Magical book

Magical book

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Three Top Reviewers Tell All

What less-than-blockbuster mystery author hasn’t dreamed of his or her ARC being plucked from a teetering pile and chosen for an attention-getting review? 

Can the writer do anything to make that happen? No. So how do top reviewers decide which books to favor? 
Maureen Corrigan

Recently the Mystery Writers of America Mid-Atlantic Chapter, of which I am a member, hosted three guests who told us how they work, what they love (and hate) in a crime novel, and why certain behavior by writers and publishers ticks them off. 

Maureen Corrigan, a critic-in-residence and lecturer at Georgetown University, reviews for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and won an Edgar Award for criticism. She served as a juror for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Dennis Drabelle, winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s award for excellence in reviewing, is an author and the crime fiction editor at The Washington Post. Internet critic Bethanne Patrick, known for her Book Maven blog and the influential Friday Reads on Twitter, was named one of Flavorwire’s 35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet. She has written for The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Oprah magazine, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Neither Corrigan nor Patrick reviews mysteries exclusively.

Dennis Drabelle
What kind of competition does a book face when an advance reader copy goes to one of these people?

Patrick said she receives 50-75 ARCs a week. Corrigan receives about 200 a week at her home address and 50 at her office. The Washington Post receives about 150 ARCs every day. Corrigan reviews a handful of mysteries every two or three months on NPR. The Post runs a single crime fiction review each Monday and occasionally devotes a Sunday column to a mystery roundup.

How are books chosen for review?

First off, self-published books are automatically excluded. Novels by “big names” rise to the top, but beyond that, Corrigan, Drabelle, and Patrick all keep an eye out for new and lesser known authors whose books offer something special.

The publisher’s name may persuade Patrick to give a book a closer look. “Some imprints,” she said, “are really reliable.” But the book itself has to win her over with superior writing. “It always comes back to the writing.” Corrigan said that “something unusual” will pique her interest and “open the door” but doesn’t guarantee a review. Drabelle is drawn to mysteries with exotic settings. Aside from his personal preferences, Drabelle started an occasional cozy mystery roundup column in the Post because he felt the paper should expand the range of crime fiction reviewed in its pages.
None of them is influenced by industry publications like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Reviews. They also can’t be persuaded by a publicist’s pitch. The book itself is what counts.

Bethanne Patrick
What bowls them over and makes them feel a book deserves a review?

“Authority of voice,” Corrigan said. Sometimes she’s drawn in by the plot and setting, but fully realized characters are essential. Most of all, she likes books that have the ring of authenticity rather than market-driven gimmicks—“not vampires living in Downton Abbey with dogs.” Patrick is attracted to a fresh voice or a fictional world that is “other”—and that doesn’t necessarily mean exotic. “Even a cozy,” she said, “can take you somewhere different.” Drabelle admires authors who are skillful at withholding information to build suspense.

How do they approach writing negative reviews?

Fairness is essential, Patrick said. She cited her review of Sara Gruen’s new book, At the Water’s Edge, as “almost totally negative, but fair.” She always backs up her negative comments with examples from the book.

“It’s never a pleasure to read a bad book,” Corrigan said, and she is annoyed when a major author publishes “schlock” and starts recycling plots. When she’s “really had it” with such an author, she doesn’t hold back in expressing her opinion.

Drabelle concurred, saying that a book review is “a consumer report” and it’s the reviewer’s job to inform the public when a major writer publishes a bad book. He believes in saving negativism for lower down in the review because if the hard shots are fired in the first sentence people may not read on.

Do they get a lot of flack when they review a book negatively? 

Corrigan’s review of a book that had been praised by The New York Times drew angry letters and made her the target of online attacks. She was sufficiently concerned to tell Georgetown University security about what was happening.

Corrigan, Drabelle, and Patrick all said they prefer that authors not communicate with them about reviews, whether positive or negative. “It’s always a little strange” to hear from a writer, Drabelle said. “I didn’t do it for the writer. I did it for readers.” Patrick noted that several authors have told her they learned something about their writing from her reviews, but she believes “authors shouldn’t say anything to reviewers.” Corrigan doesn’t want any writer to think a positive review means he or she has found a champion who will review all future work favorably. If Corrigan thinks the next book from that writer is lousy, she’ll say so—or she won’t review it at all.

All three frown on the deceptive practice of publishers and writers taking pull quotes from a negative review and using them to give the impression the book was praised. Drabelle said that at the Post “we don’t take it lightly when a review is distorted,” and editors have expressed their displeasure to publishers.

Can any of them explain why some bad books, with a collection of negative reviews, attract hordes of readers?
No. Patrick mentioned The Memory Keeper’s Daughter as one book that was “review-proof” and seemed to come out of nowhere to take over the bestsellers lists. Those lists, Drabelle said, “are dominated by terrible books. You’re lucky if one is any good.”

