Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Posting reviews when you're a writer

I'm an aspiring crime writer, and I recently had the idea of reviewing crime novels. I figure that I'm reading them anyway, and I usually think critically about them, so why not write reviews for a blog or Youtube channel? It could be a way to build an online audience, and at the very least, it's forcing me to really analyse the books I'm reading.

So I wrote my first review. I wasn't particularly fond of the book, and I think the review captured my feelings. But my wife raised a red flag. Is it a good idea for an aspiring author to put their name against a negative review for a book? (I should be clear that the review style is totally professional. I've got no interest in tearing down authors or being mean. Or is one writer's "professional" another agent's "unprofessional?").

If an agent googled me and saw my name against a negative (albeit professional) review for one of their clients, would that be a bad thing? I like the idea of reviewing books, but not as much as getting an agent.

What do you think? Safer to keep my opinions to myself?

If you post a negative review about any of my clients, you're toast.
It's not fair, and it's probably going to get me some sniping on the Twitters, but honestly, it's the damn truth.

I'm less forgiving about bad reviews than my clients are.
(as in never)

And my clients know each other, and if they're crime novelists, they often are at the same event like Bouchercon, and eating breakfast at the same table with me.

So, there you are with that objective assessment of Felix Buttonweezer's book that you didn't like.
Awkward doesn't begin to cover it.

So, what to do?
Well the easiest thing to do is only post reviews of books you like.

But let's think about this a bit more deeply.
What's your goal here?
If it's building platform, you don't need to review books. Instead, you can talk about how a particular book taught you something as a writer.

And lessons on what not to do are often more helpful than what to do.

When you talk about a book in relation to your own work, it's not a negative review. It's more of an essay.  It's entirely subjective, not the purported objective kind of review that will earn my undying enmity even beyond the grave (I'm entirely convinced I'm part Sicilian.)

And as an aspiring writer (versus an established one) your opinion is just some guy flapping his gums. Why does your opinion matter?

But as an aspiring writer talking about what a book did for your own writing, you're not flapping your gums, you're actually contributing to the community.

In other words, being more vulnerable about your own work is the path to non-enmity.

Let me give you an example:

Felix Buttonweezeer's memoir Wrenching Tales from the Hardware Store is repetitive drivel, like the jackhammer he sold to kindergarten teacher.

I learned to watch for repeated uses of a buzz phrase after reading Wrenching Tales from the Hardware Store that had sixteen instances of "Juicy Fruit Fiasco" on six pages.  I re-read one of my chapters and realized I'd over used the phrase "flipping jelly jars". Six times on six pages!

Bottom line: by having skin in the game, you're less likely to fall afoul of even the fiercest shark.


nightsmusic said...

Dear OP, why would you want to shoot yourself in the foot before you even start the race?

Janet is right, of course. Two things though that stand out to me here are: If and when you do find an agent and become a published author, you're going to be rubbing elbows with all the other authors in your genre at some point. Do you really want to alienate yourself like that? Because authors are like elephants and trust me, they'll remember what you had to say.

The other thing is, if you're an aspiring author, why do you want to appear to be a pompous asshat? THEY have a book out there. You don't. Any agent, not just Janet, is going to see that review and note when it was written as opposed to when you submitted your query. It doesn't matter if your review is professional or not, you're dissing someone else's work when frankly, you're in no position to do that. Were you simply a reader and nothing else, that's different. But when you have aspirations of becoming one with the person you're criticizing, that becomes all new territory. I have a sneaking suspicion no agent is going to want to work with a 'know it all' whether you are or not.

Don't. Just don't.

Carolyn Haley said...

I am a writer who also reviews. Whether this has any effect on my sales is unknown; I've never thought about it. What I do think about is how and whether to write negative reviews. I write through a review organization, vs. being a solo blogger reviewer, so there are policies I must adhere to. One is no vicious bashing, or reviewing from a first-person viewpoint. The objective is to be analytical; to talk intelligently about the book and give potential readers information about it. Another policy is, don't keep bailing out of reviewing books you've requested just because you didn't like them. So to stay onboard, sometimes I do have to write a negative review. It is extremely difficult to do in an analytical way that is constructive and respectful. A positive review can often be dashed off in half an hour; a negative review takes many hours of careful casting and recasting. Most of the time if I dislike a book I will decline to review it, because a negative review serves no purpose except to hurt someone. Book reviewers are part of the publishing industry, whose goal is to sell books, to get the right books into the right readers' hands. I'm sure we all understand that literature is as subjective as any other art form, and different people like different things. So just because you or I don't like a book doesn't mean somebody else won't love it. That has to be kept in mind at all times when reviewing.

