Writer, Reader, Reviewer

3starsSometimes I hate being an author.

No, that’s not true. I never hate being a writer or an author. I love writing; I love reading. I love supporting other authors and especially, obviously, my friends. What I hate is writing critical reviews. Recently my buddy, Yvonne Hertberger, wrote about a similar situation where she was called on to assess a book. It wasn’t pretty.

Case in point. Recently I read a friend’s latest. I wanted to like it; I really did. But I didn’t. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for most of the characters, I found the pace slow and therefore frustrating, and there were many things that it seemed I was supposed to implicitly understand but did not. Whenever I read a book that affects me like this, I have to wonder: is it not grabbing me because I’m not giving it enough time and concentration, or am I not giving it time and concentration because it’s not grabbing me?

We all know how subjective writing and reading are. Books that are considered classics can bore me to tears. I CANNOT read Faulkner. He drives me batshit crazy. More popular books that have been on best-seller lists for months can sometimes produce a tepid, “Meh,” from me and that’s it. Other books, little-known and under-appreciated, can inspire me to sing their praises. It’s all a crapshoot. It’s all personal opinion.

Well, not all. Sure, there are some objective criteria with writing. Misspelling is not a personal style. Incorrect punctuation—missing or misplaced quotes, run-on sentences, erratic punctuation that only confuses the reader—all that’s pretty black and white with very little room for gray. But beyond the basics, the writing landscape is wide open to interpretation.

I’m reminded of that every day. One of my books has been awarded medals in two competitions and honorable mentions in two others. That same book received a review that said it was not worth the price, even if it had been free. Ouch.

So back to my review of my friend’s book. I gave it 3 stars. I didn’t want to. I wanted to give it 4. I would have loved to give it 5. But I couldn’t. If I lied about how I felt, I would be compromising my own integrity. I don’t like to lie. I don’t do it well. I feel guilty about it. Three stars were as much as I could feel comfortable with. If I can’t give at least 3 stars, I don’t even like to leave a review. I just hate kicking someone when they’re already down.

The best thing I can do is couch my review in that very subjectivity that muddies the water. “In my opinion …” “I found that …” I may think a book is stellar, but is it really? (And by whose standard?) I may think a book is crap, but does that mean it really is? Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

So anyway, the kicker here is, I sent one of my books to a reviewer. I like the book (obviously). I had multiple beta-readers and got wonderful feedback, some negative but most very positive. I felt good about it. Guess what? He gave it 3 stars. What goes around comes around. His review was tepid at best. I seriously considered all that he had said, had to agree that while I could see some basis for his conclusions, I considered alternatives and finally came to my own conclusion that I like the book the way it is, warts and all.

But it still stings. On both sides of the coin.

*sigh* No, some days it’s not fun being an author. But is that going to stop me?

Not on your life.


Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

50 thoughts on “Writer, Reader, Reviewer”

  1. I get to go first? YES!

    Glad to see this post. Most of my reviews, as Roger Kenyon, are four or five stars. That is because if I like someone, but I don’t like their book, I won’t review it; can’t do *fake*.

    Friends will get their tough love. They won’t get it from me. Let strangers be the jerk. I’ll be the pillow catching the teardrops, and murmuring, “Maybe that bad, bad, bad, person had a point…you may need to work harder, get off the crying pillow for awhile…”

    Made authors, how I love ripping into them with my onsies. If a friend publishes a crap bomb, strangers will tell them. We don’t need to. We just need to be there to pick them up, dry their tears, and tell them, “You know, your book did suck. However…”

  2. “…however, you are so brilliant…” which is what I meant to add. Reviewers never bother with the soothing part after the ripping. That’s what friends are for. To pick up, after the falling down.

