The Welter of the Internet #2: Writing reviews

GoodreadsSo, I am on Goodreads. I kind of love it. I go through phases in which I drink down books like water, and because I am a long-winded, opinionated sumbitch, I blather about them. And I’m not alone: You will find a lot of us there, us publishing people. Editors, writers, agents, marketing people—our first love was reading, and we do like to talk about what we read.

But not everyone posts reviews. In fact, many of my publishing cohort don’t even bother to give books ratings. They log on just to see what others are saying. Or, if they do rate the books they read, they choose a tack like that of the utterly brilliant Rebecca Stead, who explains in her profile, “Many of the books on my list are, in my opinion, amazing. Some I didn’t like. But I give them all five stars, because stars make people—including me—happy. Confused? Me too.”

That’s fair, right? I mean, which author or editor wants to go onto a site and see someone bagging on the novel you’ve spent years bringing into the world? That’s no fun. And if you work in the business, the last thing you want to do is piss off the editor or author of such novel by crowing about how the emperor…well, he’s naked as a jaybird. So I’ve taken to not rating books I loathe, not having them part of my update feed, not writing the reviews. Instead, I put my notes in the “Private Notes” section.

But I hate doing that. Feels monstrously cowardly to me. Part of what Goodreads is about—the part of it that I love—is that it is a dialogue about books and how well they work (or, if they don’t work very well, why they don’t). It is not a bleacher full of cheerleaders. It’s a giant book club, and my friends and I, we’re there to discuss what we read. I may not love your novel, but who cares? I am just one person. (And have you met me? I’m a tin-eared crank, “nothing but a young curmudgeon” according to one old lady who shook her cane at me after the Rutger’s One-on-One a few years back. Who cares if I like your published novel?) But politeness suggests I need to play nice with others and never say a word against anything by anyone who may later be a position to help one of my clients. So I censor myself.

Is this an imaginary problem on my part? How do you feel about this? When someone complains about your work in one of these forums, do your hackles rise? (“Well, no, Michael—we’re not dogs.”) Does this feel like part of a healthy dialogue? Or just mean-spirited snarkiness?

  1. No, I don’t think it’s an imaginary problem. I never post reviews unless I love the book. That said, the reviews I appreciate the most, are those that detail why the book worked for them, and why it didn’t. I like the ones that really make me think about the book in a whole new way. I think those types of reviews can pave the way for good discussions.


  2. I think as someone in the industry, you’re okay to edit yourself since burning bridges you may need in the future would not be advisable. After all, this is how you and your clients make a living.

    As for bad reviews, I think they’re a hard pill to swallow, especially since these matters can be quite subjective. When something you’ve poured such effort and soul into gets a poor review, it’s often hard to not take it to heart and remember that it is just one person’s opinion.


  3. I feel like I am in the business of selling books, not unselling them – So I tend to gush about the ones I love and politely disregard the ones that I don’t.


  4. Right now I wish I had the problem of being published and getting a bad review…

    But getting feedback, whether positive or negative, is always a good thing to me. If someone doesn’t like what I’m doing, I don’t take it personally, I just put it in my mental file of “things that didn’t work.”

    Now, if it were my job, I’d be a little more political about tossing around the “this book is crap” label. But I don’t think authors should be offended by bad reviews, I think they should take it as a learning experience and try to make the next book even better.

    You know, unless they suffer from Zoolander syndrome. “Only one look…”


  5. Bad reviews can be more helpful than good reviews if they’re well thought out and supported. Reviews of, “This book sux,” help no one, but pointing out inconstancies in plot or pacing or some other thing can help the writer in the long run.


  6. Bad reviews are no fun. Sometimes they’re educational. Sometimes they’re wrong. I haven’t yet written the thing I consider perfect, though, and I generally appreciate knowing what I could do better–or at least what I can be thinking about as I attempt to understand the human condition a little more deeply.

    When we rail against critics, and when we decide we don’t like/won’t work with people who’ve seen our work in anything less than a glowing light, we’ve totally lost. Then we’re no longer about truth; we’re about ourselves.

    There are good ways of delivering difficult insights. Some people are geniuses at that and I can’t have too many of them in my life. I also like the Nancy Pearl “only review books I like” philosophy. My main problem with Goodreads is that I don’t have time to review a book thoughtfully. Sigh…


  7. I’m not on Goodreads, but if I were, I would only gush about those books I enjoyed and, like others above me, ignore those I didn’t. When we’re in the industry, it’s too likely that we’ll run into a book’s editor, or agent, or even the writer, and have to explain a scathing or even lukewarm review. It’s both a blessing and a curse that people respect our opinions, I suppose.


