Why I never (almost) do book reviews anymore.

I love reading. I love a good story. I love it so much that I’ve become quite a snob about certain things. I used to try to do a review on every book I read. But one particular review and the following snubbing that came afterward, has just about made me want to give up on doing it at all.

Several years ago, I read and reviewed a book and was very critical about it. I gave it 3 stars and thought that was generous. Whereas the author, who shall remain nameless, was very gracious about my scathing remarks, that person’s fans were not. I argued with a few of them, trying to get my point across. But it really did more harm than good.

Fast forward a little bit. My book gets published. I’m now on the same playing field as others desperately seeking the gratification of a good review. And I’ve been blessed with quite a few. I try to brush off the bad ones. But that one author has never touched my book. Neither has any of his/her fans, even though I know they’d probably all like it. That author remains cordial to me…but somewhat at a distance. I’ve accepted this opportunity to build a professional friendship as a loss. And I’ve accepted that those fans may never forgive that one scathing review of a struggling author trying to prove himself worthy of being published too.

And so I now refuse to give anyone a review unless I can honestly give them at least four-stars. To some of my closest author friends…FYI, maybe I just haven’t gotten around to finishing your book. And I owe a few of you a review. So don’t go thinking I hated your book.

The thing is, I don’t hate most books at all. I’m just super critical about form and development. I tend to see the things that need to be fixed, rather than the things that were done right. Even in my academic work, I received a C on a book review last year because I tore into the author about a certain subject. I was right and justified to do so. But I was too critical. AND I didn’t cite my argument. Oh well. Lesson learned. I’m working on this critical review problem of mine. It may take a little longer. But I am working on it.

The other day I saw a Facebook wall post to the first mentioned author from a young reviewer who prides him/herself on their reviewing prowess. The reviewer said to the author something like, “My review isn’t on the first page of most-helpful reviews on Amazon. Can you fix that?” I looked at the review. It was a 3-Star scathing review similar to the one I once wrote. It called the book “disappointing.”

Really, Mr. Reviewer? You’re going to write such a damaging review for an author and DARE to ask them to make your review more prominent so it can be seen by more people? To you I say…stop being so inconsiderate to authors, who have worked YEARS to get their books published and make practically no income off of something they love.

I was a jerk reviewer once. If there’s a chance I might come across like that now, then I won’t do the review. It’s not worth it. The shoe’s on the other foot now. I’d rather build relationships with authors than tear down their hard work. Don’t get me wrong…I think we need more honesty in reviews. Honest reviews are hard to find. I’m just not going to be the bad guy anymore. And I’m definitely not going to be a jerk.

About Keven Newsome

Keven Newsome is an musician, theologian, and a bit of a nerd. He enjoys a variety of musical genres, from Christian rock to movie soundtracks to KPop. A former band director, he plays about a dozen instruments, given a couple of weeks to practice up. His theological work has included a book on multi-generational ministry and a thesis on the theology of communicating with the dead. As for his nerd-card, he enjoys the fandoms of The Legend of Zelda, Doctor Who, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Lord of the Rings. With a music degree from William Carey University and a theology degree from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Keven actively serves in ministry as both pastor and worship leader.

17 comments on “Why I never (almost) do book reviews anymore.

  1. Great topic, and great (humble) admission. Book reviewing is such a double-edged dagger (especially for authors pursuing publication). Which is why, like you, I only review books I love. I figure there’s enough negativity in the world, and I’d rather my blog be known for honest encouragement and great recommendations than stepping on the heart of an author who’s spilt his blood, sweat, and multiple coffee cups to write a story he loves (and that many others will love as well). There’s definitely a place for well done, critical reviews, and that’s why I appreciate many of my book blogging friends — the way they can nicely evaluate any book in front of them without using the snark or brashness so often prevalent in the blogosphere…it’s like an art form in itself :0). Just not my chosen art form.

    Excellent post.

