Should Writers Review Other Writers? A View From An Editor

Oh wow! Could I stir up a bigger hornet’s nest if I grabbed a baseball bat and started whacking? Probably not. But I’ve seen a lot of stuff out and about the ‘net lately, and this seems to be quite a hot button topic.

Hot button
Woohoo! I’m pushing the button, baby!

As an avid reader of so many years, a professional editor, and a self-published writer myself, this question is as tangled as the ball of yarn Athena loves to torture. And it seems no matter what opinion you hold, there is always someone ready to jump all up in your grill and scream how you’re wrong and just who do you think you are, some kind of special little snowflake?

This is my thought process. Reviewing a book, editing a book, and critiquing a book are three very different things. From what I see, a lot of people can’t tell the difference.

1. Readers review books, and that includes expressing what does or does not work for them in the story. It’s more about how the book made them feel, as opposed to picking out general technical details unless they affect the story.

2. Editing and critiquing a book is more about picking out those technical details, right or wrong, to improve the basic theme or message of the story. To me, this is not a review and should rather be handled privately between the writer and the editor/critique partner (such as beta readers). And there’s no reason to be a cast-iron bitch about it, either.

Now on to the sticky-wicket part of this.

Sticky wicket
This is a croquet wicket. I have no idea if it’s sticky. Honestly, I don’t want to know.

As part of the price I pay to do what I love for a living, I do not review books. Caveat: sometimes I do review old favorites I love, in order to introduce them to people I think will enjoy the book. However, as a pro editor I think it’s a conflict of interest for me to formally review a book I’ve edited. Really, think about it. What am I going to say other than it’s amazing? My word is on the line, and I take that very seriously. I will give a shout-out to my authors, because I am really lucky to work with some hugely talented people. But you will not find a formal review from me because I just don’t think that’s fair or professional. As an editor, if I’ve done my job, I’m as close to the book as the writer and I wouldn’t be able to be impartial. So while I may be in love with the story and am excited when one of my people releases, I won’t review the book.

If you are an indie writer hopefully that means you are an avid reader. You may think it’s your duty to review books and if they fall beneath the threshold of what you consider good, you may also think it’s your duty to point this out to other readers. Some people take great glee in tearing down other indie writers to the point it’s painful. The thing is, if you are an indie writer, you are a PROFESSIONAL. And I believe you should act like one.

Look at other professions. Do you see indie bands bashing other indie bands? Sometimes. Not very often. How about indie film makers? Don’t see that happening either. Do you see Very Successful Writers writing reviews on their contemporaries? (Stephen King is an exception. He can pretty much do what he wants because he’s a King. When you sell as many books as he does, I think then you have the right to express a negative opinion now and again.) Why is it okay for an indie writer to tear apart the work of another indie writer? What’s the point? The fans, the readers who aren’t involved in the process, are the ones who decide whether a book is “good” enough, THEY ARE THE GATEKEEPERS and indies who tear into each other are not portraying the profession in a very good light. Frankly, it looks like sour grapes.

The adage from your mother applies here. If you don’t have something nice to say, then keep your yap shut. Because when you say something hurtful or nasty about someone’s work, to me, that’s more a reflection upon you than it is the writer you’re bashing. It’s divisive in the indie community. We’re not in competition with each other – there’s more than enough readers to go around for everyone. Why then this vitriol?

“But!” you say, “I’m just trying to warn others about how bad this book is! I’m just doing the author and other readers a favor! I’m saving other readers from drowning in bad writing, from spending their hard-earned cash on bullshit!”

Knight in shining armor
Yeah, okay. I get it. You’re the literary knight in shining armor.

Really? As much as I would love to believe all indie writers who review are totally altruistic in their intentions, I didn’t fall down with yesterday’s rain. Not when I see some really hateful things being said in a review most people wouldn’t dream of saying in person. There is such a thing as professional courtesy, and anyone who can at least finish writing a book, no matter how “bad” it might be, deserves a modicum of respect. Because it is not easy. If a book is that bad, it will sink all on its own, with no help needed from you.

You can be honest and respectful at the same time. If you, the indie writer, read a book which in your opinion is not of professional caliber, you have a choice. You can walk away and do not review at all and forget you ever saw it; review as a READER and point out politely what didn’t work for you about the STORY without descending into condescending bitchiness because you know so much more and are so much better, or contact the author privately and offer your opinion. But to post a review that attacks the author, telling them (and the public at large) they have no right to be allowed near any writing implements (including crayons or eyeliner pencil) is just mean and hateful, bordering on bullying.

I’m wondering, too, just how effective reviews are anymore, especially since it’s come to light certain writers have actually paid for reviews. Now all reviews are suspect, and that’s a damned shame. However, there is one fix for all of this. Most books available on Amazon have a preview option. Read the first couple of chapters, and THEN you can decide to buy or not. Easy-peasy.

