The negative side of positive reviews 41

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By Riley Banks


At the risk of being wildly unpopular, I am going to go out on a limb and say the mechanisms surrounding self-publishing are making Indie authors soft.

I’m not being antagonistic, particularly as I’m one of those ‘soft’ Indie authors in question.

But think about it for a second.

Before self-publishing became easily accessible to the masses, there were only two ways to get your manuscript published.


The first was to jump through a plethora of ever-increasing hoops that started with writing the best damned manuscript you could, then condensing it down to a 2 or 3 page synopsis, then querying agents and/or publishers.

Then you had to wait for months to get a response, watching your letter box and  hoping it wasn’t another ‘sorry but your book just isn’t quite what we’re looking for’ rejection slip.If you were one of the lucky few, you eventually got picked up by an agent, or publishing house and paid a modest sum to be a legitimate author but had to wait up to two years to see your manuscript as a book on a bookstore shelf.Once your book was released to the public, you had to sit back and watch as it was subjected to rigorous critiquing by a bunch of jaded critics paid to tear your baby apart. Sure, there is definitely some back-scratching that goes on in the trade publishing world, but for the most part, the critics could (and did) say whatever they wanted about your work.

If you were lucky, you won a couple of awards and got some positive feedback. Less than 1% of authors became bestsellers and made a substantial living off their books.

The other way to be published was to pay out your hard earned money for a vanity press to print off your manuscript. That would then sit around in your garage or basement in boxes while you tried to flog it off to your neighbours, family, friends, work mates and every single person who had the misfortune of stumbling into your path.



Luck, for the vanity publisher, was breaking even and making back the initial outlay. Occasionally self-help or non-fiction books sold well enough through vanity publishing to make the author a modicum of money but generally it supplemented income made through other avenues.That all changed with the explosion of ebooks and Print-On-Demand publishing.Now literally anyone can – and does – publish books.


I’d be a fool to decry the self-publishing boom. It has made my life easier and got my book into the public arena in a fraction of the time it would have taken in the past – which is a godsend for someone with very little spare time to send multiple submissions out to publishers and agents. Self-publishing meant, that at least for the moment, I could bypass those lengthy, time-consuming steps.


Mind you, as an experienced self-publisher, I know that it’s all a bit of a misnomer, and what you trade in time up front, you pay in time marketing and promoting on the back end (but that’s a whole other blog post). One of those dreaded jobs the self-published author has to do is try to drum up reviews, which in turn drive sales.



Ah, book reviews! Being involved both as a writer and a book blogger, I now know how much of a mixed bag they really are. They are both a blessing and a curse for all involved.


I’ve been reviewing books for 12 months now, which has given me somewhat of an insight into the new role book bloggers play in the publishing industry.


I’m sure there will be those that disagree (and some heartily) but I truly believe book bloggers have become the new slush pile.


shutterstock_106255967THE GOOD OLD DAYS:


Don’t believe me? Well, in the good old days, agents and publishers waded through a pile of manuscripts to find the ones good enough to be published.


While I’m sure they overlooked some gems in their time. We’ve all heard the stories of how many times JK Rowling was rejected before a publishing company took a chance on her. But what nobody really talks about are the hundreds, possibly even hundreds of thousands of really bad books the world was spared because of that slush pile.


We didn’t have to suffer through poorly crafted, and even poorer edited manuscripts. By the time we got the book in our hands, it was generally well polished.


When it was reviewed, whether in the New York Times, or the local newspaper, the only thing being critiqued was the power of the story, and whether the reviewer liked it or not.


Fast forward to the new publishing frontier, where any cowboy with a computer can – and does – publish a book.


As a book blogger, I have been asked to review books, and find positive things to say about books that are barely even publishable, and frankly, little better than rough first drafts.


As a reader, I’ve bought books that sounded great in the blurb but were so full of spelling and grammatical errors, inconsistent POVs, poor plots, and weak characters it became a struggle just to get to the end.


I am consistently appalled to find poor quality drafts and unfinished/unedited works being passed off as finished books.


Too many Indie authors are skipping the important steps of editing and polishing their manuscript, hurrying inferior works onto virtual shelves in time to jump on any old bandwagon rolling by.


