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The Ethics of Book Reviews, Part 1

I know, I know. This has been discussed ad naseum recently (especially with the recent BTT!). But for the most part I kept quiet during many of the discussions to see what people had to say.

And I swear that I’ve had a post all ready to go that I had to change the name to The Ethics of Book Reviews, Part 2, because I think this part of the post, which I was going to do anyway, should be discussed first.

First I want to thank everyone for their support during the couple days of craziness that That Which Will Not Be Named. I read every single comment and was very appreciative of your support. Believe me, that was not an easy couple of days!

Second, I wanted to go back to address a few things about THIS, aka That Which Will Not Be Named.

Regarding That Which Will Not Be Named, I was angry about two things. First, someone left an anonymous comment on this negative book review (I’ve publicly accused the author, and the author mentioned it was a friend of his, but seeing his doggedness on calling out bloggers on “lies” they’ve spread about him, I can deduce that this comment was left by the author himself since he hasn’t doggedly denied the accusation). For some reason, the whole anonymous commenter thing really bothers me. More about that later. 

Second, the author sent me an email demanding I remove the picture of the cover and the quote I’d used from the book, stating it was copyrighted material and I had not been given permission to use them. It turns out my use is covered under Fair Use, but the author was betting on the fact that I would be intimidated by copyright law and the fact that he’s an attorney. The email came from his law firm’s email address, and that, coupled with the wording of the email, left me no doubt that the author was trying to intimidate and bully me. A lawsuit, while not specifically threatened, was definitely implied. This struck me in the gut as so very wrong, and I decided that I wouldn’t be bullied when I hadn’t done anything wrong. Was I scared about a possible lawsuit? Uh, YEAH. Did I have friends and readers recommending I remove the text and cover just so I wouldn’t have to deal with him? YES. Could this be a complete mistake on my part? Maybe. But bullies like this become and continue to be bullies because the good people won’t stand up to them. This was my way of standing up to a bully.

Anonymous Comments and Comments From Authors

I’m totally aware that I probably should let anonymous comments go. Some bloggers have said that letting anonymous comments go or not responding to mean comments from authors is “taking the higher ground.” But is it? I don’t know.

There’s a saying about arguing with a fool, and when I looked it up, I got two different versions: 

Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.  ~Author unknown, attributed to Mark Twain

When you’re arguing with a fool, make sure he isn’t doing the same thing.

SO TRUE!

So how far should it go? Let the comment stand as-is?

I believe that my blog is here to create a dialogue. Hopefully I’m not talking into a void, and I respond via email to many comments left on my blog. I really try to be clear and concise in what I write, so that even if someone disagrees with me (which I like!!), I don’t have to respond because both of our arguments stand on their own merit.

HOWEVER, I do think that some comments warrant a public response. I admit that I could totally be wrong on this, and maybe after reading people comments (or after I’ve been blogging longer), I’ll feel differently. But right now, I think one response to a nasty comment, even if multiple comments are left, is okay. I have the gift (or curse, in my opinion) of being concise, so I rarely go on and on about things, even a nasty comment. Because of this particular-ness of my personality, I think it’s okay for me to respond once to a nasty comment.

You may not know it, but I’ve let other author comments stand on their own, without a need to respond. I didn’t feel a need to respond, though, because I stated my case in my post, the author stated her case, and that was that. The author didn’t attack me or say anything that I thought warranted a response. I should point out, though, that I did dedicate a whole post to a comment that I thought was totally unfair, and I admit that maybe the comment didn’t need it’s own post, but I also gave the author of the comment free “air time” when she apologized, as I didn’t feel right publicly refuting her comment and then not letting everyone know about her super nice comment afterwards.

Honest Reviews

One thing this situation did was really make people discuss book reviews and how honest they should be. From the comments I read, I believe most people think reviews should be polite and that the reviewer should highlight at least one positive.

I don’t know if I agree or disagree. But here’s what I think:

A reviewer should write something that they wouldn’t have a problem telling the author to their face. I would not be embarassed if the author read any of my quote-unquote negative reviews. The author might not be my new best friend, but hopefully they won’t hate me.

