The Pitfalls of Book Review Swapping

After a stressful day of pushing papers, herding nerfs, or defenestrating your political enemies, it can lift your little literary heart to read that someone owned up in public to liking, even loving your book. It’s more challenging for indie authors to get that review sugar, since most of the standard review-type publications—unless we are willing to part with some buckage—give us Ye Olde Royal Snubbing. So I understand the temptation to swap book reviews with other authors. Indie Land is a mostly supportive and lovely community, and we want to support and love each other, well, in that platonic, pat-on-the-shoulder bromantic sort of way. So what’s wrong with a little mutual backscratching to get a little bling of your very own? Well…in some cases, this might not be your best move. Here’s why:

1. The “last review I wrote got me banned from Amazon” effect. Some people are actual book reviewers. Not paid professionals, necessarily, but they enjoy it enough to spend many hours a week reading books and writing about them. Like in a dedicated website with nice graphics and a following and all of its concomitant responsibilities. Or they’re really good at boiling a story down to its essence. They know how to say things like, “For a first novel, this is remarkably free of typographical errors,” instead of, “It sucked so bad the author should have his hands chewed off by rabid honey badgers.” Not everyone writes good reviews, even good writers. What if you write a good, thoughtful review and your swap partner…uh…writes something that doesn’t even remotely resemble your book? Or worse, is packed with spoilers and promotions for his or her own work?

2. The “tit-for-tat” dilemma. Subconsciously, the desire for a good return review could pressure you to write a glowing one for a book that might have a lot of problems. This favor does no one any favors. You could be seen as having the bad judgment to back a writer who should have done a good edit before rushing his book to market. This could hurt your credibility. You are also depriving your review partner of constructive criticism that could help him or her create a better product or become a better writer. (Best done in private messages.)

3. The “squid pro quo” theory. Overt review swapping could give readers the wrong impression. Say you pop out a five-star review of your friend’s book, and a few days later, he posts yours. To anyone who follows the action (and believe me, there are people who follow the source of your reviews and how much bling hangs from them), it could look bad.

4. The “I normally hate sparkly vampires with the passion of a thousand suns” conundrum. You might be asked to review a genre that’s nowhere near your wheelhouse. For instance, I don’t read too much hard science fiction, and (sorry, Todd Brown) zombies are not my cup of tea. I don’t feel qualified to write a competent review of either. It’s one thing to review something outside your comfort zone on a whim, because it moved you to write, and another to do it out of a sense of obligation. Guess which one will result in a better product? Right. See, I knew you guys were smart.

5. The “I got mine, now go scratch” possibility. In a perfect world, gray-haired, small-busted women are worshiped and everyone honors his or her agreements. Then there’s the world we live in. What if you eagerly read your swap partner’s book, post a well-reasoned, balanced review, and receive bupkes in return? You wait a few weeks. Maybe he or she is busy. You drop a friendly hint. Nothing. You never hear from this person again. You consider pulling your review, or retaliating with a one-star diatribe comparing his latest work to the results of a band of crayon-wielding chimps tweaked on crystal meth. Neither is a smart business move. Better to learn from the burn and move on.

Okay, so when does it work?

Book review swaps can work, if both parties are down with it and trust each other to be honest but fair. No need to stalk, but do a little homework. Check out past reviews. Discuss expectations and your comfort zones concerning genres and time frames. Come to an agreement about what happens if you don’t feel you can give your partner a positive review. Who knows? Your literary partnership could grow from a marriage of convenience into a long-term deal.

Do you swap reviews? When has it worked out for you?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

54 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Book Review Swapping”

  1. When I was young and stupid (about a year ago)I responded to a request on linkedin. When I began to read I was appalled. Not only was the work badly researched but the writing was abominable. When I tried to discuss (more as a beta reader, as tactfully as I could) what might improve it (I have actually studied the subject matter at a M.A. level), it almost turned nasty. I had to back out. Once burned, twice shy, as they say. Now I don't even 'like' specific books unless I really do. I do participate in our 'like-fests' but only for fan pages, author pages, etc., not specific books unless I have read and enjoyed them. At the same time, though, I would never post a scathing review. I just would not say anything that might harm a writer's career. After all, we are all learning and their next book might be much better. But that is fodder for another discussion.

  2. I do review swaps. I learned early on to stick to my own genre though, sometimes non-Fantasy readers just don't 'get' Fantasy. Still, it's fun to wander outside your usual parameters froma reader's point of view.

    The trick is to agree to honest reviews and not act like a troll. I will not be dishonest witha review, I'm just careful about the material I agree to read for a swap. If it sounds like something that would interest me, it's worth my time.

    That's the point of it, swapping your time and effort. How many really good books have you read and never reviewed anywhere? The review swap is a labour swap, it shouldn't be an automatic 5 star.

    1. It's definitely easier if you stick with your own genre, or one you love to read. Although I've read some books outside my comfort zone that have moved me enough to write a review. But I see your point.

