Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Importance of Being Nice

One thing I noticed being discussed at BEA Book Blogger Convention this year was keynote speaker Jennifer Weiner's statement that bloggers should focus our energies on "sprinkling fairy dust" on what we do like instead of blogging about what we don't like.

Given all the spats and arguments on GoodReads and Amazon, and the flamboyant author accusations of the existence of a YA Mafia or YA Opus Dei or the secret secret cliques of "Mean Girl" Bloggers ("her swag bag is so big because it's full of SECRETS"), a lot of people have been given to wonder about the relevance of everyone's mother's favourite saying, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

Should bloggers all take a deep breath and just focus on being nice?

To that, I have to say: no. If as a blogger, you personally choose to only publish reviews of books you enjoyed, that's definitely your call, but I don't believe that's the mindset all bloggers should have to work by.

1. Book Bloggers are Critics, Not Promoters
This fact was definitely on my mind for much of the blogger convention, since a lot of what was presented in the speeches and panels I was present for dealt with how bloggers can serve publishers. Two of the authors who came to my table at the Networking Breakfast acted under the impression that if we liked how they pitched their books, we'd put them up on our websites. Amy Sohn (whose book I will, amusingly, be reviewing next) actually ranted about those "damn reviewers getting her book wrong" - entirely oblivious to the fact that she was speaking to a table of reviewers.

Because that's what book bloggers are. The cost-effective, positive promotion that publishers want from bloggers is only a by-product of what we actually do. If we like a book, we'll say so - and people will read that and take our recommendations accordingly (by the by, have you read anything by Cecilia Grant or Rose Lerner lately? Please do!). But I don't blog to promote books. I blog to read and review books - and if my positive reviews serve as free publicity, than it's a delightful happenstance! 

I know there are other book bloggers out there who do cover reveals and contests and memes now for books, even ones they haven't read, which can explain the confusion. There probably are bloggers out there who feel they are book promoters rather than critics. I can only say that from my personal experience as a blogger, who reads other book blogs, and who's discussed this matter with a fair number of other book bloggers, that the majority of us got into blogging to review and discuss books, not promote them. And honest reviews and discussions will naturally produce reactions both positive and negative.

2. Honesty Trumps Positivity
One concern I've heard come up in discussions with book bloggers is the notion of integrity and honesty. There was that whole kerfuffle in the U.S. a couple of years ago about whether bloggers should explicitly mention in their book reviews where and how they received the book - based on the readers' worry that a blogger would be more inclined to write a positive review of a book they received for free than a book they paid for themselves.

Now there's an interesting situation - readers distrusting a positive review! But shouldn't all bloggers just want to bake a cake with rainbows and sunshine in it so that we can all eat it and be happy? What about Jennifer Weiner's fairy dust?

Authors and publishers may worry about negative reviews, but to bloggers and, more importantly, to readers, their main worry is dishonest reviews. Did this blogger really like this book, or are they being paid to like it?

While I've read and enjoyed some "positive reviews only" publications (Locus magazine is one), I've noticed that readers and other bloggers tend to distrust them unless the blogger explicitly mentions that they choose not to review books they didn't like. I like to call this the "Paula Adbul Effect." That delightfully kooky former American Idol judge couldn't give a coherently negative critique to save her life - she was always sunshiney and supportive of all the performers. But because of that, her positive critiques had no impact on the audience or the voters. You could never tell if she really was physically incapable of disliking something, or if she was just too afraid of audience censure to really admit what she felt.

Simon Cowell, on the other hand, despite being kind of a prick, always gave really detailed critiques of the singers - so on those occasions when he did give an effusive response, you could tell that he meant it. Viewers felt they could trust that his opinions were honest.

That's not to say you have to be cruel to be kind - after all, Randy Jackson was far less of an ass than Simon Cowell, but his remarks still carried weight because he pointed out both the positive and the negative aspects of a competitor's performance.

What I'm saying is, positive promotion only works if the readers trust the source. There's a reason people fast-forward through the commercials on their DVRs - commercials and advertisements are nothing but positive. However, they're made by people with a financial stake in the product's success, and viewers know that. No one in the world likes every book they've ever read. Just like every contestant on American Idol isn't going to be a shining beacon of musical enlightenment. If you want to promote your book effectively, it's better to gamble on a positive review from a blogger known for their honest reactions to what they read than to hedge your bets with a literary cheerleader.