Take the flood of 50 Shades of Grey knock-offs doing the rounds on the Internet. Two years ago BDSM books languished around the fringes of the publishing industry – generally on those shelves at the back of the adult book store where you had to wear a disguise to go in and purchase.

But when 50SOG took off, so did the copy cats.

I can’t even count the amount of BDSM erotica books on the market right now. A couple are remarkably well-written and deserve to be read. The vast majority are utter rubbish and would be better off lining the bottom of my cat’s litter tray.

Unfortunately, this is a growing trend not just in the erotica genre, but in many others as well.


‘Authors’, and I use that term loosely, think that if they liberally dust their books with explicit sex scenes people will be so turned on that they overlook poor plot structure, grammatical and spelling errors or even completely unlikable characters.

They think if they copy the plot structure from their favourite popular novels the audience will lap it up.


Unfortunately, it is too often true. People do buy these books but what is the overall cost to the industry?



While Indie authors definitely have their fans, and no one can deny it has forever changed the publishing landscape, poor quality hurts us all.

It perpetuates the myth (that is all too often truth) that self-published books are inferior to trade published.

Unfortunately, book bloggers are somewhat responsible for this belief.

For the most part, book bloggers are just as inexperienced as the authors they are reading.


That is both good and bad.


Good because they are passionate about reading, and unjaded by the cynicism that too all too often plagues long-term book reviewers.

Good because they are often willing to read Indie authors where the big boys aren’t.

Good because they make it so much easier for Indie authors to get reviews and publicity, which in turn increases sales and profits.


However, there is definitely a flip side to that coin.


The inexperience of book bloggers means they often lack the confidence to be critical when a book calls for it.

I’ve been in forums where book bloggers openly admit they will not give less than 4 stars on their site because they don’t want to be known for being negative.

I’ve also heard book bloggers admit to being afraid to give negative reviews because they are scared of the backlash from authors, who have gone on hate campaigns to bad mouth bloggers and mark down all their reviews.

So they resort to giving overly positive reviews for books that are inferior.

I’ve seen a number of book blogger sites that say if they don’t like the book, they won’t publish a review. Can you imagine The New York Times  refusing to publish a review because the reader didn’t like the book? Can you imagine if they only published positive, overly nice reviews and gave everyone 4 or 5 stars, even if they weren’t deserved?


Undeserved five star reviews do nothing but ensure the market gets flooded with even more inferior writing. 


It’s possible to be critical without being harsh; to give feedback rather than useless, non-helpful fluff that praises what does not deserve to be praised.

I’m not saying bloggers should be routinely ripping books to shreds.

On the other hand, book bloggers should not be giving leniency just because a book is Indie-published.

In fact, quite the opposite is true – you should be holding it to a higher standard.

You owe it to the people who read your reviews to give them honest opinions.

Honesty includes pointing out where there were faults. Tell your readers how a book compares to others in its genre.



Think about it.

Trade published authors learn early on to develop thick skin. They learn to overcome rejections and criticisms, to take the knock backs and negative reviews and learn from them. Or, like EL James and Stephanie Meyer, they make enough money not to care what people say about their work, knowing their books won’t appeal to all but are loved by those they do appeal to.

Without exception, all trade published authors have had their fair share of good and bad reviews.

On average, 37% of Stephen King’s books get 5 star ratings, with the rest of the percentage spread out between 1 and 4 stars. 39% of reviews for Suzanne Collins’ The Mocking were 5 star.

Yet I’ve seen Indie books where the percentage of 5 star reviews are much higher, sometimes as much as 85%.


Some of those books I’ve read and found they were so badly written, I could not finish them.

One such Indie book I read had 81% 4 and 5 star reviews, yet I couldn’t even finish it. The book was completely littered with bad grammar and spelling, poor plot, and incredibly weak characters.

When I read between the lines of the reviews, it seemed most people had the same issues as me. They, too, spoke about the unlikable characters, and pointed out the mistakes. Very few people actually sounded as if they liked the book.

Yet they still gave it 5 stars!


To me, a 5 star book is something I would go back and read again and again. If I’ve given a book 5 stars, I loved it and immediately ran off to tell someone about it as soon as I finished reading.

It didn’t have to be the most perfect piece of literature. But I had to love it completely, and feel so passionate about it, that a part of the story will stay with me forever.

So why do so many book bloggers hand out 5 star ratings like its welfare?

