The Thin Muddy Line of Online Book Reviews: A Writer’s Thoughts

GangstersA few days ago I was given an offer, much like in The Godfather, that I supposedly couldn’t refuse.

At least that is how the offeror thought of it. See, there is a Facebook page I, from time to time, visit where writers will share links to their books and give updates on their writing. I do as well. Anyway, I had posted about my new book A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM, and underneath the book, the fair offer was given. It said, in so many words. “Hey, I’ll write a review on your book, if you write a review on my book.”

Of course, what the offeror was forgetting in that comment, but was definitely implied, was “positive review.”

If this was only a one-time occurrence of a back alley review deal, I would brush it off, move on, but the fact is I get about four to five offers like this a week. Sometimes they are through Facebook or Twitter, but many times they are over e-mail. Occasionally, the person offering the arrangement is playful in the asking, and some (like this guy in the comment) have no problem with anyone seeing the plan.

Usually, I try to be very kind when someone places such an offer to me, I bring up how busy I am with my own writing right then (which, honestly, is very true and I have had to say no to friends handing me things to read as well), but it always makes me feel very uncomfortable, because at the heart of such an exchange there seems to be a certain level of trickery.

Maybe trickery is too harsh a word, but you can’t escape the fact that reviews created in such an arrangement are put out there to convince a reader, someone who possibly doesn’t know better, to buy a book that might or might not deserve the rating it was just given. Leaving that future reader with the equivalent of a horse’s head in the bed when they wanted the full horse.

When I first started this online blog, I was asked to take part in a service that did blog tours for authors. For those that don’t know about these events. basically, a group of popular writing sites agree to post an article, a review, and/or an interview with an author. It is an coordinated event to help market a new work.

The offer came from one of my writing friends for a company she started and I accepted. It sounded like a great opportunity to build up the traffic on my site, and who knows what new talent I might discover? Win, win. Also, my friend was very adamant that she only chooses the best books for her sponsored tours so I don’t have to worry about too many duds. Fine, okay, I accepted. Free books. Why not?

The first book…. To call the first book a mess would be to insult messes.

It was bad, horribly written, filled with stereotypical characters (bordering on racism), no plot, generic dialogue, and on and on and on. I don’t want to go too much into why I gave the book a bad review (it hurts to think about it), but suffice to say, I gave the book a VERY bad review.

Being the eternal writing teacher, I couldn’t stop there. I filled the review with advice for the writer to consider before starting that second book. (Honestly though, I hope he never does attempt it.) If anything, I hoped writing a bad review in that fashion would be justified by the advice I give on it for my readers. I didn’t want to waste my own readers’ time venting on a book they should never read, you see.

After that painful hour of writing, I put up my review (before the date it was due) and then contacted my friend.

My friend and I laughed over the book, she agreed with me about everything I said about it, and apologized for giving the attention to such a bad book. That is how the first phone call ended. Nice, eh?

The second phone call, after she read my review, was a lot different.

She first asked me to take down the review, stating in so many words that the writer didn’t pay for a review like that. If you can believe it, she actually said that it “might hurt his feelings.” Did Dorothy Parker ever have someone say something like that to her?

She went on to say, even more to my shock, that it is an understood law that writers don’t give each other advice. It’s considered rude. (Basically, I had broken a lot of understood online writing laws in my review it seems.) And finally, she ended the call with a second plea for our friendship to please take it down.

So I took the review down.

A few days later my friend put up her own review and it was positive. Glowing.

I have not spoken to her since.

Over the last few years… correct that… ever since the birth of amazon we have read and heard stories about fake reviews on it. From publishers creating fake accounts to post things, to writers doing it themselves, to tours, like the one I described; where a writer is pretty much paying for the positive press in the hope that it will trick some readers into buying a book.

Trick?

A Jane Austen DaydreamThere is that word again. It haunts me. It makes me feel uncomfortable. And now with the release of my latest novel (A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM), the offers are coming in even faster than when I was simply blogging and occasionally linking to my older books.