MA Hudson said...

I love Janet's idea of highlighting what somebody else's book taught you about your own writing. Not sure I'd ever do it, but it's a great idea.
The thing I find icky about reviews is when a friend asks you to do one for their book. I don't like telling people a book is wonderful if I hated it, but on the other hand, I'd hate to be blunt and leave a negative review.
A no-review policy is the definitely the simplest solution for me.

Steve Forti said...

I'd balance the overwhelming "nobody has a reason to care what I think about this book" against the "there's only negative consequences and no benefit if I do this". Coupled with the "I don't have the energy to waste on this anyway", and probably just collapse with some reruns of "Happy Endings" in that precious hour between putting the kids to bed and falling asleep on the couch before I can zombie plod to bed. So yeah, no public negative reviewing for me.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Years ago a co-worker self published a novel. The signed copy still resides somewhere on my bookshelves. It was awful regarding structure and story. Because I was a published writer my coworker REALLY valued my opinion and wanted a review.
I forced myself to finish the book. (It was that bad).
One scene stuck with me and the names of the characters were clever. That was the fodder for my positive review. He loved it and was forever grateful.
Though the book was terrible I have never regretted giving the kid a step up. After all, who am I to dash someone else's efforts let alone their dream.

Melissa said...

Another thing to think about is what your reviews offer the word that the plethora of Amazon and other bloggers already do. There are so many reviewers out there. Is your voice distinct enough to matter? Also, you many fall into the trap of reviewing something for someone so they review your book. Then comes the pressure of only giving good reviews.

Dena Pawling said...

For an example of a thoughtful and honest review that does a great job with a few things the reviewer calls "minor issues", read Colin's review of Katja's book


BTW Colin, you need to update your Book Review page. The last review that's linked there is from 2015!

I also had the crazy idea a few years ago to write book reviews. [This takes a LOT of time and I had to stop. I'm thinking about starting up again at some point.] One of the books I read was by one of Janet's clients. I specifically remember while reading the book that I didn't know where it was set. The only clues I had were (1) there was a river, and (2) the author was from a specific state. So I wrote that in the review. Something like "I like knowing where a book is set but for this book, it doesn't mention anything except a river. The author is from STATE so I assume that's where the book is set." I still have all my fingers, so I escaped a chomping. I'm reading a book right now that has the same problem. I *think* it's in the US mid-West but that's all I can figure out at this point, and I'm already half-way through. I don't feel grounded unless I have something to go on regarding the place, even if it's a made-up place.

I like the other ideas here. Be sure to write about GOOD things too, and phrase anything you didn't like using constructive terms that explain why.

Good luck!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I rarely review books. It just isn't my thing. If I do review a book, it is always positive. So silence does NOT mean I did not love your book. I very much enjoyed fellow Reider, Katja,'s book One of Us Has to Go but have not found time to post a review.

My cousin, Elizabeth Musser, has been publishing since the late 80s. Her new book When I Close My Eyes is by far her best work and a new genre for her. She has embarked on psychological thriller and done it well. So posting reviews is not really my thing. I do try to share books that I think others might enjoy through a lot of word of mouth.

I don't think it serves any purpose to bash other author's books as writers. We know how hard it is to produce a solid piece of writing. We pour our hearts and souls into work. Let the lay critics tear us apart. They do that.

What we don't need is writers bashing each other. Carolynnwith2NNs did the right thing.

Craig F said...

I try to find the positives of a book and work with them. The good thing is that if a book doesn't strike me in the way it did with others i can abstain from reviewing it.

I admit that some days I can be dense about how someone else's work is laid out. I generally do not finish those. Sometimes I am intrigued by what others think of it and plod on. Once in a while the light comes on. That is usually where I focus my review.

Daena your link to Colin's review of One Of Us Has To Go

Craig F said...

That is Dena, excuse me.

Emma said...

I definitely decided not to write anything negative. If I don't have something nice to say, I just don't say it. This encompasses books, art, music, and films. Once in a blue moon if I really don't like a popular film, I'll say something humorous about it, but that's as far as I'll go.

People pour their hearts into their art. Why bash it?

Also, I'm terrible at writing reviews, even for books I love. The most I can accumulate usually is "great atmosphere, wonderful characters, beautifully written."

