The Courtesy of a Review

Every writer, and especially an Indie writer, knows the value of reviews. As Indie authors, it is our job to market our work, and one of the best ways is to get our work reviewed. Oftentimes, we trade out free copies in exchange for honest reviews, a win-win. But it wasn’t until I accepted a free copy of a book in exchange for an honest review that I really understood the anxiety on the part of the reviewer. And the reason for that is because I didn’t enjoy the book.

Not only did I not enjoy it, but it was just awash with so many errors and obvious needs of improvement that I seriously wondered how I could review it without dropping a huge sledgehammer on some writer’s dreams. I had never struggled with this before when writing reviews of either Indie authors or large house authors, and it occurred to me just why. When writing an unsolicited review of a book, the author is still somewhat anonymous, disconnected and unconcerned with my opinion (or so I can believe). But when an author seeks me out for a review, there is a bit of a correspondence before I actually receive the book, and in that correspondence the author becomes real to me.

There is a tangible excitement on the other end of my email inbox. I can sense it from the writer. I know she is biting her nails in her anxiety, plodding through each long, laborious day, waiting for me to post my review so she can read how much I loved the fruits of her labors, how much I appreciated the amount of effort and work it took her to write her book, how much I recognized her talent and admired her storytelling brilliance. I know she is waiting just this way. I know it deeply because I have been her.

And what if one of my reviewers had responded just the way I want to and said: This is just not good?

The problem is that I know how that would affect her and I can’t do that to her. I have struggled so much with this that I even discussed it at-length with my husband. I suggested that I should forego writing a review and just write her personally with some helpful tips and constructive criticism, but what is the point? The book is already published and has been for more than a year. Should I offer to be a critical reader or a beta reader for her on future works? How can I be honest without being damaging? How can I be helpful without being patronizing? After all, I may be no better writer than she.

And what if she handles it badly and turns around to write negative reviews of my books? It is a petty fear, I know, but this industry has some petty people in it. There seems to be an unspoken agreement in the Indie world, a sort of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours in effect. I have seen it where Indie authors are reviewing each other’s work and rating each other exactly the same. If one author rates a book four stars, you can be assured that that author will, in turn, rate the other’s four stars. Am I breaking with some code if I rate less than three stars? Am I moving myself toward some black list? Am I overthinking it all?

Back in the olden days when I was in college, I took a course that was entirely devoted to writing reviews. That was all we did all semester long. So, I got fairly good at it and the test then became how to write them funnier, how to make them stand out, and in a lot of ways that meant finding ways to be more insulting. I was inconsiderate of the person(s) I was annihilating with my criticisms back then and I began to wonder if and how I had matured in my reviewing.

I like to think that my reviews now are less insulting and more constructive, but I know that I have written some stuff that has probably offended some authors out there. I realized that there are two sides of a review, an emotional and a mechanical, and it is still, at the end of the day, my opinion. I started wondering if maybe I should endeavor to write each review as though the author personally sought me out, to always be mindful of the author’s feelings and to keep my criticisms as free of emotion as possible, and to keep my emotions as respectful as possible.

And, I decided that I will give each author exactly what I would want from my reviewers: honesty.

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