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Balanced Reviews

August 27th, 2009 · 14 Comments

Micheal Stearns recently posted about reviews on Goodreads which spawned a discussion about book reviews written by writers, editors, and agents.

Is it damaging to a career to write negative reviews?

One of the comments made in the discussion really makes me sad.

Rita, the commenter, said, in part:

At the SCBWI summer conference an editor said that if “they” googled you and found you criticizing a book “they” had worked on, they wouldn’t take you on.

I don’t know if that’s an accurate report of what the editor said, but if this editor really doesn’t want me criticizing his books, I think he’s shortsighted.

What about the book you love, but it has some issues that need to be addressed? We just got done doing a tour for North! or Be Eaten and it got several rave reviews. But it also got some criticism.

I loved the book and I want people to buy it and discover this exciting new-ish author. But what if I gush about the book and don’t ever deal with the issue that made Bellezza give up on the book after 115 pages?

I posted today on my All About Children’s Book site about why I thought this book had a slow start. I’m not trying to injure the author or editor. I’m just discussing a book I liked but one I had some trouble with. In my review, I made clear that I loved the book and I wanted readers to stick with it, because it’s worth reading.

In discussing the weaknesses in the book, am I hurting the author or editor? Am I hurting my chances of getting published?

I can see refraining from trashing a book you hate. It would be better to ignore the book completely. I also try to edit out the sarcasm that often spills out onto the page when I’m writing my reviews. But if I can’t criticize a book at all, then I won’t be reviewing many books from here on out. I don’t often find perfect books. And if a book has issues, I think I need to address those.

I spoke with a publicist a while ago, telling her I didn’t want to review a book because I wouldn’t be able to give the book a great review. I liked parts of it, but it had some problems, I thought. The publicist asked me to review it anyway. She said she realized that every book was not a five-star book. And even the three-star books deserved some publicity.

Do you see that? If we no longer review the three-star books because we are afraid to say anything negative, we are withholding publicity from a book that other readers may really like and from an author who may be growing and worth following.

I hope the commenter on Michael’s site got it wrong. I hope that editor was talking about reviews that trashed books, not reviews that criticized books. Because balanced reviews sell books and gushing reviews don’t sell anything.

Or maybe the editor was just saying if he read that you didn’t like a book he edited, he’d know you and he wouldn’t work well together because you and he had different tastes. Maybe he wasn’t saying he wanted to punish people who criticized his book, but just that he wanted to work with people with a similar vision to his.

Does anyone know if the comment was accurate? Can anyone give me an exact quote or some context to the original statement?

What about you? How many of you are writing novels and hoping to be published one day? Are you afraid to criticize the books you review?

[edited at 6:30 p.m. to make clear that the comment that bothered me was made by a commenter on the Upstart Crow blog, not by Michael Stearns. Also read the comments on this post to see that another person at the conference did not interpret the editor's statement in the same way Rita interpreted it.]

Tags: Integrity · Review Tips

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bellezza // Aug 27, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    You said, “But if I can’t criticize a book at all, then I won’t be reviewing many books from here on out.” I wholeheartedly agree. I can’t ‘gush’ about every book I read. Some of them just don’t strike me as outstanding. It’s a dilemna, though. I never, ever want to hurt an author. I realize the work, hopes and dreams that go into writing are huge. Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean that others won’t love it. Hey, I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan. He’s okay, but I can take it or leave it. Imagine if the world was going on my opinion of him? Maybe fantasy is just not my genre… ;)

    This is a hugely fascinating topic. One that I haven’t decided upon all the answers for. But, I did decide not to review the gladiator girl book, for fear of more criticism on my part.
    .-= Bellezza´s last blog ..RIP IV and The JLC3: A Double Dip =-.

  • 2 Jody Sparks // Aug 27, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot as a person who does hope to be published and also as a person who loves discussing books. Granted, no one is knocking down my door to get me to review books, so I asked myself, what need does my talking about books serve?

    Well, I want to discuss why a certain plot worked or sympathy was gained for an unlikable character, or whatever. Also I want to enjoy it with people and see what I may have missed. But it’s really pretty self-serving…Mostly I want to learn from these books how I can be a better writer and it seems discussion is, for me, a great vehicle for that.

    So then I asked myself, how many people do I need to talk with about a book in order to fill that need. Only a handful. Certainly not everyone who reads my blog or who I’m friends with on Goodreads.

    For me the answer was setting up a “secret” group on Goodreads where a few of my fellows and I can discuss books without worrying about the rest of the writing/publishing community seeing what we think. In this way, I’m not mixing business with social networking. And I’m still talking about books, writing, and all the rest of things book clubs do.
    .-= Jody Sparks´s last blog ..4 Factors of Breaking In =-.

  • 3 sally apokedak // Aug 27, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Bellezza, I think it’s great to pass over book you think you won’t like. But when you do like a book, but see some weaknesses in it, I think it’s great to address those weaknesses.

    Jody, I’ve been thinking along the same lines lately. Why does the world need one more review of a book from me?

    I, like you, love to take apart books to see why I loved one character and didn’t care about another. But, there again, why do I need to tell other people what I think I’m discovering?

    But if you want to be published, you have to blog, according to just about everybody. And if you are going to blog with any measure of success, you have to blog about things you’re passionate about. And I happen to be passionate about taking books apart to see why they work for me and why they don’t.