Undeserved 5 star reviews only dilute the power of a real 5 star rating.


But even worse than that, it makes Indie authors soft.

They come to believe their book deserves 5 stars from everyone. They even get upset when someone has the audacity to tell them the truth. I’ve had authors complain about being given 3 stars, like I have somehow done them a disservice.

I even had one author demand I take down a 3 star review because she only accepted 4 or 5 stars! (No word of a lie – it really happened)


Right, now stepping down off my soap box and getting ready for those that disagree with me. Feel free to post your thoughts.

If you want to know how to write better book reviews, check out 6 things you need to know about book reviews.

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About Riley Banks

Riley Banks is the author of Vampire Origins, and The William S Club. She blogs about books, entertainment, and writing. For more information on Riley Banks and her books, go to

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41 thoughts on “The negative side of positive reviews

  • OrisiBlink

    Here, here!

    I absolutely, completely and utterly agree with you wholeheartedly. It is frustrating and down right annoying at the amount of ‘crap’ that is floating around these days.

    I think what you said about the gruelling process that an author used to go through to even have an agent read the first chapter is spot on, some authors are missing these steps completely. Some self-published authors are just not having that pressure put upon them and their manuscripts to turn them in to diamonds.

    It’s a shame, and I’m hoping against hope that it is just a fad, and that it’ll be fashionable again soon to be knocked about by a merciless agent and the publishing house they work for!

    Thanks so much for writing this. It’s brilliant. I’m gonna share it to death 😀

  • Jill Dobbe

    Well said! I am so glad that I had you review my book. I know that you gave it an honest review, too. I think it is wonderful that there are more options now for publishing giving more of us a chance to get our books out there. However, I don’t think that that means authors should be given carte blanche to write crap with a million grammatical errors. I agree that indie authors should also be held to high standards. Books with a lot of errors just turn me off no matter how good the book, and it gives indie publishers a bad rap. Loved the article. ~Jill

  • Scott Rudolphlink

    Thank you for posting this! I have only written one review on my blog to this point, and was wondering what I do if I get a book that maybe doesn’t appeal to me. You helped me make up my mind to be credible and fair. Wish I could link this to my blog. Also, did not find this preachy at all. Many thanks!

  • JJ Toner

    Brilliant blog post. I had to agree with everything you said. In fact, you’ve written a post that I have been trying (unsuccessfully) to write for ages. My biggest problem with most indie books is with the plots. I think I could live with the bad grammar and typos if an editor had vetted the plot before the book was published.

  • Giacomo Giammatteo

    excellent post! I agree about the reviews. The biggest problem is the “fluffed up” 5 * reviews diminish the real ones. As to beta readers, I think they are the most important part of preparing a book. I use beta readers instead of a content editor, though I definitely use copy editors.

  • Maggie Bolitho

    I borrow the books of best-selling authors from the library. I try to buy as many books by emerging writers as I can, to put my money where my dreams are.

    Thank you for this blog that addresses the poor quality of many indie books. I don’t care if a book has come to me free or for a nominal amount like 99¢. If a writer hasn’t put the effort and resources into a book to polish it well, I feel cheated. Cheated of the time I’ve invested in trying to read it. I’m a ruthless reader so I give a book no more than 50 pages to hook me. Sometimes less than that.

    Everyone learns from their own mistakes. A smart person learns from someone else’s. The lessons I’ve taken from the some of the self-pubbed books I’ve read is: 1) find a professional editor you trust, 2) invest as much money as you can in his or her services and 3) don’t rush the process.

    I haven’t self-pubbed yet but when/if I do, I’ll expect readers to be every bit as demanding as I am.

  • Riley Banks

    Thanks for the compliments Maggie and Sacrasticus Rex. I have read some really brilliant Indie books. And then I’ve read some stuff that should never have been published. I think another big thing all writers, whether Indie or traditionally published, should learn is that there is always something new to learn. 😉

    Read up on the craft of writing, read everything you can about the process of publishing/self-publishing. Don’t be too quick to rush it out. Go through the entire process. Have people read it before it goes up – and preferably not your mother or grandmother or best friend who will slather you with praise whether it is deserved or not. Ask a couple of professional writers or other Indie authors to have a read through, if you can. And listen to their feedback. If they tell you there are plot holes, do your best to fix them. If they tell you you need someone to do a thorough edit, don’t just take it as a suggestion but as an order that must be followed through. Read about the mistakes others have made before you and learn from them. My writing is better today than it was even 12 months ago – and I know it will be better again in another 12 months time as I hone and work on my craft. I look back on some of the things I wrote last year and cringe, wondering how the hell I thought that was finished.

