You are an Amazon top 500 reviewer, for those who don't know what that means, can you explain?
Amazon encourages reviews of all their products, not just books. When I bought my kindle I began to read lots of books by self-published authors – often called ‘indies’. I noticed that people left reviews and I often consulted these, as well as the product description, when I was choosing a book to read. After a while, I felt I might as well leave reviews of my own – my opinions were just as valid! Reviewers are given a ranking which depends not on how many reviews they have left, but on how helpful those reviews have been. When a potential reader clicks the button to say a review has been (or hasn’t been) helpful, it affects the review’s ranking. So Top 500 means amongst the 500 most helpful reviewers.
When did you write your first book review?
I had to go and check! July 2011.
What makes a good read for you?
I like a book to draw me in – both to the story and to the characters. I like it to be believable – on its own level. For example, I’m fond of the fantasy genre but I allow myself to believe in the magic, the creatures, the other world or whatever it is – as long as it’s true to itself and its own rules. I really like to care about the people in the story. I don’t have to like everyone and sometimes books that I’ve really loved have shown me a flawed character that I’ve grown to care about. I love it when there are several sub-plots too and they interweave. I’m in awe of authors who can do this, and have everything arrive at the right place at the end of the book!
What would put you off reviewing a book and/or giving it a negative review?
I generally choose books I think I’ll like so I don’t give too many negative reviews. However, you don’t do the author any favours by being bland about it. If there’s a problem with the story, the grammar, the characters or – I really don’t like wooden dialogue! – then I have to say so. Nothing puts me off giving a less than favourable review but I don’t enjoy doing it. However, I have had authors contact me afterwards to thank me for them, and say they’ve had a book edited, for example. The result can be a better book – and we all win.
How do you chose which books to review and do you have a favourite genre?
I choose books I like the sound of. I love fantasy, thrillers, some crime novels, horror, some that are simply a bit quirky and appeal to me. I rarely fancy chick-lit and I think humour is difficult – it’s so subjective. When I know a writer has tickled my funny-bone in the past I’ll buy the next book but I often feel dismayed when the blurb says, ‘side splittingly funny’. That’s for me to decide, not the author to tell me! I choose my books from reader and author forums, taking the blurb and the reviews into account. I also take notice of fellow readers’ recommendations, especially those who I know have enjoyed the same books I have in the past.
I see myself as a reader who reviews, though, rather than a reviewer. There are forums which have sections where authors can offer free copies of books in exchange for a review. I’ve never gone down that route. I feel it makes me more impartial that I choose what I read.
How long does it take you to read a book?
I’m retired so I have more time to read than I used to have. I generally finish a book within 3 or 4 days but it can depend on other factors – like if we have visitors or there’s a lot to be done on the allotment!
What qualities does a good book reviewer need?
You need to read analytically I feel. Reviewing has made me pay more attention and if I find I’ve been drifting (not always a bad book, sometimes just a tired reader!) I’ll go back over a page or two. You also have to be impartial. Sometimes an author comes over as a lovely person but if the story, the writing the grammar and punctuation are poor, as can happen with self-published work, it can spoil the experience and you have to be fair to everyone. I also try to go out into the big world of Amazon and try new authors. It’s easy to get stuck in your cosy world of ‘authors I love’.
How many books have you reviewed in total?
I think it’s coming up to 260 at the moment.
What is the best thing about being a reviewer?
Oh what a hard question! I like to do it because it gives an aim and purpose to my reading other than simple enjoyment. I like to feel that if I’ve enjoyed a book I can help to point other readers to it – to share the enjoyment. Posting a review somewhere also help me to remember the details of a book which particularly drew me (or put me off) so that if I’m asked by friends to recommend something I can go back and look at my reviews and choose.
What is worst thing about being a reviewer?
Upsetting an author is horrid. It must be nasty to read a bad review of your book. However, I can’t see any point in not being honest. Apart from anything else, it devalues the good reviews.
It’s also not pleasant to be attacked for having favourite authors. It happens. It’s weird. I have favourite foods so why not favourite authors? I would hope that my reviews would explain what I like about their work but there’s always someone who will have a downer on you for it.
There appears to be no money to be had from reviewing books, if this is the case, why do you do it?
I imagine someone, somewhere, is making money from it, but I do it because I enjoy it. I actually feel if I got paid for reviews it would be harder to be impartial. Anyway, I do a lot of other things without being paid! I’m one of life’s natural amateurs!
What advice would you give to an aspiring book reviewer starting out?
Ask yourself a few questions before you write your first review. Obviously, did I enjoy the book? Why? Did I like the story? Did I like the characters, or at least, feel they were believable? Do I feel the author’s passion for the subject? (I can’t enjoy a lukewarm book!) Did I like the writing style – this is rather subjective. Personally I love creative phrases. I like someone to tell me something in an unusual fashion, so it throws a new light on it or makes me see it in a different way. Other readers may well feel this is superfluous prose and should be chopped out. If I say I like this aspect of the book, then the potential readers can decide if it’s a pro or a con for them. People often say that a review is just one person’s opinion. It’s not much of an opinion to say ‘This book is brilliant,’ or ‘This book is rubbish’. Always give reasons. And of course – choose your books wisely!
Oops, nearly forgot … Can you see a time when Amazon Top Reviewers (and other reviewers like the top 500) will remove completely the need for the paid literary/newspaper book critic?
Not really. I think they are used by different people. I rarely choose a book based on a newspaper review. Most of the books I read are by indie authors anyway, and the newspaper reviewers don’t bother with them. They are missing some belters!