To review, or not to review

Authors are advised not to write book reviews, probably so as not to be accused of gunning down the competition. But when I have finished something I enjoyed, writing a review is an extension of that enjoyment. Perhaps my enthusiasm will be contagious. But what happens when I don’t like the book?

Since I acquired a Kindle, I have stopped reading ‘books’. As owning a Kindle automatically draws you into the Amazon buying experience, I have acquired a lot of ebooks by authors I would otherwise not have heard of. At first I was dismayed to find that the big names were still expensive even in digital format, but also made the much happier discovery that there is a wealth (or at least a hell of a lot) of cheap to free books to be had.

As a new author, who will one day be published, I have been trawling through the lists looking for those books that, like my own, are by complete unknowns, but could be as entertaining as anything on the lists of the big publishers. The first two I read, The Fifth Circle by Tricia Drammeh, and Thumb by John Collick I very much enjoyed and was more than pleased to write reviews to encourage others to try them out.

Since then I haven’t had such good luck. I have abandoned a couple after getting far enough to know that I was wasting my time, and a couple more that I finished, enjoyed certain aspects, but the overall impression was of something lacking, glaring plot holes, or an irritating plethora of typos.

Much as I would love to write about the things I enjoyed in these books, I put myself in the place of the author, and think how crushed I would be to be told, kindly, but firmly that the characterisation was nice, the description effective, but the storyline was just a random string of events with no connection and no tension.

The rating system on Goodreads and Amazon makes a review more like a judgement. Some aspects can be good, others less good, and others frankly rubbish, so do you take the highest or lowest denominator? Either is unfair to the book. Seems to me that criticism ceases to be constructive once the book is published, except at the level of, you’d be well advised to take this book down and clean up all the typos.

Even when it is laden with what seems to me to be completely unjustified praise, I would feel very uneasy about giving a critical review to an indie book. I feel too much for the author, the ego and self-confidence that is so easily bruised by a less than glowing review. If I can’t praise a book wholeheartedly, I’d rather keep quiet.
This is the difference between the review written by a reader to inform other readers, and the review written by an author to encourage and support a fellow author. Is it hypocritical to only write reviews of books you have liked? Can an author gain anything except a red face from receiving a critical review? Is it incumbent upon every reader to stick red warning lights on every book they dislike?

I don’t know the answers, but I know that there is a bunch of books that I have liked, but felt were flawed, that I am keeping quiet about, unable to steel myself to writing an honest review for fear of hurting an author’s pride.

Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

26 thoughts on “To review, or not to review”

  1. With the current system review ranking systems it is problematic, to be sure. However, I suspect the only way is to consider oneself a reader at such times and respond as such. By the time you get to read it the author has done her/his part. The book is complete and in the world, and must take its chances with readers. I know that some of the most interesting and informative reviews I read are those that discuss a book knowledgeably, weighing the good points against the bad in depth and at length. And anyway – how much should another ‘s opinion matter when making up one’s own mind about whether to read or not? Beyond the realms of fact and very basic grammar and punctuation, much is opinion and necessarily subjective.

    1. I suppose there you’re talking about books that have got enough going for them to gather a lot of praise for at least one aspect. Then discussion of good and bad can throw up a positive overall impression. But the books that are just mediochre with odd bits that show the writer has ability but the overall impression is uninteresting, what do you say? I know every book that is published has to earn its way and confront the competition, but there are a lot of indie books, particularly the self-pubbed that I wouldn’t have the heart to criticise. A big name can take it, but for an unknown it could be crushing. I’d rather not be the one to point out the shortcomings.

  2. I understand where you’re coming from. As an author, I don’t leave negative reviews because I know how I would feel if I someone told me there was nothing redeemable about my own book. When I do point out areas that can be improved, I balance that review with praise for the elements in the book I did like. If I can’t find anything I like about a book, I usually stop reading early on and don’t leave a review at all. I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest for an author to review. Above all, we are readers.

    1. That’s more or less how I play it. The conflict of interest is something that comes up whatever your business is. Criticising the competition can be contrued as simply destructive. Depends which way the majority goes. I’ve been astonished by the glowing reviews of steaming piles of… not very good books. I might get indignant, but I’d never feel the urge to welly in with my two star review just to set the record straight.

