Blogging About Books (When I Should Be Down the Shore)

Twins at the Beach (2)It’s summertime, which honestly means nothing for me other than warmer temperatures, mosquitoes, and a nagging feeling that I should be taking a vacation. I am lucky to work for an organization with an ample vacation policy, but in my absence, work just piles up, and I return to the office more stressed out than I was when I left it.*

So, it’s business as usual in my office, in my household, and even on my blog. It’s the same routine just about 365 days of the year, give or take a federal holiday or two. Even though I won’t take much vacation time, I probably should take a break long enough to clean my office and tidy up my blog. The last time I did any “housekeeping” on here was back in May (my actual house is in better shape, thanks to my husband!).

My little piece of the Internet turned one-year-old back in June, which I commemorated with nothing more than a footnote at the time. It’s a relatively big milestone in a virtual world where blogs are abandoned every day, and it’s a good opportunity to re-evaluate why I blog and to assess what my book blog has become over the last year.

Part of this introspection stems from Richard Levesque’s thoughtful post on reviews after his books have been available on Amazon for more than a year-and-a-half. I read one of his novels, Take Back Tomorrow, and liked it, and I own Strictly Analog, but I haven’t read it yet. In his post, he talks about the lessons writers may learn from negative reviews, advises authors to view positive reviews with a grain of salt, and finally, he asks a question:

So…I wonder about other writers: do you take it personally when your work gets a thumbs-down? And as a reader, what sorts of things prompt you to write and post a review?

It’s good to stop and think about what prompts me to write about a book. I review only a small fraction of the books I read, and even then, my posts are usually broader than a typical review. Not only do I try to say something about the writing and structure of the book, and whether I liked it, but I also try to discuss a legal or social issue that arose either in the book or in how that book made it to the marketplace. I’m inclined to write about books that make me think about a larger issue, whether I enjoyed the book or not. If what I write publicizes a book, then that’s great. If it also informs people about legal or social issues and results in an exchange of ideas with visitors to my blog in the comments, then that’s even better.

I do write negative reviews, though I tend to post fewer wholly negative reviews now than I did in the past. When it turns out that I’m just not the appropriate audience for a book, I usually skip writing about it unless I have another reason to discuss it. I have found that my ire is directly proportional to the cost of the book, both “cost” in terms of my money and “cost” in terms of my time. So, I’m more likely to post a negative review about an expensive, long book than an inexpensive, shorter book that was just as bad. I’m a consumer, and I don’t like to feel cheated.

Despite my consumer perspective, I’ve largely stopped posting condensed versions of my reviews on Amazon, at least for now. I just don’t have the time to fit it in with everything else I want or have to do. Plus, even though I buy most of my books through Amazon, I find the majority of books I read through book blogs, and I rarely factor Amazon reviews into my purchasing decisions. Everyone from the author’s mother to the author herself is posting reviews there, and sometimes it feels like I’m just adding my two cents to a ponzi scheme. It doesn’t help that the star rating is meaningless. I can’t boil down my feelings about a book into a certain number of stars. I might give three stars to two books without them being at all comparable, just because four seemed like too much, and who knows how someone else’s three star rating compares to mine. Finally, I appreciate that Amazon is one of the places where a review helps authors the most, but, as I said above, my primary purpose in talking about books isn’t to market them.

I do, however, always link to the Amazon page for a book (or some other way to purchase it) in my posts, and I’m pleased to see the number of times visitors to my blog have clicked on them (which, for the record, are unaffiliated links). I don’t know if anyone has ever purchased a book because I blogged about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s happened more than once.

So, over the past fourteen months, I think I’ve managed to stay true to my original blueprint of looking at legal and societal issues through literature. What prompts me to write about a book is the same now as it was when I first started doing this: the book raised an interesting point, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and got me thinking, whether I enjoyed the book or not.

Blogging about books is fun, and as I said in September of last year, it “does more than satisfy my narcissism”:

Blogging hones my research and writing skills and keeps my brain limber.  This blog is a place for me to chronicle my thoughts, sort of like a public diary, and I’m looking forward to revisiting what I’ve written on literary themes, the law, and parenting to see how my thoughts have evolved with time and exposure to new ideas.  If any of these thoughts are worthy of comment from someone passing through the blogosphere, then that’s a nice bonus, but it isn’t necessary for me to think this blog is worth it: I could blather into the WordPress void forever!

Thankfully, I’ve learned that it isn’t actually a void. I am grateful to the people who stop by from time to time to share their experiences, build upon my arguments, or push back on them. Sometimes, I suspect, they even buy a book.

Overall, it’s worth it to blog about books, which may include some of the ones I’ll read when I finally do go down the shore. It’s only for a weekend, barely a vacation, but it’s something.

*My parents took the kids on vacation this summer, and they are the ones who took this picture of my twins.