Well, then, you may ask, what's wrong with every blogger simply being transparent about only writing reviews of books they like? Why not just not post reviews of books you don't like, and let the utter lack of press speak for itself? See my final point:

3. There's No Such Thing As Bad Press
This is the kicker - even if someone is giving your book a negative review, they are also reminding people that your book exists. Its name gets brought up, its cover is revealed, it sticks in the human memory and consciousness, which translates to what jumps out at you when you go to bookstores. If no one is talking about your book at all, and no one knows about it, good or bad, how is anyone supposed to find it?

I can also ask you, as a fellow writer, which is better after submitting something to a publisher - a rejection in the form of absolutely no response, a standard "not for us" rejection letter, or a detailed letter explaining what didn't work for them? I can tell you I would rather have people telling me what they didn't like about my book than not talking about it at all and leaving me wondering whether they received it or even read it.

One of my personal rules of Blogger Etiquette is that if I accept an offer of a free ARC, I will review the book. Even if it's negative - because it demonstrates that I took the time to read the book cover to cover, took the time to analyze it, and spend hours thinking about it and writing about it. Even if I dislike the book, I respect the work that went into making that book, and I demonstrate that by crafting a detailed review of it.

It takes time and effort to write a review, even a negative one. It takes no effort at all to say nothing. So really, which response is less respectful?

This is my take on it. I'm not going to stop writing negative reviews, and I don't think you should, either. We blog because we like expressing how we feel about books. And some books are going to make us screaming, hopping, hair-pullingly mad - so we're going to express that. To Snark or Not To Snark is a different argument for a different time, but for now, let your Lit-Nit-Picking Freak Flag fly.

50 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this post! Now I can point to it and say "Yes. This."

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  2. A really excellent post. I've had many a discussion about my insistence to post reviews whether they are good or not. I feel it is my blog, my opinion. If you value my opinion, great. If not, there are tons of other sites that will only do sunshine and rainbows.

    Michelle Kelly
    Another Look Book Reviews

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  3. the thing I'm finding tricky now is being chatty with so many of the writers I read on twitter! I love the interaction, but it does make me hesitate to write and promote a review of their books if I had problems with it.

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  4. "Authors and publishers may worry about negative reviews, but to bloggers and, more importantly, to readers, their main worry is dishonest reviews. "

    DING DING DING! So obvious, but it needed to be said.

    Anna, I'm having that problem too. :-\ It's hard to maintain objectivity.

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    1. Anonymous8:02 AM

      I think we as book bloggers are starting to realize that perhaps the fabled ivory tower seved a very real purpose. I'd rather maintain my integrity as a book blogger than be worried about what Author X thinks of me if I give her or him a negative book review.

      Civility is a must, but this last year has made it clear that distance is, as well.

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  5. great post! well-said.

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    1. p.s. i also think cecilia grant is awesome :)

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  6. OMG yes!
    I'm one of the bloggers who is also a writer, so I see both sides. I don't sugar-coat reviews, and I review the book in my hand, not the author, or her house, or her lifestyle or any other damn thing. Just the book. I've had letters from authors whose books I hated and loved, saying they appreciated the likes, because they knew I meant it.
    The last point though, I modify a little bit, because the Leveson Enquiry is proving that there really is such a thing as bad press. But I take your point, having a book die without trace is a terrible thing. Not that it's happened to me, yet, but I live in dread of it.

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  7. Yes! Thank you for this, it is needed. It seems this viewpoint gets lost all too often under all the positivity. As a reviewer myself I'm afraid I don't trust blogs that only post positive reviews and tend to click away. You need the balance to show that you're not just a free advertisement, because really, why would you want to be besides from getting a whole pile of ARCs you might actually not enjoy reading at all...

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  8. On a lot of blogs, one of the reasons the reviews work as promotions is because readers trust the reviews - which only happens if readers can be sure that the reviews are actually truthful, and not happy-happy fairy dust sprinklings designed purely to promote the book and prompt publishers to give the reviewers more free things. I can't think of one blog I regularly go to in order to find more books to read where the reviewer(s) always like the books. As far as I'm concerned, bloggers should feel free to say whatever they want, positive or negative, about the things they review. As long as bloggers give reasons for why they like or dislike something, the door is still open for their readers to judge whether they personally would like or dislike the book.

