Why I Don’t Like To Negatively Review Other Authors’ Books

That tweet generated some interesting discussion on Twitter this weekend, but I feel like that discussion still needs a bit of unpacking in a space that lets me talk in bursts more than 140-characters at a time. (Twitter is good at starting discussions and not as good at finishing them or making them clear. Twitter is also most excellent at tweeting pictures of tacos, toddlers, dogs, as well as spreading Vine videos of apathetic twerking. USE IT WISELY.)

My argument (read: opinion) is that authors negatively reviewing the work of authors authors is not the best idea in the world. You can! You’re free to. But the value proposition there is a bit shaky. As my wife’s boss has been wont to say: “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

(To clarify, when I say “negatively review,” I mean that in the strictest sense — a review that is, by its definition, a “pan.” I do not mean a positive review with critical qualifications.)

Here’s my thinking on the subject — and you are of course free to agree, disagree, or ragetastically headbutt your monitor into a sparking pile of glass and plastic. As always: YMMV, IMHO, and other fun acronyms that mean, “You do as you like.”

Be A Fountain, Not A Drain

Above all else, I find it’s far more interesting to everyone else — and more constructive to your own mood — to put forth positive vibes into the world than negative signal. Certainly not suggesting you be a robot shouting chirpy cherub-cheeked propaganda all the time, or always be manically happy happy eeeeeee, but negativity also has a seductive, multiplicative quality. It gets attention. In Internet terms, it gets “clicks” and it earns response. But that’s not always a good thing, and you’re probably better off trying to be relatively positive and further, writing your own stories than trying to tear someone else’s apart.

Losing Potential Fans

I say, “I thought Danny Flarngbaum’s newest novel, Whale Thong, was an exercise in sloppy characterwork, poo-bucket plotting, and narrative dick-punching, and I suspect Mister Flarngbaum’s time would be better spent working the Fry-o-later at McDonald’s than poisoning our library shelves with his toxic claptrap.” I go on and on in my review.

You read this review.

And then you say, as a fan of Whale Thong, “Gosh, I really loved that book, and Chuck is being really critical of it.” And then, you might think the next time you see one of my books, “Ehhh, he and I don’t really agree on what makes good story,” and so you pass my books by. Or, you’re more offended than that, and you counter my negativity with your own — maybe you negatively review my book, maybe you just say shit about me on Twitter, maybe you try to argue, whatever.

Again: what’s the value here for me as an author?

What’s there to gain?

Authoritative, Yet Subjective

I’m a writer. Or —

An author, said with nose raised in the air and a snifter of brandy swirling in my hand. And with that comes the illusion that I’m an authority on what makes good writing, good story, good characterization and plotting and cover design and publishing strategies, blah blah blah.

Again: total illusion. I’m not an expert. I am probably strongly opinionated on the matter but for every opinion I have about All These Things, I can surely dig up plenty of examples that exist in opposition of my opinions — and, in fact, that do so quite successfully.

And yet!

When I offer my review, you might take it more seriously than, say, one from Goodreads. Not saying that’s fair or reasonable, only that it’s possibly true. Which means my negative review — which sounds authoritative but is entirely subjective — carries more weight. And I have an audience, to boot! So I’m using my reach and my (again: illusory) authority to do what?

To do harm to another author and their work.

Food Outta Mouths

When I say “do harm,” what I actually mean is:

Potentially rob that author of one or many sales. I don’t want to do that. Writing a book is hard goddamn work. You’ve got rent to pay. Or a mortgage. You’ve got a food bill. And cats or dogs. Maybe one or several kids. I don’t like the thought that my review is going to take money out of your pockets, or snatch food out of your kids’ mouths. Fuck that. I’m not “Internet Famous” or anything, but I have a blog and a social media feed that gets a substantial echo. Do I really want to use my social media reach to drink your milkshake or piss in your cereal bowl? No, I do not.

I’ve Got Hurt Feelings

Some people say that writers don’t have feelings. We have feelings!

Ahem.

