Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Critic Oline H. Cogdill on Mystery Reviews — the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly



Oline H. Cogdill

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: A few months ago, when it was my week on Jungle Reds, I had Macavity-winning novelist Daniel Friedman as a guest. If you recall, Dan's the author of the Macavity-winning Don't Ever Get Old and now the sequel, Don't Ever Look Back. Dan talked about reviews and we all had a lot of opinions on the comments page. 

And so, to continue the conversation, I'm delighted to introduce Raven Award-winning book critic Oline H. Cogdill, one of the mystery and thriller community's most respected professional  reviewers. Her bio speaks for itself:

Oline H. Cogdill reviews mystery fiction for Mystery Scene magazine, the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Publishers Weekly, McClatchy Features Wire and the Associated Press. Her mystery fiction reviews appear in more than 300 newspapers and publication sites worldwide. She blogs twice a week at mysteryscenemag.com. She has received the 2013 Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America, the 1997 Pettijohn Award from the Sun Sentinel and the 1999 Ellen Nehr Award for Excellence in Mystery Reviewing by the American Crime Writers League. Oline was a judge for three years for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category.

And now, today's guest Red, Oline H. Cogdill!

OLINE H. COGDILL: I know that for me journalism was as much of a calling as it was a career. And I feel the same way about reviewing mystery fiction. It’s practically a mission to me to introduce people to exciting crime fiction.

The newspaper industry certainly has changed as has the nature of reviewing. What hasn’t changed for me, though, is the way I approach reviews. It is still a labor of love. I love crime fiction genre -- I have, ever since I was about 10 years old.
I first began reviewing mystery fiction back in 1990 when book sections seemed to have plenty of space for myriad reviews. The past 24 years have brought so many changes—the rise of Amazon reviews, sites such as Goodreads, and so many bloggers it’s impossible to keep track of them all.

I think it comes down to one simple question—who do you trust?

Trustworthy: I don’t trust any review I see on Amazon because too many people have an agenda there. I haven’t made up my mind about Goodreads as I see some people give very thoughtful opinions while others seem to use it as a forum to be nasty. At the same time, I know that several bloggers are quite committed to offering insightful reviews of novels, and those bloggers deserve our attention.

I am a professional critic. I am paid for my reviews by the publications and wire services for which I write.


Who do we review for: I don’t write my reviews for the authors or the publishers.  That my reviews may help an author’s career is a great happenstance. I write reviews for the readers, to help a reader make an informed decision about a book they should buy, read or check out of the library.


Positive vs negative: I don’t shy away from giving negative reviews, but I prefer to give positive ones. That has nothing to do with not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings. It has all to do with me wanting to enjoy myself. If I am choosing a book to review, I may read a chapter or two of 10 or even 20 novels before I decide which one to review. I want to tell readers what they should read, not what they should avoid. That doesn’t mean I shy away from giving a negative review. I have to be honest. 


Oline’s Rules of Reviewing: 

I have some simple rules that I try to follow with each review.

1) Don’t give away any surprises. The less said about a plot, the better. It is infuriating to read a review in which the critic seems to take great delight in spoiling plot points.

2) See beyond the plot. How does this novel work in the author’s series and in terms of the genre.

3) Be fair, be honest, be tough, but don’t take cheap shots. When a reviewer becomes so in love with their own voice, then it’s time to close the book on that career.

4) Never use the phrase “transcend the genre.” I hate this phrase. It is not a compliment, but an insult to the genre. The genre is capable of so much. Crime fiction is the social novel of today, a mirror to our society, our legal system, our way of dealing with societal issues and crime and punishment. I might write that a novel expands the genre or uplifts it. But if you see transcend the genre in one of my reviews, I didn’t put it there.


SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: OK Reds and readers, we have a professional reviewer and mystery maven on hand to answer all of our questions. Do you have a new perspective on reviewing? On professional reviewing? Will you use Oline's rules? Why or why not? Please tell us in the comments! Oline will be dropping in to answer all your questions.

