Is Reciprocal Reviewing OK?

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In our July Newsletter we encouraged our B.R.A.G.Medallion Honoree authors to support, read and review each other’s books. We were by no means encouraging our authors to collude to do something improper. One of our Honoree authors Jane Steen brought to our attention that she felt we were sending the wrong message, which was clearly not our intent.  However, we thought you might like to read her blog – Keep Going You Fool!
She has given us permission to share it with you. I hope you will take the time to read it:

Reciprocal reviewing is not OK, authors. Here’s why.

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The above is an invitation from a self-published author on Goodreads. Nice of him, huh? I’ve received many such invitations from this guy, whom I’m not going to finger specifically because he’s not the only author who uses back-scratching to make his book more visible, not by a long chalk. If you’re thinking that maybe he’s just being nice to other people, here’s one of his latest asks:

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He sends these invitations to over 7,000 people, and I still get them even though I’ve unfriended AND blocked him.

Is this kind of thing wrong? I say yes. OK, he’s not technically buying reviews or ratings, which is against the terms of service of most review sites, but he’s soliciting/encouraging a practice that skews ratings and deceives many readers into thinking a book’s getting more attention than it actually is. And there’s a funny thing about a book getting attention—it encourages yet more attention, out of curiosity or a desire to keep up with what other people are reading.

This practice, dear friends, is reciprocal reviewing. Or reciprocal Facebook page likes, or Pinterest pins, or whatever form of social media floats your boat.

So wait a minute, I hear you say. If you like my Facebook page and so I go to your page and you seem interesting so I like you back, is that wrong?

No, it’s not.

But if a whole group of people get together and decide they’re all going to like each other’s pages? Now we’re getting a little squicky.

And if a website exists for the sole purpose of getting self-published authors to click Like or vote for or give a 5-star rating to each other’s books? Are you beginning to feel a bit dirty now? I actually followed such a site for a while when I was a dewy-eyed new author—I wish I could remember its name—and gave other people’s books a few clicks before my brain caught up with what I was doing.

Self-published authors soon learn that visibility is the most important factor in influencing sales, more important—in the short term—than whether your book’s any good. Reviews, in particular, are a visible sign that someone has read your book and has cared enough to review it. Or at least, that’s how it should be. Readers assume they’re reading reviews written by other, impartial readers who have rushed to their computer because a book made a strong impression on them.

The invitations above are one small step away from buying reviews, but they’re at the end of a long spectrum of back-scratching that infects the book world like a nasty disease. A lot of writers think such arrangements are awesome—you’re supporting the team, being a friend, it’s a fellowship of authors. As one of the 300+ people who had responded Yes to the first invite at the time of writing said, “promotion and fellowship is everything in the independent publishing game”. The responses to this author are full of appreciation for his support of self-publishing, for being a great guy in general. It’s a giant love-fest.

And this kind of thing isn’t new, and self-publishers certainly didn’t invent it. For many years writers in the same genre, with the same agency, with the same publisher, belonging to the same organizations and so on have been encouraged to help promote each other’s work. At some point some bright spark in marketing realized their promotional efforts could be printed right on the cover, and the jacket blurb was born. But the reader recognizes the jacket blurb as marketing, whereas she might not be as quick to see reciprocal reviews as promotional material.

Writing’s a lonely game, and we all crave affirmation and support. So we come together in writing groups, organizations, clubs, societies, conferences, you name it. After all, there’s nothing wrong with writers getting together to read and critique each other’s writing, discuss strategies for getting published or compare notes about their research. There’s a whole ecosystem out there of writers who make more money out of advising, mentoring, editing and even publishing other writers than they do for their own writing. Again, not wrong.

And we go to each other’s launch parties and author events, and buy each other’s books. Sometimes we even read them. Sometimes we review them—I’ve done it, often, although I always mention the relationship in the first line or two of the review, and I only post a review if I genuinely liked the book. The declaration that the author’s a friend serves as a warning to the savvy reader that yes, I’m going to be more polite about this book than I would if there was no chance I’d ever meet the author (although, frankly, I have shaken the hand of more than one author whose book I’ve previously snarked on—I always hope they don’t pay attention to reviewers’ names).