Point is, you write a bad review of someone’s book, how are they supposed to feel about it? The easy answer is: “They should harden the fuck up and accept it.” Which is probably accurate. But maybe they don’t. That’s how hurt feelings work — they’re not logical. You feel what you feel. So, you give someone a negative review, you maybe just burned a potential future relationship — and this is a much smaller community than you think. It’s still one based on those relationships, on authors helping authors.

Plus, it goes back to that authoritative thing — a negative review from a fellow author is going to sting more than a negative review from a book blogger, or a critic, or somebody on Goodreads.

(And never mind the fact that authors have been known to play dirty pool from time to time — purposefully writing negative reviews of books by authors they don’t personally like.)

Again, not saying this is fair or reasonable.

But that question again: is the juice worth the squeeze?

What are you getting out of writing a bad review that matches or exceeds the potential negative ramifications for doing so?  What’s the takeaway for you?

Go Write Your Own Thing

It takes energy to write a bad review. Energy you could probably use elsewhere. Like, say, writing more awesome books. Go do that. Contribute word count to your own fiction.

My two cents: that’s where you’re going to get far greater mileage.

Your own stories are a juice forever worth the squeeze.

 

128 comments

  • I have to disagree with most of the points here. Granted, I’m neither a published writer nor a professional reviewer, so I’m not sure anyone gives two shits what I have to say on Goodreads or G+. But still, all of this is thinking about reviews from one author to another.

    Reviews aren’t for authors. Not even a little. Reviews are for READERS, so they have an idea of what they’re getting into and whether or not they’ll enjoy the book.

    That’s what I keep in mind when I’m reading a book and then writing the review. I’m not thinking of the writer who might lose a potential sale because someone was warned away, I’m thinking of the reader who might lose time and money on a book they were guaranteed to hate if only they’d known why.

    As far as losing your own potential fans, honestly, I don’t buy it. Because that guy who sees your negative review of his beloved Whale Thong and thinks that he’s therefore not going to like anything you write? He’s probably right, especially if your negative review is specific on the reasons why you disliked it. He wasn’t really a potential fan to begin with.

    And if I deny someone a sale, really, so what? No one is owed a career in this. Someone doesn’t deserve to make money on something just because they put it out there. The quality has to bear it out. I will gladly support writers whose work I genuinely enjoy, and will try not to get in the way of writers I like as people who I privately feel can’t hack it. But everyone else? That’s the biz, kid. It’s not nice, and it’s not pretty.

    Really, this is exactly why indie publishing isn’t taken as seriously as other indie art. This culture of everyone being afraid to be even a little negative leads to a review system that borders on entirely useless, because everyone’s being too nice to be honest. Without that review system or any other alternative for discoverability, readers outside the indie community have less confidence that something is going to be worth their time, and so are going to stick to things they know. So we might all feel warm and fuzzy, but no one’s actually getting anywhere.

    I don’t disagree with the general point that authors might be better off just staying out of the whole thing. But I’d say that includes reading reviews of their own work, and it definitely includes taking anything personally. If we can all agree that reviews are never about the author (unless the review is explicitly making personal attacks that have nothing to do with the book) and approach things as professionals, perhaps reviews can start becoming a little more useful to the people who don’t already have a personal stake in the industry.

    • I don’t know that choosing not to go negative is the same as being too nice.

      Books have tons of reviewers, both professional and not. Taking authors out of that equation doesn’t create, in my mind, some cloud of confusion where readers suddenly don’t know what books to buy or to avoid.

      It’s not about “warm and fuzzy,” it’s about, “don’t shit where you eat.”

      — c.

      • While YOUR books may have tons of reviewers, that’s not true of all books, especially small-press/self-pubbed books. I’ve found myself being begged by authors to read and review their books – with ANY kind of star rating or review, because until they have 25? 50? posted Amazon reviews, they can’t even buy ads there.

        I do occasionally give negative reviews, though even when I have a major problem with a book I tend to put it in a “praise sandwich:” something I liked, the thing I didn’t like, then something else I liked. The whole rip-the-author-a-new-orifice thing in order to show off the reviewer’s snarky brilliance is a waste of time and energy, I agree.

