Is book reviewing an art or a public service? Two columnists from the NY Times take it on here.
Book reviews--art or public service?
My view--it's a little bit of both. First of all, to me "public service" refers to those commercials reminding you to buckle your kids into their car seats, and other announcements like that. TV stations are required to run a certain amount of those for free. Likewise, "public service" implies that there's no money involved. In my case, that's true. I don't get any pay for my reviews, other than free books.
There is an art to reviewing books. You have to know what to say, what portions to quote (unless you're reviewing an ARC, in which case the publisher asks you not to quote). In my case, you also have to give it a star rating--1 to 5, 5 being the best. As the article points out, you don't want to come across as pompous or too much of a fan. I try to maintain that balance, but sometimes if I'm a fan of the author or the series, it may come out as too much cheerleading.
The public service part comes when I post reviews to Amazon or B&N. This is where readers, and potential buyers, will see the review. We have to let the viewers know what we think. Any review other than 4 or 5 stars may sink the book. I strive to give honest reviews. If a book doesn't merit 4 or 5 stars, I will say so. I haven't had it happen to me yet, but I will reject books if it is asked of me or strongly hinted that they would like a 4 or 5 star review. All authors want that, but to ask for it implies your book isn't that good to begin with.
As far as posting reviews of less than 4 stars, I will do it. I'd rather be honest about the book than become known as a "puff piece" reviewer. I am required by FTC rules to disclose if I receive a free copy of a book in exchange for a review. (I will reject anyone who tells me to leave that out.) That statement does carry to Amazon and B&N. I believe in being up front. If you're willing to give bad reviews, I believe people will believe you more when you give good reviews.
To sum up, there is art and public service in reviews. I just have to keep in balance. Let me know what you think in the comments.