    And that, in itself, is an important lesson. The value of letting a manuscript mature. Too many people finish the book and have it up for sale on Amazon a week later. There is no harm in letting it sit a couple of months. Give it to your test audience, and here’s a tip, start on your next project while you’re waiting for their feedback. The longer you can leave a manuscript sit, the better it gets (at least in my opinion). Not magically, of course. You have to go back and read through it but on re-editing, you will see things you missed the first, second and third times through.

    Good luck with your first attempts into publishing. We’re all still learning and probably always will be. Especially with how fast the industry is changing.

  • Becca Lostinbooks

    “By giving overly positive reviews for books that are inferior, are we helping to clean up the image of self-published authors or are we just ensuring the market is flooded with more inferior writing?”

    I cannot agree more that self-publishing is a double-edged sword. Some are great authors and some should never have been sent out to anyone. Self-publishing makes everyone think they should be authors, when they shouldn’t. It takes talent and hard work. I have read some books that contain neither talent nor hard work. I was sent one that had not even gone through a spell check! Laziness. Then authors get upset when we bloggers don’t like the book. Sometimes it is just personal preference. There are NYT bestsellers that someone doesn’t like. Not every single person is going to like the book.

  • Riley Banks

    Exactly Becca. Sometimes I wish self-publishing had a few more gatekeepers, like traditional publishing, to weed out the weak and inferior books. I both love and hate it, depending on whose manuscript I am reading.

  • Jacqueline Patricks

    I’ve been thinking about writing on this exact subject and will probably still do so. I agree, 100%, with everything you’ve written. 5 star books are badass books I’d reread and buy in multiple formats. They’re life-changing, can’t put down, can’t go to sleep ever sort of books. Sure maybe some of these readers really do feel this way about some of these books as they’re less critical of reviewing than authors are, but seriously? All 5 stars? So if all the grammatical errors, plot holes and poor characterizations don’t earn a 2 star from these reviewers, I’d really hate to see what they’re version of a 1 or 2 star book really is.

  • Riley Banks

    I’m starting to think it might help the book community to just take away star ratings and make people articulate what they like and dislike about a book. Mind you, that might mean less reviews are posted but maybe they’ll be really well thought out reviews that actually mean something.

  • Leonie Rogers

    I think that might be a good idea, Riley.

    As a reader, I usually read the blurb, check out the cover, and read a few reviews – from across the spectrum. Reviews that say “I loved this book” and nothing else, are not usually helpful, but neither are “I hated this book” and nothing else. Reviews that discuss structure, plot (without spoilers), and writing style are very helpful.

    As a writer, I want to know whether readers can relate to my characters, and enjoy my style, and whether the story drew them into my world. But at the same time, I need to know that they hated my dialogue, or thought I had too many/too few points of view, or that I write only with one voice, or that my plot was predictable or had gaping holes. But I would like them to say those things politely!

  • Judy-Leslie

    I think there are a lot of traditionally published books out there now that are rubbish. Publishing is a business and the publishers have lowered their standards to make money. They have cut editors and push junk. So, just because the book has gone through a traditional publisher doesn’t it mean should be held up as better then someone who self published. I agree there needs to a way to screen out the awful ebooks flooding the market, but they need to screen out the awful ones the publishing companies are pushing too.

  • Riley Banks

    I agree – did not mean that anything that is trade published is brilliant. But you only have to look at the reviews of trade published books online to see that people are far more willing to judge them honestly than they are Indies. The reviews on most trade published books range from glowing five stars to flaming one stars, and everything in between. Whereas I’ve read the reviews on some of the worst books I’ve been given to read, and seen all four and five star reviews. It’s almost like people think 4 stars is marking them down, and 3 stars is being mean! According to Goodreads and Amazon, 3 stars still means you liked the book.

  • Jenevive Desroches

    I really appreciated reading this. It’s put words to a lot of what I’ve been thinking and feeling recently, in regards to indie-published books.

