Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Should Authors Review Other Authors?

By Andrew E. Kaufman

It’s an interesting question, one I often think about after reading a book. Should I or shouldn’t I?

Since becoming an author, I’ve left very few reviews on Amazon, and during the past year I made the decision to stop completely. There were several reasons for this. True, I’m a reader just like anyone else, but am I a typical reader?

No. Not really.

For me, it started feeling like an ethical issue. Since I write what I read, most of the books I enjoy (or don’t) are in the same genre as mine. That means the authors I read are competing for the same market share, and leaving a review on Amazon feels like a conflict of interest. If I leave a bad review, it could easily be interpreted as an act of bad intent.

And even If I leave a favorable review, readers might suspect that I did it as a favor to the author, and if that happens, have I done that person a service or disservice by leaving one? Just as much of a concern, have I done myself the same, possibly even damaging my own credibility as an author?

Another part of this involves my personal feelings: quite honestly, I have a hard time leaving a bad review for an author—as one myself, I know how deep the sting can feel from a bad review, and I find it difficult to inflict that on a colleague. This is not to say that they shouldn’t get a poor review for writing a lousy book; I’m just not sure whether I’m the one who should leave it.

Giving an author a blurb review is something different—with those, it’s clear that I’m doing it as a favor, but even then I’m hesitant due to time constraints and also because I wonder whether they actually help readers reach a decision on whether to make a purchase.

Also of concern is that as an author, I have a whole different set of standards while judging a book. My interests are often far more of a technical nature, nitpicky things,
and because of that I tend to scrutinize a work more needlessly than for the average reader. When I read, it’s hard to pull off my writer’s hat and put on the reading one—the two are so intricately intertwined these days. I worry that the things I’m critical of would be of no interest the average reader, and in stating them, it could have negative effects for a book that most people would find perfectly enjoyable.

Not everyone agrees with me on this. Some authors regularly leave reviews on Amazon—and really, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. It’s all about personal choices.

Contrary to what some may believe, Amazon doesn't discourage or pull reviews from authors based on that criterion, so they are free to review all they’d like. The only reason they would do so is if there appears to be a financial interest or gain on either side. This could be caused by something as innocent as me sending a birthday gift to the author, or something as obvious as having co-written something with him or her. Having said that, besides the co-authoring part, this would apply to anyone, whether they're an author or not.

So what do you think, troops?

Readers, do you have a problem seeing reviews from authors?

And authors, do you or don’t you? If so (or not) why (or why not?).

32 comments:

  1. I was thinking about this issue just the other day! I've come to the same conclusions as you, so I don't leave reviews anymore either (not that I reviewed so many books before...).

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    1. Now that you mention it, Alan, I don't think I did, either. I guess I've never been one to critique others' work. Probably fits well with my decision.

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  2. I don't have an issue seeing reviews from one author to another as long as they "feel" honest (that goes for all reviews), but I'm also that odd one who will read the 1 or 2 star reviews and then buy the book anyway and like it usually! However... I don't do many reviews either. After numerous personal attacks on reviews I posted, it began to feel like something I simply didn't want to do. As a book services provider, I also read a lot of books that I've either designed the covers for or formatted the interiors (I tend to read those a bit as I go) and figure some may view that as a conflict. But, if I do like something, I will share on social media sites, which seems more acceptable, and then I'll help the author promote as much as I can.

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    1. Linda, I think it can be a conflict at times--which is what I have trouble navigating myself past. For me it seemed like the logical solution. For others, it may not be. It's good that you found another way to support authors you work with--and I'm sure they greatly appreciate it!

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  3. It's a delicate situation. I love receiving reviews from other authors because I know that they can't help being picky about things that non-writers might not like but can't say why. So I trust that review. And when I find a book I like, I want to share that recommendation with others. Even if I don't like a book, I won't leave a scathing review, but I will (tactfully) point out what gave me problems in it.

    However - most of my reading these days consists of authors I know, and my previous training of "praise in public, criticize in private" takes hold. I'd rather give a less-than-stellar opinion privately to the author, and only when asked, than post it for all to see.

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    1. I run into a problem when, like you, Gayle, I read a book and like it. I want to write a glowing review but often stop myself, because I know it might appear over the top coming from another author--and possibly even suspicious. I can't always have the best of both worlds (even though I want to) so I guess I try to concede to the most manageable one.

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  4. It's too bad this has become such a prickly issue, because authors are readers too. But it's not worth the potential repercussions, so I don't post reviews and give almost no blurbs either.