      1. My first swap was with a Christian book writer, which is well out of my comfort zone as I'm best known for my MBS books. But his story was good and an interesting concept, but most importantly well written. He liked mine as well but wasn't a Fantasy reader and lowered his rating based on a point of the story that "didn't ring true" for him. Fantasy readers have unanimously loved the same point.

        So I can live with the 3 star, but ducked back into my genre and have read some wonderful books as a result as well as getting better ratings. 🙂

  3. I do not use review swapping. For me to get an accurate picture of how my writing is or is not going over, I rely on the honest reviews (if any) of my readership. I am not, by any means, knocking the practice of review swapping. If that's what works for an author … so much the better for him/her. My main goal at this stage is to build a readership base … not to actually drive sales (though I won't turn them away.) It's an inch-by-inch process that I hope, in the long run, will generate sales for my forthcoming novels.

      1. You're welcome, Laurie. As I said, I'm not against them, but I'm not sure they always give an accurate pitcure of how you're doing. On top of that, I have to agree with Shawn. My main job is writing. Between developing new shorts, working on the novels in progress and editing the ones that are at that stage, I have very little time left over.

        1. It's tough. I really want to help. I'll do beta reads for friends. Review when I feel moved. Other than that, I have to keep a watch on my schedule. If not for that silly bank who wants a mortgage payment every month, I'd have lots more time!

  4. I did 3 reviews for fellow authors when I first stated out, and 2 were utter disasters! Not the reviews, since I concentrated on the positive, rather the backlash I received. You never know how a fellow author will respond when you give less than 5 stars. Thus I made it a rule not to do reviews. But there is one reason left off the list in this post – it is time consuming.

    Being an author, I need to spend my time writing. Reading and reviewing for others takes time away from my main focus. Thus, instead of reviews, I help fellow authors with promotion as guests on my blog or tweeting.

    1. It does take time, Shawn. Which is why I don't do too many reviews. Although I learn more about writing from each one. I did one swap and was given four stars, which I respected…it told me the review was being honest.

  5. I think review swaps are not a good idea, including for the reasons you mention in the post and what Shawn says above. As I writer I have limited reading time, and I certainly don't want the pressure of having to give a good review. Yes, good reviews help and we all need them. But by the act of publishing you are putting yourself "out there" and have to take the rough with the smooth. I think many Indies would be better off concentrating on getting good beta feedback BEFORE publishing rather than twisting fellow writers' arms after publication.

      1. No kidding. Thanks for saying that Chris & Laurie – it drives me nuts that some authors put stuff out there and expect the readers to "edit" for them.

  6. I don't swap. I'm happy to read other's novels but I will only write a review if the book is good. If it's bad I write a review with helpful hints and send it to the author rather than put it up on a site for public viewing.

    I love all sorts of genres and have recently written truly sparkling reviews for J D Mader and Chris James but only because I really enjoyed their books. I can hardly ask them to read a book about a hormonal fifty year old who has a hilarious sense of humour and thinks her husband is a GOM, can I?

    1. That is exactly what I do now, too. That way I can show support of good writers and avoid hurting the rest. Besides, I am such a slow reader, and as so many have said here, I need to write.

  7. Shawn's reply is right on the money for me. I just don't have the time to read. Since I am a judge for a yearly novel-writing contest, I've seen the reactions people can have to not hearing what they want or expect about their writing – and there's no way I'm putting myself in the path of that in a public forum with someone I "know". Laurie, you've got all the bases covered.


  8. This is a great post, Laurie. I shared this with the Indie Author Group, because a lot of writers need to consider this. For myself, I don't do reviews, partly because like K.S. I don't have much time to read, and so what little I do, I do for pleasure, but also for the reasons mentioned.

  9. I think I agree with every one who's commented here. I'm not in a position to swap reviews yet but I do write reviews because I read like a starving Biafran at a smorgasbord. Right from the beginning though I made a conscious decision only to post reviews of books that I felt had merit. So I will review those I consider to be good or great but never the stinkers.

    It seems to me that tit for tat reviews would just be too nerve wracking and life is too short for that kind of drama.

  10. A lot of good points made here. I'd be amenable to it, as I'm also a voracious reader, but the pitfalls are many. I would think that if a fellow writer had me read something that I didn't like, or was able to appreciate, I'd simply email him to let him know and not give him a bad public review. If anyone would be interested in reading a black comedy thriller set in the music industry, let me know. We can go from there.

  11. Okay Laurie,

    As for my review of your article, I am giving it a ***** rating, because it didn't suck so bad that you should have your hands chewed off by rabid honey badgers.

    You've addressed an extraordinarily sensitive issue for me. Many of us met on a LI thread where we have helped each other instead of competed. It's a rather unusual situation. The problem for me is trying to read, no less review a genre that is not in my wheelhouse.

    The second problem is, you try to read a good story that is poorly told—it really needs to be edited and the writing is stilted/pretenious.

    The third problem is, the crazies who find their way to LI and IU. I ran into 2 of them who really went off on me. One, when I suggested that we might help each other since we work in the same genre and the other when I gave a requested critique of her cover. BTW, I researched covers for several hours before I sent my critique. You'd have thought "What did this man say to them?" if tyou read what they wrote.

