Monday, October 18, 2010

Your honest opinion?

By Ellen Meister

In the past year, I've posted a lot of book recommendations, either in tweets, Facebook status updates or even actual reviews. Yet I've never posted a single negative critique.

So what's the deal? Do I really love every book I read?

Hell, no.

Then are my recommendations dishonest?

Absolutely not.

The fact is, I'll only go public with my opinion when I really love a book. When I read a terrible novel, I might bitch to friends about it, but I'll never post my thoughts in a public forum. Here's why:

1. The market for fiction is so tough to begin with that I'm loathe to do anything that might hurt anyone's sales. On the other hand, if I love a book, I'm delighted to give it a boost.

2. I've had bad reviews and I know how awful and personal it feels. I want nothing to do with causing anyone that kind of pain.

3. Karma.

Now, I understand the argument for why we need negative reviews. Without them, the positive ones would have no impact. But when it comes to criticism, there's a problem inherent in our medium--reviewers are, by definition, writers. So it's not always easy to tell if the criticism is tinged with negative influences separate from the work itself.

What about you? Do you post negative reviews--on Amazon, B&N, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, etc.--when you dislike a book? Why or why not?

Only slightly off-topic: I love books, I worship authors

I have no visuals to go with this blog entry, so here's a little photo album of me posing with my heroes ...


  1. Hi - I try to avoid writing anything negative, but I dish out praise when I like something or someone. That's just my nature though.

    I am like you in that I don't like to cause people pain. Life's too short.

  2. This is a toughie for me, Ellen. I write reviews for a big blog, and I also post reviews on my own blog. The first time I was assigned to read a book that I thought was awful, I rewrote my review several times. Here are my guidelines for posting reviews:

    1) If it was sent to the blog site I review for by the publisher or author specifically so it can be reviewed, I will write an honest review. After all, they know a bad review is always possible, and readers don't have money to waste on books that aren't very well written.

    2) If my opinion is that the book isn't very good, I will identify specific problem areas.

    3) I will always remember that this book is the product of a person's imagination and tremendous efforts, and I will honor that person with my words even if I am finding fault with their work.

    4) I will never repost negative reviews on my own site because I don't see a need to spread bad reviews and the author/publisher didn't request that I write the review for my own site.

    5) I *will* repost good reviews, and I will give a shout-out to any book that I happen to read for pleasure that blows me away.

    You're right that I'm a writer first and foremost, and while I never want to receive a bad review, I know they're likely and the best I can hope for is that the reviewer will word their review sensitively and honestly.

  3. I, like you, Ellen, won’t share a negative review and for many of the same reasons. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and karma’s a bitch. But the main reason I wouldn’t post an unenthusiastic evaluation is I now know how much goes into writing a book. Which leads me to a question, do most writers read their less-than-stellar reviews? And if so, how do you not take the criticism personally? Oh, and by the way, you look great in this video! Did you go with the silver shoes?? :)

  4. Ellen, I'm glad you brought this up :)
    This is something I've actually discussed with several author friends. I, like you, won't post a negative review. The main reasons being the the ones you've hit. As a writer, of course I'm sensitive to negative reviews (aren't we all?) but I would hate to have anyone think a review of mine smacked of any hidden agenda. There are plenty of readers and professional reviewers out there who are willing to give their opinions, so I'll leave the negative reviews to them.

    Love the pics!

  5. Rebecca, thanks so much for weighing in ... and for being the first poster!

    Katrina, I love your thoughtful approach, and appreciate that so much goes into your reviews. Thank you so much for your honest input!

    Jill, I wish I could say I don't read the bad reviews, or that I let them roll of my back. But I do and they don't. Once in a while they get me angry, but mostly they just hurt. (Went with the pewter shoes!)

    Maria, I appreciate hearing your perspective ... and thanks for the compliment!

  6. I'm exactly the same way. Most of the time when a book doesn't click for me, it's just a matter of taste. The next person will probably love it.

    And on a practical level, it feels like bad business for a writer to give negative criticism. You never know who you'll have to work with, who'll be sitting next to you at that conference, etc..

  7. I so agree with this post, Ellen. Authors have google alerts and they will almost always see the review and the publishing world is too small to make enemies.

    It's so much more satisfying to crow about great books. I rememeber I was one of the first people to read The Help and I was all over the internet like a rash about that book.

  8. I love your photo album!

    I'm with you--as an author, I would never post a negative review of a book. I would never post a negative anything online.

    Jill, I do read negative reviews and they do sting like crazy, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a whole day. As a sidenote, I don't believe authors should respond to negative reviews; someone's interpretation/opinion of the work is his/her own and he/she is entitled to it. It's all part of this crazy, wonderful business of writing and publishing. You take the good with the bad. I love the constructive criticism in thoughtful reviews. It's why I particularly love reading book blogs; book bloggers tend to read deeply and write very thoughtful, thorough reviews, noting what worked for them and what didn't. That kind of review I really appreciate.

    Several years ago, there was a glitch on Amazon Canada and all the anonymously written reviews were attributed with real names--for like 2 hours or something like that. I just so happened to be looking at Amazon Canada reviews of my first book, and someone I know, a fellow writer, had slammed it in a review that appeared from Anonymous on the U.S. site. Busted.


