IWSG: Are we jeopardising the indie book industry by being ‘nice’?

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“Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!” Alex J Cavanaugh

For this month’s Insecure Writers’ Support Group post, I’d like to discuss something that’s been on my mind a little bit lately, thanks to Andrew Leon’s two-part post titled, Is It Better To Be “Nice” Or Honest?

You can read the full post part one and part two by Andrew (and I recommend you do, it’s very thought provoking), but in the interests of time, I’ll give you the extremely abridged version. Essentially, what I took from Andrew’s post was that we are doing the indie book industry a disservice every time we write a positive review for a self published book that doesn’t deserve it. Why? Because reviews are the only currency independent authors have, and if we discredit that, then readers will assume all self-published books are as rubbish as each other and stick with traditionally published books, which have been judged as worthwhile by someone they trust (mainstream publishers).

I agree with Andrew on this point. Writing a good review just to be nice doesn’t do anybody any favours. It tarnishes your reputation as a writer/reviewer, it tells the author they don’t need to grow, and it turns readers off the indie book industry.

However, I’m not entirely comfortable with the extension of this argument, which says that we must write negative reviews for books that deserve it. While I agree this would add to the overall credibility of the industry, I just can’t bring myself to publicly criticise another author’s work. If they asked for my opinion, I would give it to them – in an email, not a public forum. I would rather recommend the books I enjoy and not mention the ones I don’t. I guess this is because I understand what it’s like to be an insecure writer, and I don’t want to cause others pain.

But maybe I’m just soft and my reluctance to criticise is actually harming the industry. Almost every self published book you see has a handful of glowing reviews, even those that clearly don’t deserve the praise. I assume these reviews are written by family and friends who would love whatever the person wrote regardless of the quality. By not balancing these reviews with honest, critical ones of my own, am I contributing to the erosion of review credibility, thus diminishing the indie publisher’s only currency?

I’m really keen to hear your take on this. Do you think I(/we) should be tougher and write critical reviews of self published books? Do you write reviews like that? What would you think if you read an ultra-critical review on my blog? And what effect do you think the absence of these reviews has on the industry as a whole? Let me know what you think!

P.S. Don’t forget to support other insecure writers!



Filed under Insecure Writers Support Group, Self publishing, Writers, Writing

26 responses to “IWSG: Are we jeopardising the indie book industry by being ‘nice’?

  1. I was brought up to beleive that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all! So I’m with you on not “publicly” criticising an indi writers work.

    Every time I read work by a friend I worry that I’ll hate it lol, it’s quite stressful 😦

    I can understand what Andrew is saying though. It’s so hard for friends and family to be objective, and then more of a shock to the writer when they get that first negative review 😦

    Not sure what the answer is but I’ll stick to keeping quiet if I don’t think something is any good 😉


  2. These are interesting questions. I think if you have trouble publicly criticising another author’s work, then leave it another writer or reviewer who can do it. I do believe the industry as a whole needs critical reviews though because it ultimately helps everyone, including the ‘bad author’.

  3. Wow – what a great post! I’ll be tweeting this one.

    I’m in the interesting position of having written many book reviews before becoming a fiction writer. I’m a plainspoken person and I reviewed them honestly…and increasing more harshly as I learned the rules of fiction and what authors were *supposed* to be doing.

    Folks who follow my reviews expect a certain level of scrutiny and honesty from me, and therefore, it will continue. However, I don’t review as my author persona (a pen name) out of respect for other authors. I don’t even post book reviews on my blog. If I did, what would I do if the book in question was truly bad?

    I refuse to give stars that aren’t earned.

    And part of the reason for that is how strongly I feel about what authors – especially self- and indie- published ones – are putting out there. They need to realize it’s not only their reputation at stake. It affects every other author who chooses to publish that way.

    One of my biggest pet peeves is work rife with grammatical errors (that includes spelling and usage errors). Forgive my bluntness, but, in this day and age with word processors that catch some of it and critique partners willing to swap for free who generally catch most of the rest of them, there is simply no excuse for publishing books full of glaring errors. I’m sorry, but there isn’t. Yet I see it all the time.

    We need to encourage each other and critique in a way that points out the mistakes without crushing the writer’s spirit, but we need to be honest. And when it comes to reviews, we need to be honest or simply not do them. People are not going to take self- and indie-published books seriously until the authors who write them do.

