Maybe BookLikes isn't the right spot for this, but I'm going to put it here anyway and on my sadly neglected blogger blog as well. What the heck.
I was digging through some old files recently and came across a folder I had almost forgotten about. It was one of those serendipitous events that got me to thinking about this whole business of reviewing, who we do it for, and what we put in our reviews.
There are people who review semi-professionally, by which I mean they are given books to read for the purpose of reviewing, but they don't actually get paid. Maybe the books come from NetGalley or another online source. Or from publishers. Or from authors. Whether they act upon it or not, these reviewers have a motive to give good reviews and to inflate ratings. If good reviews and high ratings keep the free books coming, that's a motive. If the reviewers can't afford to buy all the books they'd like to read or they like the attention good reviews bring them, those also are incentives to do what's necessary to maintain the supply. They have a motive.
That doesn't mean their reviews shouldn't be taken into consideration or be automatically deemed unreliable. Having a motive doesn't mean they acted on it.
Furthermore, even if they acted on that motive, even if like the late and unlamented Harriet Klausner they give every book five stars, they're free to do so. There's no law that says they can't. There's not even a TOS that says they can't.
And anyone who reads their reviews is free to discount or completely ignore them. Or to trust them.
I'm pretty sure there are some of those semi-pro reviewers here on BookLikes. There are probably some in my followers and followings. I have no problem with this.
We are each entitled to review what and how we please. Period.
If you don't like the way someone reviews, don't follow them or don't give their reviews any credence. But please, don't tell them they're reviewing the wrong way or that they shouldn't review the way they do. (Personal attacks on authors are not reviews, by the way.)
If you believe reviews should take the author's feelings into consideration, that's your opinion. If you believe no review should be written unless the whole book has been read, that's your opinion. If you believe reviews are supposed to help sell books and should therefore always be positive even if it means lying about the quality of the book, that's your opinion.
It's not mine. If you are entitled to your opinion, am I not entitled to mine?
I don't think most reviewers lie about the books they read. I don't even think many of them do. And those who do, frankly, are entitled to do so! Their reviews are for readers, and readers will learn either to trust those reviewers or not trust them. Readers are entitled to their opinions of reviewers, too.
A review, however, is not a critique, and to me this distinction is very important, which is why I titled this blog post with the twist on the old admonition about being nice.
The folder I came across contained the score sheets and evaluation reports from a romance novel writing contest I coordinated more than 20 years ago.
1. The entries were the opening chapters of unpublished books (first 25-50 pages).
2. Through their entry fee, the writers had paid for and were guaranteed at least two critiques/evaluations in addition to a 20-element score sheet. (Possible score 0-100, with 100 being perfect 5 points on each element.)
3. The judges were experienced readers and many were also writers, with varying degrees of experience. Each entry would have three judges; each writer could compare the scores and comments from three different readers.
As the coordinator of the contest, I gave the judges a set of guidelines to help them provide the entrants, whether they won or lost, with some kind of useful feedback. The last item was:
Don't be afraid to tell the writer that something doesn't work for you. Even if you can't explain WHY it doesn't work or tell her HOW to fix it, let her know this might be an area she needs to work on or get help on. Is her description flat? Is her dialogue stilted? Does she make too many grammar or spelling mistakes? Are her characters wooden? These are unpublished manuscripts, so they aren't expected to be perfect!
There were over 100 entries, over 300 score sheets. Only three of those score sheets came back with perfect scores, all from the same judge. They were the only entries she read. She gave them 100 points and her comments were identical on all three: "I loved your book. It was wonderful. Keep up the great work!"
To put it mildly, none of the other judges who had scored these three manuscripts agreed with her. I felt I had no choice but to find out why she had given perfect scores to three books, two of which the other judges found seriously flawed.
Through a series of emails (which are in the folder) and phone calls (referenced in the emails), I asked her if she truly felt these three manuscripts had absolutely no problems or weaknesses and were so perfect that they could not be improved upon in any way. She admitted she did not.
"Then why did you give them perfect scores?" I wrote in one of the emails. "If you didn't think they were perfect, why tell the authors that they were?"
She wrote back: "I didn't want to hurt their feelings. I knew the other judges were probably going to give low scores so I wanted to be nice."
"Wouldn't that give them false hope and maybe prevent them from getting some help?" I asked in a follow-up. According to the other evaluations, one of the manuscripts was riddled with spelling errors and misused words, such as "lightening" that should have been "lightning" and "custom" that should have been "costume." One judge had scored it only 27/100, with several zeroes. "Did you basically lie to them?"