  8. I’m a member of Goodreads and my problem is, I’ve read so many books in the past that I can’t remember every detail I loved about them all. If the book is simply spectacular, I will gush about it, but if it sort of blends in with the others, I won’t do anything but give it stars. The way I know a book is truly, truly good? I want to re-read it. I want to read it so many times I almost have it memorized. I have two bookcases packed with books that I thought were too good to get rid of and those are the ones I review or rate on Goodreads.

    As for censoring…we all do it, but as an aspiring writer, I have to believe that one person’s opinion won’t make or break me. I personally don’t read much into a review because I’ve read books that were supposed to be wonderful, but I found boring and vice versa. It’s all a matter of what flips your Twinkie.


  9. Oh, Michael, what a huge deal this is.

    I’ve been puttering along, writing novels and reading a lot, trying to learn to write well. I’ve also been blabbing all over about what I’ve read. Now I finally have a novel that I think is saleable and…now I’m thinking I might not have been all that smart to say in my reviews, “Where was the editor? Duh!”

    heh heh

    No, I’m never really that mean, but I have written several negative reviews and I know that to the authors and editors involved they must feel really mean.

    My policy is still to give strengths and weaknesses for every book I review. Because when I blog, I’m a blogger and I owe it to my readers to tell them the truth. Many of my friends buy books based on my reviews and I can’t lie to them to make some editor happy.

    I have considered giving up all book discussion. But that does feel cowardly, I agree. So here’s where I am right now: If and agent or editor is the kind of person who is going to be offended by an honest review, I don’t want to work with him anyway.

    I can work with someone I disagree with, but I can’t work with someone who lies to me or expects me to lie to her.

    Shannon Hale just posted some thoughts on Goodreads on her blog.


  10. […] Michael Stearns also likes to talk about what he’s read. He’s decided to give up making negative assessments in public. Because when you are “in the biz” you can’t afford to offend others. […]


  11. I’m a writer (as yet unpublished) and an avid reader — voracious, is probably a more accurate word. A couple years ago, I began to ‘review’ books on my blog (Live Journal blog) — but I wanted to make a review system I could live with when I knew I’d be reviewing friends’ books. On my website, I approach from the POV that every book has something valuable about it (so I try to point to what I found valuable and give suggestions for discussions about the themes of the book) — and I mark ‘favorites’ on those I truly love.

    On my blog, I’m more critical, perhaps, but hopefully I make it clear that 1) it’s just my opinion; 2) if it doesn’t work for me, that doesn’t mean everyone won’t love it (in fact, I’ll often try to think of those who *will* enjoy it); 3) just because I wasn’t engaged enough to read it this time, doesn’t mean I won’t give it another chance down the road.

    For me, I don’t get much from people who only list books they love or never say anything constructive about books (from a reader’s POV — I try not to review books from a writer’s POV)…Goodreads, which I’ve just joined, is a place where I list my favorites, and nothing else.


  12. I do feel there’s a difference between a bad review once the book is out, and honest criticism from peers and editors before hand.

    When I’m still writing and editing, I love a thorough critique of my work and have developed a thick skin, so that nothing is too harsh as long as it’s helping my book.

    However once the book is published, I feel a bad review stings just a little since there’s little to be done for it. Granted the information is always useful for future books, but it’s one of those things where you wish someone had made the comment before the book got published.


  13. my writing group has had a huge discussion (one might say debate) on this–so timely! I tend to critique books on a pretty tough scale; I feel like a five star book should be one that I would read several times and maybe changed my life a bit. A book I can’t stop thinking about, or one that makes me want to gobble up more books by the same author. I review and rate books on LibraryThing, and I recently added a feed to my blog. But as a writer seeking publication, I worry that maybe I’m harming my chances by being critical. What if an agent stops by the blog and sees I didn’t like something s/he repped? A writer friend said something to the effect of, “You never know who you may need a blurb from….”

    Still, I think reviews (positive and negative) are such a vital piece of the conversation about books, and I enjoy that dialogue. Also I try to be thoughtful and fair in my reviews, writing about positives and negatives, but I know some people aren’t going to be happy with anything less than five stars and a glowing review. I don’t know. I want to review with integrity, and I hate that feeling of cowardice, but yeah, it’s a tough call.


