Social media gives us new ways to connect with others and pursue our interests, which can include following our favorite authors, publishers, and bookstores. While it may seem an unlikely place, Instagram is one of these platforms with a rather large book-loving community. Recently, I became the new admin behind the Swenson Book Development Instagram account, but of course, there are many others in the literary community that have been #Bookstagrammers for much longer. Author and filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki – who documented in both book and film her “emotional quest to find the art of her Polish-Jewish great-grandfather, lost during World War II” – is an experienced member of the Instagram literary community and models the best practices of #Bookstragrammers. As a guest for Swenson Book Development, Rynecki has written about writing book reviews and using Instagram, and I am excited to share it with you.
Elizabeth Rynecki: Last year I posted 50 mini book reviews on Instagram. That might seem like a large number of books to read in a year, but it’s notably smaller than the number of books I started and then decided, for various reasons, not to finish. Not all books are for all readers. It seems like an obvious statement, but as an author myself I have come to understand this in a much deeper way, to the point that I’ve almost made it a mantra.
My recent background as an author [Chasing Portraits was published by Penguin Random House in 2016] leads some people to think I am an expert reviewer who can provide magical insight into the worthiness of other books, but it clearly does not. Just as for everyone else, my insights reflect my personal experiences and preferences – what genres I like, what storylines most speak to me, and what writing styles I find most lyrical. Those are the books I share on Instagram (and Goodreads and Litsy too).
Book reviews are a not-always-so-beloved component of the publishing process, and authors frequently have a love-hate relationship with them. Love, obviously, for the good and glowing reviews that put their book into the hands of eager readers. Good reviews, just like word of mouth are critical to establishing an audience for new authors. But authors often hate reviews, because books are very personal creations of the author, and no one likes to see their cherished creation panned in a public forum. Hopefully most authors learn to take the negative reviews in stride and chalk it all up to the price authors pay for the privilege of being published.
While many publications publish formal independent book reviews, social media makes it possible for everyone else to espouse their opinion as well. Like any review opportunity, this is both a blessing and a curse to authors. On the one hand, dedicated review platforms like Goodreads and Litsy enable reviewers to easily judge books they’ve read. On Goodreads (and Amazon), users can rank a book from 1 to 5 stars. Litsy has a four-tier rating system with a hang-ten icon for “pick,” a sideways thumb for “so-so,” a thumbs down for “pan,” and a parachute to indicate the reader “bailed.” These platforms give authors a chance to access a built-in audience and give readers a chance to see book recommendations by those who enjoy similar books. From the author perspective, the drawback is that like many types of social media, the positive reviews and attention tend to cluster around bestsellers, and less-well-known books frequently get lost in the noise.
That’s why I prefer to post book reviews on Instagram which, in my mind, has two benefits. First, it gives authors a place to informally interact with readers. Second, readers can post about books in whatever way they feel inspired, without having to shoehorn their opinion onto a small, preset scale. Fortunately, there are playful tags on Instagram that help readers and authors find one another – tags like #Bookstagram, #minibookreview, #BooksInTheWild, and #BookFace that makes the discovery of new-to-you books more whimsical. Of course, of the many millions of #Bookstagram posts, not all of them are artfully composed photographs of books posed with a café au lait accompanied by a well written, thoughtful post. This is the internet, so a lot of the posts are unpleasant or worse. A reader announcing they abandoned a certain book 200 pages in because the prose was horrific and “unforgivably boring” is not uncommon. Sometimes readers feel bad when they don’t like popular books and will write things like this reviewer, who professed, “I tried, I really did! I made it halfway through, but it’s just too much work and not enough payoff.” Other times they are a lot less empathetic, asking “Who ARE you people giving this 5-star raves? I’m not even half way yet, and I can’t stand it.”
