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Saying something nice

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One of my dad’s favorite expressions is: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

That is my philosophy for book reviews.

My debut YA doesn’t release until November, so I have no reviews to angst over yet. But I have friends who are published. They get a lot of reviews. I’ve listened to their advice about not paying attention to reviews–good or bad. When the time comes, I’ll try to ignore reviews. Really. But I don’t know how easy it’ll be to resist.

For the readers out there, a good review is one of the best gifts you can give a writer. It shows you cared enough about the book to respond.  But bad reviews can sometimes serve as an unnecessarily mean way to hurt authors.  Here are some things to consider before leaving a book review at Amazon or B&N or Goodreads or any of the other places that allow reviews.

Read the book. Please. I can’t understand why anyone leaves a review for a book they didn’t read. If you don’t like the cover, go to the Cover Review site. If you don’t like the author’s other books, review them. But please have enough compassion for the book, the other readers who have enjoyed it, and the book’s author to read and judge each individual story on its own merits.

Chocolate Cake Slice with Raspberries

Avoid reviewing genres you don’t like. In many ways, books can be like food. You will have a taste for some and not others.  I’m allergic to chocolate, I never eat it, and consequently, I don’t review chocolate desserts. It makes no sense to blast another professional for creating something you’re guaranteed to hate.  If you loathe paranormals, sneer at dystopians, or despise zombies, just don’t read books about them.

Create a ratings system that makes sense. For a while, I used to compare all stories to The Giver. As one of my favorite books of all time, it rated a 5 from me. But once The Giver became my standard, hardly anything else could measure up.  I’ve adjusted my system. Instead of 5=perfect, I have changed 5 to mean I highly recommend. A 4 is I recommend. I have stopped giving anything lower than a 4.

If you must be negative… I’m not suggesting censorship of all things unpleasant. I’ve read negative reviews that helped me gauge whether I wished to read a book or not. But I do like for the critique to be supported by the reader’s actual experience of the book. And I prefer reviews that use language not intended to be hurtful.  There is a big difference between this book sucks; the author is a sell-out and this book didn’t appeal to me. Both convey the same overall opinion. One tries to be unkind.

So Ruby-blog readers, do you have any more advice for review-writers? Any advice for me–an author who has yet to read a review of her first-born?

Elizabeth Langston is a 3-time Golden Heart Finalist in YA. Her debut novel, Whisper Falls (Book 1 of the Whisper Falls trilogy), will be released on 19 November 2013. I Wish, book 1 of her next series, will release in November 2014. To learn more about Elizabeth, visit her website or blog.

24 Responses to “Saying something nice”

  1. Tamara Hogan says:

    OK, Elizabeth, I’ll bite! ;-)

    When I was solely traditionally published, I didn’t read my reviews (except for the good ones the publisher’s publicist sent to me). Now, as an indie-published author, I HAVE to read my reviews, if only to pluck out blurbs and quotes to use for promotional purposes. In terms of girding my loins to read potentially negative reviews, I find it helpful to not anthropomorphize my book as a baby, a child, or a “book of my heart” but instead to view it as a commercial product. I understand that not everyone is going to find my books to be their perfect cup of tea, but to Elizabeth’s point about the critique being supported by the reader’s actual experience, the reviews I find most valuable and useful, as a reader AND as a writer, are ones where the reviewer can articulate WHY the book either did or didn’t appeal to them. I tend to discount reviews written by people who resort to inflammatory language.

    I’m a voracious reader, but I no longer write book reviews since I became a published author. I feel the risk of career blow-back is just too high. Which is a sad thing to admit.

    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Wow. You’re right about the book not being my baby. (Yes, I did refer to it as my “first-born”.)

      I work in R&D of a software company. In fact, I am a “software tester.” I have to critique the work of developers (one of whom is my husband.) Maybe that is the way I should think about my book. It is the product; and readers are “testing” it. :)

    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      I’ve wondered about doing the same thing–just stopping my reviews. I haven’t written many. As I mentioned in the posting, I only give 4s and 5s. But I don’t intend for the lack of a review to convey anything.