  14. Thanks for addressing this Michael. This question has been on my mind since the LA SCBWI conference.

    Now,I think for the most part, my Goodreads’ reviews are pretty tame, never been called a tin-eared crank like MIchael :), but still, I would hate for something I wrote in a review to be the reason an editor turns down my manuscript. On the other hand, Goodreads is a forum for everyday readers to post and share their opinions about books – its not Kirkus or Horn Book – and we should feel free to voice those opinions without fearing consequences. I don’t want to feel like I have to gush with the rest of society and jump on a book’s bandwagon just to keep peace. If I didn’t like a book, I want to be able to say so and why.

    The discussion that occurs when people have differing opinions is what I enjoy mosr about sharing books with others. And it is this sharing that makes me a more discerning reader as well as a better writer. I would feel short-changed if people censored everything they thought. As a writer, I would rather get three stars and a list of what worked and what didn’t, than five stars and a “great book!”.

    So, yes, review with integrity – don’t say you hated the book if in reality you simply hate fantasy – but don’t be afraid to give your opinion.


  15. The biggest problem with Goodreads is that many members simply review as many books as they can randomly just to get their book lists as huge as they can. My book is on Amazon and Goodreads but ARCs have not been printed yet. So one has read it but my agent, editor, marketing and two freinds. Yet somehow I have 5 or 6 ratings ranging from 2 stars to 5 stars from random people who I know have not read the book. I can handle bad reviews, it comes with the territory, but I just don’t like how unreliable goodreads can be. Therefore, I’ve decided to just avoid it altogether from now on.


  16. 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. (Did you notice I didn’t say which editor? I don’t know what the rules are on that, so I’m avoiding it.) Seems like common sense, no matter who said it.

    I’ve been self-censoring for a while, and it feels bad. Not cowardly, exactly (hey hey). Just like I’ve knowingly cut off a piece of myself, which takes discipline. Ongoing discipline.

    Okay, it felt cowardly at first.

    At this point, the stack of books I’ve loved that I want to review has grown so high, I no longer feel bad about the others. If I’m going to spend time promoting something online, I want it to be a book I loved.

    The flip side is that I distrust author reviews of books, anyway. It took me a while to figure out most writers were either promoting books by their friends, or, self-censoring. (For this reason I love Linda Sue Park’s blog. She states up front that all reviews represent recommendations but also points out issues. It’s astonishingly refreshing and spot on.)

    Stars make the world a better place. I’d rather put out positive energy than negative. I wouldn’t have the same conversation with a book’s editor or author that I would with other readers. I’m not saying I would lie, but that’s not how real conversation works.


  17. I do agree, however, that as a writer I would want to see the bad reviews. That’s a different question.


  18. I think an important difference between the virtual world of GoodReads and a real book club is that the author is not possibly in attendance at every book club meeting, and the things we might say at a book club meeting is different with what we would say if the author were sitting there in front of us. I wholly agree with Calista, from an author’s point of view, it’s crying over spilled milk. As for improving based on public criticism, a published author may have one or more books in production by the time a given book is out, so I think the “helpfulness” is minimal, and, based on writer’s groups I’ve been in and writers I know, is more discouraging than anything else.


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


  20. Interesting discussion. As a writer, I do not intend to ever review books,other than possibly a short paragraph on Amazon, etc. to recommend a book if it’s something I know a specific audience would find valuable (educators, readers 9-12, teens who enjoy paranormal–you get the idea). Here’s the thing, since I’ve become an author, I read books differently than before I began to write for publication. I miss the pure joy of escape reading, but I find I’m unable to do that anymore. That demanding editor resides in my head, filtering minutiae. And my nitpicky brain doesn’t provide the kind of assessment casual readers usually want.


  21. I do the 5 star thing on Goodreads too. And sometimes I feel like a cowardly suck-up, but mostly I think it’s awesome to just talk about good books. 😉 I linked to your post and responded on my blog here:

    Thanks for the fascinating post!


  22. I never made a rule about it, but I do have a self-imposed block on giving negative reviews. It’s not that I’m afraid I’m going to demolish someone’s self-esteem and make the author all suicidal because their book didn’t work for me, it’s more an adherence to the concept of not saying anything if you don’t have something nice to say. If I have something nice to say, it can be hard to get me to shut up. But something negative, I’d rather leave unsaid. The world’s got enough negativity in it already.

    If a book really bothers me, I’m willing to talk about it. Even write about it. But I don’t name the book.

    If someone directly asks me, “What did you think of Bob Bobson’s latest?” I won’t lie and say I loved it if I didn’t. And I won’t give a book I couldn’t stand to finish five stars. But blasting it… That seems rude and disrespectful.

