Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fifty Shades of Gray Area: The perils of writing an honest review

By Melissa Amster

I recently encountered some situations, one being my own, where reviewers came to me to ask if they really had to post a review given that they weren't fond of the book and didn't feel comfortable posting a review that could potentially damage the author's sales. In all the instances, including my own, I felt it fair to contact the author and let them know that we wouldn't be reviewing the book for those reasons. It's such a sticky gray area though. As reviewers, we're expected to be honest with our readers as to our thoughts on a book. However, we've formed relationships and connections with authors and if we really didn't like their book, it will come at a cost to them. Thankfully, the authors we contacted were very understanding. The one from my situation said it would be alright to share my opinion with her privately. She understood and appreciated what I had to say. Another author was open to having her book featured as a Book of the Week instead. (For BOTW, we don't give our opinions on the books, but instead allow readers to decide for themselves if it would interest them. We have a bit more diversity with what we post there.) A while back, Amy shared her thoughts about authors reactions to bad reviews in a post from Chicklit Club.

No two readers are alike and someone else might like a book that we didn't or vice versa. Is it fair for us to potentially jade them against reading a book? I know I tend to not have interest in a book if a reviewer whom I respect didn't like that book. It just comes with the territory.

When I review a book, I look at it from both the positive and negative sides. I am not afraid to share if the book has poor spelling and grammar, something didn't sit right with me, it ended abruptly, etc. However, if I can't give a balanced review where I have one thing I liked for each thing I didn't like, I don't feel that it's worth writing the review at the expense of hurting the author's sales. I am glad when I get to give a glowing review because I loved a book so much. Even if I find one thing to criticize, I'm still glad I was able to sing the praises for that book. It is rare that I come across a perfect book, even if I love the author. I do my best to be as fair as possible. If I can't even get into the book, the chances of me reviewing it are nil, as it just was not up my alley. It doesn't mean that someone else wouldn't like it, but why is it my place to say I couldn't get past chapter one and watch the author's sales suffer as a result. I don't think the weight of their sales is on my shoulders, but I only want to help, not hurt!

There was a time when I read a book from an author I liked, but with whom I had no personal connection. I chose not to review their book on my blog, as I didn't have much to say that was positive. I wrote a short review on Goodreads about it though. Even though they're a bestselling author and my review wouldn't make or break their sales, I still felt wrong posting so much negativity on my blog. I feel this is a place to celebrate chick lit, not berate what we read.

This got me thinking, Carrie Bradshaw style...

If someone doesn't like a book, are they obligated to be honest with their readers even if it could hurt the author's sales?

I took to the "streets" to find out what other people thought. I asked within our group, as well as some bloggers whose reviews I also respect. I also asked authors for their thoughts and will be posting those at another time.

Melissa Patafio, Partner of Chick Lit Central:
I think there really is a difference between writing an "honest" review and outright trashing an author/book. Writing what you disliked about the book and writing what you dislike about the author are two completely different things. Recently, a blogger wrote a nasty "review" of a well known author's latest work, but completely tore the author herself apart, not just the book. In this case, I would not call it a review at all, but a personal attack of an individual. I believe that if we dislike a book then it is ok to say that it just wasn't enjoyable and that is our right, but to tear down the author because what's on the pages doesn't appeal to us is downright uncalled for.

Hurting an author’s book sales as the side effect of a real and honest review is one thing, but trying to hurt their reputation and bash their morals or integrity intentionally is wrong. There are ways to get your point across without being aggressive or a bully.

Gail Allison, reviewer for Chick Lit Central:
When I'm reviewing a book, I try really hard to find something positive about it that I think our readers would be able to relate to. Even though it's all chick lit, folks still have their personal preferences, and some of the stuff I like is definitely not the same as some of the stuff other people like. If there's a book that I just can't find anything positive about (yup, it's happened), then I won't write a negative review about it. I don't think that's fair. Our reviews are opinions, and as such should all be taken with a grain of salt. Instead, I'll check with the other reviewers and see if they're interested in giving the book a shot. Maybe it's something that will appeal to them! On the flip side, I don't think it's fair to either our audience or the author to pretend everything is kittens and rainbows wonderful with a book. I also try to provide constructive criticism, and hopefully add something to that author's thought process that might help them to create a slightly more well-rounded end product with the next go-round.

Kathryn Hamilton, reviewer for Chick Lit Central:
As a reviewer, it is inevitable that you are going to come across a book you don't like. Thankfully, I haven't come across this yet, but there have been a few times when I have had issues with certain aspects of a novel, and this isn't any easier to deal with. I think that it is my responsibility to give an honest review, but do so in a tactful way. I often do this by expressing my criticism and then putting in a "disclaimer" of sorts that this is just my opinion. So far authors have been receptive of this approach and I haven't had any negative feedback. However, I think that if I didn't like a book at all, I would still post the review, but I would also share it with the author. In the end, I feel that readers will make their own decisions about whether or not a book is of interest to them regardless of the review because they are cognizant of the fact that it is just one person's opinion.