    IWSG #179 (at least for today. LOL)

  4. Hi Cally, I’ve found you through the IWSG and I’m glad I did. I’m like you, I find it very hard indeed to say something bad about an indie-published writer unless I can be constructive and also concentrate on positive points. If the whole work is bad, in my opinion, then I just won’t write a review. Critiquing is also a rough road. But I always make an agreement with my partners that we’re utterly honest with each other and it seems to have worked so far. It’s rare for something to be total nonsense, there’s always something good and positive to comment on.

  5. Firstly thanks for referring back to Andrew’s terrific and rather controversial posts. I thought he did a great job with something that needs to be discussed.

    My feelings are that a book is a product offered to a buying public If a product is truly bad or inferior in some way, the buying public deserves to be warned before before they put out their money for that product.

    However, to be credible and helpful, the negative review must be backed up with evidence. What is bad to one reader may not be to another, so a reviewer should give the reasoning that leads to their arguments.

    A review should be an aid to those considering reading and even purchasing a book. That review need not be the ultimate decision maker, but a guide as to what another reader thought. If any of us as readers, whether we be authors or not, dishonestly tell others that a book is good then we are doing an immediate disservice to someone who might have trusted our judgement, and long term harm to ourselves and our industry.

    If we are afraid of telling the public that something is bad then we will be partly responsible for unleashing dreck upon the marketplace. If someone one is putting their product out before the public they should be ready for some less than stellar reviews sometimes and just be willing to accept it and learn from it.

    Even better, before the product hits the marketplace, the producer needs to have honest critics giving them honest assessments before inferior product hits the market.

    Tossing It Out

    • Agree, Arlee. I can understand not reviewing as one’s author persona to avoid bad feelings among fellow writers, but there are easy ways around that.

      Speaking as a reader, I’ve gotten to the point I don’t even bother reading the 5-start reviews anymore. If I do (such as when a book has few reviews and those are all I have to go on), I check the reviewer’s history and get suspicious if that is their only review.

      I often browse lesser-known authors and self-pubbed books. I like the prices, and I often find some real gems there. But I also like to be warned if a book is bad so I won’t waste my money. I’m not talking ‘bad’ subjective, but ‘bad’ objective–meaning books that are just plain poorly-written and or full or errors.

      Authors who write good fiction and take the time to have it properly edited have nothing to worry about. It seems they would welcome the critics. *shrugs*

  6. The problem of being nasty in a review is that opinion is subjective. Example: When you walk into a room and say “Oh this is decorated like crap” you think you are being honest. The person behind you comes in and says, “Oh what a beautiful room. I could live and breathe here for the rest of my life.” Then the person who gave the negative review thinks “Oh that person is jeopardizing the home decorating industry by not being objective because this is clearly terrible.”

    NO no no no no. You are entitled to your opinion, I am entitled to mine. The standard of “excellence” is all subjective. Therefore, I think that leaving an especially negative review does nothing but take money out of an author’s pocket. There are already so many books out there without negative reviews (some probably deserve them) that by singling out one, all you do is drive people to buy other ones that haven’t been “singled out.” In other words, you just cost that author money unnecessarily.

    What Andrew is championing, is the idea that it is a reviewer’s responsibility to “single out” an author in an ocean of those that otherwise would not be “singled out”. And I think that’s wrong. If you are going to throw stones, then it needs to be done to EVERY single book. If you can’t do it to EVERY SINGLE book, then you are doing an injustice to that author, and you are not being “fair” to the publishing industry.

    • Let me clarify that I was not referring to being ‘nasty’ in my reviews (done as my reader persona). When I give a ‘bad’ review, I occasionally get a tad snarky, but I do not attack or berate the author. I list the reasons I felt the book was lacking as it relates to the rules of fiction (for lack of a better description), and I back those negative remarks up with examples.

      As far as reviews being subjective, they are. That’s the nature of the beast. But when you look at them as a whole, you generally see a trend. I don’t let a handful of 1-star reviews turn me off a book unless I think they have merit (some obviously don’t, and some are simply opinions in the minority, so I disregard). If, however, the problems they cite are things I know I would hate, such as excessive grammatical errors, I heed them and the author loses the sale.