36 thoughts on “Blogging About Books (When I Should Be Down the Shore)

  1. Hi, I’ve nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award! If you choose to accept, here’s the deal:

    1. Display the Award Certificate on your blog.
    2. Announce your win with a post. Post a link back to your nominator as a “thank you” for the nomination.
    3. Present 15 awards to deserving bloggers.
    4. Drop them a comment to tip them off after you have linked them in the post.
    5. Post 7 interesting things about yourself.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts in the future 🙂

  2. There’s a saying, “always write angry letters to your enemies, but never send them.” Then of course there’s Groundhog Day’s advice, “don’t drive angry.”

    I agree in general, but not for reviews: write negative reviews when angry. If a book was really that bad, and that much a rip-off, then the review needs to encapsulate your true feelings as you finish, to adequately warn others. A bad book (or movie, or concert, or whatever) does not deserve to benefit from the cooling of temper that naturally comes with the passage time.

    1. I see your point, but it’s hard to forget that there’s a person behind that book, and angry reviews have a tendency to be cruel (I’m certainly guilty of having written a few of those). So, at least for me, it’s better to limit my angry reviews to products because I don’t care about the corporation’s feelings (they are NOT people, no matter what our Supreme Court says!). Now, if I’m still angry after a couple of days of reading a book, then I’m very likely to leave a negative review.

  3. I’d never leave a bad review on my blog – I just leave it out. However I do some reviewing for an independent site and, once an author has offered a book for review, I believe it has to be an honest one. And there are some pretty awful efforts out there as well as some good stuff.
    AMB I love my work too but I think you’ve got to force yourself to take a mental break at least. I have next week off but fortunately I live right overlooking the shore so it’s a holiday just being in the apartment!

    1. What a lovely view you must have! I’m about an hour and half from the Jersey Shore (New Jersey, that is), but I am lucky enough to have a nice view of woods from my house. It’s very serene, and I often feel like I’m away from the hustle and bustle of my Center City career when I’m home, even if I’m still on my laptop.

  4. I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds blogging as much fun as being at the beach (if I’m correctly reading between the lines)!
    Question: Are there other online sites besides Amazon where you’ve had good experiences buying books? I appreciate Amazon, but also want to spread my dollars around. I’ve used Powell’s — any others you’ve liked?

    1. Yes, I do find it as much fun as being at the beach! Ideally, though, I’d be sitting on a balcony facing the ocean with my laptop or Kindle at my fingertips (and my kids fast asleep after a long day building sandcastles). I’d love to find an alternative to Amazon, just for the sake of encouraging competition, but the fact that I read mostly e-books on a Kindle these days keeps me tied to Amazon. I do try to buy books at independent bookstores when I come across them (which isn’t often in my area), and libraries are wonderful.

  5. I try to keep in mind what the Amazon star rating means. Five stars means “loved it,” not “perfect.” If I loved it, I give it a 5. If I really liked it, a 4. If it was OK, a 3. Less… and I don’t rate it.

    I also don’t review books with strong political or religious messages anymore, due to getting suckerd into flame wars. If I say “it’s badly written,” I get branded a political/religious enemy. If I say “it’s well-crafted,” people think I agree with the author’s point of view. It’s just not worth it.

    1. I often see Amazon reviews where the person gave the novel a three while raving about the it or without providing a sufficient explanation. I’ll probably start reviewing the books on Amazon again (as long as I have time). Marketing the books I read isn’t my primary objective, but I should help authors when I can.

  6. I’m certainly glad you have no thoughts about leaving your blog. I really enjoy reading your intelligent, well conceived posts. BTW, please dont’t let my son know your parents took your kids on vacation without you! 😉

  7. Another great photo of the kids! I don’t think anyone could take a poor photo of them, they are just too darn cute. I never realized what you posted about Amazon reviews and ratings. I guess I just trusted what was there. I enjoy your reviews, even if I don’t get the time to read a book you have reviewed. The reviews are very good and I feel like I get a lot of familiarity with an author or even their reason for writing the book. I hope you do get some shore time. I sense you are needing that vacation.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad my kids are still young enough to enjoy taking pictures. I’m sure there will come a time when they’ll hide from the camera (that’s how I was around ages 11-15!). I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

  8. When I write reviews I tend to write more from a personal angle rather than an “evaluation,” too.

    Maybe you can take your laptop and go down to the shore with your kids. They sure are adorable!

  9. I always enjoy your reviews because of exactly what you said above about the books you review. They get me thinking about something beyond just the book–an idea, a social justice issue, something that contextualizes the book to life.

    1. Thanks! Blogging is a lot of fun. I wish I had started doing it before I was a parent, when I a had a little more time on my hands (though it never felt like I had any free time!). It isn’t hard to make sure that computer-time doesn’t eat into quality time with my girls, though. Raising them is even more fun than blogging! I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

  10. I’ve found that the longer I blog, the less I review. I much prefer writing about books in a general way, in a personal way, rather than giving the thumbs up or the thumbs down. And for what it’s worth, I find your posts to be so intelligent and thoughtful and worth reading–I learn something new every time. So keep doing what you’re doing. 🙂

    Here’s hoping you get a chance to take at least a short break soon.

