Reviewed Words of Wisdom

I made my first sales as a flash fiction writer in 2009-11. A number of my stories appeared at Every Day Fiction, and that magazine provided my first experience in having my fiction reviewed. Readers could give a story a star rating, as well as comment on it, and sometimes those comments ended up being micro-reviews. Since then, like other published authors, my books have varying numbers of online reviews at the various online book stores and at Goodreads. Each author ends up having to decide how to deal with reviews of their books—ignore, read only the good ones, read all of them, and what, if anything, to take away from those reviews.

Today’s Words of Wisdom provides three insightful takes on reviews. Joe Moore lays out the three types of reviews, Laura Benedict reasons for motivations for reading your reviews, and Clare Langley-Hawthorne shares a useful way to categorize your reviews. Each excerpt is date-linked to the original post, and all are worth reading in their entirety.

No book has ever been declared great by everyone who read it. There will always be those who dislike a book for more reasons that we can count. As a matter of fact, it never ceases to amaze me the vast span of reactions to books including my own and those of my friends. Pick any bestseller and you’ll find someone who loves it and someone else who doesn’t. And often both are willing to say so, in the strongest of terms. There are more than enough good, bad and ugly reviews to go around.

So I thought that instead of talking about online reviews, I’d share some of mine with you. I’ve listed 5 of my thrillers (all co-written with Lynn Sholes) and a sample of the good, the bad and the ugly online reviews we’ve received over the years.

Disclaimer: I have no idea who wrote and posted these nor have I ever paid for a review. These samples were gathered from Amazon and Goodreads.


The Good: “I’ll read anything these two authors write. I have to be careful not to put a spoiler in this review, but there is one scene that knocked me off the sofa. I don’t often squeal during a movie scene when the bad guy comes out from around the dark corner, but there was a scene in this book that made me jump and I almost flung the book across the room. I won’t tell which one it was because I don’t want to ruin it for any other reader.”

The Bad: “I just couldn’t figure out if this book was for “young adult” reading or “teen reading” or adults or Christian reading or even anti-religion.”

The Ugly: “The writing is deplorable, the style so bland I had to read a page twice to make sure it was indeed that bad!”


The Good: “What I want to know is when is this going to come out as a movie? It has to be one of the most exciting thrillers I have ever read. I was hooked from the first page on when Cotten Stone (the main character) stumbles onto the dig site of the Crusader’s tomb.”

The Bad: “This started with interesting characters and action, but the quality of writing was fair and the story went downhill. Would not recommend even as a beach book.”

The Ugly: “The book was simply boring and poorly written. The characters had no depth. The plot took forever to go anywhere.”


The Good: “This was one of those books you cannot put down. Basically I was on the edge of my seat so to speak whilst reading it. Exciting, mysterious. Well written, keeps you guessing. Loved it… Would recommend as great reading!”

The Bad: “It takes more than an exotic location and some perceived struggle between good and evil to make a good story.”

The Ugly: “Religious hype … I was totally disappointed.”

Joe Moore—September 5, 2012

Whenever I’m tempted to read reviews of my work, I keep in mind what my very first writing teacher told me: “You don’t get to look over your reader’s shoulder and explain your work. It is what it is.” That’s it. It’s out on paper or online (or shared with your workshop or writing group or significant other) and it must stand on its own. Sometimes it’s going to wobble, and sometimes someone is going to point out where you screwed up. That’s the way of sending work out into the world. The sending out has to be its own reward because there are no guarantees once it’s done.

If you’re not one of the stalwart writers who can confidently take anything a reviewer throws at you, pause a moment before you sit down to read your reviews at Goodreads or Amazon or anywhere else and ask yourself a few questions:

Am I looking for approbation? If so, then go ask your mom or spouse or bff what they think of your work, because while you might find some solace in reviews, you’re going to find a lot of other things that are nothing like approbation.

Am I being tempted to look at reviews by my overbearing inner critic? This is your own resistance trying to keep you from your work. Your inner critic will skim over all the nice things it reads and zero in on the negative comments. These are the ones that will stay with you when you sit down to write.

Am I willing to give equal weight to both the negative and positive reviews? This is related to the inner critic question. If you believe all the bad stuff, then you might as well believe all the good stuff, too. And vice versa.

Is there critical information that will help me become a better writer? This is a tricky one. Sure, there may be some clues in there, but if your goal truly is to become a better writer, then find a good editor and pay them to tell you what needs to change. Good editors rarely spend their time giving away their advice for free in reviews.

