Tit for Tat

After a lot of careful consideration, months of it really, I’ve decided against doing “tit for tat” book reviews. What do I mean by that? I mean I’ll no longer trade reviews with other writers. The idea goes like this: I’ll review your book if you review mine.

There are several reasons why I’ve decided upon this course of action. One of the most obvious is that you cannot trust reviews if the person doing the review is held hostage by his own book’s review. This has actually happened to me. A writer said he/she would review my book and afterward suggested I read his/hers. I said I’d be glad to do so only to find that this person would not release a review on my book, until I posted the review of their book, for fear that I might give them a low rating. Expecting a good review, and not receiving it, they might have given my book a lower rating than warranted. Perhaps they wished to give me a bad review, or even a less than stellar review, but were afraid of retribution from me. I’ve even heard of authors going back and lowering reviews they’ve given to others after receiving poor reviews of their own work—payback.

This same system of trading for reviews gives a bad impression of Indie authors. The notion that we may bolster each other’s reviews in order to get something for ourselves makes all our reviews suspect. It’s a messy business.

I don’t want to see this happen, as I know the majority of Indie authors are honest, hard-working writers. Many also review books regularly on their blogs, and for book review websites, and I’ve found these reviewers for the most part to be very honest individuals.

My good friend, Maria Savva, is the perfect example of this. She runs a forum with a couple of her friends, Darcia Helle and Stacy Juba, called, BestsellerBound.com—a wonderful place for Indie writers to discuss their trade. When I first joined, I thought it best to read a few of their books to see what I thought of them as writers. Maria Savva’s, A Time to Tell, is a wonderful read and so I posted a review of it, giving a well deserved five stars. Maria and I had never discussed reviewing each other’s work and so when she decided some months later to review my novel for BookPleasures.com I was elated. Here’s a link to the five star review she posted on Amazon.com.

Maria didn’t owe it to me to give it a high rating, she had no book review that I was holding hostage; she simply liked my writing. I wish I could say all reviews of my book were five stars, but I cannot. Reviewers should be honest and straight forward, without the fear of retribution from their fellow writers, because we all benefit from such transparency.

You might wonder what prompted me to write about this. I had just started reading the novel, Rock & Roll Homicide, by RJ McDonnell, a fellow Indie writer. I had gotten about a chapter in when I decided that I was really going to like this book. I don’t know if I’ll feel the same at the end. Will I love the plot? Do the characters work to the very end? If I make it to the end and thoroughly enjoy it as much as I hope to, I’d like to write a review to tell the world it is worth their time to have a read.

Yet, just before starting McDonnell’s book, I read the first few pages of another Indie author’s book and was surprised by the poor quality of writing. I am not a book reviewer by trade, and I don’t wish to be. So, I’ve no reason to continue to read this book, I’ve no review promised, I’ve no reason to hurt this person’s career or ego by giving them a low review (one star I presume at this point), and frankly I don’t want to suffer reading through it without reason. The only possible reason I might have had to read it would be if I had a book review held hostage by the author; I’m happy to say, I don’t.

I hope my friends in the Indie community understand this, it’s not meant as a reflection upon any individual writers, but rather on the seemingly unethical approach to reviews it may portray to our potential readers. It’s important in these changing times when the author has become his/her own publisher that the Indie community is viewed as above reproach. It’s equally important that the cream-of-the-crop can rise to the top because reviewers feel they can be completely candid. And so I will no longer write “tit for tat” reviews and I hope others will follow suit.

Someone once said that you should only read the best books in order to be a great writer, allowing only superb prose to affect your writing style. That, in my book, is a huge vote against “tit for tat” reviews.

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21 Responses to “Tit for Tat”

  1. ‘Quid pro quo’ is tricky whenever it comes to a commodity changing hands for money. I think, inherently, readers want to know that a review is an honest interpretation of another reader’s point of view on the work at hand. That’s one reason we see so many reviews stating up front, “I was given an advanced reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion.”

    The disclaimer is important because none of us as consumers (readers) want to feel duped.

    You make a raft of solid points why it’s a tricky game to be involved in as an author, as well. I don’t to ‘review exchanges’ for many of the same reasons. I want readers to know that I won’t put my name on something I don’t stand behind as a reader — even if the author of that material is a peer or even a friend. Tough spot to be in, but I hope integrity outlasts a fickle need to get review numbers climbing.

    Great post, Sir Paul!