What you say in private is your own business and you are certainly entitled to that. I’m sure you have your own little circle of people where you discuss the merits of various authors, and I’m all for it. Vent. Scream. Pull out your hair and have yourself a party. But to take vitriolic opinions to the public, in my opinion, is unprofessional if you consider yourself a professional writer.

Let me hear your opinion, since you were kind enough to entertain mine.

*All images courtesy of Morguefile.com.

23 thoughts on “Should Writers Review Other Writers? A View From An Editor”

  1. Absolutely spot on. I just don’t get some of these people. Readers are the gatekeepers and no “authors-to-avoid” list on Goodreads is going to change that. Write a bad review if you want and be as snarky as you want. If the bad review has merit, then it’s your right to say what you want. It’s also my right to ignore your opinion if it’s obvious that you haven’t a fucker’all clue about that which you’re writing and folks, in most cases it’s painfully obvious that you don’t.

    I just love it when people find a self-importance in something they really know nothing about and try to prop themselves up with an undeserved superiority complex. Want to be a good writer? Go write and learn your craft. Just because you CAN publish on your own doesn’t necessarily mean you SHOULD publish on your own and I, even though I’ve been professionally published and have a great reputation within the science fiction community, am thrilled to have an editor like you with whom to work.

    Would that others could learn the necessity of a good editor and the benefits of actually learning their craft. Ah well, we won’t be seeing most of them in a year anyway. Good luck folks and thanks for the good thoughts! Enjoy your “Authors behaving badly” groups and make sure you bring plenty of Earl Grey tea. (Can’t have a pretentious get-together without Earl Grey! Gawds forbid!)

    1. Like I said, writing a bad review and being an asshole says more about the reviewer than the writer. I don’t get it either. Just walk away — pay attention to your own work. Don’t be a bitch. That’s all I’m saying. I guess it’s not a popular opinion, but I call it like I see it. I just don’t see the point in humiliating people on purpose in public, no matter how you try to cover it up like a turd in a litter box.

      Thanks for weighing in, Joseph. *muahs*

  2. I’m sad to say I only review books I really, really love these days–and even hesitate to do that for fear someone will think I’m trying to prop up another writer. It’s hard out there, but I’m finding the best way to steer clear of all of the mess is to simply not comment, keep my nose in my own work and just write.

    Maybe that’s the key to it? Just write, focus on your career and get your work out there. No one else’s work matters like yours.

    Great post as ever, Netta!

    1. I know, Patti, I hear you. It’s one of the disadvantages of the job because we’re not just writers, but readers too. That part sucks.

      xoxoxo

  3. All great points. I occasionally “beta” other writers work and periodically dabble in some content editing. However, I don’t openly review any book. Why? Well, because, I appreciate how hard it is to write. Even questionable quality writing means something to someone. (Of course, I assume we are talking about fiction here. I have no qualms about pointing out inaccuracies in non-fiction.) Additionally, I choose to be encouraging to any artist. And I don’t care what anyone says writing is art. It’s creation. It’s bringing something new into existence. It’s gestation and birth. In my opinion, that in itself is worthy of respect. Lastly, and this is my cynical self talking here, light can not exist without dark. Without a smattering of “bad” writing out there in the universe, the “good” writing would never shine. Just one girl’s opinion. In short, “ya, what Annetta said!”

    1. Thanks, Erica. It’s the nasty stuff I don’t get. (Non-fiction excepted, I agree — that’s a different animal.) If the intention is to give constructive feedback, I get that — but to be disrespectful, rude, or just plain hateful is not necessary. This business is hard enough — and tearing other people down just because you can doesn’t make your own work any better. And why bother? The bad will fade; the quality endures.

  4. I don’t read reviews to decide whether or not I want to read a book. I do read the publisher’s summary and if it grabs my attention, then away we go! We all have different tastes and knowing that Stephen King likes a book doesn’t automatically mean I will like it. And we all know I would read his grocery list if he decided to publish it. So you can imagine that Mary Jane Doe, from Podunk, Idaho would inspire me even less.

    I would place more value on a reader’s recommendation if it were someone that I know, who understands my personality and likes to read the same books that I do.

    1. Agreed. And really, even with a recommendation like that, I still read the sample first.

      Thanks, Melissa, I appreciate the feedback 🙂

  5. Fortunately I’ve always been way too lazy to write a thoughtful review even before I turned pro. I admit I do star ratings for books on Goodreads (and occasionally a one-liner about what I liked) but only if I enjoyed it enough to do 4 or 5 stars. If I don’t like a book I generally don’t finish reading it anyway, and rating something I didn’t finish reading seems dishonest.