  3. I have had a life long love affair with the written word, no matter where found and like you, had chosen to remain quiet if a book did not come up to my expectations. There are many books that I started, put aside, restarted and found to be what my mood called for at that time. But still there are those books that ‘but by the grace of God, go I’ types. Ouch.

    Yes, authors, Trad or Indie, are stung by scathing reviews, reviews that are more denouncements than reviews. Very early writers are stung by any criticism, but for growth to ensue, one must step back and understand the nature of the criticism. If, God forbid, I have a typo or misspelled word, I need to know. If I have a deadend, tell me. If an improvement is needed in the layout, tell me. However, I would much rather be told in private. You don’t know me? That’s all right, we just have not yet met.

    I do not like the policy that once a reader becomes an author, their sensibilities take a nose dive into either excessive praise or borderline libel. Most, not all, authors try to help one another, and that follows with criticism as well as praise.

    At this juncture in my journey, not giving reviews is more tied to where am I allowed to tell you I loved it or I have privately told you I did an/or added here are the typos. I have a pile of TBR and a pile of AR and no time or where to review. Better start a review blog, as soon as I am able to squeeze that onto my todo list.

    1. If you put your reviewer hat on to review, that probably gives you licence to say exactly what you think. After all, readers read your blog for your reviews, so that’s what you give them. Reviewing as an author is more delicate, and it takes a lot of time and thought to write a kind review of something that is a bit meugh. Life’s too short. I just leave well alone.

  4. I hear you. And it’s certainly true that bad reviews from a fellow writer can sting more than those from a generic reader.

    I tend to rate everything at least 3 stars and have a preponderance of good things to say instead of bad when I review books. It’s not so much niceness for me as because I’ve got a long list of books to read, but because I just can’t finish a book that has serious flaws in the characterization or writing. Plot holes are something I’m more forgiving of, at least to a point. But if the whole thing feels like a vaguely connected series of events that happen for no good reason, I’ll likely lose interest too. I’ve developed the bad habit of reading 2-3 books at once, so a book that fails to keep me engaged will be put down and not finished. I only review books I actually finish, so there you go.

    The only time I could see myself writing a review for a book I put down would be if there was something so offensive (like say, clear and unabashed racist/misogynistic or homophobic themes that I thought reflected the author’s overarching view or point for writing the book and not simply the portrayal of an unsympathetic attitude by a given character) it made me literally sick and I wanted to warn other readers about this. But I’d preface it by saying I hadn’t finished the thing.

    1. I almost succumbed to that over a book that turned out to be a Christian apology book. I hate that, and stopped reading when I realised where it was going. I’d never write a review, except perhaps to say that it should have ben made clear in the blurb because it’s the kind of thing that could cause offence. You could do the same with racist, mysogignist or homophobic writing too, even if you didn’t finish. A sort of health warning.

  5. I actually don’t leave bad reviews for another reason altogether. It isn’t that I worry about hurting the author’s feelings. If you put a book out, then you have to understand that not everyone will like in it,. Some will love it and become devoted fans, others will hate it to the core of their being. Such is life. If someone doesn’t have a thick enough skin to take a bad review, they should find another profession.

    No, the reason I don’t give reviews to books I don’t like (I review books I enjoy but never say a word about those I don’t) is because too often these books have a crowd of rabid fans who don’t care if you can drive a truck through the plot holes, who don’t care if the author has no understanding of homophones, who don’t care if the grammar is atrocious, who don’t care if punctuation rules have been thrown to the wind. And if you leave an honest review saying you didn’t like it and why, then you get the author, the fans and often times their friends, hunting you down Amazon and Goodreads and leaving reviews that trash you and your book even though they haven’t read it.

    Sadly, I’ve seen this type of behavior many times over the past year. And so, I don’t accept books for reviews (unless I already know I like the way the author writes) and I never leave a review of book I don’t like.

