Reviews are not for Authors

I’ve noticed a pattern among my friends who are new authors.  They almost always start off reviewing books.  Even if they don’t write reviews for a review site, they write up what they think about the books they read and post them on Amazon or on Goodreads.  There’s a good reason why so many writers also write book reviews – it’s because, being writers, they a) read a lot and are excited by books and b) are interested in all those technical matters that go into making a book a good one.

Writers read voraciously and they pay attention to things like the strength of a book’s plot, characters and setting, because writing books has taught them the importance of such things.  They have learned to analyse how books are written, what’s a good technique and what isn’t, what works and what doesn’t, and why.  So really, with these qualities, authors must make ideal book reviewers, am I right?

And yet I’ve noticed that when writers become published and their names begin to be recognised in the genre, they almost invariably end up posting regretful blog posts saying “I’m not sure I should be reviewing any more.”  Some will decide that they are only going to review books they liked from now on, and only the toughest and most committed tend to carry on giving bad reviews when they think they’re merited.

Pretty much the reason for this is other writers.  I say this as one who knows, but the emotions of writers are as unprotected as newly hatched baby birds.  We are sensitive.  We have the artistic temperament in spades.  And we put all our hearts into our books, love and passion, obsession and a lot of hard work.  We send our books out into the world as if they were our children, and for some of us it is as unbearable to see someone criticising our books as it is if they were bad-mouthing our children.

I understand the feeling.  I get it myself.  And I get the “OMG!  Maybe I am a useless writer.  Maybe she’s right and my plots are all lame and my characters are limp and my writing style is rubbish and I just will never amount to anything.  Maybe I’m doomed to be the laughing stock of the genre because everyone hates my books.  Soon publishers will realize it and stop publishing me and then I’ll be a total failure and I’ll be crushed forever.  So I should just stop right now and spare myself the misery.”  I feel like that a lot.

But I still don’t think reviewers should stop being honest.  I still don’t think that reviewers should take the feelings of authors into account one way or another.  Reviews are not for authors, they are for readers.

I have many caps on this hatstand.  I’m an author and I’ve been a reviewer and I’m a reader.  But when I review I take the author hat off and consider what I want as a reader.  As a reader I want a review that will tell me what the reviewer really thought of a book.  If they loathed it, I want to know, and I want to know why.  I don’t want to be misguided into buying a rubbish book because the reviewer was trying to avoid the wrath of angry authors or their fans.

This post was prompted in part by the comments on this review on SiN which is only the last of a long line of incidents of reviewers being attacked for telling it how they see it.

When the reviewer is another author, the tactics get nastier.  The reviewed author and/or their fans claim that the reviewing author is only rubbishing the book because they want to eliminate their competition.  (As though readers can’t read a thousand times more books than a single author can write in a lifetime.)  They hurl around charges of mean-spiritedness and elitism, and they talk to their writer friends and on their publishers’ egroups about how that author is jealous/mean/out to get them.

All this generates a certain amount of bad buzz around the author who had the temerity to say what she actually thought about a book she was given to review.  And – returning to my point at the beginning – this leads to authors slowly realizing that reviewing is too hot for them to handle and giving it up.

What to do about this?  Well, I could admonish writers that frankly they just make themselves look ridiculous if they react badly to bad reviews.  I could even say that reacting badly to bad reviews lets everyone know about the bad review, and so for your own self-interest you’d be better off not mentioning it at all.  I could say “if you react badly to bad reviews, you will find it harder to get your books reviewed next time.”  But frankly I don’t think that the problem is going to go away, because it’s rooted in that primal feeling of “how dare you criticise my baby?!” which not everyone can successfully manage to suppress.

I could say that reviewers ought to toughen up and accept that a certain amount of bad press comes with the territory.  And I have immense respect for anyone with the integrity and self belief to do that.  But at the same time I don’t think there will be many authors (see above about thin skins and sensitivity) with that kind of bravery.

It seems, for me at least, that the only option is for authors to give up reviewing.  A reader who reviews cannot be accused of trying to increase their own book’s chances at the expense of others.  They don’t need to worry about the potential damage to their professional network.  They can still be accused of being horrible people, but they can’t be accused of acting out of self-interest, and that should make things a bit easier.

So I guess that my conclusion is an appeal for readers out there to get involved with reviewing, because authors – however much they might want to review – are pressured either to be nice about everything or to stop saying anything at all.  Most of them, being more interested in writing than reviewing, cave in to that pressure eventually.

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Carlo J Vella
Carlo J Vella
13 years ago

I have had good and bad reviews – the good reviews were from my readers and the bad reviews came from a variety of sources ranging from Christian bookshops and some book critics. I don’t mind the negative criticism I get though I do feel that the most important critic/book reviewer is the reader. Your fans are the best critics. Book critics may help your book get the recognition but I feel that like all critics whether it be books, music films, etc a critic is basically dictating to a reader what they should or shouldn’t read. I LOVE listening to what my readers have to tell me and for me that’s what counts the most.

JoAnne Soper-Cook
13 years ago

Or, one could choose to separate the author/reviewer personae entirely and review under a nom-de-guerre. In a way I guess that’s sneaky but if one enjoys reviewing (for all the excellent reasons you mention) it might be a way around it.

I’m only talking through my hat because I seldom review, so maybe I have no idea. 🙂

Becky Black
13 years ago

I’m one of those authors who decided reviews were too hot to handle. I’m a wuss. I did a few reviews for Three Dollar Bill reviews, and luckily never ended up with a book I really didn’t like at all. But if I’d kept going I’d have ended up with one eventually. Then Josh Lanyon advised against new authors also reviewing, to avoid the potential damage of getting into a fight about it and I took that to heart and decided to stop reviewing other m/m books at least. I might still review other books on Goodreads. It’s not like Terry Pratchettt is going to come along and start acting mortally offended in the review comments. But at least for a while I’ll keep away from reviewing in my own genre.

It’s not only the thought of upsetting another writer in the same (small) genre that puts me off, but what a writer reviews a book from another writer at the same publisher as their own books and have to say they don’t think it’s any good. That can’t do them much good with the people who actually write their cheques!

Lee Benoit
13 years ago

Hi Alex,

I’m another author who wrestled with reviewing and ultimately gave it up. I felt reviewing made me a better writer — I was forced to systematically examine books in terms of craft, and to be specific about strengths and weaknesses in plot, character, dialogue, and setting. I was never comfortable reviewing people I knew, nor other authors published by the same houses, so as I published more, there were too many folks I wouldn’t review. Also, my day job and my writing both got more demanding, and I felt I just had to give up something.

Nowadays I will recommend a book on my LJ, because as you say any writer is a reader first and always, but I let others do the heavy lifting of real reviews.

Thanks for posting such a thoughtful analysis.

Lee B.

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