    All that said, I think it would be rather childish to not want anything to do with someone who gave a book you’re connected to a negative review, provided the review was well articulated and polite. Readers have the right not to love everything we come across and as much right to say we disliked something as right to say we adored it, so long as no one is attacked in this expression. Of course, people frequently forget to act like mature adults, so I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who do hold event he most tactfully expressed negative reviews against the reviewer.


  23. […] link is being shared on Twitter right now. @upstartcrowlit said New post: The Welter of the Internet #2: […]


  24. I think it’s worth mentioning that even a positive review puts you out there. Raving about a book others hate can be damning—which starts invigorating conversation. We forgive and forget positive reviews faster, of course. Chalk them up as flukes, whatever. But too many and . . . you make your tastes known.

    Giving positive reviews takes courage, in other words. It’s just more fun, in the event you’re attacked.

    To continue my comment 16 above—
    Depending on what was said and how it was said, a negative review could actually make me more excited to work with an agent or editor. So if you, Michael Stearns, are asking what you should do, I say, Be awesome.


  25. Why, Rita, that’s how I *always* roll. 😉


  26. No, it won’t ever come back to bite you in the ass because everyone in publishing is perfectly reasonable, sympathetic and understanding. None — absolutely none — are vengeful.

    I don’t review books on Goodreads or Amazon or any of those sites. (I limit my troublemaking to attacking the industry at large. But only because I’m trying to save them.)

    Trashing books in easily Google-able fora is all risk and no reward.


  27. I think there is a muddy line here: The difference between posting a review that “trashes” a book and one that actually constructively criticizes it. Though I suppose to invested parties, even the smartest of critical responses to a novel is a hatchet job.

    I think of Samuel Delany’s forty-page analysis of why Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a deeply flawed and thereby questionable book. He’s absolutely right. On the other hand, knowing that doesn’t affect my reading of the novel at all. I still love it.


  28. I love to list books written by my author-friends, but I just hate rating them, so I don’t do it at all. The star thing seems so arbitrary anyway, since one person’s five is another’s three star rating. But I do like Goodreads, for keeping track of my read and to-read lists and for getting book recommendations from others, and I love booktalking – but agree that it’s sometimes really and unfortunately awkward to do it so publicly.

    I think it’s useful, to a point, to see those uncensored bad reviews; they keep us authors humble. They are not-fun, but whatever. Welcome to the internet. Actually, I don’t like the oozy good review written by one well-intentioned relative either (on Amazon) – it’s just embarrassing!


  29. […] Michael’s thought-provoking post on writing reviews on Goodreads, I figured I’d take my turn dipping a spoon into the controversy crock-pot. You see, there […]


  30. I wrote book reviews of kids’ books for several years–without getting to pick and choose which ones I read or reviewed. That completely burnt me out on putting negative reviews out into the read-o-sphere. So (when I remember to put my books into Goodreads), I only do the ones I like–I try to see it as more passing on recommendations to other readers, than having to make a judgement on whether something’s good or bad. Just did too much of that for a while!


  31. My brother recently told me that I hadn’t followed through on one of my plot points and that I’d pulled a “moonraker” and turned my murder into a missing person’s case. He went on to explain that the Bond film Moonraker was really about a vehicle theft that tripped around this whole “plot to destroy the human population and create a superior race.” It was the first time that criticism made me snort laugh and spit all over my touch screen monitor… which was so gross. He was right, though. My brother is a reviewer… and a good one. He thinks his reviews through and backs up every point.

    I’m a reader or reviews not a reviewer because I just don’t have the heart to crush even the books that beg for it and some do beg for it. I avidly read reviews though, and I generally disregard any lame gushing reviews. It takes a solid majority of negative opinions for me not to read something… and, even then, I still feel like reading it just to see how it could be so horrible. (I think it’s like when you pull something out of the fridge and say to your spouse, “Here… this is foul… taste it.” Of course… I’ve been married twelve years now, so my husband just rolls his eyes and goes back to clipping his toe nails.)


  32. […] Michael Stearns also likes to talk about what he’s read. He’s decided to give up making negative assessments in public. Because when you are “in the biz” you can’t afford to offend others. […]


  33. […] over on the other side of the bookstore wearing a completely different pair of worldview glasses, Michael Stearns decided he wouldn’t give negative reviews, either. (I commented on that one, too, a year and a half ago, and I’m happy to find I still […]


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