For the record, I don’t have a problem with authors stopping by to say they appreciate the fact I took the time to read their books. So far, none have approached me and objected to my opinions. Then again, it’s been years since I’ve given anything less than 3 stars — if a book’s not holding my attention, I’ll stop reading it and move on. I’ve chosen not to write reviews for books I did not finish. The following is my opinion and thoughts on the whole reader-reviewer vs. author relationship.
Generally, I avoid the drama that pops up in the blogsphere regarding reviews, authors, and book-bloggers. And by “avoid” I mean, “keeping myself informed, but seldom (if ever) commenting“. The main reason is timing. By the time I become aware of an incident, someone else has expressed an opinion so close to mine, I find that I don’t have anything else to say or add to the conversation. But, after alll the stuff that’s happened since January, I felt it’s time I spoke up instead of just (silently) agreeing with the others. Like most book-bloggers, I believe that reviews are for readers, and that negative reviews do not equate to personal attacks against the author, nor are they a form of harassment. . .even if the reviews are snarky and/or full of expletives.
The Way I see it
Authors are independent contractors associated with major corporations and small businesses (major publishing houses; small presses; e-presses), or they are self-employed (self-published). Books are a consumer product, to be bought (or borrowed from a library/friend) by consumers (readers). Consumers have a right to share their opinions about products. Reviews are meant to inform, advise, or warn other consumers about the product.
And before anyone takes issue with the words “have a right“, I mean that reviews are personal opinions. As such, they are protected speech and consumers can express them in a public forum without fear of reprisals from the product’s producers.
(As an aside — if the Supreme Court can declare that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional because it infringes on free speech, allowing individuals to basically lie about their service record for personal gain, then my personal opinions about books sure as hell better be protected by the First Amendment.)
Yes, authors have the same rights concerning opinions. However, arguing with a reader over the validity and content of her review of a book is another matter entirely. It gives the impression that the author expect nothing less than universal praise and can’t accept the possibility that someone doesn’t like her book. Readers have different tastes. They might have an issue with something specific — a message the book might be sending, a character’s behavior, the way the book ends. An author cannot tell a reader her reaction to the book is wrong just because others didn’t have the same reaction. It won’t end well.
Many bloggers, and those who post reviews on Goodreads or similar sites, don’t like it when an author shows up to say something like “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy my book. Thank you for taking the time to read it.” — or in the case of a positive review, “I’m glad you enjoyed my book!” They believe the author’s presence stifles the conversation. Since it varies from person to person, the best advise for authors is don’t comment (unless you know the reviewer’s preference).
Navigating Reader Reviews
Most readers know what they are looking for in reviews written by other readers. If not, they will figure it out by trial and error. Eventually, they will know which blog/review sites fit their needs based on the blogger’s/reviewer’s “style” (Snarky? Playful? Casual?) and reading tastes. They will also learn, hopefully, how to identify which Amazon and Goodreads reviews are honest opinions and which are written by someone with an agenda — sockpuppet, well-meaning family and friends of the author, quid pro quo reviews, retaliatory reviews. Readers are intelligent enough to take into consideration all the information they’ve gathered and make a decision, based on their own personal tastes. Not every negative review will drive every reader away. Too many glowing 5-star reviews can turn off potential customers — especially if those reviews have little or no substance and there are too few/no lower starred reviews to counter-balance them. It’s too suspicious, something more must be going on. Some readers have been burned too many times to trust any 5-star reviews unless it’s written by someone they know and trust. Even well-known, well-established authors have negative reviews because not everyone loves every book. Readers get this and most have zero tolerance for those who game the system.
Adding books to shelves labeled “author behaving badly” (or something similar) and then linking/explaining why on Goodreads is a form of consumer advocacy — basically “Buyer Beware”. I think it’s important to let others know when an author reacts badly to a review. There are too many other books out there for readers to waste their time and money on someone who may retaliate when the reader leaves a less-than glowing review. I still remember, back in 2008, when Reba Belle was harassed by an author over her non-inflammatory, 3-star review. The author’s comments are polite — as in, “she didn’t use expletives and she didn’t resort to name calling” — but condescending. However, if you read over Dear Author/Jane’s various posts, you’ll notice that the author’s politeness was just a facade. She went after the reviewer with a vengeance. Not over a ranting, 1-star review, but over a politely worded, 3-star one.
(Note: the first article listed in that last link mentions another author who went after a reviewer around the same time Reba was harassed. It’s an interesting read — and there are comments as recent as December 2011. The comment by Peter Durward Harris is particularly illuminating. If you want to see the archived post from the author’s website, here’s the link — just scroll down passed the broken picture links.)
As I was writing this post, I learned that Goodreads would be initiating/instituting a (supposedly long-standing) policy. Under this “new” guidelines, non-reviews will be hidden from the general membership and will only be visible to the reviewer and her friends and followers. This is disturbing because readers use those non-review-type reviews to report on/mention bad behavior and explain why they won’t be reading those books. The readers don’t give a star rating, which is fair since they did not read the books — they’re just giving the general readership a “buyer beware” notice. Goodreads’ stance is, if it’s not about the book, it shouldn’t be on the book page.
Goodreads is trying to shield members like we’re a bunch of four-year-olds who shouldn’t be exposed to such negativity. As you can imagine, there were plenty of irate members because Goodreads went ahead and started hiding the “non-reviews” without any advanced notice. And because of a glitch, the “non-reviews” were hidden from the members who created them. That’s how they found out what was going on. Goodreads has temporarily un-hid the reviews, probably to fix the glitch.
For the most part, members are asking Goodreads to reconsider the mass-hiding — either give the membership the option to see/hide those reviews or, change the filtering so the non-reviews are sorted to the back pages regardless of the popularity of the “review” and allow it to be viewable to the general membership. In the meantime, there is a work-around: after the book is added to the shelf, instead of making a note in the review box, just add a comment in the “comment” area. As long as the review box is empty, and there isn’t a star rating, it’s not counted as a review.
I think Goodreads is making a mistake by trying to hide/suppress this type of information. It won’t make the tension between reader-reviewers and writers go away or lessen them. The majority of the authors understand that reviews are for readers and refrain from commenting, but because of the small percentage of authors who just don’t get it, the readers must be on the alert. Goodreads is trying to dictate what constitute a helpful or useful review, and yet, some of the most popular/liked reviews for a book are the non-reviews.
There are those who say, “Well Goodreads can do what they like, it’s their site. If you don’t like it, you can leave.“ This is true. Goodreads uses user-generated content, so if enough of us leave the site, it could have some impact. Unlike their decision to cancel the book swap feature — which only those living in the U. S. and maybe Canada could use — if a couple million users boycotted the site by deleting their accounts, it could have a huge impact.
As I’ve said earlier, books are products. People boycott companies for their CEO’s personal beliefs. Why should books and authors be held to a different standard? If a reader doesn’t want to support a writer, for whatever reason, they should be allowed to say so in a public forum so others can make informed decisions. Suppressing the information, and making it difficult to find unless you “friend” 8 million+ users (which you can’t do), is chilling free speech.
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When I decided to write this piece, I had originally intended to touch on other aspects of book-blogging (ARCs, for instance). It’s taken too long get my thoughts down, so if I tried to get it all in one post, I’d never get it finished. I might do a second post — but not just yet. I haven’t picked up a book in well over a week.