Wednesday, December 21, 2011

To Review or Not to Review

Long, long ago and far away, I reviewed movies for a small newspaper. I found it fun and I think I was pretty good at it. I developed a theory of reviewing that I still use today: review the piece for its intended audience, not for my taste.

I think this is an extremely important thing to keep in mind, whether you are reviewing a book, a CD or a movie. If the book is a thriller and you’re not much of a fan of thrillers, you either have to put on your thriller fan hat or choose not to review it. If you are trying to review a bluegrass band and you know nothing about and don’t even like bluegrass, you’ve got your work cut out trying to be an objective critic.

So, this is the first rule I apply to the review I do for Amazon and Goodreads. I put myself in the place of the booklover who would appreciate the genre I’ve read.

The second comes to me as an Indie author. I don’t do reviews rating a book less than 4. If I can’t do that in good conscience I don’t review the book. There is no way I’m going to write a review for either Amazon or Goodreads less than that, unless (there’s always an exception) the author has been blatantly offensive. I haven’t yet run into that situation, but reserve the option to lower the boom in that case.

Why have I taken this course of action? Because I will not do harm to another writer. There are those who would argue that telling a writer than their work needs help is constructive and good. However, I once had someone who loves me tell me that she didn’t think my dialog sounded real. I did not write for 6 months – at all. Reason eventually won out. As a screenwriter I had received many compliments on my dialog, so I listened to those comments in my head instead of the off-the-cuff remark from a relative. But I tell this story because I know it illustrates how sensitive a writer, or any artist, can be.

I am not a writing expert. If I considered myself one and had lived in James Joyce’s day I would have told him his writing needed work, because I still can’t read it. See what I mean? I doubt that he was as sensitive as I have been, but what if the one piece of criticism killed the genius? Hmmm?

Even when my opinion is requested, I’m very careful and hesitant. So, when you see that all my reviews are positive, if you’ve bothered to look, that does not mean I’m a push over. It simply means I’ve reserved my judgment on those I could not rave about.

Movies, however, I can still pan if I feel like it, because they are a collaborative effort and who cares if I hurt the feelings of someone who must have made a gazillion dollars to put out that tripe? Oh, did I say that out loud?


  1. Very timely! It's been a recent topic of discussion amongst a group of reviewers. Good to hear an author/reviewer perspective.

  2. Very well said. And you made me laugh at the end!!

  3. Great post, Kathy. I also review books and of most any genre and mostly new or indie writers.

    I agree with how you treat these hard working-- and usually struggling-- writers. I look for editing and grammar along with the storyline.

    If the story is good but the editing is poor I will offer a private critique of the book and then give it a descent review with the assurance that the book will be edited or that the writer in working to improve. To be honest most stories can be read and entertaining with errors but they would be so much better if the errors weren't there. If the writer doesn't want to hear my opinion then I drop the review off where it belongs.

    Writers too must realize that they are there own worst enemy by not doing a good edit of their work. People read something filled with grammar and editing errors will not likely read more from the writer. But it is a learning process and anyone who can writer a book has my admiration.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly. I've sort of taken on the doctor's creed when reviewing fellow authors, whether they're traditionally or indie published: First do no harm. Here's what I decided to do on Goodreads: no rating at all. I review. I do not rate. Problem solved. (I also follow the Thumper Rule: If I can't say something nice, I don't say anything at all.) :)

  5. Tammara - You got it exactly - I have been thinking of that phrase all along. I like the Goodreads option - I hadn't thought of that. Thanks, Thumper! :-)

  6. I'm probably the exception, because I don't consider thoughtful 1-3 star views reviews harmful to writers. It's simply part of doing business as a writer, and one of the reasons a writer needs a thick skin.

    The indie trend makes it feel like reviews are to bolster writer's sales or promote the writer -- reviews are for the reader to aid them in the decision of buying the book.

    Unfortunately, the book's marketing materials aren't always honest. I passed on a cookbook that promoted itself as being for two people, but all the reviews said that it was 'two with lots of leftovers.' Another book that I did review was promoted as being fast-paced, suspenseful, and with lots of action -- and not one of those was present. I kept wondering if I was reading the same book as being described!

