A surge of opinions on this perennial debate has followed recent heated exchanges over on Strange Horizons. I’m not discussing the specifics of that case, nor do I plan to, here or in comments to this post; I haven’t read the book in question, and the reviewer and the commenters’ words can speak for themselves over at SH.
But reviewing is a subject that interests me, as a professional writer and also as a reviewer myself. Because reviews are important, arguably even more so now that changes in bookselling mean the days are long gone when a customer could expect to see a fully representative selection of lead, midlist and classic titles in the shelves of their local bookshop, all on a level playing field as regards price. For an author, if anyone is going to buy your book, they have to know it exists in the first place. On that score, all of us in SF&F, readers and writers, are very fortunate indeed to have so many good-quality online resources.
It may surprise you to learn that negative reviews don’t have the negative impact you might expect. According to academic research
“while well-known authors suffer from negative reviews by decreased sales of 15%, “For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect, increasing sales by 45%.
it’s better to have your book attacked than ignored. Over time readers will forget the mean stuff said about you, and will only remember your book’s name. After buying and reading the book, however, they might remember again—but that’s a topic for another study.”
This doesn’t change my mind about writing negative reviews; in general I don’t do it. Personally I would much rather offer that vital oxygen of publicity to a book that’s worth reading and thereby hope to bolster a fellow writer’s success. No, I absolutely don’t expect any kind of reciprocation but I do know what a tough life this writing gig is and would rather offer a colleague a helping hand than a kick in the teeth. After all, there will be plenty of other people ready to say if they don’t like a book.
And anyway, if I’ve enjoyed a book, I want to share that enjoyment. That’s what most readers do and I was a reader long before I became a writer. On one level, it really is as simple as that.
As far as more complex considerations go, I also appreciate the need for a publisher’s list to offer a broad selection of books to maximise profits. I’ve read a fair few books that don’t work for me personally in the least but where I can see both the commercial justification for publication and the writer’s skill in crafting something in that particular style. Fair enough; book-selling is a business. That said, I see limited value in me saying ‘I really don’t like this kind of thing but those of you who do, probably will.’
Besides, once again, my own decades of experience as a reader have shown me how subjective personal opinions can be. I’m sure we’ve all had the same experience; we’ve really loved a book and pressed it on a friend, only to find when we ask them later, that it left them completely cold. In the same way, I’ve been given or loaned books by friends whose judgement I trust, only to find I completely fail to find whatever so enthralled them.
Which isn’t to say I’ve never published a negative review. I have; one of a small-press/self-published book and one of a mass-market commercial paperback. In both cases, my displeasure at the poorly written, shamelessly derivative and uninspired material tipped over into active annoyance that this rubbish could get into print when I knew of far better books languishing unpublished on hard drives. No, I don’t propose to identify either book because that’s not important and please note, all my criticism was directed at the books themselves; focusing on the quality (or lack of it) of plot, characterisation etc. I stand by everything I said.
In both cases, I ended up with more arguments to weigh against the value of negative reviews. In the first case, the outraged author bombarded myself and the editor with increasingly personally abusive emails, castigating our idiocy for being blind to his staggering genius. Okay, I paraphrase but not by much. No, I’m not taking this personally, especially not when I know how common such a response is from such amateurish authors – one reason why self-published writers still face such a major credibility problem with reviewers.
But I don’t have time to waste on such nonsense, so see no need to invite such vitriol into my inbox by pointing out such an arrant amateur’s deficiencies. Which is not to say I consider all unpublished/self-published/aspiring authors to be amateurs by the way. “Professional” is an attitude and an approach, not some badge only ever awarded by a publishers’ contract.
As far as that commercial paperback went, it was followed by two sequels and for all I know, there may be more to come. Did I manage to warn anyone off wasting their money on such cynical, exploitative tosh? That was my motive in writing the review but I have no idea if I succeeded. Indeed, I’m now wondering, in light of that quoted research, did I inadvertently help bolster sales? That’s a nasty thought.
Overall, with the benefit of hindsight, I reckon my time would have been better spent offering a positive recommendation to whoever was spending their time reading my opinion. Which is not to say I won’t ever offer a damning verdict on a book again, if one crossing my path really provokes my ire.
I also consider this debate a distraction from the most important issue in current reviewing. As authorial visibility and sales encouraged by reviews are so important in the current, frankly brutal marketplace, it is all the more vital that the balance of reviews reflects the gender and ethnic balance of writers. The current situation where books by white, male writers get a disproportionate percentage of reviews is unacceptable.
Everyone involved, from individual reviewers to magazine editors, online or in print, has a responsibility to offer equality of visibility to all writers. No one is asking for special treatment, just fairness. While all the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard over the years indicates SF&F has a rather better track record on that score than many other genres, there is still considerable room for improvement.
Yes, I appreciate that presenting a representative selection of reviews is not necessarily easy, particularly when some months simply won’t see a proportionate spread of male and female and ethnically diverse writers across the new releases from any one or indeed, all genre publishers. Any particular skewed selection cannot be taken in isolation to indicate deliberate bias. However, that still doesn’t make the unconscious and unintended biases revealed when reviews are collated on an annual basis any more acceptable.