    1. Kenyon, thanks so much (to you and to others below) for your support and for not calling me a wimp. As you can tell, I struggle(d) with this because I need to be honest but I don’t want to tear someone down. It’s a tough row to hoe. But you’re right–there are others out there who will gladly (sometimes too gladly) give the bad tidings.I would hope that all writers will take reviews seriously, consider what’s said, hold it against their hearts and then decide what works for them and what doesn’t. It’s all part of the tempering process to make us stronger, better writers. Thanks for commenting.

  3. What has become lost in the shuffle of amateur reviewers is the distinction between a critic and a reviewer. Too many reviewers think they have to be critics. Of course you’re going to have to give some kind of rating at the end. However, if reviewers would concentrate on telling the reader what kind of experience he or she will have while reading the book, a lot of this squeamishness wouldn’t be necessary.
    If I don’t “like” a book, I give it a “critical” review: ie. on its literary merit. I have given good reviews to well-written books that didn’t grab me, especially ones where I disagree with or do not enjoy the subject matter.
    If a book is so poorly edited as to get in the way of my enjoyment, I simply return it to the author with the comment “This book is not ready for publication.”
    Thus I will never give an Indie author less than three stars. I’m with Roger. The “made authors” with their publishers and editors and promotional machines are fair game 🙂

    1. Gordon, I like your style! Returning a badly-edited book with that one line–not ready for publication–is excellent. I also think it’s fair to include a disclaimer in a review: this is not a genre I normally read, or I would not normally gravitate to this subject matter, etc. I think that gives the potential readers a good idea of where we’re coming from, and they can take that with a grain of salt. But I’m SO glad you guys feel the same way. Here I thought this was my own dirty little secret. Thanks for chiming in.

    2. Great comment, Gordon. I reviewed music and film for newspapers and magazines for years and i resented the whole idea that I (or any of my feckless colleagues) would be a “critic” rather than reviewer.
      Frankly any numbskull can say “it rules” or “it sucks”, the whole Ebert Thumb school of commentary.
      But to be a reviewer—to be able to incorporate the book and represent the reader in order to give them the information that can help them decide if they want to read the book or see the film or whatever actually requires some thought and perception and balance.

  4. It’s not mine is it? But seriously, I know exactly what you’re saying. It’s hard, and many times it’s because we’re trying to do a favor and read something outside of our interest range. I’ve gotten several three star reviews for the reason you stated. My book is too slow for typical genre readers. On the flip side, I don’t really read romance and so I’m not a good judge of what is a good romance.

    But I’d much rather get/give an honest review than put people in a position where they have to lie to me or to everyone else.

    I agree that I would never give another author, publicly, less than three stars. That’s when you pull the person aside and coach them.

    Thanks for posting this. I firmly believe that we have to be honest, not hurtful, honest with our colleagues. Or we’re doing both of us a disservice.


    1. No, not yours, LOL!
      But you’re right about lying; if we put up a stellar review about a mediocre book, how many people are going to buy it and then give it a scathing review because it’s not what they expected? Lying in reviews is just not helpful to anyone, except maybe the author for one brief, giddy moment before reality crashes in. Yes, it’s a disservice to all. And, I, too, have sent private messages to authors and given them suggestions when I found the book unreadable. That sort of things just doesn’t need to be aired in public. Thanks for your input.

  5. Great post, Melissa. 🙂

    Some may disagree, but I firmly believe that it is not my place to give a negative review to anyone who has gathered enough courage to put themselves “out there” through their writing.
    I choose not to give a review lower than 3 stars. If it is below 3 stars, I will not post a review. This is why most all of my reviews are 4 or 5 stars …

    1. Hm, I see a theme emerging here. Sounds like we’re all on the same page. And I sincerely hope, when we run into that less than 3-star book, we can connect with the author and give some guidance or insight. That’s what community is all about, right? Thanks for commenting.

    2. I agree, S.A., about not giving a negative review to anyone who has the gumption and courage to write and publish a book. Advice, if asked, but I want to keep it constructive.