OP, I'm sure there's more unique ways for you to stand out among the multitudes. If you write crime based in a particular city or you were influenced by specific classics, films, music, or art, it might be interesting to blog about that. You will then begin creating your own brand.

Theresa said...

Janet's points are very well taken. This is probably not the time for OP to post critical reviews. To me, there is a distinction between bashing and critiquing, which has to do with word choice and tone. Still, authors are understandably uncomfortable with both. And it's nice to know that agents are protective as well.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I have thought of, even declared in my blog that I will start a book review of debut novels. This was half a year ago and so far I've only done the one for The Nix (my super favorite book). It took a lot of time to write. I wouldn't spend time writing a negative review as it will piss off at least two people; the author and me for wasting my time twice on a book I didn't like.

Colin Smith said...

Wow! Thanks for the shout-out, Dena! I'm not sure what link you're using for the list of books I've reviewed. This should be current: http://www.colindsmith.com/blog/book-reviews/ (Apologies for the link to my own blog--I don't usually do this. Feel free to delete, Janet, if you don't approve.)

I think the question you need to ask is "Why am I reviewing books?" Of course, we all want to build a readership and get some name recognition. That's a given. But beyond that, for me, I review books because I want to promote good books and encourage writers. This means, almost all of my book reviews are positive. The few that are not 4 or 5 star reviews are usually by big-name authors who are unlikely to read my thoughts or care about them. But even there, I try to balance negative and positive. If I totally disliked the book, I'm not going to waste time and pixels on a review. I don't need to dump on another writer. That's not my purpose. It's really not my character either. :)

If you're a book reviewer primarily, your reviews will be more thorough than mine, and might be harsher and not necessarily positive. That's because you're building a reputation as someone who reads widely and has opinions that you want to share and discuss with other readers. You will spend time and bandwidth on books you hate because it builds your credibility as a reviewer, and you want to ignite a conversation with readers.

Here's a good example. In the video I've linked below, book reviewer/vlogger Merphy Napier talks for 30 mins on "Great (and terrible) Endings." She fearlessly names names. You might not agree with her, but she want to discuss this topic with other readers, and offer a reader's perspective to writers so they write better (in her opinion) stories. She's not as concerned about hurting writers' and agents' feelings because she has no publishing aspirations. She's more concerned that writers write better books for her and her followers to read.

Merphy Napier: Dear Authors, Great (and terrible) Endings

I also review Doctor Who episodes. While I'm a fan of the show, I have no desire to go into television production or even write for television. This means my Who reviews can be very critical. Sometimes brutally.

There's my 2 cents. I hope it made sense! :)

Katja said...

OMG, I am SO HAPPY. Thank you, friends, for indirectly giving my book a shout-out. I am DANCING - wow, how you talk/mention my title here as if it were a real book, whoa!
I mean, to me it IS a real book, but I believe it isn't to everyone else who has read it.

On Christmas Day, a friend of Fiancé's emailed: "Well it wasn't the worst book I've ever read."
I didn't cry or anything but it was the harshest review I've got so far. And no explanation really about why it was so bad. 'Merry Christmas', ha ha.

E.M. Goldsmith, I didn't know you had read my book. I knew you had it, but didn't know you'd had the time to read it yet. I am SOOO happy right now.
And no worries, I totally understand the review and time problem!

Brittany said...

I try to write Goodreads reviews to work through my thoughts on what worked and what didn't. And to be honest, if I really disliked a book I can get rather snarky. I do feel it's to the benefit of other readers to hear an unvarnished, specific opinion, and it's trained me to better spot problems in my own work by articulating them in someone else's.

That said, I'm also aware that once I start building a platform, I don't want to use that microphone to point a reader to a book they might not have heard of by way of "This was pretty terrible." So I've moved my personal Goodreads account to a pseudonym. That way I can still continue to speak my mind as a rando, and only use whatever influence I might gain to boost stuff I like.

(Also, the stuff I really rip into tends to be big bestsellers that aren't likely to notice, let alone care about, one snarky review. If it's a smaller book, I'm more likely to shelve it DNF and move on. On my writing blog, most of my What Not to Do posts are about movies.)

Irene Troy said...

I'll share my experience in hope it may shed some important light on this issue. My best paying writing/photography gig is for a company that, among other things, produces content for travel and tourism groups and agencies. The company specializes in off-beat travel and nature centered travel. I got my first assignment as a result of another person losing his job with the same company. His material was well researched and, at least in my opinion, well executed. But he was fired anyway. Why? He violated the rule about never attacking another writer's work. He was running a public site offering critique of other writers/photographers work. That work appeared in publications developed by this company and by other similar organizations. While the reviews seemed insightful, they were also edgy and sometimes nasty. Although he published under a pen-name, his true identity was easy to recognize. When confronted he insisted it was his right to offer an opinion. The company insisted it was their right to terminate his contract.