    The first author writes a competent, boilerplate book that does not inspire the reader to continue the series, although I did read the second book—I'd give it a 3 star review. The other author's book sucked so bad that she should have been tie to a stake and ravaged by rabid zombies. It is a 0 star book. Can you imagine the fallout if I reviewed their books?

    I have been well reviewed by my fellow authors. Why would I want to be savaged by these 2 loonies?

    Laurie, ROCK ON!

      1. Yup, crazies.

        Actually, I've gone off on several folks, but never about a review.

        Did you ever find out why my review for you was removed?

        1. Neil, I don't have the foggiest idea. They claimed they couldn't tell me, only referring me to their review policy. I read their policy over several times and couldn't see what they objected to. You had a link to your book, but it was a page from Amazon, which is the only link they allow. Strange folks, these Amazonians.

  12. I did one once and talked myself into giving 4 stars when it only deserved a 3, and I still feel like washing my hands every time I think about it. (So thanks for bringing it up, Laurie.) In addition to not doing outright swaps now, I’m also ultra conservative about posting reviews for any books by indie authors with whom I’ve interacted. I read as many of them as I can, out of interest, but I rarely post a value judgment on them, even if I liked them, because I don’t want to it to appear as though I’m expecting something in return. (So if I tell you I liked your book, it’s only because I really, REALLY liked your book and I wanted you to know!)

  13. I don't do review swaps mainly because I'm a very picky reader and worry that the genre might not be something I'm interested in…also it doesn't make a lot of sense to me for the very reasons you listed in your post! I have sent my book off to people who I thought might enjoy it, asking them for a review, but it's tricky and risky–and…if you're swapping reviews it's too easy to be dishonest as Krista mentioned…

  14. In a perfect world, gray-haired, small-busted women are worshiped and everyone honors his or her agreements.

    Are you in my head? This is awesome. Review swapping sucks. I review books that I read by friends, but there is never any expectation. And when people review my stuff, I don't throw them a review.

    It's an interesting game. Joe Cafe has a ton of good reviews and people get suspicious. Sure, some of the people know me, but it outgets everything. Why? I think people are troubled and want to talk about it. LOL

  15. I have followed the same LI threads as Neil, and have never allowed myself to be pushed into giving a review I didn't feel was warranted. I also have much less time to free read, so I am very picky with my choices.

    As a new author I have been more concerned with establishing a reader base and understanding what my readers want. I have looked at the samples of a few books that I know the LI authors have begged to be reviewed by other authors. I could never do justice to the review because I found the subject to be, well, depressing. This is why I am not a paid reviewer. 🙂

    Also, I can almost tell by the review now if it has been written by a reader or a writer. And, I am suspicious of a hundred 5 star ratings. I suppose this is inside info because of the threads I follow. I just want each successive book to be interesting, entertaining, well-written and with a spark that truly engages the reader. These factors are critical to the success of every writer. They are my goal.

    Wonderful post!

    1. Lois, you bring up a great point. As much as I love and appreciate the great reviews I've gotten to date by my peers on LI, I love hearing from my readers how much they enjoyed the book.

      I had a former student call me this past Sunday night raving about my first book and the bonus chapters I posted on my website. She just started the second book and can't wait for the next 2 in the series.

      I write to entertain, no hidden inspirational messages—so when someone enjoys, I am in heaven.

  16. Thanks for the comment on my thread, Laurie. This was a great Powerpoint presentation! What? It isn't? Well, what the hell was it about then?


  17. We can swap five star reviews with other authors? Awesome. What a country. Do we have to read past the blurb? In my opinion which is not worth a grain of salt, I do not think any of us are skilled enough to do justice to a review. How can one be a judge of a persons writing skills when writing is so personal and subjective. Not everyone likes Stephen King yet he is beloved by many adoring fans and is the King of horror writers. Reviews are what they are. Thumbs up or thumbs down and should not be taken seriously. Just saying.

    1. I seldom give 5 stars on a review swap and have got as little as 3 on one occasion. It's not automatic and yes, you have to read the book and give an honest opinion. The only swap is a swap of effort.

      Writers are readers after all, and any review is one reader's personal subjective opinion.

  18. I do a lot of reviews on my website most are for books I read anyway and some are for books I receive explicitly to review. I stick to genres and subjects I am familiar with, which means mostly SF and Military History. When someone asks me for a review I am up front and tell them that I will inform my readers that I got the book to review it and maintain absolute editorial control over the content of my review. So far I have been lucky and only criticized one book and I gave the author a chance to rebut that review. It still didn't get me to change my review though.

  19. I tried doing it once. The writer was somehow unable to put a review on Amazon and didn't do it right on Goodreads. So I basically got no real book review to use other than I put it on my blog. I have yet to finish her book, how many other writers have this problem? I will review it at some point and I'll give it a 5 star not because she tried to review mine, but because it was a great book, minus a few typos that her publisher missed. I did get a great friend out of the deal and have since took to trying to find more people to review my book on blogs ect. It's so frustrating these reviews.

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