Adventures In Reviewing: To Review Or Not To Review….

If there’s anything a writer understands, it’s another writer’s search for reviews. We need them. We need them to propel sales, we need them to garner interest around the book blogosphere, and if we ever hope to enter the hallowed halls of Bookbub-advertised authors, they are indispensable.

That being so, when someone suggested that I join a non-reciprocal review group on Goodreads (non-reciprocal meaning that authors strictly don’t review authors who have reviewed them), I thought it was a great idea. I mean, it was foolproof! No-one could be accused of the kind of I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine kind of review, and all the reviews would be fair and unbiased. And there would be, yanno, reviews.

So I joined a non-reciprocal review group, eager to see who I’d come into contact with, and ready to review the books of others. I knew there was a chance that people wouldn’t like my book and would rate it low (after all, that’s the chance we all take), but I was feeling good about the whole thing. I’d even been able to find a ‘clean’ round within the review group. No sex scenes to watch out for, and nothing I wouldn’t really like to read. I couldn’t go wrong!

Then I got my randomly-assigned read-to-review books, and had my first unpleasant moment. It hadn’t really occurred to me in the lead-up to signing up with the review group that I might end up with any really badly-written books. Unfortunately, I did. Oh boy, was it a doozy! No plot, dreadful writing, unbelievable and cardboard characters, and a level of political hackery that made the entire books seem like a fantasy manifesto of what politics should be like. That was reckoning without the grammatical errors, wrong and missing punctuation, and wrong homonyms. I read it through and took notes anyway, growing more and more anxious about having to review it. It wasn’t even up to a standard of three stars, and I hated to think that I was going to have to give another author less than three stars. Much to my joy, the next book was much better, and my third, although I was conflicted about it and found a little to criticise in it, was very well written.

My second unpleasant moment was when, having read three of the four assigned books in three days, the moderator of the group very sweetly and cleverly insinuated that both I and another member hadn’t really read the books. I was taken aback and more than a little sickened at the veiled accusation. Surely we were all readers as well as writers? In my mind, there is no lover of books who can’t read at least one book a day when in the mood. When I’m in the reading mood, I read anywhere from 1-3 books per day. I pointed out to the mod that two of the books had been very short, and tried to put the nastiness out of my mind. I already had the impression that this wasn’t the group for me, and that the unpleasantness of such a group made the possible profits not worthwhile. I was soon to be proved quite right.

In the end, I gave the dreadful book two stars (and thought it generous). Since it didn’t seem fair to give a fellow author’s book such a low rating without justifying it, I went into some detail with my review. After all, it had already been suggested that I hadn’t read the books, and I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t be accused of that again. Feeling sick and anxious about the whole thing, I uploaded the review to the required sites.

I woke up the next morning to find a message in my Goodread inbox. You can insert your choice of dum dum daaaaaah! music here. The author had seen my review, had taken exception to it, and was demanding that I start a dialogue with him about the thing he found most offensive about my review. It was also suggested, though not outright said, that I should be changing my review. To make a long, nasty story quite a bit shorter, I replied, indicating that I wouldn’t be changing my review, stating my reasons for giving the review I had given, and closing with a gentle reminder that it wasn’t professional to harass a reviewer for their review. The author sent back a shorter, nastier message, and contacted the moderator.

I then had the joy of receiving a message from the moderator that accused me of personally attacking the author in my review (amongst other things) and suggesting that I would be happier in another review group. By this time I was regretting that I’d ever taken the advice of joining a non-reciprocal review group. It was also at this point that I began to think that non-reciprocal reviews, earned in such a manner, weren’t exactly non-reciprocal. If every author going into this group was going into it with the attitude that they had to be kind and careful in their reviews, and expected the same in return regardless of the quality of the book, how was that different from reviewing the author who was reviewing you? They would feel constrained to review in a certain way, and with a certain amount of stars–thus making the review essentially reciprocal.
I had begun to feel exceedingly squicky about the whole thing: almost as if I’d bought and paid for reviews. And though a second message from the moderator indicated that they had spoken to the author about the inappropriateness of not contacting reviewers, I was still left with a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Fortunately, as with all things in life, every cloud has a silver lining and two lovely things have come out of the experience. I’ve met Loralee Evans, who was honest and truthful in her reviews, and who helped me out with invaluably sensible advice when I didn’t know what to do. (She’s also recently guest-posted for me: check it out!)
The other thing that made me exceedingly happy was meeting Dan Buri, whose book I was very conflicted about and rated 3 stars. He was a gentleman about it from start to finish, and never harassed or pressured me to change my review, though I know from experience that getting a lower-starred review isn’t at all pleasant. He was such a breath of fresh air after the nastiness with the other author.

Will I ever join another non-reciprocal review group? Heck no. It’s not my thing, and I hate the horrible feeling when I have to rate a book lower than I’d like to be rated myself. But the experience wasn’t all bad, and for those strong people who go into it with the determination of being truthful and accepting truth in return, it’s both useful and honourable.

In the end, as an author, it’s all up to you. To review, or not to review?

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