49 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

Reviewing, in my opinion, is tough. I don’t want to dissect the story or give away the plot twist; I hope to give a fair and honest commentary. I’m a fan of the genre; if I’m going to review a book, I want to be able to say great things about it. [And if you’ve received a book through the Goodreads or LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, there’s an expectation that you will post a review.]

Amazon I just don’t get . . .so many authors seem to want to have reviews of their work posted on Amazon, but it’s my least favorite place to post a review. Spewing negatives doesn’t seem to me to be very productive so I try not to post reviews of that sort . . . after all, the book got published, so presumably there’s something positive to say about it, but sometimes it’s a real struggle to find it when the book was easier to put aside than it was to read or when I simply didn’t enjoy reading it.

How meaningful are reviews by those of us who are not professional reviewers? Are they just a bit of egotistic pomposity or do they truly help the authors whose works we enjoy reading?

Mark Baker said...

I do believe your comments on this transcend the genre.... :)

I'm a hobby reviewer. I know it's just a hobby. But I do take it seriously, and at times it can start to feel like a second job. (If only I could figure out a way to make it my only job.)

I started out at Amazon back in 2001. I still post short reviews there, although my full reviews appear on my blog. Yes, there is plenty of agenda reviewing over there, but I think to paint all of us with one brush is unfair.

Of course, I do have an agenda - and a selfish one. It's two fold. Yes, I want to help readers find books they will enjoy, but I do that by steering them to authors I like. That's what everyone does with a positive review. Maybe that's what makes me a hobby reviewer and not a professional, but I admit it.

Of course, I will give negative reviews if the book deserves it. However, I try to pick books I think I'll enjoy, so that's usually not an issue for me.

Your rules make lots of sense to me. I work hard at keeping the spoilers out of my review, although some times it is hard to not give away a twist. I just keep reminding myself that I want the person to purchase the book, not decide they don't need to read it after reading my review.

Jack Getze said...

What I like about Amazon is the large number of reviews, and how the reader can check the percentages. If thirty-five of the forty reviews are four and five star reviews, a reader in that genre can say there's a good chance I've going to like this book -- friends, and the BS aside.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome Oline! (I do believe this blog post transcends the genre... ; )

Ramona said...

Well, darn, I wanted to be the first clever person to say this post transcends the genre.

Very informative, Oline!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

ha ha Susan, you're funny!

Welcome Oline, to JRW! I've watched Hallie in the process of choosing books and writing reviews for years, so it's interesting to hear your perspective. Your rules make a lot of sense...

We would love to hear more about your thinking as you choose which books you'll review. thanks!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Ramona, jinx! You owe me a soda! : )

Lucy, I've had the honor of Hallie reviewing one of my books — it was tough but fair in my humble and subjective opinion.

Personally, I don't review and if I leave stars on Goodreads, I only do it for 4 or 5 star books. I just know how hard it is to write, well, anything. So it's not the profession or even the interest for me.

Sandi said...

I read on a Kindle so I read a lot of Amazon reviews. I look at the overall rating and the number of reviews, then read a few most helpful reviews and a few low reviews. Many times the low reviews convince me to buy the book. Only if the low reviews have well written, logical reasons for the negative review do I give it any credence. My problem with Amazon reviews is that lately they've begun soliciting reviews. Immediately upon finishing a book it asks if I want to share my opinion of it, then a week or so after purchase I get an email asking me to review it. This results in far too many five star "This was a great book!" reviews that are completely useless.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

This is completely fascinating. And yeah, I NEVER review. It's a skill, and a profession--I don't treat patients or handle legal cases either.

The word-of-mouth element is so critical to readers--that's the main way we find new books. So a snarky. thoughtless, reviewer-indulgent review is so destructive. And even if a reader thinks--oh, that person has an agenda, it sell cannot help but color your perceptions.

Reviewing is such a responsibility! On so many levels. And it is reassuring (although not surprising!) that you have such high standards, Oline. xoo

Deb Romano said...

Oline, I have a question about something that bothers me a lot when I see it on Amazon. What do you think of people who post a review there, claiming to have read only a few pages or chapters?

