Those damn reviews!

copyright Stuart Land 1995

I’ve got a problem. Nothing earth-shattering.  People won’t die if I make the wrong decision. Clocks won’t stop. But I still feel bad. I’m certain I can’t be the only one this happens to, so I’m hoping that all the other people it does happen to can help me out, because I’ve never seen anyone talk about this on any writing forum or blog I’ve read. Here’s the problem:

 

I write books. I put my books up on the Net for people to buy. People do buy them and some of those people write wonderful reviews. I meet lots of other writers on writing forums and blogs. It’s a very friendly community. It may be the best side of humanity. Everyone helps one another, whether successful author or a newbie starting out. I was in the art world for many years and it wasn’t anything like that. However, since the advent of the Internet, things have changed in the way artists, writers, and even filmmakers relate to each other: they friendlier. I think they mean it.

OK, but this isn’t my problem. My problem is based in this friendliness. I don’t make any claims about my writing being anything other than what it is. I work hard at it. I’ve worked hard at it for over twenty years. I study it. I read it. I breathe it. I love storytelling. I love experimenting with new ways to say the same old things. I’m an editor and have helped people better their writing. I’m not a copyeditor though, and send all my work out. I’m envious of new talent that seems to be born with an ability to see the world in new ways and express it in wonderful pros.

But I’m disheartened at all the books out there that don’ possess any of these qualities. One on hand I think that it’s

community of friends

fine for people to write whatever and however they want, put up it on the net and charge money for it. Now I’m getting to my problem. A lot of these people who apparently do just that are very friendly, helpful folks. Always with a nice word. Would probably literally give you the shirt off their back. They may have spent most of their lives in an occupation they learned from the ground up and are extremely good at it. They might scoff at someone who came along and just decided to take up the work they’ve been doing for a lifetime and begin doing it without investing any time into actually learning the craft. Yet this is exactly what I see so many new authors doing. Even the ones becoming best sellers.

 

Hang on, I’m coming to my problem. I don’t have much of a problem with people hacking out a novel and calling themselves writers. It irks me at times, yes. But I can live with it if make people happy. I don’t care if they sell it and make a ton of money. But I begin to have problems with reviews. Now, hold on, it’s not other people’s reviews I’m talking about. It’s mine. Not the ones I get. Of course I love them. I’m talking about the ones I feel compelled to give.

Why do you feel compelled to give a review of someone’s work, I hear you thinking. (I know, in a novel you can’t really hear someone thinking, but hey, this isn’t a novel.) I feel this way because, either someone who is very nice has read my book and given me a great review or someone is just very nice and I feel like I should read their book, or I want to read their book because it interests me. So where’s the problem you might ask?… Much of the time the books suck. That part isn’t my problem. My problem comes when it’s time to write the review.

This puts me in quandary because on the one hand, I could just write a great review regardless of how I feel about the writing merits of the writer and the book. Or I could write my true opinion. Now I’ve been around awhile and know human nature fairly well. If I write a great review, my integrity would be compromised. If I write the truth, those friendly folk would shun me as a virulent turncoat. My loving community of friends I’ve never met would bury me in silence. I know, I hear you out there muttering to yourselves, saying that you would never do that. But you would.

So, what’s my next option? To not say anything? But stupid me, I promised I would read their books and say something. If I don’t say anything, then it’s my integrity up for grabs again. Now, of course, everyone I’ve ever said that I would read their book is frowning, thinking that I’m talking about them. In my mind’s eye, I can see pitch forks and torches bobbing in the virtual distance.

I’ve thought about sending these writers a private message explaining what I thought was good and not so good in their stories, but I think I would just come across as a pompous ass. Actually I did something like that on a much smaller scale recently when I wrote to a blogger and said there were grammar and construction problem in her otherwise terrific blog post and I offered to correct them for free. She wrote back all bright and cheery and said she’d love it (paraphrased here). So I did it. And heard not a peep back. And we all know silence is way more deafening than a tantrum.

What to do? What do any of us do? What should we do? I’m thinking that writers shouldn’t be reviewing other writer’s work. Of course this is silly since we’re readers too. I’m thinking that friends shouldn’t review other friend’s work. But then, where would most authors get all those glowing five-star reviews? I don’t know that to be a fact, I’m just relating what we’ve all read on the forums.

Now I’m asking all of you. Yes, that even means you who have read this but now decide that you haven’t read it so you don’t have to respond. What would you do? What have you done. Did you read a book and then write a wonderful review because he/she was a friend, relative, boss, lover, or potential lover? Or even someone met online in a writing group such as we all belong to? Does that mean your integrity is suspect, or that a white lie to cheer people on is acceptable, even a good thing?

How much credence do readers put into reviews anyway. Are people really swayed to buy a book because it has bunches of four and five-star reviews. Do those of us in the know (meaning those of us who wrote exaggerated reviews) see those four and five stars as blurry twos and threes?

