Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mean Girl?

I've been mulling over the topic of negative reviews—both the writing of them and the receiving of them—for a while now, wondering if I really wanted to address the issue and just how many people I might offend in the process. Then, I thought, "What the heck?" I'm known in the book blogosphere for telling it like it is, so why shy away now? Here you have it, then, my unfiltered opinion on a subject that affects all authors and reviewers: negative reviews.

First of all, I have to say that we book bloggers do what we do because we love books. We love reading them, we love promoting them, and we especially love discussing them with friends, family, neighbors, even random strangers at the dentist's office. We spend our free time (because, remember, no one's paying us to do this) analyzing what we read so that we can spend even more of our free time typing up a review, replying to reader comments and emailing links around to authors/publishers/publicists. Doing this takes time. Lots of time. Time that could be spent on family, friends, sleep, housework or myriad other things. Why would anyone do such a thing? Simple: We love books.

Why, then, do we sometimes trash them in so public a manner? I can't answer for every book blogger, but I can explain my own rationale and here it is: reading a book requires the expenditure of time and, often, money. Because both are precious, readers want to know if a certain book is worth it. My job, as I see it, is to answer this question for them. The best way I can do that is to evaluate the book in-depth, asking the same things I would of any other product—Did it work for me? Did it live up to its hype? Was it well-crafted or hastily thrown together? Did it fulfill its intended function? Am I happy that I bought/used it? Giving glossed-over or half-baked answers doesn't help me or anyone else. So, I say exactly what I think, because even though it's just my opinion, that's the reason people come to my blog in the first place.

Now, what I call honesty, many people (including this author) call mean. For this reason, lots of book bloggers opt not to publish negative reviews at all. While I understand their decision, I don't agree with it. I don't want to waste my valuable time on books rife with dull characters, stilted dialogue, flat writing, glaring copyediting errors, etc. Neither do my readers. Just as I rely on straight-talking reviewers to steer me away from lousy reads, my readers depend on me. I refuse to let them down. So, I'm honest. Fair (at least I think so), but always, always honest.

Because of my conviction that honesty-is-the-best-policy, I often write things that could be construed as mean. Especially if you happen to be the author I accuse of creating a boring cast, drab scenery or a plot so holey it could rival Swiss cheese for ... you know, holey-ness. I get that books are authors' babies. I get that criticism can hurt. I get that me giving a book a "D" might make its author want to punch me in the nose. Believe me, I get it. But when a "baby" is made public and its "parent" is asking people to spend their precious time and money on a product that may or may not be worth it, it's only fair to expect people to evaluate it and share their feelings—however positive or negative—with other would-be customers. My evaluation of a book may make a writer spitting mad, but I'd rather have them upset with me than to have one of my readers say, "Why did you lie to me? I trusted you."

Just as book bloggers struggle with the question of whether or not to post negative reviews, I know authors wrestle with how to react to them. Should they shoot off a nasty email to the blogger, letting him/her know exactly where he/she can stick his/her review? Should they post their own nasty comments on the reviewer's blog so that everyone reading it can see just how much the writer's been wronged? Or, even better, should an author write their own post, publicly shaming book bloggers and their mothers, too? Should authors call attention to a negative review? Ignore it? Laugh about it? What's the most appropriate response?

Well, that depends on how much a writer cares about his/her career. I know it's a terrible double standard, but the fact is, if an author wants to succeed, the best thing for him/her to do is to take negative reviews in stride. They happen. Reacting in an outraged and public manner will only paint an author as a thin-skinned whiner, losing them readers while, at the same time, gaining the reviewer followers (because who doesn't love a good drama?). Even if the blogger's attack is vicious and unfounded, it's probably best to just let the review slide and move on. A terrible double standard, I agree, but that's the way it is.

Does this give book bloggers license to say whatever they want? Of course not. Professional writing (many published authors, of course, argue that blogging does not qualify as "real" writing, which makes me wonder why, then, they care so much about negative reviews written by hacks like us?), in my opinion, should be respectful, well-founded and, above all, fair. If I say a book is dull, I explain why. If I cite bumpy writing, a bumbling plot or characters who are paper-doll flat, I try to back myself up with examples. If I give a book a D, you better believe I've got my reasons.

Speaking of my reasons, let me make one last point: A review is simply one person's evaluation of a product. Maybe you agree with their opinion, maybe you don't. I can't count the number of times people have responded to a less-than-favorable review I wrote by saying, "I know you didn't like this book, but I'm going to go ahead and try it," or "You might have loved this one, but I couldn't stand it." Which is fine—wonderful, even—since I always dig a lively book discussion. My point is that I don't think negative book reviews do nearly as much damage as some people think they do. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think there's really something to that old adage about any publicity being good publicity. I mean, would authors rather deal with negative reviews or no reviews at all?

