19 September 2011

Boundaries of the Writing Community

Recently I followed a discussion on AQC, about whether some critical comments were or were not appropriate in regards to a fellow member's writing. I saw no harm in the criticism - we're writers, and not everything we write will be received well by everyone else. That's okay. But the conversation - along with the recent publicity about paying for fake reviews - got me thinking about the obligations, expectations, and boundaries of the writing community. (On a brief side note, you can read my honest review pledge by clicking on the tab at the top of the page.)

There's a sense - I believe now, more than ever - that we're all in this together. We're all navigating the same murky waters, trying to break into an industry that's changing every day. And we do support each other. I love supporting those writers whose work I believe in.

However, I've come across the sentiment in some indie- and self-pub circles that all criticism should essentially be squashed. We need to support each other! If one wins, we all win! If one loses, we all lose! Rah-rah-sis-boom-bah! All that sort of mindless cheerleading.

Should you post a less-than-glowing review on Amazon, where it could potentially affect sales? Some would say no. But I say why not? If it's your honest opinion, not motivated by spite or anything like that, why not? If you bought the latest book by a NYT bestseller and didn't like it, would you refrain from reviewing it on Amazon because it was critical in nature? Just look at how many people bash Twilight, or The DaVinci Code, etc. But take an indie- or self-published author, and suddenly it seems like a different beast altogether. That's when all the cheering and jeering starts again.

We're all in this together! A negative review could hurt their sales. We're a community!

It doesn't sit quite right with me, though. Yes, I am a writer in a community of writers, many of whom I like a lot. I want to see those writers whose writing I adore shoot to the top and have great success. But if someone who frequents the same message boards and forums that I do publishes a book, that doesn't automatically make it off-limits for my criticism, does it? Why should it?

The purpose of a review is to share your opinion of a story and the writing with other people who have read, or may be considering reading, that book. It's true, a particularly good or bad review may sway some customers' decisions on whether or not to buy the book. Should we let that stop us from posting a review that isn't all puppy dogs and rainbows? If it's the latest Dean Koontz, I bet most of you would say no, it shouldn't matter, we're all entitled to our opinions. If it's a self-published author, though, trying to eke out a living...? Tell me what you think. Here's what I think (apologies in advance if it's a bit blunt).

Once you publish a book - I don't care how you do it - reviews are fair game. I'm talking genuine, honest reviews, based on the content of the book and the quality of the writing, and nothing else. I don't care if you publish with a major house, an independent press, or if you self-publish. You're in the business now, and people will have opinions. I don't care if we belong to the same online communities, if we chat on Twitter, whatever. If I think you've delivered a sub-par product, I should feel free to say so in my review, just the same as I would if I were talking about Nicholas Sparks. As callous as it sounds, I'm not terribly concerned with your sales (or Nicholas Sparks' sales, or any author's sales).

There's a real danger in the false back-patting that I've seen in indie- and self-pub circles. I'm not here to blow smoke up anyone's ass about their talent. If I don't mean it, I won't say it. I won't be pressured into giving something a better review than I think it deserves simply because the author and I are both signed-in-blood-card-carrying members of the writing community. Likewise, I can't be pressured into withholding a review that may carry some pointed criticism, despite the very real fact that reviews can affect sales.

As aspiring writers, how often do we complain about what we see as mediocre quality novels being published while our own superior (in our eyes) stories go unnoticed and as-yet-unpublished? As readers, how often have we picked up a much-hyped book, only to be disappointed? And that's with the stuff that's already made it through the so-called gatekeepers of traditional publishing. With the digital publishing push, there are oceans of new books to wade through every day. If we keep our criticisms to ourselves - or worse, if we let the idea of "community" guilt us into giving sugar-coated reviews - how will we then, as readers, be able to spot the proverbial diamond in the rough? And how will we, as writers, expect our own stories to stand out in the crowd if everyone has the same rose-colored reviews?

If and when my novels are published, I'll expect both good and bad reviews. Not everyone will like what and how I write. If a customer reads a negative review that resonates with them, so be it. Other customers will be swayed by the positive reviews. If the negatives outweigh the positives, and my sales aren't good, then I need to put out a better product, simple as that.

Would you post a critical review of an author you're familiar with through social networking or writing websites? Have you ever felt pressure to post a positive review no matter what you actually thought? I'd like to hear your take on things.