Cindy Roesel, reviewer for Chick Lit Central:
Reading novels before they are published is a special gift bestowed upon reviewers. We don't get paid, at least not at my level. I imagine they do at The Miami Herald and The New York Times. I receive the occasional free book and I'm grateful for it. I also get to discover new authors, which can be exciting. But it can also not be a positive experience when you're still expected to write a review of a book you didn't enjoy. At this point, what do you do? Do you write the truth, gloss over, or essentially lie? I can only tell you my perspective and I believe it's a unique one, because I'm both a reviewer and a published novelist, subject to being reviewed.

As in my life, I believe honesty is the best policy. Every book I'm sent comes with a pitch from the publicist and lately, more often than not, I discover my own angle after reading the book. That's one of the exciting discoveries about reading a new novel and writer. Once I received a book and I told the writer I just couldn't write a review because I didn't "get it." It was in the paranormal genre which I don't connect with, so I can't fairly judge. I had read several of her other books, so I felt I was honest.

I believe some reviewers think their job is to be sarcastic and snarky. I don't believe that is mine. I also don't think it is my job to worry about whether or not my review will affect sales figures for the author. Let's face it, I'm reviewing for Chick Lit Central, so we're all hoping to find happy endings and great stories and wonderful readers! Nothing is better than getting a five star review like Jillian Medoff recently gave me on Amazon for my book!

If I had to give advice on writing a book review that wasn't favorable, there would be two main things I'd want to stress. The first is that when you are critiquing the book, be sure that it is focused on the work and not the author. The second, which runs parallel with the first, is be sure you can support your opinion. Saying a book "sucks" without giving a specific example of why doesn't fly. Saying a book wasn't as good as it could be because the characters weren't believable is more creditable.

Ultimately, I feel that book blogs have a responsibility more so to their reader than the publishers, when it comes to reviews. The ARC copies are given to reviewers with the understanding that a fair and honest review will be given, which may mean a negative review will result.

In the event that there is a less favorable review, bloggers will have to manage that relationship with the publicist, publisher or author, so the review doesn't completely terminate the relationship.

Julie Peterson, Booking Mama:
I rarely write negative reviews, but occasionally I can't help it. Usually, I try to read books that sound like ones I'd enjoy so that definitely limits my negative reviews. Since I started blogging, I always try to approach writing a review in a positive way -- yet also in an honest one. I keep in mind that the author put everything into their story so I try to find something redeeming about the book. If I am really struggling, I might mention that this book wasn't really for me, but I can see that _____ audience might appreciate it. If all else fails, I try to find positive reviews in the blogosphere and link to them.

My general thoughts are that it feels a little easier to be critical of a faceless author's work, e.g. if you're sent their work by a publisher. With those who contact you personally, it feels harder and feels more appropriate to let them know if you won't be able to provide a positive review. All in all though, there are usually positives to be found in every book. So as long as you give a balanced view and think of a possible market for the book if it's not for you then there's no harm in it. We all have different tastes and can be respectful at the same time.

Jonita Fex, The Book Chick:
As a book blogger I feel that I have responsibilities to both the author of the book that I'm reviewing as well as any potential readers. I owe the author a fair and honest review and I owe the potential book reader honesty so they don't end up wasting their money on something that I have misrepresented. Thankfully it's not often that I read a book that I strongly dislike, but if I do I will write the most honest and fair review that I can. I will summarize the book plot and then highlight the parts of the story that I enjoyed, followed by my opinion about the parts that I didn't enjoy! To this date there have only been a handful of books where I struggled to find anything positive about it, and in those extreme and rare cases I e-mailed the author and politely let them know that the book was not a good fit for me and that I would not be reviewing it.

I will never go out and deliberately try to hurt an author's sales. That's not fair to the author, especially because it could just be a case of a book not being a good fit for me personally. However I will also not be dishonest about a book. If I say that I loved it, you'd better believe that I loved it, and if I didn't like it all that much, my review will show you that. If I ever lose my integrity as a book blogger, I believe that it would be time for me to retire my blog.

Laura Kay, A Novel Review:
I’m pretty careful in my book selection; I choose to review books I would go to the store and possibly buy. Even with that, I’ve come across a book or two I wasn’t thrilled with. One of them I simply couldn’t finish. It was boring and taking me forever to read, which causes me issues with my TBR pile get backed up. I simply put the book down. Some books have a slow start, so it seemed unfair to review it. It was an author request and she never got back to me. I had decided I would be honest. With a book I completed reading and didn’t like, I reviewed it discussing more of the story line. I stated something positive, something negative and tried to end on a positive. I made sure to mention I wasn’t the target audience. Just because I didn’t like something doesn’t mean someone else won’t love it.