If I read my reviews, am I likely to be motivated to put my backside in the chair and write my thousand words today when I’m done? For me, this answer is always a resounding no. Your experience may be different. If someone writes to me and tells me how much they like my work, I sail away to my keyboard on Cloud Nine, but I’ve never felt that way after reading a review. And reading negative reviews can knock me off my schedule for days. Sometimes weeks.

My relationship with reviews has evolved significantly over the past decade. At the beginning I approached even Amazon reviews with reverence and fear. My attitude was funny given that I reviewed for a newspaper for ten years. I knew how subjective reviews were. Much depends on the reviewer’s workload, tastes, and expectations. But I couldn’t get past the kid waving the potholder for several years. I wanted everyone to love my work! And if they didn’t, I spent a lot of time worrying that there was something wrong with it.

I can’t pinpoint when I changed. Somewhere along the line I stopped having expectations of the people who—often very kindly—bothered to take the time to write down what they liked, or didn’t like, about my work. I turned my concentration to my characters, making them more human, even occasionally sympathetic. That was what I could control. Now, months can go by and I don’t even know about new reviews that have gone up.

Laura Benedict—August 10, 2016

An article in the New York Times last week got me thinking (again) about reviews (hey, I bet most authors have a small part of their brain devoted to the ever-present background angst about past or future reviews/criticism of their work). The article (which you can find clicking on this link) is an interview with the author Curtis Sittenfield on the thorny issue of how professional authors handle criticism.

Now we’ve all heard of the unfortunate instances where authors have directly responded to negative reviews or criticism – usually through an ill-advised rant on twitter or a hot-headed response on Goodreads or Amazon. If you’ve forgotten or unsure of what some authors have stooped to doing, I recommend reading some of The Guardian’s book blog posts on the matter (see: how not to handle reviewshow not to respond to a bad review for example).

Curtis Sittenfield provides a useful quadrant tool that many authors could use. Basically she divides up reviews into four quadrants: smart and positive (definitely read!); smart and negative (still read); dumb and positive (read for the ego’s sake); and dumb and negative (do not read!). Many authors get into the greatest hot-water when they allow themselves to get embroiled in a debate over what they consider to be ‘dumb and negative’ reviews. Now, maybe it’s too hard to resist the temptation to read these kind of reviews but it’s up to every professional author worth their salt to resist the temptation to respond to them. You just can’t take it all so personally (being a professional writer means recognizing this is a business after all). As Curtis Sittenfield notes: ” I literally don’t think I’ve ever read a letter from a writer complaining about his or her negative review that made the writer look good. You’re better off just biting your tongue.”

Too true!

But, as Curtis goes on to point out, there are many instances in which harsh criticism can identify a real weakness in a book or an author’s approach to their material that, while humiliating, can all be part of the process of learning to be a better writer. Even in these instances though, the best response from a writer is no response at all. For Curtis, her nightmare reviewer is one who has an agenda that precludes them from responding sincerely to the book – and I think this is (again) where many authors come unstuck. There’s a lot of mean people on the internet who have their own agenda when it comes to reviewing a book or adding comments on a thread regarding someone’s work. Sometimes they are angry and bitter, sometimes they may be jealous, sometimes they want to indulge in a personal attack just for the hell of it (some are just plain trolls after all). But there can be nothing gained from responding to a scathing comment or a harsh review regardless of the reviewer’s real (or imagined) motive. Anyone who’s been on Facebook or other social media recently can attest to the fact that you are never going to change someone’s mind through an ill-advised post, comment or flamewar!

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—August 29, 2016


There you have it: the good, the bad and the ugly of reviews; reading reviews; handling reviews.

  1. How do you categorize reviews?
  2. Do you ever read your reviews? If so, do you read all of them? Do you have someone else screen your reviews and only share certain ones with you?
  3. Do you learn anything from reading your reviews?

To Read or Not To Read

To Read or Not To Read? That is the question.

 We had some requests for specific authors’ posts during a recent Words of Wisdom discussion, so I have searched the archives and found three posts from those authors, on the same subject – reviews and feedback, and how to handle them. I hope you enjoy the discussion, add your own comments, and even respond to others’ comments. The livelier the better.

I’ve invited the original authors of the posts to join us. We hope they will stop by.

