Authors reviewing authors
(it’s a minefield…) Guest post by Terry Tyler
The scenario: you’re a self-published/indie press published writer who tweets, blogs and is a generally active member of the online writer community. You like to read and review the work of writer friends, if in a genre that appeals. One of these friends (who I will call Friendly Writer and refer to as ‘he’, for convenience), asks you to review his new book, via an ARC. The blurb piques your interest; you say yes. You start to read, with enthusiasm—but there’s a problem. Several of them. The dialogue is unrealistic, the characters are one-dimensional, or tired stereotypes. Maybe the plot is unconvincing, or it’s a bit slow/long-winded/badly researched. If it was a random book by a stranger, you’d abandon it.
If you’ve been active in the online writer community for a while, this might be a situation you’ve already faced. Friendly Writer is expecting a review from you. So do you take the easy way out? Say what a great read it is, and give it 5*?
Do you decide that it’s best to … lie?
Most writers have, at some point, been less than totally frank when reviewing. We think about ourselves in the same situation; sometimes, being kind is more important than brutal honesty. But there are several levels of diplomatic possibility between ‘This guy needs to find a new hobby’, and ‘This is a superb novel by a talented writer, highly recommended!’
Before I get to the helpful hints, though, let’s look at why some authors give dishonest reviews—and why they shouldn’t.
5 reasons why authors give glowing 5* reviews they don’t mean:
- Because they’re kind. They don’t want to hurt Friendly Writer’s feelings, and would like to give a boost to the book he’s worked so hard on.
- Because they don’t want to face the possible hassle that might follow an honest review; easier just to provide the required positive one.
- Because Friendly Writer has given them a 5*, or been generally supportive about their work, and they feel they ‘owe’ him the same.
- Because other reviewers have been complimentary, and they feel under pressure to agree (‘is it just me?’).
- Because their own new release is imminent, and they think that if they dole out the 5*, they will be reciprocated. NB: this might involve not actually reading the whole book…
5 reasons why they shouldn’t:
- It misleads the reading public. All over Amazon, you can find reviews that say, ‘I don’t understand the high ratings; was I reading a different book?’, and ‘I bought this based on all the great reviews, and I wasted my money’. Think about it. If you’d stayed at a hotel where you received only mediocre service, would you label it ‘excellent’ on TripAdvisor? Review a faulty electrical appliance with ‘5*, a great buy’?
- Many people consider most Amazon reviews to be fake, purchased, written by friends or just generally ill-informed. If you write dishonest reviews, you become part of this problem, which affects us all.
- The misleading review doesn’t do much for your own credibility. If you say a book is brilliant, when it has wooden dialogue and a dodgy plot, potential readers may think your own work won’t be so great, either.
- It makes the glowing 5* that you really do mean count for nothing. Who can tell the difference?
- It doesn’t do Friendly Writer any favours, in the long run.
Remember: Amazon book department is not a cosy writing group for the encouragement of aspiring authors. It is an online shop where the reading public spend money.
Sometimes, your complaint about the book may just be that it needs a better proofread. This is not a criticism of the writing itself, but a practical problem that can be fixed, as is an issue with formatting. A couple of times I’ve started to read friends’ books that were otherwise very good but had considerably more than the acceptable few proofreading errors. I emailed to tell them, so they could amend if they wanted to, or instruct their publisher to do so. Recently, I read a terrific book with one glaring continuity error that the editor had missed; I let the author know. She was really pleased I had. With regard to the proofreading, I also listed some of the errors I’d found.
But what if the problems are not so easily fixed?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Write the honest review but show it to Friendly Writer before you post it, and ask him if he’d rather you didn’t.
- Concentrate only on the elements about the book that you did like, and give it 3*, or 4*, depending on the good/bad ratio. For instance, it might have lousy characterisation but wonderful scene setting. Or a plot full of holes, but delightful dialogue. Contrary to some opinion, 3* is not a bad review; it means ‘it’s okay’ on Amazon, and ‘I liked it’ on Goodreads. I find 3.5* very useful; you can then round up or down. Or up on Amazon and down on Goodreads, as they mean different things.
- Give 3* and review objectively rather than personally, by saying what the book is about and who might enjoy it. For instance, if it’s a zany chick lit book, give a brief summary of the plot and say something like ‘If you’re a fan of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, this might be one for you’. Just because a book made you wince, other readers might not be so discerning. For instance, my ‘deal breakers’ are bad grammar, lack of historical research, consistent bad punctuation, unrealistic dialogue, and characters undergoing sudden, unexplained personality changes to fit the plot. Others might not mind or even notice these things. Recently, I read a basically good book with punctuation errors on every page. Out of over 30 reviews, only a handful of others mentioned them.
- Do nothing. This is actually not as much of a cop out as it sounds. When I published The Devil You Know, I submitted it to lots of book bloggers who had never read me before. Of all those who agreed to take it, two never reviewed. I just assumed they didn’t like it much. Friendly Writer will probably make the same assumption about your own lack of response, and thus save you both embarrassment.
What if you haven’t taken an ARC, but have bought the book and feel obliged to review because of your online friendship?
- Say and do nothing. See above.
- Do not mark the book as ‘Currently Reading’ on Goodreads, or tweet that you are reading it, until you have read 20% and are sure you like it enough to continue.
- If Friendly Writer asks, say you’re sorry, but you weren’t that interested in the subject matter/it wasn’t quite what you were expecting. It’s likely that he will accept this with dignity; in my experience, writers who throw their toys out of the pram every time someone fails to express awe at their brilliance are few and far between. Thank goodness.
- Be aware of Friendly Writer’s feelings, and imagine yourself in the same position before launching into an detailed critique; if asked, mention the aspects you liked but say that you had some issues with other areas, and do not expand unless invited to. He may already be aware of the book’s weaknesses.
Any of these suggestions is better than writing dishonest, misleading reviews.
Lastly, if your lack of a glowing 5* results in Friendly Writer getting shirty with you, put it down to experience, and move on; if he gets upset because you are not willing to lie about his book, then perhaps his apparent ‘friendship’ was really nothing more than networking …