        However, especially with self-pubbed e-books, many authors these days are bypassing the crit group and beta readers – in effect, the reviewers BECOME the beta readers. (Not a good thing, IMO.) So if nobody ever posts about what s/he found problematic in the book, the wanna-be author gets to watch his/her dreams die on the wine, without knowing why – because everybody who reviewed it gave it 4-5 stars.

        • I didn’t so much mean that *my* books have tons of reviewers lining up — I just mean, In The Entire Internet Ecosystem, lots of reviewers are present. I don’t much expect my negative reviews are all that meaningful when weighed against that rather large body of critics and reviewers.

          I mean, again, if you wanna review authors, negatively or no, more power to you. And it seems like you have a good system by which you do it. It’s just not my bag.

          — c.

          • But when every single book has at least three stars on average because people won’t leave reviews lower than that, regardless of their reason for doing so, the system becomes completely meaningless. That’s what we have right now, something that’s been completely broken and hobbled through the best of intentions.

            I’m not saying that people should go out of their way to be negative, but I think that “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” has no place in the world of reviewers.

            But I agree that maybe writers should stay out of the world of reviewers.

          • Oh, quite. I will rail about the need for a better review/discoverability system until the cows come home. It is a mind-bogglingly huge problem in indie publishing right now, and it’s disappointing that no one’s figured out a better way

            I just worry that the message of “maybe an author should be careful of how they write reviews” will be interpreted (is already being interpreted, judging by the comments) as “no one should be negative in their reviews.” The former is a fair point. The latter poisons the well.

            (Hopefully this nested correctly…)

          • Yeah, I’ve noticed the sentiment seems to be a fear I’m saying NO MORE NEGATIVE REVIEW STOMPY STOMPY STOMPY, but yeah, no, totally not saying that. Reviews of all stripes are good. And authors may at times be equipped to deliver capable reviews, positive or negative or whatever, but the question is how much value that actually brings to the table.

            And man, discoverability is wonked.

            — c.

  • I review a lot of podcast fiction as well as indie and traditionally published books for my website. I’ve struggled with where the cut off point is on when I will and will not publish a review. I’m not paid, so in a way (as you point out) I’m not obligated to review anything. Still, I like sharing my opinion and I have been a semi-professional reviewer (reviewing for fairly big sites and receiving free jank I’m expected to write an honest review on), so I do feel an obligation to be honest where I do have an opinion to give. If I can’t finish it, I won’t review it. But if I can, I will. And my opinion will be honest.

    As a writer should I worry about how that will effect me? I kind of agree with Aerin. I review stuff so that the people who follow me can add an “informed” opinion about a piece of work to their decision making process. I say informed only in the sense that I’ve consumed it and they haven’t. I won’t slag a piece of work, but if something gets a two star review in my book then that’s what I’m going to give it. I am always quick to point out the reasons why and that YMMV, but my opinion is what it is. Is there value in a writer posting any review at all for any other writer’s work? For the writer of the review, maybe not. But for the writer’s audience, maybe.

    You say “books have tons of reviewers” and that may be true for author’s with larger audiences. For indie’s that may not be the case, and that’s why I like to read more by them and why I review them more often. In those cases I will admit that if I read something and it’s less than a three star book I may just remain silent, as I am reluctant to as you say kill a sale for them. I will often send that author a note, giving my two cents (especially if I know them personally).

  • Review as you can; not as you can’t. I will not review books written by authors I know personally, and I refuse to accept ‘invitations’ to review books. I try hard to review as a reader, but find that difficult, which means I can be harsh if I’m in ‘writer mode’.

  • The primary reason I don’t write negative reviews — “Opinions vary” – Dalton (from Road House).

    Books like Twilight & 50 Shades of Grey are monstrous bestsellers, yet they are also very divisive. I suffered through both & wanted oh so badly to voice my opinion about all the ways they failed as literature. Then I remembered that millions of people are enjoying them & it made me wonder why I should waste my time & energy deriding the works.