    1. Agreed, Jordan. A thoughtful review takes a lot of time. Like I said to Patti, it’s one of the prices we pay as writers and as a reader, it sucks. It just seems better to rate and/or leave a one-liner or move on. If you don’t like it, why waste the energy when you could be writing your own stuff?

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  6. Couldn’t agree more. I’m not a reviewer, but a reader/writer. I will not write a bad review for another author. I am not the watchdog for readers. The consequence to the author of a bad review is much greater than someone buying a book for 2.99 and not liking it. It could be the author’s livelihood at stake, and that is not something I want to jeopardize.

    I don’t write reviews often enough for various reasons – but I do write them for authors whose work I enjoy reading and believe in.

    eden

    1. Exactly. The whole paradigm shifts when you’re a writer. I’m not sure the majority of writers get this.

      xoxo Thanks for your comment.

  7. Great post and valid points, Netta.

    Like eden, I do write reviews for authors whose books I really enjoy. When I do that, I don’t look at them from a writer’s point of view, but how the book affect me as a reader. I also make a point that I never publish a review which is less than 3 stars, usually only 4-5 star reviews on my blog or Amazon.

    To be honest, I have rated books which are less than 3 stars on GR, but it is out of spite towards the authors – the rare ones I rated are well-known authors I have never met, even on-line and I rated them lower because I could not finish reading it and didn’t really like what I read. These are very rare – as you said, usually we can read a sample and decide whether it was for me or not.

    With fellow Indie authors, I try to be supportive, so if I am asked to do a review, and it’s the kind of books I would read, then I try to be kind. If I didn’t like it, then I wouldn’t write a review and tell the authors why.

    Your post definitely got me thinking. Thanks!

  8. Thanks, Junying 🙂

    I appreciate your honesty and totally understand your position. For me, it feels more difficult because of my job. That, and I don’t see the need for the real nasty stuff — the humiliation and outright bullying of people. If you feel that strongly about a book, then contact the author privately. It’s just professional courtesy. Otherwise, rate how you feel best and move on.

    Thank you for your comment and honest opinion!

  9. Sorry, Netta – I just read my comments above and realised that I made a terrible mistake – I meant NOT out of spite towards the authors. I should have read it before I clicked that submit button, but I think you probably understand what I tried to say.

    I totally agree with you about being professional, and your other points as well. I hope I did not come across as being controversial, and I admire your professionalism and honesty too.

  10. Hi, Netta, interesting column. I’m not a published writer (yet at least) but I do review books by established authors and by self published or indie (you know what I mean) authors. I think the writer sets the standard. For example, I really enjoyed your book, and gave it 5 stars. That was honest. I read something by a guy named Sean Hayden and gave it 5 stars. Honest. Not trying to suck up to you guys. But if I had read your book and didn’t like it, I would not have written a 1 or 2 star review. As you go along, though, you’ve set a standard for yourself. I’m going to compare you to you, and maybe to other books that I’ve found to be similar in style to yours, but I’m not going to compare you to Stephen King or Michael Connelly or Harlan Coben.

    OTOH, I am going to compare Stephen King to Stephen King. I recently gave UNDER THE DOME a 4 star review, not because it wasn’t better than some of the things I’ve read by beginning indie authors, but because it wasn’t as good as King’s 5 star work. (Like 11/22/63 or whatever the numbers were…hey I was only 3 on that date…) Koontz gets compared to Koontz and others like him. Something like THE TAKING (I think that’s the right title) gets 3 stars because it doesn’t stand up to something like WATCHERS in my opinion. I’m clear about these comparisons in my review, though.

    I have no interest in hurting the career of a indie writer, because his/her work didn’t resonate with me, and I just won’t review something I didn’t care for. I also wouldn’t review a book I couldn’t finish. I didn’t read it, so how can I give it an honest review? Yet time after time I read reviews that state “I put it down after two chapters” and the review is 1 star. That bugs me…

    Sorry to be so longwinded…

    1. Scott, you bring up some really great points, especially comparing books to others. What works in one genre doesn’t necessarily works in another.

      I totally agree with your point about leaving one star reviews if you haven’t even finished the book or it didn’t appeal to you. Not every book is appealing to every reader, and the one star reviews for that reason just seem mean-spirited more than anything else.

      However, I don’t have a problem with readers leaving an honest opinion or review — my issue is when indie writers rip up other indies. You just don’t see this in any other independent art form, so I’m at a loss as to why this happens so often in self-publishing. It doesn’t make you a better writer.

      No apology necessary, Scott. I really appreciate your opinion and you can be as long-winded as you like 🙂 Thanks for popping by and sharing.

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