Don’t Read Reviews

I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, and for many authors, nearly impossible, but here’s my advice: don’t read your reviews, ever. Turn off that Google alert. Skip the Amazon reviews section. Ignore your Good Reads’ ratings. And if you must know what a blogger or traditional media reviewer is saying about your book, enlist someone you trust to skim the contents and give you the highlights.

This applies not only to negative reviews, but positive ones. Because here’s the thing. As we all know, a reader’s opinion of a book is enormously subjective. The way they approach a story can vary at different points in their lives, or even their day. They read things into it that you might never have intended–and they’re all going to have vastly different opinions about what worked and what didn’t. I’m always startled when I get feedback from beta readers–everyone always manages to come up with different favorite sections, and least favorites. So, when taking their advice, I usually try to find the commonalities, the issues everyone zeroed in on. In the end, much of what they say is taken with a serious grain of salt. – Michelle Gagnon (1/31/2013)


Writing Obstacles

4.) Listening to Naysayers – Everyone has advice on a topic they have no experience with. It’s rare that people who say “I’ve always wanted to write a novel” have actually even started one, much less finished one. Yet that doesn’t stop them from shelling out advice. Some advice I got was: write what you know, write a shorter story because it’s easier, write for a house that lists what they’re looking for in great detail (i.e., category romance) so you don’t have to think too hard. Surround yourself with positive people and those who support your writing endeavors.

5.) Putting Too Much into Writing Contest Feedback – Generally I found contests to be a good experience. They got me noticed and looked good on my writer resume, but you have to take them with a grain of salt.

As I studied the craft of writing, I entered various national writing competitions to see how my work stacked up. These were mainly through the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and their many opportunities to compete. There was a rush when I received word that my entries were named a finalist. Even my first entry had some success and the first time I entered the Golden Heart contest for aspiring authors in the RWA, I was a finalist. These things can go to your head and you have to stay focused on your objectives. Good feedback and negative feedback can have an effect on you, just as good or negative reviews can. Keep things in perspective.

In contests you get lots of judges’ comments and editor/agent comments when you final, but you have to take whatever works for you and disregard the rest. You must develop a sense of your voice as a writer and not chase every suggestion, otherwise you will lose your instincts by constantly needing reassurance you’re on the right track. – Jordan Dane (2/4/2016)


Writing Reviews

But I’m thinking I should change my ways. According to an article in the Economist, it’s the sheer volume of reviews–not whether they’re good or bad–that sells books.  People are much more likely to “click through” and buy a book if it has received lots of reviews, research indicates. Even when that volume includes a healthy slice of unfavorable reviews, the book still sells better. In fact, it’s better to have some negatives–readers mistrust books that have only favorable reviews.

In her MySpace blog, author Deb Baker discussed the importance of her reviews, and issued an appeal for more of them. She’s right on the money. When it comes to reviews in today’s online marketplace, volume counts.

So, I’m thinking we should join together and become an army of critics. We could post reviews of all the books we’ve read to get the numbers up. Or we could find a midlist writer who has, say, only 9 reviews, and bump him into the double digits (the threshold for boosting sales).  It doesn’t matter if you liked the book or not. Just post your review.  It would be our own version of crowdsource marketing.

Do you like to post reviews, and do you think writers should post reviews about other books online? Have online reviews played a role in your book’s success? – Kathryn Lilley Cheng (2/23/2010)


  1. How do you handle reviews and feedback?
  2. How do you think you should handle reviews and feedback?
  3. Any other comments on reviews and feedback?
  4. What do you think about Kathryn’s “army of critics” – “crowdsource marketing?” I’m ready to join. How about you?

TKZ’s Words of Wisdom

Now and again we reach back into the TKZ archives for some timeless advice and offer them to you for discussion. Please reply, riff, or rant in the comments and interact with each other!

Today, we have discussions on violence and desensitization, reading reviews, and messy desks. Here’s to a spirited discussion.

In movies, books and television, I wonder sometimes if the downplayed violence–the off-screen murder that drives the meat of the plot–isn’t more of a disservice to society than their counterparts which take you and your senses into the true horror that violent crime inflicts. The dead butler in the library didn’t just arrive there to provide a puzzle for our sleuth to solve. He was a person whose last moments were anguished and wracked with agony. I’m not sure it’s good that the likes of Miss Marple, Jessica and Hercule are so able to push that aside.