  2. Katie M John says:

    I agree with this post so much. I hate the idea of compromising your own reading integrity and standards just because it is felt owed.
    I do review books of fellow authors but only if I have something positive to say and I can be genuine about it. If I don’t like it, I just won’t post a review on it. That way, I don’t have to ‘lie’ and I also don’t harm the writer.
    Simply, tit for tat reviews are unethical – full stop.
    When I endorse, support something, someone, it is always with a genuine heart and mind.

  3. Thanks, Jason, I know we share many of the same thoughts on why reviews are important and therefore why the integrity of the reviewer is paramount.

    Katie, I think you are taking the right approach. Reviewing others is fine as long as they know you might not like their book and therefore might not post about it.

    Thank you both for adding to the discussion.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly, Paul. Every book review I’ve written has been on a book that I paid for first. I believe in being completely honest about the books I review, and, if I can’t give the book three stars or better, I don’t publish anything.

    I wonder, though: do you ever feel like the reading public should be warned when a book is just plain unreadable due to poor spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.?

  5. That’s a great question, Susan. Although it should be left to the individual reviewer, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to point out truly poor writing.

    When I first released my book, I somehow uploaded an older unedited version. Yes, I’m an idiot. And the first few reviewers either panned it or said they had to stop reading because of the poor grammar, etc. So, in many ways it was a lifesaver for me as it prompted me to get the proper book posted. At the same time, it was extremely embarrassing.

    For myself, as stated above, I would rather not read the entire book and so not review it at all. Which is a slightly different question, should you always finish a book before reviewing it? My feeling is no. If it’s simply a matter of poor skills, I see no reason a reviewer must finish reading before giving their opinion. However, if it’s a matter of subject, then yes. You need to read the entire book, especially in the case of fiction, to be sure that what you believe to be the point of the book actually is.

    That’s why I won’t post a review of a poorly written book; I don’t want to finish the book!

  6. A well thought-out post, and I think your reasoning is solid. There are so many books I want to read in order to support fellow authors–I wish I had more time. Knowing how much a negative review can hurt, I’ve decided to follow the “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” adage when writing reviews, and I try to emphasize what I like in a novel.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. I haven’t run across too many “unreadable” books of this type, and I’ve yet to actually buy one — I’m a big believer in sampling the work before I buy it.

    After reading your comment though, I’m left wondering how many other people have made similar mistakes in uploading their books. I know how easy it can be to grab the wrong file. Maybe next time I download a profoundly bad sample, I’ll take the time to contact the author and let them know!

  8. I can understand your feelings. Being both an indie author and someone who reviews books for my blog I try to stay away from review exchanges.

  9. L.C. Evans says:

    Good post. I agree with you. When I first started out—before I knew better—another indie author contacted me and offered to trade reviews. I agreed and soon he’d given me a nice 5 star on my book. I read his book and didn’t like it. Though the plot was interesting, I thought for the most part the book was amateurish and he’d neglected to write an ending. I felt terrible. I wrote a review giving my honest opinion and emailed it to him before posting it. I said the best I could do was a 3 star (I was rounding up). I asked if he’d like me to post it on Amazon and he declined. I did offer to review his next book if he wanted, but I didn’t hear back on that. I learned my lesson. Now if I read another indie author’s book, I read it because I want to and not because I’m expecting a review in return. I’ll review it if I can give it an honest 4 or 5 stars. If I can’t, I don’t review. Yes, I understand reviews are for readers, not writers, but I don’t want to hurt anyone by trashing their book. If it’s that bad, readers will show their disapproval. I’m a writer, not an editor or a professional book reviewer. However, if I come across a book with a lot of grammatical errors or typos, I will most likely notify the author. I’ve had readers contact me about errors and I always appreciate the help.

  10. Charlie says:

    I never agree to trade reviews. My policy for ARC’s with fellow book bloggers or readers is I’ll be happy to send them an ebook or print copy if they are truly interested with the understanding that they have absolutely no obligation to post a review. As a book reviewer, I don’t necessarily review every book I read, but I do read every book I review.

    I’ve only run into a hinky situation with one author that wanted to ‘deal,’ meaning I give you a free copy in exchange for 5 stars. My answer was a big fat ‘no!’ I believe in my integrity and like to think that people expect I will not be bullied and that my opinion actually means something. Now, when I see 5 star reviews for this particular author I wonder about the ‘reviewers’ credibility and disregard all further reviews. To my horror, a lot of people agreed to her terms — her books have over 75 or more ’5 star’ reviews. For an indie author, that is incredible. However, I find it a big fat fraud and it makes me sick. So sick, that I’ve completely distanced myself from the publishing company that markets her books. I can’t be sure if they really liked any of the books they reviewed or if they simply agreed to the terms for a lousy free book. I decided right then and there that I would never barter or agree to such things — nor would I stoop to it as an author.