      The other thing I wonder about is… I write YA. I sometimes add a rating to a book that is for *mature* audiences. I make that clear in my review. But I sometimes think if I should stop doing that.

  2. Oh, man, now I want chocolate cake! :)

    Great tips for reviewing…my frustration has been NOT getting reviews. I don’t mind the honesty of them, but when I see authors with hundreds of reviews and mine have, like, four or twelve or something, I feel lonely. ;) And when I want to advertise a sale, sometimes you have to have a certain number of reviews before they’ll consider you.

    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      I met a new author-friend at RWA. When I went out to Goodreads to check out her next book, I found that her current book had 34,000 ratings. Really?

      I know that a lot of folks have mixed feelings about goodreads. My experience has been, at least for the small sample of reviews that I have personally used to decide whether to buy a YA book, that the reviews were generally even-handed. Maybe teen reviewers are more generous.

    • I’m right with you on the frustration of not being able to get reviews. I don’t mind an honest review that is well-written and *helpful*, but when I’m not getting reviews, it’s hard to know whether my readers just aren’t the reviewing type or whether they completely hated my book. :)

    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Funny that, I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about reviews.

      Those books that are getting reviewed like crazy either have 1) someone pushing for them and putting them in front of reviewers 2) Have an abundance of available copies, leading enough people to read and review 3) Something compelling about them that makes people want to pick it up for review 4) Enough initial buzz in reviewer circles to create critical mass

      I’m quoting from “The Review Game: A Shy Girl’s Guide to Getting Noticed” which I presented at RWA with my CP Shawntelle Madison. Of the 4 items, I think #1 and #2 are the most important (and expensive in terms of time/money).

      The Review Game can really be frustrating. And it’s the chicken and the egg. Is a book popular because it has so many reviews? Or is it getting reviewed because it’s so popular? On top of that, reviews can really make or break certain books, but for others, they may not help much at all.

  3. Elisa Beatty says:

    This reminds me I need to get back in the saddle and WRITE more reviews….I’ve read lots of terrific books in the last year that I had no time to review.

    I’m like you, Elizabeth…unless it’s a really major bestseller that’s not going to be materially affected by my critique (like 50 Shades of Gray, or something), I don’t leave reviews unless I liked the book. Then it’s more of a “hey, friends, I think you might like this” sort of a thing.

    Trashing vulnerable books feels like bad karma. I’ll leave that to “professional” review sites.

    • Agreed.

      I look at “professional” reviewers too. Because they tend to be so consistent in how they rate (albeit, harsher than I most of the time), I can then approximate whether their ratings map to mine. As an author, though, it might be perceived as a conflict of interest to rate others too much (in either direction.)

  4. June Love says:

    Interesting post, Elizabeth, and great review tips. It never ceases to amaze me that people really do leave reviews for books they’ve never read. How can they do that? What are they basing their review on?

    I’ve said it more than once on this loop and others that I’m not a review/rating kind of person when it comes to books and movies. (I do read ratings for hotels and restaurants, but I do so with an open mind and only to make sure no one found a mouse or another “ewww” something in their food or in their bed.) I’d rather read the book or see the movie and make up my own mind.

    As for leaving reviews…I have in the past, but only for books I’ve read and liked. I decided to stop leaving reviews when so many author friends became published. While I purchase as many of their books as I can, they are not always in the genre I normally read. That’s not to say they aren’t good books, but what little read time I do have, I try to read books in genres I prefer.

    Really great post, Elizabeth!

  5. Gwyn says:

    My folks taught me the same thing, Elizabeth, and although it’s tough not to be snarky sometimes, I adhere to it. As my eldest daughter likes to say, “Karma is only a bitch if you are.” Someday, I’ll be on the other end of the equation, and knowing the seeds I planted were those of kindness, that’s what I hope to reap.

    I tend to review upon request because, frankly, were I to review every book, there’d be little time for anything else. Still, I understand the importance, and one can always find something nice to say even if it’s only about the premise or effort of the author.