She admitted, "I suppose so. I just couldn't make myself be mean to them. I wouldn't ever want anyone to tell me there's anything wrong with my book. I want to believe it's wonderful because to me it is. I'm sure that's what she wants to believe, too."
After several more exchanges along this line, I wrote: "So it wasn't about what she wanted or expected to get out of the contest because you had no way of knowing that, other than she paid with the expectation of honest feedback. For you, it was all about your feelings. Even though you agreed to be an honest judge and knew you might have to tell someone their book had problems, you knew ahead of time you couldn't and wouldn't do it."
Her reply to that was: "Yes. I would rather lie out of kindness than hurt someone's feelings."
I did ask her if she even read the entries or if she had just given them perfect scores "out of kindness." She claimed she had read them. I'll leave it at that.
The rules of the contest allowed for re-judging if any scores were way out of line; I gave all three entries to another judge who was able to give honest scores and critiques. They were much more in line with the other two judges.
There was another manuscript that got rejudged in that contest, this one for a different reason. Two judges rated it very high, well into the 90s. The third gave it less than 20. Again, as coordinator I had no choice but to ask her why she was so harsh on this entry, when the others she had judged fared quite well. As it turned out, she didn't like the story or the characters because she didn't recognize the particular conventions of this type of romance novel. They didn't fit the kind of books she was accustomed to reading, and so she didn't like it and thought everything was wrong.
"You scored it 0 on spelling and grammar," I wrote to her in an email, also in the folder. "Did it have any errors?"
Her reply: "I don't know. I didn't pay attention."
She was very angry with me when I told her it would have to be rejudged because her score was so far out of line with the other two.
"My opinion this is a poor written book irregardless of the category. Doesn't my opinion count?"
I had to tell her that in this case, no, her opinion didn't count, because she was giving inappropriate feedback to the writer.
"This isn't a review like in Romantic Times," I wrote to her. "This book isn't done and edited and published. You're not sharing your opinion of a published book that can't be changed with other readers as to whether you liked it or not. This is between you and the writer who's looking for advice. If you don't know anything about science fiction, would you try to help someone who's writing it? Or a murder mystery? Or would you just tell them their books are badly written because you don't like them? You read [a particular category of romance novel] and this is [a different category] that has very different requirements. Reviewing and critiquing are two different animals."
Also in the folder was a letter I had received from one of the entrants after the contest was over. Though she had not won, she placed well (15th out of 103) with decent scores. She thanked our group for sponsoring the contest and especially for guaranteeing that the writers would receive feedback.
"My family members and my critique partners are all too nice. They won't tell me what's wrong with my book. If publishers reject it without any feedback, where else is a writer suppose [sic] to get any? Your judges all made comments that gave me points to look at for improvement that I wouldn't have thought of."
Another letter from another entrant was less complimentary:
"I can't imagine how bitter and cruel a person has to be to score a contest entry 0 points. I entered your contest to hoping to win not to get told how awful my book is. Your judges were not very helpful at all! I thought [this contest] was about helping writers get published!"
Her manuscript placed 59th out of 103; each of her three judges scored at least one element with 0 points, though not on the same elements.
The manuscripts entered and the critiques offered through this contest essentially comprised private conversations between the writers and the judges, with the ultimate objective being to make the manuscripts publishable. In the early 1990s when this contest was run, getting published by a traditional publisher was pretty much the only viable game in town. If your work wasn't good enough, it didn't get published. Period.
That aspect of the business has changed dramatically with the advent of digital self-publishing; nowadays, just about any piece of writing, no matter how crappy, can be "published."
The digital revolution has also changed the "business" of reviewing. At the time of that writing contest, there were very few outlets for popular fiction to be reviewed. Each of the genre magazines had reviewers, but a monthly issue could only cover the most important, popular, or noteworthy books, and then with only one review! When Rave Reviews spun off from Romantic Times in the late 1980s as an effort to bring non-romance reviews to the reading public, each of the hundred or so books reviewed still only received one review.
I reviewed for RR for about two years, mostly science fiction and non-fiction; then in the mid 1990s I reviewed mysteries for an online start-up that didn't get very far. But that doomed start-up gave me a glimpse of what lay ahead for the digital era -- anyone can be a reviewer.
And everyone's opinion matters . . . to other readers.