There’s one review in particular, from a blogger, that’s stuck with me. I won’t give you any identifying characteristics of the review, other than to say the reviewer gave a three or four sentence synopsis and then said something to the effect of “This book sucks. You shouldn’t read this unless you’re a masochist.” I was actually embarassed as a blogger to see something like that. Would the reviewer say that to the author’s face? REALLY? I doubt it. The reviewer would probably say something like, “Well, it wasn’t for me.” But I doubt the reviewer would have been as harsh to the author’s face as they were in their review.

That’s one end of the spectrum.

On the other end is the people who won’t give bad reviews, I assume for fear of hurting the author’s feelings, which I totally get. But Michele at Michele – One ‘L’ left this comment: How are they [people reading your blog] going to believe the ‘really great’ reviews if those are the only books you share?

Yes!

And I get it! I do! I don’t like writing ho-hum reviews. I hate it, in fact, that I can’t write to every single author and gush over their work.

But for me, my blog is a forum to discuss books the way I would discuss them with my friends, albeit I’m often more formal on my blog as far as the reviews go. Would I only discuss the good books with my friends? Of course not! And while I might rip apart a book with my friends in private, I would never do so in public, which is why I won’t do so here.

To sum it all up, let me just say this: I’ll probably continue to call anonymous commenters on the carpet if their comment is rude or mean. That’s also my way of exposing their stupidity for what it is. Also, I’ll continue to review everything I read, and while a review might not be positive, it will always be fair and I will never make fun of an author on this blog. Except maybe Nicholas Sparks. But what does that guy care what I think? He’s laughing all the way to the bank.

| Tags: , , , 17 comments »

17 Responses to “The Ethics of Book Reviews, Part 1”

  1. Natasha @ Maw Books

    You can pretty much guarantee that an author is reading your book review no matter what, when it’s so easy for them to find you (Google Alerts). One can be fair and honest without trashing the book. Sometimes we just aren’t the right fit for it and sometimes the writing or the story just isn’t polished enough. I think that discussion in the comments is good and necessary, but I think that we should think through our responses first. Maybe let it settle in, instead of dashing off a heated response.

    I’ve written a fair number of reviews that were lukewarm/negative and I was 100% positive the author was not only reading the review but anticipating. Did I let that scare me off into reviewing it? No, but I made sure that I didn’t make it a personal attack, which I no we all agree we shouldn’t do. Many of those same authors said thank you, left a nice comment, and moved on.

    And my neighborhood book club has chosen a Nicholas Sparks book this month . . .

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  2. Becky

    Totally interesting post. I guess I missed out on the drama while I was dealing with my OWN drama.

    As a fellow author, why would you expect that everyone would both like your book AND want to sing it’s praises? It’s sadly not the way things go.

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  3. Ti

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with a negative review and I thought your review of the said book was fine. Some of the other posts that you’ve outlined here were more borderline than the one in question. Negative criticism is different than mocking an author (such as Nicholas Sparks). To me, and I am being honest here, that was you going out of your way to be sarcastic and funny.

    After reading your blog for awhile now, I know this is your personality and I take it with a grain of salt, but someone not familiar with your writing may not see it that way.

    Does it matter to you how you come across? Or do you just feel that since it is your blog, you can say what you want? I am not asking this to spark an argument so please don’t take it that way. I’m just curious.

    I often say to myself that “it’s my blog so I will post what I want” but is that a true statement? Really? Honest reviews yes, but the rest??

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  4. Chris@bookarama

    I had said on My Friend Amy’s blog during all of this that if the blogger makes what they believe is a fair review and can stand by their words, then what else can they do?

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  5. Jeane

    I really like the point you made about not writing anything in a review that you’d be ashamed to say to an author in person. That is being courteous and tactful. And you can still criticize the book while doing so.

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  6. Michele

    Great post Trish! (and not just cause you used my quote! LOL) I struggled with the whole honesty thing early on when I read a book that I really didn’t like. But decided that I needed to review it because I wanted to be fair to myself. Do I think my review caused some people not to read the book? Probably. Do I think my review caused OTHER people to read it just because I didn’t like it? Probably. Every person feels differently about a book based on their experiences – just because I like a book doesn’t mean you will. Or my book club will. Or even my best pal. What if folks read my blog to find out what I don’t like because they generally like what I don’t?

