A Game of Words: Reviewing Books as an Author

All authors love to read. Or at least, I’d expect them to love reading. After all, why would you attempt to craft a story with words if that wasn’t the sort of story you want to consume? How else would you subconsciously learn how to tell a compelling story if you didn’t regularly read them? How can you become a successful author if you don’t know anything about the market you are writing in?

I had a friend once tell me she wanted to write a story, and she dove into it with so much gusto and passion I was honestly inspired. But when I tried to recommend a few books that she might be interested in, she told me she wasn’t interested in reading. She was just writing for fun, so maybe it didn’t matter, but for someone like myself for whom good storytelling is important, it was strange to me that someone would want to write without being a reader.

But that’s beside the point. The point is, authors read. Or at the very least they should. And you’d think by nature of the fact that we study story structure and craft that we would be excellent reviewers of books. The fact that we understand the mechanics of writing and also happen to read a lot should be the perfect storm for such a thing. And I’m sure there are a lot of writers who do. Unpublished ones, at any rate. I know I used to write reviews on Goodreads for the books I’d read. And at the very least, I would give them a star rating so people would have a loose idea of my enjoyment of said book.

Things have changed. Last year, when I decided I would try querying, I learned that it wasn’t a good idea to have not-so-positive reviews of books floating around on the internet. After all, if I was to sell a book to a traditional publisher, it wouldn’t look good if I were to ask another author for an endorsement of my book and they’d seen my negative review. They might decide not to read and blurb my book. Or, if I were at a convention or panel with that author it might be more than a little awkward if they knew I didn’t like their books.

It’s bad form to critique the work of your colleagues. At least, that was the impression I got.

A short hunt on Goodreads will confirm that to be true. Check out some of the more popular authors in particular who regularly use and rate on that platform – if they aren’t rating something high (4 or 5 stars), they aren’t rating it at all.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of star reviews, but I understand why they exist. As humans, we love to categorize things, though I think our enjoyment of a story is a little more complex than can be conveyed with a handful of pretty stars. But I didn’t want someone to refuse to work with me because I’d given one of their books a low rating. So I deleted every rating below 4 stars on my Goodreads, and now I don’t rate anything at all. Because not rating something four or five stars, in my mind, was the same as rating them low. So it just seemed the safer option to forgo rating books altogether. I’ve become afraid of speaking my mind in the off chance it damages my future as a published author.

Now, forgive me if I get into a rant here, because this concept is one I’ve had more than a little trouble digesting. As an author, you should expect, and at least be familiar, with criticism. They say you need a thick skin to survive in the publishing industry, and I don’t see why that should stop once the book hits the shelves. After all, no book is perfect. No book will ever be perfect. Perfection is a lie and impossible to achieve, and authors should not expect that from their work nor should readers expect that from the books they pick up. They might love everything, but chances are, there will be some things about the book that they enjoy and others they do not. And depending on how many of those things end up on either side of that scale will ultimately determine what they rate the book.

It’s also a very common piece of wisdom that authors avoid negative reviews. Not only would it be such a downer to see someone bored or actively bash something I’ve worked hard on, but the point of a review is not to stroke the author’s ego. It’s to inform potential readers if this book might be something they’d enjoy. That, of course, means it’s a marketing tool as well, but the point remains the same – they exist for the readers, not the author.

So why don’t more authors review books?

As an author, I think it is expected that I critique the work of my peers. Especially since I am in a unique position to understand the struggles that go into the process, am well-versed in my chosen genres, and more familiar with narrative and story structure than the average reader would be. At least on a technical level. If you read a lot you will naturally pick up an intuitive sense of story structure and genre tropes. But the point stands – as an author, I should naturally have the tools to be able to pick apart and critique a book on its merits and pitfalls and start interesting conversations.

I find that is especially true as a writer and reader of speculative fiction, and it makes this whole concept grind my gears more than it might for the average person. Spec fic is designed to ask questions and start conversations. It just seems counter-intuitive to censor myself. I love reading, but I also love talking about the books I read and having larger discussions. That’s why we tell stories in the first place – to educate, to entertain, to connect with others.

What is boils down to, then, is professionalism.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with reviewing books in the genre in which you write. If anything, it will make you a stronger writer and reader to look at what you read more critically. And if that author should, though ill-advised, happen to look at a more critical review, then maybe they will learn something, too. We have critique partners, beta readers and editors – why is it that we draw the line once a book has been published?

The idea seems to be, at least from the perspective of the publishers, that if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all, and I think that can be damaging. It makes it easier to get away with lazy storytelling, and potentially harmful tropes. On the opposite end, there is a growing trend on social media to drag a book you didn’t like. It’s especially disconcerting when someone gives an intensely negative review of a book in a genre they typically don’t read, or even enjoy. I don’t think an author should ever post such an obviously scathing review in order to garner more attention, especially if it is a genre they don’t typically read. Writing a novel is hard, and I think it’s important we respect the time that went into creating it. But I think a balance must be struck between criticism and professionalism. Singing a book’s praises is all well and good, but surely as writers we have more to say.

Of course, I am speaking as someone who has yet to be published and has not had to endure any heavy critique from my peers on a public space like Goodreads. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a few years when I am (hopefully) at that stage.

I just can’t help but feel that good and honest critique is healthy, and more importantly, necessary if we’re to produce, and continue to produce our best work.

Maybe I’m just frustrated at my own fear and indecision. I know there are probably authors out there who actively review and critically discuss what they read, and it has not affected their success enough that they felt the need to stop. How much of an effect it might have on your future career is something that is impossible to measure. I just have to decide if I have the guts to do it or not.

Let’s Chat!

What do you think about authors reviewing books? Do you think they should? Or does that cross a line? What do you think about posting a review in a public space like Youtube, Goodreads or Twitter, as opposed to a more personal space, like a blog or newsletter? Are you a writer, and if so, do you critically review the books you read? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments!

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