Book reviews, author relationships, and TMI

There must be something in the air these days aside from tornadoes.

This week one of the romance novel review sites in my RSS feed had a post on a new book by one of my autobuy authors. Since I wasn’t expecting a review of this particular book for a while and the reviewer was one of my favorites on the site, I happily clicked through to read the whole thing. The usual intelligent, thoughtful review had been augmented, and not for the better, by a discussion of the reviewer’s relationship with the author, disappointment in the book, concern about harshly reviewing this author, musings about why this author would write this substandard book, and so on. These personal reflections didn’t overwhelm the review; they were summarized in a couple of paragraphs. But for me, they detracted from the review proper and gave me more information about the reviewer-author relationship and the reviewer’s feelings about the review (as opposed to the book) than I wanted or needed.

On leaving that webpage, I remembered that I had been intrigued a by conversation about a new offering from a highly regarded but not well known author. I thought I had seen a recommendation for it from one of my autobuy authors, so I surfed on over to the author’s blog and scrolled through the latest post and comments. The post was primarily about a newly released book, so there was a lot of fan gushing about how great it was, with appropriate thank-you responses from the author. Normal stuff.

But then I got to a comment from a fellow author, who even I know is friendly with Author #1, expressing interest in the new book and asking for a review copy. Say what? Asking for a freebie on a comment thread filled with fans? Of a book that was already out? Author #1, of course, graciously said yes. What other option was there? But for Author #2 to ask publicly for a review copy on what is essentially a blog for fans just squicked me out. If you want a favor, use email, FFS. The contact info is right there on the page (info which you presumably already have in your possession, being best buds and all). And why solicit a review copy of a published book from the author, anyway? You can buy this book right now in the US and other countries for the price of a large calorific beverage at my neighborhood Starbucks. Or, across-the-pond readers, for less than the cost of a single ticket from Heathrow to Russell Square on the Piccadilly line. Was Author #2 doing this to advertise a close relationship with Author #1, hoping to piggyback on a healthy fan base, or was it just cluelessness? Either way, I now have zero interest in reading that review if and when it is posted.

Finally, I went back to the publisher site where the book I’d been interested in was available. There I noticed a book by another author, whom I’d intended to try for ages. I didn’t remember much about this book but the title, so I googled for a review. There weren’t many, but I found one by an idiosyncratic but reliable reviewer and clicked through. Here I learned that the author of said book and the publisher were closely connected. The reviewer was clearly peeved about this and basically said that this personal connection made the book more like a self-published product than a properly vetted publication (although the reviewer admitted that the book was pretty good, so maybe it could have been published elsewhere). Okay, possible, I guess, so thanks for the heads-up.

But it didn’t stop there. In the part of the post which comprised the actual review, the reviewer repeatedly compared the book to another published by the same press, the latter by an author who was apparently not connected to the publisher. And guess what? Conflict-of-interest author’s book wasn’t nearly as good. The review delineated the reasons for this assessment, but its overall persuasiveness was undercut by the repeated refrain that the CoI book was not the non-CoI book. To top it all off, the grade awarded was a B/4-star, which seemed a lot higher than the criticisms warranted. The reviewer explained that that was the “objective” grade, but as far as I was concerned the boat to objectivity had set sail a while ago, so I reread the summary and closed the tab.

I’ve always thought that romance authors should regularly review each other’s books. Authors review authors in every other area of fiction and non-fiction. I also firmly believe that conflicts of interest and author connections should be disclosed. But these examples really make me wonder. If author reviewing in the romance genre is regularly going to include this kind of questionable judgment and TMI, I’d like to return to my previous state, the one where ignorance was bliss.

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12 thoughts on “Book reviews, author relationships, and TMI

  1. I think there is a huge difference between peer review and authors reviewing authors in the same genre. In academia we are taught to back up our opinions (although one could argue that with blind reviews, some academics could and do negatively slant reviews when reviewing someone in the same field) and supposedly how to review in a more objective manner. I am not convinced that many authors should “peer review” after antics I have witnessed online. There should also be full disclosure about the relationship between the reviewer and author–if I know you are buddies with someone online, then I will fully discount your review. Personally, I try to flag reviews and state clearly if I am chummy with someone. This is a quagmire that I don’t have a clear opinion on because I waffle back and forth, which is probably best exemplified by my pithy response here.

    I dunno. Can I also say that I find it extremely tacky when bloggers ask for ARCs or brag about them online? I have seen this a number of times and it just seems gauche to me.

  2. I share your ambivalence, but I think there are some good authors reviewing authors examples and I would hate to lose those. Also, authors being friendly isn’t that different from blogger-author friendly relations, so as long as I get a one-sentence transparency statement I’m okay with it. The reviewer’s body of work will tell me whether I should trust the reviews or not.

