To Review or Not to Review

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was at a presentation recently on ways authors can use social media and the dreaded issue of ‘reviews’ came up – with the presenter advising many would-be authors that a great way to engage future readers is to use social media to review other people’s books that occupy the same ‘space’ as your own. 

Fair enough…perfectly reasonable…why not…except I always feel a panic attack coming on when it comes to the whole issue of reviews. Perhaps it’s my English heritage but I’m very, very wary of offering any kind of on-line commentary on books that have been published that are of a similar genre to mine (and even those that are not) because:

  • What if I hate the book but I’ve met the author and he/she seem very nice…
  • What if I think the book was so-so but it’s a major bestseller and so my opinion might look like nothing more than sour grapes…
  • What if I love the book but my review seems like little more than vanity or pandering…
  • What if an on-line opinion starts a flame-war? 

Now in person I am more than happy to air my opinion on almost any topic:) My concern is always that once out there on the internet (via social media, blog posts or other review forums) it’s out there forever and it has an unlimited potential to come back and bite me. 

Of course, good reviews are rarely the problem, but I think your credibility gets called into question if the only reviews you ever write are of the gushing, over the top ‘I love it!!!!!’ variety. If I’m going to present my opinion on-line I want it to be authentic, informative and interesting…which isn’t going to happen if I only report on the books I totally loved. 

So I’m wondering what other writers do when they approach the issue of reviews in the online world. Do you:

  • Only review books you love?
  • Be honest, and just put your opinion out there? or
  • Avoiding reviews all together? 

I’m not sure how many TKZers post reviews on sites like Goodreads or Amazon (again I’m pretty reluctant to do either) or whether you express your opinions on social media like Google+, Facebook etc. On the one hand I think writing reviews can establish an authors credibility in terms of knowing their genre and being enthusiastic and involved in the writing world. On the other hand  I think reviewing other people’s work can open up a whole can of worms (especially if it’s not a glowing endorsement) and so I still hesitate…

So what do you do when it comes to reviews?

33 thoughts on “To Review or Not to Review

  1. The first question you have to ask yourself is, who is the review for? The author or your readers?

    I review books on our website, talklikeapirate.com, but only narrowly focused. It’s gotta be about pirates. Children, adults, picture books, fiction or non fiction. Gotta be pirates. That’s my niche.

    And I only review books I like. I know how hard it is, and how scary, to put yourself out there for any schmuck to tear down. I respect the process, even when I can’t stand the result. So before authors send me review copies I always tell them that if I like it, I’ll let the world know – or my little corner of the world, anyway. But if I don’t, they’ll never hear about it. Life’s too short to be an asshole.

    You’d think that would be pretty simple, but sometimes authors have asked repeatedly and with growing annoyance (as if it were my fault he’d written a bad book) why I wasn’t going to review their work. Once I finally gave in and told a guy. He didn’t seem any happier. Probably shouldn’t have asked.

    I since have instituted a rule that I simply won’t reply when they start bugging me. It’s my job to tell my readers about books I think they’ll enjoy. That’s all.

  2. I stopped reviews years ago. I reviewed only books I loved that made me forget I was an author. But because I’m an author, other people would comment and accuse me of favoritism (my polite way of putting the usual comments).

    Like Pirate-loving John, I wanted any reader to follow my reviews and find my version of real gems PLUS I could be positive about the books I posted, thereby making a recommended reading list. But as I met some very lovely authors (wonderful human beings), who knew I did reviews, they started noticing that I hadn’t reviewed their book (after they’d given me a gift of their work). I was afraid I was hurting feelings and my public reviews stopped.

    I still keep a private list of recommended reading and hand it out when I do speaking engagements, but public posting of my opinion stopped.

  3. I reviewed for Tony Burton at Thegenreview.com for a couple of years, until Tony called it quits, due, I think, to a lack of enthusiasm from his reviewers. I enjoyed it for one big reason. You can learn a lot from novice writers.

    Usually, there was always some nugget of the books I read that was good. Good characters or setting, or premise, so I’d start with that and then point out what I thought were the weaknesses in the book. I never received any death threats but it wasn’t my personal blog so probably felt safer to speak my mind.

