Reviews: we all need them, welcome them, want them. But when that wanting verges on the obsessive it can become seriously destructive; not just for the individual, but for the integrity of the entire system.
I recently received the following Tweet: @??????? Need a book review for your book? 5⭐ written reviews, in exchange to write a 5⭐ for my book. reviews=sales :-) I’ve disguised the name of the Tweeter, for reasons that I hope are obvious. This sort of plea, which is essentially a request for another to join in cheating, does enormous damage to the whole value system enshrined in reviewing. It’s a particularly noxious example, however, and there are many less blatant attempts to circumvent the system. It’s not unknown, apparently, for certain authors to assume various different guises so they can review their own work under assumed names, giving it high value. Others indulge in less obvious swaps of reviews, asking privately for such accolades and promising similar praise for the partner’s work without ever actually reading the piece.
Because I review openly and regularly, I’m approached by publishers to review new books. I’ve no objection to this, as it gets me a free book. But I do it only on the understanding that I make it clear this is a book that was provided in exchange for a review, and that I will publish such review as and where I see fit. Most publishers are happy with that arrangement, recognising that reviews done under pressure of potential censorship are pretty meaningless.
Not so long ago, I was approached by an agent on behalf of a new writer. I’d already connected with the writer with the intention of swapping books with him for honest review purposes. But the agent made demands, and they were demands, not simply suggestions, that I pass the review before her and not publish it without her express consent. Needless to say, I rejected such an arrangement. Whilst I can see why an agent would want to protect the reputation of a newbie author, I have no interest in supporting work that has no merit. In the end, the author and I made an arrangement between us to do as initially intended: i.e. swap books for honest reviews. As it turned out, I didn’t review his book: it was pretty poorly written and the story failed to move me. I explained to him the situation; unwilling to give him a poor review so early in his writing career.
His agent later responded (though the writer didn’t) to say that no review would be made of my book, either. It was a response that didn’t surprise me.
If we fail to review honestly, how are readers to have any faith in the process? We all understand that readers often chose a book, more or less as a matter of faith, based on reviews given to work of which they have no personal experience. It’s surely incumbent on us, as authors, to ensure that the reviews we give are always honest, isn’t it? Human nature dictates that we avoid giving bad reviews of fellow writers, since it’s quite likely that professional jealousy will result in bad reviews of our work in a sort of childish revenge. But we can, at least, simply fail to express an opinion on such work instead. What I would hope none of us would do is play the cheating game of a ‘quid pro quo’ simply for the acquisition of good reviews. If the work is undeserving of such accolades, the answer is to make it better, not to cheat readers by pretending it’s better than it is.
Frankly, I’d rather be told honestly that a reader hated my work than indulge in a system that provides an opinion based on cheating. What would I gain as a writer and what would potential readers gain by such underhand activity? No, let’s all make sure if we come across such behaviour, we let the perpetrators know we disapprove. If they persist, then, I think, is the time to expose them. My Tweeter was silent following my rebuff: I hope that means he thought better of it.