  1. Here's a thought: the negative reviews are the real show of the book's worth. Every book's gonna have them, but sometimes they're more telling than all the positive put together: some people think it's awful to have a dyed-in-the-wool EVILLLLL villain; others find that fun and entertaining. The recent remake of "Arthur" absolutely sucked as a Romantic Comedy-- but it made for a great drama. They give you a litmus test of the worst you should expect, the things others might have found offensive (like bad spelling and grammar), which might itself be a draw to your own tastes.

    Just a thought. But thank you so much for your honesty!

  2. Is there an I-agree-completely emoticon? Because I do. In fact, I have a long-ass ranty blog post about this that I can't post without probably pissing off a bunch of people. (Mine is much more vehement than yours. *ahem*)

    I am pretty new to the writing community, but have found it to be very supportive. Already I've gotten pressure from a few different sources about either posting higher reviews, or not posting any at all. While the first one seems worst than the second, both are bad in that they artificially inflate a book's rating.

    I really don't see why I have to do either of these. I am honest, and on the occasion that I hand out a lower review, I try to state my reasons in such a way that someone else can decide if it's right for them. Honestly, once a book hits a certain number of reviews, some negative ones are expected otherwise it actually looks strange.

    I really wish writers would get off this idea that giving ratings are in any way a marketing service that I'm doing for the writer. They're not. They are a service to the reader, by me, another reader.

  3. "I really wish writers would get off this idea that giving ratings are in any way a marketing service that I'm doing for the writer. They're not. They are a service to the reader, by me, another reader." <---- This!!! Well said, Amber. And yes, if I look online at reviews for a book and every last one is glowing, I am actually more skeptical and hesitant.

    Moonshade, that is so true about critical reviews often being more useful in informing us about the book.

  4. Great post! Totally agree! I haven't run into this issue personally, but I've seen it happening around the blogosphere especially with people who self-pub.
    To me, reviews are lot like critical feedback on a manuscript – some things will work for some people and not for others. Some things are opinion (such as not liking the direction the ending took), other things are craft issues that need to be addressed (such as grammar, spelling, etc.). When you get a critique, you sift through it and decide what resonates and what doesn't.
    The problem I see with a lot of people who self-pub is that those reviews are the first critical feedback they've ever received because they didn’t do their due diligence and seek out the community’s help, they just threw up their first novel on Amazon because they could. Or they have sought out critical advice and decided their beta readers were idiots and didn’t get their vision. There have been a couple of people in the past year or two who’ve self-pubbed and bombed SPECTACULARLY and PUBLICLY because they just couldn’t take critical feedback, and it’s gone viral fast.
    This isn’t to say ALL people who self-pub can’t take a crit or have a badly written novel—far from it! I know a few people who are choosing this path and have fantastic, well-crafted books out there. But even those books that have professional input and years of revision and craft put into them are still not going to get all good reviews. Frankly, asking someone to give you a good review because you’re buds is unethical. In the long run, it will do them more harm than good. If they only get good reviews and people buy their books and don’t like them, they won’t buy the next one. They won’t recommend them to their friends. Fake buzz never really works.
    This reminds of a situation at a job I once had—the company had one review on a professional industry website and it was negative. So instead of taking a look at the critical feedback, management informed the staff that they all MUST create a fake username with their personal email (so it couldn’t be traced to the company) and to logon to the site to post a positive review to get their rating up. I was absolutely disgusted since I use that website to learn about companies like them while job searching. Needless to say, I did not post a fake review; I reported them.
    Telling anyone to post a fake or even watered down review for the “good of the whole_____” is just wrong. Hiding faults does not make them disappear. A bad review or critical feedback is something to learn from and move on. If we don’t know what we’re doing wrong, we’ll never improve!

  5. Wow, sorry, that was a LOT longer than I thought it was! LOL. Apparently your post struck the quite the chord with me :)

  6. Thanks for stopping by, MK! No worries on the long post. I love hearing everyone's thoughts and experiences. It's pretty appalling that your old workplace would do something like that, but good on you for reporting them!

  7. I feel very similarly, and have my fingers crossed that you will read and review my book, since I know I'll be reading something honestly said. And as an aside, I think non-glowing reviews actually increase sales. So there!

  8. Charlaine Harris does a Book and a Blog post where she reviews a handful of books she's reading. Every once in a while she'll acknowledge that she read a book without saying anything about it. You know she didn't like it. It's the classic "if you don't have anything nice to say." That said, I'm very distrustful of all glowing reviews and sometimes find the negative reviews steer me towards a book (particularly if they are complaining about it being too steamy!)


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