So here’s how it went down:
It was 2012 and I had just let loose into the world, my first self-published book, Commitment. It was a long book. Even after I’d edited it sixty million times, it was still kind of a tome. It was the kind of book that proved that I didn’t know anything about self-publishing, and knew even less about the dominant genre of romance. So, I released the book and y’know what happened? Basically NOTHING. Not for a long, long time. I think one of my first reviews was a two-star review that said the book was too long, and didn’t hold the reader’s interest, or something like that. I was disappointed, but not crushed, because they explained why they couldn’t get into it. And when I looked at Commitment‘s counterparts, I saw that it was indeed a lot longer than the genre where I’d classified it generally tolerated.
I decided my audience was probably not traditional romance readers, or maybe not exclusively so. So, I did a little research, and the advice was that I should “get out there” and not just wait for readers to “discover” me. Instead, I should review other books in similar genres to the one I was writing in, and make sure I added to my profile wherever I reviewed, that I was also a writer, and list my work. (I picked women’s fiction as the closest to what I saw myself doing.) Cool. Easy enough to write reviews, because I’m analytical by nature and like parsing the meaning of books almost as much as I like reading and writing them. I read a fair amount now, but back then was a much more voracious consumer of novels of all kinds, so I had plenty of books to choose from for my first review.
I found a book I’d read not too long prior, and reviewed it. It was a pretty popular book with a catchy title that had garnered a lot of interest among Black women and popped up on lots of recommended reading lists for Black chick lit, Black women’s fiction and the like. I wrote an honest review. I liked the story and the trajectory until the end, which I said felt like the author stepped up to the precipice of a really important statement about women, and then chickened out and retreated to a traditional girl-gets-boy ending. I’m telling you, I put a lot of thought into that review, as I do into every review I write. And I was honest, as I always am when talking about how other writers’ work made me feel. I posted my review, and went on about my life.
A couple days later, a new review popped up for my book after a long dry spell where there was nothing but crickets and tumbleweed. Yay, right? Maybe the strategy was working! My review of someone else’s work was getting my book some attention! Then I read it. It was my very first experience with a gratuitously unkind, calling-into-question-whether-they-read-the-book-at-all review. It said something like, ‘nothing to see here, same ol’ same ol’ … Boring.’ And it used a phrase that was suspiciously similar to one I’d used in my review of that popular chick lit book. Something felt disingenuous about it. So I looked up the reader’s other reviews, and discovered through a little amateur sleuthing (okay, no sleuthing was involved, it was right there on her profile) that the bad review had come from none other than the semi-famous author whose book I had reviewed unfavorably!
My mouth fell open.
I went back to read my review of her work and found that I was perfectly content with what I’d said, and willing to stand by it. I was stunned that she would care what completely unknown little ol’ me thought of her book. She was getting national accolades and attention after all. And what was more incredible was that she would care enough to write what definitely smelled like a revenge review. That’s when it occurred to me — some authors don’t want feedback. Not really. They want praise, accolades, adulation. Otherwise, they want you to just please STFU. That experience, and a few others since then, when other authors’ fans decided to take not so subtle digs when I gave their idol less than a stellar review finally made me stop writing reviews of books altogether for a time. I’ve only just begun to write them again, and still, only sparingly. Particularly if the writer is anywhere within six degrees of separation, I remain silent unless I can be complimentary.
But lately, I’ve come to regret this approach, and am pulling back from it. Not because I’m sooooo full of integrity, but some of it is for my own sake. Especially when I get five-star reviews that feel undeserved, or read a book that has only glowing reviews but turns out to be a lackluster read. I’m craving balance, and honesty. Because I “know” readers through social media and we shoot the breeze about tons of things besides books, they tend to send private messages when they’re disappointed in a book I wrote, rather than write a thoughtful, well-reasoned public review that other readers can assess and engage with. I think they believe I’ll get frosty or mean if criticized. Or send a bunch of rabid trolls their way. Or will resent the public airing of something other than compliments. And those fears are not unwarranted in this new world of reader/writer engagement.
But don’t get me wrong. ‘I hated it. Stupid book and waste of money.’ is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about using the time and space when you write a review to give authors actual data, information about where they grabbed you, where they lost you, what you felt. That stuff is gold. Seriously. Please do it. Write reviews that are meaningful, don’t just show up to join in the applause.
My take is this: write the review, make it honest, even if it’s less than complimentary . Even if it’s about my book. I, for one, appreciate it. And I know I’m not alone.
Love & Light,