Obviously, tastes vary. I respect that different forms of suspense attract different readers, but when it comes to desensitizing people to violence, I do wonder which form erodes the social fabric more. Or, as an alternative, does fiction have a measurable impact at all on such real-life sensitivities? What do you think? What are your violence thresholds? – John Gilstrap, January 2010


I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, and for many authors, nearly impossible, but here’s my advice: don’t read your reviews, ever. Turn off that Google alert. Skip the Amazon reviews section. Ignore your GoodReads ratings. And if you must know what a blogger or traditional media reviewer is saying about your book, enlist someone you trust to skim the contents and give you the highlights.

This applies not only to negative reviews, but positive ones. Because here’s the thing. As we all know, a reader’s opinion of a book is enormously subjective. The way they approach a story can vary at different points in their lives, or even their day. They read things into it that you might never have intended–and they’re all going to have vastly different opinions about what worked and what didn’t. – Joe Moore, January 2013


I was pleased to read that this phenomenon is borne out in a book called The Perfect Mess by Dave Freedman and Eric Abrahamson which contends that those with cluttered, messy desks are often more efficient and creative than their neatnik brethren. Since my desk always looks like a disaster zone, I think I am going to stick with the Freedman/Abrahamson interpretation…but nonetheless I have to wonder whether most writers are like me – or whether I am just deluding myself that disorder is merely a sign of a great author in the making.

So, what about my fellow writers? Do you, like me, have a messy desk full of piles of paper or are you a neat freak with everything organized and de-cluttered for the sake of productivity and sanity? What do you think, is a messy desk a sign of creativity or just plain slovenliness? – Clare Langley-Hawthorne, February 2011

I will respond to comments this morning. This afternoon I will be away from my computer for a family gathering, and I will respond to your comments later this evening.

To Review or Not to Review

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was at a presentation recently on ways authors can use social media and the dreaded issue of ‘reviews’ came up – with the presenter advising many would-be authors that a great way to engage future readers is to use social media to review other people’s books that occupy the same ‘space’ as your own. 

Fair enough…perfectly reasonable…why not…except I always feel a panic attack coming on when it comes to the whole issue of reviews. Perhaps it’s my English heritage but I’m very, very wary of offering any kind of on-line commentary on books that have been published that are of a similar genre to mine (and even those that are not) because:

  • What if I hate the book but I’ve met the author and he/she seem very nice…
  • What if I think the book was so-so but it’s a major bestseller and so my opinion might look like nothing more than sour grapes…
  • What if I love the book but my review seems like little more than vanity or pandering…
  • What if an on-line opinion starts a flame-war? 

Now in person I am more than happy to air my opinion on almost any topic:) My concern is always that once out there on the internet (via social media, blog posts or other review forums) it’s out there forever and it has an unlimited potential to come back and bite me. 

Of course, good reviews are rarely the problem, but I think your credibility gets called into question if the only reviews you ever write are of the gushing, over the top ‘I love it!!!!!’ variety. If I’m going to present my opinion on-line I want it to be authentic, informative and interesting…which isn’t going to happen if I only report on the books I totally loved. 

So I’m wondering what other writers do when they approach the issue of reviews in the online world. Do you:

  • Only review books you love?
  • Be honest, and just put your opinion out there? or
  • Avoiding reviews all together? 

I’m not sure how many TKZers post reviews on sites like Goodreads or Amazon (again I’m pretty reluctant to do either) or whether you express your opinions on social media like Google+, Facebook etc. On the one hand I think writing reviews can establish an authors credibility in terms of knowing their genre and being enthusiastic and involved in the writing world. On the other hand  I think reviewing other people’s work can open up a whole can of worms (especially if it’s not a glowing endorsement) and so I still hesitate…

So what do you do when it comes to reviews?

Et Tu, Amazon?

by Michelle Gagnon

So I just emerged from my editing cave (my second draft of book 2 for the PERSEF0NE trilogy is done- whew) to some disturbing news. Digging through a backlog of emails, I came across a few from fans that were extremely troubling. Apparently these fans tried to submit reviews of my book on Amazon, and their reviews either a) never appeared, or b) were abruptly taken down.

Two of the fans send transcripts of the reviews, and they were standard (and positive, thankfully): nothing offensive at all in terms of content.

One of the fans took the time and trouble to write to Amazon, asking why his review was removed. He received this form letter reply:

I’m sorry for any previous concerns regarding your reviews on our site. We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product.

We have removed your reviews as they are in violation of our guidelines.  We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.

I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.

