I spent some time chatting with a group of writers today, discussing a topic that seems to not only be tripping up indie authors in a variety of ways, but contributing to the persistence of stigmas and attitudes about the self-publishing “brand” in general:
Coveted, powerful, manipulated; misguided reviews.
It was a spirited debate — though, in truth, everyone was in agreement — focused squarely on the corrosive effect of what some in the discussion called the “5-Star Circle” and the “Review Swap Gang.”
For those unaware, the 5-Star Circle is that loose contingent of indie author who will automatically award 5-star reviews to colleagues regardless of the quantifiable merits of their books. This is done, purportedly, to show support for fellow self-pubbers, but there’s also an unspoken quid quo pro element at work, assuring that the 5-star-wielding reviewer will be gifted in kind. The Review Swap Gang is essentially an off-shoot, a more organized venture whereby authors agree to write reviews for each other and I don’t think anyone need guess how rife with corruptible possibilities that deal might be!
I expect a holler at this point, an insistence by some in the self-publishing world that they will and do and always give honest, authentic reviews regardless of how swappers review their own books, and, hey, it’s possible. But what’s also possible (and likely probable) is an inherent awkwardness to the set-up, the politics involved if, say, they give you a good review and you don’t return the favor. In fact, I spoke to one author who confessed that he often gives weak, inept books much higher than deserved ratings for the sake of group politics. Another spoke of feeling pressured within professional friendships to do the same; someone else mentioned not wanting to spark trollish behavior from disgruntled authors unhappy with their “swap.”
And the result of all this? Far too many poorly executed and amateurishly written books sporting a raft of undeserved 5-star reviews from gushing (or, perhaps, intimidated) “friends” who apparently don’t see the value of creative accountability; a fact that has the long-term effect of misguiding readers and perpetuating negative attitudes about all self-published writers, even those whose work is worthy of the accolades.
There’s a book blogger I happen to like, Tara Sparling, who regularly offers sharp (and very funny) analysis of the self-publishing world on her blog, Tara Sparling Writes (check out her posts about book covers, fonts, and what compels readers to choose — or not choose — self-published novels). She recently wrote a piece on the topic of reviews, Why 5-Star Book Reviews Are Utter Rubbish, that triggered a strong reaction from readers on the title alone (my response is in the comment section). Tara offered seven reasons in support of her thesis, some of which echoed my own points; for example:
“One 5-star review is ok. But, if there are only 7 reviews in total and all of them are all 5 stars, I don’t believe a single one of them.”
OK, I’m not sure I wouldn’t believe a one… maybe, but she lost me a bit on the next sentence:
“So I disregard the lot and vow never to read the book instead. Which rather defeats the purpose.”
I got her point, but took umbrage with the resolution. Since I am not a swapper, nor a review solicitor, I can’t control what reviewers end up saying about my work and certainly don’t want to be discounted out-of-hand — by Tara or anyone else — if the lot of them happen to honestly like my book! I made this rebuttal in my comment; she graciously took the point, as well as similar points made, allowing that, yes, if a book truly deserves 5-stars, wonderful. But the more salient issue is that, like me, like others, she finds solid reason to raise a ruckus on the topic, a shared impulse that indicates just how transparently corrupt this reviewing thing has become.
Look, the value of reviews to anyone selling anything — whether a toaster, movie, restaurant, or book — is indisputable. But the politics of reviews has turned the process into a sort of creepy, virtual-payola scenario that’s about as manipulative as A&R thugs dropping cash-packs and trip tickets into the laps of slick fingered radio programmers. And when we’ve got countless threads on Goodreads hawking “swap requests,” Yelp choked with either phony take-downs or BFF gush-fests, and Amazon battling some version of the same on all kinds of products (including books), we’ve lost the point of the endeavor… for honest people to leave honest responses to just how much they did or didn’t like something. Period.
Here’s my personal stance: I do not want ONE, not one, review on my author page that is not authentic or honestly felt. Whatever “star” rating or review comments you think my work warrants based on your truthful, visceral response to my book, that’s what I want you to leave. Don’t troll, don’t be irrational or other-agenda’d; but don’t feel obligated, under any circumstances, to leave a puffed-up, bullshit review. If you’re uncomfortable about what you might honestly have to say, I’d rather you not leave anything than an unauthentically positive review. And I mean that. An unearned “star” should mean nothing to any of us.
To my indie author colleagues: Please understand that I will not leave a 4- or 5-star review on work that does not warrant it based on my experience and perceptions as a writer and my response as a reader. It doesn’t matter how famous you are, how much I support your efforts, how well I like you, or how much you’ve done for me. But, taking into account the shared obstacles and challenges of being in this self-publishing game together, the best I can agree to is that I won’t leave a decidedly negative review on your page (which, in this world, appears to be anything below 4- or 5-stars!). If you know I’ve read your book and want my response privately, I will be happy to share it with you.
And one more thing: PLEASE, please, indie authors, do not rant on social media about your negative reviews and do not ask fellow writers to go to your Amazon page to make any response to them. Both the rant and the request are not only distasteful, but utterly unprofessional. As is presuming a negative review is automatically undeserved, unauthentic, or written by a troll. Let’s please, for God’s sake, have some grace and dignity and take our hits where they come. Every reader has the right to their honest response no matter how many reviews they’ve written. And if you truly believe a troll is having his/her way with you, handle it privately. Don’t play creative-victim in an effort to engage fellow writers to circle the wagons; we all have to stand by our work, good, bad or in-between.
The impact of all these shenanigans is that readers — the very people we’re hoping to engage — can no longer count on reviews to guide them to what they might enjoy or find excellent. Personally, I’ve now downloaded far too many books by self-published authors — abundant in stellar reviews — that were, ultimately, poorly written. I’ve spent my money and my time only to either not finish a book, or to put it aside with a shake of my head and a growing uneasiness about what all of this is doing to the self-publishing world at large.
For now, though I’m being much more selective about the books I buy, I still believe in the movement and will continue to support my indie colleagues, particularly those who’ve earned my reader loyalty, as I hope they will support me. But I will continue to candidly address the issues we face, holding out hope that we as a group learn from our mistakes and honestly strive to be better. More professional. More demanding. Of ourselves… and our fellow authors.
Cartoon by Kudelka
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.