Saturday, February 18, 2012

Responsible Reviewing

I review books. I'm not a professional. I don't make a living- I don't even make any money at all- doing this. Occasionally, I get some free books from authors asking for a review, and I've made some cool author friends. But that's the extent of my "perks" for being a reviewer.

I don't pretend like I have a lot of influence, either. Yes, there are about 600 people following my Goodreads reviews, 2,200 following me on Twitter and around 800 subscribers via RSS on the Fantasy Casting blog. Even with a fair amount of overlap, I admit that's a couple thousand people at least glancing at each review, but in the grand scope of things... that's not really a huge number. For most books, most authors, my review isn't going to change their sales, for good or for bad. (I will come back to this thought.)

So, if I'm not affecting an author's sales, why do it, right?

Here are my reasons:

1) I like doing it. That ought to be reason enough, but...

2) It stretches my skills as a writer. If I'm specifically watching for what works and what doesn't in another story, I can shape my own writing. I can try to learn from the pitfalls of others, and aspire to emulate those I admire (there are far more of these!)

3) I want people to have honest, no BS opinions of what I've read.

I know a lot of reviewers who have a policy of never, ever posting a negative review. This means that one of three things is happening. First, they are lying sometimes.

Or two, they're way too easily impressed and really do like everything, no matter what it is. These are the same people who will tell you that Olive Garden is "like, really, really good!" and that Michelle Branch rocks. This means you can't trust their opinion.

The last option is that these people dislike a book sometimes, but they just keep their mouth shut about it. Which is fine, but it doesn't really help anybody.

And here's where my opinion as a non-reviewing reader comes in: I want to know when something is worth my time. 

Story time: About a year ago, a book came out. As a book blogger and reviewer, I heard about this book quite a while before it hit shelves. I saw ARCs reviewed on other sites, and thought this book was going to change. my. life. The day it arrived, I put down whatever else I had been reading to start this book.

And it was terrible.

I wanted to shake every reviewer whom I had trusted and ask them "What in the world is the matter with you?!?!?!?!?!"

I wrote a review about this book. I gave it one star. I pointed out all the flaws (they were numerous). Most of those reviewers commented or tweeted or emailed me saying, "Oh, yeah, I saw all that stuff too, but *shrug* I just wanted to love it, so..." And I realized that, basically, these reviewers were caught up in the hype of the book that they forgot to be honest. They forgot that other readers see their reviews and use that information to make decisions about what to spend their time and money on. They were too busy "SQUEE"ing over the Next Big Thing to worry about whether or not it was actually good.

Now, I am not advocating for meanness, although Goodreads users do seem to love the meanness. That one-star review has garnered more comments and "likes" than almost all my other reviews combined. I was not mean, but I was brutally honest. (I think this author is actually very talented, and I said so in the review, but the book is terrible.)

But people want to know when a book sucks.

Now, remember how I said that "For most books, most authors, my review isn't going to change their sales, for good or for bad."? The exception to this is, of course, the fledgling or indie author. You know, the one who only has five ratings on Goodreads. One bad rating can really hurt their average and affect their sales.

So, I've made a habit of not marking an indie book on Goodreads until after I've finished it. If the review is good, it goes up. If it's bad, I contact the author to let them know. Since I enacted this policy, only ONE indie book review has gone up.

One.

All others? CRAP. (which makes me doubt the "threat" that self- and indie-publishing are really giving to traditional publishing, but that's another post for another time)

Usually when I tell an author that the review is not going to be positive, they say, "thanks but no thanks." and leave it at that.

However, recently, an author got mad at me. Said I should be more careful about accepting books to review. That somehow it's MY responsibility as a reviewer to make sure that the book is in my favorite genre, and that the book meets my standards for quality and that the author and I share similar opinions of what constitutes quality prior to them sending me a book.

I'm sorry. I thought that's what your marketing team is for.

Now, if you're an indie author, you are your own marketing team, but still. That's YOUR job, to make sure it gets into the hands of the proper reviewers. You can't send the next big teeny-bopper-vampire-love book to someone who lists Kafka as her favorite author (neither of these apply to me, just speaking hypothetically). And it's not the reader's job to say to the author/marketing team, "Um, excuse me, I think you've done your job wrong."

So, fellow reviewers: What do you think? Is it your responsibility to only post positive reviews? Is it your responsibility to make sure that every book coming your way is of your favorite genre? What is your responsibility? 

And to writers, I ask this: Do you think you (collectively, as a community of authors) deserve only praise? Should nothing ever be called out for being substandard? What role do you see reviews playing in sales?

And to readers: Do you rely on reviews? Have you ever been burned? How do you know if a review is worth trusting with your time and money?

15 comments:

  1. I just recently started reviewing books and have only read those that I know I'd love. However, as I type this, I'm reading Twilight. A book I WANT to absolutely dislike. I made my mind up long ago that I wouldn't like it. I'm on ch. 5 and ... I'm actually enjoying it. As for having a preconceived notion of something and sticking to it, I'm able to put it aside and base my opinion on the here and now.