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    1. Following up with what I just told Gayle, I have to agree with you, LJ. It's unfortunate that I can't express my excitement over a book--or at least, feel that I can't--because of the possible repercussions of a few bad apples.

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  5. I only do what I call "book recommendations", but not reviews. When I find a book that I just love, I will leave a review and mention it on social networking. I don't take free copies or requests from authors ever (and I had to put something on my Amazon reviewer profile saying as much, because I got so many requests from there.) I also don't trade "reviews" with friends. Pretty much I'll only do strangers' books that I find by chance. But because of my "recommend only" policy, all my posts on Amazon are 4 or 5 star.

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    1. India, it sounds like you've managed to do the same thing I and many other authors have done--created a system for yourself and stuck with it. Good for you!

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  6. When I first read the topic, I thought why would not leave one). After reading all the post, you make some very good points. I do like to at least see recommendations from the authors that I enjoy reading. It helps me find new authors that I may not try other wise.

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    1. It's a sticky situation, Candy, and sometimes an awkward one. I do recommend books at times instead of reviewing them--but even then, I've decided I have to be selective with those as well, because similar rules seem to apply.

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  7. It can be a problem. I'm reading a book right now that I really want to love because I know the author and it's received some fabulous attention and reviews. Because I'm not loving it, and my author pickiness is one reason why, I'm totally questioning my response to the writing and even my own motivations. So, for this one at least, I won't be writing a review.

    Do I have a hard and fast rule? Not yet, but I think one's coming...

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    1. Trust The Process, Peg. One will come ;)

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  8. I just happened to finish teaching a class in fiction writing, and I told all my students that they need to write book reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. I said that what they learned this semester in critiquing their peers are muscles that need to be used because if they can "see" into other people's stories, they can "see" into their own work. This is to say they learned to see the strengths of their peers and had to be specific about it. They also had to offer thoughts about where a story went off track if it did and talk about things that were not clear or did not make sense.

    I take for my cue how John Updike used to review books even though he was writing his own books. While at one point, before I started writing books, such as LOVE AT ABSOLUTE ZERO, I was a professional book reviewer and a theatre critic, I rarely write them now. However, I will take the time to write one when a book really grabs me.

    For instance, just yesterday I finished TOO BRIGHT TO HEAR TOO LOUD TO SEE by Juliann Garey, It's incredible, a story where the protagonist, a Hollywood exec, isn't always likable, but he's magnetic, and we watch him deteriorate as he becomes more deeply bipolar. The books is different enough from what I write that I don't feel I'm competing with her.

    In other words, I'm not out to be a reviewer--just a champion of the good stuff. My reviews on Goodreads are almost all five star because three-star and below I just don't write about. Let others do that. (I'm like India Drummond above.)

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    1. Man, Christopher. I wish I had you as a teacher while growing up!

      I LOVE that you asked your students to review books--what a great way to not only study the writing in and of itself, but to also really understand it on a much deeper level.

      Props to you for being thoughtful enough to make an impact with your students. We need so many more like you!

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  9. I follow a lot of authors on Twitter, mainly because I'm trying to understand what Twitter is and how people use it. Some writers are relentless pumpers of their own books, or book, which gets tedious, and after a while I usually unfollow them. Relentless self-promotion quickly reaches a saturation point and may even become counterproductive.

    There is one author, a woman who lives in California, who has some minor notoriety outside her role as a novelist, whose new book I checked out on Amazon. She had 27 reviews, 24 of which were five-star, and three of which were four-star. I would be stunned if any of them, even the four-stars, were anything but plants. Out of curiosity, I pulled up GATSBY and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and she had a higher average rating than either. At this point, I believe, at least ninety percent of the reviews on Amazon can be discounted, whether they are glowing or snarky, as the snarky ones usually have an agenda as well. That said, I sometimes review books of friends on Amazon, but it is generally to counter another review that has unfairly, in my opinion, bashed my friend's book. If you want a real opinion as to what books are good or bad, to your tastes and interests, or not, the best thing you can do is go to Murder by the Book in Houston, Book People/Mystery People in Austin, The Poisoned in Scottsdale, or one of the other rapidly disappearing independent bookstores in which the staff are knowledgeable, and whose self-interest is served by selling you a book you will enjoy, because they want you to come back again. If your preference runs to Agatha Christie, they shouldn't steer you to Jim Thompson, or vice-versa.

