Monday, February 16, 2015

Query Question: Can reviewing books hurt my chances with an agent

One issue that keeps me up at night—aside from school, plot holes, and oh-my-god-did-my-skirt-go-with-my-top-today—is whether being a Goodreads reviewer will affect my chances of being picked up by an agent. I NEVER bash an author in negative reviews, but I do have never-reading shelves for writers that I perceive to be rude to reviewers/bloggers (e.g. Kathleen Hale). What if an agent comes across a negative review of her client's book and decides not to rep me? Should I stop reviewing altogether?

well, no, but you're right to be thinking about this. 
I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating: trash one of my client's books and we're done.

Now by "trash" I do NOT mean a well-thought out, well-written review that points out plot holes, or unbelievable characters, or lack of tension.  Those are legitimate things to criticize about a book. I may not agree with your opinion, but I'm not going to add you to my fecal roster for writing them.

Where the line gets murky is exactly what you mentioned: never-reading shelves. Or "Authors I don't like" shelves. Or "Rude authors" shelves. Or "Authors who have spouses who should just shut the hell up" shelves.

Here  you're not talking about the book. You're talking about your perceptions of an author's behaviour. You'll want to be VERY careful about that because as we all know from the Justine Sacco Twitter fiasco, things get taken out of context, or someone doesn't pick up on irony, things go viral, and soon bear no resemblance to reality. You don't want to be on the wrong side of that. 

I think writing about books is an excellent way to hone your writing skills and get practice in how to talk about books. Stay on the right side of the professional line, avoid temptation to label any author with "will never read" and you'll be fine.

If you want to see what a good review that has some well-made points about one of my clients, here's our very own Colin Smith writing about Crashers by Dana Haynes. Colin is not a client, but he's a regular blog reader. Sadly, he was banished to The Great Pit of Carkoon last week, but I think he was rescued and returned.  He was NOT banished for this review.


LynnRodz said...

For what it's worth, wanting to get published and having negative lists about authors is like sitting on a cactus, it can only hurt you in the end.

I like writing book reviews on my blog and I usually write about books I love. Books I hate don't interest me enough to take the time to write about them. Only twice have I written about so-so books that I thought weren't up to all the hype. I pointed out the negatives in both those books, but I also found positive things to say about them as well.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Because I write so much I am jealous of folks who have time to read. I hit the pages at night just before I go to bed and it takes me so long to finish a book that by the time I'm done I don't remember if I liked it or not.
The last book I raced through was Walker's THE AGE OF MIRACLES. I've a few since, but that one I will remember for a lifetime.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Challenge of the morning, guess where to insert omitted word "read".

Duh !

Anonymous said...

I am only awake because Gage the Wonder dog, meaning I wonder why the hell he thinks he needs to wake me up this early when he didn't even go pee, barked until I finally got up.

I'm pretty careful with reviews and even solicited comments. A few years back a woman who self pubs asked for comments about a scene she was writing. In it her virginal, beautiful and, of course, naked, MC escaped the clutches of Dastardly Lord Lewd. Oh, no. however will she escape?! Oh, yes! There's a raging black stallion (TM) no one has ever been able to tame in the stables. She'll take him. She dashes to through the chilling rain (with the obvious physical reactions) slaps a bridle on raging black stallion (TM) and races through the cobblestone streets with titian locks flying behind her. She'll escape because raging black stallion (TM) is the fastest horse in the world.

I commented that if no one had ever been able to ride raging black stallion (TM) just because she's a beautiful, naked, virgin he's not going to let her ride him either. I have a bit of experience with this. I rode bareback broncs for three years and trust me, they'd plant my head in the ground just as quickly as they would a man's naked or not, though I never actually tired it naked.

Well, famous-in-her-own-mind-self-pubbed writer ranted and raved about me on her blog. She encouraged her loyal fan base to go to my blog and harass me at every opportunity. I was constantly. Some of them evidently were tech gurus and I started getting hit with viruses and spam crap. This went on for months. I finally closed my blog to comments and then eventually set up a new one.

I learned my lesson. When someone asks for comments, usually they just want #throngsofadoringfans

I'm very careful what I review. I reviewed some of Jo Bourne's stuff recently because she and a group of other historical romance authors had been hit with a wave of negative review spams, I love her writing and she's a friend. Goodreads finally deleted the bogus accounts and negative reviews, but it took her getting her publisher involved. Seriously Joethebookreader? You read 40 books in one day and hated 30 of them??