    On the indie side, some of the authors really don't understand how to market. They think, "I have an action scene in my novel, so it's an action thriller." They don't realize that making that kind of promise to me, an action reader, means I'm expecting something very specific. If it doesn't deliver on its promise, I'm an unhappy action reader. So when I write the review, I'm thinking about what the reader expectations are versus what they're actually getting.

    That being said, I do try to avoid books that I'm probably going to give a one-star review to. For one simple reason: If I'm going to spend time reading the book and writing a review, I'd like it to be a book I enjoy.

  7. I really appreciate an alternative point of view and certainly agree with the need for writers to understand marketing. The reader is the unfortunate recipient of a learning trend in the Indie marketplace. But a bad review won't fix that as many bestsellers get lousy reviews and go on to break records. It's a dilemma, for sure. I'm happy to elevate those Indie writers who do excellent work though.

    Thanks again, Linda! You expressed what I'm sure many readers feel.

  8. I agree with the none negative reviews. However, and this is where I get mean, if they're "traditionally" published authors then the proverbial gloves come off, because I don't see it as a critique of the author but a critique on the publisher and their efforts, because they have too many resources to be average or below average.

  9. I used to review children's books for a local newspaper and I always found something positive to say. (I try to look for the positive in everything) I do not like complainers. What you wrote makes a lot of sense. If you had a problem with your foot, you would ask a podiatrist for their opinion, not an optometrist, the same theory could apply for reviewing books.

  10. I completely agree with you. I will not publish a negative review either. If I review it, it gets a positive review. If I don't like it I won't review it, obviously not meant for me. If I feel I have constructive comments for the author, I will e-mail her privately. As you say, I may not be the target audience.
    As for people who gleefully dish out the one and two star reviews, I say this to you. It is far easier to criticize than to create.
    Thanks so much for a great post.

  11. Yes, I'm with you. I don't write negative reviews - mostly because I generally like to share my enthusiasm about reading with others. No point in going to the effort of writing a review just to tell someone how much I hated a book - if I don't like it, these days I don't bother to finish it...

  12. I don't think reviews are for the writer. They are for the reader, specifically the potential reader. If an author wants to take something away from it, either a learning point or a pat on the back, fine. But the review is intended to let readers know whether or not something is worth their time and money.

    The fact that you feel OK reviewing movies proves that point. A book is a collaborative effort as well, and authors make a gajillion dollars too (sometimes). And most of the people working on a film do not make that kind of money. And really, to say "I can criticize you just because I think you made a lot of money." is a pretty shallow and immature thing to say.

    Putting yourself out there opens you up to criticism, but also praise. You must be ready to take both, or ele this business just isn't your cup of tea. Your choice to only give sparkling reviews is entirely up to you, and I won't try to change your mind.

    However, I stand by my practice of informing fellow readers of what to expect in any book that I review. I do it kindly (and I rarely give bad reviews anyway- bad books are pretty rare, IMO), but honestly. And my friends and followers know they can trust my reviews.

    I've read glowing reviews of bad books, and have been extremely disappointed to find out the I wasted money and my personal time on something because a trusted source lied to me while attempting to protect the precious feelings of an author they've never met and have no responsibility to.

    1. I really appreciate you taking the time to express your point of view. I do want to point out that I don't write good reviews for books I consider to be bad (it's still a matter of opinion and taste) and I was being funny (or attempting it) about the movies. I've also been a screenwriter - so have a pretty good sense of the difference between the collaborative effort involved.

      You are completely right that the reviews are not for the writer, but for the reader. This isn't a question of not being honest - it's a question of being honest about what I consider good books and remaining quiet about what I consider to be bad books - BECAUSE I am a writer and can't cannibalize one of my own. I think anyone else can be as honest as they want to be, especially people who are the consumers. I just can't do that to another writer. That's my message.

  13. Nice post. This is always a difficult question. I've decided that of I can't give an item at least 3 stars, I won't bother posting anything - at least most of the time.

    However, I also think this tendency of indie authors to band together and give each other a string of 5-star reviews may come back to bite them. Sophisticated readers and reviewers are learning to see through that.

    To all reviewers, I would say, "Carefully guard your reputation for integrity."