Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Confessions of a Former Book Trasher

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Back before I was published, the professionals were saying the same things about platform as they are today. So, in an effort to build a platform, I started writing book reviews on www.NovelTeen.com. I figured this not only gave me good reason to read my competition, I’d be forced to write on a regular basis and I’d be helping other authors as well. It seemed like the perfect idea.

Between today and July of 2008, I've written over 470 reviews, and most of them were very nice.

But back when I first started writing reviews, I was not yet a published author. That didn’t mean I couldn’t write a good review. But, unfortunately, it did mean that I was discouraged. I held my own unpublished books up against those I read. I compared. And despaired.

How could it be possible that this book had gotten published when I continued to receive rejections? What was I doing wrong? My book was better than this!

The more I fed that despair, the worse my bitterness became. I started to believe that the publishers were making bad decisions. And my frustrations slipped over into my book reviews. This book had no plot. This one had boring characters. This one was filled with telling! I gave my opinion as nicely as I could. And I did try to mention positives along with my negatives. But I was so stuck on those mysterious writing rules that were being broken that I had a lot of negative things to say. I was following the writing rules and these other authors were not. I felt like I deserved to be published more than some of the authors I was reading.

I really had no idea what I was talking about. I was naive and full of my own entitlement, and I just didn’t have the experience to realize it yet.

Then it happened. I wrote a negative review, and the author left a comment. It was a kind, humble comment. Friendly. Apologetic, even. Something like, “I’m so sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. Thanks for giving it a try, Jill!”

The author had read that? Oh dear. I was instantly shamed and embarrassed. 

Actually, I was a class A jerk face, is what I was.

It occurred to me then that my oh-so-honest reviews weren’t helping anyone. Me, especially. Here I was trying to build a platform, but all I was doing was offending people and sounding like a snob. And if I intended to have a career in the publishing industry, I’d best take care what types of book reviews I wrote because I might someday find myself sitting at a dinner table with an author whose book I slammed. Or asking them a favor.

Yeeeah.

So I made a new policy. I decided to follow the golden rule. If I couldn’t say anything nice about a book, I would say nothing at all. If I hated a book, I would not review it. And I was careful not to read books I suspected I’d hate. Sure, I became a rah rah reviewer. I only posted reviews of books I liked. But I wasn’t reviewing books to become a professional book reviewer. I had no desire to go to work for the New York Times or Publisher’s Weekly. I wanted to be an author. And my platform needed to respect that.

That didn’t mean I never wrote anything negative about a book. And sometimes this was more difficult that other times. If something bothered me, I pointed it out. But I tried to cushion the negative around positives, and I always tried to be kind and respectful to the author.

But I will never write a one-star book review. Here’s why:

-People have given me one-star reviews and it’s hurtful. I often fall into depression over one mean comment in a review, which is why I don’t read them anymore. Or I get my husband to read them first.

-I now understand that there are a lot of things that are outside the author's control when a book is published. There are deadlines, and authors are sometimes forced to rush their story. Typos sometimes happen in the typesetting stage. And the editor always gets the final say.

-No book deserves one star unless it is filled with misspellings and mistakes and the pages are falling out (in my opinion).

-A bad review not only insults the author, it insults the publishing house as well. And that editor just might read your review and remember your name. And when your proposal comes along … uh oh!

-The internet feels impersonal. And it might feel like those screen names or the author's name on a book is just a name. But these are real, flesh and blood people with lives filled with families and illnesses and bills to pay. Don’t say something online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

This works both ways. Too many glowing, multiple-exclamation-point, 5-star reviews can hurt an author too. Books with only 5-stars look like no one but the author’s friends have read them. Buyers don’t believe that kind of track record. In my opinion, four-star reviews can be the best because they say why the reader liked the book, but they don’t claim the book is perfect. Four-star reviews just feel more honest.

If you ever want to give me a three or four-start review, do it! I will still love you, so long as you are kind and respectful.

This is all my experience and my opinion. You are welcome to write whatever kind of book review you want. And please don’t swear off writing book reviews altogether because authors need people who understand the power of a book review and are willing to write one. Book reviews sell books. They give life to a book and keep it from dying. No one should understand that better than another author.

So here are some dos and don’ts about writing book reviews.

DO use the sandwich method of reviewing. Share what you liked about the book, then share what you didn’t like in a kind and fair way, then follow that up with another thing you liked. Sandwich that negativity between two positives. It works great.

DON’T say in a book review that you normally don’t read this genre, then rip the book to shreds. If you aren’t an expert, don’t try to behave like one.

DO be honest, yet kind and humble.