Now, I’ve known this fan for years–he’s read (and reviewed!) all of my other books. And he has no financial stake in my work. He also doesn’t sell anything on Amazon, ever–never mind competing products (which would be what, exactly? Other books? Does this mean that I’m no longer allowed to review thrillers by my contemporaries?)

From there, it became even more disturbing. When the fan wrote back and pointed out that he’s never sold anything on Amazon, and doesn’t have any financial interest in my books, they sent another letter–and in this one, the powers that be declared that if he tried to contact them again about reposting, they would REMOVE MY BOOK FROM THE SITE.

That’s right, remove my book. Even though, had he not written, I wouldn’t have a clue that any of this was transpiring.

Hello, Big Brother.

Needless to say, I found this very disturbing, particularly since it doesn’t appear to be an isolated case. After all, two other fans sent similar messages; and I can only wonder how many others had the same experience, but didn’t write to let me know.

All I can think is that this is some sort of misguided attempt by Amazon to try and remedy some of the abuses that came to light in the recent sock puppet debacle (and if you missed all that drama, here’s a link to catch you up). But if so, it’s overkill. These days, with fewer review outlets available to writers, those Amazon reviews can be worth their weight in gold. And on what basis is Amazon is deciding that some posts should be barred? It’s very disturbing.


Criticizing the critic

Novelist Alice Hoffman created a dust-up recently when she used Twitter to fire back at a less than glowing review of her latest novel, THE STORY SISTERS.

Reviewer Roberta Silman wrote in The Boston Globe: “This new novel lacks the spark of the earlier work. Its vision, characters, and even the prose seem tired.” Hoffman posted a number of tweets calling Silman a moron. She asked, “How do some people get to review books?” Hoffman also posted Silman’s phone number and email, inviting fans to contact the reviewer and “Tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

By Monday, Hoffman had issued a statement of apology through her publisher.

OK, as authors, we’ve all received negative reviews somewhere along the line. As far as I know, no one has ever written a book that was accepted and loved by 100% of its readers. And even the most famous or best-selling books of all time have been lambasted with negative reviews. Just ask Dan Brown.

So what would cause any author to lose it and publically shoot back at a reviewer? Don’t we all know that when we take that giant, risky step into the public arena by having our words published, that we are aware the results might be positive AND negative? What could possibly be accomplished by criticizing a critic? Would it encourage the reviewer to be gentler next time? Doubtful. It might even narrow the number of future reviews by other critics.

There’s an old saying that if you do the crime, be ready to do the time. If you write a book and have it published so anyone can read it, be ready for the good and the bad, because that’s what you’re going to get.

How about you? Have you ever wanted to shoot back at a reviewer who gave you a less than favorable review? Did you? Should you?

Q & A with Oline H. Cogdill

ThCOGDILL20Ae Kill Zone is thrilled to have Oline H. Cogdill, Mystery Fiction Columnist for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, joining us today. She also reviews for McClatchy Tribune Wire Services, Mystery Scene magazine and Publisher’s Weekly. Her reviews appear in about 250 newspapers and publications world wide. She is a judge for the 2009 and 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Oline also blogs about mysteries, the publishing industry or anything else that amuses her at and at

Q. What happens when you review a friend’s book and you don’t like it?
A. I don’t review friends’ books. I am often called a “friend” or a “friend of mysteries,” but that is like using the word “friend” as one does on Facebook. I genuinely like most of the mystery writers I meet or are on panels with. But I am not their friend. There is a difference between being friendly and a friend. I’ll have a drink with them, or even a meal, but that is as far as it goes. (And I pay my own way.) I completely put the identity of the author out of my mind when I am reading a novel to review. I am focused only on the work, not the book. If I felt I was really too close to an author, then I could not review their book. My husband is working on a mystery; I have read the first six chapters and I think he is onto something good. Naturally, I would never review that, although because we have different last names I probably could slip it by. But it would not be ethical.
I want people to respect what I do.

Q. How many pages of a book will you read before you decide it’s not for you?

A. For me, the litmus test would be about 50 or 60 pages, but this actually seldom happens. Once I make the decision to review a book, I am committed to it: good, bad or indifferent. Since the books space at the Sun-Sentinel has been severely limited – and we have no idea what the future holds – the Books Editor and I made a conscious effort to try to publish reviews only on those books we liked. The idea being that we ‘d rather steer readers toward something than away from it. However, that said, if I begin a novel that I have chosen or one I must review and it is dreadful, I am committed to that book.

