Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Jumping off the Tightrope of Public Etiquette

imagesA writer friend used the phrase "walking the tightrope of public etiquette" in an email a while back. I will momentarily stay on that tightrope and refuse to give their name. Hopefully they will forgive me for stealing their phrase if I keep their anonymity. 

But I had to jump on (off?) this topic. It's been burbling (yes, burbling) around in the back of my head for a while now. So many questions I've had about what I'm doing as an author. I have worried far too often about whether I should be on the tightrope or not.

The world of writing and publishing is like a giant web. Everyone seems to know everyone, if not personally then by reputation. It's become a very public arena. And writers have to learn how to deal not just with their own agents and editors but with other agents, editors and writers, even those they have never met and probably never will.

This is why I've labored over my decision to review books, especially YA books. What's going to happen if one day my books take off, and suddenly I am face to face with some of the authors I've given negative reviews? Will I be sitting alone in the cafeteria, the one hated by all the populars?

And could those reviews actually prevent my books from ever taking off? Are agents and publishers all putting me on some blacklist somewhere because I gave their client one star? Do they actually notice us small-time authors? Am I going to query an agent someday and be told they can't sign me because I was borderline snarky in some book reviews?

What about readers? Will they turn their backs on me because I wrote a negative review about a book they loved? I've actually asked some Goodreads members that very question: "Would you refuse to read an author's work because they negatively review books by authors you like?" The resounding answer was, "No, as long as they don't get nasty or name-call."

And yet, there are authors who have dealt with this very thing. Kerry Nietz, author of the Dark Trench Saga and Mask, was recently chewed out by a reader for giving an honest review on Amazon. I wouldn't even call the review negative--he gave it three stars for crying out loud and said some rather positive things about it. But the reader got nasty and name-call-y. (The irony is that the reader is also an aspiring writer and if you look at his reviews for other books they are down-right mean.) Did Kerry cross a line? I think not. He has every right to his opinion on that book and wrote a professional sounding review.

I personally think the idea that we can only have positive opinions of other books is wrong. How are we to be respected as writers if we can't be respected as readers/reviewers, only giving out shiny gold stars? Why should we only ever focus on books we love-love-love? As a reviewer--and I consider myself one as I've written 160 reviews on Amazon for mostly books--I feel I have an obligation for honesty, which means sometimes giving a negative review. That's not jealousy. I can attest to that through numerous raving reviews for very popular books.

Another issue is blog posts, like this one about the, um, "publishing" company Jerry Jenkins is starting? Will offering critical views on things like suspicious publishing practices by renown authors put me on the radar in a bad way? I get that we have to be respectful and professional. This is a business, after all. But should an author not be allowed to voice their opinions or observances?

How far do we take, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all?"

There's a lot of criticism out there about authors scratching each other's backs. Only giving five-star reviews. Promoting each other even when writing it sub-par. But when one goes the other way, when one decides to review all and honestly, what happens? And why would we avoid pointing out suspicious happenings in our own industry? Don't we want our industry to be the best it can be? Don't we want publishing companies to run honestly and put the interest of the readers first?

I'm not on a tightrope and I don't want to be. I am afraid of heights both literally and figuratively. I consider myself a reader possibly even more than a writer. Yes, more, definitely. Because it's books I love, stories that make me swoon. It's THAT which I intend to fight for and you can't fight on a tightrope.


Sparks of Ember said...

I agree with the Goodreads members. As long as reviews are classy (not rude/mean/overblown) then they shouldn't reflect on the reviewer. Unless maybe the reviewer always only does negative reviews or some such.

The trickier part comes when it's a book by someone you do have some kind of contact with already...

Sparks of Ember said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kat Heckenbach said...

Yeah, that's one area I didn't touch on. Reviewing books by people you know personally can be hard, and that's a bit different. I think that's an area authors have to really think long and hard about. I do not, however, condone giving great reviews just because you know someone. The writing has to be there.

Kessie said...

Doesn't Amazon try to discourage authors reviewing people in their same genre to keep them from review-bashing? I thought there was something being tried out, because people were talking about reviews being taken down. I don't know.

One thing I'd worry about--does searching your name turn up a bunch of Amazon reviews? You might consider making a slightly different version of your name for Amazon review purposes. :-p

Kat Heckenbach said...