    It’s a shame, but it’s what happens when you aren’t dealing with professionals. And the kind of people with books like that aren’t professionals. They don’t want to truly invest the time nor the money to make their book the quality it should be and they don’t have the restraint to behave in a professional manner in the face of hard criticism.

    As far as big names can handle it and the indies can’t, I don’t believe that. Indies as a whole want to be considered on the same level as Trad authors, we want the same respect as Trad authors, we want let into the same competitions and let into book stores. yet if, when it comes to review, indies expect special treatment because “they can’t take it it” or “it would crush them” then how can anyone other than other indies and aspiring indies take them seriously?

    How can we expect anyone in the world of books to look at us as a group as professional writers if so many keep skipping the needed things to produce professional work, if so many can’t be professional in behavior and if other indie authors feel we have to pussyfoot around authors with poorly made books either because we are afraid of hurting their feelings or because we fear retribution?

    1. I agree, to an extent. When I said bog names could cope with criticism, I meant that they don’t need to read the reviews from ordinary readers. if they’re big names, they have masses of readers who love their books and write great reviews. Indie authors get fewer reviews, from more humble sources, and a bad review hurts because they need the good ones more. I don’t say deserve, just need.
      As you say, reviewing leaves the reviewer open to retaliation. I prefer not to provoke hostility and pass over the bad books in silence.

      1. I pass over leaving reviews for that reason too. And yes, it’s extremely hard for indies to scrabble out reviews. So many readers don’t take the time to leave any. Thanks to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, at least the reader has the ability to check out the book before they buy it. I just wish that there wasn’t the worry of open hostility towards honest reviews.

        Thankfully, it isn’t too much of a worry any more. I used the look inside feature most of the time now and avoid books that have too many issues.

      2. Yes, that is a very handy tool that Amazon has added. It isn’t true for France, though. Too much pressure from the publishing trade has meant that you buy sight unseen. You don’t get that feature and trust to reviews and the blurb. Having said that, some blurbs are so badly written that it’s a big turn off.

  6. Writing a review that does credit to a published book an author spent years writing takes time. I’m behind as it is with reviews of books I like. So I won’t even read a published book that doesn’t absorb me in some way after a few pages.
    On peer writing sites, like authonomy, writers support each other’s process and potential, and everyone learns heaps. Once a book is in the market place I read with different eyes. I want to be entranced ☼

    1. On a site like Authonomy a writer is still a writer, looking for criticism to improve their writing skills. Once they become a published author, they feel that the book is as good as they are capable of getting it. To shoot it down at that stage isn’t constructive, but demoralising. i’d just rather let other readers make their own minds up.

  7. An interesting topic, Jane. I enjoyed reading your and the commentors’ thoughts. I never publish reviews under my pseudonym, mostly because of horror stories (Amazon myths?) of one author sabotaging another author over a bad review. Under my real name, I only publish 4 or 5 star reviews.

    The problem for me is when an acquaintance’s book just doesn’t measure up. They expect a review, and I hate to outright lie and say a book is great when it has major flaws. Because of that, I seldom tell someone I’ve bought their book until I’ve already read it! If they do know, usually there are enough strengths to scrape together an honest good review. Whew! (It’s a little like writing letters of reference. What you don’t say screams out to the savvy review reader.)

    Also, I always read the sample on Amazon. You can generally spot a clunker in the first few paragraphs.

    Thanks for bringing up a hot topic! Hug,

    Carole

    1. Thanks Carole. I must admit fear of retaliation is a big stumbling block to the brutally honest review. And yes, the freind’s terrible book is another nightmare. I’ve been very lucky so far, having only read friends’ books that have turned out to be excellent. If I even suspected I wasn’t going to like it, I’d never read it. There’s a lot of back-patting and back scratching goes on between authors, the automatic good review, the automatic vote in contests and on Goodreads lists. One reason why an author review doesn’t have the same credibility as a reader review, even if, as I’ve said before, not every reader, and far from every reader knows how to write a book review.