  7. Hey! Wow! I’m glad to see that something I wrote has had an impact 🙂

    You already know my stance, but I’ll add a couple of things.
    1. As to just doing the deserved positive reviews and ignoring the others: It creates the same imbalance in the industry as a whole. Buyers come in and only see the positive reviews, they see the presentation of “look! indie publishers are great!” and they can’t make informed decisions which causes the decision of “indie publishers have their heads up their butts; I’m sticking with traditional.” Both sides need to be presented.

    2. In response to what Michael is saying:
    No, I’m not talking about singling out any individual author. Reviews are for books not authors. While it is true that -I- can not review every single book written, if all people gave objective reviews, if all people were honest, every book would get the same treatment. My stance is that I’m not joining in with the white washing of crap on an individual basis just because I can’t point out all the crap.
    Also, there are some very objective aspects to reviewing which include the critique of the technical style of the work. If a work is full of grammar errors, that is objective fact not subjective opinion. It is fair and necessary to point out that a work should have had editing. Subjectively, people are affected to different degrees by the grammar errors, sometimes from their own ignorance of those errors, but buyers have a right to know that stuff going in.
    Personally, I’m pretty clear in making these distinctions. Such as:
    1. This book really needed editing. There are grammar and structure issues throughout the book. AND I didn’t enjoy it.
    2. This book really needed editing. It’s full of grammar errors and writing errors. However, I loved the story and was able to overcome the grammar errors because it was so good.

    (Both are boiled down, actual recent examples.)

    • Your posts certainly did have an impact on me. I’ve been mulling the topic over ever since I read them, and I’m really glad you posted about it because it’s something worth considering. I agree that there are certain objective aspects of writing that we as reviewers can comment on, such as grammar, but even that can be debatable at times. For example, while the US and Australia have different meanings/uses for the words ‘that’ and ‘which’, in the UK, they’re used synonymously.

      After thinking about the topic a bit more, I’ve decided that I disagree with your statement that ignoring badly written books creates the same imbalance as writing positive reviews for those badly written books. Surely readers are astute enough to realise that 100 positive reviews probably means that the book is good, whereas five positive reviews probably means the reviews are written by the author’s friends and family.

      Thanks again for your posts! I’m enjoying the conversations they’ve kick-started.

  8. Vicki Tremper

    Other than some of the things Andrew mentions above, it’s all subjective. Which is why I don’t read the good reviews, I read the bad reviews to see what the reviewer didn’t like. Some of the time, it’s something that would bother me, too. Sometimes, it’s clear that it’s just about taste. And how do we not support our friends and family in one of the few ways we can?

    • I usually read a couple of positive reviews and then a couple of negative reviews to get a rounded picture. I also read the negative reviews because they’re usually more interesting/entertaining than the positive ones, whether I agree with them or not!

  9. Great post and very thought-provoking indeed.

    I’m coming more and more to the opinion that writers shouldn’t be reviewers at all (by that, I mean authors trying or intending to sell books). Even though we have a lot of knowledge that is useful in reviewing, it’s the reasons you’ve noted above that make it too hard.

    We also know a lot of other writers. What if one of them writes a piece of crap book? What do we do then? If we’re in the habit of reviewing books and politely decline theirs, it’s obvious what we think. It can hurt personal relationships (or, on the flipside, if we give moderate or positive reviews to a book that doesn’t deserve them, we undermine our own credibility).

    It’s a lose-lose as far as I’m concerned. I’m considering dropping my named reviews from websites for this reason.

    Instead, I’m considering creating an “alter-ego” online to do my reviewing under a name no one knows. Then I can be honest – and no one gets hurt.

    At least, that’s the idea…

    • I look back on some of my reviews and wish I had written them just a little differently. Like the ones I gave 5 stars to that really should have been 4. I have written a few negative reviews but usually not for anyone I know, and I don’t write them at all anymore. If I can’t say something nice, I keep quiet, unless that author asks me pointedly to give them my opinion.

  10. I think the main thing I’d point out is that there’s a difference between negatives reviews and thorough reviews that critically evaluate the work. Oftentimes the difference is subtle, but it’s the only way I see to truly help the author and maintain the integrity of a reviewing system. I know it’s a challenge, though, and particularly so when the author is a friend or partner. But if you were in that author’s position, wouldn’t you want to know?

