negative book reviews

Dancing in a Minefield: Writers Reviewing Each Other

Book reviews have been on my mind lately — more than usual, that is, because book reviews are always a preoccupation of us indie authors. I’ve been thinking about reviews and reviewing because most of the books at the top of my TBR pile are actually TBR&R, meaning “to be read and reviewed.” I’ve decided this year to give priority to books by authors from my local area, which narrows the field considerably. Even so, the pile keeps growing.

It occurred to me a while ago that I rarely read books just for fun, with no intention to review or even rate them. I think that’s an occupational hazard for us authors, now more than ever.

In the Olden Days (the previous millennium), books were reviewed by special people called literary critics. Back then, writers wrote and readers read. They might talk about books with friends and recommend ones they thought particularly good, but that was just talk.

Then came ebooks, self-publishing and social media. Now everyone can be a critic of sorts. For indie authors, this has created a perilous situation. First, of course, there are Too Many Books. Then there’s the fact that some of them are by fellow writers — people we know from critique groups, writing courses, writers’ conferences or the blogosphere. People we trade jokes with, whose posts we “like” and comment on. How many of us have obtained books from these online colleagues in exchange for “an honest review?”

So what do you do when you read one of these books and can’t write an honestly positive review?

Many just don’t write the review. Some contact the writer privately to express their concerns. Others grit their teeth and try to walk the tightrope, carefully making a case for their less-than-positive comments. Critical remarks may not be too damaging, but throwing a three-or-fewer-stars rating onto a pile of four and five stars, thus lowering a book’s overall score, is guaranteed to make its author unhappy.

No one wants to be a party-pooper, but I, for one, refuse to modify my honest opinion of a piece of writing just because the writer is known to me. That kind of thing perpetuates the negative views some people still have about self-published books and their authors. It may also be why Amazon has decided to remove reviews that appear to be written by people who know the author. This is a rather crude approach, but behind it is the principle that reviews should reflect readers’ true impressions of a piece of writing, unmodified by considerations such as, “Well, it’s not the best, but hey, the author is a nice guy and writes those funny blog posts, so how about 4 stars instead of 3.”

There is a huge difference between a thoughtful critical review and a mean-spirited condemnation of a book accompanied by a one-star rating. We writers can be of help to one another by carefully reading each other’s books and writing sincere (honest) reviews, both positive and negative.

One thing that’s hard to avoid (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) is to slip into the role of editor-after-the-fact, suggesting that the author should have deleted this scene or that character, or written more description, or less. I think this kind of thing comes from participating in critique groups or being a beta reader. In those situations we are dealing with works in progress, where such suggestions are welcomed. Reviews, on the other hand, must deal with a book as published and complete.

We writers owe it to one another to hold ourselves to a high standard when we write reviews. We know both sides of the page, as it were: we both create and consume writing. We are insiders and as such must play the reviewer’s role consciously and with care.

The Elusive Review

Book reviews help both readers and writers. Readers are more likely to buy a book with many reviews, even when they’re not 100% favourable. Writers consequently are always trying to encourage their readers to post reviews online. Many bloggers write reviews, and thus are courted by review-seeking writers.

Read a book, write a review. If nothing else, it’s a way of sharing your thoughts about the books you read, helping other readers find good books.

But…

People who have no problems articulating their experiences with a lawnmower or a pair of pants become constricted when it comes to writing a Book Review. The very fact that this term exists makes it seem like a big deal. After all, no one talks about Pants Reviews. But the thought of writing a book review may bring back memories of the dreaded Book Report from school days.

So what is a book review, exactly?

One thing it isn’t is a critique. Readers who are also writers may confuse the two, because they belong to writers’ critique groups or serve as beta readers. In such situations one reads a manuscript and compiles suggestions as to how the author may improve the work — remove a character, change a scene or rewrite the whole thing in first person. I sometimes see “reviews” of this sort, most likely produced by writers or would-be writers.

A review should convey a reader’s experience of the book as written, the thoughts and impressions that arose while they were reading and after they finished. It’s not advice to the writer (too late for that), but a response from one who has partaken of the written offering.

Reviews may be formal or informal. Most of the reviews posted to the internet are short and informal, but those written for magazines, newspapers or book review blogs are longer and include certain elements: a brief (really brief) plot summary or description, followed by the reader’s impressions of the characters, the writing style and story arc. Formal reviews may provide comparisons with the author’s other works or with similar works by different authors. It’s common as well to see the reviewer’s idea as to what kinds of readers might appreciate the book — mystery lovers, aficionados of literary tomes, or people who like thrillers with nonstop action.

Informal reviews, purists would say, are not “reviews” at all, merely impressions or comments. In many cases that’s true, but brief comments are certainly better than none at all. The best time for a reader to post their impressions of a book is right after they finish reading it. Writers may take advantage of this by inserting suggestions to this effect right after “The End.” In ebooks, a link to the book’s page on Amazon, Goodreads or similar sites would be especially helpful.

Readers intimidated by the idea of Writing A Book Review may be encouraged by the idea that all they have to do is say whether they liked the book or not, and why. No plot summary is needed (in fact, reviews that consist largely of clunky rehashes of the plot are pretty much useless).

Here is a really short “review” I posted on Goodreads recently, of Smile Now, Cry Later by Paul MacDonald: “A bit of a different twist on the private-eye-by-accident theme, spiced up with lots of cynical humour about corporate culture. Definitely kept me reading to the end.” Most authors would be happy with a bunch of these.

Finally, a word about the negative review. Some readers refuse to write them, which is the safe course of (in)action. A thoughtful negative review is perfectly responsible, in my opinion. The crucial point is to say why you didn’t like the book. Silly plot? Flat characters? Too many flashbacks? “This book is a piece of crap,” is not a review, by any standard.

Thing is, reviews are 100% voluntary. Authors cannot compel their readers to write them. Sincere reviews — even negative ones — are freely given expressions of appreciation, and should be valued accordingly.

The Delicate Art of Reviewing

Elsewhere in this blog I’ve taken a stab at book reviews — both writing a few myself and opining on the reviewing process. I’m returning to the topic today because I’ve recently wrestled with the matter of writing a negative review.

When I became a member of the Smashwords community in 2010, I resolved to contribute a review of every piece of writing I acquired from that source. I also came up with some Rules for Responsible Reviewing, which I think I have adhered to:  1) Always read the entire book before reviewing. 2) Don’t indulge in gratuitous nastiness. 3) Don’t indulge in mindless cheerleading. 4) Hardly ever give five star or one star ratings. Save them for the absolutely wonderful and the truly abysmal.

So what do you do when you get that sinking feeling while reading a book that’s decent but not really good? The best choice might just be — do nothing at all. Stop reading and move on. Otherwise, it’s too easy to point out every fault, creating a torrent of negativity. People do that all the time on Amazon; I actually enjoy reading some of those diatribes. But excessively brutal honesty isn’t very helpful to an author. How would I feel if I read something like that about one of my books?

That’s the difference between reviews written by consumers and those by fellow writers. Because I joined Smashwords in order to publish my own writings, all my reviewing there is done in the spirit of being helpful to other writers, much the same as comments made in a critique group. I belong to several such groups and have witnessed the devastation that can be inflicted by critical comments delivered in an inconsiderate way.

Besides, in this connected world, anything you write may be used against you. Just Google “Greek Seaman.”