Who are the people they hope to influence?
Readers. Their job is to help readers sift through the avalanche of books published every year and find something worth reading. They’re aware that they are speaking to a shrinking audience. “I don’t think writing is in trouble,” Patrick said. “There are many good writers. Reading is in trouble.” The world offers too many distractions, and people are reading less and less. Even a bookseller friend, Patrick added, confessed to watching more TV and reading less these days.

How much influence do they have in a world where traditional book reviews are fast disappearing and readers are turning to Amazon and amateur blogs for book information?
Patrick believes that some book bloggers are as good as or better than the professional reviewers and “can do great things for a book,” while others simply post reviews that “steal from the publisher’s synopsis” and offer no serious assessment. Veteran reviewers, Corrigan pointed out, still offer a special sensibility honed by years of critical reading. Drabelle sees internet competition as an incentive for traditional reviewers to “be better than ever.”

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, do you believe traditional reviewers still matter in today’s world? Do review quotes on a book jacket or in ads influence sales? Please leave a comment!


  1. Reviews do make a difference, especially after one comes to know the reviewer's taste. (There was at one point a reviewer whose taste was so opposite to mine that, if he gave a book high praise, I knew I'd hate it, and vice versa. Never failed.) However, one has to make an effort to check the various review sites (including newspapers etc.), while recommendations from friends whose judgment one trusts simply come to one's news feeds or up in conversation. Therefore, those recommendations are more influential than the reviews are.--Mario R.

  2. Very interesting article. I had to wonder: if "bestsellers lists...are dominated by terrible books," how do books get on those lists?.

    Thanks to Sandy and the reviewers.

  3. Whether they are terrible books or not is, of course, a matter of opinion. I've learned to respect most writers who achieve great success, because they're obviously working hard and appealing to many readers. Some books, though... well, as I said, it's a matter of opinion! (And I quite enjoyed The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Soap opera, yes, but sometimes that's just the sort of thing I'm in the mood to read. And it had a hopeful ending.)

  4. Thanks for this recap. I have far more books on my potential to-be-read pile than I can possibly read, so I love reading professional reviews in addition to Goodreads reviews to help me identify what I'm more likely to enjoy. Professional reviews often identify different aspects of a book than a more casual reviewer, so both are valuable.

  5. I enjoy the long, detailed reviews you can seldom find anywhere but in print. Unfortunately, few crime novels get that kind of treatment. Still, I've discovered some great writers through reviews. I don't know a lot of people who share my taste, so I don't rely as much on recommendations from friends.

  6. Reviews absolutely matter (at least to readers like me), but only when the reviewer provides a cohesive and sensible justification for what they liked or disliked.In fact, I've read negative reviews that have convinced me to read the book as certain qualities the reviewer disliked are qualities I enjoy. Along the same line, I also tend to avoid books that have only five star glowing reviews. I've come to believe any book worth reading will generally invoke both positive and negative emotions in readers and across readers so really good books may be generally loved, but also hated.

    I also don't need or want a synopsis. Don't tell me what the book is about, tell me why you liked or didn't like it and why I should or shouldn't spend my time reading it.

    I read about 100 books a year and the first thing I do when a book catches my eye or ear is to go online and read reviews, though I'm drawn to sites like goodreads and to a lesser extent Amazon (so authors should absolutely not discount the power of blogs and reader/reviewers).

    The blurbs on books have absolutely no impact on whether or not I buy a book. A good cover can intrigue me, but is not a deal breaker. Once I'm well into a book, I really enjoy reading about the author, so authors, please spend some time writing your bios.

  7. Thanks for your comments, Shaun. As a writer who also reviews occasionally for The Washington Independent Review of Books, I can tell you that a synopsis of the story is absolutely required by review publications. They won't post a "review" that consists only or primarily of the reviewer's personal reactions, although those reactions are required too. You'll find what you're looking for mostly in reader reviews on Amazon, B&, etc. As a reader, I want to know what the book is about. I can't decide whether to read it without that information. The reviewer's job is to tell the reader whether the story works or fails. Even then, I don't take the reviewer's word unless I am familiar with his/her work and have usually agreed with the opinions expressed. Like you, I've been drawn to books through negative reviews -- because the synopsis of the story made it sound like the kind of thing I enjoy.

  8. I have a very good sense of which books I'll enjoy reading. I like to read reviews of a book after I've read the book. Same with movies. It amuses me when our opinions are far apart. BTW, I too enjoyed The Memory Keeper's Daughter.

  9. Thank you, Sandra, for posting this summary of your meeting discussion. I write a lot of mystery/thriller reviews for my website, too, ( and found the comments illuminating! While, like you, I believe some sense of the story is necessary to let readers know whether it's the kind of thing they'd enjoy, I'm really annoyed by careless spoilers. Once that sense is established, time to move on to craft . . .

  10. Just discovered this from "SinC Links." Great article with plenty of useful information. Good to get a reviewer's take on the book review process.

  11. Interesting post, Sandy -- may I link to it on FB?

  12. Sandra - I used your excellent article as a jumping-off place for my blog post today on "Separating the Wheat," linking back to you for people who want to read the whole panel discussion. Thanks for inspiring this! My post is at