As anyone who visits this blog or follows me on Goodreads can see, I’ve been pretty invested in book reviewing lately. It’s something I started way back when I blogged for Let The Words Flow and continued through my still-ongoing stint contributing for Paper Droids. I enjoy it, but lately, I’m questioning the practice.
I most recently reviewed Eleanor Herman’s Voice of Gods and Legacy of Kings. I was thorough and honest in my reviews, and even mentioned in my review for LoK that I want to be more straightforward with my reviews and ratings; I used to be the kind who would mostly rate books 4 and 5 stars for pure enjoyment factor and never really look deeper. Now that I’m a more “serious” writer, I want to take a more analytical eye to the works I read.
But while writing these, I felt an old, nagging worry resurface from the days of my very first negative reviews: what if the author reads this? Am I building up poor writer karma for myself? And what if, one day, I meet that author?
Do authors and aspiring authors have any place in book reviewing?
I reached out to Sara Letourneau on this topic since she also writes reviews in addition to her own work, and she had this great insight:
I both agreed and didn’t. I want to play it safe, but I also want to explore different ways of writing and reading. I want to keep my blog active and create a brand. But what kind of brand am I really forming by writing these reviews? It dawned on me that it might not be as positive as I thought–especially now that my Goodreads profile is that of Author instead of Reader.
I wanted to write about this because I was genuinely torn on my answer and writing is the only way I come to conclusions on difficult topics. I read a few articles and forum threads, reached out to Twitter, and eventually came to a conclusion. But before I go into my ultimate decision, I want to discuss the pros and cons I came up with:
The pros – or, why I write book reviews in the first place
- Writing about what you’ve read helps you form stronger bonds with the material, improving your memory of its characters and plot. My memory often seems unaware that it belongs to someone only in her twenties, and so I enjoy reviewing because I too often forget the details of even some of my favorite books.
- Knowing you have to write a review makes you read more analytically. At least, that’s the case for me. We all begin our writing careers as readers, and it can be difficult to separate “reading like a reader” from “reading like a writer.” I like to think I fall somewhere in-between—I read both for enjoyment and to improve my writing—but sometimes I could use the extra prod to dig deeper.
- The book reviewing community is a wonderful place. There are a few rotten eggs including trolls, flamers, and plagiarizers, but it’s also an incredibly fun community filled with brilliant minds who engage with and look out for one another. I love talking about books, and since not a lot of people I know read what I read, this community gives me a place to do that.
- You get advanced copies of unreleased books! This is the wrong reason to start reviewing in the first place (and it certainly wasn’t mine), but it’s definitely a perk. I’ve always craved the ability to get ARCs and read the latest and greatest before anyone else, so I thought reviewing more regularly would give me the credibility I needed to receive early copies and build rapport on NetGalley.
The cons – or, is it worth the risk?
- You never know who you’ll meet. Say you write a negative book review—albeit a thoughtful and analytical one*—and a few months later you meet that author at an event. Conferences are a great place to pitch your work, but if that author finds out you’re that reviewer, you may have a hard time making many connections there. This doesn’t even have to be out of any malice on the author’s part, either—people talk, and even though it’s a creative field, publishing is still an industry and all industries have politics. Someone who hears about your negative review may simply decide that you’re not professional enough to work with them.
*Note: for the sake of this post, I’m talking strictly about constructive reviews; I don’t think aggressive, snarky reviews have any place under an author’s pen.
- Writing reviews takes time away from your actual writing. I’m going to quote Redditor ThomasEdmund84 on this one: when discussing the cons of book reviewing, he said, “I got addicted to reviewing and oftentimes ended up focused on getting reviews out and getting fake internet points than writing my own stuff.” This is so true. In my case, at least, I already feel pressured to read certain ARCs and new books so I can get a review up ASAP. I’m not sure why—I’m not a book blogger. I used to write recommendations for books I enjoyed because I was bubbling over with excitement for them and had to talk to someone about them, STAT, whether they were new releases or old favorites. So why am I now focusing on reviewing instead of spending that time on my own writing? Why am I making reading a job, instead of letting it be the relaxing learning experience I’ve always enjoyed?
