One of the most important ways to support an author—aside from buying their book—is to review the book online at sites like Goodreads, Amazon, or LibraryThing. Reviews give books “street cred” in that the more reads and valid reviews a book has, the more it appeals to potential readers as a quality published work. Of course, specific, non-spoilery and thoughtful positive reviews work more in favor of an author than negative ones, but honesty should drive the words of all reviewers.
As an author aspiring to be “traditionally” published, I wholeheartedly advocate for readers to review books. Yet, I don’t typically follow my own advice.
I know…I know…that seems a bit like a doctor telling people not to touch their faces during a pandemic whilst rubbing their own eyes and nose. I’m a voracious reader, but I rarely leave book reviews. At most, I may rate/star a book, mention it in my Monthly Mental Munchies post, or even fire off a boosting tweet about it, but I abstain from leaving the type of full review I recommend above. What reason do I have for this “do as I say and not as I do” approach? There are several interconnected reasons, and—right or wrong, for better or worse—here they are:
It removes the expectation of quid pro quo.
When the day comes that I have an officially-published book listed on various platforms for review, I want those reviews to be genuine and earned, not given out of a sense of quid pro quo. I don’t want authors to feel obligated to leave a positive review on one of my books just because I’ve left them a good review in the past. Nor do I want the pressure of having to leave a potentially dishonest positive review because of expectations of reciprocity, which leads me to…
It alleviates the awkwardness of a negative review.
If I were a non-writer reader, I wouldn’t have a problem providing constructive negative reviews that other readers might find helpful. But giving a bad book review for a writing colleague, especially one I know personally, just feels gauche. Rude, even. Brutal opinions from a fellow author may be welcomed at the early critique stage when suggestions can easily be incorporated (read here for how to give, ask for, and take critiques), but it can be hurtful and counterproductive once the work is considered “complete.” In my opinion, better to skip the review altogether than leave an unfavorable one for a fellow author. Afterall, silence is golden.
It negates the perception of self-interest.
I hope to be in a position one day where I’m asked—as a successful author—to recommend other books in my genre and target audience. While it’s a joy to rec books I truly love, giving an honest and unfavorable opinion on a book, especially a comp (books that are comparable in genre, audience and tone to mine) might seem self-serving or petty, i.e., trashing the competition so my book looks better. Not only is that tactic just plain horrible, but it can backfire spectacularly. Maybe I’m overly sensitive to the potential of misperception, but for that reason, I generally prefer to keep my book opinions to myself. Of course, readers could look at what I’m NOT recommending and infer from that. I guess in this case, silence speaks volumes. *sigh*
It reduces the potential of retaliation.
I admit that this is the most paranoid and personal of reasons: I fear retaliation for negative reviews. Believe it or not, intentional and malicious ratings tanking does happen, and so I worry that leaving a low-star review on a book that didn’t appeal to me might incur future in-kind negative reviews of my work by that author and/or their faithful readers. Not that I don’t think any of my books might not earn a bad review all on their own—reading preference is subjective, after all. I expect to receive my fair share of one star reviews and DNFs (Did Not Finish), but I’d rather those come from someone who genuinely didn’t like the book for reasons valid to them, and not because someone may have a potential axe to grind.
I know what you must be thinking: D.M. must hate most of the books she reads if she’s writing an entire post to justify why she doesn’t review them. Not true! I absolutely love and enjoy a quarter of the books I read, strongly dislike another quarter (and many times, don’t finish them), and the remaining fifty percent I’d place somewhere along the two to four star (out of five) rating spectrum. I’d guess that’s probably true for most of us.
So what is the point of this post? It’s mostly to say that—if you are an author—it’s okay if you don’t extend your role as a book reader to also be a book reviewer. The reasons I listed above for why I don’t review books boil down to one central point: it can be considered a conflict of interest. That’s not to say that you can’t do both, but that’s it’s understandable if you don’t want to.
Of course, the more legitimacy you earn as an author, the more likely you’ll be formally asked to give reviews or book blurbs for others. If you’re lucky, you’ll actually love the books and be honored to rec them. If not, well…you have a choice: dash dreams and decline the request or do some of your best fiction writing filled with superlatives. Ah, the perils of success.
Wow…I have to say, I don’t agree with this mindset at all. Some of the most important authors in literary history were also critics. Jane Austen didn’t have anything good to say about the Brontes. Ezra Pound loved shouting out fellow poet, T.S. Elliot among other high Modernists.
Criticism is part of the literary tradition and you’re ignoring that for silly reasons. If other people feel compelled to leave positive reviews, simply because you left them a positive review, that’s on them.
As for backlash, who cares? Let the negative reviews come.
Yes, sometimes reviewing for fellow authors is awkward. I had another indie author love one of my books, while I didn’t have much positive to say about hers. It was awkward, but criticism is vital to art, and creative people have always been encouraged to engage critically with other works in their medium.
Reaction is the flipside of creation. Ultimately, it’s your choice to keep silent about other books, but I don’t think you’re doing the creative community, or yourself, any favors.
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You make some good points for your mindset on this topic–thank you for sharing them! I don’t think any writer needs a reason to not review/critique books, just as they don’t need a reason to do so. I listed mine as an interactive way of saying, “Hey, if you don’t want to review a book when asked, it’s okay not to, for whatever reason you don’t wish to. Here are some of mine.” I’ve talked about this before on my blog, but I do critically engage with other writers within my local writing group, at a stage when we can potentially help improve each other’s work and craft. Offering an unsolicited critical public review as a fellow writer after the work is published isn’t particularly helpful, in my opinion. I might offer an honest, raw opinion offline, though, if the author requests it, because you are right–costructive criticism is an important part of the literary tradition, and I don’t ignore that. Thank you for reading and for the critical commentary!
i TOTALLY get this. the reciprocity potential makes me horribly, horribly uncomfortable, and since i absolutely refuse to fluff up a review of a book i don’t love, i’ve awkwardly straddled the issue by only reviewing books by people i know if i can honestly do so positively.
there are so few reviews of my book that i’m always surprised to hear a friend mention that they read it, and i want to shriek ‘THEN GO TO AMAZON AND LEAVE ME A STAR OR FIVE’ , but other than an occasional meeping social media plea to my tiny audience, i don’t.
i already have one sad little stalker, who isn’t even a reader but has attached himself to me like a tick.
my feelings on this may evolve, but for the time being i review every single thing i read- except books i don’t love by authors i know.
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It is a difficult situation to be in, so I’d rather just not go there in most cases. I think the best critical assistance fellow writers can offer is what we already do in our group–before the “publish” button is hit. Otherwise, I think honest reviews are best coming from readers (especially readers we don’t know). I think we bring too many personal biases and preferences into the reviews, because we tend to-whether we INtend to or not–bring our writerly minds into it. I mean, at some level, good writing is objective, but so much more of it is subjective that I’d rather leave it to the readers to decide for themselves. Thank you fo your comments on my posts!!
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