    It’s not harsh, it’s honest. And I think we writers have grown a bit too thin-skinned and impatient with the process of constructive criticism. We need to hear that sometimes a book just needs more time and more work.

    So, thanks.

  • Kathryn Goldman

    I just finished reading a self-pubbed book, my first. And I was thinking about this very issue. I enjoyed the book, but was annoyed by typos and poor grammar. However, the plot was fairly tight and I finished it. There are many traditionally published books I have never finished. So, how many stars to give it? If Wolf Hall is a 5 in my opinion, then the book I just finished is no more than a 3 (historical fiction genre). But a 3 that is worth reading and I will read the prequels and the sequel because I liked the characters. Reliable standards for reviewing are needed. Or a list of reliable reviewers of indie work whose standards are known.

  • Kari

    Editing is essential to both readability and story. The current indie population on Amazon and Kobo show a wide swing from books who have edited to the point there is no voice to books that contain more than one verb tense in a fragment. Not sentence. Fragment. It is possible to boost the author’s voice or story while asking for revision, but there are arguments.
    What’s more a review less than four stars receives criticism itself. Notes that editing would make the book wonderful, or that characterization looks similar to other stories in the genre are argued by other readers and sometimes the author themselves. At this point, I no longer review on purchase sites.
    I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of indie authorship and have wondered: who reads the average independent author? I’m not talking about award winning short story writers who went indie. Who reads the majority of work out there? Are indie authors selling to each other? Are they bolstering their own writing and progressing as authors if there is no true accounting for the shades of nuance that a tightly written novel possesses?
    I self pubbed one book to learn how to use my software and how Amazon, etc work. I didn’t like the editing or look, so I took the book down. I hired a professional editor. It was expensive. I’ll put the book back up once revisions are made, but I feel this book is my loss leader. I don’t regret the decision to learn and experiment, but I’m going to keep submitting to agents and publishers for manuscripts I feel deserve a wider audience.

    I love reading. Discovering a new indie author makes my day. I wish there were more honest reviews to help me make a decision when it comes time to buy a book, but between five star reviews and people like me who have given up reviewing because of the strong negative reaction my honest review receives, even just 3 stars because it was OK, I don’t spend much on an author I’ve never read before. On the other hand, if I’ve read your lower-priced, highly reviewed book and loved it, I will absolutely shell out $7 to read your latest ebook.

  • March McCarron

    Wonderful post! I can’t agree with you more. The beauty of self publishing is that anyone can publish. But if reviewers give unwarranted reviews the whole system doesn’t work. I’ve read plenty of indies that I’ve loved. But I’ve also read quite a few where the flaws were so apparent and pervasive that I could not begin to understand the ubiquitous high ratings. 5 stars should mean something! I reserve 5 stars for books that really mean something to me, for books that I feel inclined to reread, for books that stick in my head long after I’ve read “the end.”

    Self publishing only works when reviewers are honest.

  • Riley Banks

    Thanks so much for the comments. It is a catch .22 because I love supporting Indie authors (and am myself one) but I refuse to be less than honest in my review (of any book, not just Indie or self-published). If there are flaws, I will point them out. Yes, I have been attacked by at least one Indie who did not like my 3 star review of her book (and I was actually being generous giving 3), but I just added my review guidelines to my blog and make it very clear the standards I will hold a book to. I also stated up front that people shouldn’t send me their book for review if they don’t like honesty.

    Kari – I’m in a similar situation as you. While I am Indie at the moment, I really want to be trade published. Have just started sending my books out to agents in the hopes of becoming trade published soon. Nothing against the Indie movement but it is just too exhausting trying to be everything on your own.

  • Kari

    Riley, I had a similar problem with reviews. I have a system and stand by it. At the same time, finishing a book is a truly impressive feat and sharing it with the world shows such guts. You have to admire that.

    Best of luck Riley. I look forward to seeing your book in the coming years.