I mean, I knew this was going on out there, but I never knew it was this prevalent. It bothers me. It saddens me, and I think when these transactions take place, it hurts all of us, because it muddies the water of the online marketplace, filling it with promises of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Leaving all of us, wondering what is truth and what is fiction. (The irony that we are talking about fictional books almost makes it a little laughable, when you think about it.)

The online world of writing is loud.

Don’t believe me?

I have over 20,000 Twitter followers right now, many are fellow writers, and when I visit my home page I scroll through pages and pages of writers (like me) dreaming of convincing a reader with only 140 characters to please buy their book. Then there is GoodReads where I have over 1000 friends. Many recommend their books to me or e-mail me directly about them (many with offers like the one I listed above). And on and on… so how does a writer with a new book get heard over all of this screaming?

It is a good question and one I struggle with as well around my new book. Because I want people to find my book, read my book, and if they feel strongly to review my book. But collecting reviews through negotiations and handshakes… it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Do I want pages and pages of reviews? Certainly, of course I do. So, for example, if a reader has gone to the trouble to track me down via Twitter, Facebook or on my blog to tell me about my book, I will ask them to consider writing a review. If they feel that strongly to reach out to me, well, that review my book earned.

I want when people go to my page to hear how real readers feel about the work. That means there may be a bad review there someday. Frankly, that is fine. I am not naive enough to think that everyone will like whatever book I write. That’s life, but I at least want some truth there.

So what do I say to my fellow writers, those wanting reviews and may have even written one or two or more that they knew were less than… say… true? Step away. Walk away from the practice… Or better yet, I’ll share my favorite line from The Godfather:

“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverIf you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my published books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or Doors and Megan as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!

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63 responses

  1. The very first time I got that offer, I didn’t know better, so I sent the guy a print copy. He emailed me a copy of the review two weeks later, and by then, I’d finally gotten to his book. Thing was, I couldn’t get more than four pages in. Now, I hadn’t asked only for a good review, and I was tempted to write an honest bad one, but instead, I wrote him a long, detailed critique, mentioning specific areas where his research was weak or his writing was hard to follow. I suggested he give it another edit, abut instead of a thank you, he never responded at all. Okay. I get it. It was supposed to be tit-for-tat, which made me doubt that his review had been honest. I shy away from that stuff unless I really know the writer well, and in that case, I really would want to know their opinions. In some cases, it might be someone whose work I have helped myself, so we share some trust, but my favorite reviews of all have always come un-asked-for from readers, as they should. Even the ones that found issues. At least that way I can fix them and do a better job with the next book

  2. Scott,
    You are expressing what I have always felt. I make a practice of giving reviews to indie writers, when I do a review, but it is not on request. I won’t request a review either. You have hit upon the reasons behind those choices. It does feel like trickery and my personal integrity can’t take it.

    As you said, we want to be found, read, and appreciated, but not on false recommendations.

  3. I’m just starting to see what you describe, and the act of tit for tat reviews dismays me and explains why some of the self published books with such glowing reviews come off as poorly written.
    It’s why I’m considering paying Kirkus reviews to review my book when the time comes. I think people still respect their opinion. And they give objective reviews that you can choose to attach to your book or not.

  4. I’m glad you had the courage to address this topic. Review trading, or should I say “glowing review” trading, is a pet peeve of mine. I enjoy reviewing the books of both independent and traditional authors. These are normally not at the author’s direct request, but if someone does ask me to review a book, I agree with the caveat that I will tell the truth. I want to help fellow writers, but I refuse to mislead readers. I also don’t believe in criticism that in non-constructive–the author will definitely get my two cents about how any flaws might be addressed in a re-edit or for future work. I do make the following allowance for writers who are also friends: if the review is not going to rate at least three stars, I will contact them privately and ask them if they’d like me to refrain from posting the review. My secret hope, especially for those who’ve written e-books, is that they will temporarily withdraw the piece from market and go through another round of editing. I’m sure some writers might be annoyed with me for going public with less than stellar comments about their work, but I’m prepared to accept the same treatment every time I submit a story to a literary journal or a novel to an agent.