    1. Thanks, Beth! I really enjoy blogging, and it’s nice to know there’s an audience for this type of content. One of the reasons I like your blog is that your reviews are more than a thumbs up/down approach. A personal approach is more interesting to read.

      As for breaks, I am trying to take it easy. We’ve seen lots of family, and we’re taking a day off from work this week to spend time with the kids at Longwood Gardens (to celebrate our 7th anniversary). We won’t go down the shore until September, but that’s often the best time to go.

  11. Oh, your kids are beautiful! And you should definitely go to the beach (a solid idea any day), but I also understand about vacations being more work when you return (I used to be a teacher).

    Reviews are so tricky! I skip over all five stars, and one stars, but I find I read the three stars and usually make my decision off those. But I wonder how the sample pages change things. If you “look inside” a book and think it looks good, then buy it and are disappointed, are you more likely to write a bad review than if you went in blind? Also, how much does that “sample” negate the value of reviews as a purchase influencer?

    I guess my reasons for reading are pretty shallow, I just want to be entertained, to escape my real world a little. I like books to be fun and lighthearted, and I rarely take them seriously enough to muster up the love (or hate) for a review longer than a few lines. I think your reason for reviewing is great, and I love that you try to write about legal or social issues you find in your reads. You are clearly a much more engaged and critical reader than I am 🙂

    1. Thanks! My kids love going down the shore.

      I read for entertainment, too, but I do like it when a book touches on a larger social issue. Even the lightest romance could have commentary on gender roles and other aspects of our society. As for the sample chapters, they are an important part of my decision-making process when purchasing a book. It does increase expectations, but it also allows readers to find a better match and start the book with a good impression (and first impressions are important!).

  12. Thanks for the shout out. Your review of Take Back Tomorrow was definitely one of the more thoughtful that I’ve encountered, and I’m grateful for it. I think you’re right that most people stumble upon the books they’re going to read because of word of mouth or because they follow some breadcrumbs across the web; in those cases, the reviews didn’t get them to the Amazon page. But I know I’ve followed some books to Amazon and then found the reviews were so bad that I passed. So maybe good reviews don’t always reel readers in, but bad reviews can cause readers to let go of the bait. Enjoy your vacation!

    1. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful piece on reviews. I agree that most readers find books through word-of-mouth recommendations, and there are some of us who find books through blogs. What’s nice about finding books through blogs is that I usually know more about the blogger’s taste and perspective, making it easier for me to know how to weigh the reviews. As for Amazon, I’m certainly open to posting reviews there again, and the comments to this post are encouraging me to do it.

  13. Terrific photo of the kids!

    I suggest to readers who like my titles to post a review on Amazon, but I don’t push, and while I think those reviews do influence book browsers, I’ve also run into reviews that were clearly written by friends and family. How do I know this? In one case, the author asked me to edit their book after she’d already put it up for sale. It was full of errors and nonsensical passages, and I eventually returned it, telling her it needed a complete rewrite (something I’m guessing she never did). So all those five star reviews had to be bogus; the book was awful.

    I never buy a book based on reviews, and I always click to “read inside.” A few pages tells me whether this one is worth my time and money or not.

    1. Thanks! My girls love “going down the shore,” as we say in Philly.

      The sample chapters are a key factor in my book purchases. I never consider the Amazon reviews because I almost always know what I’m going to buy when I go to Amazon (based on book blogger reviews or recommendations from friends). However, I can see why it’s important to other people. I’m still open to reviewing books on Amazon. There’s no reason I shouldn’t help authors when I can (even if marketing books isn’t my primary purpose). The comments here are encouraging me to start doing it again.

      Have a nice weekend!

  14. As an author I do like it when people leave reviews on Amazon, of course. Giving bad reviews is hard for me – I always think, well, they put a lot of heart and effort into this, and who am I to judge? So I try to say something nice, while still being truthful. I wouldn’t give a badly written book five stars but I’d rarely give anything 2 stars unless the author was a prat, or famous enough to cope with it. I think that makes me a pretty unreliable reviewer (that said, when I rave, I really mean it).

    1. I think twice about leaving a bad review, too. I appreciate that there’s a person “behind the book” (to quote EB White), but that person should also understand that they’re asking readers to spend time and money on that work. So, to me, it’s just as important to protect consumers from a bad product (particularly if it’s bad writing–too many typos, plot holes, grammatical errors, logical flaws, etc) as it is to protect an author’s feelings. If it’s just a matter of taste, though, I probably won’t review it. As for Amazon, I’m still open to leaving reviews there, and the comments here are encouraging me to start doing it again. While marketing a book isn’t my primary purpose, there’s no reason I shouldn’t help authors when I can.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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