I’ve come up with twice as many pros as cons, but the cons are probably three times as daunting. The second con is something I’ve felt immediately: earlier this year, I purposely cut back on the amount of unpaid blogging and writing I did on the side to make more room for my creative work, and yet I’m falling into the same traps of spreading my time too thin again. Being a regular book reviewer is a full-time job in and of itself, so not only is it taking whatever little creative writing time I have away from me, it’s also making reading a chore. Not good.
The first con is a much slower, creeping terror, one that causes a great deal of anxiety for me (and has in the past). Example: I used to know a writer who’s now successful. After we lost touch and (s)he got published, I read some of his/her work and wasn’t thrilled. I didn’t understand the hype. But instead of keeping that to myself, I went ahead and gave some low star ratings on Goodreads and a very short, but negative, review. I don’t know if (s)he ever saw my reviews, but I never heard from him/her again—even when I tried reaching out some time after.
This was dumb. This wasn’t just a person I could bump into in the future; it was someone I already knew, albeit not well. But we were never particularly close and hadn’t spoken in some time, so I figured “what’s the harm in being honest?”
Turns out, plenty. I was convinced that I screwed up royally and I still think I did. There’s no way to tell, without being completely tactless, if this author saw what I wrote. Sometime after I started to feel guilty about this, I wrote a post on my old blog both congratulating him/her on the success and apologizing for my review. There’s no way to know if that post was read, either, and I eventually decided to remove it because it felt too desperate and called attention to something I wanted forgotten.
I’ve yet to run into this author, but if I do, I have no doubt that it’ll be tense. Even if he or she never read my words, I know I’d feel incredibly paranoid—and that itself would make the meeting awkward. This is a situation I never want to encounter again. At best, I’m risking complete paranoia over something that may or may not have been read; at worst (and I say this knowing full well that I don’t have many blog readers, but it’s STILL a possibility), I’m insulting a future peer and potentially tarnishing my name with them, their literary agent, their publisher, and all the other people who put work into that book. Why put myself in that position when book blogging isn’t a major part of the career I’m working toward?
Since then, I’ve struggled with this royally. There have been a few works I’ve read by authors in my network that I didn’t enjoy, and since I hate being anything but 100% honest, I struggled when rating them on Goodreads and deciding whether or not to review or even rate them at all. Ultimately, I opted to avoid reviewing the books of anyone I know that I didn’t enjoy, because it just wasn’t worth the risks—not to mention hurting someone’s feelings.
So I think it’s obvious what conclusion I’ve come to. The internet is a public place and what you write can and will be found. Ultimately, I have to agree with author Kristen Lamb who, in her blog Three NEVERS of Social Media for Writers, put it pretty simply: “Our BRAND is AUTHOR, not ‘book reviewer’ … Book reviewers have to be forthright to be taken seriously. This means some books will get shredded. This can undermine how our fellow writers feel about working with us as authors.”
Of course, this isn’t definitive and I’m sure some people can find a balance between the two. There are exceptions to this rule—after all, I’ve definitely seen Stephen King really rip apart a few books. But until we reach King Status, it’s probably wise to stick with the old “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” route. And, of course, this does not apply when you’re personally asked for an honest review or constructive criticism.
So, if you see my more negative reviews come down from Goodreads and my blog, you know why. I just don’t think it’s my place to continue sharing these—after all, as much as I fancy myself an analytical reader, I’ve yet to publish a novel of my own. So who am I to judge?
If you’ve stuck with me this long, I’m really curious to know what you think about this. If you’re an author of any kind—published, self-published, not published at all—how do you handle reviews? Are negative reviews off-limits, no matter how constructive and kind they are? Let me know!