    Thank you for your brave and on point post.

    Ummm…by the way, A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM is on my reading list for this coming week. Reviews (Amazon) generally follow on the next weekend. I’d like to say that I can be bribed with generous donations of chocolate. But no. LOL!

  5. How sad, what ever happened to honesty? This reminds me of why I never watch “Idol”. I sit there totally embarrassed by those whose family members and friends either lied to them about their talent, or never spoke the plain truth. Then the poor souls, on national TV prove that they were just trying to be nice, and ‘not hurt their feeling’. Please, I’d rather skip the embarrassment. If my book stinks, lets only smell it once!

  6. I agree with you, Scott. I am very uncomfortable reviewing books by other authors, unless they are good enough to give some honest praise. However, I don’t critique them if they’re not. If I’m asked, I’ll find something good to say directly to the writer and point out a shortcoming, I love to get positive reviews for my own novels, but the odd bad review doesn’t bother me. After all, have you ever checked the range of reviews for some of the classics, or even for some of your favorite writers?

    The best “review” for me is when a reader likes one of my mystery novels well enough to want to read the others, or even contacts me and asks me when the next one will be finished!

    Great post! And good luck with your new book.

  7. Ah, yes. The ever popular “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” review exchange. And even worse … the “0ffer” from that former friend to join an online group and write a review for a train wreck of a book. I’m sorry this happened to you, Scott. Your post touches on the exact reason that not all reviews are trustworthy. I agree that unsolicited reviews are usually much more meaningful.I have a good feeling you’ll receive plenty of those 🙂

  8. I feel like standing on top of the writing mountain and screaming down to the writing masses that they need to read this! I get so tired of the games some authors play and the massive egos who feel their work is above reproach. Great post!

  9. Writers absolutely should offer each other advice. I mean you don’t have to take it but if someone who has experience in something has something to say they should say it. If your feelings get hurt so be it, its a big bad ugly world out there.

    Review for review exchanges are something that is just wrong. I have given reviews to my friends works, and I am certain my friendship has colored my review in a positive light. I look for the good stuff. If I hate a book I will tell them in an email especially if I can put a finger on why I hated it. but i won’t post the review anywhere.

    • I think you and I are in agreement. I think the idea of giving a good review no matter who they are just because of an agreement is the problem.

      It’s been very fascinating hearing everyone’s response to this piece.

      Cheers!

  10. Great post. I was asked to write a review by someone’s agent. Hated the book and wrote back I think you should get someone else to review this! I’m part of a blog tour at the
    moment and luckily love the book.
    Fiona

  11. Interesting article Scott. Yes, we all want to be found, read and appreciated, that much is true with regard to myself, as to any other writer I suspect. The problem faced by a newbie such as myself, is how to achieve those three things and remain comfortably within your own code of ethics

    I was naïve enough to believe that having written the book, and getting a publisher or agent to accept it, that apart from a little time spent with the editorial department of the publishers, that my work here was done.( yes naivety is not just the provenance of the young)

    Being compelled to join social network sites, in order to self publicise my work, was a total anathema to me, as until I wrote my first novel, I avoided such activities like the proverbial plague. having been assured that even the most established author has a presence on social network sites, here I am, on a completely new learning curve.

    I must say, that I totally agree with your stance on tit for tat review requests they are at best unethical, and at worse damaging to our chosen genre. I also, have only slightly diluted similar feelings, about paying to have my work reviewed, Therefore, my question is this.

    How does a new author achieve reviews, good or bad, without resorting to the methods related in your article?

    • I wish I had an answer for you; it’s the million dollar question. And if it did work, everyone would do it and we all would be back to square one. LOL

      There are some pay reviewers that give honest reviews and there are good tours. It’s just about research, I guess.

      Cheers!