      1. I agree, Helen. There’s no point in leaving a review of less than three stars, except to be unkind. We all have different tastes in fiction, and expectations. I try to remember that every time I write a review–to emphasize the positive rather than the negative aspects of a book. It’s always best to treat other authors with consideration and respect.

  6. BTW, I’m very skeptical when I see a novel that has only 5-star reviews. The ratings should show an inverted triangle, with hopefully mostly 4-and5-star reviews. But with some 3-star and the occasional 2-star reviews. Not everyone is going to like my book, or yours.

    Again, thanks for posting this.

    1. You speak absolute truth here. No book, I don’t care who writes it or what it’s about, can please everyone. But if we can accrue a smattering of reviews, mostly positive, we’re ahead of the curve.

  7. This is why I don’t trade reviews. 😀

    I rarely give 3 stars, and if my rating would be less than that, I don’t post it. However, I make an exception to that rule for books about marketing, particularly if I think the author is charging for a rehash of stuff you can find elsewhere on the internet (say, here at IU) for free.

    1. Good point, Lynne. Trading reviews snares us in a situation where the expectation may be more than we can meet. I’ve had authors give me great reviews, but when I can barely force myself to get through their book, I can’t review it. (They wouldn’t want me to, actually!) So no promises of good reviews ahead of time, at least not for me. It has to be honest, first and foremost. Beyond that, it’s up for grabs.
      And good point about the marketing books. After all, why let someone spend good money on something they can find elsewhere for free? Thanks for adding that.

  8. I agree with Lynne. I never – NEVER – trade reviews. All of my reviews (good and bad) have been unsolicited, and the reviews I do are mainly authors I already like. Even then, I sometimes have to give somewhat tepid reviews, but I always balance the negative with positive and try to be honest without being nasty.

    1. I think your last sentence is key, Charles. I can’t imagine any review needing to sink into nastiness. You or I may not like a book, but that doesn’t mean that someone else could. Balance within a review is always, I think, gracious.

  9. It’s a tough balance, and I think you strike just the right note, Melissa. I don’t review everything I read, but I will review friends’ books or books that inspire a review. And trading…? No. There have been times where I’ve agreed to review a book in advance of reading, but it was not with an expectation of a review in return. Great post.

    1. Thanks, Laurie. It is tough sometimes, especially with friends; more so if we’re expecting trade-offs. Better to read and review one book at a time as the story moves us, as you say. Much cleaner that way.

  10. I’m with Lynne, too. I have never traded for a review. Once, though, an author who reviewed all of my books and gave them all five stars asked me to review one of his. I was reluctant but he persisted so I agreed to read it. I wish I hadn’t. I would have given it three and a half stars, but since that isn’t an option I bumped it to four (with some misgivings). He was not a happy camper. I think he expected I would reciprocate with a five star. But even at four I felt I was hedging. Never again. My reviews will be “no strings attached”, be that the ones I write or the ones given my books. And, like the general consensus here, I will not post a review for less than three stars. If I can’t honestly do that I try to send a private message to the author explaining why. That is, if I manage to finishe reading, since I won’t continue with a truly bad book. Or sometimes I play the coward and do nothing (hangs head).

    1. No shame here, Yvonne; I’m sure there are plenty of readers/reviewers who will pick up the slack for us and give those 1 or 2-star reviews. Sounds like your experience with that other author was a good lesson for all of us. Be clear up front, no strings attached and try not to feel guilty. Easier said than done, I know. Thanks for sharing.

      1. We must all recognise that occasionally we’ll come across someone who doesn’t like our book and says so. So what’s to get steamed up about? I’d rather people were honest. I don’t expect to please them all and understand that because my subject matter is often far outside my readers’ experience and understanding, some may find my books difficult to relate to. I do my best to make it easy, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and I know that.
        The same applies when writing reviews. If I really don’t like something I feel free to say so. I always try to do so politely and without belittling the author as it’s the book I don’t like, not the person who wrote it, and that’s wholly subjective. Other people may love it.
        If I can’t bring myself to give the book three or more stars, however, I usually send my comments privately to the author, trying to be constructive in any criticism. And I explain that I won’t post the review if they would prefer I don’t. After all, a review is as much feedback to the author as information for other readers, and they won’t miss out if I say nothing in public.

