Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reviewers Behaving Badly: Selling Reviews, Guaranteeing Praise

'Dollar Signs' photo (c) 2012, AKZOphoto - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Another day, another drama llama - and this one is on the review side of the coin. It seems the review site, chicklitgirls, received a request from author Michele Gorman for a review and they responded with... well, you have to read it to truly take it in.

There is so much wrong with this response that we boggle, and we’re going to have to try and take these issues one at a time.

First, let’s go with the biggie - paying for a review. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, book reviews are for the reader not for the author. We’re here to tell readers our opinion on books, we’re not an author’s marketing department. We cannot imagine how a review can be unbiased if the reviewer is being paid. And even if you are so honest that even when being paid you would definitely give your true opinion, you still look biased - as my law school hammered into me, to be ethical you need to avoid the appearance of bias. Why should anyone trust your reviews when you have such an incentive to lie? And you know that your readers wouldn’t trust your reviews or you wouldn’t go to such elaborate lengths (and, frankly, comical legal threats) to hide your policy. To accept money from reviews and try to hide that from your readers is to lie, deceive and, yes, con your readers. They could be buying these books based on your supposedly honest review - you are conning them.

In our case, on Fangs For the Fantasy, we will never accept money for a review (if you want an advert, buy an advert, but we’re not selling reviews, nor will we do promotion posts) and the only thing we will accept for a review is the book itself (and, even then, we will disclose to our readers that we received a book from the author). This is to ensure that our policy remains unbiased and to establish and maintain trust with our valued readership.

Secondly, if there were any proof of these writer’s bias, it would be their ability to promise a positive review before even reading the book - from just reading a synopsis. We’ve read a lot of books at Fangs, and let us tell you, there is no greater work of marketing spin in the world than a book’s synopsis! Even the most dreary, boring, poorly written drek that you wouldn’t line the cat’s litter tray with tends to have a positively glowing and exciting synopsis.

Yes, by looking at an author’s previous work, you can have an idea that you will probably like the author, but you cannot guarantee a positive review. Different series can be very different in quality - and, especially with long series, there can be a drastic difference in quality from the beginning of the series towards the end. If you can guarantee a positive review before you’ve sat down and read the book, then you do not review - you advertise. You are not a reviewer, you are in the business of marketing.

Thirdly, we boggle at the idea of only posting positive reviews. We know this is a fraught issue in book and reviewing circles, but at Fangs we’re of the opinion that you can’t trust a reviewer if they’re not willing to call drek drek. If a reviewer is too afraid of offending an author (or too afraid of upsetting the person sending them cheques), or too “nice” to criticise or generally incapable of saying when a book is awful, then how can you trust them to say a book is good? In fact, how do you know what the author would consider bad? If all you see is the positive, you don’t know what awful drek they’re slapping 4 stars on. To us, at Fangs, our negative reviews ensure that when we say something is worth 5 fangs? You know we mean it. You know we loved it. You know we endorse it. But would our praise be as valuable if it wasn’t accompanied by a willingness to criticise? How can you trust a reviewer who can only say good things - their praise is hollow because all you hear from them is praise, and it does a disservice to those books that are genuinely worth 4 or 5 stars.

Fourthly, and this is a personal taste matter, but at Fangs we don’t look at other reviews before we write ours. When we receive a copy of your book, we will not go check what other reviewers have said about the book (because we do read other review blogs, it’s possible we may have read a review anyway, but we won’t seek it out or hold it in mind). You will get our opinion of the book, as unbiased and uninfluenced as we can possibly manage; apart from anything else, we often differ strongly from other reviews (and we will never put aside our social justice perspective - that is, after all, the very point of Fangs for the Fantasy in the first place).

It saddens us to read what this reviewer has been doing because we know that there is a habit of dismissing online reviewers and book blogs. Their unethical actions - and they know it’s unethical or they wouldn’t be waving internet lawyers in the writer’s face (to say nothing of the grossly patronising silencing and veiled threat therein) - will reflect on us all and add to the culture that sees our reviews as less worthy, less reliable and less useful than those of traditional, print media, reviews. And just as traditional publishing has its own gatekeepers, that excludes minority authors and themes, so to does traditional media and traditional reviews - which further makes the growing internet culture of review blogs important, especially for marginalised people.