Last week, Kirsten Lamb (leader of the #WANA Writer’s Tribe and author of #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer) stirred up some controversy in the writer-sphere. Her blog, a wealth of writerly words of wisdom, is one of the first I read daily (and if your a writer, you should read it, too). Like most of her readers, I’m an aspiring novelist, and her post made me wonder if by posting book reviews I’ve written myself into a corner.
The Three NEVERs of Social Media (for writers) via Kristen Lamb
1. Never be nasty in a blog comment. Agree. Unless the blogger is an ass-hat writing about raping and pillaging as a hobby or something else ridiculously offensive.
2. Never be nasty on twitter. Yes. Though I’d never intentionally be nasty to another tweeter, I should cut down my snarky commentaries about celebs and politicians (unless they fall into the “fair game” category). Maybe even then.
3. Never write a bad book review. Yeah, but… What constitutes a “bad” review?
“This doesn’t apply to book bloggers and book reviewers. That’s your job and we love that you give us guidance on what to read. But, as authors? I believe in what Candace Havens calls Writer Karma. If I can’t give a book a five-star rave review? I just don’t review it. Again, publishing is a small world and we all need each other. The world is already out to throw us under a bus. We need each other to keep from turning into cutters.”
What if someone is a book blogger AND an aspiring author?
How many books truly worthy of a five-star review are out there? Reviewers seem to base their star ratings on a sliding scale. Some dole out stars like cheap Halloween candy, whereas I hoard my fives. In my imagined ratings scale, a three-star is book good, not amazing, but decent read if you happen upon it. A four-star is excellent, a book I recommend. A five-star is blow-me-out-of-my-chair, go buy this in hardback NOW, then pass it along to all of your friends and family.
I read many good books, even more excellent novels I’d wholeheartedly recommend for others read, but very few works that take my breath away.
So, should I only review those few? Are my expectations too high? Should I revise my ratings scale? Or is that shifting from a review to book promotion?
On my blog, I refuse to give star ratings. I prefer to discuss what I loved about the book. By highlighting the positives—the way the author wove subplots, developed character, or uniquely captured ideas that resonate— potential readers can decide if this book is for them. Most books I review are character, not plot driven, and sometimes I explain what drove me nuts about a particular character. But nicely. Subjectively. It’s just my opinion. And infuriating characters are often a part of a damn good (four or five-star) novel. Anyone who’s a member of a book club knows how amazing books often open our minds to different ideas and occasionally heated debate. Passion leaves an impression.
In the comments of Kristen’s follow-up post Should Authors Write Bad Book Reviews many commentators discussed correcting grammar and critiquing technical issues “so the author could learn from their mistakes.” Whoa. Stop the presses. Publishing critiques?
A BOOK REVIEW and a BOOK CRITIQUE are not synonymous.
A CRITIQUE should be done before a book is published, in private, so the author may find issues within a manuscript before publication. Here’s where one can point out homophones and misplaces commas, plot holes or factual errors. It can also be used in the classroom (and many English Lit majors spent years dissecting everything from Shakespeare to Shel Silverstein). Trust me. My work in progress is in the process of being
critiqued shredded so I can piece it back together. I invite knowledgeable readers/writers to constructively dissect it so it can improve. Without claws and in private, please.
Reading through her post’s comments I was shocked how many writer/readers have sent emails to authors gigging them on grammar. I could never EVER imagine sending an author a note of criticism, constructive or not, about what I disliked about their published work. Some authors wrote how this skewed their heart. Others said they appreciated the constructive criticism.
A BOOK REVIEW is an impartial commentary, written so that others can decide if they would like to read the book. Reviews should be written from a reader’s POV, not a writer’s. It should be helpful, mentioning a plot summary and character sketches. It should discuss setting, themes, readability, and memorable scenes. It should explain who the book would appeal to and why. It can discuss issues that might have rubbed the reviewer the wrong way. But it should be cruelty-free.
And it should be honest. If a reviewer gushes about every single book, their credibility evaporates.
The Book PROMOTER vs. REVIEWER
Some book blogs and reviewers primarily promote books. Now, in today’s world where authors (even traditionally published) are often responsible for 100% of their own book promotion, they NEED people to write about their books. If no one is reviewing them, posting about them, or singing their praises over their social media networks, no one will know their baby is “out there” in the seemingly infinite book market. But a book promotion post is often not a review—it may be a summary, book blurbs, author Q&A, or funny antidote. Many times, the blogger may not have even read the book. And it’s overwhelmingly positive. That’s all good, so long as readers understand it for what it is.
Again, authors desperately need straight book promotion. And they need reviews, good reviews, with at least four to five stars to get anywhere with Amazon’s ever-fluctuating algorithms. Reviews help sell books. Writer’s need to eat.
And maybe, in this touchy world of book reviews, Kristen is suggesting authors (published & non-published) become more promoters than reviewers? Writers have vast and enduring memories. Friends can be hard to come by, and enemies hard to shake. So why make any? We’re all in this together, right?
Then there’s the whole issue with karma…
Kristen spurned so much discussion with these posts, she kept the dialog open with a third installment, Is It FAIR for Authors to Review Other Authors? Do We Ruin the Magic? If you’re a writer or a book reviewer, these posts and their comments (each as over a hundred) will get you thinking. Even though I didn’t agree with the whole “Only Five-Star” bit in the first of the series, I loved the dialog these posts stirred up.
I won’t be writing any more negative reviews. (I think I’ve only written one, as I had to express my disbelief about the Fifty Shades phenomena. Oh wait—I didn’t care for Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy either. Both authors made enough moula that I don’t believe my rant hurt their sales much.) I’ve received many books from publishers which I’ve declined to review. If I couldn’t say anything nice, I chose to say nothing at all. But I think I must review more than just the lofty five-star works. There are too many authors out there who deserve praise and publicity … and hopefully a few more sales.