    One point, LJ, that I do take issue with is the idea that authors compete with each other. I think it's the opposite. It's not buy a Ford or buy a Chevy, not do I read Hammett or Chandler. It's Hammett then Chandler then MacDonald then Hughes, Thompson, the other MacDonald, and on and on to LJ Sellers and beyond. Authors compete with television and video games, not each other.

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    1. David, I love bookstores. They don't love me. So although I agree that in many ways knowledgeable book store staff are among the best ways to find new authors, without including indies there's a major gap.

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    2. David--I so hear you on the Twitter thing. I'm still trying to figure it out. Not having huge luck yet.

      I think it was actually I who made the comment about authors competing, but I was speaking in a more general than specific sense. In reality, our books are competing. We are not. But good point.

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    3. I don't see myself in competition with other authors. I compare numbers (which I know I shouldn't, but I do), but competition? Nope. I would if readers were only allowed to read one book a year, but they can read as many books as they'd like, so I'm good with that. Am I being naive?

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  10. I do reviews of books I read for the simple reason that they are only non-marketing (one hopes) means of evaluating a book or author I don't know. As an author, I know authors need/want reviews and I want to support that as much as possible. As a reader, I depend on a variety of reviews for a book before I make a purchase of an author I don't know or a genre that is new to me. Like Gayle, I always read a selection of 2 and 3 star reviews on a book in order to get a range of opinions.

    I am probably a harder reviewer than most readers and I often talk about that in my review. I try to read from a purely readers perspective and capture those things in my review first. Then if there are "writerly" things I didn't like (e.g., too much exposition, too much backstory, tension wasn't sustained, character was unheroic) I talk about those in the second part of my review. I always caveat that discussion with a statement about how each writer chooses her own path and style of telling a story, and these things that bothered me happen to be my personal prejudices.

    All that said, I don't post a review with a rating below 3 out of 5 stars. I just don't think it is helpful given my writer perspective. I've learned that readers forgive a lot more in writing style in a good story than I do. When I know I am going to give a review that is below a 4, I often look at other reviews and see what they liked or noticed that made it rise higher for them and I will note that other reviewers didn't have the same problems.

    So far, when I've given lower scores (usually as part of a writer's blog tour that asked for reviews, the writer has always contacted me to say thank you. Also, most often they say I brought up things others have noticed too or they ask for more explanation of craft to help them make the next book better. That makes me believe it was worthwhile to be honest.

    It would be shame if writers stopped doing reviews out of fear of retaliation or fear of being too harsh. Every writer I know is a voracious reader and I believe each writer has insights into story and theme and craft that can actually help me to notice things in a story I might miss and would make the reading experience richer. I believe if reviewers, both writers and readers, undertake writing a review in the true spirit of sharing their experience of a story, then it is worthwhile to the author whether it is 2 stars or 5 stars. Sure, it stings not to only 4 and 5 star reviews. However, once I get over that sting, I take it as a learning opportunity. Is there enough description in the less than stellar review that will help me become a better writer? Usually there is. Also, I'm learning about different groups of readers expectations,likes and dislikes around genre tropes. That helps me to better understand which groups of readers are my best audience for a group of books, and then I can make decisions around how narrow or wide an audience I wish to garner and what I'm willing to do for that.

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    1. Thanks for the great post Maggie. I agree that it would be very sad if authors stop posting reviews, but unfortunately, as LJ said, the times seem to be dictating this. I wish there were an alternative that would change this, because as you mentioned, a lot of us are voracious readers, and I do feel we can contribute meaningfully to the reading experience by sharing our insights.

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  11. Back in the day, when genre was a dirty word (oh, it still is to critics? hmm), you'd see all kinds of things in the magazines. EQ and AH in this field, and Analog, F&SF, etc. in the SF field had regular book reviews, written by an established writer or editor. They were honest and blunt.

    I suspect Amazon reviews have become like grades (yeah, I'm getting ready to grade final essays): anything less than an A or 5-star is considered unsatisfactory and raises the prickles. Which might not be so bad if they came with corn beef on rye with hot mustard.

    The thing is, author recommendations do help. Word-of-mouth and what's called "witness bragging" in rhetoric (getting someone else with a reputation to brag about you) are the best publicity. Referrals. And yes, authors get reputations by how and for whom they recommend. Look, if Stephen King or J.K. Rowling was going to recommend one of our books. Or Michael Connelly or Andrew Marlowe. Etc.

