Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

First do no harm? (in book reviews…)


That’s how I want to roll. Like I’ve said before, the concept of “altruistic reciprocation” is important in the universe of independent publishing, where those of us who hope to have our work read seriously need the support and enthusiastic cheerleading of other indie writers (and sympathetic readers). But what do you do when you’ve read an indie book that you intended to review, that perhaps you even promised to review, and you just can’t give it your blessing?

Michael Swanwick touched on the problem in his blog, “Flogging Babel,” the other day. He had mentioned on his Facebook page that he abandoned a book, and immediately his followers wanted to know who the author was. He declined to say.

Swanick believes that we are a family of toilers, literary toilers, who don’t deserve to have the products of our struggles casually trashed on the ‘Nets, and he understands the risk we take when we put our work out into the world. He sees the family of writers out there as his own kin and doesn’t want to cause any harm to them.

I have been reading a lot of indie work this summer, and I’ve run into the thorny thicket of this dilemma myself. I have wanted to review a few things, as part of my altruistic reciprocation campaign, but discover, usually not too far into a book, that I won’t be able to. Not if I don’t want to do any harm. I’ve made a habit of not telling authors that I’ve bought their books. If they know I have, it’s only natural to expect a review, or at least hope for one. The last thing they need is a one- or two-star scar sitting there on Amazon.

Two big issues are usually in play. One is that it is hard to justify giving an indie book that is decent but, let’s say, workmanlike, four stars when I’ve just rated a new, critically acclaimed novel three. You could say that the two books exist in different worlds, but I’d like to think that there are many indie books out there that deserve to be read and judged on the same plane as the traditionals. Still, I know that if I give the indie book two stars, which is probably more accurate, I’ll cause the author some distress.

The other issue is that I don’t want to be seen as a reviewer who dishes out five-star reviews like so much bird feed. The ratings cease to have any meaning. You know the feeling. You spot a book with an average of 4.5 stars over ten, twelve reviews, and you pop the Look Inside feature only to find an opening paragraph of — to be kind — adolescent prose and bizarre punctuation. You know it isn’t going to get any better. Even at $2.99, this puppy seems like a risk, and you suspect the reviewers are all friends of the author or hacks buying goodwill.

I’d also throw in the genre problem, which, for me anyway, disqualifies my reviews most of the time. I’d never review a ballet performance, and I can’t bring myself to review a fantasy novel either. By the same token, I hope fantasy authors won’t review Yesterday Road: “It was well-written, but its biggest flaw is that there’s no time travel to ancient Babylon.”

So I’m with Swanwick on the idea that sensitivity to the plight of the indie author is appropriate, but honesty in reviews is important to the utility of the system.

How do you handle it? Do you avoid reviewing less-than-stellar books? Do you review on a different rating scale for indies than for traditionals? Are you kinder or tougher when you review something that doesn’t quite get off the ground?

26 comments on “First do no harm? (in book reviews…)

  1. sknicholls
    August 16, 2013

    I want my reviews to be honest and I want to review others honestly. I would make a review and if it was less than stars I would not post it on a sellers site (maybe on my blog if it was a three and if the author was okay with that.) I always like to email the authors that I know that i have reviewed and let them see the feedback. I know from experience that they appreciate it, but I always try to word things positively. I am not going to trash anyone. Before I revised my first chapter, I knew my book had flaws and people even mentioned it in their reviews and then rated it five stars. That actually bothered me as an author, because I knew it was NOT stellar. If they had rated three or four I would have been happy. If they went to two or one, I would have thanked them for the helpful feedback and asked them not to post it. I have made improvements by doing a copy edit and another line edit, and I have revised the first chapter. Now if someone gives me a five star, I know I have done my best with this particular material. I do tend to rate people I know a little more leniently. I also avoid being too critical of genres that I don’t know well. If I call a fantasy piece “sophomoric”, I am basically saying that it is not on my level of thinking (but nicely) there might be others who love that.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 16, 2013

      I’m glad you’ve found a way to finesse this! I’m a little uneasy with being lenient just because I know someone, and I’m also not sure about offering an author a chance to, essentially, veto the review. These are all aspects of the problem I’ll have to give plenty of thought to.

      • sknicholls
        August 16, 2013

        I don’t let people I know veto it unless it is bad. my main objective is that I want to be able to give them constructive criticism without trashing their ratings. Others that don’t know them can do that.