Megan Snider, Write Meg:
When it comes to discussing a book I found less than stellar, I give myself time before writing my review -- all so I can organize my thoughts and not come across as mean-spirited. Since my reviews are geared toward fellow readers, not authors, I do not contact an author ahead of a critical review; I just make sure I'm being as fair as I can. When reviewing a book, I feel obligated to be honest -- and know that others' trust in my opinions will disappear faster than an ice-cold Slurpee on a summer day if I start writing bland, vanilla reviews of books that were actually pretty terrible. While I never want to be mean for the sake of being mean, I have to be honest. Just have to.

Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts about honest reviews and the gray area that goes along with them.
Stay tuned for another post where we'll be featuring authors and their thoughts on receiving a bad review, even if it's honest....


Janice said...

I admire your ethics Melissa. I could review a book I did not like, but it would be difficult. I have zero interest in reading 50 Shades of Gray. There are too many other fabulous other books to read!

I also liked reading the opinions of the other reviewers. Great thoughts!

Steph said...

Great article! I think there is a place for reviewing books you didn't enjoy. I'm sure readers understand it's just one person's opinion. My secret: I never read a review before I've done my own, so I don't get swayed by other people's opinions or annoyed by those who give away TOO MUCH of the plot! Also I get very dubious when I see only 5-star reviews on Amazon (it makes me think it's their mum, sister and best friend). How can we know what is a true 5-star book (Jojo Moyes, we're talking about you here) if reviewers only post their positive reviews. But if you do write a negative review have the guts to do it under your full name. On Chicklit Club, we have a policy our reviewers' names must be on the site - I don't think you should be allowed to remain anonymous if you are giving your opinion on someone else's hard work.

Anonymous said...

Really appreciate how you put this piece together, Melissa! Very thoughtful and informative. Cindy Roesel

Unknown said...

Highly enjoyed this article Melissa. I'm always wondering how bloggers handle this sensitive issue, and it was really great to read all of the individual perspectives.

As an author, it can be devastating (shouldn't be, but it can be) to see one unflattering review...even if you've just read ten glowing ones. But I do think it's very generous of bloggers like yourself to pass on writing a review, rather than leaving a bad one.

David Reinwald said...

I think it is great that you all respect the community of readers and authors alike that you have created. As a reviewer of books, theater, and music I have found it to be good to always balance out any negative aspects with the positive elements that work. Sometimes, in explaining what didn't work, it comes across less as negativity and more as constructive-criticism and a word for the wise.

Kimberley Dian said...

Wow! I never thought of it quite like this! I typically don't write reviews. I don't mind telling people what I think if they ask, but for the most part I think reading is such a personal experience. No two people will feel exactly the same way on every aspect of a book. The only time I put a negative comment on Goodreads was about Nicholas Sparks most recent book! Now I feel like I shouldn't have!! I was so disappointed though and in 'the moment' I felt I had to 'warn' others! We are used to expecting certain things from his books...he definitely has a 'method', but I usually LOVE his books and even 'understand' why what happens happens. So didn't get it in this one! But, that was MY opinion! Thanks for putting this all in one place! Great things to think about and consider! I know I wouldn't want someone to trash me just because they didn't like what one of my characters did! So nice to not do that with others! I LOVE this blog!!

Lilian said...

Some very insightful thoughts here, thank you for the wonderful post!

As a book blogger, how much I dislike a book, I try to start and end on a positive note, encouraging others to try out the book even if it wasn't my cup of tea. And there are books that I might not like, but I definitely admire for literary merit.

I don't see myself as a professional book critic, and my blog is just a platform for me to share my thoughts on books. Unlike others whose primary aim is to promote books, I blog for myself. It's my way of summarizing my thoughts, and analyzing a book after I'm done (it's my way of "annotating".)
And that's also why I don't particularly care for advertising and monetizing my blog--it's too time consuming--I rather be reading.

I have yet to give a book a completely "negative" review though...but I suspect it's because if I hate a book, I wouldn't have finished it anyway. And I find reviewing a book without finishing it to be unfair.

I would like to think that all authors will be understanding and value my opinions rather than take them as a personal attack, but I guess there are always expectations (though I'm fortunate enough not to have encountered any.)

From my stance, I don't believe in not posting a negative review (assuming that it's a fair, openminded one) since if everyone only have five star reviews to everything they read...they how can we separate the cream, and what would be the point of reviews then?
And I think readers/book buyers can tell if reviews are fair. In fact, I purposely read the negative reviews to get a clearer picture before buying a book.