Jo is a master of dialogue, by the way. If you want to study how to do good dialogue, she's it. She's also a hoot to be around. One of my favorite memories is a writing retreat with her at Myrtle Beach, sitting on a couch, notebook in hand tapping her chin with a pencil. "Hmmm, I just put my mc in a whore house and I'm trying to figure out how to torture her." There was a pause. "I wonder why I never get invited to dinner parties with polite dinner conversation."

I cracked up.

Anyway. The only bad review I've ever left was for the woman who wrote an editorial piece about why J.K. Rowling should not be allowed to ever write again. The theory is, her books don't sell well because J.K. writes new books and people flock to buy her's instead of the professor's and J.K. has enough money. She also admitted she had never read J.K.'s books, but thought they were terrible. How dare a writer do that.

I read enough of the free sample to offer my opinion of the real reason why people didn't buy her book.

Far Rider was originally entitled something else. Then someone self-pubbed a space porn by that name. The space knight was 7' tall and wore invisible armor. In one scene, (this was also the cover shot) she was sitting on his lap facing him and there was a line about it being out of sight. I thought, "Well, I hope so, if he's doing it right."

I didn't comment, though I really wanted to. I just changed the name of my book lest people think I was writing space porn.

If I read something I don't like, I just don't comment normally. I don't want to poison the pool. There are plenty of others who will point out the plot holes real and imagined without me piling on.

Anonymous said...

Ignore typos, I haven't had coffee yet.

...and I'm amazed I can get the captcha right in three tries.

Unknown said...

So, WOW. Timely. I've been mulling this over (for weeks, months?) Do you review as a Reader (taste) or a Writer? (technique). Or both? Knowing that an Agent or Publisher might see a negative review do you sidestep it altogether? As a writer, I could never "Trash"a fellow tribe member but there are books that seem strangely over- rated.

The takeaway for me was,"Stay on the right side of the professional line."

Works for life too.

Susan Bonifant said...

Colin's late again.

And Julie, you are some storyteller. Truly.

Colin Smith said...

*shuffles feet and looks red-faced*
Thanks for the shout-out, Janet. I'm truly humbled and grateful that both you and Dana appreciated my review.

Since Janet used my review as an example, perhaps I should share some thoughts? OK, you know me--I'd share my thoughts anyway! :)

I don't consider myself a book reviewer. I don't do in-depth character analysis, or literary analysis. I don't have an MFA or any such qualifications. But I read books, and I know what I like and what I don't like. So I try to look at the review from two angles: Why do I think you should read this book? and If I was thinking about reading this book, what would I want to know?

Because I'm not a professional book reviewer, I tend to post reviews on my blog for books I think you should read. Up until recently, I posted reviews of every book I read on Goodreads. Thankfully much of my reading lately has been books recommended to me, so I haven't come across many I didn't like. Even for those, I tried to be balanced and fair. After all, I want to give people an idea of what the book's about and who it might appeal to. If I post a review to my blog, it's because I think you should read the book and I want to shout about it. I just finished an ARC of Renee Ahdieh's debut THE WRATH & THE DAWN, and it was breathtaking. I'll be posting a review soon. (If you haven't read this, Janet, ply Barbara Poelle with Polish vodka and steal a copy from her.) If I don't like a book, I'll tell you if you ask, but I don't see the point of ripping it to shreds on my blog. Who does that serve? Like I said, I'm not a professional book reviewer, so who cares that I didn't like a book? It's not like I'm Roger Ebert giving a thumbs down to a movie.

Hopefully that helps our writer-reviewer friend?

2Ns: I think I may have mentioned before (perhaps it was on your blog or Donna's?) that I loved THE AGE OF MIRACLES. A fascinating concept, and very well executed. Some novels have a great premise but end up being a disappointment in the telling; this was not one of those books.

Julie: Really? Someone who blames JKR for people not reading their book is deluded, or avoiding the obvious. There are plenty of readers in the world for good books to do well. If that professor writes literary fiction, there's a good reason why JKR sells more than she does (beyond the fact of JKR's talent)--lit fic is not a huge selling genre, and very few who write it earn the big bucks. Some genres sell better than others, and some sell better than others at different times. That's life.

MB: I think your takeaway is SPOT ON. Keep it professional. As a writer I know how hard it is to write a novel. So even if I hated the book, I give kudos to the writer for at least writing a novel. And if it's published, clearly it has an audience, and at least a literary agent and a publisher who loved it. Unless someone is paying me to review a book I don't like, or I have some other obligation to write such a review, I'd sooner not go there.

Susan: This isn't late! It's about 10:00 ET on a Monday morning. I've just about woken up and I'm ready to get back to work (yes, my employer doesn't take off for President's Day). But thanks for missing me! You're very kind. :)

S.D.King said...