  2. Andra Watkins
    August 16, 2013

    I am much harder on traditionally published books than I am on indies.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 16, 2013

      That’s my tendency too, Andra. It must be a sense that the trads don’t really need the support (though I know from my own experience that ain’t true!), or that they’ve had some breaks that the indies haven’t. I’m not sure. I do know I hesitate to give an indie less than three stars, which is a kind of benign middle ground.

      • Andra Watkins
        August 16, 2013

        It isn’t at all that trads don’t need the support. It is more that I am being told I need to jump through a blue bazillion hoops, when so many of the trads I pick up obviously didn’t. They contain typos and telling, not showing and one-dimensional characters and slow starts and………I could go on and on.

      • Kevin Brennan
        August 16, 2013

        Agreed. There’s sort of a catch-22 in that you have to jump through hoops to get “in” and then you don’t have to jump through hoops anymore. Not fair!

  3. Patti Hall
    August 16, 2013

    Instead of giving a bad review, I actually went to the writer’s site and told them how I felt…I was gentle, but let them know what I honestly thought. They were thrilled and thankful and pulled the book to edit and rewrite. That was lucky for me. I know it could have gone ugly.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 16, 2013

      Interesting. Did you know the writer somewhat, or was it basically a cold call? Not sure how I’d feel if a total stranger came here and said, I have some problems with your book. (You were tactful, obviously…) I don’t think I’d revise a book based on one reader’s remarks, though.

      • Patti Hall
        August 16, 2013

        Did not know her, but apparently I wasn’t the only one and she was getting horrible reviews. I was extremely tactful. I felt bad for her.

  4. Sally Jenkins
    August 17, 2013

    I would leave a bad review on a traditionally published book but if I felt an Indie book was bad then I would leave no review at all. But I like Patti’s idea of contacting the author directly with constructive comments – as a writer, that’s how I’d like to be treated myself.

  5. Phillip McCollum
    August 17, 2013

    All of the comments appear to point in the direction I was thinking… If the book is not up to par, best to send a private message with your review rather than add to or start a downward spiral on a public forum. It’s always hard to criticize something that someone has spent a lot of time and poured their heart in to, but I try to put myself in their shoes. I may be embarrassed or upset at first, but then I realize the person is making an effort to help me and I shouldn’t refuse their assistance.

    Of course sometimes the advice is bad, but I guess that’s an individual thing…

  6. Kevin Brennan
    August 17, 2013

    I agree that there’s no point in trashing a book just because you didn’t care for it. Why do that to an indie writer, who’s trying to build a following? But I think, as an author, I’d find it a little strange if a reader wrote me via What The Hell and said, I might post a bad review of your book but I thought I’d run my criticisms by you first. Sure, this person might be legitimately trying to help me, but if I don’t know him/her, I don’t know why I’d give much weight to the critique. This is really sensitive territory, isn’t it.

  7. michelle hofacker
    August 17, 2013

    When I review I always take into consideration if there was a paid/professional editor. I tend to overlook basic errors for indie authors. I do however always tend to be honest about my feelings towards the storyline. I always send the author a copy of my review first. If they have asked prior to my reading that I automatically post my review I will go ahead and post to the regular sites (Goodreads, Amazon US & UK, B&N, Smashwords). If they haven’t, I ask them if they would like me to. I have read a couple books, both in a genre I love, that I had an incredibly hard time reading. One due to a huge number of typos and a dialogue style that was unrealistic. The other due to no cohesive story line. Both were receiving 5 star reviews repeatedly. I gave one a 3 and wrote the author of the other my feelings on his story with a no star review. Both authors were receptive to my explanations.(it was the first book from each I had read) One of them has since asked me to review for her again and has sent some of her friends my way. The other has since hired an editor and has re-released a new edition.
    I don’t have any published work, I am still just writing at home working. I put myself in the authors seat when it is time to review and think about what will be most helpful to me if it were my book.
    I think honesty will always be the best way and going to the author first prevents the chance of humiliation. .

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 19, 2013

      I do think it’s courteous when a reviewer tries to put herself in the author’s seat (as you do). Especially when there are real problems with a book, I guess it’s reasonable to fire a shot over the bow, so to speak, so the writer knows — or can piece together from several reviewers — that the book is in trouble. She can use that criticism to make her next book better.