Like Sandi, if there's a high number of negative reviews on Amazon, particularly if the reviews are nasty, I WANT to read the book. I assume that the negative reviewers have a personal agenda that has nothing to do with the quality of the book. One fact that some negative reviewers seem to forget is that a well-written book may simply not appeal to all types of readers.

I've read a few chapters of some books that I just could not get into. I could tell the writing was good, but for some reason it wasn't the right time for me to read that particular novel. I've eventually gone back to some of those books and became so wrapped up in the story that I ended up reading everything I could get by that particular author. I hate the idea of a reviewer who didn't finish reading the book trying to steer people away from something that he or she simply was not ready to read.

Oline Cogdill said...

WOW! I am overwhelmed..I didn't think anyone would be leaving a comment until much later in the day. So I will try to address every comment. as i can.
Hobby reviewers: I totally support readers who want to give their opinion. Hobby reviewers often are passionate about the books, read a lot of books and know what they like.
Post to Dorothyl, to blogs, to facebook, whereever.
But my problem with Amazon reviews is that too often reviewers have agendas, they are not hobby reviewers who just want to share their opinions about this great book. Sometimes the reviews on Amazon and other such sites want to tear down a writer, or build up a friend.
A hobby reviewer generally comes to the review with an agenda, usually a good agenda, of wanting to share
As a professional reviewer, I come to the table without an agenda. No matter how I feel about an author's previous work, I have to put that out of my head. Also any encounters good or bad with an author, I have to forget...generally do anyway.
I have to concentrate just on THAT BOOK and nothing else.
oline Cogdillo

Oline Cogdill said...

I don't know why my name in above post says Cogdillo...i need coffee

Sharon Short said...

Thanks for a fascinating interview! As an author, receiving a positive review makes my day, and I'm tempted to thank the reviewer. If, however, my work receives a review with errors in it or a negative review, I'm tempted to reply. I end up opting to keep myself politely in the wings and don't reply to any reviews. Any thoughts on whether or not authors should comment on or reply to reviews?

Oline Cogdill said...

Joan asked: How meaningful are reviews by those of us who are not professional reviewers? Are they just a bit of egotistic pomposity or do they truly help the authors whose works we enjoy reading?

I hope that my reviews, which run in so many places, are helpful to readers as readers are my audience. I write the reviews to give an informed opinion to the reader so she or he can make up their own minds.

I always suggest that readers have a relationship with a reviewer. And by that I mean, follow someone who you trust and know their tastes and how those tastes align with yours.
Because my reviews run in so many places, people can follow me, and certainly at Mystery Scene Magazine (mysteryscenemag.com)

A good reviewer, and I think I am one, is not out for the ego. I am not so in love with my own voice that I want to take over the review. Instead, I want to offer an essay, an objective yet subjective view of a book.

The word "I" seldom appears in one of my reviews.....unlike this response that I am writing!

I do see some reviwers who think it is all about them...people who try to be so clever and sometimes nasty for the sake of it. Those are not reviewers or critics.
They are just sad people.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Welcome to Jungle Reds, Oline!

Fellow writers, you know how rare and wonderful it is when a reviewer gets what you are trying to do with a book and conveys that to the reader. Well, Oline is that reviewer.

I used to review quite a bit, mostly poetry and literary fiction, but my own writing has cut that down to a minimum. On my own blog site, I still try to occasionally review books by writers of color and also mysteries that will open that genre to my friends in the literary genre (yes, it's just another genre). Oline, I love that you said, "Crime fiction is the social novel of today, a mirror to our society, our legal system, our way of dealing with societal issues and crime and punishment." I've been maintaining this for years.

I wish that all would-be reviewers had your standards!

Oline Cogdill said...

Sharon Short asks about contacting a reviewer after a review runs.

Reviewers are divided by this.

Personally, I like to hear from writers, either on Facebook or in a private email. My email runs with my reviews in the newspapers.

If I liked the review and they want to thank me, that is fine. Again, I am not doing it for the writer but the reader.

The world has gotten much smaller and we are all more connected than ever.

