Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Reviews - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

For many years it was understood that reviews could make or break a theatre production, a movie, or a book. Broadway producers would chew their fingernails to nubs while waiting for the first critics to respond after opening night, as did film producers. Authors, editors and agents, would wait for those reviews from Publisher's Weekly, The New York Times, Kirkus, and other trade magazines to launch a book onto the best-seller list.
Today, the whole arena of reviews has been expanded. With the Internet and Amazon and other online retail bookstores, has come a whole wave of reader reviews, fan reviews, and author reviews that aren't always on the same professional level. They can range from something close to what I like to call a real review to gushing to snarky.

A real review gives a short synopsis of the story, then has comments as to what worked well in terms of the writing and what the reviewer enjoyed the most. If there are minor problems, those are pointed out without attacking the writer personally. Those are the kind of reviews I wrote professionally for newspapers and magazines many moons ago, and continue to write on my blog and elsewhere. Now it seems like anyone can call himself or herself a reviewer without having a clue what a review is supposed to be. We've all seen examples of those on the Barnes & Noble website, as well as the other booksellers' sites.

Throw into the mix author reviews and the topic gets more interesting. Should authors review each other's books? Should they only leave glowing reviews? Is it ever okay to leave a not-so-glowing review? Recently, those questions have been debated on several blogs and some writer's groups, and I first saw mention of this on Kristen Lamb's blog in her piece The Three Nevers of Social media

In that blog post she cautioned authors not to leave nasty comments on blogs, never be nasty on Twitter, and never write bad book reviews. She clarified, "This doesn’t apply to book bloggers and book reviewers. That’s your job and we love that you give us guidance on what to read. But, as authors? I believe in what Candace Havens calls Writer Karma. If I can’t give a book a five-star rave review, I just don’t review it. Again, publishing is a small world and we all need each other. The world is already out to throw us under a bus. We need each other to keep from turning into cutters."

Kristen followed that blog post with another titled Should Authors Write Bad Book Reviews? Actually, the answer is no, as reviewer Kevin Tipple pointed out in a Google+ comment, "No one should ever write a bad review. A bad review has typos and other issues. A negative review is something else entirely."

Reading Kristen's post, it was clear that she meant to ask whether writers should write negative reviews, and the comments on her blog really varied in responses. Some folks said they thought they should always give an honest evaluation no matter what. Others said that if they couldn't find anything good to say about a book they didn't review it.

Since I host authors on my blog It's Not All Gravy and post book reviews on Sundays, I get a lot of requests for reviews. While I do agree with Kristen that we need each other, I still cannot endorse a book that I don't consider well-written. That doesn't mean it can't have any problems. I've reviewed plenty that were not stellar, but I still found more positive than negative elements. I do not review a book if I cannot find enough positive about it to give it a three-star rating, which to me indicates good. Four stars are given to a book that is excellent, and a five-star rating is for “blew me out of my chair.” I rarely give five stars, and even my closest writer friends understand that I cannot give their book a glowing review just because I love them. It's all about the book. 

So what about you? Do you review the books you read? Do you give negative reviews?

Maryann Miller
is a novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent release is Boxes For Beds, an historical mystery available as an e-book. Stalking Season is the second book in the Seasons Mystery Series. The first book, Open Season, is available as an e-book for all devices. To check out her editing rates visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. She welcomes reviews of her books; the good, the bad, and the ugly, although she prefers the good.


  1. This is a tricky situation, Maryann. As writers, we sort of belong to an undeclared sisterhood (or brotherhood or authorhood). For this reason alone, we should probably avoid entering the review arena. Human nature being what it is, we might find that our painfully honest review of a fellow writer's book — even tactfully expressed — might be returned in kind, justified or not. The reverse could also be true: unearned kudos poured out on a mediocre or worse novel might earn us a great but undeserved review of our own book that doesn't measure up to industry standards. This calls the entire writer review process into question and makes peer reviews virtually useless. My best suggestion: leave reviews to the professionals and encourage fellow writers to continue honing their craft.

  2. About a year ago I came across a reviewer's comments that he only reviewed the books he liked. Ever since reading that I only review books, music, movies, and products that I like.
    It's hard after investing hours and/or $ in buying the books, music, movies, or products not to get a return on my investment by getting to pontificate with my opinion but after reading hundreds of reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere the old saying rings true: "One person's trash is another person's treasure."

  3. I rarely give reviews, because I think it opens too many cans of worms as an author, and it's too hard for me to turn off my internal editor when I'm reading. It bothers me that people only review books if they can give them 4 or 5 stars, because in my (pre-coffee) mind, that means "bad" books are either not getting reviews, or the reviews are skewed to the positive. However, I don't consider most of what the readers post on B&N or Amazon or Goodreads to be actual 'reviews.' Too many people use them to be snarky or feel superior.
    For the most part, I leave my "reviews" to my discussions of books at Book Club (where "one person's trash is another person's treasure" is made obvious every month.)

  4. I do review books, in print and online, but not all that often. I believe in the old-fashioned dictum of public praise, private criticism. If I have reason to believe an author is open to critical input, I might send private feedback.

    Negative reviews of the work of fellow authors can be dangerous, as it can these days too easily escalate into cyber-warfare.

