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.