Let's Talk About Reviewing

Let’s Talk About Reviewing

I recently had a conversation with an author who was seeking advice about how to approach reviewing another author’s book they liked but had some issues with, and the author has a track record of not handling negative reviews very well. While their review wasn’t necessarily negative, they were afraid of possible reactions. This conversation made me think about reviewing in general, and how I approach the issue of reviewing a friend’s book which in turn led to musings about why I hate reviewing. There, I said it publicly. In the end, I decided to try and write down some of my thoughts about reviewing which might lead nowhere, or it might be interesting to some. Who knows? Either way, seemed like a worthy topic for the 1000th published post here on Queen’s Book Asylum. So, let’s talk about reviewing!

My background as a reviewer

Since I’m not an author myself and that whole authors reviewing other authors’ work thing is a super slippery slope, I’ll restrain from getting into that aspect (and boy, I do have thoughts about that). In this post, I’ll focus on my own experiences and reviewing as a blogger/critic. First, let me give you a quick rundown about how I became a reviewer in the first place, and then we’ll go from there.

Queen’s Book Asylum was born in March 2018. Or rather, RockStarlit BookAsylum was. I later changed the name and eventually the URL – the whys are explained in this announcement post. I had zero experience in blogging, I only knew a handful of indie authors, and I don’t think I had more than 10 reviews to my name on GoodReads (I’ve been active on there since February 2016) by that point. 

I started regularly reviewing because of the indie author friends I made along the way, but especially because of Benedict Patrick, Damien Black, and A.J. Norfield. They all played a big part in my becoming a blogger, so now you know who to blame 😆. Later I became a beta reader for all three gentlemen and I think that’s mostly thanks to the reviews I wrote for them. Even though they really weren’t all that good in the beginning. All the same, I became a blogger and shortly after an SPFBO judge, and I did my fair share of accepting review requests, learning a lot along the way.

About reviewing in general

From the very beginning, I always aimed to write balanced reviews. Maybe it’s in my personality but I’m not really the type to write absolutely glowing reviews, though it happens every once in a while. I don’t have a happy-go-lucky attitude at the best of times, so I find it really hard to gush a lot. On the other hand, I very rarely write overly negative, or even ranting reviews – but again, that also happens, because sometimes a book just brings out the worst in you. But even then, I always tried to not intentionally hurt feelings or be absolutely vicious.

There are all kinds of reviewers out there. Some prefer only publishing mostly positive reviews – there are several reasons for this, the number 1 being that they previously received abuse over their reviews -, some enjoy tearing other people down. Me, I believe myself to be somewhere in the middle. I usually find writing critical reviews so much easier, pinpointing stuff that didn’t work for me. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make me the most popular reviewer out there, but oh well. I’ve never been popular, so I didn’t expect to start now.

If you are just starting out as a blogger/reviewer, it takes a while until you figure out what type of reviewer you are, and what format works the best for you – for example, I once experimented with structuring my reviews with sections like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Truth, trying to focus on key points within the sections like world building, characters, etc. hoping it might make things easier for me (spoiler: it didn’t) -, even your voice for writing. I’m nowhere near being a super popular big-name reviewer, although I tried to imitate people whose style I liked. That didn’t work either. I tend to write my reviews in a subjective way while staying as objective as I can be. That is to say, I tend to use a lot of I’s and first person tense, instead of the third person. I think this works for me, because what I’m trying to tell you is how I felt/thought about a book, instead of trying to tell you what you should feel/think while reading. Which doesn’t surprise me as I preferred to write in the first person back when I also had writing ambitions. It might not make me look like a “professional”, but that’s what comes naturally to me.

The writing process itself can be very different from person to person. Some make notes while reading and write their review around those notes, some tend to just write down whatever comes to mind and then go through editing rounds later, some prefer short and sweet reviews, and others tend to be more analytical. As for me, I try to write my reviews in as few sittings as possible. It usually takes HOURS, because I keep procrastinating and my brain refuses to work, and oh look pandas. By the time I’m done writing my thoughts down, I just want to get them out of my sight as soon as possible. The most I do is have a quick glance at it for typos, add all the other bits (I have a quote section, a song section, and also links), and then it can go public. I just don’t have the patience to read and reread it and edit the hell out of it. This might show in the quality, but honestly, I can’t be arsed about it. As I said, I’m not fond of writing reviews, to begin with. And that’s mostly why I don’t get quoted on covers. I’m not good at coming up with short and impactful statements people are looking for. 

The most important thing is that you experiment and find out what works for you and what doesn’t. There isn’t a good or bad way. As long as you are true to yourself and you are honest be your opinion positive or negative, it doesn’t matter how others may react. As with books not being for everyone, reviews too won’t be equally received by people. As long as you have integrity and you are not being an ass, people will respect your opinion. I know things can get really bad for reviewers by hostile authors – thankfully I never had any problems like that, and no one complained about my reviews to my face (I’m sure they did behind my back a lot, though) – but sometimes you just can’t help it.

And it should be time to accept that negative or less-than-gushing positive reviews are just as worthy of attention and respect. From authors and other readers alike. I’m just tired of defending 3* star reviews that are perceived as “bad”.  I admit, even I struggle with this as I don’t want to hurt feelings by giving lower ratings, but then I have to remind myself that I’m not here to be your safe blankie, I’m here to be honest and say things you might not want to hear, but someone has to say them. And my ratings have to reflect my words. A lot of times I start out with a higher rating in mind and lower them as I dig deeper into my review. Other times I have a fixed rating going in and even my asshole analytical brain can’t make me change my mind. The problem starts when your rating is somewhere in between and then you have to make decisions for GoodReads and Amazon, and ugh. 