But there are a lot of exceptions. For one, if I just really hate a novel and don’t want to spend another minute in those characters’ company, I would just move on. Another exception is if it is a local author published by a small publisher. If I hate that book, I would not be serving anyone. I would put the author’s book signings, info in my Local Book News column and move one. Another reason for me not to continue with that novel would be if the publication I am reviewing for doesn’t want negative reviews. When that happens, I call the editor and ask that the book be assigned to someone else.
I take no pleasure in writing negative reviews, and would rather spend my reading time enjoying myself.

Q. How do you decide which books you will review?
A. For Mystery Scene and Publishers’ Weekly, the novels are assigned to me. It is kind of interesting to have novels assigned, because since I started reviewing mysteries sixteen years ago, I have always chosen what I read. Mystery Scene and Publishers’ Weekly have assigned me novels I may not have selected otherwise, opening up my world further.

For the Sun Sentinel or MCT, I choose the books. First criteria: if the author is local. Any South Florida or Florida author gets priority. Second is if the author is coming for a book tour. I can’t do everyone who swings through South Florida, but I try. There are a few – for me – must review authors such as Michael Connelly (who also has a strong Florida connection), Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Harlan Coben, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid (those are not my only “must review” authors, but a sampling).

After that, I look for something new, something different. I tend to review a lot more hard boiled than cozy or traditional, but I also try to self check myself and maintain a balance. Whether an author is male or female, a minority, etc., shouldn’t matter. It is the work I focus on. On a larger plane, it matters a great deal because I want to give readers a balance. I also try to remember authors I meet at Bouchercon or Malice, anyone who might have something different to bring to the table. Last year at Bouchercon in Baltimore, my husband and I ended up talking to two newbies. They had no idea who I was until at the end of the conversation, when I gave them my card and told them to make sure their publisher contacted me. (I think they are both with St. Martin’s, but that is the only hint.) The books they were describing sounded interesting. Whether they will be or not remains to be seen.

Q. Does a book have to be published by an accepted house (think ITW and MWA members’ books) for you to review it?

A. I don’t know what the accepted houses for MWA and ITW are. For me they have to be a legitimate publisher, not a glorified vanity press or a subsidized one (meaning the author pays part of the cost). I will not review novels from any publishers like that. No self published. There are so many books being published by legitimate houses, both large presses and small, that I can’t keep up with those. Cream rises to the top. If an author has to go the subsidized route, then I wonder why. Yes, I know there are some books that got their start that way, gaining a following and rising to a legitimate press; but those are the EXCEPTIONS, not the rule.

Q. Do you review mainly hardcovers, or does the format the book is printed in not make a difference?

A. It should not make a difference, but in reality it often does. I used to do a paperback a month but now with the cutbacks in space, I will often do a paperback or two a month and put the review on the blog at and then put it on the MCT wires. That way I can cover it. And those reviews on the wires get picked up a lot. Last year, the ones I did on the novels by Jeffrey Cohen and Julie Hyzy ended up in about 100 different spots.
For the newspaper, the editors prefer hardcover but sometimes I will slip in a trade paperback if I think it is really good. Or a paperback by a local writer such as P.J. Parrish. But as a rule, the novels that are reviewed for the Sun Sentinel are hard cover.
Let me add that I am a fan of paperback originals. A lot of excellent authors got their start in paperback originals. Sometimes the paperback original authors (Joel Goldman, Rick Mofina, Michelle Gagnon, P.J. Parrish) are as good if not better than many of the authors being published in hardcover.

Q. Do you agree with Dick Cavett that there are two ways to tell someone their book isn’t good: A) You book was not my cup of tea, and B) I put down your book and just couldn’t pick it back up?
A. Another thing to say would be “Your fans will love it.” But, ha!, no, I disagree with Dick Cavett. Those are kind of cocktail party responses, things you say to people to not hurt their feelings, though if you think about those responses they are hurtful in a way. I grew up watching Dick Cavett and realizing there was a whole world out there beyond my home town. But that is a milquetoast thing to do. I may try to soften a review, especially if I have liked everything else the author has written, but in the end I have to be frank.
Case in point, I reviewed a nationally known and admired author last year. I have followed this guy since his first paperback original, and have seen him get better and better until he now regularly lands on the best sellers list. But I did not like his latest one. It hurt me to not like it, but that was the reality. So I had to give it a negative review.
A book may not be my cup of tea, but it could be yours. However, I am the one writing the review.