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  9. I read some of Weiner's speech and while I guess she was trying to be cute the 'sprinkling fairy dust' sticks in my craw. It has a condescending feel to it. I've had a negative reaction to the 'bloggers promote' theme of the con. Yes, bloggers promote by posting reviews but they have to be honest and any enthusiasm has to be real not created by a marketing machine.

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  10. Great post and I completely agree. I'm not a blogger that interacts with authors or publishers and I don't receive ARCs so maybe this doesn't really apply to me, but I have my blog to chronicle my reading, share books I've read, and interact with others. I know some people only post about books they love just to avoid any negativity on their site, not because they're scared of publishers. Then again, it's nice to see a blogger come across as human and not gush about every single thing they read.

    As for publishers thinking readers are there to serve them, aren't readers the customer? And isn't the customer always right? Soon they're going to realize those tactics just don't work and hopefully start building a more cooperative relationship with readers and bloggers.

    And yes, negative reviews sometimes encourage people to read a book just to check it out for themselves. Plus, if you write a nice, factual negative review where you point out what didn't work for you, that doesn't mean someone won't read it and see the things they love (things you don't like) and end up reading it. So it gets the book out there either way.

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  11. Great post. Like you, I review everything I accept for review and sometimes I don't even finish a book. But in any case, I will say why I loved/liked/didn't love/hated/didn't finish the book and sometimes that is actually a reason for someone else to read it. Because we readers don't all like the same thing.

    (Once I wrote a "negative" review about a book I abandoned after 100 pages and the author came back to me about it saying "Oh, my sister didn't even get past page 30". It happens!)

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  12. Excellent post. It's hard work to have an informed opinion, and it takes courage to express it. Hard work + courage is a good thing as I recall.

    I'd rather get a lukewarm review from a tough critic than an effusive one from someone who loves everything.

    It ain't easy having standards, but by golly, somebody's gotta do it.

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  13. I think this is a great post, I'm with Jae in that I'm not a blogger that really interacts with authors (aside form on Twitter or the RARE blog tour) or publishers and I don't receive ARCs.

    But, I am also one of those bloggers who most only puts up good reviews. I'm pretty selective in the books that I purchase and I look for ones that I know I will like. That's not to say that all of my reviews are me gushing about how amazing the book is, in my of my reviews I'll note what I like and what I didn't like about that particular book.

    It's just that they usually tend to fall in the 3 - 5 star range and not in the 1 -2 stars. I have a small handful of books that are less than 2 stars, but I usually try to stay away from reading books I know I won't enjoy.

    However I always write an honest review, I don't try to play nice so that everyone will like me. I write about what i liked or didn't like in a nice, polie and straightforward way.

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  14. I often take reviews of all sorts with a grain of salt. I recently reviewed an attraction in my area in less-than-glowing terms, and naturally it didn't get very much attention because it was lost in the sea of reviews that gushed and adored. That page-view-equation may be a motivation for some bloggers, many of whom are short-term, as it is. The majority are, really. And those who are in it for the long haul need to do what they feel good about doing - and for some that means only seeking out kudos and positive strokes. That's fine by me, considering that most bloggers, rather than making money, spend money on their blogs.

    However, I feel that if someone is going to stay on the kudos-only train, s/he should say so in their disclosures. Who knows how many books/products they've refused to review because it would have received a negative review?

    Personally, I review books the way I used to write college recommendations. If I agreed to write one, I felt I could have something constructive, if not glowing, to say. It's even more difficult when we are familiar with the author/publisher and they want "an honest opinion." I've been mulling that over recently as well. So, thanks for this addition to my mulling.

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  15. Excellent commentary on the review process. Thanks so much for writing this! Writers need reviewers, and honesty is what makes us better writers. Keep up the great work!

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    1. Anonymous8:13 AM

      I actually refuse to read blogs that only write positive reviews. I can tell more about a person's tastes from what they dislike than from what they love. If Lord of Scoundrels taught me anything, it's that positive reviews are to be taken with blocks of salt. Negative reviews, on the other hand, usually offer the kind of details that let me know whether I'll enjoy a book or not.