  2. Excuse me, Mr. Newsome. First of all, I admit that I should have been much more constructive in my criticism in the review. But concerning your objection, the post was *not* to the author, it was to anyone who’d frequently read my reviews. I never asked the author anything about making my review more prominent. And I was not complaining that it wasn’t on the front page. I was irritated that it was placed at the level of reviews like the following: “Thought I bought a scifi book but it turned to be a childish teenage love story added with religious propaganda against the stem cell research.”

    I’m sorry you think I’m a “jerk reviewer.” My review offer is still there, if you ever change your mind.

    • Since the bulk of my reply came from our resultant conversation on Facebook over this, I’m going to copy paste what I said there:

      I was in no way talking about you personally, but was talking about a problem I’m seeing all too often by aspiring writers. And if you took anything from my blog, you should realize that I used to be the SAME WAY. Now that I’m published, I see that it’s cost me professional relationships and potential fans. That’s why I don’t do reviews anymore. You can count on one hand how many I’ve done in the past three years.

      So don’t take this as an assault on you. I never called you out and I don’t mean to attack you as a person. But take this as professional advice. Posting harsh reviews paints you as a “bad reviewer” among authors. More than one has come to me with a review request from you, wanting to know if they should send you a copy. All I can tell them is to go read your other reviews.

      I get your style. I get your honesty. And I respect all of that. I’m very similar in the way I review. You’re young and have a long future ahead of you in this industry. If you’re planing to be an author, you need to recognize the bridges you’re burning. But if your only ambition is to be a hard-nosed reviewer, I suppose carry on.

      You can be honest without being scathing. I’m still learning this lesson. And let’s be honest…from an author’s perspective, asking [said author] if [he/she] had the ability to move your 3-star review to the front page when you called the book “disappointing,” was rather an improper thing to do.

      I was serious about the fallout after my review of the first of the author’s books. [The author] has done interviews and such with me, but none of [his/her] websites or bloggers or reviewers or fans have even touched my book. It’s like I’m blacklisted…for one critical review.

      So I hope you don’t take this as I “hate” you or don’t respect you or anything. Hopefully, you’ll learn from the mistakes I made as a reviewer. Because once you’re on the other side of publication, everything looks completely different.

      • It is a habit of mine to tag an author whenever I so much as mention their book. I never asked if he/she had such an ability to change it, and as I already explained, I wasn’t hunting for the front page. It is now deleted because it was much taken in the wrong way.

        • You’ve got to do what you feel convicted to do, regarding your reviews, as a reviewer, future author and receiver of reviews, and as someone with integrity. Be honest, but be gracious. And ask yourself if your review is one you’d want someone to give to you in the future.

  3. Heh, I understand that. I’ve left some harsh reviews of some peoples’ books and have since been written off by those people. But the review isn’t for the author. The review is for other readers. If the book is full of typos and the plot is bad, other readers ought to know.

    I do post rave reviews of books I really like, and I screen titles to try to only read things I think I’ll like. But recently only one book has elicited a full five stars. I’d start to nitpick, then I’d get swept up in a new plot twist and forget about nitpicking. (It was animal fiction about griffins. I’ve literally never read anything like it.)

    I fully expect harsh reviews of my works once they’re published. But every author gets those. I have favorite books I read over and over that only have three stars on Amazon. Just the law of the jungle, I guess.

    • Absolutely, we need some honest reviewers out there to alert readers to some of the trash floating around Amazon. But what I was doing, and generally fall into the trap of doing, is beyond reviewing. I’m better suited for macro level critique work than for reviews. Come see me BEFORE your book comes out and I’ll be completely honest with you.

      Maybe the reviewing skill is something I’m just deficient at.

      • Heh, I guess I could toss you my WIP at you for crits once it goes through this next round of edits and is ready for my critique group. It’s not horror, though, it’s just YA urban fantasy. (I still need to read Winter! I thought I had it, and I had Winter Rose, something completely different entirely.)

  4. Thanks for sharing this experience, Keven. So far, I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read and reviewed and have always found something good I can say about them. However, one day I might have run into a situation where I might post a negative review… and now I’ve got more things to consider before I press “publish” on a critical review.

