Should Authors Write Reviews?
I recently finished reading my first book of the year. It’s the first book I’ve read solely for pleasure in a long time. Knowing the importance of being a reader as the foundations of being a writer, getting back to reading after an almost decade-long hiatus has been high on my to-do list. I was delighted to get back to reading, and I truly enjoyed the story.
After I finished reading, however, I was faced with a dilemma. Both GoodReads and Amazon asked me to provide ratings and reviews of this work. As an author myself, I know how important it is for authors to receive ratings and reviews from their readers. They’re important for getting the word out to other readers about books, which can build word-of-mouth buzz (the most important and effective kind of marketing buzz a book can receive). Some book promotion services also won’t let you use their services if your book doesn’t have a certain number of starred reviews. These policies have led to all kinds of problems, such as authors buying Amazon reviews (a huge no-no) and authors publicly attacking readers who fail to leave a review or who fail to leave a positive review.
As a writer myself, I find myself in a rock and a hard place: I know the importance of giving a review, and the importance of reciprocity and generosity as a reader. But I’m also a writer. Am I opening a can of worms if I leave a review?
Why Reviews Matter
First and foremost, reviews are not for writers and authors. They are by readers for readers. Authors can yak about how great their books are on book blogs and their own social media. They can selectively quote gushing reviews from fans when they make fancy Instagram posts.
Reviews are intended as a site of honest opinion and criticism from the people who have bought the product and read it. A reviewer should be free to give their opinion on the book, whether they loved it or hated it. While the importance of having good reviews has encouraged some authors to attack reviewers, we must always remember reviews are for other readers.
The important point here is that readers leave reviews to tell other readers what they thought about the book. Many aren’t very helpful for writers: “I didn’t like it” or “I hated it” aren’t going to help you improve for your next book. Similarly, getting a review about how much the person hated the portrayal of X character probably isn’t going to help you much, unless it addresses underlying problems in the way you handled certain issues. Again, these criticisms aren’t always helpful.
That leaves reviews as primarily useful to other readers, even though they may not find “I hated it” very useful. Similarly, “I loved it!!!” isn’t much help for the discerning reader. Seeing a book with a bunch of five-star “I loved it!!!” reviews, at least, indicates many people who are fans of the genre or subject enjoyed the book, and so you may too. Reviews are tools for readers to determine whether or not they want to invest their time and money in a particular book.
Readers must be free to leave honest reviews of books, free of intervention from the author.
Getting Readers to Review
Most readers don’t leave reviews or star ratings. They don’t always feel compelled. Most people’s experiences fall in between “I loved it!” and “I hated it!” Few feel qualified to offer up more in-depth commentary than “it was okay,” which they recognize as being not incredibly helpful. Furthermore, leaving the rating and review takes time; most people can’t be bothered unless they felt very strongly about the book.
This is why authors feel the need to exhort readers to review, always. “Did you read a book? Thank the author with a review!” is a common refrain. Even I ask readers to take the time to review and rate my book. Even if they hated it. Reviews provide books with legitimacy; honest reviews are the most important, even if it does mean most people end up trashing your book.
Since most readers just don’t bother, however, authors turn to buying reviews or begging for them. It can be difficult to get people to review, and every author understands just how precious a review can be. Further, we understand that leaving a review is something of a duty as a writer—we owe it to our community, to other authors, to support them. If we want to be supported, we must also support. Just as writers must also be readers, we must also be active members of our community and give back as much as we take. If you want reviews, you have to give some out too!
Should Authors Review?
This brings us to the crux of the problem: Should authors actually leave reviews? We are uniquely positioned in the literary community. We understand the craft, so our reviews could easily be more insightful than the average “I loved it!” Authors might even be able to offer insights on par with book bloggers and professional reviewers, since we understand the craft and its intricacies. We’re also more inclined to leave reviews, understanding the importance of them; we understand this as our duty as both writers and readers. We also bring followings to other writers: If I liked it and I write things you enjoy, you might reasonably expect that you will also like this book or the works of this writer.