I’m sorry that I’ve made my problem, your problem. Time to face the truth of the stars.

So come on peeps. Help me out here. I have reviews to write.

 

Stuart Land

I am a multi-genre novelist, screenwriter, and multi-medium sculptor. I have worked in the Fine Arts, and the Movie Industry.

23 Comments:

  1. This was great! The entire time I was nodding my head and laughing because it’s all true. It’s amazing how something can start out as a fun pastime (e.g., reviewing what you just so happen to read) and turn into a guilt trip! I however, haven’t turned to just positive reviews. I actually just had a really good conversation with other reviewers about this – (does providing a negative review hurt or help the author?) But because I am willing to speak my mind about a book, good or bad, I feel obligated to forewarn people! Which is ridiculous when I think about it – after all, writers are in a public business. If they can’t take criticism, then perhaps they should find a new job.

    • Apologies, Jessi, for not responding sooner. I have been most delinquent in attending to my blog. A good reviewer should speak their mind, and I applaud you for that. I think it shows compassion that you are willing to forewarn authors when their work sucks. 🙂 Yes, it’s true that writing is a business, but unlike selling widgets, books are very personal to the writer and take massive amounts of heart-rending, brain-crunching time to produce, and receiving a bad review cuts to the quick and has nothing to do with monetary value. So, I don’t think you’re ridiculous for being compassionate. I thinks it’s refreshing.

  2. I can relate to this. It’s a real dilemma. Ultimately, I think ‘honesty’ has to be the Golden Rule as a writer/human being. When you falsely inflate someone’s opinion of their own ability, not only are you betraying your integrity, but you’re setting them up for a big fall. Better do the best for both of you – and be honest. As you say – the dilemma comes from the risk – people may trash you. It takes courage – but aren’t these people enemies in waiting anyway, if they can’t accept your openness? It sounds pathetic, but being impolite sometimes takes the most amount of bravery, so take heart from the fact that in doing so you’re fighting a good fight…

  3. That’s a tough one, and one which I – as a person who offers to read and review books for almost anyone who’ll ask me – faces almost every day. Here is what I do. If the book has a lot of problems, I’ll write my review and send it directly to the person who asked for it; I’ll also note, in a private message, a lot of the problems I saw. I’ll then ask them – do they want me to post that review, or just put up my rating? I’ve had about a 50/50 response – some say, yeah, put it up, the others say just leave the rating. MOST of them have been OK about my critiques – many have even turned to me for editing services after I’ve pointed stuff out to them that up to 8 other people have missed … You ARE going to run across the occasional person who is unprofessional, and who is rude about it, but *snort* do you REALLY want to be associated with a person like that anyway?

    Also, I usually tell someone up front if a book is out of my comfort zone; then will write a review based on the book’s merits themselves – writing style, character development, etc. – rather than if I did or did not like it.

    I hope you can come to an arrangement that is good for you.

    • Thank you so much for your advice, Katy. For me, it’s not so much about not wanting some negative person in my circle of friends as having someone be vindictive and attack my through negative reviews, which already happened and took a bunch of people complaining to Amazon before they removed the review. I’m still working on various methods, though.

  4. Hi Stuart,thanks for a very interesting blog. I’m the “dreadful person” who left the 3 star review that was disliked by the author. To my mind honesty is paramount when reviewing so problems can be put right. That’s the beauty of Kindle. Maybe my review was more of a critique, but that’s the way I do them. Would that everyone was as honest.Why can we not be honest just because we’re authors? If I truly believe something deserves 5 stars then I’ll give it willingly, and many do.I reviewed one of Tim’s the other week and gave a well-deserved 5 stars. I was relaxed in that book and very comfortable with the style and the characters. Now, unless a writer specifically asks me, and I’ll give then the choice when I’m reading their work, I won’t be reviewing Indies. Cheers, Pam. xx

    • Of course we can be honest, but the problem lies in simple psychology. No matter how tactful you, a writer is going to be resented by another writing if he/she gets anything less than 5 stars. I’ve decided not to review other author’s work (who I know) for this reason.

  5. Stuart – great site, and good question. I feel the same way. So far, I’ve been able to avoid reviewing books I didn’t like, so that hasn’t been a real big problem for me. And I’m also not hypercritical of books in general – I’m reading to be entertained, and if the book accomplished that, I’m happy with it. I have privately e-mailed a few people to see if they were interested in correcting typos or other errors I found, and have gotten really good responses (so far). I cherish the readers who let me know of a problem and gave me a chance to correct it.

  6. S-just ran into that problem. A very good online friend whose work I admired in one book and not another. I wrote him and told him the second book was not my cup of tea. Then I decided to stop telling people I am reading their books. A) I don’t read very fast and they get antsy and B) I agonize over the reviews like you if I didnt’ care for it. Now nobody knows what I’m reading. It’s one solution. Now, Stuart, about the review you should be doing for my books….