The books I reviewed for Rave Reviews and the mysteries I reviewed online were published books. They had gone through the acquisitions process and the editing process and now they were ready for the public to read. The authors were finished with them and were probably hip deep in the writing of their next novel. We reviewers didn't even think about the authors' feelings when we wrote our reviews; we were passing along our impressions to other readers, to the people who might be thinking about shelling out their hard earned cash for a copy of the book we had received for free in exchange for an honest review.
Many of us were also writers, whether published or not. The distinction, therefore, between a critique of a work-in-progress and a review of a finished, published book was obvious to us. We didn't even have to define it. A critique was a dialogue between the critic and the writer; a review was the more or less unchallenged opinion of the reviewer expressed to potential readers.
Thirty years ago, a major, best-selling author's latest release might get a few dozen reviews from the major print publications such as The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal. Most of the reviewers were professionals, either paid reviewers on the staff of those publications or working professionals in related fields whose opinions were solicited.
Today, an unknown writer's first self-published work might get 200 reviews on Amazon, 500 ratings on Goodreads, another couple hundred blog reviews, but it may never have had a single pre-publication evaluation and critique. It may never have been proof-read or edited. The writer may have been told by his or her friends how cool the book was even though none of them had read more than the required reading in school and 50 Shades of Grey.
So where's the distinction between a critique and a review now? How do you -- whether you're a reader or a writer -- know who to trust when it comes to reviews? Where's the distinction between a knowledgeable reviewer and "An Amazon Customer"?
Let's start with the first question. There's probably very little distinction between a critique and a review these days simply because the relationships have all blurred as well. A writer who brought her manuscript to a critique group of four or five other writers or who entered it in a contest was likely sharing her work with no more than a dozen other individuals. All of them knew at the outset that her work was unpublished and that she was asking them explicitly for and expecting their feedback on it. Today the writer who digitally self-publishes has no control over who reads their book, how many people read it, or what they have to say about it. The uninformed writer may not even understand how the digital review system works -- that anyone can say anything -- and be completely unprepared for negative feedback.
Is that writer the intended audience for the review that's posted on Amazon or BookLikes or a reviewer's blog? How is the writer to know if the review was intended for her? How is a reader in search of new books to read to know if the review was intended as a critique for the writer or a review for the general public?
(The issue of purchased reviews is a whole separate kettle of fish. Don't get me started on that one.)
There's no one-size-fits-all answer. Not any more. If you're a writer looking for honest feedback in online reviews, all I can say is "Good luck, honey!" You're going to see five-star reviews that will warm your heart but that mean absolutely nothing in terms of improving your writing and furthering your career. You're going to see one-star reviews that mean even less. Your only real option -- if you absolutely must read your reviews -- is to read the negative reviews and see if there's anything you can learn from them.
That means that if you're a reviewer, the best way to help a writer is to be honest. Point out the flaws, offer suggestions for improvement, warn them not to quit the day job. But no one is going to make you do that. If you don't mind promoting books you know aren't well written, that's okay. If you don't want to review those books at all, that's okay, too. If it's more important to you to be nice than to be honest, you're perfectly free to make that choice. You will, of course, have to live with any consequences of that choice.
If you're a reader looking for recommendations you can depend on, the job is even harder. You're going to have to find those reviewers whose opinions you trust. They aren't going to find you!
Each of us, whether we are a reader, a writer, a reviewer, or any combination thereof, has our own style and our own requirements. We will each have our own followers; we will each choose who to follow. It is up to us to determine how we're going to review, what our criteria will be, what our tone and our objectives will be. It's not up to anyone else to tell us how to do it, any more than it is up to any individual reviewer to tell us what we can and cannot, should or should not, read. Or write.
However, neither will any of us be automatically protected from the consequences of our choices. If you choose to be like Harriet Klausner and only give five-star reviews to everything that comes in your mailbox, do not be surprised if writers love you but readers don't take you seriously. If you choose to flay bad writing and contrived plots and plywood characters, be prepared for the slings and arrows of outraged writers and their fans.
A review that's posted publicly is for the public as much as a published book is for the public's consumption. There are still channels for private communication, but the public review is not one of them. And if your public review isn't really for the public, then maybe you should reconsider putting it out there. If you don't want feedback -- and especially negative feedback -- then maybe publication, even of a review, isn't your best course of action.
Regardless what you choose to do, remember that everyone else has the same freedom to choose and deserves to have that right respected even if you don't agree with them.