    If I get a request to review a book and find it just plain bad, I'll either let the issue die of neglect or wait to be queried and say something like, "Sorry, just couldn't finish it, not to my taste."

  5. Good points about backing off the whole idea of doing reviews. We do have to be so careful in our professional relationships. I guess I am more prone to doing reviews because I did them for so many years professionally.

    I agree, Terry, about what is posted on the online retail sites. Most are not reviews. I wish we could separate those and call them endorsements. I cringe when I read some of them - the positive and the negative ones - as they do nothing to help a potential reader decide if he or she will like a book.

    Anonymous, I only review books that I like, but I base that on whether the story was well done, not subject matter.

  6. I've been asked to review books too. I say no because, as is so often pointed out to me, I'm not good at holding back. I'll stick to odd author interviews and call that "doing my part".

  7. I do some reviews, but usually only for authors I have not read before, or if the book is something I liked a lot.

    I rarely give anything more than 3 stars.

    Most of my reviews are short, but if they are a little longer, I try not to have any spoilers.

    I would rather have other readers form their own opinion.

    My reviews just give them some idea what they are getting into before purchasing.

  8. I don't give reviews because I'm such a slooooooowwww reader that by the time I finish a book the author is either:
    a) no longer writing (read: moved on to a more profitable endeavor), or
    b) so famous that it doesn't matter what I think, or
    c) dead

  9. Everyone has left such good points here. And this is such a tough call. I received a review in the local paper once that was merely a hatchet job--not, as Maryann said, about what worked, etc., but a tearing apart of the person involved (this was a biography). And from the book-page editor, who was himself an author and should have known better. This was twenty years ago, and obviously still sticks in my craw!
    On the other hand, I was recently asked to rate a book on Goodreads, from a small press I love. The book has received such acclaim, and I WANTED to love it. I didn't. And wished I hadn't committed to rating it. Lesson learned!
    Thanks, Maryann--great post!

  10. I actually don't like writing reviews, but will put something short up on Amazon or Goodreads for books I like. On my blog I prefer having the author do a guest post or an interview.

  11. Maryann this is such an important topic and a constant source of turmoil for me! I have to balance so much:
    1) that I was a dance critic for two decades, so I have a very strong sense of what a critical review should entail
    2) for this reason I would rather leave reviewing to professionals
    3) I am constantly pressured by peer authors to help them create buzz, and I do want to be a responsible member of my writing community
    4) I only want to write good reviews to "make nice," but also realize that this makes it look like I am not at all discerning when it comes to my reading, which couldn't be further from the truth
    5) I have many ethical concerns about authors reviewing one another
    6) I am about to toss my debut novel into the fray.

    HELP!! My concerns are the same as yours but I fear there are no solid answers. Are we to take comfort that we all suffer in the same way?

    Of course many famous authors throughout history were also literary critics, among them Margaret Atwood, Ralph Ellison, and Vladimir Nabokov. But if they had only written fluff, their names would not be remembered for their contributions.

    This tough issue is of such importance in a publishing climate in which discoverability is so difficult and I wish a sharper mind than mine would figure it out and tell me what to do!

  12. This is a major issue, one I've grappled with. In my blogs, I often talk about books and interview authors. I get so many review requests and have to be choosy about my time, so what I do is write about the ones that are worthy or spectacular or might be missed in the cacophony of social media, or that I can use to make certain points that are important to me. I read way more books than I choose to write about. I do say negative things where I believe that's accurate, and if the author is already famous and I don't like his work, I may say so to make a particular point.

    As my own first novel is just about to come out (KYLIE'S HEEL), I know how an author feels. I try to be nice without in any way lying or misleading my readers.

  13. I rarely review books. On Goodreads, I usually just star-rate them, if I do anything at all. I will review a book only if it blew me away and I want others to share that experience. I also try very hard to review as a reader, not a writer.

    Kristen Lamb followed up with another blog called Is It FAIR for Authors to Review Other Authors? Do We Ruin the Magic? (link below), in which she brings up the point that a review is not a critique, and when reviewing, we need to remember that--authors are so used to critiquing! So I approach any review I do as a reader, and talk about the reading experience rather than the nuts and bolts.

  14. Kerry, thanks for posting the link to the last of Kristen's blogs on the topic of reviews. I did read that one, too, and just forgot to link to it.

    Kathryn, if anybody comes up with a solution to the dilemma of how to be supportive of each other, yet not just become a mutual admiration society, I will want to know right away. I have made so many friends online, but I struggle with many of the points you made. I'm not comfortable with exchanging reviews, but it really does get hard to refuse and appear non-supportive.

    The few times I have accepted a book from someone I know well, I did it with the caveat that I would not review it if I did not like it, and told them I would forget we are friends and treat it like any other submission made to me - the professional reviewer - not their good friend. So far that has worked out well.

    So I will say here that I am open to review and guest blog requests. That goes for you and for anyone else with a new book coming out.

  15. Larry, you made a good point about the cyber-warfare, which to me just smacks of unprofessional behavior on both sides.

  16. Susan, I, too, have been in that position of wanting to love a book, but just couldn't. I think Larry's suggestion to just send a short note explaining why you couldn't rate the book would have worked.

  17. This certainly has been a good discussion. I appreciate everyone who stopped by and added to it.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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