Recently, as part of my education in self-publishing, I’ve expanded my reading to include indie books about horses, as my own republished novels feature racing backdrops. My selections have mostly been prompted by mentions in Goodreads groups and the “customers also bought” list at Amazon.
In the past, I’ve tended to stick with books off “year’s best” lists, like those at NPR or the New York Times, so this new reading has taken me into new territory. It has also led me to do a lot of thinking about what works for me and what doesn’t—and whether I’m managing to purge my own writing of a pile of sins.
And it has created a dilemma I’ve read that others face: whether or not to review a book when I can’t give it at least a three-star rating.
As a teacher, I’ve seen enough students’ faces fall to know what a strong critique can do to the kind of relationships I’ve been enjoying through social media, even when the comments are intended in the most constructive of spirits and embedded in the most voluminous praise I can conjure. Do I really want to hurt people whose conversations I’ve enjoyed? And as the recipient of more than one one-star review (in places that, sadly, mattered to a budding career), I know how it feels.
But as I read this new-to-me category of book, I found myself thinking about what’s potentially lost when readers hold back from honest, thoughtful reviews because they’re negative. And I began to wonder:
Do authors of indie books WANT to know what turns readers off?
I’ve increasingly subscribed to the view that we don’t know what we’ve written until a reader tells us. We’re too close to our work. Even if we know what to do, what not to do, it’s often only when a sharp reader points out the pitfalls we’ve stumbled into that we realize that we’re in them up to our necks.
Of course, we all know that some one- or two-star reviews offer nothing constructive. The reader didn’t like sci-fi, but reviewed a sci-fi novel and gave it one star because of the sci-fi conventions the reviewer hates! I admit that I am less likely to give even well-done category romances more than three stars, because of the predictability of the plots and conventions I find problematic.
But I’ve given five stars to a very good romance, one in which the circumstances of the predictable elements are so unique and intriguing that I forgot I was technically reading a romance.
So would an aspiring indie romance writer want to know what kept her book from rising in my ranks?
True, she’d have to come in knowing that accepting potential one-star reviews does lay the task of sorting the gold from the pique at the author’s door. Personally, I learned from my negative reviews (although I couldn’t help wishing that my editor and I had been a little more in sync so that we could have headed them off). While I didn’t completely rewrite the book in question, when the chance came to revise for self-publication, I did spot things that had flown completely under my radar the first time around. And I got put on notice about my most persistent pitfall as a writer: the tendency to complicate my plots way too much.
The author of a book I’m reading now commits so many of those writerly sins we all hear about so often that I wonder whether I actually might have something useful to say to him/her. Far too many characters; characters whose relationships with each other and the plot, let alone their goals, are unclear; way too much classic “telling”: in short, can a review serve as a mini-beta reading? Or is it better to hold off on that kind of reading until the author asks?
So—one- and two-star reviews:
Should we as readers write them?
Should we as fellow authors risk writing them?
Should we as authors WANT them?
What qualities make a bad review worth the pain?
What do you think?