Q. Are there any standardized rules for reviewers, such as not quoting too directly from the book or tempering your praise/criticism?
A. My two main rules are not to give away a plot twist that will spoil the book for a reader and not to fall so in love with my own voice that I forget who the review is for. The first rule is pretty standard – I hate when a reviewer gives away a plot. I remember some review of a Michael Connelly novel (don’t remember the publication or the book title) that seemed to take glee in giving away everything twist and turn. As a reader, that made me mad.

The second rule: I think too often reviewers get so caught up that they go on too much and forget that they are writing that review for the reader, not to hear themselves be clever.
I think all reviewers should follow the rule ( I think it’s from Star Trek), “to do no harm.” That doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t rip apart a book if it deserves it, but review the book, not the author.
Quote from the book as much as you want to – most of the time that is just padding out a review – but don’t give away those vital plot points.

Q. Now that many reviews/reviewers are moving online, do you worry that they won’t adhere to the same journalistic codes?
A. I absolutely worry about that. I believe I am an ethical reviewer and I hope others think that too. I see a lot of reviews on Dorothy L and on a lot of online sites and, for the most part, they seem to be OK. Some of them are not especially well written but they are from the heart. But I worry that people are basing their reviews on grudges, agendas, friendship or anything else. Everyone now seems to be a reviewer. The rise of food review blogs, etc., seems to give many people permission to give their opinion on everything. When certain ethics such as being as objective as you can, approaching each book with a blank slate and others are not followed, I worry that it cheapens all reviews.

Q. What’s your take on ebook readers? Pros, cons as a reviewer?
A. If you mean like a Kindle or a Sony or whatever, I think those are just fine. It is another means to read a book. I like holding a book, that invisible connection to an author conveyed by holding their work. But if you read the book on a device or via the printed page, does it matter? I don’t think so. I would not find that a pro or a con as a reviewer.
The convenience might even encourage more people to buy books and that would be a good thing!
Actually, I wish the
New York publishers would get together and put their advanced copies on a Sony or whatever for reviewers. That way I could take an unlimited amount of books on vacation rather than limiting myself to 10. The publishers would save a ton of money, too.

Q. Amazon book reviews: many people think that readers pay attention to those starred, “street” reviews of books. Do you think they’re having a significant impact on book-buying decisions?
A. Lord, I hope not. Anyone can publish a review on Amazon. I know an author (self published) whose wife posted this glowing review on his Amazon site. Like me, she had kept her maiden name so no one else they knew the couple would know they were married. When they got divorced – and I bet you see this one coming – she posted a nasty, vicious review. Again, these reviews on Amazon are fraught with agendas, grudges, etc. I am sure some of the people posting their reviews are writing from the heart but others aren’t.

The Amazon Obligation

John Gilstrap

A couple of weeks ago, I received a box of 15 really beautiful Advance Readers Copies (ARCS—bound uncorrected page proofs) for the upcoming No Mercy (July 7, 2009). The question is what to do with them?

I have a couple for the local B&N and Borders stores to stir up a buzz among the sales staff. It’s truly a sad state of affairs that no independent bookstores that I know of continue to live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. (I don’t count Politics and Prose or Olsson’s because they don’t as a rule stock genre fiction.) So, what to do with these extra books?

Sure, there’s always family and friends, but to tell you the truth, I’ve always looked at them more as guaranteed buyers than give-away recipients. Call them the most reliable of reliable customers. Then I thought: I can put them to work.

Here’s my new rule. If I give you an ARC, you are a) still obligated to buy at least one copy of the actual book; and b) additionally obligated to post a review on I don’t even mandate that it be a positive review (though who could think negative thoughts about my masterpiece?). They just have to post something. So far, everyone has agreed.

This brings up a larger question. As consumers of books ourselves, don’t we have an obligation to post reviews on the books we read? Don’t we sort of owe that to our fellow trench fighters? It seems to me that we do.

I confess that I rarely post reviews under my own name. I’m just not comfortable doing that, particularly in the case of books I don’t care for. Okay, I don’t usually post a review at all if I don’t like a book. As the old saying goes, if you can’t say something nice . . . Well, you know.

So, what are your thoughts? As book review pages continue to disappear, and paper gets edged out by electrons, do we book fans owe populist reviews to our most admired (or most loathed) authors?