    Crowing about receiving ARCs is odd, as is asking for them in comment threads. I get that you’re happy to be part of the club, and when I’ve received ARCs from authors I really like, it *is* gratifying and fun. But it’s hard to express the excitement and gratification online without sounding like a bit of an ass. And I include myself in that category.

  3. Right. I agree that there are some good authors reviewing authors. Lately, though, I have been noticing a sort of circle-jerk of awesomeness that also includes said authors/bloggers not only giving each other 5 stars but then attacking en masse reviewers who *do* give a negative review. Sometimes author loops are toxic, especially when used to incite righteous indignation on behalf of a colleague. :)

    Eh, if you want to crow about an ARC, crow to your friends.

    I watched one blogger badger an author about where his/her ARC was for the author’s latest release on Twitter. Said blogger also always gives a 4 or 5 star review to authors who are friendly to him/her on Twitter as well–so much so that I use it as a drinking game.

    I find myself valuing honest critical reviews more and more.

  4. Circle-jerk of awesomeness is so right. I have to work that into a conversation. I’m still kind of dumbfounded by that strategy, because I can’t believe it works. But apparently it does. Same with the author loops. As a non-author I don’t see them very often, but even I notice when they swarm a particular blog after something critical has been posted. It’s like a Google Alert; if the name of an author or a publishing house pops up, they come running.

    The smaller the circle of authors/bloggers/readers, the more incestuous they seem to be.

  5. I actually don’t care for the whole author peer to peer reviewing dynamics. The underlying problem I have with that is *trust.* Like do I trust them to tell me the truth? Is it a really good read? Really? There are exceptions to this of course. Some authors will say anything to promote their friends on reader threads. I tend to ignore these. I agree that the author asking for an ARC amongst other readers is tacky. Something like that tells me that you want everybody to know you’re “connected.” We all give out signals with our words. Some of us are better at reading through them than others.

    As for bloggers crowing about ARC’s. All of that is white noise to me. I don’t much care one way or the another. It helps that I don’t give a rat’s ass about the books that they got an ARC on *laff* because I seem to be a deviation as I tend to enjoy the outliers (authors who rarely get mentioned). Plus I’m anti-PNR and that’s all I see these days. I’m not missing a thing.

  6. I wish there was some way to separate the good author reviewing from the circle-jerk stuff. Even in my three examples, I think one was an aberration, while the other two were examples of more frequent occurences. But unless you read all of the author-reviewers consistently, there’s no way to know.

    Something like that tells me that you want everybody to know you’re “connected.” We all give out signals with our words.

    Absolutely. Self-awareness is a good thing here.

  7. As I read this post and everyone’s comments I was thinking in a very mixed up way of Jill Sorenson’s point about reviews ‘growing the genre’ and her rationale for reviewing, especially an under-served genre like f/f. For me reviewing for these reasons is a good thing. Then I think about your example and Josh Lanyon’s article on jessewave’s blog and become muddled in part because I don’t think we are discussing reviews but boundaries – e-publishing but firstly – because they came first – internet/blog reviews, are changing boundaries between readers and authors and between authors and other authors, and book producers. There is no fourth wall on the internet and no pause in time or distance between the book creation process which is now recognised as including marketing and the book receiving/reading process. There is simply an uneasy inter-dependence (or co-dependence?). I just looked up the dictionary which characterises dependence as:

    1. The state of being dependent, as for support.
    2.a. Subordination to someone or something needed or greatly desired.
    b. Trust; reliance. See synonyms at trust.
    3. The state of being determined, influenced, or controlled by something else.
    4. A compulsive or chronic need; an addiction: an alcohol dependence.

    I see all of these things being true at once for both authors and for online readers (people who go to the blogs and the net for reviews and recommendations). I don’t think we need AA but may be we do need to re-define some boundaries.

  8. I’ve always thought that romance authors should regularly review each other’s books.

    Not for me. I do read author-reviewers’ reviews, but most can be so diplomatic that I still don’t know what they truly think of those books, which leaves their reviews no better than advertorials. Megan Chance reviews non-romance books, but most times she can be too diplomatic for my taste. I must admit that my view has slightly – slightly, mind – changed, thanks to the likes of Jill Sorenson from Dear Author.

    Above of all, I think many of us are aware that most romance authors are conditioned to promote their friends’ books in any form and anywhere, and not to criticise any in public. It’s practically a law in Miss Heliotrope Quill’s Etiquette Handbook for Romance Authors. HelenKay Dimon had a good review blog (Paperback Writer, I think?) and so did a couple of other reviewers, and all shut their review blogs down shortly after they became published authors. Apparently, they were advised it’d be “wise” to shut them down.

    There is an aspiring author whom I follow on Twitter and considering her reader taste in books, I trust her judgement. Or rather, used to. When she heavily recommended a historical romance, I bought a copy. It was arguably the worst I read in a while. I later found out the aspiring author and the author of this book are CPs. My trust in her disappeared and I since then ignore all her recs. Basically, she’s destroyed her own credibility in favour of promoting her CPs’ works. (I still don’t know if she’s realised that, though.)