    • Reach out to book bloggers who review your genre and ask them if they would be willing to read your book and provide a review. And then accept whatever they say in their review, good, bad or ugly. No flaming or demands that they take the review down (if it’s negative). Some won’t respond to your request, some will decline and quite a few of them are happy to provide reviews. Their followers will see the review and will make the decision to buy the book and in turn, many of them will leave a review. After a book club I reached out to posted a review of my book, three more readers who follow that book club bought my book and left a review totally on their own – people I’ve never met and don’t know. If book bloggers like your book, they can become your biggest cheerleaders. And don’t pay for a review.

  12. Great article. Difficult isn’t it? Finding the happy medium between truth and hurt. There are some authors who perhaps deserve to be hurt because they’ve not been truthful with themselves about the quality of their work; but there are those who simply can’t write and don’t know it. I disagree with the comment by your ‘friend’ that authors shouldn’t give advice. Nonsense. I’ve belonged to a group for years where the crits are sometimes strong but always constructive.
    I don’t have problems with reviews as yet – readers have yet to find me.

  13. I came across one of those services that offer paid reviews. I don’t remember how.

    First of all, they are breaking Amazon’s TOS by paying people for their reviews. That means if found out, all of the reviews are going to go, whether honest or not.

    I even checked one of the books, and could not believe any review. At least not the ones with five stars. There was one three star review I found plausible.

    Needless to say, I didn’t buy the book to see for myself.

    Due to this, spoilers and other reasons, I don’t let customer reviews on Amazon affect my decision to buy a book.

    And that’s the real shame, Amazon, Goodreads and other review sites have simply lost any faith I had in them.

  14. Scott said: “It’s too bad. Reviews could really serve a useful function.”

    It occurred to me that the rise of independent publishing creates an opportunity for genre specific “professional reviewers” of independent fiction to emerge. I don’t see them as being paid by the authors or publishers (given that would create a conflict of interest), but I do see them generating revenue through paid advertising on their blogs (much like PW or Kirkus does) or through nominal reader subscriptions. I’m a little out of touch with the current book blogging community, so I don’t know if this is already being done.

    I do see that many would-be writers have jumped on the bandwagon and now have sites that accept paid advertising from other writers – sort of like the entrepreneurs who originally went to Alaska looking for gold and ended up making better money providing goods and services to the thousands of unlucky prospectors who followed. (Sadly, I think many of these sites are only visited by other aspiring writers, and not by the avid readers they were hoping to reach.) Some claim to be discriminating in the books they feature, but are they? I still think the best reviewers are readers, not other writers.

    I know that as a reader (but not a reviewer), I would love to connect with a good reviewer who shares my taste in mysteries (which is my usual choice in books) for recommendations. I’ve paid for and downloaded many a book that I didn’t want to read further than the first chapter. Amazon reviews are suspect, as you’ve already discussed, and I don’t trust reviews from authors who are published by the same company as the book’s writer either. Goodreads is (was?) a great concept, but I guess I haven’t found a friend there yet with the same tastes as I have.

    In any case, the publishing industry is still undergoing a revolution and I have no doubt that there are changes yet to come!

    (Note: I wrote a post last year on this topic: The art of the book review: Should good reviewers turn pro? at http://redonald.com/2012/06/05/the-art-of-the-book-review-should-good-reviewers-turn-pro/)

    • Definitely sounds like an interesting business model, but genre-specific focus bothers me a little. My work rarely fits snuggly in any genre.

      The funny thing is GoodReads actually says only friend people you want to share recommendations and reviews with… and yet so many have over 1000 on their list. Heck, I get friend requests all the time (and have sent them out). So that part is kind of out the window. I do find giveaways on their site a great way to build word of mouth around a book though.

      Thanks for writing.

  15. I am just now seeing this, so pardon the late response. At one point I heard Amazon prohibited authors from reviewing other books. Now it sounds like this isn’t the case. I’m still a newbie, so I don’t know, but I have been hesitant to do a lot of reviews either good or bad. One book had so many errors I wanted to throw my Kindle across the room. I hesitated because it was a giveaway, but if I had paid for the book I would be livid.

