I heard a rumor that some authors were wondering about the rules regarding quoting reviews of their books. Whether you’re doing this in a tweet, a post on Facebook or your blog, or using the quote as a blurb in an advertisement or on the back cover of a paper book, the same basic rules apply. The considerations fall into two groups: those that are legal issues and those that are more a matter of etiquette.
I’ll start the discussion of the legal issues with my normal disclaimer that I’m not an attorney, although I sometimes play one on the internet. Consider yourself warned and if in doubt, consult a legal professional. The legal concept of fair use says that while something may be copyrighted, there are situations where a portion of that copyrighted material can be used for various purposes without permission from or compensation to the copyright owner. (For example, this is what makes it okay for a review to quote small portions of your book’s text in the review.) Note that I said a “portion.” Just how much that portion can be depends, and where the line between what is or isn’t okay is vague and depends on other factors. For example, something being used for educational purposes or satire can get away with using more of the copyrighted material than something for a purely commercial use, which is where the situation we’re discussing lands. How much is okay for you to quote with impunity depends on the size of the original material and, as I already said, is vague. Suffice it to say that you can’t quote the entire review. If the review is a single fourteen-word sentence, maybe “One of the best dystopian novels I’ve read all year, definitely recommend this book,” then you’d be pushing it to quote the first phrase, as that’s virtually the entire original work. The last phrase would probably be okay. If this sentence was the concluding sentence of a 100-200 word review, then quoting the full sentence would be no problem.
The only other thing that belongs at least partially in the legal discussion is that you need to give credit to whomever you are quoting. That’s smart anyway, as the “who” is where the potential reader determines the authority of the person expressing an opinion. “Midwest Reviews” or “Some Dude’s Book Blog” or “Semi-Famous Author” gives more authority to the quote than leaving it as some random words with no explanation.
Now we’ll cover additional considerations that fall more in the area of etiquette. Some authors will ask permission of the reviewer, if they’re able. (Book blogs, magazines, etc. are easy to contact and ask, whereas for a typical customer review on Amazon, contacting the reviewer could be problematic.) Asking permission isn’t necessary if the quote falls under the fair use copyright exception, but if you’d like to quote more of the review than would qualify or just want to be sure, there is nothing wrong with asking. (Presumably if the answer you get is “no” you’ll be okay with that, although I can’t imagine that happens often.)
Another item of etiquette is to quote in such a way as to give a reasonable sense of what the author of the review was actually trying to say. If the review said “This book wasn’t a very good read, but it’s better than being a character in the Hunger Games,” don’t quote it by saying “… better than … the Hunger Games.” Better pick a different quote from another review. That’s not only misleading, but could reasonably be argued violates fair use.
If you’re quoting the review somewhere online, possibly your website, another thing you might consider is to link to the full review if it is available online (possibly a link from the attribution portion of the quote). This serves two purposes. First, if a potential reader is intrigued by the quote, they might be interested in reading the full review including seeing the full context of what you’re quoting. Second, this can serve to drive a little traffic to the site that gave you the nice review. The downside is that doing this involves leaving your site, but if you set the link up to open the linked site in a new browser tab, this will minimize driving a potential reader away while still benefiting from the full review.
The bottom line in this discussion is that quoting from positive reviews can be useful as a marketing tool, providing validation or social proof to potential readers that others have found your book worthwhile. Done correctly, there are no legal issues and in reality most reviewers are going to be thrilled to be quoted in this fashion.