What’s a review worth?

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If self-publishing means everyone can be a writer, then the internet means anyone can be a critic.  There’s something intoxicating about being asked for your opinion on everything you buy, from batteries to Christmas turkey.  Do you succumb?  What about what you’ve read – how many books do you review?

The trouble with writing about books is your judgement relies so much on personal taste.  One person’s ‘too much sex’ is another’s ‘prudish bedroom scenes.’  When reviews were purely the provenance of professional critics, readers got to know them and could filter their responses through their previous critiques.  The reviews weren’t always impartial (there have been some fierce spats between authors and critics over the years) but they were written by people who evaluated writing for a living.

Amazon reviews have been tainted by jealous peers writing vitriol (often anonymously), and friends of the author writing hyperbolic praise.  If a debut self-published author has 25 5 star reviews, are they an undiscovered talent or do they have loyal family and friends?

Have you been asked to provide a review for a friend?  In recent discussions I was surprised to realise just how many people are reluctant to write honestly about what they’ve read if they know the author.  If they can’t say nice things, they’d rather not write anything.  They are aware of how hard their friends have worked and don’t want to upset them.  Or they dash off two lines of sweet thoughts without any idea that a stranger may rely on their words to make a decision about whether to buy the book or not.

I always caution authors not to write how much their family and friends have loved their work when submitting to agents or editors.  It doesn’t give any sense of whether they have genuinely liked it, they could be being kind – or maybe haven’t read it.  There’s no way of telling.

But should you be honest if you didn’t like your friend’s book?  I think so.  Your review, your word on a book, should mean something – and how can it  if it’s about keeping someone happy rather than informing other readers.

So far I’ve been discussing professional and  - for want of a better word – amateur reviews, but there is a new grey area.  I love the rise of popular book blogs, and most of them are very good, happy to provide free impartial reviews, an invaluable resource for the avid reader.  What I’m not so happy about are the blogs that charge to provide reviews, that offer a faster turnaround for increased cost, that blur the lines between editorial services, advertising and honest ratings.  They often claim to continue to write impartially, but I’ve never seen a negative review where the author has paid for the privilege – and in fact some proudly pronounce that authors get to vet any reviews before they go live.

Authors – it’s time to grow up.  Putting your writing out into the big wide world is scary.  Some readers won’t like you.  Some will even tell you so.  That’s ok.  Surely a genuine review that praises some elements of your work is worth more than a crawling paid for puff piece.  Commit to getting real reviews and see what you can take from them.  Sometimes you’ll even find valuable advice.

Readers – you need to grow up too.  If you’ve read a book and you’re going to review it – you owe it to the author to give them your real opinion.  There’s obviously no need to be rude or callous, but if you didn’t like something – say so.  When you do give a positive review, it will be worth so much more to that author – and to your fellow readers.

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January 9, 2014

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