I remember all that about Amazon and peer reviewing, but none of my reviews were affected--neither the books I've reviewed nor the reviews of my novels. And I haven't seen anything else about that lately.

Searching my name on Google turns up pages and pages of me--but no reviews I've written on Amazon. And it's not the Kat/Kathryn part that makes a difference--it's the Heckenbach because my last name is so rare. And I think my reviews could actually gain me readers if I'm writing them well enough.

Plus, I'm putting those reviews on Goodreads, too, and that's all one account with one name.

Unknown said...

It's a tough subject. I think as long as your reviews are fair and professional then there's no problem. I'd like to think that a negative review written constructively would actually help an author. I know, I know. I'm living in a bubble.

Robynn Tolbert said...

The longer I'm in this business, the more I'm falling on the "tell the truth as you see it and let the chips fall where they may" side of things.

The publishing world is small, yes, but the world itself is large. Readers are very different than writers, and most readers couldn't care less about the politics of writing. It's more about are *you* OK with sitting across the table from that person you may have offended?

"Disagree without being disagreeable" and your integrity protects you.

Give 'em heck...enbach.

Yes, you may use that.
*evil grin*

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thanks, Lisa! And no, you're not living in a bubble. I actually appreciate the reviews people leave that include things they think need improvement. It shows they actually carefully read my book and are being honest. (Granted, I've not had anyone slam my writing yet, so maybe I'm the one in a bubble...)

Robynn--I think you're right. And right now, maybe because it feels like I'll never be a the point where I would be sitting across from someone I gave a negative review it's something I'm okay with? I'm sure this is a topic I'll need to think about a lot more.

Kerry Nietz said...

The other thing that I think all authors have to realize is that every book you write isn't going to please everyone who reads it. For instance, I enjoy books by Michael Crichton, but do I enjoy them all the same? Of course not. There is a good amount of it that is completely outside the author's control, as well. Even if you wrote the best book imaginable, the reader who left you a review a) may not like that genre of book b) may be going through a rough time in life and so is negative on everything c) may be too distracted to really "get" your book and during a later reading would love many unknowable factors. Better to say "eh, whatever" and get on writing the next one. :)

Kat Heckenbach said...

Great point, Kerry.

And I think along with that, the idea that reviews are for other readers, not the authors. Positive reviews help sell books, of course. But negative reviews are *informative* for other readers. I've actually bought books *because* of negative reviews--what doesn't appeal to one person may totally appeal to someone else!

And for the record, most of my negative reviews are for YA books that feel like "bandwagon" books and that's a pet peeve of mine.

Kerry Nietz. said...

Yes, that's a good point, Kat. From personal experience: Most of my negative reviews on Amazon are from atheist readers. Stands to reason that the things they didn't like about my books would be the same things that would strongly appeal to other readers.

dmdutcher said...

I wrestle with this too. I mean, every fiction book that I have read I have bought and read for pleasure exactly as I have done before, but once you have that "writer" tag, there's a whole bunch of problems. I think at least at Goodreads, its apparent that I review widely and people can look at my library and think "Oh, he just reads a lot."

But yeah, it seems like a person has everything to lose and little to gain by reviewing.Sometimes I think it's better not to write if just to be a critic, but then who will write the things you as a critic think a genre needs?

Kat Heckenbach said...

"...but then who will write the things you as a critic think a genre needs?"

Exactly. I have a right as a reader to comment about things that I want or don't want in books. Being a writer has helped me pinpoint and articulate those things.

Katy S said...

When I write a review, I try to address both other readers and the author who wrote the book. As such, I try to maintain a professional tone to my critical reviews, providing evidence as to why I disliked the book, and also trying my best to provide some positive aspect to the book as well. My thought process is "Maybe this will help the author do better next time."

Personally, I have no problem with critical reviews as long as they are not ad hominem attacks, or retaliations for negative reviews, or basically a review of some author behavior rather than the book. I think the idea is to review the book. Also, I think it's probably a good idea to have actually read the book, but that's just me... :-)

Kat Heckenbach said...

All very good points, Katy :). I agree wholeheartedly that a book review ought to be a *book* review. It should never, ever attack the author personally.

And if there is anything positive I can say about a book, I say it. Even if it nothing more than that I can see the potential in the author's writing and I intend to give them another try with their next book.

Which reminds me...I need to do just that with some of the authors I've reviewed negatively in the past.