  • Jackie Weger

    Riley Banks! Holy Smokes. You nailed it. I was traditionally published for eighteen years. I own the rights to all of my books so decided to release them in digital format. I hired professionals to format and edit. It’s an investment in myself and my work. Every single indie FB group I am in begs it’s group members for reviews. I have bought dozens. They are awful. One group I am in blatantly states NOT to post three star or less reviews. I’m not writing bestsellers. I’m happy with a three star review. Hey! I paid my $$$. Don’t waste my time–even if your book is free. Readers notice those awful books. I lurked in a reader forum–what an earful! Readers are furious they are being used as beta readers when what they want is to be entertained–and they are returning the books! Said one: “I’m not writing a review. I’m not wasting my time. I just want my money back.” I’m sorry to mention this but many of the indie authors I’ve meet get angry when a reader says something is wrong with a book. One indie author said:” I don’t understand why she couldn’t overlook formatting problems. What’s a skewed POV? I didn’t misspell all that many words.” Actually–it’s depressing–because the situation is not going to change. But–my reputation is worth something to me and when I put my name on a review, I’m telling it like it is.

  • Lucy Pireel

    Hi Riley,
    Great post and exactly how I feel about it. However, reality is that when I get to read a book to review and it is not up to standard (plot holes, SPaG (not one or two typos, but littered), continuity issues, head hopping, you name it) I’ll mail the author and tell them what I’ve found in my capacity as proof-reader. I offer them my review with the warning that I will be honest and if the story has potential I will be able to maybe give it a 2- or 3 star for potential, but will also mention the technical errors the book has and why I think it shouldn’t have been published. Up till now all of those have declined the review and politely thanked me for the effort of pointing out the mistakes to be dealt with. Every now and then there is the author who thinks they have written the next best thing since sliced bread, because they’ve had only 4 and 5-star reviews on their book, so I must be jealous of their perfect work. Some of them get vindictive. That is the reason I do not even write a review when I can’t finish a book, or finished it but it is just not up to publishing standard.
    I like to think people, readers and authors alike, will know that when I review a book it is at least worth their time and money, because I am honest and will only tell them about the books I really, really liked. Plus why I really liked them.
    I will not mention the ratio books read and reviews written, but at times I think that if there was a mechanism to remove all that just shouldn’t be on the shelves, Amazon would be not as filled with ‘books’ as is now.
    I have only ever given a book a three star while it was well written, but that was because even if a book is technically well written it still can be boring and totally unappealing while being well within my scope of ‘genres’ I love.
    Anyhow, I review only those I loved and will not risk a slander campaign on my work by an infuriated author and her/his friends because I am hones and they cannot take it.
    I know it is surrendering to bullies, but unfair as it is, bullying and trolling on the interweb is all too real, and at times scary powerful.

  • Riley Banks

    Interesting thoughts, Lucy, and I do understand your dilemma. Maybe it is the journalist in me that doesn’t really care what people think about my opinions. They are mine and I am completely entitled to them – which means if I don’t like a book, I will say so. That being said, I have yet to have a single negative reaction unless you count the initial author who asked me to take it down, and even then, I politely told her to shove it where the sun don’t shine (okay, I may not have used those words, but that was the very clear message). I have exceedingly clear review guidelines on my site that clearly state that if I take the time to read your work, I reserve the right to post the review. I would never even bother asking an author for permission to post it – and couldn’t imagine many authors who would say yes if given the option.

    One benefit of having such harsh review policies is that it does weed out the wheat from the chaff. The divas go running for the hills while the genuine authors who are mature enough to handle a real review politely ask me for an honest review.

    Little word of advice though Lucy, unless an author is paying you an hourly rate to proofread their manuscript, don’t offer that service. You cheapen your own talents and get used and abused in the process.

    I know trolls and bullies are out there but their bark is often worse than their bite – unless of course you get sucked into their negativity. If you ever want to chat about it more, email me.

  • Edward Murphy

    I just self published my second book through createspace. I would love to have it reviewed by someone with the proper credentials to do so. The reviews that I have gotten on have all been glowing. They have also mostly been from family and friends. After my first book I said that I would never write another without getting it professionally edited. I KNOW that it’s the right thing to do. The problem is that it almost doubles the expense of publishing. That means I have to sell almost twice as many books just to break even. Since I have to be realistic about the chances of my book “taking off” I elected to self edit…again. I did have a few people read my work. I asked them to concentrate on editing as they read.

    That was the most reasonable solution that I could come up with, all things considered, given my personal circumstances. I’m happy with the end result. I feel that I’ve written a good book that flows easily and has a good story. However, I still shudder to think what a professional reviewer might have to say.