      ~Las

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  16. I'm a writer who blogs, and I've made your 3rd point over and over again. There are many reasons why a less than stellar or "nice" review can help a book and an author. The subject matter may be one that has enough interest for certain readers that they'll take note of any book on the topic. Some blog readers may have enough interest in particular authors that they'll want to look into whatever they've published no matter what a reviewer has to say about the latest book. But they have to know the book exists. No review--not helpful. A legitimate review of any kind--potentially helpful.

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  17. I agree with so much of what has already been said. I don't blog in order to get free books or impress anyone. I blog to share with my friends about the books I read - nearly EVERY book I read, good or bad - in order to start a discussion or give them info for their own reading decisions. If I were to only review the books I love, that wouldn't give them complete info and certainly wouldn't start interesting discussions. Readers need to be able to trust that a blogger will tell them the truth. That's no excuse for rudeness - but if I had problems with portions of the book, I'll say so.

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  18. As an author and reviewer, I have been very transparent about the fact that I only review books that I like. (In large part because if I don't like it, I won't bother to finish it--my time can be better spent writing or working with my crit partners... or reading books I DO like.) That doesn't mean I only do five star reviews (3 or better means I "liked" it), and it doesn't mean I only discuss what I liked. (Unless it's a book I LOVE, then the good so outweighs the bad that I tend to gush.) I try to be very balanced between what I loved and what bothered me, because as a reader that's what I want to know.

    And as for your last point, I completely agree. I know authors whose books didn't start selling well until a negative review came out, and THEN their sales numbers jumped.

    Honest trumps fairy dust any day.

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  19. Wonderful post! This was so refreshing to read. It makes me happy that others agree that we as reviewers should write reviews which represent our true reactions to the books. Good, bad or indifferent.

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  20. Great discussion! I tend to trust reviewers who have negative as well as postive reviews vs those who have only positive reviews. The Randy Jackson blogs instead of the Paula Abdul blogs (love that analogy!).

    And you're right about negative reviews. I've actually read some negatively reviewed books and loved them, because what bothers one reader won't necessarily bother another. To each their own.

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  21. What a thoughtful blog. As a current slush pile resident, I'll agree with you COMPLETELY that I'd rather hear exactly what didn't work than nothing at all (*now taking a moment to squash feelings of frustration for other slush pile residents who cause agents to say, "I used to give more feedback about why I wasn't requesting material until some writers responded in a combative way and I realized it wasn't worth my time to defend my reasons." *).

    The part where, perhaps, I diverge, is in separating reviews into so-called positive or negative ones. It is true that I've seen a lot of reviews where all the comments appeared positive, But I can recall very few blogger reviews that were entirely negative. It seems to me that most of the time, bloggers will mention what struck them in a positive and negative way both, and even in situations where it may have been mostly negative, it is a rare blogger that won't try to mention something or other that caught their eye in a good way. And many, if not most, may add a comment about how readers who

    So to me, it's less a matter of positive vs. negative reviews, and more a matter of what the proportions are.

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  22. This was a great post. So good, I'm tempted to read some of your book reviews!

    I am an aspiring writer, and I blog, but I don't blog about books. I write an OpEd-like blog to entertain a wider audience. I don't want to waste my time on reciprocal blogging, which is what many in my writer's community do. They are all busy building their "platforms." I am busy practicing my craft.

    That kind of input is useless. It's like taking a writing class where the teacher praises everyone. In the end, I can't trust what they say about me, because I know they're being nice to everyone else.

    I vote for honesty in reviews. As I've written in my blog (http://judymintz.com/2011/09/27/how-many-of-me-are-there/) as long as they spell your name right, you're ahead of the game!

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  23. Brilliant post and exactly on point. If authors and publishers want me to spend my time and energy writing a gushing review and promoting their book - they should pay me for it.

    Negative reviews are just as helpful as positive ones, even more so. If someone writes an excellent negative review and details why they personally didn't like a book, that doesn't mean I won't pick it up. I may be interested to see if it's as bad as I've heard. Or I may read that review and think well I disagree with some of the point this person has made and I think that the reasons he/she has stated for disliking it, might just be the reasons why I would love it.