I look at it this way: If I were covering politics or the school board or the city council, I would know the players, meet them, see them, talk to them, but still maintain a professional distance.

Why should reviewing books be any different?

There is a big difference between being a friend and friendly...and does anyone really think a Facebook friend is a true friend?

Also, talking to writers may spark a blog for me for mysteryscenemag.com.

As for negative reviews: Sure, write me. I don't care. If I can write a negative review, I have to be able to handle any fallout.

Often it is better not to say anything...but that is your choice. Some authors have written to thank me just for reviewing the book, positive or negative, as they know how many books I get a week.

Sometimes even a negative review will spark a sale as some readers only remember that is was in the newspaper.

And if I made a mistake, by all means I want to know. I want to live up to my mistakes and try to correct them.

Keep in mind, I speak only for myself. I don't know how other reviewers/critics feel about this

Oline Cogdill said...

By the way, I really appreciate everyone's comments here.

I'll step away for an hour to write a review but then will talk about how I choose a book for review.

Thanks to all
Oline

Mary Sutton said...

I'm torn on reviews.

On the one hand, when I come across a book I love (like THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN or THE WRONG GIRL) I want to share that news with the world. You people need to read this because it is fantastic! And I can't think of a better place to do that than Goodreads or Amazon, simply because of the volume of people. At the same time, I recognize that petty agendas and schemes may have devalued those areas for reviews.

For my own writing, what I love most is when a reader takes the time to say, "I really enjoyed this, I connected with the story and the characters, and here's why." Because Oline's right - it's all about the readers anyway, right?

A friend of mine said a negative review is better than a "meh" review - because at least if someone reacts negatively, your writing provoked an emotion. "Meh" writing doesn't connect with anyone. Not to say that you may not want to pay attention to things in the negative reviews!

That said, I only leave reviews for books that I'd rate four stars (and I can count on one hand the number of five-star reviews I've left over the years) - because if I wouldn't drag someone over to the shelf of a bookstore, shove the book in his hands and say "read this," well, I don't much see the point of leaving a review.

Hallie Ephron said...

Love your rules, Oline... printing them out, sticking them up.

Especially the one about not taking cheap shots. It's easy to be snarky an oh so smart about a book... but I keep reminding myself, it's not about me.

Like you, I much prefer to read a book I like. It's painful to read one I don't, an I'd never review a book I haven't finished.

Kristi said...

Wouldn't it be nice if all reviewers had a copy of these guidelines? Thanks for the insightful post.
PS Recently went back to newspaper after a 10 year hiatus to stay home with my kids. What a different world. Still love it. Journalists are still MY PEOPLE. Still feel the passion for journalism, but miss the old days a little bit.

Hallie Ephron said...

And I'm waiting to see what happens to Goodreads now that Amazon has taken it over.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

I don't read online reviews anymore, personally. One, the often contradict each other. And two, I figure, there's no way I'll be on my deathbed saying, "Wow, I really wish I'd spent more time reading Amazon.com reviews."

Kim said...

Dear Oline,

Thank you so much for sharing your process with us. The part of your post I appreciate most is: "I write reviews for the readers, to help a reader make an informed decision." You are truly of the old school, which is being overrun by Amazon and Goodreads.

The discussion here about "agenda" is such a good one. I tend to ignore Amazon and Goodreads reviews, unless of course I'm feeling the need to punish myself :) But I even had a review in a MAJOR newspaper that turned out to be an opportunity for the reviewer to share her background in art history - definitely an agenda there, though I did learn a lot from it.

I like to use Goodreads to write about books I've really enjoyed - I wouldn't consider these reviews. They are simply my way of having a conversation about fellow readers and sharing books I like.

I think that's the main problem today. People confuse what I'm talking about above (sharing thoughts on books) with real informed reviews, like the ones you write. I so appreciate your joining us today and opening up this conversation.

Best,
Kim Fay

Ellen Kozak said...

I tend only to read reviews by people whose opinions I trust. I seldom write them myself. I did do one, of a mystery with a lawyer protagonist, set in Milwaukee, for the Wisconsin bar journal.