I have strong opinions on a lot of issues, including what constitutes decent writing. I suspect most of us do have strong opinions in this and other areas. Sometimes keeping these opinions to yourself and perhaps a few trusted friends is the better part of valor. In other words, while building a platform is important, doing it by being critical of other writers is unwise.

Brenda said...

Too often we see twitter storms where one author calls out another on issues of racism, sexism, age-ism, able-ism, ism-ism. Some go to great lengths to find old books to get worked up over. The resulting pile-on increases the critic’s platform, but in my view it’s a shabby way to do business.
If we can’t conduct the business end of this job with kindness, what’s the point?
Not to say that was your intent, OP. It’s just an easy trap to fall into.
I don’t give a review unless I can honestly give three stars, and I only recommend books that have wowed me.
Thanks Janet, for pointing us towards promoting books that we’ve learned from. It’s a great idea.

JD Horn said...

If your goal is to build an online audience, perhaps consider interviewing (orally or in writing) authors--especially debut authors or those with a new release coming out. (One of the most fun interviews I've done was by back-and-forth emails.)

Some might not wish to participate, but others will be thrilled you're interested in their work. You'll build goodwill, help other writers, and maybe learn a thing or two along the way.

Kate Larkindale said...

I review books on my blog once a week. Initially I called the posts "books I've loved" because I planned to review only books I loved. But there just aren't enough books I love enough to write solely positive reviews. So now I call most posts "books I've read" and I've learned not to be afraid to discuss the things I think don't work about the books. And if it's objectively dreadful, I won't write a review at all. I just don't see the point in wasting time writing about something I hated...

AJ Blythe said...

The other thing about reviews is that you might be way off the mark when it comes to public consensus - and that might throw an agent who is sniffing around. It doesn't matter if you are just a reader, but an agent might wonder why you can't see the brilliance (or not) that is a particular book. And if you can't see it, then maybe you can't bring that to your writing.

For example, Janet raved about the book Sunburn..."an absolutely perfect novel". Of course, Reiders scurried to buy it and they all raved about it as well. I, however, didn't. I kept putting it down, and struggled to finish. I only did because I kept thinking, this book is amazeballs, the Reef says so, if I keep reading I will work out why. I didn't.

I briefly considered reviewing books. But Sunburn convinced me silence is golden.

Carolyn Haley said...

AJ Blythe said: "For example, Janet raved about the book Sunburn..."an absolutely perfect novel". Of course, Reiders scurried to buy it and they all raved about it as well. I, however, didn't. I kept putting it down, and struggled to finish. I only did because I kept thinking, this book is amazeballs, the Reef says so, if I keep reading I will work out why. I didn't."

This supports my statement earlier about the subjectivity of art. There's no way 100% of readers will agree on whether a given book is good, great, bad, so-so, etc. I've never understood why people feel they should like something just because someone else did, or says they should. And that's the bottom line of reviewing. What works for you -- me -- somebody else -- isn't the same across the board. So the idea is to support the authors whose work you might not care for without attacking them. It's hard to do. And the tactfulness required applies in all of our human interactions.

KDJames said...

I think the distinction between "professional" and "objective" is a good one. Not sure what OP considers "professional" to be in a book review, but objectivity is not a thing when it comes to evaluating art. Reviews are subjective opinion.

I disagree with what Janet said here: "as an aspiring writer (versus an established one) your opinion is just some guy flapping his gums." If you present yourself on your blog as a writer (aspiring or not, you're a writer), readers are going to give your opinion more weight than if you're not a writer. They're going to assume some knowledge or experience that gives authority to your review. That matters.

I've talked about this here before and I'm not going to get into it again at length*, but bottom line for me is that I expect writers to have more empathy than non-writers when it comes to reviewing books. Even if you go the route Janet suggested of telling what you learned about your own writing, what is the point of naming the book? You can discuss problems without identifying the work.

I'm pretty unforgiving when it comes to writers giving negative reviews. Yes, I do hold writers to a higher standard. Why spend that kind of time and effort if you didn't absolutely LOVE a book? What are you getting from it? Superiority? A display of how much more refined your taste is than everyone who loved that book enough to get it published, of booksellers who recommended it, of fans who read and enjoyed it? How does it benefit you to point out flaws in the finished work of a fellow writer? It doesn't. It just makes you look bad in the eyes of your peers.