  11. Thanks for writing this article, Melissa.

    I find it difficult to give any book with faulty grammar, punctuation, and syntax, a stellar review. If the characters and stories are engaging, I’ll award the novel four stars; if not, then three. Like you, I will not post a review for a book that I cannot give at least three stars to. My novels are far from perfect, but I do my best to make sure that the books are well written, contain interesting characters, and have a plausible plot. In truth, that’s all we writers can do. We have no control over whether readers will like our stories or not.

    1. Linda, we’re definitely in agreement about the mechanics of grammar, punctuation, etc. If a writer has a great story but can’t tell it clearly using the proper visual clues, the reader’s enjoyment suffers considerably (as does the story). Excellent books must have all the aspects of it working in concert–good story, memorable characters and smooth style. But even so, you’re right: some will like it and some won’t. Fact of life.

  12. I read and review and since a critic is “a person who expresses an unfavourable opinion of something or a person who judges the merits of literary or artistic works”, then reviewing and being a critic are pretty similar. Since I don’t write, I have nothing to lose by telling it how it is. So I do. If a book is bad, other readers deserve to know. I, as a reader, want to see ALL reviews, not just the good ones, which may have been written by favourite uncles and aunts and best friends. At the same time, authors’ blood, sweat and tears should be recognised. There is always something good to be said about a book. Even a one-star book deserves five stars for effort. A good review (as in a well-written one) is a balanced one, whether its author has given a book one stars or five.

    1. Cathy, on that front, you have the advantage on us authors: you never have to worry about retaliatory reviews! But we certainly need people like you, reviewers who will pull no punches and tell us exactly how the cow age the cabbage. The good news is that you’re aware of the work involved and you’re even-handed about your reviews. We can’t ask more than that. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Cathy! I adore reviewers like you. I trust your kinds of reviews. I do not ask friends or family or sister authors for reviews. Sometimes they pop up, but I want stranger reviews, and I will often let my books languish in cyberspace until I have enough of those stranger reviews to promote it. I am happy with 3* reviews. My titles pull 1* to 5*. I’m good with it. I read sister and brother author books. Once in a while I’ll put a review up, but mostly I blog it or mention it on FB or write an editorial. thank you fo9r commenting here. I was gonna leave this thread alone. But yur comments got me.

  13. An excellent post, Melissa, and I totally agree with you on all levels. I did on one occasion tentatively agree to a review swap – I thought that it was going to be a legitimate, honest exchange of opinions – however, after firstly reading the book and then the list of glowing, five star reviews, I couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. What stopped me was, like many commenters here today, I have a personal agreement with myself not to publish a review for a book that I cannot give at least a three star review to (unless that is it is an established author), and there was no way I could do that for this particular book. It was dreadful: mindless, pseudo philosophical rambling that did nothing whatsoever for me. Needless to say he did not review my book, and he never asked me why I didn’t review his, but a lot of people did. I wouldn’t dream of mentioning names of course but it was through Goodreads.

    1. TD, I have a feeling many of us have started down that road of good intentions, trading reviews, only to be stopped short in our tracks. Ages ago I made that same mistake and the gal gave my book an excellent review, but I recall reading hers with my jaw hanging open at the glaring and profuse errors, up to and including changing from third person to first! Like you, I simply never reviewed it and she never asked why. Perhaps our actions spoke louder than we thought. At any rate, never again. Thanks for sharing your story.

  14. I love reading posts here at Indies Unlimited about reviewing. Thank you for your perspective as an author writing reviews for other authors, Ms. Bowersock. I can see it could be a sticky situation.