I just don't get all the hate. I know "haters are gonna hate", but still. . .

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

S.D. King, yeah what's with all the haters? I hate that.
Years ago I heard Old Crow Medicine Show perform the song, LIFT HIM UP. If I knew how to add a link I would but I can't so I won't. But if you can find it, try. Why people feel the need to bash is beyond me.

If it's crap, step over it, not in it and move on.

Hey Colin, I have to work too.

Anonymous said...

Someday I'm going to be published. There will be all kinds of people out there looking to make witty, scathing remarks, and picking apart every perceived defect of what I write. They will be popular with other readers because of their great attention to detail. People will laugh at them as they become more and more biting.

And that's fine. I'll do the best I can and I'll improve with each work.

Toby Keith has a song called The Critic that kind of sums it up.

As a writer, I just don't want to add to the negativity even if it is deserved. I want to lift people up when I can and encourage them. The time for me to offer "constructive criticism" is in the workshops and crit groups, not Goodreads, in my opinion.


There's a raging debate going on in Books and Writers right now about literary vs genre writing. One person holds that we owe it to the future of culture to support literary writers financially because they are too delicate to create while being stressed with trying to make a living and worry about things ordinary people do. They should be cared for as Virginia Wolfe was and all other writing is fluff. It doesn't really matter if it dies out, or if those authors have to work their butts off to make it because, who cares?

True geniuses must have peace, quiet, a room of their own and financial stability to create.

For those who don't know, Diana Gabaldon wrote Outlander as an experiment to see if she could finish a novel. She was working two full time jobs, raising three small children under the age of six and wrote it in 30 minute blocks in the middle of the night.

The original poster contends Diana is still simply a genre fluff writer no one will remember in a few years, whereas some, as yet to be determined, literary writer will be worshiped as is proper.

Such, I believe the professor's attitude toward J.K. How dare people prefer some genre writer over an overly flowery, bore-me-out-of-wanting-to-have-sex by stopping in the middle of a passionate kiss to spend forty pages describing liquid eyes literary writer.

Criminy, at least the space porn writer had it out of sight.

Unknown said...

Would any of this apply to simply rating a book (through the Goodreads star system)? I don't write reviews, but I almost always rate them. Would an agent really care if I had one-stared one of their client's books? Though, like Colin mentioned above, I'm generally so impressed when anything gets written and published that I tend to rate on the high side, even if it's not for me.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

The one place where my rule about "If I'm going to say it, I'm going to use my real name," is set aside is book reviews.

I have a pseudonym on Amazon that is generally well received and well-voted up. I even ran into a wall of irony. On one set of review comments, everyone was discussing my review and wanted to know if I had a book. Okay, how to give that info without busting myself . . . what to do, what to do . . .

I also only tend to review books I like because I seldom finish books I don't like. I'll usually only pan if it is something egregious. Like a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue will draw my wrath *glares at last audio book I finished.*

General rule is that the moment you mention the author, rather than the book, you are treading on thin ice. I only do it when I am tying the book to the writer's skill, "[name's] law enforcement experience really shines through in the accurate portrayals . . . "

The second skill or personality is mentioned, um, no. "Writer obviously never got past third grade grammar," (even if it seems true.)

Are there writers who have taken the glow off their work with their online behavior? That is in the eye of the beholder, but it should never factor into a review.

One of the most insightful reviews I have received was a 3-star that caught a point that I struggled with concerning the geographical scope of the story. I had reasons to do it the way I did and it was a valid choice, but she was right, I left story on the table.

What that shows is that she thought about it and was caught up in it. And that is a good thing.

Especially in social media it is the difference between:

"Name's new book was disappointing compared to older works because . . . "


"Name must be behind in his child support because he has smugly sold out to corporate America with a bland cookie-cutter get-rich-quick . . ."

And then you meet Name (or his agent, editor, publicist) at a conference . . .


PS: A few years ago I wrote a blog post titled "Confessions of a Genre Hack," because the argument was raging then when Stephen King snagged a prestigious award usually reserved for literary flowers.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy writing book reviews. We've discussed this before at some point, and I'm happy to see the basic rule still stands - nothing is wrong with a review that's honest, professional, and fair.

Some of you know I went on a Cormac McCarthy kick last year. I'd read THE ROAD back when it first came out, and at the time, it was my only McCarthy experience. Others on other blogs talked about his writing so much that I wanted to experience more of it, to see what they were all agog over. I bought CHILD OF GOD, and read that. That book. Was something. I still can't get this sentence out of my head, "Ye been wantin' it."