There are plenty of readers doing this already. Hell, an entire WORLD out there willing to speak negatively about our work and crush our self-confidence. Words are powerful. Consider how you want yours to be perceived within your own community.

And please don't fool yourself into thinking negative reviews don't matter to experienced or big name writers. I know of more than one who absolutely CAN NOT read reviews because a negative one will make them despondent and unable to write for days. I know several experienced writers who have other people read reviews and filter out which ones are "safe" to read.

As I said, I expect more empathy from writers.

*Welp. Looks like I got into it at length again anyway.

Dena Pawling said...

Hey Craig! Looks like you’ve been drinking a bit of that beer you owe me! Altho Daena makes me think of daemon which I looked up and it’s “between god and man” or “a lesser deity”. Interesting ............

Colin - Yep, that's the link. I see they are in alphabetical order. Didn't notice that before.

Katja - yes, it IS a real book. If anyone [including YOU] says it's not, you have my permission to give them the side-eye and "politely" [or not, your choice] correct them. It IS a real book.

Katja said...

Thank you, Dena :).

OK, I will try to 'eye' people like that. I was saying that because, as you will know, I have self-published my book. And because anyone can self-publish anything, it could be regarded as not a real book.

I think I have picked up the term 'real'/'not real' because the other day, a guy asked me: "And do you also have a real job?"
The word 'real' was striking. He meant for an income, a reliable and sufficient one. I'd have preferred if he'd used the word 'other' rather than 'real', but maybe I was just a bit too sensitive.

Thank you anyway! I regard my book as a real one, and shall 'defend' it as such. ;)

Sherry Howard said...

Hi, everyone! I’ve been absent from comments but I’ve still been around. Some health issues and some work-for-hire kept me from commenting.

But, this! This column is a keeper. JR has given us all some great advice that’s broadly applicable! Thanks!

NLiu said...

How to tell if your book is a real book or not: authorised procedure.

1. Look at it. Does it have a cover? Pages? Yes = it's a real book. No = maybe eBook or audio book, see next question.

2. Does it have words? Yes = definitely a book, no quibbles. No = maybe a picture book, see next question.

3. Did you feel like it was going to end you making it? Did you cry bitter tears and flail in agony? Yes = woah that is for sure a genuine bona fide book you got there. No = maybe you are a unicorn, see next question.

4. Does it have an ISBN? Yes = you are so very definitely in real book territory now. No = maybe it's still a book but you printed it yourself THAT'S OKAY, but see next question.

5. Last and final check. Pick up your nicest hardcover version. Hold it above your head. Higher. A little higher. Good. Now let go.
Did it REALLY hurt? Congratulations, your book is real! And you have knocked some sense into yourself.

P.P.S. Please don't really drop a book on your head.

Panda in Chief said...

NLiu, I loved your "is it a real book" assessment. Thank you for that! It gave me a good laugh!

nightsmusic said...

NLiu Oh. My. Gosh. That's hysterical! And beyond true. Thanks for the laugh :)

Katja said...

Haaaa ha ha, yeah, NLiu, how right you are! It IS a real book!!!!


Alyssa R said...

NLiu, that "real book" assessment is hilarious! I...my book has words, so I think I'd rather save Step 5 for sometime I really need to knock sense into myself. (Also, it's still on Google Docs. What hardcover version?)

Back to my original reason for reviewing.
I haven't reviewed any published-and-available-to-buy books as yet, only fanfiction and friends' works. I try to never say anything that's just plain negative: no criticism unless it's constructive. And then, I usually try to sandwich it. I read about how to make a criticism sandwich, nice thing, criticism, nice thing. So I try to think of two nice things and then stick the constructive thing in the middle. I also try not to say anything that would make me cry. It tends to work out nicely. :)

As an aside, when I'm on the receiving end of criticism, sometimes I need to go take a breather and let everything sink in before I can accept and use it. I count myself lucky to have betas who understand if I completely vanish for a few days (or longer) before showing them how they helped me!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

As a writer, I know how bad a bad review hurts, so I could never slam a book. I used to wonder if this was me being wishy washy, but then I decided that I am not trying to be a paid reviewer, so the heck with it. I'll promote books I enjoy and never mention the ones I don't like. I see it as writer solidarity- why would I ever take a buddy out?