But above all, we (that is to say, I) should stop apologizing for having a different opinion when we are posting a review, because every opinion matters, and just because we have a differing one, doesn’t mean either of us is right or wrong. I find myself more times than not in a minority when it comes to opinions about books, so most of the time I just scroll through stuff on social media and don’t join conversations, because, well, no one likes to be that guy who brings in the negativity all the time 😅 Sometimes I like to join in debates, but it’s overwhelming when you try to talk about a book you were meh about at best, and 90% of the community absolutely loves it. 

Reviewing for friends, money, and for competitions

If authors reviewing for authors can be tricky, the same can be said about accepting review requests from authors who you consider a friend. Especially if that’s the first book you read from them. Back when I started out, I had my requests open and I made friends with some of those authors. Then things got out of hand between requests and SPFBO and life, so I closed them. As I made more connections within the community, I grew wary of reviewing for them. You see, for me, that’s putting extra pressure on myself – what if I don’t like the book and I unintentionally end up hurting feelings? What if I like it and I get accused of bias? (I try to avoid showing familiarity in my reviews for a reason.) What if I’m meh on it and write a detailed critical review that can go either way? (This happened very recently and let me tell you it’s not fun.) At times like this, it’s challenging to keep one’s objectivity, but at the end of the day, it’s your own conscience that can judge you.

But brains being brains, that still doesn’t stop me from being anxious when I drop such a review. Then sit on the sidelines watching all the glowing reviews coming in, and super enthusiastic tweets popping up and wondering what the hell is wrong with me? People clearly love the book and that’s awesome, I’m happy for my friend, and I absolutely wish them success. So why can’t I just sit back, throw away my stupid analytical brain and jump on the fangirling/boying bandwagon? To be fair, I’ve never been the fangirling type, even in my teens, so I don’t have the faintest idea where I should start with that. 

I started wondering why I seem to be much harder on books written by friends, and the most plausible theory I can come up with is that it’s my way of trying to help. Whether I want it or not, my brain goes into beta reader mode, and thus when I get to writing my thoughts down, what comes out is unsolicited feedback disguised as a review. To be fair, I enjoy writing beta feedback much more than I enjoy writing reviews. Anxiety-inducing both might be. I guess this should be a fair warning to you if you are my friend and you’d like me to review your book 😅 And that’s why I always consider very carefully what review request I accept – although being busy with SPFBO, and generally slowing down with reading also helps to not have enough time for requests anyway.

Talking about SPFBO, I’ve been judging for a couple of years now with a year off, and I noticed that I go into it with a slightly different mindset. At least when it comes to Phase 1. From the outside, those mini-reviews I write for books I cut from the competition might seem much harsher – and probably they are, although not intentionally. It’s just that, I go into reading with the aim to find the best book in my batch – as is the goal of the competition, to begin with. While I always try to find something nice to say, I tend to focus on things that didn’t work for me and thus played into my decision. They are also coming much easier than regular reviews and enjoy that aspect. But as with anything regarding reviewing, opinions are absolutely subjective and I always urge people to check out other reviews or the sample on Amazon to make up their own minds.

And since I mentioned beta reading, I want to quickly touch upon this as well. My policy is that I don’t review books I was involved with on any level – it wasn’t always this way, but I kept it after my quick beta reading career spell a couple of years ago. There is a lot of grey area here and a lot depends on how deep your feedback went and how much got implemented in the end product, and whether you got money for it or not. If money is involved, that’s 100% no from me. Whether it was beta reading, editing, or whatever – if you got money and were involved in a book’s journey to being published, then I don’t think it’s appropriate to review it. Otherwise, I guess it’s up to each person to decide how they go about it.

Here I could also talk about paid reviewing, but this article is already goddamn long and I should somehow get to the end of it, so let’s just say I’m against that. And when it comes to the argument of blog tours being paid reviews, I already addressed this in my other article about Things I Learned About Blog Tours.

So, why do I hate reviewing?

In the intro, I said I hate reviewing, and that’s true. You now might be wondering why, as I clearly have a lot to say about the topic and spent an ungodly amount of time over the past years actually doing it. For me, reviewing takes away from the enjoyment of reading – especially if it’s a request or an ARC. Because I know that at the end I’ll have to sit down and try to express my feelings and thoughts which is never easy for me, and doing it in English – my skills are much improved, but I still don’t feel like I’m hitting the standard I set for myself. Vocabulary is a bitch, man. And usually the more time I spend thinking about a book, the more critical my review becomes.

A lot of times, when I feel meh about a book, it’s just super hard to come up with anything to say. I try to avoid writing plot summaries in any way because 1) spoilers and 2) most of the things you need to know are in the blurb. A lot of times, the things I would want to write about are spoilers, which aren’t really useful for coming-by readers because what they want to know is a general idea about the book to see if it matches their tastes or not. Finding a balance between being informative and interesting is just hard. Plus I tend to ramble a lot, so my reviews are super long as they are. Just look at this article… I’m still at it 😂. It would be so much easier if I could just write short, generic reviews but alas, I’m too much of a gluttony for punishment. 

As a reader, I never cared about reviews. I still don’t read them unless it’s written by someone whose judgment I trust or if I’m particularly interested for some reason. Plus SPFBO, because I need to keep an eye on the others as they are deciding on a big chunk of my reading for 5 months each year 😂.

But eventually, why I stuck around for almost 5 years now is that I know reviews help authors, and I enjoy being in the community, even if I may be the odd one out. And let’s be real, I can’t afford to buy as many books as I get to read thanks to my blogger status. Whether I’ll stick around for 5 more years is hard to say, but for now, the Queen remains firmly on her throne.