Monday, September 23, 2013

Being Honest, or Career Suicide? #BookReviews

Writer's Stop
Writer's Stop (Photo credit: Stephh922)

Should Writers Ever Review Books?

Not long ago, popular blogger/author Kristen Lamb (#MyWana) posited that it's not fair for writers to  review books, because we thereby suck all the magic out of it for the readers. The following comment debate (in which I participated) was sometimes heated, sometimes an amen chorus, sometimes almost tearful disagreement.

Some pointed out that if writers didn't review books, many authors, especially indie authors and midlist authors, would have few reviews at all. All indications are that having reviews do help sell books. Until they have at least 25 posted reviews, books aren't "visible" on Amazon's radar, and authors aren't even allowed to pay to advertise their books there.

The grudging consensus among many commenters was that maybe authors giving reviews was okay... as long as it was always a positive review.

You know, like Thumper's parents taught us all...

I, too, was brought up under the same platitude. Ironically, in my life the person who most frequently repeated "if you can't say somethin' nice..." was my control-freak grandmother, whose razor-sharp tongue could have been registered as a lethal weapon.

Much as I adore Thumper, respect Kristen Lamb, and feared my grandmother, I have come to strongly disagree.

Who Is a Writer, Anyway?

Are you not "really" a writer until you have sold or self-published a book? What if you have short stories published? What if you're a published journalist or essayist, and perhaps working on a book? Is it okay to review if you "only" have a blog? What if you're an avid reader, and love reviewing books, and have just started, shyly, to post book reviews in the hopes of building up your writing chops to write your own novel, someday?

There are many different kinds of writers, and wanna-be writers.  I don't think even the most successful authors would place a dividing line between themselves and the aspiring writer with big dreams. I think that people expressing themselves through writing is almost always a good thing (barring suicide and bank robbery notes).

Some People Will Write Crappy Reviews

They'll review a book they didn't finish, blast a romance novel for not being a murder mystery, or vice versa. They'll complain that a Fifty Shades style erotica novel had too much kinky sex. They'll reveal spoilers, they'll be cloyingly flattering about their friends' books, and try to destroy any potential competition for their own work.

Amazon has restricted reviews by "official" authors for the latter reason, which I think is silly. Because there's nothing to keep an author and friends from opening up 2, 3, 6 sockpuppet accounts under different names and eddresses, and doing the same thing, if they really want to.

Some Writer Reviews Will Help Sell An Author's Books

Sometimes even a negative review helps sell a book. Controversy can be golden; people hear that half the people who read book X loved it, and half hated it, and that very passionate disagreement will inspire many people to buy it and make up their own minds.

Sometimes an honest review might sell a book that the potential reader is on the fence about. I recently reviewed a book and explained that I found the beginning hard to get into, but further on, I really got sucked into the story and the characters. If you had downloaded the sample chapter and also struggled to get through it, and read some reviews that said, "Keep going, it's worth it!" wouldn't you be more likely to buy the book?

Some Negative Reviews Simply Reveal that the Reviewer Is an A$$hole

The grammar freaks... as a Reader, I am on the fence about the reviewers who point out every misplaced comma, period, and misspelled word as if they get a commission for finding them. While, yes, I might notice them, a handful of those kind of mistakes ain't no big deal. Sometimes, I see a "bad" review of those kinds of nitpicks, and think, "Clearly, you went a-hunting for anything and everything you could find wrong, yet this is all you've got...?"

On the other hand, if a book is absolutely loaded with bad spelling and grammar and the formatting is a mess... That says to me that the author and his/her editor (if any) were unprofessional, and did not respect the Reader. If you're going to put a book "out there" that you want me to care about, that you want me to spend my hard-earned money and my time on, you'd better care about it, first.

Like the airlines used to say before you deplaned, "We realize you have other choices..."

Let's face it, there are few book reviewers who have the influence of  Siskel & Ebert, able to kill a book with a single one star review (and even their reviews, influential as they were, sometimes were wildly at variance with a film's commercial success). Though a negative review might hurt an author's feelings, unless s/he gets into a flame war with a reviewer, does it measurably impact sales?

Malicious, snarky reviews are more about, "Look at me, aren't I clever!" than about the book. As a Reader, I know how to discount those. Do they truly harm the author?

Not that feelings are negligible. Being a writer is hard; we have to take our skin off to tap into all those sensitive, easily bruised feelings we want to express in our writing, and at the same time, learn to turtle up so it doesn't kill us when people criticize and reject our work.

And yet... what hurts more? Getting a review that points out glaring weaknesses in a book, or putting out a book that was Not Yet Ready for Prime Time, and getting no or only "fluffy kitten" reviews from your best friends?  Then the next book you put out there sells even fewer copies. Some have said that if what you get is silence, and even your mom won't buy your next book, you'll figure out what went wrong. As a writer myself, I'm not so sure I would intuitively know where the hamster fell off the wheel.

If you get 6-7 reviews that all say the protagonist is weak, and readers didn't connect with him/her, you can fix that in your next book (after you stop crying).  Too much description, not enough description, weak plot, too much plot, slow start, saggy middle, these are all things that are fixable.

You can't fix polite silence.

Revenge Reviews and Sock Puppet Reviews

Recently there was an online kerfluffle about an author's not-yet-released self-published book. Accusations of bullying and threats flew back and forth, most being vastly overblown, IMO. The very young (22 y.o.) author was deeply hurt by the one star review(s), some of her friends came to her "defense" with heated remarks to the reviewers like "stick your hand in a blender" and "go hang yourself."

The author also indicated in various exchanges that at least one of the five star reviews posted was from her own "old" account. Her books aren't the kind I would normally pick up anyway, but as a reviewer, even if she doesn't release a book for years, I'm going to remember her name and stay away from her work, because who needs that kind of hassle?