DON’T get angry or emotional in your review. If a book upset you, wait a few days to write the review until you’ve calmed down enough to be fair. We are never fair when we’re angry. And if you can’t be fair, don’t write the review.

DO give a reason for anything less than a 5-star review. It’s frustrating to read an overly positive 3-star review and wonder why it’s so positive when it’s rated three stars.

DON’T hang the author for their difference of opinion. My first books were published in the Christian specialty market. And I have many 1-star reviews from people with different beliefs who rated my books 1-star for that reason alone. That’s cruel and unfair. They’re judging my beliefs in the review, not my competence as an author. If you come upon this kind of situation, simply say: Liberal audiences might not appreciate the Christian themes in this story. Or vice versa. Christian audiences might not appreciate the liberal themes in this story.

DO click “yes” or “no” on reviews that were helpful or not. The more “yes” votes a review receives, the higher it is listed on the page. And that helps the author.

What have you noticed about book reviews? The good, the bad, and the ugly? Share in the comments.

38 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this post! This is certainly helpful!

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  2. I THINK I've never rated a book under 3 stars of what I've published, though I can be a bit picky now and then on what books to select to read or figure out by some recommendations etc. whether or not the book is something I would like so that might be why I usually find most books at least enjoyable to read.

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  3. I read By Darkness Hid because of the one star reviews. The one star reviews said that the book was too Christian, and that the characters had perfect moral compasses. I said, "Well I want virtuous characters." Another nasty review said that pairing magic and God was a silly childish thing. I thought, ''Magic and God? That sounds fun." I bought all three books because of those nasty reviews.

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    1. That's so cool, Michaella! :)

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    2. Thanks, Michaella. I've done the same thing for other authors. It's true that one and two-star reviews help sell books to the right audience.

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  4. Excellent post, Jill. Honest to the bone, and with good hindsight and insight to share with others. This reminds me of the fact that I first learned your name through some kind comments you wrote online about my books. At the time, I never foresaw that one day we would be writer buds posing together at writers conferences. The one thing you can always know is, "You never know." :) Blessings to you!

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    1. True, Rick Good thing I liked your books! Had you been one of those authors I was far too "honest" about, we might never have become friends. And friendships are always far better than getting to write any book review. :-)

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  5. I actually think that a couple one and two star reviews help authors as well. They show that the book had more grit to the stories than fluff. I know that, unless a novel has only come out in the last week, I will not buy a book that does not have any one or two stars. I also usually only read those reviews, because if they only talk about things that don't bother me, I will still read the book.

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    1. True, me too. Those low reviews are important. I'm suggesting that authors avoid being the people who write them so that we can save the potential relationship. There are plenty of readers out there who'll post those overly honest reviews.

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  6. I can't believe how many books you've reviewed, Jill! I love your honesty about yourself and your heart for others. Great post.

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    1. Yes, I never do anything half way. Which is why I've had to stop reviewing! I was driving myself to work-a-holicism. LOL

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  7. Thanks for the post and being honest! That's a lot of book reviews.

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  8. Well, I've never actually reviewed a novel on Amazon or Goodreads or anything, though if I ever did, I'd try to point out everything I liked about the book before I 'trash' it. If I give my (unwanted) opinion on my sister's drawings, she gets upset. For example, I told her the head was too big and she got upset...

    But yeah, thanks for the review!

    Tabby (http://tabbys-corner.blogspot.com/)

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  9. I totally agree that 1 and 2-star reviews are helpful. I buy many books because of them too. But I caution authors against being the people who write those reviews. Other people will do it. We don't have to be the ones to say those things and set ourselves up for awkward situations.

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  10. I wrote a book review on my blog once, but since I wasn't sure how to tell the story without giving away any spoilers... it was very short.... It was actually on Captives. (Now I have to wait for the next book to come out... At least it's almost time!!)
    I remember one time I commented to an author and told her I didn't like some of her books and why, and now (even though she never said anything) I STILL feel bad about that...

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    1. I just read your review today, Naomi! (Your sister emailed me, and I'm VERY behind on emails. Sorry!) It was a very well-written review. Thank you.

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    2. Oh... Thank you for reading it! :) I asked my sister if she e-mailed you and she started to grin... Haha. Thank you for taking the time to read it!

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  11. Thanks for being so honest! This was really interesting.
    My Goodreads account tells me that the average rating I give books is about 4 stars. That seems pretty accurate - I tend to avoid rating and reviewing books that I'd give two stars, and I've never read a book that I'd give one star.

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    1. I didn't know that Goodreads could give you an average review rating. Interesting, Kate!

