Should Writers Write Book Reviews?

Here’s a question I don’t have an answer to: Should a writer also write book reviews? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ. (Here’s a recent thread from Absolute Write.)

(EDIT: Eep! It just occurred to me that this isn’t clear. I’d never argue that a writer who doesn’t review books should start. I’m asking from the other angle: Is there any danger for writers who do like writing reviews?)

On one hand, you have those who are pro-reviews: They write book reviews because they’re a service to readers. These folks feel that an honest, detailed, and well-articulated review will help others decide whether to purchase a book. They will write positive or negative reviews as needed.

On the other side, you have folks who believe it’s a conflict of interest. They believe that other authors in your genre should be your colleagues, your allies–and if you openly discuss how flawed their books are, you’re treating them more like competition. And if you’re actually out there and published, negative reviews can seem like a backhanded way of promoting your own work.

(And then there are lots of people who just won’t review anything that they didn’t like, for a variety of personal reasons. That also makes perfect sense, though it’s outside the scope of this post.)

That’s food for thought. I can see why an author–particularly one who’s already published, and especially one published through a large publisher–might not want to publicly post reviews of other authors’ novels. Once you’ve published, your name becomes part of your PR, and anything attached to your name becomes part of your brand. You are then Author X, Published with a Big 5 Publisher, who hates the most popular novel that came out in their genre this year. It’s easy to see why you might not want to take that stance.

So what does that mean for aspiring authors? For folks like me, who doesn’t have an agent and hasn’t published a book?

I have no idea.

I doubt it matters for me: I don’t have a fanbase, I’m not widely followed, and no one is going to care if I 1-star a popular book. But I’d be lying if I said I never worried. I’ve given middling reviews to books and then queried their author’s agent. Sure, I’m honest and non-confrontational on Goodreads–but am I spoiling my changes? If I, in some hypothetical future, actually publish a novel, will I wish I hadn’t nitpicked every YA novel I read?

It’s an interesting question. And not an easy one.

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9 thoughts on “Should Writers Write Book Reviews?

  1. Much as the reviews on a book which only has 5-star reviews can appear questionable, so many people will view a reviewer who only gives 5-star reviews as questionable; therefore, only reviewing books that you can wholeheartedly praise risks making the (genuine) praise seem false.

    I post reviews (including reviews of books I didn’t love). But none of them are “negative” reviews in the pejorative sense that many people arguing against authors reviewing seem to use.

    For example:

    “This book is boring.”

    vs.

    “This book details each sighting of the protagonist’s crush, the protagonist’s struggle to work out what the sighting means, and the post-mortem with her friends, in extensive detail. I found this a little exhausting after a while, but suspect some readers will find much to empathise with.”

    Both of them say I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I might, but the second one does it in a way that separates the objective facts of the narrative from the subjective experience.

    While I haven’t received a response to every one of my reviews, the only feedback I have received from an author that wasn’t some variation of “thank you” was to point out I had misspelt the protagonist’s name.

    1. Oh, absolutely. And I write reviews like that, too. I don’t bash anything, I don’t get frothy, I don’t get sarcastic. I write reviews like your second example there–“This book contains X, which I didn’t enjoy, because of Y.”

      In principle, that’s fine. But how does it look? If you’re trying to get an agent or publish a book, how does it look if you also have a library full of critical book reviews, even if they’re polite and logical?

      I can see that making you look well-researched and heavily analytical in your genre… or I can see it being a liability. I really don’t know.

  2. I guess this also begs the question: What do I does one do if they -do- happen to get published?

    Even reviews from a distant past can be dredged up. So maybe it’d be best to just delete every review like ever? -.-

    And yet this straddled line feels uncomfortable to me too, like some kind of unstated rule for censorship.

    1. For me, it’s more a topic of whether I want to self-censor. I’m getting a little meta here, and I’m definitely over-thinking it, but my concern is… Is this something that could cause friction? Could this make it more difficult to find an agent or get published? If so, I would want to have enough information to consider that. Because while I could unabashedly write whatever reviews I want–they’re my opinions, I’m not mean about them, and I have a right to them–I am also totally the kind of person to self-censor and moderate in the face of potential issues down the road.

      I guess my question–and the reason it keeps popping up–is whether there is any potential blowback for aspiring and debut authors. I haven’t seen any proof of that.

      But at the same time, I’ve queried agents who represent authors that I’ve given 1- or 2-star reviews to, which makes me… uncomfortable. And I think that’s why some people have a “neutral or positive reviews only” philosophy.

      1. Everything I’ve read says it could cause friction and easily :\. It’s generally just not a good idea to make enemies in the industry you’re looking to succeed in.

        I don’t like the idea of such self-censoring, but I get why it happens.

        That’s what worries me. A number of my reviews are indeed frothing rants. And while I don’t call people terrible authors or make horrible insults, I do call out what I feel are terrible books/plots/characters and lavish detail on the flaws. One such review is liked by numerous people. If this is all gonna bite me in the ass down the road, Realistically, I should either take it down or hide it all behind a pseudonym (which it might or might not be too late to do).

        I don’t want to make enemies out of authors (authors I generally like, at that) and publishers just because I got frustrated with one of their books.

        1. Your reviews aren’t rants! They’re well-thought out and very thorough. But… yes, they’re critical when they need to be. And that’s what I’m worried about. Even if we’re extremely rational, honest, sincere, and non-abusive, a negative review still causes friction.

          I have been seriously wondering if I should move my Goodreads under a pseudonym lately for this very reason. I’m honest and fair and very critical. But I also want to be part of that great, big writing community! The whole issue is tricky. :\

  3. Writers are readers. I don’t see why they should be banned from writing book reviews. In my experience, reviews written by writers tend to be more craft-oriented, which helps me as a writer. If a writer chooses to pan a book, and it affects their own book sales negatively, that’s their choice.

    That said, I tend to review books on Goodreads that I like, because my philosophy is that if I can’t say something helpful or positive, I’ll keep it to myself. Same with my job. I review books for the bookstore newsletter. Our objective is to sell the book, so I only choose books that I like.

    On the other hand, when I reviewed books for BookList, I was once assigned a 500-page tome to review that was written by a bestselling author. After slogging through 200 pages, I called the editor and begged to be released from the assignment. “It won’t get a good review,” I warned, and she said, “This is a popular author, so review it anyway.” And I did. Honestly. The only positive sentence in the whole review was something along the lines of…”if you enjoy family sagas about the wealthy, this author is the queen of the genre.” And of course that’s the line the publisher lifted for the marketing materials: “Queen of the genre!” – Booklist.

    Ha!

    1. Oh, I definitely don’t think anyone should be banned from writing book reviews! But if there are potential social consequences, then it’s worth calling attention to them so writers can make an informed decision about what they do. …Of course, this would be a way more informed post if I had a specific example to talk about. I’m just worrying aloud.

      I’m a worrier. It’s bad. :|

      But ha, that’s hilarious. I have no idea how BookLIst works–does that mean everyone only saw your snippet out of context? Because it seems like that’d be an awful quote to choose if anyone could peek and see that it miiiiiiight have been meant totally tongue-in-cheek.

      1. The BookList review was printed in its entirety. The snippet was published in the marketing materials that came from the publisher. Makes you wonder about the blurbs you see about books, eh?

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