  • Lchucklesthescot

    I agree with what you said about 5 star reviews from bloggers. As a new blogger, I give honest reviews and I can’t justify 3-5 stars for books where the writing was poor, characters were obnoxious or the plot was a mess. If I can’t connect with the hero, I don’t enjoy the book and struggle to even finish it. I’m not prepared to waste 300 pages in the hope that he or she suddenly becomes nice or a terrible plot somehow muddles together!

    I don’t enjoy giving low reviews to Indie authors but when someone asks me to look at their book, they know I will be honest but constructive. I’m building my review reputation on that premise and that’s why I try to select my reads carefully.

  • Riley Banks

    I think that’s the key – what is your purpose in doing a review. If you’re just writing something for a friend, or to support a fellow author, then I think you’re going to have a harder time being honest about flaws, and may tend to just gloss over and find something nice to say.

    But if, like me, you’re trying to build a reputation as a serious reviewer, then you owe it to the people who will read your reviews to be completely honest and not pull your punches.

    There’s a downside to writing reviews too – that is can sometimes seriously ruin your enjoyment of reading, particularly when you get a string of bad books in a row – but that’s a topic for a whole other blog post.

  • Marni J

    Thank you for your spot on post! I am in charge of a Read 4 Review program and there are times I get reviewers wanting to back out because the couldn’t give the book a favorable review. I tell them that backing out isn’t helping anyone and reviews are to help an author know there are issues and give potential readers and idea of what to expect. How can an author do better if they think there are no problems? I am also a book blogger and have ran into the issue of having to post a bad review. The coordinator of the tour had me post a promo instead but with the knowledge that after the tour my review would be posted and it was. I’ve also posted bad reviews on traditionally posted books too.

    Another issue I have is with indie authors putting out their book to the world than correcting the problems from there. How many traditionally published authors do you see do that? The time to correct the problems is before publishing not after.

    Editing….don’t let your bff edit. And don’t let someone half way across the world edit unless it’s set in their country. I’ve seen books that take place in the US but edited by someone in another country. Spellings of certain words are not the US spelling. Slang from the other country used in place of US slang. It just doesn’t look good.

    I love indie writers and I support them daily but there are good indie books and there are bad ones, just like traditionally published books. Reviewers, making a bad one sound good helps nobody.

  • Amy Mable

    Oh, I agree. But I think quality on the whole has taken a dive.

    I signed up to be one of the lucky few to review a new book by an Indie author. It was my first rodeo and I was excited to get a book for free and have the chance to link to my blog from her heavily trafficked site when I wrote my review. And then… I hated it. The quotes for inspiration were misquoted – to the point that they made no sense. There seemed to be 4 people she quoted so often I felt I’d read the entire book she quoted from. I was mortified. I wrote an honest review.

    I received an ebook from a well known publisher for review. It had seven 4-5 star reviews. I gave it 2. One other reviewer also gave it 2. The woman didn’t use a contraction for the first half of the book. I received a print book from the same publisher and there was honestly a period in the very middle of the last word in a sentence and some confusing use of present/past tense in the same sentence by page 2… (It turned out to be just wonderful, but who is proofreading this stuff?)

    Where is the pride in the product? Many of us will go our entire lives without being picked up by a major publishing house, and if we are so fortunate.. if you’re going to bind those beloved words within a cover with book glue and a title page and professional cover… shouldn’t it be worthy? Slapping the second draft between a cover with some glue and a copyright saddens me. (But I do see books as the most sacred thing a human being creates on his/her own.)

  • Mary Kennedy Eastham

    Riley – always tell the truth. Good writing never just happens.
    If someone sends you their book and it just isn’t your style
    or needs revisions, tell the writer. I have two books out
    Squinting Over Water – Stories and The Shadow of a Dog I Can’t Forget, both Indie published, but I wrote and wrote and wrote and
    wrote getting almost $25,000 in writer’s grants before these
    books were published. I held my writing up to the best in the ‘biz. I still do. Im also a Judge for
    writing contests and have read over 10,000 manuscripts in nearly
    every genre. Good writing always rises to the top. It is a shame that
    anyone can ‘publish’ a book now. That Snooki of Jersey Shore has
    published one or two! Say no more!