I am looking forward to the post where authors give their side of the story.

Lilian @ A Novel Toybox

susieqlaw said...

I really enjoyed your article. So many readers rely on reviews to make a book purchase.

cy creed said...

I'm fascinated with the thought and care that goes into reviewing what can be horrible books. To give the time and attention you seem to is akin to the saying on a pillow I own:

"Don't mistake endurance for hospitality."

Back to Shades of Grey....I got through half of it before I realized it was not unlike a trip to the gynocologist's office but not as entertaining. Even my daughter, a Twilight fan, couldn't get through it!

Love your blog and hope to read more soon!

Cy Creed

mep said...

I've been a mommy blogger for years, but have been wanting to start a book blog for over a year now. Have the name, the domain, lots of ideas, etc., just waiting for more hours in the day! Anyway, I have been thinking a lot about how I would handle reviews of books I don't like. I think a reviewer has every right to write a negative review, so long as it is done as fairly and respectfully as possible. That being said, I want my blog to be a place where people can come and learn about "slam dunks" -- the books I think other people might really, really enjoy. I have limited writing time so I think I'd rather focus on celebrating great books. I realize I'm writing from the perspective of someone who has not yet built relationships with authors, publishers, and publicists and someone who does not receive free books or ARCS. I'm sure that sense of obligation complicates things. I think I'd rather buy my own review copies then worry about writing about books I don't feel like talking about anymore.

The Book Chick said...

Thanks for putting this together, Melissa! This was a fascinating article with lots of great points and opinions. People may not realize how much this particular issue can affect book bloggers when we are faced with writing an unpleasant review! Looking forward to the author article.

Savannah Page said...

Love and really appreciate this article. As an author, it can be difficult to deal with a negative or low-star review or rating. But constructive criticism is always appreciated if the review will have some negative aspects. (Let's face it, no one's perfect and there's always room for improvement.) And, of course, praise is always welcome!

I really appreciate the thought behind choosing to forego writing a review so as to not hurt the author's sales. In the end I agree that honesty is the best policy; but again everyone's opinion and taste is individual, and being kind, constructive, and chicklit-cheerful :) is always a great way to go!

Thank you for all of your hard work, Chick Lit Central team!

Clodagh said...

This is a really interesting post, Melissa. As an author, obviously a negative review is always going to be upsetting - because authors are human beings, after all, and your writing is very personal. Having said that, I've had some 3-star reviews that I'm as proud of as the 5-star ones because I feel the reviewer has really engaged with the novel and 'got it', even if there were some aspects they felt didn't work so well.

I think giving a thoughtful review is the important thing - and I also appreciate your policy of not reviewing a book if you have nothing positive to say.

As a reader, I wouldn't trust a reviewer who always loved everything. Readers need to know that the blogger will give an honest opinion or else it becomes meaningless.

Understandably it complicates things when authors and bloggers form relationships in social media, etc. But I think most authors really appreciate the work you do, just out of love for books - and it's wonderful for chick lit authors to have sites like yours where they can connect with readers and get reviewed, as the genre tends not be widely reviewed in the press.

I think you're doing a fantastic job! Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Really great post. I recently posed a related question on Twitter . . . I wondered (also Carrie style) if aspiring novelists can really be trusted to write honest reviews on their blogs, Amazon, Goodreads, etc. Everyone is (understandably) worried about karma. As a reader, I have to say that I take positive book reviews from some of my fellow bloggers with a grain of salt. For that same reason and self-awareness, I do not write reviews on my blog. I feature books occasionally but I never call those posts reviews. They're really more "recommendations" or a shared story about how I've related to the book somehow. To call those types of a post a review is misleading since a review implies a critical analysis of sorts. (Doesn't have to be a slam, but I'm not sure a review can and should always be a rave.)

Anyway, I feel the pain of the book bloggers out there and the relationships that get formed with authors. What if you love one book and not the next?

I've made the mistake of announcing a book I'm reading on Twitter by a fellow Twitter pal. Sometimes 25% in I realize I have no desire to finish. I'm never sure what to do since I list the books I'm reading on my blog with pithy two-line or so thoughts on the experience.

I guess, I don't really have the answer. But I love that you're discussing this here. Wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

Just want to add that I LOVE supporting authors, which is why I see and understand the's why I just do recommendations and not reviews. Many people in town tell me they've picked up a book on my recommendations. With that knowledge, I feel extra pressure not to say I loved something when I didn't. So I only talk about books I love when I devote an entire post to a book.

Also, any chance of you turning off the word captcha? So hard to comment from phone! ;)