    Rambling – cold meds. Sorry. 🙂

    [Reply]

  7. avisannschild

    Yes, yes, yes! Fantastic post, Trish. I must admit I was starting to worry about your silence on this matter. I’m glad the experience doesn’t seem to have rattled you too much (or discouraged you from speaking your mind). You go, girl!

    As for writing something that one wouldn’t have a problem saying to the author to their face, this isn’t a good guideline for me because I’m much shier in person than in print. I’d find it very difficult to criticize an author’s work to their face (heck I’d probably be tongue-tied to begin with!). But I do get what you mean. What bothers me most, however, is reviewers who say (more or less privately) that they didn’t like a certain book but then they write a review that gives me the impression they did. To me that’s worse than refusing to write negative reviews, especially if you’re up front about the fact that you don’t review books you don’t like. Despite my aforementioned shyness, I do write negative reviews fairly regularly!

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  8. bookchronicle

    This definitely seems to be some long going drama as even before this My Friend Amy as well as myself had somewhat similar posts up – though you’ve certainly received some of the worst treatment from an author that I’ve ever heard about. (I’m totally sending you karmic feel good vibes.)

    I feel the same way about my own blog and that I’m participating (or at least making it available) in a larger dialog on the book I reviewed in particular and literature in general. I’m always honest in my reviews and I have received some author criticisms and compliments during my blogging experience, and personally the only criticisms I refrain from within my blog are personal attacks on the author.

    This great discussion, that developed from such a yucky incident, definitely leaves me with one question though: What (if anything) should be done?

    [Reply]

  9. Ti

    Trish..thanks for clarifying. I must have missed that part about the post not being yours. I actually enjoy sarcasm that is why you see me around so much. LOL.

    [Reply]

  10. Corinne

    I always enjoy reading your own thoughts – as much as your reviews 🙂

    [Reply]

  11. chartroose

    Good for you, Trish, and stick to your guns! I tend to hold back a bit in my reviews–they’re honest, but they aren’t as harsh as I’d sometimes like them to be. When you think about it, it’s a fine line we’re walking here, and sometimes it’s hard to know when to pull your punches and when to let ’em rip.

    I’m sure the author that started this entire mess is an exception. I don’t think this is going to happen to you again, at least not to this extent.

    I have been having a problem as well–not with an author, but with a reader. He’s calmed down though. I haven’t heard from him in several days. It truly is a jungle in the webosphere!

    [Reply]

  12. Wendy

    Re: Anonymous commenters…I don’t allow them on my blog. I have my preferences set so that a commenter must use an email address and I can track their IP address. I hate when someone decides to come on and post something nasty and then does not have the guts to leave their name. I believe that allowing anonymous posters encourages nastiness (people are more apt to be rude when they can’t be identified). I encourage discussion on my blog, but I am quick to delete inappropriate (rude, profane or disrespectful) comments. There is no reason why a disagreement can’t be civil 🙂

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  13. A soldier's Girl

    Very interesting….and I totally agree about anonymous posters. Why post anonymous anyway ~ to me it’s like talking behind someone’s back 🙂 (ok, maybe a bit dramatic – but you get the point, right?)

    As far as negative reviews….you can’t please everyone all the time. And hopefully those who write reviews do it not to be “ugly” but to give insight.

    Thanks for another great post 🙂

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  14. Joe Cottonwood

    When I published a novel over 30 years ago, the very first review had this to say: “Mawkish… stupefying dullness and improbability.” And that was in the New York Times!

    Well, I’ve now published 9 books, and somehow I survived a bad review. An author needs a strong shrug response. Don’t pull punches in your reviews.

    My wife had the bad review printed on a T shirt and gave it to me for my birthday. I wear it with pride.

    [Reply]

  15. Jill

    Great post…after watching all of this unfold, I threw my hat in the ring this week. I love that there’s so much discussion on this…makes for an interesting community.

    http://breakingthespine.blogspot.com/2008/11/sunday-salon-book-blogging.html

    [Reply]

  16. Book promotion—getting book reviews • Jane V. Blanchard

    […] The Ethics of Book Reviews, Part 1 […]

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