It was a lot easier, though, when we were all pre-published. At that phase of the game, we were exchanging critiques, delivering the hard truth to one another on our manuscripts, because we all wanted to see these embryonic books grow to maturity and find homes in the publishing world. We could say what needed to be said back then, because we could all see the goal--we all needed iron to sharpen iron so our work would be as honed as we could possibly get it before it went out a-courtin'.
I'm finding myself in a new, much more difficult spot, now that I'm reading published books, written by friends, whose manuscripts I never saw during the iron-sharpening-iron phase. For those of you who have known me for a while, you probably recall that I have gone on the occasional rant about things like the quality of cover art and of editing, and how we as artists should react when we see something less-than-glorious out there for sale. Within the Christian bubble, I think we do too much back patting and cheering when we really should be speaking constructive truth. (Now, to be fair, know that I am stingy when it comes to accolades. I was a nightmarish grader when I taught, that teacher who some students railed at: “What do I have to do to get an A?” I reserve the fifth star for work I feel I could find nothing significant to change and lost myself within during the reading.)
A problem arises for me when it comes to reviews of my contemporaries' books. I want honest reviews of my work. I want to give honest reviews. But at the same time, I don't want to make public statements about my friends' work that will hurt them, either personally or from a marketing standpoint.
So what's an author to do when she reads a book she feels has significant weaknesses that it is too late to address because the book is out there on the virtual bookshelves, in a print-on-demand company's files, and being read across the continent (or even globe?) Is this a time to put up that candid review that might deter another reader from trying the book? Would I, as an author, want to stand at a table at a convention and have a friend of mine standing in front of me, shaking her head and telling customers who come to peruse my work, "This book has problems. I'm just being honest?"
The question of honest reviews becomes much murkier because of this marketing aspect of things. I'm beginning to re-evaluate my hard line stance of saying we all need to post exactly how we feel about current books on the market. Yes, if an author friend asks for my opinion of his work and my opinion is negative, it seems to me I need to be big enough to write that author or give him a call and be truthful. However, it also occurs to me that the "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all (on Amazon)" rule might need to apply to reviews between friends.
One thing I would never endorse is writing a review that rates the book higher than I think it really deserves. I patently refuse to post lies.
If our books get widely-read enough, there will be plenty of objective sources to blast us. So for the time being, here's my stance: If you are my friend and you want me to read and react to your book, I'm happy to do so. However, if I don't love it, and if the star rating in my mind dips below a four, I have a feeling I won't be posting any reviews--for the reason of not wanting to be that ball-and-chain on your marketing efforts. I will happily give you an explanation (likely a multi-page explanation at that) of why the book slipped below the level where I am comfortable publicly expressing my opinion. If you want it.
But as for me, I want to be in the business of contributing to my friends' success while still having integrity. Publicly tearing my friends down doesn't seem to fit that model.