Lord, if you only knew what he meant.

I was so enthralled with it/him, I went on to buy OUTER DARK, SUTTREE and BLOOD MERIDIAN. I read OUTER DARK and SUTTREE back to back, and have mercy, I had to take a break. I wrote reviews about these on GOODREADS, and my blog. I was honest about what I liked and didn't.

One day we might all finds ourselves on the receiving end of reviews, and I always think about that when I'm writing one. I think "How would I want someone who doesn't like what I wrote to write about my story?"

With fairness, and professionalism.

Julie, as to the writer of the raging black stallion, and the naked wench riding him? Well, BLESS HER HEART. Also, it doesn't surprise me about the debate on Lit Fiction and genre writing. It's like being a Republican or Democrat. Me? I'm an Independent, therefore I've written on both sides of the coin. Or page. :)

I'm glad everyone else loved AGE OF MIRACLES as much as I did. I can't recall where your comment was Colin..., I do know I've mentioned that book more than once - actually out here on Janet's blog recently. What a premise.

Amy said...

"Fecal roster" FTW. Ha!

Ardenwolfe said...

Depends on the book and the review. If an agent found out you called her clients' books, "Slime of the shelf," she might be less inclined to work with you.

Andrea said...

I used to review on Goodreads and though my reviews were always honest and about the book, not the author, when I read an article by Matthew Quick, I stopped reviewing. I can't find the article right now, but he wrote about why he thinks a writer shouldn't review other people's books (he argues that writing and reviewing are separate jobs).I thought he had a point and I also didn't want to run the risk of upsetting people I might end up working with in the future.
Then I decided that it was really none of anybody's business which books I read and enjoy, so I left Goodreads altogether.

I was glad I'd left when I read the saga about the author who stalked her negative reviewer/ bully (depending on how one interprets the story). It seems Goodreads is a place for bullies, and for friends doing each other favours by writing five-star reviews. It's hard to find honest reviews, and I don't normally bother anymore, I just read the free Kindle sample on Amazon to make up my own mind.

Oh, I believe it was Julie who mentioned the author who told JK Rowling to stop publishing new novels... Another example of how careful an author has to be on the internet. Some say negative publicity is also publicity, but do you really want to become known as the author who told JK Rowling to stop publishing, or the author who went to her reviewer's house?

Colin Smith said...

Andrea: I understand your hesitation about reviewing books, and maybe that's a good reason to only post reviews of books you like on your blog. But why, as a writer, review in the first place? Can I suggest three reasons?

The first is what Janet said: writing reviews is writing, so you are practicing your craft, and you're also thinking about the novel, it's structure, what you like, what you don't like--all of which hopefully helps you/me as a writer write better books.

Second, people who like what you write and perhaps respect your opinion may want to know what you like to read. At the back of ON WRITING, Stephen King offers a recommended reading bibliography. It's fascinating to see the range of novels he has enjoyed (everything from H P Lovecraft to Harry Potter), and I admit I made a note of some of the titles.

Lastly, did you ever hear a song or buy a product that you loved so much you just had to tell others about it? "Have you heard that Meghan Trainor song about the bass?" "Have you had the salad bar at XYZ Restaurant?" "Have you felt how soft Charmin toilet paper is? Oh My GOODNESS!" Writers ought to be book fans, and we should want the books we love to be read by others. I mentioned Renee Ahdieh's debut above. It's such a good book, I would love to see it debut on the top of the NYT Bestseller's list. I want Renee to make so much money from this book she can spend her days writing more books like it (and Barbara Poelle can take some time off to co-author that book on publishing she and Janet need to write). What can I do to help make that happen? I can use whatever platform I have to tell you about it.

So there's my case for writers as reviewers. :)

Erica Eliza said...

This just sounds like a bad idea. What happens a year after you're published and you're doing a multi-author signing with someone on your hate shelf? "Oh, you're on Goodreads? Hold on, let me look you up." Sure, you're agented at that point, but you want to make friends beyond your agent.

Amy Schaefer said...

One of my clearest memories of grade nine English is my teacher explaining ad hominem argumentation, and why we would never use it in her class. That stuck with me - attack the facts, not the person.

Book reviewers would do well to heed that reminder. Stick to analyzing the book, not the author. If you do that, you shouldn't have an issue.

Kalli said...

I'm on goodreads, but I never use it anymore because of all the drama I keep hearing about over there. Too much like school playground politics for my liking.