    That and Christianity.

    :doh:

    Either way I’m going to be offending people. :laugh:

    So…what a dilemma. Do you blog or stop blogging?

    I think I’ll just do what I wish the authors and editors and would do–keep writing/editing the things you want to write/edit and don’t let a little bit of criticism or complaints knock you off your game. I’ll keep posting the things I want to post and I won’t worry about what other people think of me. If I’m being honest and enjoying life and the publicists keep sending me books, I’ll be happy.

  • 4 Cathy // Aug 27, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    I was at the SCBWI convention, and I know exactly which editor you’re talking about and IMO, Michael Stearns, or whomever started the rumor, got it WRONG. Said editor did not say she wouldn’t take an author on if the author had criticized one of the editor’s books in a book review. Said editor made the comment that she wouldn’t take an author on if the author had trashed the editor herself (not the book!), or an agent. Basically, she was saying that someone who badmouths people in a public blog probably isn’t very easy to get along with.
    .-= Cathy´s last blog ..Book Review and Giveaway: Geektastic =-.

  • 5 sally apokedak // Aug 27, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Well, in the interest of not trashing anyone let me just say, “SCREECH! PUT THE BRAKES ON. Michael Stearns didn’t start any rumor. It was a commenter on his site that reported this.”

    And the commenter wasn’t giving a direct quote. That’s why I was wondering if maybe she was misinterpreting the editor.

    Thank you so much for clearing this up, Cathy. I am happy to hear that the editor in question, whoever it was, was not saying she would not work with someone who criticized her books. That’s a huge relief.

  • 6 amydeanne // Aug 27, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    I agree about passing up books if you hate them (I’ve done that with a few), however, a few I’ve commented on and criticized because of the genre it was aimed in, not the writing. I do think it helps publishers to take note that some of us care what you call a book (aka.. if you’re calling it Christian, than I want to know it actually is.)
    I think we can critic gently w/o being mean (though I’m sure you can’t please everyone all the time, just like I won’t like every book i read). I try and give options of someone i think will like it if I don’t particularly care for it, but don’t find anything really wrong with it.
    that being said, not sure as a writer if it affects.. i think if we can’t be honest about what we’re writing how can we write decently ourselves?
    .-= amydeanne´s last blog ..Tricia Goyer writes again! Sunflower Seranade =-.

  • 7 Bellezza // Aug 29, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Sally, I appreciate your acceptance of posting a book’s weakness from the reviewer’s point of view. I get so anxious to not offend anybody, but then, what kind of a review is it if it’s not honest? If everyone said every book was great they’d be just like Paula Abdul criticing a contestant on American Idol: kind, but meaningless.
    .-= Bellezza´s last blog ..RIP IV and The JLC3: A Double Dip =-.

  • 8 sally apokedak // Aug 29, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Well, exactly.

    If we aren’t going to be honest we might as well quit reviewing. Dishonest reviews are meaningless.

    And if we give dishonest reviews to bad books, saying they’re good, we punish the authors of the good books. Because no one can believe us when we say the books are good.

  • 9 Jessica Leader // Sep 8, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    I really like the point that a mixed review at least brings publicity to a story or an author that is interesting, but may not have worked out its kinks. (And I’ll try to remember it if I get a review that’s mixed!)

    It almost seems like there should be two different review forums: one for audiences who want to know what to buy, and one for people interested in discussing how books work. I’m involved in a great community that does the latter, and I love it. I wouldn’t want a broader readership to see the reviews I post there, because I wouldn’t want to slam a fellow writer, but I wish there were a space for intelligent, don’t-take-it-personally dialogue about non-blockbusters in the larger literary community. Mostly, I love the feeling that we’re all in this together, but sometimes, it feels limiting, too.

  • 10 sally apokedak // Sep 10, 2009 at 8:29 am

    Hey, Jessica, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    When does your book come out. I’ll see if I can read it and give it a mixed review for you.

    :laugh:

    I agree that it would be good to have two forums–one for readers and one for people who want to discuss in depth.

    I wonder, though, if that’s not what happens now. I wonder if readers just ignore the discussion and look at the stars and go buy. And I wonder if readers aren’t all “discussers” on some level.

    Oh, well, I’m not sure we’ll ever solve this. Because even if I opened up the forum here–I do have a forum on this site–how would I know who to keep out? Authors could still sign on incognito and see all the nasty things we were saying about their books.

    :biggrin:

  • 11 sally apokedak // Sep 10, 2009 at 8:32 am

    testing, testing

    how come comment luv wasn’t working?
    .-= sally apokedak´s last blog ..How to Write a Children’s Book ~ Critique Groups =-.

  • 12 sally apokedak // Sep 10, 2009 at 8:34 am

    one more test

  • 13 sally apokedak // Sep 10, 2009 at 8:35 am

    oh you have to tick the little box.

    :doh: .-= sally apokedak´s last blog ..How to Write a Children’s Book ~ Critique Groups =-.

  • 14 Jessica Leader // Sep 10, 2009 at 11:08 am

    V funny, Sally — I’ll look forward to that oh so informative mixed review!
    .-= Jessica Leader´s last blog ..Good Things About Today, Even Though it is a Scary Day =-.