Booking Through Thursday: Honesty

November 21, 2008 at 12:15 am | Posted in Book Blather | 9 Comments

This is my response to this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

I receive a lot of review books, but I have never once told lies about the book just because I got a free copy of it.  However, some authors seem to feel that if they send you a copy of their book for free, you should give it a positive review.

Do you think reviewers are obligated to put up a good review of a book, even if they don’t like it?  Have we come to a point where reviewers *need* to put up disclaimers to (hopefully) save themselves from being harassed by unhappy authors who get negative reviews?

Honest-eeeee… is SUCH a lonely worrrrrd… Billy Joel, you sang it so well!

I think reviewers are obligated not to lie about books.  It does a major disservice to readers to delude them into purchasing a book that they would have passed on due to a more honest critique.  Especially in tough economic times, each book purchased is bought at the expense of another book the reader decides not to buy.  It goes against the nature of capitalism itself to promote weaker books in place of better books.  (If I’d bought every book I’ve read so far this year, I would have spent a minimum of $2065.51, not including tax or shipping).  Even for those of us who are already too broke to buy books and instead mooch them or get them from the library, there is still only so much time in a day to read.  Granted, I’ve read 362 books so far this year, so each one I’ve read has constituted 0.3% of my reading time, but for someone who reads maybe 10 books a year, it’s hardly fair to convince her to waste 10% of her free time reading a second- or third-rate book.

To my mind, there are a few strategies to follow when reviewing free books.  First, if you can’t in good conscience give a positive review, contact the author, agent, or publisher and either tell them or send them a draft of the review you would post.  Then, if they can’t take the heat, give them the opportunity to ask not to have it posted.  Instead, write about how depressing it is that you haven’t read anything great lately, how you have no good blog topics, and how all your readers are going to give up on you and start reading conspiracy theory websites instead.  Second, tell the author, agent, or publisher up front that if you don’t care for the book, you won’t review it in the first place.  They can’t force you to review a book.  The agreement on LibraryThing about accepting review copies of books says that you don’t have to review it, but if you do you’re more likely to receive future review copies.  That sounds fair to me.  Third, cheat and just compare it to similar books, saying that if someone liked X, they’ll probably also like Y.  Think of it as the “you have poor taste, but it’s not my fault” strategy.  Fourth, use heavy sarcasm and hope they’ll think you’re being sincere.

As for disclaimers, I don’t think they would necessarily do any good.  Some people, apparently, are so deranged that it leads one to wonder if they’ve been exposed to rabies.  We can’t really stop such a person from threatening legal repercussions.  I have no idea why an author would expect to be protected from the same level of criticism that actors and filmmakers experience, or indeed the same level of outright insult that all other public figures routinely undergo, other than to assume that more writers happen to suffer from mental illness and/or substance abuse than other creative types.  Which would obviously be unfair and wrong and have no basis in reality.  *blink blink*

Self-published authors, even more so, need to expect a process similar to American Idol, only with far, far less exposure.  I read that something on the order of 200,000 books are published a year, and that’s just in the English language.  The vast majority of them are simply going to fall by the wayside.  Nobody is entitled to being handled with kid gloves, or to any other special consideration.  If you couldn’t find an agent or a publisher for your book, just be glad anybody was willing to read it at all.  It’s a sort of moral victory if you can convince even one person to finish the whole thing – other than your mom (assuming she’s not the book group type).  And if that one person liked it even a little bit, then… you can die happy.

An Author Who Shall Remain Nameless said recently that it was unethical to publish negative reviews and comments about someone or his work.  I think it would only be unethical if you actually thought the work was good, but had some venial personal reason to disparage the writer, for instance if he stole your girlfriend or called you names in third grade.  What’s unethical is to pressure someone to censor her speech for your personal benefit.  I got an A in my ethics course in college, so you can trust me on that.


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  1. If you send your review to the author to critique or to control, you give up your freedom of speech! Never do that. Please come see my response to this touchy questions.

  2. I agree, though I’ve heard of people doing it. Sadly, we may soon come to the point at which someone is going to have to fight this fight in a court of law. If it happens, it will cost time and money that a lot of us don’t have.

  3. I too belive in honestly albeit without the rudeness.

    Read my BTT post!

  4. *believe

  5. I like the idea of just saying “if you liked X, you’ll like Y.” I did that once in a review about a book received from the author which I really disliked, but it was more because the genre wasn’t to my taste than the book actually being bad per se.

  6. Beautifully put. I’m surprised that so many authors put their book out there, and then think for some unimaginable reason that their book won’t be involved in a larger dialog (including criticism) on literature.

  7. I have to say that rudeness may sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. This is probably because I personally value honesty more than niceness, even when I am on the receiving end. I make my share of snarky remarks, but I limit them to extremely well-known and successful figures. I prefer to think of this as “roasting” – a grand old tradition and a sort of left-handed compliment.

  8. I loved your post 🙂 Very well done. My only disagreement is that I would not decline to post a negative review because the author or publisher told me I could only post positive reviews. If someone sends me their book for review, I review it honestly…and if that means I say I did not like it, then so be it. I feel that allowing authors or publishers to dictate what I can and cannot write is A) not consistent to freedom of speech, B) a manipulation of the market, and C) contrary to my integrity as a reviewer – ie: just because I was sent a free book than a good review has been “bought” or if I didn’t like the book than I won’t tell anyone I didn’t like it. I wouldn’t accept a book under those circumstances.

  9. I think, particularly in the case of brand-new writers, that there is a certain amount of sense in graciously offering not to review a book if you know the review would honestly have to be negative. Let the author slink back to the keyboard in shame, and give it another go. It’s probably more a question, though, of contacting the writer *before* spending time writing the review.

    I see my reviews in the light of “any attention is good attention.” If I’m writing about it, it means I think it’s worth someone’s time. I’ve gone out and read books after reading a negative review of them, assuming that if it lacked all merit, the reviewer wouldn’t even have finished reading it. I think it’s best just not to bother with the really achingly bad books.

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