"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Friendship, Fealty and Five-Star Reviews

I’m starting to notice a pattern with the reviews I’m posting on Amazon and Goodreads. 

It used to be easy. I had no problem explaining my reaction to books when the author was an anonymous name on a cover. In fact, I prided myself on my savvy and open-minded analysis. But these days I’m reading a lot of my friend’s books. I feel pressure to post a good (make that great) review, and I’m starting to feel like a marketing agent, feeding superlatives into the Star-Maker Machine. I don’t think I’m alone, so I’m writing this in hopes it will do one of two things: 1) serve as an explanation for all future reviews and 2) beg forgiveness in advance from friends for any damage done to our relationship.

 This is how it used to work-- a NY publisher released a book, a few dozen advance copies were  reviewed by newspapers and magazines and the results used as a marketing tool. Books were well edited. They were the cream of the crop. Readers bought everything a favorite author wrote. Readers expected to enjoy them. And for the most part, they weren't disappointed.  

But a lot of my friends are writers. As we know, writers don’t buy books so we press free copies on them and wait for their glowing praise to hit Amazon and Goodreads. The implied contract is that they will 5-star me if I 5-star them. There’s the problem. Many times I really want to rate them three stars. After all, three is average, middle of the pack. It means “this book is okay.” But I wrestle with issues of loyalty, friendship and whether I am going to torpedo their career with a less than glowing rating. None of us are immune from this. Writers panic over a low rating like a super-star model with a pimple.  

Fair to say that each of us brings out the best book we are capable of writing. But are we all equal? I have wrestled with a few reviews lately that left me wondering whether to be fair, brave or accurate. And I resent being put in that position. Yet, authors need our reviews.

Here’s what I intend to do. I’m going back into my reviews and I’m going to critically examine what I wrote. One book I’m reading right now actually starts on page 17. That’s where the author stopped playing editorial catch-up with a convoluted back-story--and actually started writing the story. It’s a tough thing to be honest to your friends. Ask any husband whose wife asks “Does this dress make me look fat?” (A deer-in-the-headlights moment we’ve all experienced.)   

I went back and reviewed Amazon’s rating system, and here’s what it says: 1=I hate it, 2= I don’t like it, 3= it’s okay, 4= I like it, 5= I love it. According to this rating system, The number of stars I assign a book is about me, the reader, not about the writer. It’s my job to explain my reasoning in the box.

Some people are braver than I am.  My favorite review is one that says “IMHO this book is too long. The story arc is over and then we take a random turn and off we go again. The author should have written two books. That way each of them would be good.” That was my opinion, which I voiced to the author, but I choked when it was time to review her. I gave her a raving 5 stars because I knew she expected it. The book was good. It just wasn't great. In retrospect, I betrayed all three of us: myself, the author and the reader.   

When did I realize I wasn’t being fair? When I read something Velda Brotherton, a notable writer, wrote on MK McClintock's Blog about my new novel, Cholama Moon, a work I am very proud of. But the book contains several mistakes that the proofer caught, but somehow the changes didn't get made and now the publisher doesn't have time to go back and change them. I love Velda's review:     

   Anne, what a charming comparison of your work to the mix of chocolate and peanut butter. As you know, I thoroughly enjoyed your book and think your writing is as near to perfection as anyone gets. You put the reader on sight until they feel they have become one of the characters. I'm sharing this on my FB page so everyone I know can see how talented you are.

And it got me to thinking. I know when I deserve an accolade—and so does every other writer—in their heart.But what if it doesn't deserve 5 stars? What if there are a few typos or issues that didn't get corrected? Does that make a great book merely good? What if a proofer slips up? Or the writer isn't ready for prime time? But honesty is a slippery slope. Amazon runs on the 4 and 5 Star system. To rate a book a 3 is to limit its exposure and doom it to failure. There is no room for average in the corporate world. Everything has to be superfluous or it doesn't count.  Word of mouth sells most books these days. And to be honest, I often don't care for a book for reasons that have nothing to do with the author's skill. Maybe it's the genre, or the violence or language. Maybe it's the way I rush through it or the amount of sugar (or coffee) I indulge in while I'm reading. So here it is, a promise to be fair and honest, but not to kill the author.

I'd love to hear comments, if only to know I'm not alone out there.