    It is hard to give a less than stellar review. I don’t like to consider my reviews as a literary critique. I am not writer or an editor, I am a reader. I offer my opinion from a reader’s standpoint only. However, I can and have spotted editing errors that range from proofing to copy editing. When I do spot these unfortunate eventualities’ I will mention it in my reviews for other readers, I think they deserve and want to know. I have, on occasion, shared my editing notes with certain authors who I think will appreciate them. I do it with a note that asks them to please take a second look at these areas I have noted, I don’t mean to step on anyone’s toes. What the author does about my findings is up to them.

    I also didn’t realize, until recently, a three-star review was considered a negative review. I considered it a decent rating, I neither hated nor loved the book. Now, giving a two-star review is extremely hard! I have to back up my opinion with quotes and facts. They make me feel really insecure. I find I have to remind myself this is MY opinion and people are allowed to take it or leave it, it is not definitive. I have not given very many of these, they make my brain hurt. BigAl has helped and challenges me to be a better reviewer. He also makes my reviews more legible and concise, he speaks wazi well. I can’t tell you how many times I have emailed him back with a “Yeah, that is exactly what I meant to say.” 😀 He has taught me a LOT. Have I ever mentioned he carries a big whip to keep me in line? One of these days I’d like to borrow Jackie Weger’s snake gun to make him dance… 😀

    1. One thing that I love about the reviews on Big Al’s is the inclusion of comments about editing. As an author, I love to see something to the effect of “no editing issues found.” Mistakes of this sort just drive me nuts, so I consider it a sacred duty to hunt them down with a flame-thrower, whether they’re in my book or anyone else’s. And having your opinion as “just” a reader is huge. Critical acclaim is wonderful, but it’s meaningless if our stories don’t connect with actual readers. All of you folks at Al’s and Cathy’s do us a fabulous service (even if it stings at times).
      Re: three-star reviews being negative, I consider 3 stars to be mediocre, neither good nor bad, but for an author I can see how that would translate to negative. If it’s not good, if it’s not great, it’s bad. It’s quite a gray area, actually, and needs to be paired with the actual review to round out the sense of it. I have been surprised by a 4-star review that took issue with several points of one book, and a 2-star review that said, “I really liked this book.” Obviously there’s a lot of waffle-room there. Thanks for chiming in. But be careful with that snake gun.

    2. Whoa! ?wazithinkin! I don’t loan my snake gun to nobody. You do nice reviews. I appreciated the 3* you gave my first indie title.I trusted it. I figured if I got a 3* from Big Al’s site I had book. It had a hired editor and a formatter and a cover artist–none of whom were very good. You told me so. I found and paid for better. And I do have a book. Thank you! As it happens, the title has turned out to be my most popular book. Right this minute it has earned 246 stranger reviews, 216 of which are 4 and 5 *. I don’t speak wazi. I do know 3 words in Russian and I read lips in two languages. And a couple of finger signs that I don’t use in public.

  15. I received an email from an author a little while back detailing a review blackmail scam she had been entrapped in. It started out innocent enough when she received an email with a link to a review of her book, this email also stated that a review of the reviewers book would be appreciated.

    This author had no more than five reviews and so was thrilled to have another review. She however declined to reciprocate the review. A week goes by and she receives another email hinting at needing to edit this review as no reciprocal review had been forthcoming. She again decided against complying.

    Over the course of the following weeks she was forced to watch as the review went from a very positive five star to a nasty one star review. She eventually managed to have this review removed as she had the email chain to document all of this. The question remains though, how many other individuals caved under the pressure and provided the reciprocal five star review desired?

    It’s easy for an author with a large number of reviews to dismiss this threat but for those authors just starting out the threat of a single negative review is significant.

    1. Wow, there’s a cautionary tale and a half! I think if it had been me, I’d be tempted to put the entire e-mail exchange on the web: my blog, FB, something. A blackmail scam like that should not be allowed to scuttle away from the light. Just goes to show there are scumbags in every profession. That is just outrageously sad. Thanks for informing us about this, Marc.

