Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Indie Author’s Review Dilemma

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Author Series 

Every author will, at some point, find themselves in a position of having to review or blurb another author’s work. Even trad pubbed authors with a hard no-review, no-blurb policy occasionally, sometimes at the insistence of their publisher, find themselves forced to pass an opinion in public on another author’s novel. For authors in the self- and indie-pub community, where online reviews are often the only kind they get, the pressure to blurb, endorse, review, or otherwise pass judgment comes even more frequently.

A couple of years ago during the Amazon sock-puppet review flap, there was a flurry of panic when it seemed Amazon was going to apply a policy of disallowing and deleting all author reviews, presumably on the assumption that authors were five-starring one another’s books like crazy. Although I’m sure there’ve been, and probably still are instances of this, I doubt it’s common; it’s also a really good way to torpedo your own credibility and, ultimately, your career.

I do know some authors who hold fast to a no-review policy. But authors are readers too, and provided that one remains absolutely honest when reviewing another author’s work, I see no reason to take such a hard line.

My own approach is to take requests on a case-by-case basis, and with the clear understanding that I’ll only review a book that I finish; that I won’t finish it if it really doesn’t grab me; and that any review will be absolutely honest. Since I’m a pretty demanding reader with a high bar for quality, it’s very unlikely I’ll finish a book that isn’t at least decent. I’ll give a book 20 or at most 30 pages, and if I’m not hooked by then, I’m done with it—life’s too short, and my reading time is too precious. So in practice it’s unlikely I’ll give anything less than three stars, simply because nothing will make me read a bad book: the problem takes care of itself. And I’ll never agree to swap reviews, or endorse a book I think is flawed.

That said, I’ve read some books by friends or peers that have interested me enough to finish, and yet have such glaring faults in one area that it’s impossible to give an honest review without addressing that. An example of this would be a novel with terrific conceptual ideas or worldbuilding, but where the character work is wanting; or perhaps tremendous character work and a galloping plot whose climax, unfortunately, turns out to hinge on something so improbable as to be beyond credibility. Faced with such a situation, how can you write a review without on the one hand giving offense, and on the other compromising your integrity?

As in critique, I think it’s perfectly possible and acceptable to address a work’s faults without being nasty about it. The first thing to do is check your ego. Even though any review is subjective, we can be objective in our phrasing, praising the work’s strengths while addressing its weaknesses, and reflecting this in the rating. A five-star review, in my estimation, should be a very rare thing, only applied when a book is firing on all cylinders. In either of the examples above, my review is likely to be a three-star, and I’d be reluctant to blurb it.

Again, I want to make it clear that if the flaws are so egregious as to wreck the book for me, I’m not going to finish it, and so the question of review or endorsement is moot. If the author of such a book asks me what I thought of it, I’ll give them an honest critique, as tactfully as I can. If they don’t ask, I’m not going to ruin their day: that does nobody any good. By the same token, I expect no favors from anyone else. I may ask someone if they’d consider blurbing or reviewing my own work, but I’d never, ever ask or expect them to lower their standards or upgrade their comments, no matter how close we may be.

In conclusion, then, I think it’s worth thinking hard about one’s policy on review/endorsement requests and sticking with it, no matter whom the request comes from. I recently had someone “like” my Amazon author page without my ever asking it or even knowing they’d done it until I got a message that they’d done so, and a request to return the favor! This sort of thing doesn’t even merit a reply in my opinion, much less reciprocation. Having a thought-out, even publicly stated policy, will keep you from getting into hot water down the road.

Have you ever been asked to review something, maybe by a good friend, and found yourself in a tough spot as a result? How did you handle it?

Happy Holidays!

Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream.

Website | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound 


  1. I'm the type of person who, if asked, "Does this dress make me look fat?" will answer honestly. Some people think me rude for it. People who end up my friends appreciate that, if they ask my opinion on something, they'll get it. (And they intentionally ask my opinion, even on things that they know will result in 5-minute monologues, and discuss my answers, so I must be interesting.)

    I carry that into my reviews, as well. I do my best to be gracious and rate something based on what it is, rather than on what I was wishing it was. For instance, if something has unclear character motivations in a genre where that's actually the standard (like hard sci-fi or Christian fiction), I'll be more gracious than I will be in a genre that's more character-based (like romance or soft sci-fi).

    I leave reviews knowing I could get accused of having an agenda or get review-bombed on my own work by someone who doesn't get the entire "reader hat" vs. "author hat" thing. Since it's so stressful to review, I still don't do so often.

