Thursday, April 5, 2012

Thursday Morning Coffee

(Part 2 of a 3-part "On reviews and reviewing" Thursday Morning Coffee sequence).

Good morning, and welcome to coffee! The man is off to work, the Sprite is off to school, the dog is asleep on the couch, and the cat is either napping or plotting his escape. And the sun is shining. All is shiny and happy in my little world.

Well, except for this cold, and this back-wigging-out thing, but whatever. Close enough to perfect for today.

This Thursday Morning Coffee gig is kind of the home of my random thoughts and housekeeping, with a snippet of fiction thrown in there just to give some kind of focus. Last week I somehow ended up talking about how I receive reviews of my work.

And because I brought that up, I feel a little exploration of writers as reviewers might be in order.

I have been an avid reader since I was (at least) nine years old. Going on a family vacation required a major trip to my neighborhood library - and when I say major, I mean my backpack would be stuffed so full it was almost too heavy for me to carry, and my arms struggled to hold on to the pile that was "overflow." The thought of not having something to read gave me anxiety.

I still feel that way. I can read a well-written, engaging book in less than a day.

I was a reader long before I was a writer.

But I did not become a reviewer until I became a published author.

I love to shout out to the world about a great book. A book that sucks me in, winds me up, and keeps me turning pages long after my bedtime. A book in which the characters continue living in my head long after the last page. Or a book that's part of a series, where diving into the first page feels like coming home.

I am, to the core of my being, a reader. And I am a picky reader.

But I have also become, kind of by accident, a reviewer. And being a picky reader, I've become a critical reviewer.

Before December 2011 I wrote very few reviews. I remember one review I wrote in a fit of frustration. It was a series that had showed such promise, I was amped up and ready to fall in love - but the subsequent books just didn't get it done. I was incredibly disappointed, and it led me to write a negative review.

And even though the review was honest, I didn't feel all that great about writing it. My review niche wasn't going to be warning people away from books.

But last December I started getting involved with some multi-author group promotional efforts. Like I am not a great reviewer, I'm also not so great at self-promotion. I am a niche writer - gay erotic vampires, anyone? - so screaming "buy my book" from the mountaintops is pretty uncomfortable. Hell, my books can be pretty darn uncomfortable, so dragging in the unsuspecting reader isn't my goal.

What I found in these groups were a lot of indie authors asking everyone to "like" and "tag" their books on Amazon, and offering their book to other participants in exchange for reviews. No one said outright that they would only accept 4 and 5 star reviews. Here's a nice post from Emlyn Chand  about how to review books.

Again, I will say, I am a picky reader. I tend to be a 3-star reviewer. If I truly enjoyed a book and there weren't too many typos, I'll give 4-stars. If I couldn't stop reading, or had to stop reading but couldn't stop thinking about the characters, or stayed up late into the night to reach the end - that's a 5-star. I'm pretty frugal about giving out stars. Christopher Allen has a detailed post about the 5-star rating system, and how he uses it to improve both his listening experience (iTunes) and reading experience (Amazon).

I spent hours doing the "like" and "tag" thing for other indie writers - but it felt underhanded. Here I am liking books that I haven't even read, trying to guess which Amazon tags will be appropriate to get someone's book to show up on the right list of recommendations to generate sales to the right kind of audience.

It was exhausting. And while I noticed was that yes, my own book rose in the Amazon ranking system, that improved ranking only lasted for a couple of days. I would hope that a true improvement in ranking would be driven by actual sales.

So between feeling like the tactic was underhanded, and not seeing it make a significant and lasting difference, I quit doing the "like" and "tag" thing for books that I have not read.

What remains are quite a number of books on my Kindle for which the authors have requested reviews. And I did not keep track of which authors were requesting reviews, so I am trying to give fair reviews to just about everything at the moment.

And this is where I've run into trouble.

I may have left honest reviews in cases where the author did not ask for an honest review.

I might have left a 3-star, slightly critical, unsolicited review, being the honest bastard that I am. I know. The horror. What a terrible thing to do to another author.

In my defense - I do not publicly trash people's books. If I don't like a book, I stop reading it (more on that topic next week). I don't post negative reviews because wallowing in negativity not how I want to spend my time.

But I also don't post fake 5-star reviews. Period.

If I really love it, it gets 5 stars.

If it was a pretty good story, but had too many info-dumps, too much telling instead of showing, or too much showing and then over-explaining, had places where I fell out of the story, got confused, or some of the characters were cardboard, or there were inconsistencies in the narrative... I give 3-stars and usually explain where I found trouble.

Is that arrogant? Is it unprofessional?

I'm a reader. A picky reader.

But I'm a writer, too.

Am I wrong, as a writer, to review the work of other writers if I'm not willing to give 5 stars?

I dunno. You tell me.

[Because this post became rather long-winded, I will not be sharing fiction today].

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, this one is so hard for me...being a reader and a writer, and the expectations re: reviews. Like you, I'm actually a very picky reader. I don't like a lot of stuff enough to give it five stars, fact, that's a red-letter day, when I'm into something enough to give it an enthusiastic five stars (you probably remember me GUSHING after reading your stuff, because I'd just waded through a lot of books that were 'meh' to me at best during those same months of promotion).

    I also don't like the "like me" culture among a lot of indies (although I don't mind that as much as the "vote down" culture, which I absolutely REFUSE to do, unless the reviewer is totally inappropriate or states they didn't actually read the book, which some do, lol). I will occasionally like and tag...but frankly, as an Amazon customer, I don't really like doing that either unless I've read the author.

    Have I given 5 star reviews when I probably shouldn't have? I'm ashamed to say yes, I have. I won't do it with something I don't like or think is bad, so nothing that drastic. If it's really bad, I simply decline to review, like you. If it's just 'okay' I'll often decline to review, too. But I've given 5 star reviews to books that probably should have been 3-4 stars, in terms of my own taste. At the time, I justified this by my excessive pickiness and/or by telling myself it's not really my normal read. And it IS hard for me to rate a lot of books, because my biggest critique of most books I read isn't the writing's the actual content. It's the same reason most mainstream novels (trad published I mean) bore me to tears.

    But yeah, I won't do it anymore. I'm at the point now where I don't offer to do a lot of review trades. I'll offer trades with authors I like to read, or if the blurb intrigues me. I'm glad I did those promos, because now I know where my lines in the sand live, and I understand my reluctance to engage in those kinds of activities doesn't stem (purely) from laziness. No more frenetic promo, no more obsessing on the rankings...just regular engaging with readers.

    I think a lot of authors are figuring this out, though. I'm learning which writers I want to work with regularly, and which to keep at a polite's pretty clear once you use integrity and seriousness about improving their craft as the main criteria. I think a lot of us stumbled around a bit in the beginning, if only because fear is contagious and there was a lot of pressure to "play along." But I've noticed more and more people shying away from that kind of desperate-seeming promo and focusing more on the writing, which I think is fantastic!

    Ugh, sorry for writing so much, lol! :)