Option Zero, or Why I Never Review Other Authors

Lately I’ve become somewhat outspoken in my refusal to review or rate another author’s work. This stance has drawn some questions from my fellow authors, so I thought I’d take the most appropriate platform to air out my thinking on the subject.

To me, it’s a no-win situation. Let me outline some very basic scenarios:

Option 1… you read a book and you like it. You might have a criticism here or there, but overall you’d give it a four or five-star rating. You post up said rating/review, and people thank you… warm fuzzies all around.

Option 2… you read a book, but you don’t like it. There were issues with pacing, plotting, characterization, fat rabid pandas swatting at vampires with steak knives… whatever. You have to decide whether to a) post up the lackluster rating and/or review, or b) don’t post up anything at all.

Swell.

Here’s the problem.

When authors adopt option 2a, holy shit is there drama! I’ve seen it. And sure, we all like to think we’re grown-ups, and that we can handle criticism. Some of us actually can. But there are levels of butthurt at play, here. You have a typical Defcon 1 Author Drama, where the abused author launches a scorched Earth campaign against you, rallying swaths of Visigoths to swarm Goodreads in their name.

Pictured: a typical Goodreads message board.

Pictured: a typical Goodreads message board.

But there is also the passive-aggressive flavor of chapped ass. This is where, when it comes time to reciprocate the rating/review (and this is, indeed, the implicit contract among indie authors who rate one another), they remember that blistering review you left about their steak knife panda army. They remember. And even without attempting to do so intentionally, their reviews are tainted by that memory.

So what about option 2b? Seems fitting… that whole “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?” Well, we aren’t stupid. When an author gives Mary, Sue, Jane, and Bertha all five-star reviews, but poor old Gertrude gets no reviews at all… Gertrude knows what the score is. And she defaults back into the whole option 2a drama.

So, what about Option 1? Why don’t we just swallow our negativity and leave only good reviews, whether or not we feel the books deserve it? After all, aren’t we really here to make each other look good?

Uh, no. No, we’re not. It’s nice to help one another, but when we start leaving positive ratings when they are undeserved, we not only further dilute the entire review system and thereby reduce its effectiveness for both reader and author, but we also betray the trust of our readers. Let’s face it… sometimes a book isn’t that good. And if we huck a five-star review at said book, and our readers jump on it only to discover it’s more like a two-star novel… they’re going to think twice about trusting our judgment in the future.

So, I get it. We’re all human. We all get butthurt from time-to-time. Hell, it’s the hip thing to do now. Butthurt is the new black. But here’s the problem with butthurt.

It’s none of our readers’ business. They deserve to choose what they read without our extra baggage attached. And thus I have adopted what I’ll call Option Zero:

No ratings or reviews.

It is my humble opinion that reviews ought to be the sole purview of readers… not the authors. They’re the only ones equipped to render an honest review without having to coddle the admittedly fragile egos of their fellow writers. We authors don’t have that option. We’re always going to consider how every word we say publicly will affect our careers (if we’re smart, anyway).

And I do understand that authors are also readers. But we aren’t “strictly” readers. We have considerations that filter what we say. Why not leave the ratings to the ones we’re really trying to sell to, and help our fellow authors out in other ways.

So how can we help one another out without violating Option Zero? We can share one another’s news and release events and cover reveals and any other kind of bias-free announcements. We can grant honest input in private. We can offer words of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, and a high five when needed. These are honest, constructive ways to benefit both the author community and the readership at large.

So much of our author branding has to do with honesty. Readers have very little time for pretense, misdirection, or our sewing circle nattering. I suggest that Option Zero helps to save the readers from all of that. That said, we truly do need reviews and star ratings from our readers. Let’s hand the ball off to them, and get back to writing new work for them to review!

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici | Freedigitalphotos.net

6 responses to “Option Zero, or Why I Never Review Other Authors

  1. You make a brilliant point. I’ve managed to worm out of any books I’d leave a bad review on, but only if I’ve known the author or was specifically asked to review it. “If you can’t say anything nice…”

    However, loser books I pick up at B&N and hate profusely get my earnest opinion.

    I don’t know what I’d do if I actually had to leave a bad review for something I read on a professional level. You’ve shared some great insight here.

    • Thanks! I’ve personally run into instances where authors have asked my direct opinion, and when given in private it’s far easier to swallow than when it’s aired out. In a word… professionalism. There’s plenty of readers out there willing and eager to voice their opinion, and I suspect most of them “get it” when authors end up slapping each other’s backs.

  2. Excellent points, J.P., especially: “It is my humble opinion that reviews ought to be the sole purview of readers… not the authors.”

    As authors, we have a unique (and more educated) perspective than readers when it comes to matters of craft. This is a good thing when it comes to writing, maybe not such a good thing when it comes to reviewing.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I swore off reviewing books of any living authors for a while, after being a professional reviewer for about a year, and having been on the receiving end of some seriously stark-raving looney authors’ attacks (usually via GoodReads, but that’s another story for another day). Even though it was my goal to avoid any personal attacks on the author, to back up my criticisms with evidence, and to try to search out the good in even the worst books I read, some of these authors still thought I was just being a hateful, bitchy reviewer for no real reason.

    Some people really just need to pull their heads out of their asses and realize that not everyone will like their books, even if their best friends, mothers and dogs told them their book was the bee’s knees. You simply cannot please all the people all the time – nor should you try.

    After taking some time off, I’ve returned to reviewing books, but only the books I am particularly moved to review. Generally this weighs more heavily towards the positive end of the spectrum, just because I’d rather take the time to write up congratulations for writers who’ve done a good job than make the Herculean attempt to single out every hack who’s crossed my path. And, since I no longer HAVE to finish reading the bad books in order to write a fair review, I simply put them aside to be posted on PaperbackSwap and let someone else have at ‘er.

    It may not be a one-size-fits-all method, but it’s a policy that works for me, and one I’d advocate for others who’ve been similarly scarred.

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