So, here's my advice for authors: Remember that a book review is an evaluation of a product, not a person, and that reacting to a negative one in a public way does more damage to your career than good. And for bloggers: Regardless of what anyone says, you hold a lot of power in those little fingers of yours. Use it to promote books in a way that's engaging, honest and fair. Together, we can blast the world with book love, while, at the same time, promoting a community where the free exchange of ideas/opinions leads readers to books they'll love, resulting in writers getting attention from fans who are devoted and sincere. Because, really, isn't that what we all want?

Thoughts?

27 comments:

  1. Well said!!! I LOVE the chance to have differing opinions, that's our right and our choice. Thank you for always doing as you say, giving us your opinion AND the evidence to back it up. I may see it differently and that's MY opinion. Isn't it grand?!?!

    I tell my students in my classroom that they can have any opinion they want, they just have to back it up - we call it "claim and evidence". There are some pretty great discussions in our classroom this year because of it.

    Thanks for all of your well reasoned reviews and great suggestions. I can always look to you for the "whole" picture AND still make my own decision. I love it!

    PS - we actually had the A/C on tonight!

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    1. Thanks, Gaye. You always make me feel good about myself and the work I do on this little ole blog!

      I love that you teach your students to have an opinion and stand up for it, while respecting other people's right to do the same. All that variety of thought is what makes the world such an exciting place. It's also what I love about the book blogosphere—I find it fascinating that there are so many people out there with so many different opinions on one thing. It's invigorating.

      P.S. My husband and I were cruising around in his MINI Cooper with the top down and it was HOT. A preview of things to come. Blech!

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  2. I personally don't write negative reviews, but I also hope to publish one day and may have to work with the authors or publishers I trash now. I will point out aspects I don't care for, as long as I can balance it with positive things as well. I've had reviews like this before and people comment that they still want to read it despite the flaws, which makes me happy!

    I don't mind that others do, though, and think you should review exactly as you do now. There are so many different ways out there for us to express POV!

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    1. I know a lot of book bloggers and authors (both published and non-) who have stopped posting negative reviews on their blogs and on GoodReads for this very reason. I even know some who have deleted their entire blogs just to avoid any future conflicts of this sort. I totally understand this, I just think it's kind of sad, you know?

      I agree with the spoonful-of-sugar-helps-the-medicine-go-down approach. It's rare that I can't find ONE thing I like about a book, even if it's just the cover or title or a premise that COULD HAVE BEEN really intriguing.

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  3. This is a great post. As a book blogger I think about this issue a lot. I empathize with the authors and feel for the seeming unfairness of the issue, but I think you articulated beautifully why we, as book consumers, should have the right to voice our opinions about the books we read. Our time and money are valuable, and authors need to be aware that when one is selling a commodity (in this case a book), one loses the right to complain about how it's received.

    One of the reasons I read your blog consistently (although I don't usually comment: my very bad) is that you are honest in both your positive and negative reviews. I appreciate that. I like reading book blogs that give both the good and the bad. I tend to avoid blogs that seem to be part of a promotion campaign. I want honesty and insight from a reviewer, not blind adoration.

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    1. Well said, yourself! I so agree, especially when you say "...authors need to be aware that when one is selling a commodity ... one loses the right to complain about how it's received." That line expresses my thoughts on the subject EXACTLY.

      Like you, I enjoy blogs that talk about both the negatives and the positives. I actually tend to avoid those that go to either extreme as neither really feels honest. I prefer a balanced approach, something I try to achieve in the reviews I write.

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  4. I could not have said it better! :)

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    1. Oh, you probably could have! I wrote this post pretty fast. I'm just glad it makes sense :)

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  5. I am not a book blogger but a long time reader of this (and other) book blogs. If a book blogger consistently gives out positive reviews on books that I dont like then I will delete them. I keep coming back for your honest opinion.

    BTW- Favorite line in the is post - Is talking to random people about books like in the dentist office. That is me!! If you have a book in your hand I will probably ask what you think about it.

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    1. LOL - I can't count the number of times I've been asked about the book I'm reading by random people in waiting rooms, on airplanes, etc. My dental hygienist asks me what I'm reading every time I see her. Love it!

      Like I said before, my favorite book bloggers are those who make a point to be fair and honest. I usually don't like blogs that are either ALWAYS positive or ALWAYS negative, although I actually do have a handful of the former on my reader. I know which ones they are, though, so I know to get second opinions on the books they recommend.

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  6. The reason I don't post negative reviews is because I don't finish reading books I don't like. I just can't do it!! It would feel like homework! They usually have to be at least 3 out of 5 stars in my mind to continue reading past the first 50 pages. I've never been able to force myself to read something I don't enjoy. So seriously good for you for reading books you don't like. It is good for people to read both positive and negative reviews to help make their decision on what books to read.