My heart aches a bit when readers don’t like my book, but I’ve become accustomed to the fact that it’s simply not for everyone. If I wrote it again, I know there are editorial changes I would make to the flow of the book, but even so, it would still not be for every reader. Since at some point authors must let their creations stand on their own, I try to focus on what I can do to get it into the hands of readers who will love it. These days that mostly means asking readers who send me emails telling me why they loved the book to consider posting a simple online book review.
It’s easy to write a good book review. You post a picture of the book (maybe even in a posed or inspired setting), write a few words about the plot, and offer some insight about why you enjoyed it (e.g., “a total page turner,” “stunning storyline!” “loved the main character!”). And perhaps you tag it so other readers with shared interests can find it. Some of my favorite tags this past year included #memoir, #WhatAuthorsRead, and #BooksToFilm.
It can be tempting to tag authors, especially since it’s so easy to give them a heads up you’ve written about their book, but it’s a good idea to ask yourself why you’re tagging them. If it’s because you really loved the book and want to give them a chance to repost your upbeat review, or even if it is a balanced review that talks about strengths and weaknesses, then by all means, go for it. But there is a slippery slope between a fun-loving post that seems to say, “I read your book and took this cool photograph of it and I hope my friends read it too!” and “Your book was dumb, I bailed, and no one else should have to suffer like I did!” It’s not helpful to the author in terms of actually improving their work, and it’s not the kind of thing most people would say in person. At that point the reviewer is just taking advantage of the social distance created by the internet to be obnoxious.
It’s more than okay to dislike a book. You needn’t like everything. If we all liked the same things, our reading options would be extremely limited. As it is, a lot of people think there isn’t enough book diversity. But even when you don’t like a book, there is a clear difference between appropriate and inappropriate, or even disrespectful, review writing.
If you are particularly irate about a book (e.g. the series didn’t end the way you expected, a character made a bad decision, or the writing was choppy, poorly translated, or needs further editing) then donate it and move onto a new book. If you post about the things you don’t like, keep the tone civil, make your feedback constructive, and then please don’t tag the author. The book is finished. There’s not going to be a re-write, so there’s really no point in tagging the author. An author tagged in this sort of post really only has two options – ignore you or lash back at you, and neither seems to benefit either party.
In the last few years, I’ve taken it a step further. I’ve decided to not post about books I don’t like. As an author, I know how brutal it can be to read a one-star review on Amazon that doesn’t say much more than, “This book sucks,” to put me in a negative funk. And so, for now, I’ve made the very personal decision to no longer post about books I don’t like. Silence speaks volumes too.
Maybe it’s not entirely honest to avoid writing negative reviews. There are some books that are widely agreed to be better written than others, though often a lot of that can be explained by personal preference and cultural norms. Of course, many readers think you owe it to them to save them the trouble of not starting a bad book. The problem, of course, is that what’s bad for you might not be bad for me. Besides, I think trying a book out to see if it’s a good fit for you is simply part of the book reading process. If it’s not for you, move on to something else. If you want reading suggestions, ask your favorite local independent bookseller for recommendations based on the last book you loved, or visit the library and read the first five pages of a few new releases to see if anything speaks to you, or ask your best friend about their favorite recent read. Don’t ever feel obliged to finish a book, but use that opportunity to give more books a try. You might be pleasantly surprised when you discover a new author or even a totally new-to-you genre (might I suggest satire, travel, food memoir, poetry). And when you do love a book, tell your friends (word of mouth is the good old-fashioned form of social media), and then do think about writing an upbeat online book review because that might inspire someone else to read it. The world really does have enough naysayers. Be the one to spread a little book love.
Catch screenings of Elizabeth Rynecki’s documentary Chasing Portraits, a companion film to her book of the same title, at the following events:
Feb. 11, 2019, 10am. – A Skirball Cultural Center Members Only Screening
Mar. 10, 2019, 12:30pm. – Sacramento Jewish Film Festival
March 24, 2019, 4pm. – Palm Springs Jewish Film Festival. Opening Night Film!
March 29, 2019 – Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival, Springfield, MA.
April 12 & 14, 2019 – Tallahassee Film Society, FL