Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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?