  11. I read his posts and agree with the idea. However, I could never bash another writer’s book. I’ve read a few books that weren’t very good and I just didn’t review them. Bottom line, I don’t really review books anyway. And if a book was that awful, then I never even finished it, which means I shouldn’t review it anyway.

  12. Hunter

    wow. Thought-provoking post.

    A good few months ago, I decided to pull some book reviews I’d written, for the reason that I very rarely give out 5 stars, and there was an expectation that I should. The books I read were full of POV changes, head-hopping etc. And as a writer, I was reading them as a writer, not possibly how a normal reader would. Putting book reviews onto my blog is where I decided to draw the line, but I do stick them up on Goodreads etc, and honestly.

    Where I read an indie author’s book, and completely don’t like it, I keep silent, and don’t put up any reviews at all. Silence is golden and all that.

    However, I realise now that I’ve got to be more consistent – I have collected so many books I have on my to-read pile, and it’ll be months before I get to all of them – and then, my silence can be misread. Catch-22. I’m going to have to re-think all this sometime.

  13. Hunter

    Reblogged this on Hunter's Writing and commented:
    Cally brings up the indie writers reviewing indie writer’s question, and makes me think.

  14. I’ve been thinking about this ever since your last post! Like seriously thinking about it!
    What I’ve pretty much been doing so far is reviewing the books I’ve enjoyed, and quietly ticking “read” on Goodreads for the books I haven’t enjoyed and then just moving on without rating them or writing a review! It’s a lot harder when someone has ASKED for a review – as part of a blog tour or whatever.
    For one review in the past I did a “The Good, The Bad and The Pretty” layout. So I discussed good points first, then the things I didn’t think were great (very similar to the way you wrote your recent review for Talli’s book), and The Pretty part referred to what I thought of the cover. What I decided in all my mulling over this week is that in future ALL my reviews should be written like that. Balanced 🙂

  15. pk hrezo

    Mixed feelings here. I feel like if the review is constructive, then bring it on. If it’s just to bash another person’s creativity (which is totally subjective) then there’s no need. Personally on my own blog, I only review books I like. Movies on the other hand, I don’t have any trouble telling why I didn’t like. Not sure why there’s a difference–maybe cuz I’m a writer.

  16. The Golden Eagle

    I don’t think there are too many negative reviews, that’s for sure. I also think that it does undermine things a bit if people only write positive reviews and avoid rating those they didn’t like; most website rating systems seem to base themselves on how many stars products receive. If all books are getting the same ratings, then there’s really no way for potential readers to find something they’d actually want to read. I know I tend to at least skim negative reviews to see if they have an apparent substance; glowing reviews almost never. They’re all the same, to an extent.

  17. touchwooddesign

    Having spent a fair chunk of my time reviewing music and books, there are two points that I’d add. The first is that if people put their art in the public arena then they should expect that it’s not going to strike a connection with everyone who comes across it. The second is that critics are not special or superior beings who necessarily know what’s “good” or “bad” – they are just offering an opinion based on what they’ve experienced and what they personally value. So yes there’s a place for glowing AND not-so-glowing reviews – as long as they clearly articulate why the reviewer came to that conclusion.

  18. I’m a weanie and I know it.
    If I enjoy the book, I leave a review, if I don’t, I slip back into the ether. I don’t want to be the one to deter the reader who will appreciate that author’s hard work.

  19. Many times, I buy a book based solely on the reviews. I feel reviewers need to be honest. If the book is good, say so. If the book is terrible, say so. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be flowery with great books and down right mean with the bad ones. Just be honest. That’s should be easy, but sadly, honesty is not always on the top of a reviewers list.
    Even “bad” books deserve kindness. How can an author improve his/her writing with cruelty? Kind, honest reviews are always more helpful than the false information or mean words.

  20. I left a 2-star review for an Indie writer who had received mostly 4- and 5-star reviews. She had written a very sad memoir and I think most people were responding to her story instead of the writing of it. It was poorly written with a lot of redundancies and my comment was that the book needed a good, solid editing. I still feel badly about leaving 2 stars, but just couldn’t bring myself to praise it. I even apologized in the comment.

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