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  24. I'm with you 100% - as a writer. You know what's useless to me? Saying lots of nice stuff I already know. You know what's useful? Telling me the flaws you perceive that I might not have seen, or noticed, or known, that's what. Also? It's one opinion. I don't understand this bizarre cult-of-the-author thing where we now have to be protected from bad press because it might *gasp* affect our sales! A friend of mine recently posted an extremely (meaning totally) negative review of a book, because the author insisted he post the review even though my friend warned him repeatedly that he had nothing positive to say. And he got a lot of flack for it from his followers, some of whom thought it was "mean," and some of whom went so far as to say that he shouldn't have posted it because the author might lose sales.

    Now, if this had been a malicious review, that would have been one thing - but coddling an author - lying - to protect their product? What other thing in the marketplace do we do that for? You ask people to pay money for your books, you risk the possibility that what people have to say about the thing they bought might affect other people's decisions to buy it. Authors aren't speshul snowflakes in the avalanche of capitalism. Writing, like any job, is hard and scary and sometimes disheartening, but unless someone is attacking me personally (which degrades their credibility anyway) then my job, as a writer, is to decide whether or not I think the criticism is valid, learn from what I think is and ignore the rest. That's been the case with reviews from time immemorial.

    I guess mostly I wonder where this perception came from that bloggers are somehow different - that on the scale of People Who Say What They Really Think About Books, between Your Mom's Best Friend or Your Dentist and the New York Times Book Review, bloggers don't appear at all but rather operate somewhere else entirely, off in promoterland? You wouldn't tell your dentist to sugarcoat, and you wouldn't tell the NYT to sugarcoat, so who got this idea that bloggers should?

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  25. As a blogger, I think that our currency as book bloggers is our honesty. Like, I feel like my reviews are worth nothing if I am dishonest about my feelings. I think there's a way to balance writing critical reviews with not being a dick, excuse my language.

    Anyways, this is great food for thought.

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  26. Bravo. Excellent post. Of course an author would say those things. And of course most of us are women and women have to be nice or we're bad people.

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  27. Great post, and yep, dead on. Couple of additional thoughts (and I can feel the wheels turning in a way so that I might say a thing or two on my own blog as well):

    1. Publisher publicity engines mostly don't sell books and aren't intended to; they mostly are there to make writers feel that the publisher tried to sell their book. (The small actual-selling operation that only the proven best-sellers, celebs, and heavy-commitments are routed to may not even be located in the marketing department for all practical purposes.) So from their standpoint bloggers have been a godsend; you can point the writers toward "publicity" they are getting, and make them feel better and keep them quiet with it, especially if it's warm and effusive. Like any business, there's a tendency to try to capture and control what they're getting free. Sounds like that really was happening at this convention.

    2. My experience (as a many times published old hand, combined with being a marketing intelligence research analyst) is that the books that sell best have a "lopsided u" profile: on the old 5 point scale, lots of 4s and 5s, relatively few 3s, and then a substantial number of 1s (but not nearly as many as the 4s and 5s; so the U is lopsided toward the 5 side, but it's a U because 3s are rarest).

    The books that sell best piss off a substantial minority of people. Some people think that's because a negative review from someone whose taste you don't share (or who you perhaps think of as an outright bozo) is in effect a positive review. Some people think there's just a huge contingent of readers who feel they've wasted their time if a book is bland or meh, and if a book is not, it's going to generate some substantial negatives, because there will be people who ordered a hot fudge sundae and got a bowl of chili. My own preferred guess is that controversy all by itself sells; people read the book to find out why their friends are shouting at each other (in the spirit of the old question "Is this a private fight, or can anyone get into it?")

    So please, please, authorially speaking, sprinkle fairy dust on my book if you feel like it, but from a sales and marketing standpoint (the standpoint from which I eat) I will honestly be just as happy if those little winged bastards just drop their precious fairy pants and take a massive dump on it. And if the dusters and the dumpers can then get involved in a huge knock down and drag out tooth-nail-and-knee brawl over my book, I will be truly happy.

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  28. We needed this article in the book blogosphere. Thank you so much for posting it! <3

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  29. OMG. John Barnes comment made me laugh so hard at the end there.

    Excellent post. Really, I have nothing to add because you said it so eloquently and much better than I ever could. I am not a promo tool for publishers and I never will be. If they happen to get publicity and sales out of my blog then that is an awesome side-effect, but that is totally NOT the reason I started blogging.