    I’ve read numerous books, enjoyed them greatly, then returned to their Amazon/Nook/Kobo page to find they have since received a bunch of negative reviews (the reverse is also true–books I hated get positive reviews). Negative reviews do not always equal bad writing–sometimes a book simply doesn’t resonate with a particular reader. I have enjoyed books that were given negative reviews by authors I respect, yet have also had vomit-inducing reactions to books the very same authors praised.

    It’s certainly a conundrum, but I think Chuck’s viewpoint is particularly relevant in the internet age where opinions are like gnats–always in your face. There is far too much negativity–in all aspects of life–to waste time adding to it. That’s why I still praise books I love, but do my best to forget those I didn’t love–because someone else probably enjoyed it.

  • “Is the juice worth the squeeze” fundamentally implies that I want to review books to further my author brand/name/reach. Which I don’t, really. I review for the same reasons any other reader reviews books, to share what I found, to converse, to participate, to think critically, to catalog what I read and how I felt about it and how that changes over time. One of the more exciting things that can happen to me online is when someone reads a book on my recommendation and loves it, but I can only expect my recommendations to carry weight if they know I’ll give it to them straight. There may indeed be benefits to my author brand. I tend to read the same sorts of books I write and someone who shares my taste in books may very well like my books! But that’s not really why I do it… and how I know that is because I started reviewing before I started writing. Therefore, the juice/squeeze metaphor pretty much doesn’t apply, unless I get really detailed with different kinds of juice and their relative value to me, and at that point it’s way too complicated to be a useful analogy.

    I could simply split my author persona and my reviewer persona, but that requires the upkeep of an extra persona (ugh) and to me, it feels disingenuous. Because, as people have stated, it IS a conflict of interest. However, it’s not a conflict because it’s a *negative* review. Even positive reviews and recommendations, which the consensus seems to say are A-okay, have a conflict of interest inherent. So when I post reviews and recommendations of any kind, positive or negative, I always do it from my author accounts, under my author pen name, so that everyone can be clear who I am and what I have at stake. That is to say: there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a conflict of interest, as long as it’s made clear. And if you *do* believe there’s something inherently wrong with a conflict of interest, you’d also be barred from making recommendations or saying positive things about other people’s work. Picking and choosing when you’re going to be bothered by conflict of interest so that people will like you better isn’t the more honorable route.

    Truth is, I rarely write a review that says “the plotting sucks, the characterization sucks,” etc. There are a few reasons for that. One is that if something sucks that bad, I’m likely to DNF it (stop reading early on) and not rate it at all. There’s also the whole throwing stones from glass houses bit. However, I do call out a book if I find problematic themes. The most common one that I see, whether because it just is common or because I’m more sensitive to it or whatever, is slut shaming. Other examples of problematic themes are sexism, racism, ageism, bigotry, or the trend where fat/ugly people get shafted because they’re fat and ugly. When I see these things, especially used loud and proud and in a supposedly positive way, I think it’s important to say something. It’s important for me, personally, it’s important for book culture, and it’s important for society in general. And I hope that if you hold a belief in your heart, that you won’t let your career as an author get in the way of standing up for it. Because I DO want to be a fountain, not a drain, and this is how I do it. Being silent on problematic themes because you might lose a book sale is the drain.

    • ““Is the juice worth the squeeze” fundamentally implies that I want to review books to further my author brand/name/reach.”

      Well, not exactly — what it means (and maybe I didn’t make this as clear as I could have, I dunno) is that WHAT YOU GET (and/or WHAT OTHERS GET) isn’t always worth WHAT IT COULD COST. You may find that the cost is worth it — hence, the juice is worth the squeeze. I personally don’t see the value, so I don’t do it.

      “Truth is, I rarely write a review that says “the plotting sucks, the characterization sucks,” etc. There are a few reasons for that. One is that if something sucks that bad, I’m likely to DNF it (stop reading early on) and not rate it at all. There’s also the whole throwing stones from glass houses bit.”

      To be clear, this isn’t really what I mean when I say, write a negative review. If you don’t generally leave wholly negative reviews, then this largely doesn’t apply.

