OK, Let’s Discuss This Whole Book Review Thing… Please

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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.

Related articles: 

• Who Do We Have To _____ To Get a Little Respect Around Here? 
• The Persistence of Self-Publishing Stigmas and How To Transcend Them

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

18 thoughts on “OK, Let’s Discuss This Whole Book Review Thing… Please

  1. Hi Lorraine, and thanks for linking to my post. I am wholeheartedly on your side on this: for the record, incendiary post titles aside (not to mention the mood I was in when I wrote that), I think the worst thing that insincere, automatic 5* reviews can do is that they will put people off reading any sincere, reasoned reviews a book could have further on below the fold.

    I wish more authors understood that readers like myself have bought more self-pubbed books based on 2,3 and 4 star reviews than 5* ones: if a reviewer mentions a problem with something, but I think it would be unlikely to bother me, I almost always end up buying the book.

    Overall, however, the content of a review almost always allows a reader to deduce whether or not they are “real”. A badly written review which goes something like “this book was great I really liked it 5* more please I gave it to my daughter and she loved it too” tells me nothing about the book, or more importantly, why I might want to buy it. So I don’t.

    I still prefer 4* reviews though, as a book buyer.


    1. Tara, thanks for the comment… and for writing such a great blog! I had to include you in the piece because I truly believe you hit many nails on the head.

      I also think your comment about phony reviews putting people off of the not-phony ones is such a damn valid point, one I’m trying to make as well. I’m not sure why writers feel an automatic 5-star is the only response a professional friend, or anyone else, should give! Like you, I’m suspicious when I see nothing but 5 stars and, also like you, can read between the puffed-up verbiage to sort out the authenticity factor!

      I hope the critical mass of writers, readers and others speaking out about this will ultimately sway the community from the practice. It’s a big element of that community, however, and it might take a while. Or, the more desperate folks will continue it ad nauseam. I hope not.

      Thanks again for making such great points… I really do encourage readers to check out your blog, it’s one of my favorites! LDW


  2. Brenda Perlin

    Very good page. The system is badly damaged and sadly getting worse. I am certainly guilty of leaving higher than average reviews which I know doesn’t help. I try to lift my friends up though I have to say I tend not to promote books I don’t care for. I used to since I was involved in a group but now I’m free to share what I consider reader worthy. It’s a tough one because you want to be supportive but there is a great cost and I am feeling it.


    1. I so understand, Brenda; it’s hard sometimes to find the right balance between being supportive and being “creatively enabling”! Personally, I have to draw the line as I stated in my piece. It doesn’t feel honorable otherwise, nor does it ultimately raise up the quality of the self-publishing platform. That can only happen if we demand the best and most authentic work from ourselves as both writers and reviewers. Thanks for the comment, Brenda! LDW


  3. Amen, Lorraine. I offer book reviews on my site but I make it perfectly clear that I leave honest reviews. If I don’t care for the book and can’t leave a 3 or higher, I try to support the Indie author in another way like an interview or cover reveal. Thankfully, I have not come up against the 5 star Circle or those requesting I pay for the review they provide, although I have heard quite a lot of horror stories regarding those.


    1. Thanks, Lisa, both for writing and for being someone who’s holding the line! I think your formula is a great one, one I’ve implemented myself, and applaud you for finding that balance. Yeah… there are a few horror stories! 🙂 LDW


  4. Lorraine. I’ve struggled with this as I’ve met so many wonderful self-published authors on-line. To support them, I’ve bought their books and then posted reviews. I’ve never given one 5 stars yet, to my knowledge. I reserve that for the classics or some contemporary author who’s prose is exceptional and the story has moved me in some way.

    But I have given 4 stars when I thought the author only deserved 3. It’s a dilemma. Mind you, my book is coming out in two weeks, and I’d be happy with any of the above,3, 4 or 5, as long as it’s honest.

    I recently bought a second book from an author I like, again self-published. The first was terrific, and I gave her a great review. The second was a slog. I spent time wondering what to do. In the end, I decided to do nothing. I couldn’t finish the book, and it is what it is. Since we’re not close, she probably won’t know what I think.

    I know my husband, who’s an avid reader, does not believe half the reviews on-line. I am also suspicious when I see glowing reviews, one after the other.

    As for my debut novel, A CRY FROM THE DEEP, that comes out in two weeks, I have sent advance copies to a number of reviewers on-line and have no idea what they will post. I hope it’s 3 or more stars, but one never knows. I’m not paying for any, nor have I engaged in any, I’ll review yours if your review mine kind of arrangement. Thanks for a provocative and engaging post.


    1. Diana: I so understand the dilemma… I’ve had the same one with writers I like as people but necessarily as authors. I’ve had to come to the conclusion that leaving padded reviews is of no service to anyone, the writer or the readers who might be misguided by them, so it’s incumbent upon us all who care about the quality of this industry to do the right thing: honest, authentic reviews. I certainly hope all that I have received have been such!