  • Richard Sutton

    Riley — I’m late to the table, as usual, but I’ll weigh in as another one of those Indie Authors. You mention, in your post: “Once your book was released to the public, you had to sit back and watch as it was subjected to rigorous critiquing by a bunch of jaded critics paid to tear your baby apart.” That’s not actually accurate as to how books received reviews in the “old days” of the big six (five, whatever…). Before a book left the presses for distribution, advance galley copies or bound advanced book copies were circulated to hand-picked reviewers. Of course these reviewers had to be very carefully chosen, because they had a following and their own reputations to consider. However, no publisher would ever send out an advance copy cold. They always went to reviewers the publisher or editor personally knew would enjoy the book. They would be reviewers or critics that specialized in a specific genre, or they would be reviewers who had a soft spot for some specific within the novel. I’m not saying the work wasn’t edited first, of course it was as should all Indie Books be before release, but Indie Authors are actually, in most cases, over a year or two, post release, getting a fairly accurate breakdown of how the targeted readers appreciate what they’ve done, and there are still plenty of trolls and idiots online to post one-star bashes, that it encompasses a much wider range than back in the day when it was all handled by the relationships between the publicists, the publishers and the gatekeepers/media who all got together regularly over cocktails anyway. Anonymous ratings can be an awful systedm, and can actually hurt book sales — I got a one star on B&N for my most recent book, titled, TROLL. The anonymous reviewer left a rating of one star saying, “You’ve been trolled, tra-la”. It persisted for almost a full year despite repeated attempts to get it removed, and brought my average review rating way down, so sales suffered. Indie authors, for the most part, can’t afford the kind of distribution publicity that a publisher can, nor do we have the layers of relationships in the media, but what we can do is to be very, very certain of who our target reader is, and send out lots of copies to these exact people before we release our books. IN this way we level the playing field a bit.

  • Ashley

    I love this article. You couldn’t be more correct. I have book blogger friends who refuse to publish reviews unless they are 4- or 5- stars but then, in order to keep their site active and updating regularly, will post positive reviews of books that are not deserved. I have also heard them say, “The author was so friendly I couldn’t bring myself to say anything bad about their book.” That’s an awful way to think. If you truly like the author they deserve to know the truth about their book. I recently read a book with a story idea I thought was great but it was poorly executed and needed to be re-written after being reviewed by an editor. It read like a manuscript with a lot of potential instead of like a finished book reading for mass audience. When I went to review it online I found that it already had 5-star reviews. Unbelievable.

  • Riley Banks

    Ashley, I think more than anything it is fear that stops people being honest in reviews. They don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I’ll hold my tongue on what I truly think of that – but needless to say, they’ve stopped being reviewers at that stage and have joined the author’s fan club (and there is nothing wrong with that at all, but they are very different roles).

  • David Lee Summers

    I enjoyed this article and I’ve been reading through the comments and I realize there is one issue I’ve not seen addressed. Just because one reviewer gives a book five stars and another gives it one star does not necessarily mean either reviewer is wrong. In most cases, I would argue that many books that are brilliant to some people are utter rubbish or just plain average to others. You can see this by looking at traditionally published books by such folks as Dan Brown or George R. R. Martin. In this sense, I tend to find bloggers whose tastes are similar to mine are a more valuable resource for reviews than Amazon where it’s hard to tell if a book received one star because it was bad, just wasn’t for them, or presented an idea that made the reviewer uncomfortable.

  • Arup Banerji

    This holier than thou attitude of the west is sickening. India has it’s own bench mark, 19000 publishing houses today. If you think there is a lot of ‘crap’ being generated from here- so is it from the English writers there. What you’ve not been able to accept graciously is- we have more readers that the whole European continent put together. AND the domestic Indian market is bigger than the US of A and Europe put together. India has it’s own style of English and writing and we don’t need a bally westerner to sit on judgement. It sadly a case of VERY sour grapes.

  • Linda Ruth Horowitz

    ..Thank you Riley, for this thought-provoking, brilliantly-written opinion/commentary! So full of wisdom, that I have to read it once again… (5 Stars- honestly!)

    Yes; honesty seems to be a disappearing element among those of written words. I first discovered this, even before my novel was published… through several encounters on Authonomy & Goodreads, where it seemed more about:

    ‘I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine…’

    I found this a shocking and sad introduction to what the essence of writing is all about.