      — c.

  • I realized I rarely write critical reviews. I used to be of the mind that if I started it – I MUST finish it. Then I started reviewing and I just don’t have the time to do that. Plus – why torment myself? And WHY torment that poor soul who put their heart into writing it. Criticism is still important though and I do think who better to offer up those things than someone in your field?

    I think I would enjoy reading ones an author I like has written. But I could see how that would be dangerous ground for the author. You’re in a public position. As of the moment it is put out there you are being published, everything you say and do has the possibility of being scrutinized.

  • Science fiction fandom’s fanzine community (for wont of a better word) refers to negative reviews as KTF reviews (i.e. “kill the f*&ker”). These reviews tend to pick apart the reviewed work, but also can contain negative opinions about the author. Many a fanzine book reviewer has insisted that their KTF review style forces authors to own their “mistakes.” This attitude, I suspect, is often used as a “reason” for pillaging a book (a/o author) when, in point of fact, the reviewer (consciously or not) seeks to be seen as superior to the author. There’s also the “fun” aspect (“I really hung that one out to dry, right?”). It’s always easier to vilify a thing or person when there’s practically no chance of coming in physical contact with either of them.

    My guide as a reviewer is “Review the work, not the writer.” As a reader, “consider the source” reminds me that reading one or two reviews of a book won’t give me a clear picture of how the work has affected others. Smear campaigns are easy to start, especially on “teh intarwebz.” Unless an author has a large group of readers/supporters with Internet access and the will to disagree, attempts at halting such campaigns can be quite difficult.

    KTF reviewing is, imo, another aspect of bullying.

  • Hi Chuck,

    As someone who writes reviews I have a basic policy… I review only books I honestly enjoyed… i also steer away from any of potential critical thoughts I have. None of these writers are honestly asking for my critical input and really what I am trying to do be writing anything about the books I do is to raise the signal noise to drive more people to trying out things I really dig. (I know totally self serving of me, I want you all to write more awesome shit for me to read and if you can live a little easier with more fans that is a great plus…)

    Also as someone who does NANOWRIMO regularly and managed to write a couple pretty bad, borderline unreadable short novels that im a scared of even trying to edit…. but well I get that even writing trash is pretty hard work….

    Now I will be totally honest in that i did write some rageish negative things about a certain comics company with the initials d and c recently and was pretty harsh toward editors but well i would be sorry if the events were not still pissing me off…. PTSD from bullying….. sorry…

  • I like the juice/squeeze lingo. I may well adopt that.

    My reason for not is ultimately self-serving. I used to write critiques about roleplaying games, but eventually I stopped because the return wasn’t worth it. Not only was I spending time and words on stuff I wasn’t being paid for (as it was just blog content), I wasn’t building anything that I could later use. And the more critical posts garnered equally negative attention — which was even more time away from writing my own stuff, as well as sapping some of my emotional bandwidth in dealing with uncivil respondents.

    Since part of an author’s job more and more these days is to be at least a semi-public/accessible figure (for whatever that means on the Internet), it’s easy to write something that people take umbrage that causes you more time and headache than it’s worth. And since critical things are more likely to have than happen than pollyanna shit, well, I’d rather be paid for that effort than do it for free. Otherwise, it’s solely a potential drain on my mental health.

    – Ryan

  • I completely understand all of your reasons except for number three. You have plenty of actual expertise. Yes some of your review would be subjective, but I think most rational human beings understand that reviews are always subjective to varying degrees.

  • Wonderful article! I decided last year that I would no longer review anything I couldn’t give three stars or more to because it is far more productive to promote what we love instead of bashing what we hate. The world is full of enough negativity as is. Not to mention good stories are subjective to the person reading them. When I bad reviews of a book written by a fellow author, I immediately find myself wondering if there are sour grapes involved.

  • I am an author and I also review books that I read. I don’t review books I don’t like or can’t think of something good to say about the book. I figure my not liking a book doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of readers who will love the book and write glowing reviews. That’s my policy, whether the book came from a friend, the author, or a publicist.

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