    Bad reviews are a hard one especially since, as I said, I'm just getting started on a review. I, like you, want to know if I'm going to be wasting my time. The fact that a lot of people won't post a negative (not necessarily bashing the book/author) review upsets me a little. It also upsets me that an author/publisher/indie author can't take a less than glowing review. If you're an indie author, and you send someone a book of yours to review, you're vying for the same attention as an author who's got the bucks. You want people to read your book. I think you should get the same treatment. (I'm rambling, sorry, but I'm sort of in the same predicament. I've had a self-pub author contact me already asking if I wanted to review his book and I've been going back and forth on the matter)

    I think you, or should I say the book reviewing community, is slightly responsible for making sure what comes your way is in the genre(s) that you enjoy. If an author/publisher offers you a sci-fi novel when you really don't like sci-fi I think it's your responsibility to reject the book with an explanation.

    As a reader, I rely HEAVILY on reviews of others, especially those that I find have similar tastes. If someone rated a book high and I purchased it and didn't enjoy it at all, I'd be a little upset. It's hard to tell when a review is worth trusting. I know yours are!!

    Sorry, again, for this being so long, I swear I'm done.

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  2. THANK YOU. There are too many overly positive reviews out there. I depend on professional and blogger reviewers as well as best-seller lists as influences in my book purchases. As such, I appreciate brutal honesty in a review. I try to review honestly, myself, but I'm just beginning at the practice, so even just trying to explain why I feel a certain way about the book is difficult. That being said, I tend to stick to tried-and-true authors/genres and most books that I would give a one-star rating aren't reviewed, because if it's that bad, I likely won't even bother to finish it.

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  3. Great post. I would classify myself first as a reader, then a reviewer, though I have little clout in reviewing.

    I thoroughly believe in reviews, and have become a bit of a review snob - if a book hasn't received at least 3.5 stars and 1,000 reviews, I typically won't read it at all. I had to add the 1,000 reviews rule because of the indie/obscure books that sometimes appeal to me. They were way overrated by people who I can only assume thought they should be saying it was true art - I guess smearing feces on the wall can be art, it it is not for me. The exception to this rule is if someone I really trust recommends it - which when it comes to good books, the people I trust are you, Books are my boyfriends (eclectic, but every book she's fallen in love with has been awesome), @autamday, and one member of my book club.

    I'm sure there are many decent books out there that don't meet these rules, but I came to the conclusion years ago that I'll never be able to read them all *sad face* and my primary aims are to learn something and be entertained. If 9.6M people have rated something 5 stars, at least one of those requirements will be met.

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    1. I have rules, too!

      A book has to be either above a 4.00 star average OR if I click on the rating details, at least fifty percent of readers rated it 4 or 5 stars. Sometimes a book has 65% of people rating 4 or 5 stars, but lands at only 3.90. However, if it's below 4 star average AND most people are rating it 3 or fewer stars, I skip it. The only exception is if a really trusted reviewer or source recommends it to me. You, my friend Suzanne and the opposite of everything my mother recommends are my trusted sources. Usually when other people recommend stuff, it ranks pretty high everywhere else, so I don't need to take the leap of faith.

      But you're right. There simply isn't enough time in the world to read all the books. So I have to be picky in one way or another.

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  4. Great post. I would classify myself first as a reader, then a reviewer, though I have little clout in reviewing.

    I thoroughly believe in reviews, and have become a bit of a review snob - if a book hasn't received at least 3.5 stars and 1,000 reviews, I typically won't read it at all. I had to add the 1,000 reviews rule because of the indie/obscure books that sometimes appeal to me. They were way overrated by people who I can only assume thought they should be saying it was true art - I guess smearing feces on the wall can be art, it it is not for me. The exception to this rule is if someone I really trust recommends it - which when it comes to good books, the people I trust are you, Books are my boyfriends (eclectic, but every book she's fallen in love with has been awesome), @autamday, and one member of my book club.

    I'm sure there are many decent books out there that don't meet these rules, but I came to the conclusion years ago that I'll never be able to read them all *sad face* and my primary aims are to learn something and be entertained. If 9.6M people have rated something 5 stars, at least one of those requirements will be met.

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  5. I hear ya on that! I generally don't go out and seek out a book that looks really stupid to review it and tear it apart. However, my tastes are broad, and I'm not willing to paint myself into a box by reading only the same things over and over. I force myself to try different stuff and to experiment with different genres and styles. Sure, I usually end up not really liking the literary fiction that I read, but I can at least point out a lot of good things about it, for people who DO like that kind of thing.

