I’ve been writing book reviews for a web site for about two and a half years now. I like it (usually); it’s made me a deeper, more thoughtful reader, and introduced me to some new writers (a couple of whom I see on CrimeSpace) I would not otherwise have known about. On the down side, I have had to suffer through some real stinkers without the option to cut my losses, put it down halfway through, and pretend that was someone else’s book I picked up by mistake.

Here’s my dilemma: I think I owe it to the editor and her readers to be honest and entertaining in my reviews. At the same time, I have an agent pushing a novel of my own, and I have no desire to shoot myself in the foot and damage any fledgling relationships with an unflattering review.

I don’t want the reviews to become safe, and so tepid as to be meaningless. Might I be well advised to let go of the reviewing? If anyone can give me a good take, this is the group.

Thanks in advance.

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I think reviewers can voice criticisms without being ignorant, and I also think authors have to know how to deal with that, whether the reviewer is an author or not. If people are mature, rational people, they'll put it in perspective and not let that be an issue. I know a good number of authors who review, or have reviewed over the years, and have criticized the work of friends, and maintained their integrity as a reviewer and their friendships.

Personally, as much as I know it's tough, I don't think it should be an issue. It's only an issue if a reviewer lets things other than the quality of the book influence their review. Every reviewer establishes their own credibility.
I think I owe it to the editor and her readers to be honest and entertaining in my reviews. At the same time, I have an agent pushing a novel of my own, and I have no desire to shoot myself in the foot and damage any fledgling relationships with an unflattering review.

You owe it to the readers not to waste their time by pulling your punches.

Books are expensive; time even more so these days. How would you feel if you dropped $25 on a book that got a chipper review, only to find that the reviewer was trying to spare the writer's feelings, or trying to suck up to the book's agent?

I've just written an extremely tepid review of a book bought and pushed by one of my former editors. She hasn't seen it yet, but I doubt she'll think less of me. And if she did, I'd think less of her. But you know what? Even if she didn't like it - if I came to her with a dynamite ms three months later, she'd buy it. That's business.

If you're not willing to 'damage any fledgling relationships' by simply telling the truth, you're in the wrong avocation. Sorry to be blunt, but if you don't have the stomach to put the reading audience first, I think you should do them the service of stepping aside.
Blunt is good. I fully believe thin-skinned writers need to find a less demanding profession. White House press secretary, maybe.

Thanks.
It's a dance, to be sure. But if you're going to do reviews, you have to call it like you see it or you're doing yourself and your readers a disservice. The trick is to be honest without being an ass when writing a negative reviews (I'm sure you know & do this already, 'cause you've been doing reviews for quite a while). If it really worries you and you're not sure if you can write what you feel, then stop. It's not worth the headaches. I do think having a body of reviews that are thoughtful and honest will do your rep more good than pussyfootin' around the fact that you really think the book is crap.

Kevin's right. Books are expensive and I get pissed when I plop down cash based on a glowing review and that book turns out to be a "stinker." And I'm generally more pissed at the reviewer than the author. It's daunting, though, when you see writers bitching about negative reviews in a public forum. Ya gotta do what you feel comfortable with - tell the truth or walk away.
Don't sacrifice your integrity. You not only owe your editor, but you owe your readers an honest reply. I met Hallie Ephron last week. She is a mystery writer, but is probably best known for her book reviews (crime) in the Boston Globe. She referred to the $25 test. What does it take to plunk down $25 for a first edition hard back? A lot of times it only takes a favorable review. How would you feel if another reviewer cost you $25 because they were worried about their future networking? I know I'd be pissed.

Perhaps foregoing the reviewing gig is the way to go if you even have to think about it.
I had heard of the $25 rule and forgotten it. Thanks for reminding me. I agree completely.

Another, only peripherally related question, has to do with the time spent reading the books and writing th reviews. Seems like I have to answer this question every time a new envelope full of books shows up. On the other hand, I love finding new writers and voices. Wading through some chaff seems a small price to pay, especially when I'm sure the editor tries to pick books she thinks I'll at least find interesting.
Speaking as an author, I can usually tell if the praise is sincere. The other sorts of reviews I disregard, though positive reviews do, of course, matter for sales. The thing I do not like is when an inexperienced reviewer follows a formula that requires him/her to say something negative to balance out the positive. Somewhere (perhaps in high school), someone has taught such a format of the "review" forcing the reviewer to come up with negatives whether they mattered in the overall appraisal or not. Fortunately, this happens very rarely these days.
Dana, I also review books, some of which I absolutely love, others I have lesser feelings for. I try to write the good points about the book I not terribly thrilled about, and at least hint at what doesn't work. Mystery Scene Magazine - for whom I review - says if you don't like it...don't review it. At least I have THAT way out. I've only turned down one book so far, and that was for Crimespree Magazine. I have picked up a few that others have not wanted to review. Stay true to yourself, be as kind as you can honestly do. If it's too stressful, pick and choose, or opt out.
"Mystery Scene Magazine - for whom I review - says if you don't like it...don't review it."

Really? Do they mean "if you're not tuned to the genre or style (hardboiled, cozy, whatever), find something else"...or do they mean "if you read it and didn't like it, don't review it"?

The first seems fair - I wouldn't know how to review a romance. But the second feels like a cheat for the reader who is looking to you for fair, unvarnished advice on how he or she should spend money and time.

Look at it another way: Say you're going out for a spendy, romantic dinner. A real special occasion. You're looking for advice. Would you trust a restaurant critic whose editor said "If you don't like it, don't review it"?

Being kind is...well, I'd say it's more important not to be unkind than it is to be kind, if you see the difference. A reviewer's first allegiance should be to the reader, not the writer.
Kevin:

I'm not sure I agree that "if you read it and didn't like it, don't review it" comes out as a cheat. In that scenario, by definition, the review is a truthful evaluation of the book. The reviewer read it, liked it, and said so. For a reader looking for advice on books to buy and read, such a review would seem to be an accurate and honest guide, wouldn't it?
Jackie, Kevin, and Ken,

All points well taken. Using the $25 rule referenced above, I feel as though I should review even those I don't like, if only as a warning to be careful about devoting a reader's time and money. Not reviewing it only tells the reader she couldn't find a review, not that I declined to review it because I didn't like it.

One thing (among many) that I like about my editor is that she will occasionally print two reviews of the same book. They may both agree, or not, but it gives the reader better perspective.
The way you're framing the question, you're either a reviewer or you're a marketing puke.

You're right.

You have a duty to your readers and yourself. Don't forget you have some responsibility to the writer whose work you assess. Who knows? You might be the one who provides the critical insight an author needs.

If you tell the truth, with civility and without self-service, you might make a big difference to someone's career. If you dribble weasel-words, you help no one - certainly not yourself.

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