If I feel compelled to comment on a book I've read, I'll leave a review on Amazon. And I'm afraid I do feel more compelled to comment on a book I didn't enjoy than one I did - I'm just wired that way ;-) But I don't slam a book just to vent my spleen. I give honest and carefully considered reviews, primarily to help consumers make informed choices about what they buy/read, and potentially to help authors understand what did or didn't work for their readers.

The second is more of a by-product of the first. Reviews aren't there to help authors. They're to help readers. If a book fails to deliver on its promises in whatever respect, I want to flag that to other people so they don't just purchase it blind. It's why I always read the one and two star reviews before I buy anything. If the very worst comments don't deter me, then I know it'll probably be ok.

I'm a half empty person, can you tell? ;-)

Maybe it's just because, like Carolynnwith2Ns, I don't have much time to read anymore, so don't want to waste it on stuff I don't enjoy. But I feel defeated if I don't finish a book once I've started it. (I can think of maybe half a dozen I haven't finished, like Catcher in the Rye - 1 chapter was all I could stomach of that! I would never review a book I didn't finish tho)

So, I want to try and make good reading choices, and help others to as well. I think that's the same motive as the people who only give positive reviews, I'm just coming at it from the other side ;-)

Kalli said...

Colin said: 'Writers ought to be book fans, and we should want the books we love to be read by others.'

That is a thoroughly good point, and well made, sir. I do sometimes love a book so much I have to tell people about it, and I do, but not in a review. I don't know why. Maybe I'm just so used to critically engaging with literature, I don't know how to just express my enjoyment of it :-)

Speaking of which... OMG, I am so gutted right now. After scads of people had mentioned Rosemary Sutcliff to me, I'm finally reading one of her novels (Flowers of Adonis) and GAH! It's so good, I want to crawl under the table and cry. WHY DIDN'T I READ HER SOONER???

Anonymous said...

It's weird how everyone mentions the histrionics of Goodreads, which I've not experienced. Call me Ostrich. (New nickname?) Then again, I'm only reviewing stuff I read - not usually reading the reviews. And then, only the stuff I love or could have done without.

If I don't finish, I don't review.

IDK. Hate that Goodreads has such a bad reputation.

Ms Janet likes Library Thing over Goodreads. I do know that.

Karen McCoy said...

Terri, I think we just finished the same audiobook. *glares at Mary Sue*

Carolynn, I love me some Old Crow Medicine Show.

I used to write reviews for Library Journal. Even with books I disliked, I strove to find redeeming qualities to ensure my review remained objective. And some of the books I didn't like ended up becoming somewhat popular. It's all relative.

I liked Amy's ad hominem example too. Elizabeth Gilbert has a great TED talk about how art can be separated from the person producing it. Links below:

Elizabeth Gilbert

Old Crow Medicine Show

Andrea said...

If writers want to review then of course they should be free to do so, but writing a good review takes time, time I'd rather spent writing fiction. Or reading. I read a lot, and good fiction helps me write my own novels.
Reading tastes vary widely, so I recommend books to people I know in real life, so that I can make a better judgment of their tastes.

That said, each to their own, I guess. I'm not a big fan of putting my life on social media, having left Twitter, Goodreads, LinkedIn, Tumblr and recently Facebook, and I don't miss it.

Ardenwolfe said...

I really recommend writers not review work, especially in a negative light, if you intend to work with certain circles in the future.

It's well known agents and editors search for your presence on the Internet.

Imagine being a literary agent. You look someone up, and you find tons and tons of nasty, scathing reviews that blast the author and the author's work.

Are you more, or less, inclined to work with that hopeful?

There's your answer as far as writing negative reviews against your future peers.

Just don't do it.

Laina said...

The problems I have with this is that book blogging or reviewing probably shouldn't be one of those hobbies that could end in my untimely death. I sincerely appreciate when people talk about people who get not just mean but dangerous, because reviewing books shouldn't risk my safety. No, you don't want to be on the wrong side of drama, but you probably also don't want to end up on the wrong side of dead.

Janice L. Grinyer said...

To quote kalli who quoted Colin :) "Colin said: 'Writers ought to be book fans, and we should want the books we love to be read by others.'

I am a book fan. Always have been. And I know I was raised with "if you cannot say something nice, try not to say anything at all" unless you can try to find one nice thing i.e. "your baby has nice... eyelashes"...

But nowadays, you cant swing a cat around a store without hitting some Author's product endorsement, with their Novel's title on it.

I suppose then we also need to apply this same reasoning to the Author's approved product endorsements too ? Because Im not sure I can do that, without the "Mary Sue" attitude going rogue...really rogue. Help me.