      My approach to publication, though, is that once the book is out there I’m not going to touch it again. I’m operating on the idea that indie publishing must be as much like traditional, professional publishing as it can be, and in that world you don’t have an opportunity to pull a book and rework it.

      Maybe I’m naive?

  8. Pingback: Amazon Reviews – Is This Ethical? | Sally Jenkins - Writer

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 18, 2013

      Thanks for the link, Sally. What a cautionary tale! Next time, feel free to leave a comment and insert a link into it. That way you can be part of the conversation…

  9. jcollyer
    August 21, 2013

    Excellent post and one to which there is no easy answer, you are right. Part of me wants indie writing to be judged at the same level as the professional stuff because I like to think we are all competing in the same game and that everything lives or dies by good writing. But does it? The professionally published writers have a veritable army of professionals that have got them to that point: editors, cover design artists, publicity and marketing folks.

    I still think as an indie writer you should aspire to reach the same level of quality by your own means. However, we are doing all the publicity ourselves. Publicity makes a HUGE difference and can we compete with the professionally networked people? An indie release, unlike a professional one, can be killed dead by a bad review and not get the chance to go any further just because it wasn’t one reviewer’s cup of tea. Is that fair?

    I don’t think there’s an answer, although I do like that you will review something only if you enjoy it and just abstain if you don’t. At the end of the day, the reviews just get you to look at the book. If you try a sample and don’t like the writing, you don’t buy the book. Or, if you’ve bought and read the whole thing and don’t like it, you don’t recommend it. The review facilitates a first step, perhaps arguably a step that every book deserves.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 21, 2013

      Great perspective. Somehow individual reviews for indies seem to carry enormous weight, whereas for traditional books I think readers probably look at the average.

      By the way, I always bristle when I see nothing but five-star reviews, don’t you? It’s just not realistic.

      • jcollyer
        August 21, 2013

        I agree. It simply can’t be true. No great book, even the best and/or biggest selling of all time will be considered flawless by *everyone*. I am more likely to believe and check out reviews and books if it’s a smattering or threes and fours. Even if there’s the odd two or one I tend to read those too, just to get a bit of perspective. Ultimately the blurb and the sample will be what makes me buy it or not

  10. rossmurray1
    August 22, 2013

    Pretty common-sense approach. I expect I’ll be reading more indie books and books by blogger friends before long, and I like your idea of not telling the authors I’m reading their works. Why crush someone’s dream…? Now if a major publisher has bought into that dream, fair game, because that represents an endorsement and is therefore open for critical validation/fair warning.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 22, 2013

      That’s an important point about endorsement. It means someone who knows what they’re doing gave this a stamp of approval. Kill kill kill!

      Thanks for following, by the way. I’ll try not to imagine your ectomorphic torso every time you swing by…

      • rossmurray1
        August 22, 2013

        Just be happy I didn’t post the actual photo. Surprised no one has dared me yet…

  11. LindaGHill
    January 20, 2014

    I’m just beginning to review indie books and this is something that has been bothering me. I’ve always lived by the adage, ‘If you can’t say something nice… don’t say anything at all,’ so I look for something – anything – to write about in a review that is positive. Unfortunately that doesn’t help much with the stars. I think your plan to not tell the author you’ve bought their book is wise.

    I find it strange that I appreciate, so very much, honest critique on my work and yet I still have a hard time giving it. That’s something I need to get over.

    I came across your blog through John Howell. It’s nice to ‘meet’ you and I look forward to reading more. 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 20, 2014

      Thanks for bouncing over from John’s place, Linda! Happy to follow you back…

      Your dilemma with reviews is pretty common, from all I can tell. I don’t know if there’s a happy medium to be reached or not, since it’s obvious (as other people have commented) that a bad review can really tank an indie book. At the same time, a double standard doesn’t exactly feel great either.

      I guess a good time to honestly critique an indie book is if you’re asked to beta read it so you can raise some red flags in advance of publication and spare the author some grief.

      • LindaGHill
        January 20, 2014

        Ah yes. Then I have an easier time giving critique. After the fact, (that the work has been published) I feel like I’m just nitpicking.

        Thanks for the follow 🙂

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This entry was posted on August 16, 2013 by in Publishing and tagged , , , , .
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