  8. An interesting discussion. The one thing that I will criticise, even with the book of an acquaintance, is if it is full of errors of spelling and grammar (usually politely called ‘typos.’) Books should not be published if this is the case. The author should be able to find someone, somewhere, to clean it up for them. Then, only then, should they republish.
    Big name authors who produce a poor book – that’s different. Jack Higgins had a one-star review from me. I called the review ‘Not Trying Jack?’ And I think that was exactly it. He wasn’t trying, just trading on his name. (He has written some terrific books.) You can be sure that an Indie author is at least trying.

    1. Exactly my thoughts. A poor review from Joe Blow isn’t going to hurt somebody like Jack Higgins. As you say, if their book is below the standard they usually achieve, it seems perfectly justifiable to point it out. An indie writer with no reputation is a very easy target. I also agree that if you publish and can’t be bothered to make sure the grammer is correct, you need a bollocking, but that’s about the only criticism I’d feel happy about making. The books with silly plots, ridiculous characters, and unbelievable endings, are best passed over in silence. What good does a bad review do? They aren’t books that cost a fortune. Often they’re free. Read and pass by.

  9. As Tricia mentioned, I try to review from the point-of-view of a reader, letting other readers know what to expect. If I talk a less-than-awesome book up, then people will be disappointed when they read it. If I’m honest, then they’ll go in with the right exprctations, hopefully. When I review, glowingly or less than, my goal is to draw more attention to the book, especially if it is a new indie writer. If the book wasn’t for me, I will say so, but I will also try to push it in the direction of readers who might enjoy it.
    Yes, I write, but I also make the time to read, and when I DO like something, I want everyone to know about it… but I don’t ONLY want to post about 5-star books. What a shame for all the 3’s and 4’s to miss out on the publicity…

    1. I tend to think that publishing isn’t a level playing field. There are many established writers I love, who have already shown their talent and built up their reputation, but when I read what I feel is a sub par book, I say so. They can take it, if they even notice. But indie authors except for the rare exception aren’t household names, don’t have a big publisher’s promo budget behind them and are looking for recognition. I don’t have the heart to treat them the same way as a big name because they have a reputuation to build. If I can’t find something really positive to say, I prefer not to say anything. The problem with the rating system is proably that too many people give 5 star reviews to mediochre books. What rating do you give the great classics if you give the latest bodice-ripper 5 stars? A 3 or 2 star review can look terrible compared with some of the junk that gets 5 stars. Not everyone has the same tastes, and too many reviews use purely subjective criteria in their ratings which I think makes it very difficult to be objectively honest and not look cruel.

  10. It is something I’ve increasingly begun to rethink as I get closer to publication. As a rule, I don’t leave reviews for bad books; the book I hate may be loved by someone else and even bad books were made by the heart and soul of the author. I’ve typically stopped reading reviews myself. Most people just write the whole plot instead of an actual review, which is just frustrating as well as rude. However, there was one bad book I did review poorly. I erred toward constructive crititcism as the author’s writing itself was very good, but there was no point to the story. They also wrote into a genre they had absolutely no knowledge of. Not sure what compelled me to review that one when I let all others fade.

    1. That’s exactly how I’ve felt about a book I read recently. The writing style was very simple, but too simple sometimes, the characterisation was very patchy, but in places effective, and the plot was feeble, a string of ‘adventures’, chance meetings that had no impact on the story at all. It also needed a good edit. But it had something unique that lasted in my memory. However, every time I tried to write an encouraging review that elusive, je ne sais quoi was all I could find to say. So I left it.
      You’re dead right about the complete misunderstanding a lot of people have of what a review acyually is. Writing book reviews is taught to kids in school, but many adults have forgotten that it isn’t just a plot summary with ‘awesome’ stuck at the end of it.

  11. I hesitate for the same reason, Jane…I don’t like to give a negative review. I have not reviewed very often, and am starting to a little more…and in some cases it’s been a fine line whether to or not, weighing up if I feel the good factors weight up enough to offset weaknesses. It’s tricky.

  12. I don’t feel under any obligation to start a crusade against a book I haven’t liked, or even to tell other people I didn’t like it. Not if the author is already a complete unknown. I know how much an unknown author looks forward to getting reviews, and how hard they are to come by. Let future readers make up their own minds about whether to give it a chance. They can always read the first chapters before deciding to lash out on a usually very inexpensive read.

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