    That being said, the review has to be honest. And the author-reviewer has to be consistent. You guys (can I include myself and say we) are constantly recommending each other's books. It may not be an "Amazon review" but it's a recommendation, nevertheless. On the other hand, and Stephen Pressfield recently wrote about this, too, leaving reviews on Amazon for writers we don't know may seem presumptuous (at best). So I can see and sympathize with Andrew's post. And I completely agree that at the minimum, no negative reviews of other authors, especially those we don't know.

    One last point: While on one level, everyone writing in a genre, or sub-genre, is competing for market share, from what I've read, the ebook reading market, especially in the traditional fiction genres, is not a zero-sum game. Mystery readers read lots of mysteries; SF & F readers read lots of SF & F. This may be a case of the good pulling in the good (or better) (unlike good money chasing bad or something).

    Such a thought-provoking post. Thanks!!

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    1. Thank you David, for the compliment and for your thoughtful comments.

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  12. I don't think writing a review on another author's book is a problem. I'd just follow these rules.

    1) Don't review it with your author name. Use another web name so you don't put yourself in the middle of conflicts that others like to create on this issue.

    2) Be fair in your review. Don't use it as an opportunity to tear the other writer down just because you can. Approach the book as a reader and look for what was good or bad as the case may be.

    3) Realize that just because you write, it doesn't mean you have to give up your freedom of speech. Too many people obsess on that. I think it's a bit counter productive. We didn't come this far to give people freedoms, just to be bullied out of them by others who have hang ups on authors writing reviews. That's called censorship and some people do it to themselves willingly.

    4) Most people can appreciate a review. It's hard to get them these days. If you feel compelled to write one, you should do it without reservations.

    That's my take.

    I do write books.

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    1. All thoughtful points worth considering. Thank you for sharing them with us!

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  13. Since I joined Goodreads several years ago, I have written a review, albeit usually short, of every book I've read unless I really didn't like it. If I think a book is terrible, I won't finish it, and it goes on my abandoned shelf without a review. I occasionally wrote an Amazon review if requested, and I have written reviews of books I have edited. However, I make it very clear that I edited the book and include the comment that obviously I loved the book because I wouldn't edit a book I didn't like. If readers think there is a conflict of interest because I was involved in the book (or even if the book is written by a friend, I let that be known), they can just ignore it. Since I got my Kindle Fire, I have reviewed every book I read because a review screen automatically pops up at the end of the book. Again, I seldom write negative reviews, although I always point out what I think could be improved. Even if I write something negative, I also write something positive or I indicate the type of reader who would probably like the book. There have only been a couple of times I've given a 1 star or 2 star review, and those were on books that I felt cheated the reader, such as one book that ended up with the detective explaining to his team how he solved the crime by saying, "Continued in Book 2."

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    1. Lillie: the reviews you write are the kind I truly look forward to reading. Thoughtful and constructive criticism is very helpful to me, both as reader and writer. Either way they guide me, whether my goal is to write a better book or to search for one. I appreciate the fact you put so much thought into your words before you post them.

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  14. It's a great question with excellent points made. I read and review all the time. It is a tricky situation for an author, but I try to take the "politics" out of it. I want to help other readers find great books, and yes...I want to help my fellow authors. I always appreciate what they do/have done for me. I no longer accepts requests to review and only read the books that appeal.

    If I dislike a book, and I know the author, I'll critique privately (if I think they'd want it). If I love the book, I'll post my review publicly. Most of the books I review now are for NYJB and are written by authors I don't know, which presents less of an issue.

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    1. Thanks, Jen. It seems difficult to take the politics out of most things these days. Sadly, I suppose book reviews are susceptible as well. It's good that you have a platform to review books. We need that. Keep doing it!

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  15. Now that I'm a writer I find I'm overly critical of books. I guess I can't take off my critique partner hat. Since that's not fair to the author I usually keep my opinion to myself. In the past I've reviewed two authors work as a favor. I've recently come to realize that's not such a good idea. For all the great reasons you gave, Andrew. :)

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  16. I'm not published yet, but I rely on honest reviews to help me decide whether or not I purchase a book. I'm trying to be much more consistent about posting reviews of what I read, and will always try to find something positive to say in my review, although I will post 2-3 star reviews with honest reasons why I feel that way.

    Once I am finally published, I intend to continue reviewing, as I will already have established a reviewing presence on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. and I would hope that people would see a consistency in my reviewing style.

    I've really enjoyed the insights pro and con and also reserve the right to change my mind at a later date ;-)

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