    I think John the pirate is doing it the best way. Review what you enjoy, ignore the rest.

  4. Clare, for many years I reviewed fiction for a number of Florida newspapers. It was fun, and I made some bucks. But I would never consider it today. Reviewing a fellow writer’s work is a slippery slope. Better to let book reviewers do the job of praising or punishing.

  5. I met a young author online a couple years ago. I guess they read a few of my reviews and asked if I’d give a review of his novel if he sent me a signed copy. Of course, I agreed.

    Once I received the book and read the first two pages, I was horrified I’d agreed to review the book, as I wasn’t able to continue reading it.

    I wrote the author and apologized to commit before knowing the genre, which seemed to be some sci fi fantasy/action. I explained that I was not a fan for blow by blow action and would be happy to pass the book along to my sister, who happened to read those types of books.

    I felt horrible. I am now very hesitant about committing to reviewing a book before I’ve even read it. Instead, if I read a book I enjoyed, I’ll give a review.

  6. I used to do a lot of reviews for a web site, but now only a few a year, for auhtors the editor is pretty sure I’ll like.

    I do post reviews to Amazon and to my blog (though not lately; busy), but only of books I can recommend with a clear conscience. I used to have the hang up Claire mentioned–losing credibility because it appeared as if I Liked everything–but got over it. I don;t think of them as reviews; I think of them as recommendations. “This is a book I liked, and you may, too.

    Now, if I were reviewing for a site or publication, that would, of course, be different. I consider the posts I make to be the Internet equivalent of word of mouth.

    The exception would be if i felt a book had been misrepresented, especially in the non-ficiton realm. That I would point out.

    • Perhaps I should just think of it as making recommendations rather than reviews…I like that. I think also I’m okay with reviewing non-fiction books I use in my research. Seems safer than fiction!

  7. One of my stories was reviewed on another site. I felt like the reviewer was applying all the cliches learned at the Wednesday night writer’s group. It wasn’t helpful.

    I’ve only reviewed a few books and commented on this site. I don’t enjoy the full reviews, but I do like commenting here because the other comments are an opportunity for me to learn. I’ve decided to return to reviewing after I have my tenth NYT best seller. I’m still working on number one.

  8. I have those exact same fears! Building a brand means I can’t just give my opinion willy nilly like I used to, I have to think about what my name is attached to. Now I only review books that I found on my own and loved, and I try to politely turn down review requests due to time constraints (which is true). But I do still get the occasional author hounding me to check out their book. I still haven’t figured out a nice way to say “I read it and didn’t like it” rather than say I haven’t had time to read it yet.

    • I was asked to review a book several years ago I thought was terrible. Possibly the worst book I’ve ever read. I found nothing good to say about it, told that to the editor, explained why, and she said never mind, they wouldn’t likely run the review, anyway, given how it was going to go, and thanked me for my time.

      F couple of weeks later I heard from the publisher, asking when my review would be posted so she could pull quotes for the web site. I politely told her the review was not flattering, and I doubted there would be anything she could use. She wrote me a nice note, very understanding, and we left it at that.

      Given some of the horror stories I have heard, I suspect I got off easy.

    • It sounds like it, since you got to go through the publisher and editor instead of talking to the author directly about his/her “baby”. Most of my author friends are Indie, so less of a cushion there. 🙂

    • I think it’s hard to build a brand and have credibility without expressing an opinion but I also want to be honest if I review something. I think you were lucky Dana as you didn’t have to deal directly with the author:)

  9. I am an author, and I write occasional reviews for readers. Therefore, I only review books I personally enjoy and think others will enjoy, as well. Consequently, all of my reviews are positive ones. Because I don’t advertise that I do reviews, people don’t ask me to review their books, so I’ve never been in the position of committing to a review and then regretting it because I couldn’t give a glowing one. I also don’t review books on Amazon or Goodreads, just on my own site.

    If a publisher or fellow author sent me a book and asked me to review it, my response would be, “I’ll read it if I find it interesting (in my own good time, as I’m busy and have a TBR pile that’s daunting) and then decide if I can write a review that will help readers see what I thought was valuable about the book. If I can’t, I’ll happily return your book so you can find a reviewer who will.”