      1. HI Melissa,

        I think one of the biggest problems with scams is the victims stay quiet and try to avoid being humiliated further. However when they find the courage to speak up they usually find they are not alone. Our challenge is to create an environment where these individuals will be supported versus humiliated. Sunlight does indeed deter and weaken scams. Thanks for providing a forum to air these kinds of things.

        1. I would go out on a limb and guess that any victim of that kind of blackmail will get 100% support from us indies. (That’s indies, not Indies. I won’t presume to speak for all.) We have enough challenges without this kind of scum preying on us, and the truth is, it could happen to any of us. How’s about we make a pact right now to expose any such doings? The sooner we shine a light on it, the sooner the bugs shrivel up and blow away.

    2. This happened to me once as well. Caveat: Never join groups on Goodreads or anywhere else that “scam” for reviews. What I mean is, “You give my book five stars, and I’ll give your book five stars–wink, wink.” This growing practice of “rubber-stamping” authors’ books with five stars is giving indies a bad rap. As writers and authors, we need to maintain integrity. Honesty is the best policy, even if the truth hurts sometimes…

  16. If your review is not honest, it kills your credibility as a reviewer. No one will believe anything you write.
    Some sites, I don’t review under my own name. For two reasons.
    1) People can get a surprise with a lovely review and think that it’s not just coming from a friend
    2) Some friends expect you to write a glowing review because you are their friend
    In which case, when my review is less than what they’d expect, I can cringe unnoticeably and not admit that I wrote it.

    Some sites give you no choice and you can’t choose a pen name to review under.

    Having said that, I have had a few reviews where people have ticked the “review has been helpful” box and no reviews where anyone has ticked the “review has not been helpful” box.
    Guess I must be doing something right.

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who struggles.

    1. And here I thought I was the only one! Guess it just goes to show we’ve all been struggling with this. Just part of the human condition, I guess. Thanks, Jeannie, for sharing your secret about reviewing under aliases.

  17. I’m like Kenyon and will only review books I truly love because life’s too short for so much pain. That said, I sincerely applaud your courage.

  18. I am extremely backed up in my reading and reviews. I hope that when I post a few of these they will make the authors happy.
    I will speak a bit of heresy – I care more about the story when I read and will forgive a small mistake. For me, a perfect sentence that is boring is the greater sin. 😉
    Wonderful post and thoughtful comments.

    1. Backed up? Gee, what have you been doing in your spare time? (How well I know the feeling.) But I can agree with your statement that a perfect sentence that is boring is the greater sin. With any luck, we’ll write such amazing sentences that small errors aren’t even obvious. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  19. I appreciated Melissa’a post and all the comments. My own personal policy when I write reviews on my website is if I read a book and do not feel comfortable about giving a 4 or 5 star review, I don’t write a review. 3 star reviews often piss an author off, although from my point of view a fair 3 star review is not all that bad; it shows balance. A book will never appeal to everyone, so obviously someone is not going to like it as well as others. When I look at reviews I ignore 1 and 2 stars–many are vindictive. I also do not rely on all 45 and 5 star reviews. Sometimes I wonder if the person even really read the book, or just wanted to make the author happy.

    I have over 700 books on my Kindle–discard 100 or so for references, cookbooks etc. I have written less than 150 reviews.

    1. Gloria, thanks for your comments. It’s obvious from what you’ve said here and the rest of the comments that reviews can be a very mixed bag, both in content, style and meaning. I guess the “answer,” if there is such a thing, is to keep doing what most of us are doing: writing honest, heart-felt reviews that we can justify and stand behind, for good or ill. I think the most important aspect of all this is open, honest communication. No, we may not always like what is being said, but we can respect the sincerity of it. As authors, we have to take the bad with the good, know that none of it defines us or our books, and move forward. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

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