    I try to finish every single book I start. I think sometimes they're going to get better, or I at least want to be able to say "I read the whole thing, and the whole thing sucked." I've not-finished a couple in the past year or so. One was TERRIBLE. Worst book ever. I won't ever, ever even mention it by name or author because it's just not fair to even call it a "book." One was "Girl, Interrupted." I know a lot of people love it, but I got about halfway through and then literally forgot that I was reading it. When I found it on my nightstand I realized that it couldn't possibly be worth my time if I had forgotten about it so quickly. So I gave up. There were things I liked about it, but it just couldn't hold my interest in any way.

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  6. First, I want to commend you for admitting that Twilight is enjoyable on some level. I really loved those books the first time I read them and I don't think they're deserving of all the hate they get. They're not for everybody and they're not perfect, but to hate a book that strongly? Weird.

    And I have this to say about the self-pubbed authors: RUN. Only one self-pubbed book in the past year has even been worth my time at all. Others have been varying levels of crap-tastic-ness. And the one that was worth my time was very rough around the edges (TONS of potential, but definitely rough).

    I definitely have a few reviewers that I trust almost implicitly, but not many. Several reviewers that I consider "friends" and I love their sites and the way they do things, but they tend to be all fangirl-squee about pretty much everything. Though when those reviewers say something is crap, I know to run far and run fast!

    I don't mind long comments, I think you should know that by now!

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  7. Wow, this is a GREAT post... Here's what I think:

    It doesn't bother me that SOME people have a no-negative-review policy. Blogs are an expression of our personalities, and that's just how some people are.

    I do, however, agree that there aren't enough book reviewers willing to be respectfully but relentlessly honest. I tip my metaphorical hat to you.

    And thanks for tagging me, btw! Sorry it took a couple days, but here are my answers:
    http://thefeatherandtherose.blogspot.com/2012/02/gina-tagged-me.html

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  8. (And by no-negative-review policy, I mean that they simply don't post reviews for books they didn't like--not that they lie and say everything is wonderful... That's dishonest.)

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  9. I'm with you (and your second comment) about people just NOT posting when they have a negative review of a book. I, personally, think it doesn't make a difference, but I can understand how some people feel like that's important to them. I try to just point out something nice- there's always *something* nice to be said, even if it's just cover art :) Seriously, though, even the "meanest" review I ever wrote, I went out of my way to make sure people knew some really positive things about the author and the book.

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  10. This is great. It doesn't bother me when people have a no-negative-review policy, so long as they don't post fake positive reviews. I personally don't post negative reviews, but that's simply because I want to break into the writing industry and don't want to offend future colleagues.

    And I definitely agree that reviewing stretches your skills as a writer. I run a freelance editing company, and critiquing other people's work really helps me with my own work.

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  11. I think only positive reviews skews the perception of something, I'd rather read an honest review that contains good and bad versus just "it's great!"

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  12. I do rely heavily on reviews. My top reviewers (of which you are included) are always honest, give a quick rating and overall written review, and include mention of questionable content (I'm not a fan of swearing or graphic scenes in my reading). After a time I get a feel for how much I agree with a good reviewer so I can successfully judge how I will like a book despite whether they liked it or not.

    If someone always gives glowing reviews, I stop listening to them. I just had a friend give a glowing review on another friend's book which I tried to read and found TERRIBLE. It made me sort of sad. That said, I have a real-life friend whose book comes out next month and I'm worried what I will say if I don't like the book. So far I've been holding off promoting it until I've read it (and hoping I really like it so this is not an issue).

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  13. Julie Coulter BellonMay 24, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    Gina, I agree with a lot of what you said (and thanks for commenting on my blog about this!) I think you and I are in the same boat on reviewing, although I seem to have had more success with finding great indie authors than you have. (I have an indie book coming out in September. Maybe you could give me a review on that one.) :)

    I did have to say that I was not a huge fan of historical, but started getting a few ARCs to review in the historical genre and I have to say the writing turned me around and I've got a few new favorites. So, I don't think we should only have our fave genre coming our way as reviewers. There are authors out there who can wow us more than we think and if we're open to us, can change our minds about things.

    As writers, I don't think we deserve only praise, but I do think criticism should be constructive. The reviews that comment on the writer personally are out of line in my opinion. Stick to the work, not the person. Writers are people, too! :)

    My two cents.

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  14. I always review for content (language, sex, violence, substance abuses) and one author sent me a book that was (to put it mildly) extremely graphic. I asked why he chose me as a reviewer, and he said "I just picked everyone on my twitter list." and then got mad at me for having a negative opinion. I thought that was out of line entirely.

    I also have to say I am ashamed to admit that I havent read any of your work yet. I don't buy books because I am on a very strict grad school budget, and finding LDS authors at libraries outside the corridor is tough.

    And the biggest thing is to never attack an author as a person. Criticism is one thing, especially if it's in a "this didn't work for me and is why" way. I have a hard time with book reviews that say "I didn't like it." or "I really liked it." with no supporting reasons.

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