    I’m not out to destroy anyone’s career. A poorly written book will do that on its own. However, when I find a book that has value, I do want to share that with readers and hope that, in the process, it will encourage the author to keep writing good books, whether or not that author is my “competition.” After all, even I wouldn’t want to read just my own books. Why would my readers want that? They have to read something in between my books, right? 🙂

  10. I have whole heartedly embraced the idea of doing reviews, but I think the key here is “whole-heartedly.” My website ScienceThrillers.com is much more than a fish hook trolling for potential readers (since I only have one book out so far anyway, there’s not much point).

    I’m genuinely interested in promoting this sub-genre (science and medical-themed thriller fiction) and I have a not-so-secret agenda that these kinds of books, if done right, can promote scientific literacy in the general public.

    Book reviews are the foundation of the site, but I also blog about science and the arts in general, and science education, and related topics. My goal is to bring attention to the genre and build community among authors and readers.

    Having said that, I have had to grapple with the issues raised in this post. Years ago I posted a negative review of a book that I deeply disliked. Then I met the author, felt guilty and promptly deleted the review from my archive. I generally do not post negative reviews any more–bad books get no mention. I do, however, give lukewarm reviews when deserved.

    In my reviews I also make distinctions between indie and trad pub books (I have a whole post about why on the site).

    I would say that authors who occasionally or casually post book reviews should do so with caution, but doing a lot of reviews in a professional way is rewarding (and a ton of work.)

    • Amy, good point as I don’t intend to be a professional reviewer but I would like to promote historical fiction so I have to figure out how I really want to handle the review issue. My fear is even with a lukewarm review some authors are so quick to get huffy and ‘call you out’ online that there’s no escaping the potential for anger and possible abuse…

  11. I only write and post reviews of books that knock my socks off. This includes thrillers, mysteries and crime stories. Sometimes I’ll write one for a non-fiction book. Horse Soldiers knocked my socks off. I’ve been doing this because I think someone else might benefit or enjoy the book. Sometimes, authors respond and we get to chat. I’ve only done this on GoodReads and Amazon. I have never been attacked because of a review. I do know others who have waded into that tit-for-tat swamp and are sorry for doing so.

    My reviews are mostly short. I don’t try and explain the book or discuss highlights. My reviews probably sound like I’m just tooting a horn and pandering. Oh, well… I reaaaly like James Bruno’s stories. Some folks write exhaustive reviews. I usually don’t read all that yadda-yadda. I like the elevator-pitch version.

    I mostly never (!) write a bad review—except for Gone Girl. I couldn’t help myself. And the book already had stellar sales, so eh… I am about to publish any-any-any day now. After that, I’ll be more circumspect with my reviews.
    Cheers! Y’all.

  12. Clare–
    Everything you say makes sense: a novelist reviewing other novelists’ books stands a good chance of stepping on a land mine.
    But there’s another consideration: time. To write an honest review, you have to read the book. This means you aren’t reading something else, and not writing. Even in terms of friends who aren’t writers, I am very reluctant to ask for a review, for this same reason. If I do, I’m asking for what’s most valuable, their time. And you can’t go to that well very often. Not if you want to keep your friends.

    • Great point – I’ve little enough time as is and if I’m reading I tend to read for research or if I’m lucky for pleasure…otherwise it’s my own stuff! And it’s also important to do a book justice by reading it fully and carefully.

  13. I review most of the books I read and post my reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. However, the lowest I’ll go with a rating is a 3, and that’s rare for me. If I really don’t like the book, I will not post. It’s harder when the story belongs to a writing friend, but then I focus on the good aspects of the work and omit mention of any negatives. Maybe that’s biased but I give an inkling of what the book is about and something of my opinion.

    • Nancy – I do think it’s almost impossible to review a book written by a friend unless it’s a glowing recommendation (which is then really more of a blurb than a review). It’s also tricky when so many author friends are asking for reviews on Amazon or Goodreads (sometimes to offset a negative review…that’s a minefield I don’t want to enter!)

  14. Sorry, for chiming in late – I had difficulty adding comments from my iPhone today and I was out and about with school stuff for my boys. I’m getting the feel that the consensus is probably don’t do reviews, but if you are going to review books stick to the ones you love and make it more of a recommendation than a review.
    I can live with that!

