarah McCabe said...

"Give me names!"

Hahaha. That was hilarious.

As a consumer, I've always rejected reviews of movies, books or music by professional critics. Most of the time they're just pretentious and I almost never agree with them. I think most professional critics have absolutely no idea what real people like. I would much rather read a review by a regular joe who's just giving their private impressions and not getting paid to be "witty" and arrogant.

The guy in the video was great though. I love anyone who doesn't take themselves too seriously.

Dale Harcombe said...

I read book reviews. I don't watch them or book trailers either and didn't watch this video.I prefer the printed word, simple as that.I like reviews that give a feel for the book and reponse to it without giving away too much of the plot.

Terri said...

I read reviews for one very important reason: money. If I'm going to spend my hard-earned money on something, I better take the time to decide the product is worth it.

That said, I never rely on just one source. I read multiple reviews and whether it's a book or a movie decide: 1) Dash to the register/box office, 2) Wait for DVD/library 3) You'll never get those hours back--pass.

Loved the video, BTW. I think I'm a new fan.

Richard Thomas said...

i think reviews and reviewers are becoming more like a friend, a buddy, somebody you can trust - if you can find somebody that has similar tastes, and can grow to trust them, then i think book reviews can still be a great way to discover new authors, or be reminded of releases that might otherwise slip past - the best reviews that i run across come frome friends, peers or associates that i've come to trust as sources of powerful novels and collections

that being said, and i hope you'll pardon the link, if you like dark fiction that is somewhere between literary and genre, check out my reviews up at the nervous breakdown, i profile almost entirely small and indie presses - people like stephen graham jones, paul tremblay, lindsay hunter, tina may hall, amelia gray, craig davidson, xtx, ethel rohan and benjamin percy

Anonymous said...

"I'd like to see more professional print reviews by impartial reviewers who don't live in their mothers' basements."

I couldn't agree with you more. Online reviews for the most part are reviewfail. Most authors are out there soliciting reviews from friends and from places they know will review them well. And then there are review blogs that advertise publishers and books and get paid for it. So much for objective. A review blog shouldn't be associated with any publisher or author. It's shifty.

JM Leotti said...

I’m rarely influenced by book reviews, however, I like reading a well-written, entertaining review, especially when the reviewer has Personality Plus, like Stephen Parrish. I think he’s onto something. Hysterically funny! I loved watching the stuffed animals multiply, and the use of the over-the-top prop—the toilet brush—too near his mouth! Too near his mouth! Ew!

Jim said...

As cheesy as that review is, it's a hell of a lot better that Franzen's book. Awful writer.

JM Leotti said...

Oops, meant Ron Charles. Late night last night...

Anonymous said...

I used to read amazon reviews until amazon started censoring them. Now, I don't believe them anymore. They've gone from okay to unbelievable.

And I definitely don't turn to newspaper reviews, which come across as pompous nonsense.

Instead, I have turned to listening to what my friends think of certain books, and I've learned to filter out bad suggestions from good suggestions. My writing group also provides decent suggestions from time to time.

Laurie Boris said...

Well...since I have a book out for review, I certainly hope there's a future for reviews. Unless I get bad reviews, and then, nah, book reviews are dead. Love the trailer. Much better than Freedom.

Adam Heine said...

I can't believe he touched his face with a toilet brush.

Clare WB said...

I actually like to read book reviews after I've read the book. (Although I must admit I do often read some before too.) If a book's bad--really bad--you know it without being told and, hopefully, have the sense to put it down. Sometimes I'm amazed at what a reviewer gets from a book that's very different from my take. Other times I've said "Halleluyah!" for finding out I wasn't the only one who didn't see the magic in a best seller. We all like company in our tastes.
Thought this review was hilarious and not that far off even though I really liked Franzen's style and story. Do think he has a bit of a mystical view of women, however.

Donna said...

I read reviews. Michael Dirda's reviews are great reading in themselves. If his name is on a review, I read it, whether I'm interested in the book or genre or not. He writes well, he's very entertaining, and he brings an extensive reading and historical background to a review.

See, the thing is, a review needs to be a good read in itself. A lot of web reviewers out there don't seem to realize that. But there are some people who DO know that, and put a good bit of effort into them.

Graham Joyce writes magnificent reviews. It's not his main thing, of course -- he's a novelist.


kevin lynn helmick said...

Probably the most entertaining book review i've seen. I don't read many though except for a few short ones by other readers. You can easily tell the difference when they're written by or bought and paid for buy a marketing dept or the worst-another author trying to draw attention of said writer or said writers publisher to himself and his work. I liked this, and the humor and sarcasm leads me to beleive he doesn't think it's such a good book. I could see this being the future of book reviews, less painful than reading them and wondering of the hidden agenada.

Kristy said...

I read book reviews in magazines. It is how I decide on which ones to try next sometimes. I think it answers your question to say that I wish this review had been in a written format.

Bookish said...

I liked Charles' witty style and the beanie babies were a quirky whimsical touch.

I wouldn't want all my reviews to be videos, though, because you feel compelled to engage completely and it seems piggish on the part of the 'entertainer/reviewer'.

I prefer the printed word because while more passive a medium, it doesn't demand my attention. I feel more in control, and less badgered.

Also it contained a very long intro which usually isn't part of a review, and further felt like a waste of time.

Emily Wenstrom said...

The poor Internet keeps getting blamed for the end of newspapers, magazines, print books … so many things. The Internet doesn’t kill. It’s pretty peaceful by nature, really, always eager to share and collaborate, the more the merrier. These industries are killing themselves by fearing the changes they will need to make instead of embracing the new opportunities with imagination and spirit.

There is no way books reviews are dying. Readers will always like to read, and that includes reviews. I find it silly to conclude that one person has done something new and creative and been successful, and now this is what all book reviews will inevitably turn into. No. There may be more book reviews than before, and there may be more variation in their presentation (which I think is great) – traditional, blogs, videos – but they’re not going anywhere. We need them to help us sort through the massive jungle of books out there.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I still use book reviews, although I tend to seek out reviews from blogs or websites written by people with somewhat similar taste to me, and am critical of the traditionally public critics. (I don't always disagree with them, but I try to analyze more carefully why they're saying what they are, and whether the things they criticize are things that are going to bother me. I still read movie reviews as well. I haven't really switched over to watching these things as videos unless they're funny and someone links me (and even then, it's usually the reviewer that's the attraction, and not their opinion of the book), and don't seek them out often on my own. That might change, though! Right now it's just easier for me to read a review between different tasks than to sit down and watch a video. Even most of the text links I find are through aggregate websites whose RSS feeds I subscribe to.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Argh, that first part should have read "published critics", not "public critics".

Fawn Neun said...

It takes me a lot less time to read a review than watch a video, so I'm still all for the written review. Quite honestly, I'm good with the 'word-of-mouth' style consumer reviews on Amazon, B&N, etc. Traditionally, pro reviewers, ie. 'critics' are generally trying to be amusing and famous. I prefer getting my recs from people without an agenda.

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