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  12. I never review books on my blog that I'd give less than three stars to -- precisely for those reasons! It's more of a recommendations blog than a critical review blog. Also, I just don't think readers will finish reading negative reviews. They're boring and frankly, no one wants to add more negativity to their lives.

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    1. That's a great way to put it. A recommendations blog. That's what I turned Novel Teen into. And it's true, there is far too much criticism and negativity in the world today. Let's start pointing out the good things in life!

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  13. This is some great advice, Jill, thank you!! :)
    Oh! You write Novel Teen? Ohhhh. I've been there one other time and saw one of your books and one of Stephanie's and thought it was pretty cool, but then I was forced off the computer annnd forgot to get back on. But no I'll be sure to go! :D
    Thanks so much again for this post!

    TW
    ravensandwriting.blogspot.com

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  14. Thanks for being so open, Jill :) I remember the first book review I did and I totally shredded it, giving my opinions right and left. Sigh. I've learned so much since then, and a lot of it from you and Kathy Tyers. Someone who wasn't into the music scene became frustrated with the reviews he kept seeing for music. He said he wished reviewers would just answer the following questions: what was the genre, was the music good, and should he buy the album? He didn't care about all the music nuances, he wasn't a musician and frankly it went over his head.I apply that to my reviews now: genre, good or bad, and should someone buy the book.

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    1. That's great advice, Morgan! I love that. Just the facts, ma'am. *grin*

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  15. I enjoyed this post. Thank you for writing it =)

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  16. What bugs me most is when a book gets one star because the Kindle formatting was wonky. That's it. They say nothing about the book, if they liked it or didn't like it, and rate it one star for something that's not in the author's control! Great post! :) As an aspiring author, I try to act as the sort of reviewer I wouldn't mind reviewing my books.

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    1. The "treat others as you would like to be treated" mindset. Excellent plan. And, yeah... I ignore all those reviews about things like formatting, because it's likely been fixed by now. And shipping. That's the store's fault, not the authors...

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  17. Some of my favorite books have more "Christian" themes, and as a reader it really does annoy me when people give it a one star review because of that. It's almost as annoying as those people who don't even finish the book and give a review in one sentence.

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  18. I totally don't like book-bashing, definitely! It's really hurtful. That saying, though, I'm a book-reviewer. If I feel a book deserves 2-stars, I'm still going to write the review. I always be as nice as possible. Sure, no one wants to be criticised, but if Goodreads was full of books rated 4 stars, I wouldn't be impressed.

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  19. I agree that shredding someone's books is nasty. I don't do it. I've only rated like 3 out of say, 275 books on my Goodreads 1 star and that was all I said about them. Did not review them. Left it at that.

    Because I hate making people feel bad, I always try to be very careful and considerate about what I say. Of course I also no there's really not much point to a review if we don't point out the things that weren't so great, but I always, always mention what I liked and even if it's a 2 or 3 star, I usually include "This book just wasn't for me. Someone else might enjoy it more." Just as a reminder to whoever reads it that because I didn't like it doesn't mean it's the worst book on earth. :)

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  20. Oh, and what you said about not all 5-stars being great was really interesting too. Good to keep in mind.

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  21. I always read reviews before I read a book. I skim over one stars to find out if it is overly violent, etc. because I don't want to fill my head with a bunch of garbage. My interest sometimes increases if I read a one star review and diminishes if I read a five star.
    I think it's OK to give a one star if you have good reason, but if you don't then don't rate it at all. I've only found one book that if I were to review it I would give it one star since it was non-fiction and it's content was incorrect multiple times. I know I'm a low rater though, books that I loved I tend to give four stars (Don't know why).

    Anyways, I enjoyed your post.

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  23. I do agree with what you said. Your advice was particularly helpful for me in writing critiques for my friends. I want to be honest to help them, but don't want to hurt them as writers. One of my friends begged me to 'tell the good news first".
    That said, I really enjoy reading one-star reviews, especially of books I've loved - to get another perspective - and ones I've hated - to feel justified.

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  24. Thanks.
    About 5-star reviews, how can I say that I completely loved it without sounding like a lot of other fans?

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  25. I review teen books and if a book is really bad I don't review it. I had an experience last year where I loved the premise of the novel, but didn't like the social issue the author was pushing. I felt the book was immoral to be honest but I didn't review it. I generally try to give positive reviews although sometimes I just don't like how an author has written a novel. but I always try to find something positive to say. It's important to remember that these books are another person's creative endeavour. would we go up to a person's painting or after a music performance and tell them it was garbage?

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