    When a review is negative, I do pinpoint specifics, like a translated phrases book where the Spanish was outright wrong, which made me doubt the accuracy of the languages I didn't know. Or a novel where the character decision fit the character but made me want to slap her silly because she was being an idiot. ("Oh, no! The guy who's said all along that he's going to manipulate me into doing X actually did so! How could he! I'm going to run back to the guy who claims he'd never manipulate me but constantly does so." *headdesk*)

    Even in positive reviews, I try to consider items some people won't like, to include warning. *shrug* That's who reviews are for—other readers—so I figure they're well worth leaving.

    1. Carradee, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Review-bombing of one's own work, which others below have mentioned, is another pitfall; it's also one I honestly hadn't considered, because I'm always astonished that people are so damn petty and spiteful. Your point about reviewing a book *based on what it is* is also well-taken.

  2. I find it hard to review books now that I write them, too. Reviews can feel like make-or-break things. I've found myself a member of a book club that REQUIRES members to review books of other members. This really makes one stop and think before leaving a review because of the fear of "retaliation" reviews.

    1. Carradee above mentioned the retaliation concern. But when you say "book club", do you mean *writer's* book club (I assume you do, given your point)? That's a rather extreme requirement, IMO, and not one I'd be comfortable with.

  3. I'm a reader as well as a writer and I like to see reviews when I'm book-shopping. As a writer, I know how important they are, especially to new authors. I think I have as much right to review books as anyone else. I don't want to get into quid pro quo situations, however, or offend a friend by not reviewing their book. (Like you, Dario, I won't review it if I didn't really like it.) So I do my reviews under a pseudonym.
    And as a writer, I'm happy to get 3-star reviews. I don't expect everyone to love my every golden word and there is always, always, more to learn about this deep craft.
    Thanks for a thoughtful article!

    1. Anna, you're welcome! Using a pseudonym is one way to go--and you certainly do have every right to review! LOL I prefer to keep everything under my own name, but then again I rarely do reviews anyway, simply because of the time required. Also, I agree there's no nothing bad about a 3-star review: it's real*. I think people are rightly suspicious of all 5-star reviews these days...any book with more than a half-dozen readers is going to get at least some 4-stars, which is still a great review.

  4. I will attempt to review most books when I'm asked, but if I'm swamped, I prefer to remain in my genre - mystery. I won't review genres that are outside my realm like poetry or children's.

    You asked, however, about a sticky situation involving a review, and yes, I was asked to review someone's books after she had reviewed one of mine. I'd seen her do great promo efforts and thought her books would be of the same quality as the marketing. They were not even mediocre. She had not studied the craft, and it was obvious that her day-job in sales had schooled her on promo. I just was not willing to put my name on a review for her - at least a good review.

    I do not give bad reviews if I can help it. I might do so when I read a nationally known author and I felt their quality was slipping, but otherwise, I just don't do the review. In this case, she asked me when I'd get the review done. I had to let her know that I was uncomfortable with a positive review, and that no review was better than an iffy one.

    Sigh...she unfriended me on Facebook and I never heard from her again. So sad. We all have to expect our books to receive some bad reviews. There isn't a book out there that will not earn a one or two-star review. We do not read alike or enjoy the same material.

    But another side of giving a good review on a mediocre book is that it reflects on you as an author. So I stick to good reviews for good books. No reviews for the others.

    1. Hope, I agree with all that--and you did the right thing in the instance you cited, IMO. But, honestly, when I hear stories like this, about people being so petty and behaving so childishly... ugh. This is the action of a shallow, insecure person.

      If only the ability to self-promote went hand-in-hand with artistic talent, the world would be a much better place!

  5. Sorry for the late replies, everyone...Christmas! ;-)

  6. Excellent post, Dario! You covered every important aspect of reviewing and I felt some relief at realizing my own policies were not ridiculous. As an author AND a writing consultant, I simply cannot endorse mediocre work, no matter who the author might be. I've had to gently let down some close acquaintances with the news that their book "wasn't ready to review." I, too, don't spend time on a book that doesn't grab me by the throat quickly. Too many books, too little time!

    1. Toni, thanks so much for commenting, and again, apologies for the late reply (holiday downtime).

      I'm also pleased to know I'm not the only one who feels the need to have a policy, and yet understands the need to remain open to reviewing friends and newer writers without slamming poor work by authors who simply aren't ready for prime time yet. Like any ethical minefield (and there seem to be so many these days), I think the only way to not get oneself into trouble is to really think things through beforehand. Where writer friendships are concerned, great tact and honesty are needed, and there will always be some people who just don't understand...but at least we can minimize these occurrences with foresight.

      I think the phrasing "not ready to review" is just excellent. Too little time indeed!

      Best, and Happy New Year!