    • Thanks for reading! I feel for all the authors that want people to read their books, really I do (Heck, I want people to read A Jane Austen Daydream and Maximilian Standforth… as well), but there are definitely lines I won’t cross. I’m glad we are on the same page.

      Cheers!

  16. This is my second time reading your blog. Once again I agree with you. I have not published a book (yet), but I read a lot. I started to notice, once I joined Twitter, that all the books posted got rave reviews. I knew something was fishy. I read a couple and figured out the game. Now, I read the summary on Amazon or B & N, and make a gut decision as to reading it on my own. I have read and loved books with little to no reviews at all. I look beyond the noise. Thanks for an honest post.

    • Well, feel free to visit again! I usually try to do three or so posts a week, usually sneaking in a writing one from time to time.

      Noise is a great way to describe. The trick we all struggle with is how to be heard through it. I like to think my blog helps me, by having people get to know me as the writer, than considering my novels. At least that is the hope.

      Cheers!

  17. Great post!

    I take part in a blog tour now and again, but have learned to make sure through excerpts or whatever that at least punctuation and technical things aren’t too bad that I’m going to hate the book. I don’t believe in leaving a glowing review for a horrible book, no matter how popular or unpopular it is. If I don’t like a book or find errors in it, I mention it all the same as what I liked about it.

    I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts on writing reviews, and have come to the conclusion that as a reviewer, I have a greater responsibility to the readers who put their faith in me as a reviewer than to the authors or other authority figures who give their books to me free for review. If their book isn’t properly edited, I have the right as a reviewer to mention that in my review. If I don’t mention it, I have a feeling of guilt over deceiving the people who rely on me to give an honest review. Also, if I waste my time on a bad book, I feel guilty for leaving a good review that will make other people waste their time on it, too.

    There has been a time or two where I was unsure about posting my review(s). I asked other bloggers their opinions and found they were very helpful.

    When other writers email me about reviewing their work, I let them know how honest I can be in my reviews, provide a link to my book blog, and give them the opportunity to rescind their offer. I usually don’t “trade” reviews, as I feel that might be compromising. I offer my book for review on my website, and whoever wants to read it or is interested in doing so can contact me. No pressure that way.

    Again, great post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts/experience on the matter.

    • Thank you! I’m so glad you like my writing and your comment is wonderful.

      Someone told me yesterday that Amazon has begun taking down reviews on their site that are by authors. On one hand I can see why they would, but on the other, a lot of authors like to read books. Heck, I love to read books! If I didn’t why would I want to write one? If this is true it is like taking a hammer to a problem that needed a more delicate tool. Have you heard of this?

      Cheers!

      • I have heard about that. I think it tracks with them not wanting reviews from people who know the author. In both cases, they worry that there is whitewashing of flaws or jealousy-induced negativity. On the one hand, it’s unfair. I’m just not sure how to fix the issue of biased reviews on such a large scale – it would take significant employee time!

  18. It’s a weird area, reviewing other writers (Amazon will sometimes take down reviews from people who participate in Kindle publishing). I always worry that I’m going to touch on the one weakness that will absolutely SLAY the other writer to hear. I know how much it hurts to have someone think my work is drivel.

    Here’s the thing, though: bad reviews have not stopped me from writing. What they HAVE done is prompted me to take more care in certain aspects of books, and work hard on areas of weakness I didn’t know I had (although now they seem glaringly obvious). Authors really need that feedback!

    It’s a dilemma. I have no good rule of thumb here!

    • Bad reviews, like taking a class and having instruction, is necessary for improvement. I have taken part in different writing courses and programs that some would deem harsh, but I felt necessary. I’m a better writer for seeing my weaknesses clearly and having to learn to work with them or find ways to avoid them (Hence the lack of poetry in my fiction is one easy example).

      The whole exchange bit, and the paying for reviews is what really makes me nervous. Recently, the publisher for my book A Jane Austen Daydream had it as a free eBook. I had dozens (Dozens!) of writers write to me saying in so many words, “I downloaded your book, now download mine.” A few of these e-mails came from friends (I would guess the number at 8). When I didn’t know the person, I just didn’t respond, but when I did I wrote an e-mail.