  6. Jeannie Lin says:

    I’m of the mind that I don’t care how people write reviews. It’s just nice that they’re chatting about books. Maybe the only “rule” I might say is to avoid spoilers.

    I occasionally write up something for a book when I happen to have time or am moved to speak. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, but I do only tend to write positive reviews. Mainly because I’m not a reviewer by trade or hobby and I don’t have a lot of time to review, so usually I do it to talk about books I’ve enjoyed.

  7. Rita Henuber says:

    Reviews. Heavy Sigh. Don’t know what to say. Before I quit looking I had a 1 or 2 star because the reviewer said they was no intercoastal waterway in FLorida. What? I don’t review anymore.

    • Reminds of contest feedback: “I don’t think they talk that way in the South. Make sure you spend time somewhere before using it as a setting.”

      Oh, my, the 50 years I’ve lived in the South don’t count?

      • Kate Parker says:

        It’s amazing what people think they know that just isn’t true. Normally, they don’t spout erroneous opinions to your face, although I’ve had that happen to me, too. Over the internet, it seems like any crazy, wild eyed statement is just as good as a reasoned opinion.

  8. Liz Talley says:

    Oh, yeah. Reviews…sigh.

    As a reader I often review the books I read and like. I do NOT review books I don’t like. But I suppose even though I’m a writer, I’m unwilling to forget I’m a reader, too, and that I get excited when I really like a book. I left two reviews just yesterday on Goodreads (I tend to go there rather than Amazon, and I’ve found my books are mostly reviewed on GR, too)

    I try not to read my reviews, but like Tamara I treat my books like products so it’s very interesting to me to see what hits the mark and what doesn’t. I know a lot of authors don’t like to read them, and I understand, but I still like examining what works and what doesn’t and since I no longer have contests to tell me, reviews seem to fill that need. Now that’s not to say I believe they are all that valid, but I have understood some things about myself as an author along with assumptions I made that didn’t necessarily hold up.

    I ALWAYS appreciate a review (unless it’s meant to be intentionally destructive) because it means someone took time to make the rating and/or review.

    • If a “bad” review gives me something I can work on, then I don’t think I’ll mind. Guess I’ll find out.

      But then, I need to remember that–no matter how hard I try–not everyone is going to like what I write and there’s not much use in getting tied up in knots about it.

  9. I will admit to being a complete light-weight. I only read the reviews that show up in my inbox because someone – the reviewer, or the publicist or editor at my publishing house, sends it to me.

    I find the good reviews make me think I’m so good, they stop me from writing, and the bad reviews make me think I’m so bad, they stop me from writing. I just can’t afford the down time. :)

    I periodically ask peeps on FB or Twitter to please leave reviews, but other than that, I just try to keep my head down and write. Comparing my paltry Amazon reviews to the numbers bigger names have makes my stomach hurt, and keeps me from writing!

    And I think there is actually nothing a reviewer could say (negatively) about my book that I haven’t already told myself at some point in the process of writing or revising. And some point (usually Chapter 9) I KNOW that I have written the worst book ever because the conflict is off the rails, the story theme has been forgotten and my hero is a bore. So I just put my head down and write, and revise, revise, revise. And once a book is done, there’s no going back to fix it.

    I just put my head down and write the next one!

  10. Kate Parker says:

    When my first book comes out in December, I’m going to try not to read the reviews. Like Elizabeth, no matter what they say, they’re going to mess with my head and my writing. Maybe once the book is out for a year, I’ll be brave and take a look.

  11. Good luck NOT reading your reviews, Beth. :)

    Without fail, I end up getting sucked in. I have to admit, they don’t bother me as much as they used to. A few bad reviews is part of the business. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.

    My big gripe on this topic is when people review books in subgenres they wouldn’t normally read because the book was free, on sale, or someone loaded it to them, and then they give the story a bad rating because it had sex or it was a sappy romance–both of which they admit they don’t like. I say judge a book by the genre it falls in. If you normally read historical romances, you can’t measure a sci-fi novel with the same yardstick.

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