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Monday, February 18, 2013

Should Authors Be Reviewers?

For every story, there is a review. Sometimes, there are many reviews. Sometimes, the reviews remain unwritten.

And that is the tragedy, isn't it? The unwritten review.

Reviews are nature's way of validating an author's efforts. Whenever a review is written, an author is assured, once more, that their work has been read. Has been processed by the mind of another person. Has been mulled about in another's thoughts.

An author is assured that, through their story, they've connected to another human being.

Does that sound melodramatic? It should…and it shouldn't.

Every author should be able to think back to a time before they decided to pick up the pen and write a book. We all start out as readers, with our own favorite authors and favorite stories. We read, we devour books by the score, and we share them with our friends. We talk about the characters we love, the villains we hate, the tales that keep us thinking about them long after we put down the book.


If you were to write a review of a book you'd read back then, how would you write it? With all the passion of a dedicated reader, who only wants a chance to discuss the book and the way it affected you?

Or would you write it as the author you are today--with all the sensitivity of a common bond, as someone who understands the weight each word of a review can carry? How would your perspective as an author change the way you review another person's work?

Can you walk that fine line without toppling?

The Review and the Razor's Edge

On one side of the blade, you may under-evaluate a work for fear of hurting feelings or--worse yet--earning a negative review in return. What purpose would such a review serve? The writer would not be fairly reviewed if all you provide is lip-service. Readers who come across your critique may mistake it for veritable praise and expect to find those merits in the story.

On the other side, you may be tempted to find fault where there is none, to cut down another's work to elevate your own. Your immediate response to that must be I would never--! But there is a part in each of us that is absolutely identical: the writer's conceit, that piece of ego that insists that we can tell a certain story better than anyone else can. That is a part of what drives us to write--aside from the pleasure of writing, apart from the creativity and the craft we have cultivated.

The silver line of the razor's edge is often taken too lightly--or too seriously--by writers. Just like any element of writing, the review is simply another thing authors should learn to write.

We need reviews, and we need a lot of them if our books have a chance of standing out in the crowded world of publishing. We are more likely to enlist the help of fellow authors when we are able to offer our own help in return. Has anyone forgotten the sweetness of a well-earned blurb?

I didn't think so.

So. Now we come to the part when someone says…but I've never written a review! Should I be writing them?

As an author, your opinion is going to be taken seriously. Whatever you put our name on is going to become part of your brand. Although there is no magic formula to writing stellar reviews, there are some tips to keep in mind.
  • Read book reviews.
Part of improving our craft of writing involves reading. Just as we read books and stories to see what works and what doesn't, we should also read reviews. Reviews are everywhere (and they are a great deal cheaper than novels). Read reviews posted on book blogs, on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. My personal opinion is that, as a future author, you need to write reviews that look just as professional as your manuscripts.
  • Structure your reviews and give something useful and unique to the reader.
Don't just spew out your random butterfly thoughts without any sense of direction. Provide the basics--the title, the publisher, a few links--so that a reader can track down the book for their own consumption. But don't just give boilerplate reviews--add your own insights, you special flavor, your emotional reaction.
  • Learn when opinion and info share becomes spoiler.
Never spoil--but tease liberally. Make the reader want to seek out the book for themselves.
See, I don't think it's in anyone's best interest for an author to publish a lousy review. I don't mean lousy as in the book was lousy. I mean a poorly-written review.
Why? It doesn't serve either the reviewer or the reviewee. People will skim over and ignore a poorly-written review and, perhaps by extension, the book itself. That hurts the author. Other people will associate a poorly-written review with the person who wrote it--and may assume everything else they've written is garbage, too. That hurts you.
So, what are you supposed to do?
Think before you write. Choose your subjects wisely. Realize the power a review has for both the subject and the reviewer. Put the same effort and skill into your review as you would your own story.
Reviews are forever. Even if you could somehow scrape it off the Internet (ha, ha…good luck with that) you will never remove it from the mind of the author whose book you reviewed. Especially an author like me, who prints out every review she finds and keeps it in a binder.
Reviews can't be taken back.
Which is precisely the reason you should be writing them.
There are quite a number of benefits we will enjoy by taking the time to write reviews.

Writers belong to a community. While writing is a solitary effort, reading is a group sport. We read. We share. We bond. Reviewing our peers shows we are a part of that community.

Also, reviewing raises our public profile. It's another Google hit, another blog post, another chance to be read. Reviewing for others is still promotion for ourselves.

And besides, remember that every good turn deserves another. Every writer knows how valuable time is. Reading and reviewing another's work is a sacrifice that is not soon forgotten. Reviewing is a great way to earn a favor for when you are hoping for reviews of your own work.

Still working on getting that first book published? Then cash in on the value of writing reviews while you have the time to do it--long before the deadlines begin to step on your neck, you can improve your craft, read other wonderful stories, build a platform and public profile and--hopefully!--an audience, and you can endear yourself to other writers in the community.
You get all that, simply for voicing your opinion…as long as you do it right.