  15. I seldom review a book unless I truly love it. I’ve been in the uncomfortable position of telling an acquaintance I’d review their book, only to find it really, really, really hard to get through. I have to see this person often, and really didn’t want to make an enemy.I gave them a three, and left a rather non-committal review to the effect of “If this is the kind of book you like, then you will really like this book.”

    After that I swore I’d never review something I didn’t like a lot unless it was so bad that to say something snarky and/or sarcastic would be of significant entertainment value.

    I will sometimes if I run across a particularly bad narration or book mention it without details on FB.

    That being said, some of my own stuff has probably had the same effect on some readers myself, so I truly understand it from both sides.

    • Basil, I never forget that my books have no doubted grated on somebody’s teeth:) It’s really tough though I think once you start giving reviews as those who you’ve left out probably immediately think you hated their book…

  16. I review children’s books (as well as interviewing authors and illustrators) for Examiner.com. I tend to choose books that I like for review when I have the option, because parents and kids who read my posts are looking for great books. Although my opinion is subjective and all tastes are not the same, I do my best to point them in the direction of something I think they’ll like as well. In any review, I don’t gush, but I do give a short synopsis (without the ending) and am specific about what the book’s strengths or weaknesses are. I also give parent alerts if I think the language or scenarios might bother some children so the parents can pre-read books before recommending them to their children.

    The only books I’ve found that would receive a poor review are by self-published authors. In cases when an author has asked me for the review, I let the author know in advance what I’m going to say about her book and ask her if she would like me to run the review or not. I feel like that’s fair. Writing is hard work, and my opinion is subjective in some respects. I try to limit what qualifies a book as poor in my opinion to an abundance of errors, a drifting plot line, undeveloped characters, etc.

    If the author wants me to go forward with a review, I’m careful to be honest about the good and bad, and try to be gentle rather than vehement in my tone, always keeping in mind that I’m dealing with my own opinion. I’ve never had an author ask me not to post the review.

    • Beth – that’s an interesting approach. I still worry that even if the author ‘accepts’ what your review is going to be he/she might still get all upset online or gather a posse to bombard you with comments to show how wrong you’re opinion is! It seems like at the moment many authors have very thin skins that way!

  17. I am not published yet, I’m working on my first novel. I do write a review blog for debut authors and information for aspiring authors. I don’t think a review blog would be worth reading if all the reviewers were either gushing or scathing. I believe that critiques are for authors, reviews are for readers. I hope to have many of them, so they must count on me to be credible and reliable. They don’t have to agree with me, but it is important to me that they believe I am giving them my honest recommendation for or against the book. I will always be honest and the only consideration I ever ask for is a digital copy of the book, if anything. I have paid full price or taken advantage of the free download promotions too. Until today, I had never given lower than a 3 star review. I thought if it was worse than that, I wouldn’t be able to finish it. It is my policy that I won’t review a book unless I’ve read the book from cover to cover. I don’t think that I can give a fair assessment without doing so. It was always my contention that if it was that bad, I would contact the author and tell them that I couldn’t finish it so I wouldn’t review it. I’ve only done this once. Today’s post, I had read the book in its entirety and I couldn’t recommend it. It committed the two worst sins: it lacked sympathy for one of the main characters and it had a contrived slapped together ending. It was my first 2 star review. It was disappointing because the premise was a good one and the era interesting to me. I couldn’t recommend it though. I don’t deny feeling guilty and feeling bad for the author, but I am a reviewer not a promoter. I love to promote the books and authors, but not at the expense of losing credibility of my possible future readers.

  18. I seem to recall a kerfuffle a while back when Amazon banned authors from reviewing books in their own genre. Is that still true, do we know? I wouldn’t want to write reviews, in any case, but I’m wondering if there are still any restrictions on authors and reviews.

  19. I haven’t heard that it had been changed, so as far as I know, that is still the case. I hope they change it back, although I do understand why it was implemented. It was due to the sock puppetry that was discovered. I like to think that was a rare case. It is sad to think that an author would intentionally hurt another to bolster themselves.

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