    • I agree with your solution and have adopted it. Unless specifically coerced into reviewing. And I can type faster than I can read. I will get around to your books one day, not only because I like you, but because I want to see how anyone can make lawyers into good guys-haha! I can say that because I took law at AU. I guess I could say it anyway.

  7. I hear you Stuart, nice of you to put things “on the table”. I believe that all of us Authors who are writing reviews for other fellow Authors, do see their hard work and passion. I always try to keep it in mind when I am writing a review, plus as Georgina put it, I look for the nice good things, and there is always something that I would like, or I would not even take a subject I would not like to read. I wish you luck, and prey that whoever writes a review or already wrote a review for me did not curs and hated my writing…

    • Yes, but finding nice things to say will get only so far before you have to click the row of stars. The trouble I see in many Indy books is that the author has no idea they can’t write and no one will tell them. And if the books sell, who am I to say otherwise? I see a lot of books that could be very good if the author had sat down with a good editor and was explained the essentials of good storytelling.

  8. Yes, it’s a problem. Especially when we do author review exchanges, because you think, if I give a bad review will they give me one? So you tend to be nicer than usual. This exchange could also lead to readers noticing that we’ve exchanged reviews. So, I don’t know. I try to say what I liked about the book rather than make it a generally glowing review. It’s not much of a solution.

    • You hit the nail on the head, Georgina, to use an apt cliche. Human psychology will cause most people to respond in kind, unfortunately. At least, that is my experience. I’ve decided to just stay away from reviewing anyone I know.

  9. Hey
    I believe in honest opinion. I chose another road….when I had finished writing my book I made a copy and gave it to a good honest friend to read, not necessary a writer, but a reader, and told him, please read it and dont tell me something nice…I want the real thing….
    and he did honestly help me find my mistakes, talked about the meaning and I felt I got exactly what I needed to change to the better…

  10. When it comes to buying a book because of the reviews, I don’t. If I like the concept I buy and read. Some people believe they have to tear a book apart when they review them. Especially if it were selfpublished. You don’t see many traditionally published books degraded because of comma usage or grammar. Their reviews are based on storyline while the Indie is usually setup for a skin stripping flogging(I’m typing on my cell so please forgive my mistakes). I say, giving a review is a personal choice and the author placing their work in the reader’s hands, has to live with the consequences. You either do it or you don’t.

    • All that is true Ey, but what I forgot to mention in my post was the “ol’ eye for an eye” mentality. “Well, you trashed mine, so I’m going to annihilate yours.” Even if somehow you say nice things, but give 3 stars, you’re most like going to get similar treatment. Or maybe I underestimate my fellow writers. I hope the latter is true.

  11. I review semi-professionally (in fact I have even been paid in the past). I try to only review what I would choose to read but it’s not always possible.

    What *is* possible though is to write a review that says absolutely nothing, based on reading the first chapter and the back cover *and* come away leaving the writer/publisher happy. It’s not easy, but it is possible. I know because (I’m ashamed to say) I have done it. On more than one occasion. Will I ever learn? Probably not.

  12. Hi Stuart!

    Don’t say anything. I make it a policy not to read or review anybody’s book that I know either through the Internet or in person. Your dilemma is real – you’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Just say you couldn’t possibly be objective and leave it at that. Tim

    • Maybe too late for that, Tim. Now, everyone is expecting me to write something or else everyone will believe it’s their book I think is shite. Let me know if you get a message on this reply. I don’t know how this function works. Anyway, I love your close-up.

  13. Hi Stuart: EXCELLENT post! A good question, and a real quandary. I’m new to this eBook publishing — just put my first political thriller out on the 4th of July — and I am overjoyed to say that I have gotten two 5-star reviews right off the bat. And neither reviewer is a relative! (Though I may have to marry them. Wouldn’t that be big o’ me?)

    But I have been asked to read and review books, and some of them… well… they aren’t great. They aren’t terrible either. They’re kind of, dispassionately speaking, 3-star reads. But I am inclined to say whatever I can honestly say and then give them the best rating, because, well… I’ve promised to write a review. And I don’t want to do the author a disservice and write a poor one. He or she would rather I write nothing than something that inclines buyers to keep their money and buy another book.

    It’s like grade inflation. The great reviews of mediocre books. So how do we let folks know when a book is REALLY good?

    Of course, just like babies, a mother never thinks she has an ugly one. I would love to have reviews (5 stars, anyone?) on my new book, RUNNING. Go ahead, take a chance and read the sample. And I’ll gamble on the fact that you will enjoy it and WANT to write that great review!

    http://www.amazon.com/RUNNING-ebook/dp/B005AJA43O

Thanks for reading. I'm eager to hear what you have to say.