This can cause problems. First and foremost, is it really my place as another author to offer up critique—however warranted—of another author’s work? They could just as easily come back and critique my work. Readers and fans may also decide to attack me if I leave a less-than-positive review, seeing it as a slight or even “sabotage” against the other writer.
This is a problem: Other writers do sometimes leave negative reviews because they are jealous or petty and trying to drag the other writer down. It’s an unfortunate thing. It makes it difficult to separate out truly warranted criticism or even-handed views. Fans are ready to go on the attack at the slightest criticisms, especially if they dislike your work. (“You’re only saying that because you’re a terrible writer and you’re jealous of so-and-so’s success!”)
While you can argue this is a hazard for anyone on the internet at any point in time, it becomes particularly salient when we’re trading reviews between professionals in the artistic realm.
I’m a Picky Reader
Knowing about these realities, I hesitated to leave a review. Even knowing how important they were, I was tempted to give people less than five stars. Why? Because I’m a particularly critical reader. While I enjoyed the story, I’d say three or four stars; it didn’t earn a five-star accolade from me because it wasn’t a story that I was overwhelmed by.
But could I justify this? While reviews are often nothing more than personal opinion and visceral emotional reaction, I felt the need to defend giving another writer less than five stars if I enjoyed the book. What’s wrong with it? I asked myself. Nothing, really—there were a couple of minor grammatical niggles, editorial things I noted. But it didn’t necessarily detract or distract from my enjoyment of the story. It just wasn’t a book I’d proclaim my undying love for.
But if there’s nothing wrong, I pressed, why not five stars? Why not just break and say, “It was great, really liked it, 5 stars”? Because I feel that being a little more critical and evaluating is important! But I couldn’t really defend my choice beyond “I don’t hand out five stars easily” and knew that could cause trouble.
The other option is to simply hand out five stars almost indiscriminately: “I enjoyed = five stars.” I don’t think that’s necessarily right either, since it doesn’t help readers. “This writer likes everything! She gives everyone five stars!” You begin looking like a suck-up, like you’re trying to curry favor.
So how do you negotiate this? If I leave a less than stellar review, I’m opening the door to harsh and possibly unwarranted criticism; if I leave a five star review on everything I read, I look like an undiscriminating kiss-ass.
Not Leaving a Review
The other solution is to simply forego leaving a review. This is problematic, since it means I’m depriving other writers of something I know they want and work hard to get. It also means I don’t begin building credit with other readers, who may in turn be my own readers or perhaps friends.
I’m sure leaving a review is most people’s preferred solution, even if I don’t leave a gushing five-star rating on every book that I don’t throw against the wall. Readers benefit from additional reviews and opinions, while writers have clear uses for reviews. But it also opens that can of worms, which I’m leery of opening.
After all, who am I to judge another writer’s work? I may know the craft well. I may even be an editor and critical reader. But as a writer myself, I need to also think about how I want to be treated. I want reviews, yes, but do I want other writers nosing in on my reviews and saying, “Eh, it was okay”? Not particularly. So why should I do the same to them?
Yet if I give gushing reviews, am I being honest? Am I truly helping other readers then? When the writer assumes the position of reader, we begin to negotiate a more tangled web of relations: to other readers, to our own audiences, and to other writers and their audiences. A reader has something of a less tenuous position, although they risk attack by authors and other fans just as writers do. It’s just that, since their own work isn’t out in the open, they’re not open to attack on that particular front.
What to Do?
I may eventually reconcile my position on being an author and being a reader when it comes to reviews. All in all, it’s likely better to leave a review. I may decide to refrain from reviewing books that I truly don’t enjoy, curating instead a more positive list of the things I did enjoy and could recommend. While it’s usually helpful to find a reader’s preferences, listing something as “DNF” speaks volumes, possibly even louder than a one-star review. If you finish a book but fail to review it, amid a sea of other ratings and reviews, this becomes a negative review by omission.
For the moment, however, I’ve refrained from rating and review. Until I can better reconcile my position, I leave the work of rating and reviewing to the people who should truly be engaged in it: readers.