    Thank you for this. I have shared it because it is absolutely brilliant.

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    1. It sure is. I just blogged supportively over at my own blog and pointed people this way. Evil negativists unite!

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  30. Yaaay! Thank you so, so, so much for this! As an author, it's almost taboo to consider writing a negative review, but like you, I don't feel that writing only positive reviews is feasible or honest. I think it's harder to write a negative review than a positive one. At least, for me it is. I hate the idea of writing a negative review and work really hard to choose my negative words carefully. The positive reviews, however, are so much more fun to write because I get to gush about something I fully enjoyed.

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  31. Great point about book reviewer vs book promoter! I think it's easy to lose sight of that among all parties sometimes. Great post!

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  32. Saw this on Fb and I am saying yes yes. Sure good for them who are nice but I do not want to read bloggers who are always nice. How on earth would I find books then? I choose a book after reading positive and negative reviews, I will not buy a book if I see only rave reviews.

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  33. I thought the YA mafia was supposed to be a secret cabal of YA AUTHORS, not bloggers, who come and get ya if you say negative things *insert eyeroll*. Have people turned that into YA BLOGGERS being in a mafia?! Gah, so much wrong.

    Anyway, what you say here is how I feel about the issue of nice + reviewing.

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  34. I agree with you 100%.

    What is the point of only having gushing reviews on your blog? Of the books I read, only a small percentage make me want to run out and force people to read them. However, there is a large percentage that I enjoy with a varying degree of criticism or reservation. Then, there is the other small number: the ones that I hate or cannot even finish reading. Does this make me mean? No, it makes me normal!

    I hate writing negative reviews, but my blog is based upon my intention of reviewing everything I read: good or bad. I try not to be too snarky or personal in my negative comments, but I do hope that they convey the overwhelming emotion I usually have with bad books: disappointment. I want to love everything I read: not hate it. I choose to start a book because it sounds like it will be good: not because I hope it will allow me to write a snarky review. Also, I will always make it evident if I believe that I am having problems that are due to my dislike of certain aspects of the plot (I hate reading about infidelity) or my over familiarity with a setting or topic (I am a biologist, so I get cross when ferrets are described as rodents, for example).

    I wish I could write 5 star, happy, happy, joy, joy reviews for everything I read, but unfortunately people keep writing books that I don't like all that much! :D

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  35. Great post! I completely agree. I am one of the bloggers who likes to promote books. Even before I've read them, I will at least spotlight the author. But if, after having read the novel, I come to find that I don't like the book, I will still be completely honest and probably not promote the book again.

    I write positive reviews, negative reviews, glowing reviews, mediocre reviews. I'm extremely picky, and I rarely give 5-star reviews. I'm also hesitant to go the other way, either. The book has to be extremely awful for it to receive a 1-star review. I'm a faithful reviewer and star/write something about every book I read.

    There is no reason to not be honest. Not a good, valid one anyway. It's always okay to not like a book, even if you're BFFs with the author on Twitter. It's our job to be honest. Isn't that why we wanted to blog in the first place?

    Thanks for the great article!

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  36. Excellent post! I suspect like most avid readers, I am pretty good at picking books that I will like, however sometimes that judgement is incorrect. I won't back away from critically reviewing the book (as opposed to the author)but thankfully it doesn't happen all that often.

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  37. Wow! I am just completely overwhelmed by the responses I've had to this post. So glad I'm not the only one. A lot of what angry authors accuse of being bullying is just being negative - a negative review that an author takes incredibly personally. But the fact is, no one can make you feel bad without your consent.

    Most authors take the good with the bad and soldier on. Nora Roberts has had bad reviews. Stephen King's had bad reviews. Woody Allen is a legend, and he's made terrible films with the reviews to show for it! And it's true - negative reviews let me know more about a blogger's personal taste then if they ONLY published positive reviews.

    I can even name a recent example where a negative review actually made me want to see something - a critic from my local paper had a negative review of "Rock of Ages," saying he didn't like the corny hair metal music and the cheesy, loud, and elaborate dance numbers. The first thing I thought (well, the first thing after "what did this guy think he was going to get out of Rock of Ages, then?") was that this sounded like a GREAT movie to see - and it was!

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