The State of Reviewing

WARNING: This post involves what may be perceived as ranting, complaining and tantrum-throwing and whatever else some people might think. It is not meant to be any of those; simply a comment on the reviewing blog-o-sphere and some of my frustrations with it.

There has been yet another controversy lately in the book blogging world, coming on the heels of a rather scandalous one only 2-3 weeks ago about outing “negative reviewers who bully authors on Goodreads and social media”. And this time it is not just an opinion tantrum or name calling, but involves money as well.

Michele Gorman on “Should Bloggers Charge For Reviews?”

Shocking isn’t it?

To summarize: Supremely popular review site (according to them) Chick Lit Girls threw a hissy fit last week when author Michele Gorman talked about the reviewers charging for doing 4*/5* reviews. They aim to keep the quality of their site pretty high and that means not doing negative reviews and not doing 3* reviews. They carry out “research” on an author, by checking previous rankings, and what not to make sure that whoever they decide to review is a good fit for them PR-wise or not. This is all in the name of preserving their integrity and their honesty. Michele talked against this practice on her personal social media outlets and she received a rather angry, ranty email from the site, asking her to cease or face their attorney for defamation of character and ruining business.

Rest all you can read in Michele’s post, where she provides the full details.

There are so, so many things wrong with this.

First of all, reviewer integrity means being honest with your readers. You tell them your views on a novel, a short story, an audio drama, a novella, a comic, etc and you make sure to write them so that you are clear on where you stand. If it’s a negative review, you be upfront. If it’s a positive one, feel free to gush as much as you want. Reviewers are fans. We are allowed to offer enthusiastic responses and be fanboys and fangirls about it.

I’ve done negative reviews of authors I generally rave about and even defend on online forums against name-calling and derogatory comments and denunciations of their work. I’m honest about it. Being negative doesn’t mean that what the author wrote was shitty. It means that their work just didn’t work for you. I interact with a fair bit of SF/F reviewers out there and read their blogs and what not. I have yet to read any of their reviews in which they take a “personally negative” approach against the author rather than their work. And even when they don’t like what they read/listen, then they point out the flaws and even whatever worked for them.

It is supremely rare for a reviewer, any reviewer, to come across a work that they positively dislike. Of what I’ve read this year, only one comes to mind. In my entire reading experience in the last 15 years, only three total. If you take a look at my reading list page, you’ll find a list of novels that I gave up on reading this year. None of it was because I absolutely hated them. They just didn’t work for me. Whether it was overly dense prose that failed to draw me in, or the use of bog-standard cliches or even a tense use that I’ve never come across in all my readings. That doesn’t mean they were bad novels. Some of them have garnered a ton of praise for the authors who wrote them.

My opinion is my own and I’m not beholden to anyone to agree with their opinion.

I’ve always been honest with my reviews. One of my reviews this year earned me a steady stream of hate-mail and hate-comments from fans of the author for quite a while. It surprised me. Especially since I had previously given another work by the same author my highest praise last year. How quickly people are worked up! And quite recently, only last month in fact, someone called me out because I never rate below a 6 (on a novel that is, I sometimes rate below that for short stories in anthologies). I was like… did you even read the reviews and do you even understand the context of those ratings?

Of course, that may come across as somewhat hypocritical of me as no doubt some among you are thinking: he is asking us to be clear and yet he calls out people for not understanding his reviews?

Thing is, these people failed to see why I had given the low scores when compared against things I rate high. The context. They dismissed the context and latched on to just the rating. That raises the discussion of the worth of having a numerical rating system in the first place but that is something I’ll come to another time.

Anyhoo. Integrity. Honesty. Negative reviews. There is no reason at all why these can’t work together as a whole. It is something I completely fail to understand on all levels. The quality of your site is independent of what type of reviews you do, as long as people keep coming to your blog because of your reviews in the first place. If you do a lot of negative reviews, well that just means you are hard to impress and therefore you are a really rough testing ground for an author. If you do a lot of positive reviews, like me, that just means you an “easy sell” (I sometimes refer to myself that way because it’s true). Neither of these means you compromise on the quality of your site because you are honest.

Honesty is in rare supply these days. And in a world where anyone with access to the internet is a reviewer, being honest, being concise, and being up front about your feelings regarding fiction is all the more appreciable.

Second of all, charging for reviews. That is not a practice I can get behind any time soon. I’m sorry. As reviewers, our job/responsibility/task/aim/objective is to get the word out about the authors we enjoy and those we don’t. We are a rising voice in the industry and every day, that voice is getting ever more consolidated as a unit. We should be helping these authors and not charging them for doing what they do.

I will never ever ask an author to give me any kind of monetary compensation for reviewing their work. It’s just not something I believe in. This is all the more true for self-published authors who, more often than not, start out with very little and already have huge costs to go along with the whole process of writing a novel (editing and so on as well) and then marketing it and getting the sales.

Should I really be charging them, setting them back financially (often considerably), and limiting their options on what they can do? Kirkus Indie Reviews charges self-published authors in the region of $500 to review their work. That is abominable. If a self-published author has that much money lying around, they are better off not writing.

As it happens, Chick Lit Girls charges $95. Really. I’m gonna say that this only applies to self-published authors, that is, they are the only ones who will do this. Because seriously, which publisher is going to PAY any blogger to review their novels? Seriously.

Not to mention, this raises question of your integrity. How can you be honest if you are accepting financial payment for your work? No matter how honest you consider yourself to be (even if a portion of your readers consider you to be honest regardless) you can’t escape from the stigma of it. Especially if you won’t do reviews for anything less than a 4*!!!

It just doesn’t work people. No one would take me seriously if I ever did this sort of thing. I’d be laughed out of the reviewing circles and my work dismissed.