That I started it with "I really wanted to like this book" will probably tell you where it went from there. Hint: I didn't. Hint: there is no excuse for stupid, even when the author has a law degree.

Word to the wise (for all you mystery writers out there): law school bends your brain for three years, and after that, you seldom see the world the way non-lawyers do. The first thing you do is assemble the facts, interview the witnesses, gather the relevant documents. You request documents from the medical examiner and the police; you don't break into someone's apartment to "look around."

Lawyers do legal research to find out if case law has changed, if there is some fine piece of "dicta" (throwaway judicial commentary) that you can hang you hat on. Lawyers do factual research because knowing the facts and how they were gathered can win your case for you. Lawyers are trained to find out whom to call to get this information. If it is not your area of law, you probably know some fellow lawyer whose area it is, and they will give you a lead (that's professional courtesy). Create a 21st Century lawyer who bumbles like Perry Mason and even if I love you personally, I'll pan your book for being unrealistic.

Oh, PS-- you don't go to trial on a murder a week after the arrest. You make motions (you might get the case dismissed on one of those), get your client out on bail, depose witnesses, prepare jury instructions for the judge's approval, and the trial takes place when the court has room on its calendar-- usually not for at least six months, often much longer. And you'd better have your ducks in a row by the time you get there, or you could be facing a malpractice suit (which comes after the new lawyer for the defendant gets the verdict thrown out because the defendant had incompetent counsel).

Rhys Bowen said...

Good morning, Oline.
I really appreciate honest, thoughtful reviews like yours...and that you don't give away surprises. I get so mad when a reviewer reveals a main plot twist. And as for Amazon...don't get me started.

Mark Baker said...

Sorry, Susan and Ramona. I beat you both.

Oline Cogdill said...

Took a while for me to get back here...I actually am trying to write two reviews.

A couple of people wanted to know how I choose the books.

And that is a complicated answer.

Keep in mind I will get 50 to 100 books a week...A WEEK..some will be arcs, paperbacks, finished books etc., and from all different publishers

How's how it works

1)For the Sun Sentinel, I am only focused on authors who are local or coming into the area. Cutbacks on freelance now require this. And fortunately, Florida has an active book scene

2) Publishers Weekly, books are assigned to me by an editor. I can refuse, of course, but never have,or request. I actually find it interesting to be given a book I may not have read or may have been forced to skip or is outside what I normally review. Authors are not supposed to know which reviews are mine.

3) Mystery Scene, again, a terrific review editor assigns me the books. Again, I can refuse but seldom do. Only time I turn down a book is if I have already reviewed it for PW or the Sun Sentinel

4) often I also will blog about a book or a part in a book or a trend for the Mystery Scene blog (mysteryscenemag.com) which allows me to give more attention to a book, etc

5) Associated Press, a list is circulated and we can choose which ones we would like to review.

6) McClatchy Tribune Features Wire, sometimes I do reviews just for MCT and these are of my own choosing. MCT reviews, which also include those I do for the Sun Sentinel, are distributed worldwide. Generally, about 200 to 350 newspapers and sites will pick up my reviews..US, UK, Canada and several other foreign countries.

In all cases, I am looking for variety, new authors, a new approach....I have and still do read maybe 10 first chapters before deciding which to review.


Christopher Lord said...

The comment about amazon readers often having an agenda is so true. I often do dramatic readings of my one-star amazon reviews when I do author appearances; for one thing, I almost always get great laughs, and owning these reviews (almost always either anti-gay or anti-"left-wing") is, frankly, part of my truth and my own agenda for writing what I do. The haters will always hate.

Kristopher said...

So wonderful to see you here at JRW's, Online. As you know, I am a huge fan of your work.

I love your list of rules, not the least, because I try to follow the same strict guideline.

My reviews are for readers, to help them determine what books to spend their money on. My BOLO posts each Monday list 3-4 books coming out that week which I feel are worth getting attention (some because I have read them, some because of the pre-pub buzz). I really use that space to talk about books that are not guaranteed bestsellers, those books get enough attention.