Do I? Should You?
I myself am not a prolific reviewer. I admire reviewers--I admire the insight they have into a stranger's work and I admire the way they infuse their passion with opinion. I've bought books based only on reviews. I know the power that book bloggers have over the audience that trusts them.
I also have read a lot of lousy reviews and have no wish to write one.
I never paid much attention to the opinions of others until I had something of my own to receive potential reviews. Once I began to pursue publication, I tried to separate reviews into two neat little piles--consumer opinion and professional review. Even when the line between the two got blurry, one thing always remained clear--I should never, ever allow myself to write anything less than a professional review.
Maybe, back in the day, when I was a kid who curled up on the sofa with a book and forgot to eat lunch, I would have done it without thinking twice. I'd simply have poured out my elation and my agony and my frustrations in book reviews without a second thought. Not now. I've walked in the shoes of an author for too long. I'd think very hard about what I'd write, and imagine how I'd feel to get a review just like it.

I'm one of those that take the silver line of the razor's edge too seriously.
Perhaps that is the great tragedy. I don't think that the world is devastated by the absence of heaps of reviews from me. There are far worthier opinions out there than any I'd have to offer. However, there are a lot of authors who may never know how much I appreciated their characters and their stories and their worlds and, perhaps, a few of them may have been glad to hear about it from someone like me.
The only reviews that should remain unwritten are the poorly-written ones and the ones that make writers feel poorly. Every other review is a golden opportunity--for writers, for readers, for authors alike. I look forward to the day when I'll be able to devote more time to writing well-crafted reviews. I know I'm missing out on a fantastic opportunity but it is one of my goals as a professional writer. 
Do you review? Why? Or why not?


Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer. Visit Ash's blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her urban fantasy "Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde" (Pink Narcissus Press 2012) and the follow-up "Blood Rush" due May 2013.


Charity Bradford said...

This is SO tricky. I do write reviews on occasion and post them to my blog, goodreads, and Amazon. My goal has always been to be honest about the good and the bad, so I made 2 rules for myself.

1. Use the sandwich method: Say something nice, mention what didn't work in as nice a way as possible, finish with more good stuff

2. If I can't say anything good about it, I don't review it.

Yvonne Osborne said...

I like this....the notion that we must learn to write reviews. It is a razor's edge, to be asked to write a review of a book you did not like. But...there is always a positive and I like to think I can put that up front.

Querus Abuttu said...

I'm so glad you covered this topic, and you did it really well. Bravo! I enjoy writing reviews, but I have a particular rule. If I can't give it a "3" or above on GoodReads scale, or provide a thoughtful and positive review on my blog . . . then I don't review the book at all.

I didn't always follow that rule, but learned (as you said) the Internet is forever. And as a writer, I wouldn't want someone to write a thoughtless, negative review of my work or of writers I love, so why write one? The best negative criticism is to say nothing. This isn't to say that if I haven't written a review on a certain novel, that I didn't like it. I've read tons of wonderful novels that I haven't written a review on yet, and might not have the time to write a review on. But if I did write a review, you can trust that I liked the novel enough to sacrifice the most precious element in my life. Time. :)

Karen said...

Really interesting post. I tend to review as a reader, but being a writer myself I AM aware of not wanting to hurt the author's feelings - therefore I only post reviews of books I've truly enjoyed.

I don't see the point of posting negative comments, as all points of view are subjective anyway.

As my mum always says, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all!

James Garcia Jr said...

Thanks for sharing, Ash. You make a lot of great points here. Yes, I do review; however, only if I liked the book. If I thought it was horrible, than I sneak away quietly and hope nobody noticed I was there. I know it's a cop-out, but I do want to avoid all drama and spare feelings. No one's paying me for my opinions, after all.


Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

I see a cohesive trend: to review in a positive manner and to limit negativity. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has the same trepidation when it comes to a book that just wasn't for us.

When I come across a vicious review, I don't stop and think "Wow, that must have been an awful book."

I think, "Wow, that is a really awful person, to take the time to write something like that. What kind of bad week are THEY having?"

Sometimes it's all I can do to keep from firing off a response. Lucky for me I know how to sit on my hands and keep my lip zipped. :)

Henri said...

I review well known authors and books for money. S far I haven't tackled a peer (unknown author), and I am reluctant to do so.

Stephen Woodfin said...

I appreciate the sentiment in your post. The really tricky thing is the way Amazon interprets its customer review policy. Under that interpretation it is a violation if an author posts a review of a book in his or her genre. This is because Amazon considers books in your genre as one in which you have a financial interest. In other words, Amazon has built into its policy the notion that authors are competitors of all other books in their own genre. It's a sad thing, but that's why Amazon pulls a lot of reviews that authors write. Regards, SW