“I hate scrabble”: Q & A with Hallie Ephron

Hallie-Bricks-smaller Today The Kill Zone is delighted to welcome Hallie Ephron. NEVER TELL A LIE, her first solo thriller, has drawn wide acclaim. It received a PW starred review and was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as, “A book to be gobbled up whole, its pace never slackens.” A renowned writer, book reviewer, and writing teacher, Hallie was kind enough to share how she feels about reviews of her own books, and why she doesn’t play Scrabble.

Q: As a reviewer, how do you feel about reading reviews of your own work?

A: I hate it. Doesn’t everyone? Oh, the good ones are great, but every little jab and jibe goes right to the jugular.

Q: What influence do you feel reviews now have in an online world where everyone can blog/review a book?

A: I think the influence is still very significant. As I watch my Amazon numbers (a bad idea; don’t do it) I see a very significant bump when a good review comes out in the mainstream press. A nice blog review? Not so much.

Q: Along those lines, what’s happening to the book publishing industry, and where does book reviewing/reviewers fit into the picture? Can they help save it?

NeverTellALie_cover-smaller A: Like every other industry, the publishing business is shrinking. I think book reviewers have always, and I hope they will continue to guide readers to worthy books.

Q: NEVER TELL A LIE starts with a seemingly innocent yard sale. What’s the best yard sale purchase you’ve ever made? Ever had a bad experience? (hopefully not as bad as what happens in the book!)

A: BEST: A Stickley 2-door, glass-fronted oak bookcase with hammered copper pulls—the real deal—for $25!

WORST: Well, there was 1920’s bakelite “tombstone” radio I bought at a friend’s yard sale for $20. When I discovered it was worth over a thou, I returned it to her. Moral: Don’t shop at a friend’s yard sale.

Q: Do you believe that there is now gender equality in terms of the reviews and/or coverage mystery books get – particularly thrillers?

A: I’m not sure about equity, but I’d be surprised if differences are measurable. Publishers are very bottom-line oriented—they want to publicize what sells.

Q: Your previous novels were written with a writing partner, Donald Davidoff, under the pseudonym G.H. Ephron. How was it different for you to fly solo this time?

A: The writing was the same because I did the writing for the partnership. But plotting is a bear. Coming up with ideas, working my way out of plot-holes, coming up with credible surprises are so much easier when there’s someone else in the boat rowing. Brainstorming really requires at least two brains.

Q: What are your next plans? Another solo novel, one with your writing partner, or a non-fiction work?

A: I’m finishing “The Bibliophile’s Devotional” – a book for each of 365 days. And I’m in the middle of a solo novel.

Q: Do you think there is any self-published crime fiction out there worth reading?

A: Of course there is. But there’s too much crime fiction being well published by mainstream publishers for there to be time (for me) to look at self-published work.

Q: Why don’t more reviewers come to writers’ conferences or participate in panels?

A: One reason: it’s so darned expensive. And given that, a lot of them do, they just don’t advertise their presence. At the New England Crime Bake, we invite crime fiction book reviewers and ask them to speak or chair panels, and we try to comp their registration – as a result we’ve had quite a few come.

Q: What are the well-regarded review sources, and the ones to watch out for? (Not counting NYT, LAT, Boston Globe)

A: There are the trade publications like Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal that review in advance of publication. They can make a huge difference in terms of pre-orders from bookstores and library sales. Beyond that, there are just a few mainstream newspapers that regularly review crime fiction. You’ve mentioned some. The wonderful Oline Cogdill no longer works full time for the Sun Sentinel, but the silver lining is that her reviews now get picked up by papers nationwide. And then there are a gazillion self-anointed reviewers who write about books on the bookseller web sites, on blogs, on listservs, on FaceBook and other social networking web sites, and on it goes. So many! For an author that’s daunting and hard to know exactly how to crack.

Q: You come from a family of writers. I’m curious: do family Scrabble games get a little too intense?

A: I HATE Scrabble. I know that’s anathema. But I’m married to a lovely man who can beat me and everyone I know or am related to. I long ago gave up playing because, to put it bluntly, I hate to lose.

Q: And along those lines, Kathryn wanted to know: “Does Nora still hate her neck? I’ve been contemplating having a neck lift ever since reading her book.”

A: It’s not something I’ve asked her lately. She does have a movie coming out next summer. It’s based on Julie Powell’s wonderful book “Julie and Julia” – that delightful memoir about cooking all the recipes in Julia Childs’s cookbooks. Meryl Streep plays Julia (can’t wait to hear her do the voice) and Amy Adams plays Julie. Scuttlebutt on the movie: it’s going to be a blockbuster. Nice distraction from a saggy neck.