Recently, I have taken to referring to myself more as a book advocate than a reviewer. (NB. I think the first place I saw this word used was by Erin Mitchell, so all credit to her.) Since I don't do negative reviews - I just don't like being negative - I only post on the blog about books I love. But I read so many other books, people just don't realize it. This is also why I will turn down a review request if I know from the description that I probably won't enjoy it.

So, what I am doing is advocating for books I love, trying to get people to read and helping to promote a genre that means the world to me. I agree that crime novels are the social novels of today.

I agree that readers should find reviewers they trust, reviewers with similar opinions, and follow them (their work, not them literally - that's called stalking). An extended "relationship" of that type can lead to many book discoveries that one might not have experienced otherwise.

Kim said...

Christopher - LOVE the dramatic reading idea. I might have to steal it ...

Kathy Reel said...

Oline, it is indeed a treat to hear from a professional reviewer. I want to be you when I grow up, and at 60, I should probably be doing that soon. I am a hobby reviewer, as Mark put it, and I write a blog, The Reading Room, in which I discuss reading, as well as offer reviews. Reviewing and writing about reading events and topics is something at which I work hard. I also have a FB book page, Bookaholics, and review on Goodreads and Amazon. I am attending more book events these days, with my favorite being Bouchercon. Mysteries are my first love.

I make a concerted effort to never place spoilers in my reviews. I approach a review from the perspective of a reader who wants to know what a book is about, but who deserves the pleasure of discovering the book's essence for him/herself. Sometimes it's more challenging than others to avoid a reveal, but I always err on the side of caution.

Negative reviews aren't really an issue for me, as I seem to gravitate toward books that I want to read and most usually enjoy. The ARCs I receive are authors that I already read or ones that I have requested, so I have seemed to set up a pleasant reading experience in advance. Of course, not all books are created equal, and I do occasionally read a less than stellar novel. However, I will have to say that my reading life appears to be aptly blessed by the reading gods.

One aspect of reviewing that I keep in mind, whether the book is mystery (most of my reading) or other, is what the book is trying to achieve or who the target audience is. Thus, I can easily give a "cozy" mystery a five star rating next to a complex, layered mystery's five star if they both achieve the purpose to which their forms aspire. After all, it is the reader for whom I am ultimately writing the review, and the reader wants to know if the book is at the top of its particular form, not if I think a layered novel is better than a "cozy."

And, while I do write reviews for other readers, to share with them books that I was happy to spend time reading, I am pleased to give a shout out to authors who deliver these amazing tales. To think that an author of a beloved book might benefit from my review is a sweet bonus for me.

I can hardly wait to start looking for your reviews, Oline. I may have to add Mystery Scene Magazine to my reading now. Your rules are great, and, like Hallie, I may be printing those out. 50 t0 100 books a week? You must be a highly organized person to select from that number. Thank you for sharing today on Jungle Reds. Now, I am going to go back and read your post again.

Deborah Crombie said...

Hi Oline!! (I love Cogdillo, by the way:-)) So great to see you here, and so interesting to read your guidelines. I look forward to your reviews (when I know they're yours) as I think they will be honest and informed--and won't have dreaded spoilers...

I don't read Amazon reviews, of my books or other writers. Nor do I post reviews, either on Amazon or Goodreads. I'm just very uncomfortable with the idea of authors reviewing other authors. I wouldn't post a negative review under any circumstances (waste of my time and the readers) and positive reviews in that sort of forum can lead to all sorts of complicated cronyism issues.

I will, however, advocate (thanks for the term, Kristopher)for books I love, usually on Facebook. But this is as a READER, for other READERS. I want to share the joy of finding something I feel is special.

In fact, today I'm going to write about Alan Furst's Mission to Paris, which I just finished last night and thought was brilliant. I don't know Alan Furst, and have no agenda other than appreciating exceptionally fine writing.

Oh, and Oline, it's nice to know that it's not a breach of etiquette to thank a review for reviewing your book. I've never been sure about that.

Kathy Reel said...