  9. Ellen, I am the same way about reviews! I only post about the books I love. The books I hate? Well, I keep those to myself....

  10. PS- You are one of my heroes, too. :)

  11. Ellen, thanks for a great post (again!). I feel like I'm climbing on the bandwagon here, but I'll shout from the rooftops about books I love, but keep it to myself if a book doesn't quiet do it for me (or dish with my buddies over a bottle of wine). I know any given book isn't for everyone--kind of like mushrooms (ick!). And I respect an honest well-written review even if it isn't a rave, but what makes me crazy are bad reviews that have nothing to say about the craft, but instead attack the author.

    Love the pics!

  12. Alex, yes! Gives me a shudder to think of sitting on a panel with someone who gave me a bad review ... or vice versa.

    Karin, THE HELP was extraordinary. My editor gave me the book as a gift and I LOVED it. (And thank goodness for Google Alerts, eh?)

    Melissa, yikes @ the non-anonymous reviewer! And yes, I agree that it's never a good idea to respond to bad reviews ... no matter how stupid they seem.

    Brenda, but of course you're free to dish on the books you hate when we have lunch! (I'll keep it to myself) xx

    Judy, I agree--attack reviews are ghastly. The worst? When it seems that the reviewer read the press release but not the book. (And that DOES happen!)

  13. Ellen, I'm with you all the way. If someone's a paid reviewer, as I once was by PW, it's the reviewer's responsibility to give an honest review. But since that's not my job anymore, I prefer to reserve my public pronouncements for those books I honestly love. Also, the older I get, the more subjective I realize this all is, meaning I recognize that when I hate a book, it is entirely possible others will love it.

  14. Lauren, case in point--I'm reading a book right now that was recommended to me as the one of the best books of the year. My opinion so far? Meh. I don't even find it engaging.

    So yeah, it's all utterly subjective.

    (And notice that I'm keeping the title to myself!)

  15. I like your point of view here. In addition to that, most of my reviews are 4-5 stars because I tend to review books that I've read for pleasure, so sharing them with others seems like a natural thing to do.


  16. This is something that is really tough for me. I always try to acknowledge why a particular book wasn't for me and who I think might enjoy it. I never want to trash it just for the sake of trashing it.

  17. Honesty with class!!I think it's brilliant.

  18. Thanks for the feedback, Ellen and Melissa! This is why I love this blog so much. It always feels like we're just sitting around chatting!

  19. Nothing better than spreading the word about books we love! And, I agree, when you don't like something (intensely), much better to share that with your friends. I understand negative reviews, and I get when someone says, "this just wasn't my cup of tea, and here's why." What gets me pissy are mean reviews that spoil all the plot twists for everyone (seriously, why is this necessary?) or dismissive opinions along the lines of, "It was like the author just cranked this out because she had a deadline and didn't try at all." Oh, yeah, because that's what we do (and all the blood, sweat, and tears puddling around our desks means nothing). But everyone has an opinion, and many are not afraid to let them hang out. I'm with Melissa in that it's best not to respond to the negativity. In public anyway. You can rant as much as you want to hubby, pals, etc., of course. (In fact, I think 9 out of 10 doctors recommend you vent so you don't risk spontaneous combustion.) ;-)

    Great post to kick off a Monday, Ellen!

  20. That happened to me too, Melissa (The Amazon glitch). I found out a friend had written several scatching reviews under different names. (You can't do that anymore.)

    I was so upset.

  21. Hi Ellen,

    Great post. I've been soooo struggling with this lately! So much so, that I ended up deleting my Goodreads account.

    It was such a double edged sword I could stand the internal conflict.

    I love my writing buddies. Adore them. Couldn't live without them. Seriously. That doesn't mean I love every book they write. Or even that I enjoy the genre they write in. And there is no way in heck I could write a negative word about their work. I'm a deep believer in karma, as you mentioned.

    I started to post only the good reviews on Goodreads, but then ran across some books I couldn't rate with stars. I could find good things to say about them -- many. But I couldn't give it a star rating I could live with.

    And here's my concern -- if I only give out five start reviews, or if I review all books positively even if I felt they weren't (IMO), would others value my opinion? And if others stop valuing my ability to review other work accurately (within reason), would they then question the value of *my* work?

    I toyed with the idea a bit ago about posting reviews from a writer's perspective, noting what authors did a great job with in their books. I may still do that -- although I'd have to give it a lot of thought and structure it properly.

    A thought-provoking subject! Thanks for sharing.

    (Who's just off work and can't wait to get back to THE SMART ONE -- and that's not hype. :-)

  22. This is a tough subject and I've talked about authors and books that didn't deliver for me on my blog, but when I do this I never name-names, or give out too many details. This way, I get to vent a little and I haven't spread negative gossip about another author or her work.

    Of course, I don't normally review books either, so this approach may not work for everyone.

  23. Malcolm, I do think those 5 star reviews help sell books! Good for you. :)

    Teresa, I really admire your even-handed approach.