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    1. Good point, Kathryn. The only time I continue with books I don't like is if I'm reading them for a reason, say a contest I'm judging or a blog tour I can't get out of—otherwise, I don't read past the first chapter or two. What would be the point, you know?

      And, yes, it is important to read both positive and negative reviews of ANY product since opinions are always going to differ. I may LOVE the exact thing you HATE about a book or product. Different strokes for different folks and all that.

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  7. Amen! What more can I say?

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  8. I wanted to comment on the last post, but I felt silly! After having read this post - or at least most of it ;) - I decided I needed to comment!! I've seen that book The Evolution of Thomas Hall at Deseret Book so often and, solely based off the cover, I decided it wouldn't be worth my time. After your review, I really want to read it! I'm so glad you do take the time to really analyze and bluntly tell it like it is. I've picked up a lot of books because of this and I'm a new reader of your blog. So keep it up! You're awesome and don't let others drag you down because they're offended. I appreciate your honesty!

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    1. What? Commenting is NEVER silly! You're always welcome to put in your 2 cents. Comments really do make me feel happy, so, please, comment away!

      As for THOMAS HALL, I probably wouldn't have read it if I hadn't gotten it for free from the publisher—it's like a $30 book! I did end up liking it more than a thought I would, but it's definitely got its flaws. I would probably recommend borrowing it from someone rather than buying it ... if you live in my neck of the woods, come on by, I'll loan you my copy :)

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  9. I'm an author, and guess what? I completely agree with you! There are so many books out there and it is impossible to know which ones are worth your time unless you can see honest reviews. I see a lot of books (mostly from Indie authors) with great 5 stars reviews, but after reading the first few pages, you can see that those 5 star reviews came from the author's friends and family. It's not fair to anyone--even the author. You can't grow and become a better author if everyone tells you that your work is great, even if it isn't. Sure it's hard to read bad things about your work, but as long as the reviewer is honest and not malicious, it helps in the long run.

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    1. I'm glad you think so, Lori! I truly think that the reviewer/author one can be a rewarding and mutually beneficial one if both parties handle it in an honest, helpful way.

      And, oh my gosh, I've had that 5-star review for a 1-star book SO many times. It's irritating.

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  10. I appreciate your honesty. Keep it up!

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  11. I never comment, but I had to join in with a "Thank you" for the honest book reviews. I usually agree with your reviews, but every once in a while I read a book that you liked and think, "Really?" and sometimes I'll read one you didn't like and love it. But I always check your blog to see what you're reading and what you're saying about it. It's like an on-line book club :)

    AND Authors whining about negative reviews is a big turn-off to me--we don't all like the same things! The world would be boring if we did. It was an amazing feat just to get a book published so feel proud of yourself and don't worry about all the different opinions--at least people are talking about it.

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    1. You should comment and OFTEN! I love comments. It's what makes this blog so fun for me to write. It really is like an online book club, with all kinds of different people expressing all kinds of different opinions about books. I LOVE it!

      Whiny authors are a huge turn-off for me as well, especially those who insult book bloggers by saying we're not "real" or "professional" writers. Perhaps that's technically true, but I don't know of any group of people that does more free publicity work for authors than us. Truly, any publicity is good publicity.

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  12. That's one thing I absolutely love about your reviews - if there's something you didn't like, you say it. I think it's a great thing to have reviewers who are entirely honest with what they think. I hope I'm that way. I used to finish every book I started, no matter what. It's only recently I gave myself permission to stop reading a book. That being said, I just finished an audio that made me want to die as I listened. But I'm still alive and the whole things was listened to. Still trying to figure out what to say about it...

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    1. You know, when I first started getting review books from publishers and authors, I read every single one. I thought because I had accepted them for review, I HAD to read them, even if they were poorly written, offensive, boring, etc. Not now. I give a book (any book, whether I got it from the library or a publisher) about 25 pages. If it hasn't caught my attention by then, I quit reading.

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  13. I love your blog and respect your reviews. You are fair and un-snarky and dead on (if not kinder than you should be- B minus for the Wedding Letters?!?!) I have read things I would have skipped because of your reviews. Don't you dare get discouraged! You provide a valuable service!

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    1. Aw, thanks so much! I love that there is someone out there who thinks my reviews are sometimes too kind :)

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  14. Susan, I think you write some of the very BEST reviews out there in blogging land. They're terrifically written and fun to read to boot. I love reading about the strong and the not-so-strong points of a book. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into this. xoxo

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Comments make me feel special, so go crazy! Just keep it clean and civil. Feel free to speak your mind (I always do), but be aware that I will delete any offensive comments.

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