  11. Charlie, I must say I’m surprised to hear an author would try and trade a free copy of their book for a review. This is the first case of this I’ve heard of and now I wonder if it happens relatively frequently or if it’s more of an isolated case.

    I agree with you completely, a free book seems a heavy price to pay for ones integrity!

  12. Maria Savva says:

    An excellent post, Paul, and I’m glad you’ve spoken up about it. This is one of the lessons we learn as indie authors and it’s not always an easy one to learn. Of course, we all need reviews to sell our books, so it’s tempting to want to swap books with other authors for review. I did that for a while when I first started out marketing my books. I never expected 5 star reviews for my books, and am always happy with honest reviews, but I found that not everyone thinks this way. There are a small percentage of authors who will expect you to give them a good review if they send you their book. This is totally unfair on the reviewer. If your book is good then it will get a good review, but you can’t hold someone over a barrel about it.
    One author gave me a 5 star review for one of my books then sent me a copy of her book to review. I liked it, but it wasn’t great. I gave her 3.5 stars. She then removed the 5 star review she’d given me on Amazon and defriended me on a few websites. This sort of thing is not a nice thing to go through when you spend time to read a book which you don’t particularly want to read, and to be honest it’s not worth it. I would advise everyone to steer clear from tit-for-tat reviews and be wary of ANYONE who send you a free book to review.
    I don’t like book swaps now. I will only read books that I want to read and if I don’t like them I will say so. I always warn anyone who wants me to review their books now that I only write honest reviews i.e. my own opinion (which is just one person’s subjective opinion at the end of the day). I usually contact an author if I’m going to give them less than 3 stars to ask if they still want me to post the review. If I don’t know the author, I’ll post a 1 or 2 star review if the book is THAT bad i.e. unreadable or offensive in some way, otherwise I just won’t review it.

  13. All good points, Maria. I think what we can all take away from this, especially if you are just starting out as a writer as I am, that it’s one of the many hard lessons of the business. As Indies it can be difficult to find this sort of info early on and so I am sure it’s a mistake that many of us have made.

    Thanks again, everyone, for chiming in on the subject.

  14. Rick Taubold says:

    I feel the same way. I won’t agree to trade reviews for the very reasons you mentioned. At the same time, if someone asks me to review a book, I’ll read it, but I’ll also be honest. I can’t see any point to posting a negative review for a friend or acquaintance. instead, I’ll ask the writer if he wants honest comments, but I won’t post them in a review.

    On the other hand, I will post negative reviews of books where I don’t the the authors IF the book deserves it. I will also give my reasons for the low score, and never trash a book out of spite.

    If, ont he other hand, I do find myself in a postion of having to give a review, I will post the disclaimer that I will be honest but in as positive a way as possible. I’ve given out my own books to reviewers and gotten that same answer. By agreeing to a review I understand that they will be honest. Frankly, I wouldn’t want it any other way, even if it hurts.

  15. Rick, I agree with you wholeheartedly, giving an honest review only benefits the writer and reader. And it does hurt sometimes—growing pains!

  16. CW Johnson says:

    I regret to say I was pulled into this very scenario, and I was admittedly the bad guy.
    I came across this particular author while I was in a promoting mode and agreed to his request to review his book. I took the time to read the book and ended up giving it five stars.
    Months later, I was still waiting for his review. I eventually became impatient and pulled the review altogether. *blush*
    I have since spoken to the author (who was upset, by the way) felt bad about what I had done and replaced the 5 star review.
    The point of this sad story is: I shouldn’t have gone into it in that state of mind in the first place, but let’s face it, like it or not, 98% of indie books are pure crap and I’ll be much less likely to ever read another one.

  17. Jen Knox says:

    Great post! I never read books that have only 5 star ratings b/c I assume the author is up to something if this is the case. Truth is, I’m with you… I’ve had two books recently that I read, didn’t like, told the author, and got attitude in return. It burns a girl out when it comes to wanting to trade reads.

    The 5 star rating is such BS anyway. I can rate two books at 5 stars for completely different reasons. But if I was to compare my favorite indie book to, say, Lolita, I would be lying if I said they were both at the same level of art and craft. Also, as a reader, I hold some authors to higher standards because I’ve read other works by him/her and therefore have a certain expectation level.

    The big secret though is that reviews don’t sell books. They really don’t. Real readers will always decide for themselves. Make sure that excerpt is remarkable, and post it everywhere. Readers will either be curious or not.

    Keep reading indie work, but read it on your own terms. And only read the best. (That said, reading bad work can be incredibly educational.)

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