      I wish you all the luck with your book and will look forward to reading it! Thanks for stopping by to comment on this resonating issue! LDW


  5. This is a big problem for any writer/reviewer. It is extremely difficult to criticise a book written by someone who has just written a rave review of your own book. I just don’t write a review when I haven’t liked a friend’s book. I’ll mail them and tell them why in private, but I just can’t bring myself to post a public review.
    Like you, I have read whole strings of semi-literate five star reviews for books that you can tell from the first few pages are goinng to be utter crap. I take all reviews with a pinch of salt. It’s so easy to get an idea of the style of the writing and the quality from the look inside feature. Why rely on what somebody else thinks? Even if you could be sure that that’s what the reviewer really did think, and that their opinion is worth anything anyway.
    I suppose it’s a question of having the courage to say what you really think. I’m a coward and prefer to keep quiet.


    1. Jane: Thanks for your comment. I completely agree with your assessment, obviously. And I don’t know that’s it’s cowardice; I think there’s a sensitivity involved in posting critical reviews of authors you know. I won’t leave a bogus positive review, but if the review I’m going to leave would be eviscerating, I go with the “if you haven’t got something nice to say, say nothing” school of thought! I think that would apply to you.

      But you’re so right; it is a big problem, but one we’ve got to sort out. The long-term effect, as I mentioned, is that the trend is perpetuating a very negative public opinion of self-published writers and their work and that hurts us all. Gotta get thicker skins, I suppose… to be willing to leave candid, honest, constructive reviews and to get them!

      Thanks again! LDW


      1. Have you noticed that an established, big name author is more likely to get two and three star reviews than an indie? Indies often have a string of five stars and a couple of one star troll reviews, but great writers often get a fairly broad range of star ratings. I wonder if this is because the reviewers have no axe to grind therefore are more honest, or the ‘awesome’ reviewers are too busy reviewing their friends’ books; or that we expect big names to write big books and when they fall short of our expectations we pan them?


      2. Good point, Jane. My instinct is that established writers attract a wider range of readers to their books, readers not beholden to obligation by virtue of “being in a Facebook writers group together,” or any other sense of undue loyalty. Reviewers can leave a candid, honest review for a famous author’s book without fear of response or reprisal, and they’re more likely to just be READERS who are not necessarily privy to or concerned with the ridiculousness of trends like swaps and the “5-Star Circle.”

        Or it could be the “no axe to grind,” though I hope reviewers of ANY writers aren’t compelled by axes! 🙂 I think it’s about proximity; those reviewing indie authors often know them or are connected to them in some way. That seems to breed all manner of hyperbole, misplaced loyalty, and a disregard of the point and purpose of reviews. LDW


    1. Though I remain hopeful, Jane, that more and more readers beyond those who “know the author” will take the advice of Nancy Andres (see her comment in this thread) and sort out those indie authors who really are worth reading. At least I’m hoping for that… we all only so many people! 🙂 LDW

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  6. Nancy Andres

    I began reading this, thinking as Lorraine posited, ‘Tell me the truth, I can handle the truth.’. It was how I felt when my mate cheated on me and insisted on lying about it. It was how I felt when I turned in an English paper that the professor praised, when I knew it was not my creative writing genius, just creative use of a thesaurus. I frankly despised him for the rest of the semester. Rivulets of little white lies turn into a river of corruption, apparently, in the world of publication as in the rest of our world, anywhere there is the gain of money or quid pro quo. While I love Lorraine for hoisting the flag of honesty, as a pacifist and a cowardly confrontationist, I have to applaud those of you who admit to falling into the established trap of dishonesty. That took some courage! As a non-writer, just an

    enthusiastic reader, I believe a good book will make it on merit alone. A good title is seductive (I would fall for “After The Sucker Punch” and “A Cry From The Deep”, but not without a look inside). Give your readers a little credit – we tend to ignore hyperbolic reviews because they are so over-used. We do know mediocre or less than stellar reviews are unlikely to be printed on the back or inside cover. We would rather sample pages at random before we decide to buy or use our time to invest in a story. So don’t give those dishonest reviewers more power than they can wield. They have so little power over your actual readers. You have the power with a good story.


    1. Fascinating and illuminating take on the discussion, Nancy! 🙂

      The most salient point, though, is your assurance that smart readers are wise to the ploy and know how to “read between the lines,” so to speak. That good writers have the power to push through the deflective noise and hyperbole to get their books seen and read. “You have the power with a good story” is beautifully put. Since neither readers nor other writers can control what those who traffic in review silliness do, it’s refreshing to hear someone make that point!

      Thanks for your comment, Nancy! LD@


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