    Should she have mentioned her relationship with an author of a book she recommended? Yes. Likewise for reviewers and readers who are or were beta readers of books they review. (Personally, I still won’t review books that I ‘beta-read’.)

    That said, I am *really* tired of reviewers mentioning authors as “my friend” or “my critique partner” in their reviews. Most times, it’s clearly meant as a disclosure, but when it becomes a regular feature in their reviews, it’s obnoxious name-dropping. I do wonder if it’s to with my deep aversion to the idea of having a person doing a review of their CP’s work, though.

    As for that author asking for an ARC in front of readers? Crass as feck.

    And for bloggers crowing about getting ARCs? I’m not bothered, to be honest. It’s part of Word of Mouth game. Also, part of the taunting/bantering fun among readers, too. As in “Nyah nyah, I have a AUTHOR latest already. Ha ha ha!” And why not? Anticipation is very much part of a reader’s life, isn’t it? So with this in mind, I don’t mind bloggers and readers crowing about ARCs.

  9. I see where you all are coming from, and I think the be-nice admonitions in the community make author reviewing very difficult and sometimes untrustworthy. But if authors don’t review, then the only reviewers will be bloggers.

    I agree with Merrian that it’s about boundaries. Our options these days seem to be “everyone including my friends” or “no one” when it comes to whose books can be reviewed by other authors. As long as that’s true, we won’t get very far. I hope people like Jill and other good author-reviewers will keep going to show how it’s done.

    As for CPs, it’s probably best to neither rec them nor review them, except in comments to posts. And on twitter, it doesn’t take that many characters to say “my CP” in your rec. That way people know what the deal is.

    Maili, I’m pretty sure I read that same book, or at least started it but DNF’d in a hurry.

    And I miss Paperback Writer so much. I went back and read some reviews a while ago, just to remember.

  10. @FiaQ/Maili

    HelenKay Dimon had a good review blog (Paperback Writer, I think?) and so did a couple of other reviewers, and all shut their review blogs down shortly after they became published authors. Apparently, they were advised it’d be “wise” to shut them down.

    I loved that blog! And I was so sorry to see them stop. Are you sure that was the reason they quit reviewing? I never heard them say so, but I’ve always wondered.

    @Vaccuous Minx

    As for CPs, it’s probably best to neither rec them nor review them, except in comments to posts. And on twitter, it doesn’t take that many characters to say “my CP” in your rec. That way people know what the deal is.

    I make it a policy to abstain from writing reviews of my crit partners’ books. For the most part I rec them in the comments if at all *and* make it clear that the relationship exists, but where I run into a problem with that is when it comes to best of the year lists.

    My taste in books is very close to my CPs’ tastes, so it’s not surprising that their books have ended up being among my favorites of the year. When it comes to compiling lists of my favorite books in a given year, excluding my CPs’ books would give a skewed picture of the highlights of my year in reading, which is the whole point of those lists. So I’ve opted to include but with asterisk next to the title and a footnote that explains my relationship to the author of that book.

    As for saying “My CP” in every tweet that references that person on twitter, I’m not sure I agree with you there. For one thing, 140 characters isn’t so many that there is always room for a few more. But more importantly, I worry that it comes across like bragging if I mention them every time their books come up. In fact I know some people see it as bragging. My CPs are listed in my bio at DA and I like to think that most people who follow me know that they are my friends.

    I sometimes feel that I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. If I mention them, I’m bragging, but if I don’t mention them, I’m concealing something and jeopardizing my integrity. If I didn’t love reviewing and have a lot of opinions I like to share, I would have opted to quit reviewing a long time ago.

    • To some extent you *are* damned if you do/don’t, because everyone has a different line. I think you do as good a job as is humanly possible to succinctly communicate the relationships. But of course others will feel differently because they have different criteria. So be it.

      I didn’t mean that every mention of a CP author should have the disclaimer, more that if you happen to be reading one of their books and have things to say, you can say “my CP” in one of those tweets. But not all of them, as you say, it gets ridiculous!

      It also matters (to me at least) whether the behavior that bugs me is symptomatic of a larger pattern or a one-off. From what I’ve read, my first example is the latter, while the other two are the former. So I’ll happily continue to read author #1′s reviews until I think such a pattern has emerged. The other two I’m pretty much done with, because it’s not the first time.

  11. Thanks for clarifying re. Twitter. In that case, I agree with you. I’ll try to be more conscious of it on Twitter, too. The challenge is that Twitter is such a free-flowing conversation that it’s harder to be conscious of what needs to be mentioned than in a blog post. There’s more time to labor over the latter and think about how to present information. When I’m on Twitter, I’m usually more off the cuff, but I will try to remember to mention it there if I bring up a CP’s book.

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