    No matter how hard we try to stay balanced and willing to hear criticism, I’m sure it would sting to hear someone knock something I felt was good enough to publish. It would put a damper on my relationship with the reviewer, at least until I talked it through with them and got over it. Definitely something to think about.

    • Authors are like kickers in American football. It doesn’t matter how good they are or how seldom they make a mistake, one criticism can ruin them for the entire game. Moral for authors is such a fickle thing. Sure we have to grow thick skin. But thick skin can’t stop the sharpest darts.

  5. Book reviews, particularly in the Christian fiction community, are the literary equivalent of answering the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” And heaven help you if the review-ee has a posse.

    If reviews are to have any meaning at all, we have to allow the reviewer the freedom to say, “I didn’t like this book, and here’s why.” It’s wrong to demand that they wrap their comments in cotton candy or remain silent if their honest reaction is less than positive. Grade inflation is no more ethical in the marketplace than in the classroom, and an “all-positive” reviewer’s non-review speaks as loudly as any Amazon one-star rating, even if it enables a sort of plausible deniability that avoids the unpleasant consequences of actually putting the reaction on record.

    And it isn’t any nobler to bludgeon a dissenting reviewer than to bludgeon a writer.

    There certainly are trolls out there who take pleasure in dissecting other people and their work without regard for tact, common courtesy, or emotional sensitivity, and the desire to protect people’s feelings and preserve collegial relationships is praiseworthy, but we’re doing our writers a disservice when we go to the other extreme and make it the norm to reward thin-skinned reactions to criticism. Writing is not an enterprise that prospers in the absence of candid feedback, and I think it’s a dangerous state of affairs when cheerleading is the only acceptable public response to any book.

    • So right. We’ve lost a true “peer review” dynamic. But even in that sort of dynamic, my tendency is to go too far. That’s why I stopped reviewing. But I’m all for honest reviews. What we need is to be able to honestly review our peers without fear of malicious reciprocity. But the legions of fans who cry foul make this almost impossible. So our honesty runs us the risk of losing sales. It’s a lose-lose situation, and I’m not going to play it often unless it’s a book a can honestly give a great review. I prefer just to let the fans do the reviewing. As an author…I’m mostly going to stay out of it.

    • Fred says: Book reviews, particularly in the Christian fiction community, are the literary equivalent of answering the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” And heaven help you if the review-ee has a posse.

      I wonder if this is the case in the secular market? Do non-Christians get all bent out of shape for negative peer reviews? Do they have the same attitude that much of the Christian market has, which is that if you were a good Christian author you would support other Christian writers no matter what?

      • I don’t know anybody who *enjoys* getting a negative review, and bellyaching about reviews and reviewers is a chronic writers’ disease, but I don’t see the same sense of entitlement from secular authors, who don’t expect a ready-made fan base for their stories and usually expect a critical drubbing from *someone,* unless they’re a brand-new writer.

        Many (*far* too many, in my opinion) Christian authors expect Christians to give them a nice review, “nice” meaning completely positive and nothing less than four stars on the Amazon system. Anything else is both a personal affront and a failure of Christian fellowship. Criticism, no matter how gentle or constructive, is interpreted as an attack, perhaps even a spiritual attack. There is often an accompanying expectation to purchase their book, with poor sales resulting in dismay about lack of support from Christian brothers and sisters.

        • Fred, I think that’s an awesome point–it’s about expectations. Christian authors often *expect* to have their books bought and loved by other Christians for the simple fact that they are “brother and sisters.” It’s not a fair expectation–especially when you think about how many authors there are out there! If we all bought each others’ books we’d all go broke…

          And I think the secular publishing world *expects* a variety of reaction. I think most secular authors know they are putting their work out there for possible attack and don’t assume they will only get positive reviews. At least more of them do.

  6. […] Why I never (almost) do book reviews anymore. (newauthors.wordpress.com) […]

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