      I would love for all of my books to get 5-stars, but everyone is different. That’s okay.

      I think we all just need to find our own moral code and that is a very touchy thing for me since I do reviews for my local NPR station. I will not review books by people I know, or if a person has reviewed one of my books in the past. I can’t let it look like there is an agreement there.

  19. How I hate when things like this happen. I have seen this myself. I’ve read books that my fellow writers have deemed spectacular and 5 stars. Why? Because they were also friends of the author. I don’t participate in that practice, and cannot even imagine giving a 4-5 star review to a 2-3 star book. I recently purchased a book to review. It got many 3 – 5 star ratings. People raving about it. It was so boring I thought I’d commit suicide. Needless to say, I never said I’d review it, no one knew I bought it… I just accepted the $3 loss and put it down. I’ll never read it. I don’t believe in gushing over something that terrible. What I do believe in is honest reviews and critiquing and explaining why I feel that way. And that’s what I would expect from anyone reviewing my books. I’ve only recently started posting reviews on my blog. And, to the dismay of many writers (in the future, I’m sure), I give honest critiques of the story, characters, and I usually only point out editing misses to an extent if they muck up the story. I’d never bash an author in public, but contact them privately with anything awful. Regardless, my reviews are also not a synopsis. It’s redundant. I mean, as a reader if I’m looking to reviewers, I’ve already read the description and just want thoughts on the book. My reviews are about 3-5 times longer than the average review because I try to be different in my reviews, and I do say what I would’ve liked to have seen in the book. I consider it a reader asking the writer to do better. I think that if someone asks me for a review, or sends out a fishing line for reviews, they need to be ready for honesty…or stop writing.

    • I share your reviewing philosophy Wanda. I review books I purchase, borrow from the library and get for free (either from the author directly or through free Amazon promotions). I approach each book the way I was taught to approach “literature” such as PRIDE & PREJUDICE or LOLITA–close reading of the text with an eye toward what works, what doesn’t work and why. This means that my reviews invariably include suggestions for how the book might have worked better–even if I gave it five stars. On the other hand, such close reading very often leads to my assigning a HIGHER number of stars than a more casual reader might have. I can appreciate what the author intended–even if he or she didn’t quite pull it off. I give marks for risk taking and originality. So a book with major flaws can still get four or five stars from me if the plot was ambitious or the characters especially well drawn. Someone else reading the same book might say, “What was she thinking giving this book four stars?” or “How could she give this book only three stars? It was fabulous!” In the end, it comes down to personal sensibility. Any review is merely opinion. My goal is to give as informed and useful an opinion as possible. Carrie

    • Thought you’d commit suicide? LOL. That is harsh.

      I studied for my MFA at USC and in those classrooms and writing tables we could be brutal. But I know I am a better writer since I was challenged to blow the others out if the water.

      I love your perspective on writing reviews.

  20. Pingback: The Troll Under the Bridge: How to Write a Good Bad Book Review | The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  21. The other funny thing is that these practices will make reviews less effective; if I don’t think it’s honest then it won’t impact my decision. So besides being wrong, it’s not even in the writers best interest.

    • This is one of two posts I’ve written about reviews. The other is the disturbing trend you see of aggressive negative reviews (trolls). It does make wonder if there should be a line of who or what circumstances there should be before a review.

      In the very least people should read the entire book. Not as easy a rule to follow as one might imagine.

      Thanks for reading and writing!

      • I can’t imagine reviewing something I haven’t read. I do sometimes take review requests but only do if it matches my interest and, whether it’s intended or not, do as a straight review. But it may be easier for me since it’s not related to my day job.

      • Oh, you see them on Amazon (heck, I have one on one of my books, but that guy was more a troll. I don’t think he read more than a few sentences if even that. He just wanted to be mean). Sometimes people even do reviews before a work comes out, saying how excited they are. It is really ridiculous.

  22. Pingback: Thoughts on Book Reviewing | The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

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