Thursday 17 October 2013

Ethical Book Reviewing

Long before I was A Writer I was A Reader.  After writing a story, there’s nothing I like better than to read a book and share my thoughts about it. So, when on-line book stores such as Amazon and Kalahari, or on-line book clubs such as Goodreads and LibraryThing, offered me the chance to air my views on the books I’d read, I was excited and started posting reviews in which I expressed my honest (if subjective) reviews.

As a writer, I was equally delighted that there was a platform in which I could directly reach out to readers and offer my books in giveaways in the hopes of receiving fair (if subjective) reviews.

In my innocence, I didn’t anticipate the problems that come with an on-line society:

(a) SOCK PUPPET REVIEWS – although strictly referring to reviews written under false names by either the authors or their representatives, it can also include reviews written by authors in exchange for a review of their own book

(b) CYBERBULLYING – it seems that readers and authors alike are unable to respect other readers' reviews or different opinions and abuse/manipulate the system for their own purposes. The anonymity encouraged by the 'Net appears to bring out the worst of people; too often, the nastier comments are written by Ms Anonymous or Mr RageHead.

(c) CENSORSHIP – in an effort to control the above, Amazon and other on-line companies have taken to censoring reviews to make the review process more trustworthy for book buyers.

These and other problems associated with the evolving world of reading, writing and publishing, give rise to a myriad of questions: when does a negative reviews cross the line into cyber bullying? Should authors review other authors books? And when a reader wants to buy a book, can on-line reviews be considered trustworthy?

More questions than answers are raised and, recently, I’ve found my joy in both reading and writing has been sucked dry by the dangers that lurk out there in cyberspace.  I’ve considered stopping both writing books for others to review and writing reviews of books I’ve read.  While I won’t bore you with the detail of my painful mental ruminations, I will share my conclusions with you.

I’ll say it again: I was reader before I was a writer and I love sharing my thoughts on books. Why should I stop doing what I love (both writing and reading) because other people have abused the system? Readers who abuse their power by attacking authors’ star ratings; authors who cheat on getting reviews for their own books or who write bad reviews on their competitors books; reviewers who attack reviews that disagree with their opinion of a book – all of these actions suggest an emotional immaturity based in a combative mind set fostered by the importance placed on winning in today’s society.

Other readers/authors/reviewers can make their own choices as to how they will contribute to this burgeoning new world of independent publishing.

My choice is to continue to read books that appeal to me and to post reviews that reflect my reading experience. I’ll also continue to write stories and I’ll put my books “out there” for review, in good faith that they’ll receive a trustworthy review. When they don’t I’ll hold onto the belief that most readers are intelligent, decent people who are able to tell the difference between a spiteful review and a trustworthy opinion.

As I see it, whether you’re a reader-reader, or an author-reader, there are three essentials to writing a trustworthy book review:

1. ETHICS – Never sell your soul for a review and never post an anonymous review. Yes, I read fellow authors’/publishers’ books and I review them under my own name, even if I ‘know’ the author from social media. If the book is truly awful, I’ll not post a review.  But usually, no matter how much I did not enjoy a book, if one looks hard enough one can find a way of being honest without being hurtful. Here is an example of the most difficult book review I’ve written (because I didn’t enjoy the book) and here is an example of the easiest book review I’ve written (because I loved the novel.) 

2. OPINION – A review is only one person’s opinion. Always respect other people’s opinion about a book, whether you are the reader or the author of a particular book. Whatever I think of a book is only my subjective opinion and others may hold a different opinion, which is as valid to them as mine is to me. When some cyber bully attacks my review or my book, I stand up to them by walking away. The natural instinct to engage with them in anger or defence would be easy … and the easy road to perdition. To walk away, both physically and mentally, takes a special kind of inner strength and courage, because it’s far too easy to be sucked into a flame war that destroys all in its path, including my reputation as a responsible reviewer and as a professional Author.

3. OBJECTIVITY - When writing my review, I focus on the book content and not the author.  A reviewer, even one who reviews books for fun, holds great power and to use that power wisely and well, a responsible reviewer must underpin any subjective opinion with quotes and references. In addition, attacking an author or a well-written book because one dislikes the content is abusing one’s power as a reviewer. Being objective about the book, even if one disagrees with the content, is the mark of a wise reviewer. Here is my review of a book where I disagreed with the content, but thought the book well-written.  

There are plenty of “how-to-write-a book-review” posts on-line and I’ll include a list of links at the end of this post.  These articles provide a plethora of excellent advice on writing good book reviews. All that advice can be overwhelming when, like me, one is a “hobbyist” book reviewer. Over time, I’ve reduced all the advice I’ve received on writing book reviews to the Three Whats

1. What was the book about? Summarise it in a sentence or two without giving spoilers. Or, if your review hangs off a spoiler, warn the reader that your review will reveal important plot points right at the start.

2. What did the book look like? How technically good is the book? Look at the structure, plot, characterisation, writing, cover and editing of the book. Are they of a high standard? Is the book well written?

3. What did the book make me feel and why? As a book-a-holic I read for many reasons, depending on my mood and purpose. If I read a novel for relaxation I’ll need to feel different emotions to when I read a book for research. Often, in my writing research, I’ll read a book that under normal circumstances I would never read. Naturally, I don’t enjoy it as much I would a book I buy for pure reading pleasure. I try to reflect that limitation in my review.

Ultimately, everyone reads books for different reasons. With blogs and vlogs, youtube and Goodreads, to name but a few, today’s readers and writers have a more powerful voice than at any other time in publishing history. Writing ethical reviews is a way of using that power wisely.

Join me on GOODREADS or LIBRARYTHING or AMAZON to follow my reviews.

If you’re looking for a book to read and review, watch out for my new collection of short stories THE WEIGHT OF A FEATHER AND OTHER STORIES. Here’s the book trailer to whet your appetite:

And here’s the links to those “how to write a good book review” articles: