Saturday, June 2, 2012

Reviews for Friends

We writers, especially Christian writers, are a small, tight-knit group.  That group gets even smaller and tighter when you narrow it to Christian Speculative Fiction writers. I am deeply grateful for the good friends I have made, if only virtually, in this writing journey I am on.

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.


8 comments:

  1. Yeah...this is a tough spot to be. Thanks for sharing. I'm not there yet, but I've started thinking about the "Amazon" reviews I've given, want to give, etc about books I've read from a reader's POV, because I LOVE books, but as a writer, if/when I pass from pre-published to published,how does that reflect on my career? So...I have to agree with you.

    This topic goes along with the "like" on FB. Should I or shouldn't I "like" something whether or not I really do or not, but just to "help" a friend out? I don't know. I think that's why I'm not asking everyone to "like" my page. I want people to like my work, because they want to, not because they feel obligated to... Honesty is a hard pill to swallow, but we'll be better off for it as long as that pill is "coated" in love it will be easier going down. :)

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  2. This is why I ignore any reviews that seem to be written by someone who knows the author. They can't be trusted.

    It also doesn't make it any easier when authors solicit only positive/five-star reviews, rather than honest ones.

    Books that have only glowing reviews raise red flags with me. Even the most popular or best loved books have one star reviews. Not everyone is going to like what someone writes. Authors should expect this with their own books. It's just part of the business of writing.

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    1. Very true--if you look at the reviews of books regarded as literary classics (For my genre, Lord of the Rings and Narnia) even those have 1 star reviews. I personally think, if a book has all positive reviews, it points to a limited realm of readership. I know that's the case with my own work.

      No writer will ever please all readers. To hope to do so is ludicrous, and I think you are wise to see a lack of diversity in opinions as a red flag.

      Thanks for stopping in and contributing your thoughts!

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  3. Authors forget something about reviews. They're from one reader to another. It has nothing to do with the author anymore. It's one shopper telling another shopper, "Hey, this is a great product" or "oops, that book has a few problems". I've read several 2 and 3 star reviews that made me snort and say, "That's the worst they can say? It must be a darn good book!"

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    1. That touches on another interesting point--the star rating system is pretty ridiculous at times. What 3 stars means varies widely from reviewer to reviewer. Some people (like me) will give 3 stars to something that I thought had merits, but fell down in enough places to keep me from loving it. For other people, three stars is equivalent to percentage--60% or low "D" quality work.

      And I think we as authors tend to look at 3 stars as worse than reviewers intend. I really wish Amazon would institute half-stars. I would use that constantly.

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  4. Those are my thoughts exactly. I've often wondered the exact same things before, and I've decided, "You know, if I don't like it, I won't say anything." But if it's someone I don't know personally, I'm perfectly fine with being objective, honest, straight-to-the-point, and semi-ranting :D
    But, yeah, one of the things that annoys me to no end is the reviews on Amazon, obviously from friends and family, raving about how good the book is. Whether it's good or not, friends and family are rarely objective enough to see through their enthusiasm ;)

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  5. Honestly, I'm getting to the point where what I want is *quantity*. To heck with worrying about having all 4- and 5-star reviews. As several have said here, having only rave reviews takes away some of the merit. And even the biggest best-sellers have 1-stars. On Amazon, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has *86* 1-star reviews right now. I'd be jumping up and down at having 86 reviews, period! :P

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    1. No kidding. For some of us, It's hard enough just to break double digits on the number of reviews. And you're right--anything that is widely read will encounter a breadth of opinions. And on the flip side, plenty of really bad writing gets five-star reviews. I do wonder how the rubric breaks down--whether quantity of reviews generates visibility better than fewer high-star ratings.

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