There is also a chick-lit writer I will never pick up again, after she and her husband/assistant verbally beat up on a fan-reviewer on her FaceBook and other pages. Said fan-reviewer had expressed being thrilled with other books by said author, but disappointed in the latest one.

Some would say, if the review is negative, or could be taken that way, rather than posting it, you should track down the author's eddress and discreetly send it to her/him.

Stealing from a lovely lady:

Authors are not always innocent victims of online bullying; they often open sock-puppet accounts to give their own books a five-star rating, pay for reviews*, solicit reviews from family, friends, and acquaintances with the explicit demands that ratings be X many stars, and sometimes you can't tell which are the authors-behaving-badly, until you encounter them. One author who solicited me for a review was so enraged by the four-star review I posted (in which I thought that the beginning was depressing, but the ending made up for it and overall it was a great book which I recommended) that she devoted an entire blog post to trashing me (by name) and then posted the link and tagged me in it on FaceBook. Yikes!

I've also "met" some wonderful authors online who were appreciative of any review, even a negative one, and had some good, civil online discussions about exactly why a book or story didn't work for me. I still would advise any author to engage reviewers with caution - some will be spooked by even a quick "thank you."

*Note - giving away copies of books via NetGalley, Smashwords, Story Cartel, Goodreads, The Masquerade Crew, or their own blogs and asking for reviews is a very different critter than paying for reviews via outlets which guarantee X many positive reviews for XX dollars.

Who Are Reviews for, Anyway?

Reviews are: 1) for the other Readers, 2) for the other Writer, and 3) for the Reviewer

1) Our first loyalty, if we review, should be to the other Readers. What did we like, what did we dislike? Do we feel that at the listed price, a reader would be getting his/her money's worth? Maybe you don't read reviews as all. But if you do, when you are wearing your Reader hat, do you respect or trust the the opinion of reviewers who rate every book as four or five stars, who never, ever, report being slowed, stopped, or bothered by anything in a book?

Possibly, we might want to include a trigger warning, if some unusual "thing" isn't included in the author/publisher's blurb, "Despite the gentle and sensitive way it was handled, [spoiler alert] it crushed me when they had to shoot Old Yeller, because I just lost my own big yellow dog." Rape, domestic violence, binge eating or drinking, cancer, miscarriage or stillbirth - these kinds of things could send an unprepared reader into an emotional tailspin. I've seen one review where the reader freaked out about a BDSM book that included a menage scene - that reviewer had no problem with the bondage or whippings, it was the threesome that squicked her out.

Old Yeller (1957 film)
Old Yeller (1957 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
2) The other Writer deserves our respect as a professional.The point of a review is NOT to give a full negative-as-possible critique and leave her (or his) skin hanging on the wall, bleeding, like it's a trophy. It's to evaluate, as a Reader, what we liked about the book. Maybe we did like everything. Maybe we liked everything except X - and a mature and professional author, like Stacy Green, will listen and learn from what we have to say.

3) Reviews are a way for a writer to learn to use her voice, to perhaps connect with readers with the same tastes, as well as leave a footprint in the publishing world.

The argument has been made if we, as writers, ever say something uncomplimentary about anyone, it will comes around to bite us in the tail. The publishing world is small, "they" say. Don't burn any bridges, "they" say.

I do agree with Chuck Wendig that "the juice ain't worth the squeeze," in that spending our time as a writer trashing other works is not the best use of our time. Negativeland was an interesting read, but I don't want to live there.

I've never yet written a book review with the goal of humiliating an author, and I tend to go gentle on the indie-published writers. (So much so that one author, for whom I had left a review pointing out several of the problems in his debut novel, wrote to me to thank me - and to ask me if I wouldn't edit his next book for him! I declined but pointed him in the direction of Absolute Write water cooler and Writer Unboxed.) I try to find something positive to say about every book, even the few I have rated at less than three stars.

Reviewing may not be the right thing for you to do. You have to respect your brand and your goals in this rapidly changing publishing market. I still don't think "we writers" as a whole should enter into an informal ladies-and-gentlemen agreement to not review books because some people think it's not polite.

Some people think we should stop talking/writing/discussing a lot of sensitive topics, from rape to abortion to mental health issues. But when we do stop discussing them, it doesn't seem to make society as a whole a better place. Seems to me that what we need to do is discuss these things more, until we can learn to do it politely, reasonably, and kindly.

My Gut Instinct Says That Giving Up My Voice Is a Bad Idea

There may be a time I don't do as many reviews, because I am too busy with my own stuff. But one of the main reasons I began writing is that I love books. I love reading them and I love talking about them and I love writing them. For me to give up writing honest reviews because I want to be a commercially successful writer someday is asking me give up at least part of my voice,

Calling on the lesson from another Disney movie...

When Ariel gave up her voice, she almost lost the very thing she forfeited it for, the Prince. He'd fallen for her beautiful voice, not her legs, and was almost tricked into marriage with the woman who did have the gorgeous voice.

(We can take many other lessons from The Little Mermaid about investing all your dreams in a relationship with a man, but that's another post.)

Not every writer can or should give book reviews - be true to your brand whatever it is. But I challenge the idea that doing reviews is in poor taste or bad manners a betrayal of the Secret Authors' Club Rules. Even if a writer occasionally admits that s/he didn't like a book (a one-star review, the horror!), this should not be a signal of career suicide.

Clearly, other writers have other opinions. What are yours?

If you are published, indie or traditional, would you like all other writers to stop reviewing your work, even if that means you would get perhaps a third or less of the reviews you get now?

How do you deal with a negative review?
Do you, yourself, write reviews? Why or why not?
Your thoughts?

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