Kristopher, I love the term "book advocate." That definitely describes my purpose, too. Oh, and Mark, Susan, and Ramona, you are all most clever to grab onto Oline's post transcending the genre. There are so many interesting comments here on the Jungle Reds to go with the daily posts.

Deborah Crombie said...

Kathy Reel, I didn't mean to imply that I don't appreciate good, well thought out reviews of my books on Amazon or Goodreads. I love that readers make the time and effort to post something, and good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads do make a difference in our sales. Our publishers look at the number of reviews, by the way. BUT... It's hard to read just one review, and once you start you never know what you are going to get into. Soon you will be focused on what other people think about your books rather than the book you SHOULD be writing, and that's a very dangerous thing. Not to mention that if you read the 4 and 5 star reviews, it's really, really hard to resist the temptation to read the 1 star review(s). And that can be deadly. A really hateful review can shoot my confidence down for weeks and interfere with my work--even though I know that person had an agenda of some sort. For me as a writer, it's just better not to go there.

Jim Thomsen said...

I don't know if I am a professional reviewer, but I am a former longtime journalist and write occasional reviews of mystery novels for pay in newspapers. (I now make my living as an editor of fiction manuscripts.)

I'm a big believer in negative reviews — that is, reviews that painstaking explain why a novel doesn't work and why I think it isn't worth the money of the discriminating mystery reader. I don't mind reading bad books, as they help me better understand why good books work and help me dodge errors of craft in my own fiction-writing efforts.

In hewing to that ethic, I think I'm doing more of a service to the reader than the person who writes largely positive reviews and just avoids or downplays books that might inspire negative reviews.

I think there's tremendous value in helping readers understand that not every book that has passed through a professional editor and a marketing team at a publishing house is a good book. In fact, two of my recent reviews of books from Big Five imprints pointed out a similar problem — that the novels didn't receive strong developmental editing. That the prose was soggy with dependent clauses, that plot points often contradicted one another, that characters were poorly introduced and developed, that excess exposition early on slowed the storytelling to the point that any reasonable reader's patience would be tested beyond the breaking point. In short, things I see from my own author clients. Which is why they hire me to straighten out their work.

There's a lot of dreck out there. And when it floods the market under familiar names, it especially needs to be called out. Every name-brand author puts a clunker out there from time to time, and not even hardcore loyalty to a series can overcome the problems of a phoned-in manuscript.

I understand that mystery is a community, and that we all want to make friends and build relationships and cultivate goodwill. But the best friends a person can have are the people who call them out when they come up short.

And it works. I've made many friends among authors who have responded to my thoughtful negative reviews, made their cases, asked for further perspective, and stayed in touch. I may not be the first person they invite over for a backyard barbecue to celebrate a new release, but I know they trust me. I'll take that.



Terry Ambrose said...

Hi Oline, welcome to JRW. Things happen fast around here. So, I have a question, which really applies more to the industry than specifically to you. It seems there's a tendency for reviewers to relax the standards for bestselling authors. Do you agree that there is a tendency to allow the advance hype to influence the professional reviews?

Kathy Reel said...

Debs, never in my wildest dreams would I think that you don't appreciate your readers and fans and their reviews or comments. You are one of the most gracious authors it's been my pleasure to meet. Just because I post reviews on Goodreads and Amazon doesn't mean I am invested in their popularity or author readership. Goodreads is fun because I know other readers on there whose opinions I've come to value. I only recently started posting reviews on Amazon, and that was because several authors asked me to. I don't necessarily trust Amazon reviews like I do Goodreads. I know the Goodreads reviewers I read, not so with Amazon.

I would think that it could indeed be a nightmarishly tangled web to read many reviews as an author. That should definitely be someone else's job to do.

And, please, please, Debs, don't focus on anything but Gemma and Duncan. LOL!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

As a reader, though, I don't want my time wasted by negative reviews. If a review is going that way in a legit newspaper or magazine, I tend to skip it.

On the other hand, there's a certain joy in following particular reviewers through both positive and negative reviews. For example, I love David Denby in the New Yorker, but I never agree with him. What he loves I hate and vice versa. But he writes so well that I'm always interested see what he has to say each week.