Why would I ever risk that?

Now, I do get the side of the argument that this is a full-time business for you because you’ve given up your job or whatever else the case may be. Well, there are ways of getting paid for your work that doesn’t involve charging authors/publishers for reviews.

It’s called selling ad space. It’s the only one I can think of at the moment, but surely this is a no-brainer?

And ok, this may not be anywhere enough to support you and yours, but isn’t that a decision and discussion that should have taken place before you quit your jobs for this?

Also, I want to point out that in no way am I attacking the people of CLG in particular regarding this. I’m simply offering a statement and opinion on why this is impractical in the first place.

Feel free to disagree as you wish.

I’m quite happy getting “paid” with free copies of books, and audio dramas, and comics and (sometimes) access to authors for interviews and guest posts. That’s what I expect and what I deserve.

Third of all, why on earth would you respond so unprofessionally and vehemently when your “business practice” is challenged? You are no special snowflake whose ideals and opinions can’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny. You put yourself in a public space so expect to get criticism and denunciation such as this. After that, that’s exactly what you are doing.

That is what angers me most about this whole issue. Again, this goes back to that vaunted “integrity and honesty” that is so important in our line of work/hobby.

You really can’t have it both ways. Be shitty like this to someone on the internet, expect to receive it back tenfold.

You also give the rest a bad name, no matter what your intention was. As an author friend of mine tweeted after this whole “scandal” went live: “it seems that book bloggers throw a tantrum every month for no reason”.

That statement hurts me. It makes me feel bad. And I have nothing to do at all with this except hearing of this after the fact. The internet thrives on negativity. Stunts such as this are going to make readers of OUR work more disposed towards brushing us all with the same wide brush and make statements such as this.

To clarify, said author friend is a good author friend of mine and I do not dispute his/her comment at all. It is just depressing that he/she had to make such a comment at all, and that it is actually accurate.

The more that bloggers get positive attention from publishers and publicists and authors and agents, the more we attract the bad as well. For some, their success goes to their heads and they do something that paints us all in a bad light. It takes very little for these four entities to get riled up when we apparently trip up, such as the recent case involving the ALA and members of the organisation pretty much calling bloggers unwelcome free-loaders for attending their recent big-event.

Not all of these four entities do these things, certainly none that I have regular contact with, but there are those out there who do. The internet is littered with instances where things got really bad between authors/reviewers/readers in the last year (at least).

All I can say is: just don’t be an asshole like this to an author or a publicist or an agent or a publisher. Respect goes both ways. And good reputation is earned after a lot of hard effort, but is lost in the blink of an eye.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, and this is something that was really bothering me, I just wanted to talk about my biggest frustration with being a reviewer.

Getting attention and getting signal-boosts.

What I mean by that is that increasingly I’m coming across authors and publishers who don’t provide any kind of a signal boost to my reviews, or those of some of my reviewers.

When we post our reviews on social media, we make sure to tag the appropriate publisher and author (at least on twitter because the Facebook page-tagging is really bonkers, especially when we are posting throughout the day) so they know about our reviews and can help to spread the word about them.

This applies particularly to positive reviews as I rarely tag for negative reviews as I have zero expectations in that regard.

It is compounded when I see these publishers and authors spreading the word about reviews by other reviewers and not mine, or those of some of my friends.

This really, really irks me. It frustrates me. It also causes me a certain amount of depression at times.

In a previous editorial piece, “From Reviewers To Authors“, I talked about this to a degree. Let’s face it, I’m a pretty small-time reviewer myself, even though The Founding Fields enjoys a big readership. I also happen to NOT live in a Western country and therefore I don’t usually get book deliveries from publishers and authors on time. I can’t even really participate in author/publisher/blogger giveaways because of that reason as their efforts in this regard are confined to North America and Western Europe.

That means I have less opportunities to really get my name out there and gain a bigger readership. Ask people in the reviewing biz which blogs come to mind when they are asked about the “big names” and generally the answers are going to be: Fantasy Faction, SF Signal, Civilian-Reader, Functional Nerds, Staffer’s Musings and the like. You are never going to hear of Shadowhawk from The Founding Fields.

So I have to do a lot of work to make my presence felt, if at all, in the wild. It’s not easy. I’m dependent upon authors and publishers (and in some cases their publicists and agents or whatever) to spread the word. And when that doesn’t happen, my review just languishes in reviewing hell – forgotten and all alone.

And it really, really bothers me when my reviews are ignored like this but those of other reviewers aren’t. At times it is as if there is some kind of a conspiracy against me. I wonder if I did something wrong to piss them off or something.

Don’t get me wrong. Reviewing is as much of a hobby for me as reading or playing video games. I do it because I enjoy it. I just want some recognition from the powers that be out of it. All it takes for them is a single retweet, a single link share, and that’s that. Nothing more, nothing less. Just the click of a button.

Is that really all that much to ask?

Just the click of a button?

I’m never going to stop reviewing because I can’t get that recognition and signal-boosting. That’d be petty for me. And I’d just be throwing a tantrum.

I’m fortunate that I have a small circle of friends, reviewers and authors, who are willing to take that small step with me and for me. Especially when it’s not their work that I’m raving about. I just wish that the people who matter most, in each of the individual cases, did that as well.

I know I’m a small fry, that I can’t match the popularity and exposure of the big names, but if I’m taking the time to spread the word about their work, they can do the same in return right?

Is that really all that much to ask?

**********

Well, that’s all I can think of to say about this for now. Perhaps I’ll talk more soon. We shall see. In the meantime, feel free to agree or disagree with anything I’ve said in the comments. All commentary is welcome.

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Posted on July 18, 2012, in Book Reviews, General, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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