    Owen & Dione, kisses and thanks!!!!

    Jill, I have to agree about this blog. :)

    Susan, I know! Accusing an author of not trying hard enough is ABSURD!!! Why do people do that?

    Karin, ouch. I can imagine that must have been terrible.

    Joan, thanks for sharing your experiences on Goodreads. Totally understandable. And thanks for reading THE SMART ONE!

    Elisa, I'm a big believer in venting (A fact my long-suffering husband will attest to.) Glad you stopped by!

  24. Fabulous post, Ellen, and great picture slideshow, too!!

    This is a really interesting discussion for me. Before I was published, I reviewed for RT and considered the job a great opportunity to study current releases and analyze what I felt worked well or not so well in those novels. I spent a LOT of time on that. I always read the whole book and I made sure I could find at least a few positive things to say about every story, because NO book is entirely bad and my opinion was just one person's... I vowed if I was ever tempted to be snarky, I'd quit immediately. I can't stand reviewers whose main purpose is to show how clever they are at the expense of the author. It's unfair and, IMO, lazy. And anyone who trashes a novel under the cloak of anonymity is not only meanspirited but a coward, too... (I *really* hate that.)

    As a published author now, I still feel the same way. Mostly, I only post reviews of stories I loved because I want to share these great authors with the world and time is limited! But if, on those rare occasions, I decide to discuss a book online that I have mixed feelings about, I make sure it's an evenhanded review and something I would feel comfortable saying aloud if the author were in the room with me. I've loved being able to be a part open, fair and honest discussions of books with people who are willing to do the same (even when the novels under debate are mine ;). But nasty ranting in the form of a "review" -- anonymous or not? Nope. There's no excuse for that.

  25. Ellen, I completely understand the conflict about posting negative reviews, especially when so many on line "reviewers" are bullies. You can just hear the revised adage, those who can write, write and those who can't write book reviews...

    I would love to see a standard by which all book reviews are judged. The snarky ones that sound full of revenge would get a 0. The well written ones that offer constructive comments as well as positive feedback get a 5. So in effect what we need are reviewers for the reviews so that readers can get a heads up... is it legit or is it a pissing contest?

    I really think that would change much of what passes for a review.

    And btw, thanks for the shout out!!!

  26. Amen, sister! When I'm asked why I don't post negative reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and B&N, my answer mirrors yours. I love to support the books and authors I admire, and when a book isn't my cuppa, so what? I give it away and go on to the next book on my list.

    I'd rather leave this world with a light heart knowing that I caused no harm.

    In my novel, Thelma Rae Goodpepper tells CeeCee about the "black boomerang of karma." I didn't write that scene for nothin' ... LOL!

  27. I'm a book blogger and yes I post negative reviews, but I really do try to be kind or gentle in my approach.

    I do think it's smart for authors to stick to the positives, though!

  28. Mariyln ... "I vowed if I was ever tempted to be snarky, I'd quit immediately" ... I admire you so much!!

    Saralee, rating the reviewers--a very cool idea! Right now all we have are those Amazon votes of helpful or not helpful. (I always give the snarky nasty reviews a not helpful vote)

    Beth, now I have to read your book! I like that back boomerang of karma ...

    Amy, so good to hear from from a book blogger! With fewer and fewer newspapers reviewing books, we need you more than ever. Thanks for weighing in. :)

  29. Like you, I only give recommendations of books I love. Speaking ill of others, or their work, is a prayer to the devil, as far as I'm concerned.

    I don't like every book I read. Not everyone will like my work. Reading is such a subjective experience because we all bring our own context to the words on the page. In essence, no one reads the same book. Why should I stomp on something someone else might love?

  30. Hi Ellen & everyone,

    Wow, I have found a whole bunch of like-minded folks! I share the same view that most of you have - my personal policy is that I only write reviews on books that I can give honest 4 or 5-star reviews to. I'm a fellow author, not a professional reviewer (nor do I have any desire to be), and I have stated this policy publicly a number of times.

    I just like writing reviews, it helps me to analyze books that I enjoy, and thus in a way to enhance my own craft. I also enjoy giving credit where credit is due, that is true in all areas of my life, especially with books, which are near & dear to my heart. I too, recognize the hard work that goes into writing a book, and that tastes & preferences vary, so what I don't like, others may love.

    I also don't like putting negative energy out into the world, it's just my personal m.o. - being that way keeps me a happy & upbeat person & I do believe in karma. Besides, as many of you have noted, there are lots of readers & professional reviewers who will post negative reviews, so those bases are covered. The only person that hears my *true* feelings on books I read that I don't like, is my hubby. Otherwise I pretty much keep it to myself.

    Happy reading & writing!

    Rai Aren

  31. Great thoughts, Ellen, regarding a tricky subject. You're classy, that's it. I wish I was. I wouldn't ever trash a struggling or unknown, but if it's someone already rich and famous and I think the particular work is crap, I'll unload about it, and with gusto, too! I don't enjoy getting bad reviews, but I can take it, so I'll also dish it out. And I'll go after some reviewers who give me nasty reviews, because that's just fun. But, like I said, I WISH I was more like you and had impulse control and class.