Oline Cogdill said...

I think I am tougher on best selling authors as they have perhaps set a standard while others may be trying to achieve that standard.

I can forgive stuff in a debut novel if it works overall.

that said, I often don't review those authors who are always on the best sellers list.

for one thing, some authors are review proof. They will sell anyway.

Secondly, I would rather introduce a new author or one who has a few books out but is still making a name for him/herself

Oline Cogdill said...

Let's talk about negative reviews.

Yes, I do them....I PREFER to do a posibive review for several reasons, one of them selfish...I would rather spend the time ENJOYING myself than feel I am held captive by a bad book.

I also would rather tell a reader what TO READ than what NOT TO READ.

Negative reviews show a balance to a critic's work. I admit I try to review books I think I will like but sometimes I need to review a certain book and it doesnt work.

And I have to be honest

Julia said...

So, so agreeing with Oline on "transcends the genre." No. Some of the best fiction being written today is in the mystery genre.

As to Amazon versus actual critics, I approach it as I would when a new movie is opening at the local cinema. I'll ask friends and acquaintances what they think. That's the Amazon review in this analogy. Before I plunk down my hard earned money, I read the professional critics (usually on Rotten Tomatoes, a great aggregator of movie criticism.

So thanks for carrying on the long tradition of serious literary criticism, Oline. Oh, and thanks for calling my series "engrossing"... ;-)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I love Cogdillo! It's a very good last name for a character.... :-)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Laura Lippman was terrific at Sleuthfest (what a fabulous convention!), talking about "transcending the genre." Why say that? she wondered. It means "most mysteries aren't good but this one, gasp, actually is."

Like Oline, she was enthusiastic about embracing the crime fiction genre--who needs to "transcend" something that's already wonderful?

Anonymous said...

Writing a review on goodreads is really tough! Really appreciate the rules about writing a review.

~Diana

Oline Cogdill said...

Thanks to all who commented and asked questions today. Google my name and the reviews will often pop up.

Happy reading to all

FChurch said...

Thanks for the terrific insights, Oline. I love to read professional book reviews. The best give you a sense of whether this is an author that you want to 'meet'--by dipping into their books. That's how I use reviews--mostly to find new authors. That said, sometimes even a favorite author will sometimes miss the mark and I think it's fair for a reviewer to point that out. It doesn't mean I would stop reading an author, or even that particular book. After all, as numerous commentators have pointed out, mystery fiction can be GREAT fiction, and those are the series I love the most--the ones that leave me thinking about the characters, the plot, human behavior, long after I finish a story.

Lori Fetters Lopez said...

I'm not a hobby reviewer, nor am I paid. What I am, is a writer who loves audiobooks and has found a way to get more for less. I write reviews for several companies in exchange for free audiobooks.
Writing an honest review can be hard if I've found a lot of things about the book I disliked, or the book needed another run through. Although I attempt to pick books I'll like, one cannot always tell from the blurb if you will like it. What I'm always careful to do when I have negative things to say about a book is that this is MY opinion and there may be others out there who will thoroughly enjoy the book.
My reviews include an overall opinion of the books plot, authors writing, the narrators portion and if the book translated well to an audiobook.
As for having the author contact me after I've written a review? I have had several who have thanked me and offered me another of their books to review. I've made some friends that way. One book I gave a less than stellar review, the author contacted me and we discussed why I thought what I did. It was productive from both sides I believe.
Mostly I post reviews on the publishers site, my site and a small review on large book sites like Amazon and Barnes & Nobels with a link to the full review on my site.
Your rules rock by the way.

Elaine Viets said...

Thank heavens for professional reviewers with standards. Too "reviews" on Amazon are snarky and unprofessional. I wish Amazon and other review sites would follow your rules.
But what do you do when the books you're getting all seems to be alike" A problem that plagues other genre reviewers.

Anonymous said...

Came across a raving review today written by both author's spouse. Nothing but praise. Might I also point out that the novel was a cleverly disguised self-published.