Because you just CAN’T be completely impartial when reviewing a friend’s book. The fellowship and mutual support and professional courtesy that surround the ways authors interact with each other inevitably spill over into the review. I dream of being able to be scathing about a friend’s book and then have them laugh about it and buy me a drink, but in real life, feelings get hurt.

Some authors cope with this dilemma by refusing to review a friend’s book. I don’t want to get into that position because my own genre, historical fiction, is a relatively cozy one and if I stopped reviewing the books of people I’ve met, I’ll end up reviewing very few books and I like to review. So I try to be as honest as possible while remaining professionally polite, and I always declare the relationship. If I’m asked to review a book for the Historical Novel Society and the author’s a good friend, I decline on the basis of the relationship.

I’ve been asked to do reciprocal reviews a couple of times. The first time was when I was a new author and got to know someone on Goodreads. She reviewed my book fairly, and I . . . just found too much to criticize in her book to give it more than one star, so I kept quiet. And then there was a writer-friend in real life whose book I read, and for the same reason I declined to review it. She gives me some odd looks nowadays, and I feel bad about having her review on my pages. In all, out of the 100+ reviews I’ve got, I’d estimate I feel slightly squicky about five or so of them, and they’re all from the very early days when I didn’t really understand what I was doing.

Reciprocal reviewing/rating/liking or any kind of reciprocal promotion that hides behind a structure set up for people to give their impartial opinions is wrong. It deceives readers and chips away at a writer’s integrity. Taken as a whole, such practices discredit authors, self-published authors in particular, in the eyes of their readers and their peers. It’s very easy to pass from a fairly harmless stance of supporting others to ending up like the guy whose invites I received—for all I know, he may have started out quite innocently trying to help others, but he’s created a monster with hundreds of heads that might prove very difficult to root out.

And when readers discover that the popular author whose books they’ve been loving and discussing made himself popular by buying reviews or soliciting reviews unfairly, or engaging in any of the shady practices that exist—there are far more than I’ve described here—their reaction is one of disappointed rage. Is that how you want to be remembered? To mangle Milton, I’d rather serve in heaven than rule in hell. I did make mistakes when I first started publishing, but I’ve learned better. In fact, I’ve learned a lot from the readers themselves about how to conduct myself with integrity and become a better writer. A lot of the trouble starts when authors only listen to each other and not the readers they write for. Start listening to your readers, fellow authors, and promote your work fairly.

 

Thank you Jane!

Jane is the author of the B.R.A.G.Medallion Honoree- The House of Closed Doors

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6 responses to “Is Reciprocal Reviewing OK?”

  1. SW Fairbrother says:

    Great post!
    At its best, reciprocal reviews can be very awkward, if one author doesn’t like the other’s book, and at its worst, I’ve seen authors on Goodreads openly promise good reviews in exchange for a good review on their own book.
    I think there really needs to be a bigger debate around this in the self-publishing community, because the whole review system is at risk of being devalued.

  2. Geri says:

    Although we encourage the indieBRAG authors to support each other, we certainly would not expect them to leave undeserved reviews! Isn’t it a shame that there are those who try to manipulate the system any way they can? We have often been surprised that books that did not even get through the preliminary stage because of poor spelling, grammar and structure have 25 five star reviews. It makes you wonder how that happened. Our point was that, IF you are going to read a book, why not make it a B.R.A.G.Medallion Honoree and support each other in that way. Then IF you enjoy it, the author would surely love a review.

  3. Jane Steen says:

    SW, that’s why I wrote the post. Self-published authors need to talk about these things and deter new authors from entering into arrangements that may look good but don’t help their career in the long run.

    Geri, your approach is the right one. Readers need sources for self-published books that make a serious attempt at good writing and production quality. I have nothing against the fact that so many bad books are self-published–it’s the necessary corollary to having the freedom to publish as we want–but authors need to see that the route to success and sales should be by writing well and caring about the reader’s whole experience of buying and reading your book, not by gaming the system to increase your sales.

  4. Geri says:

    The truth is that readers will decide which books they want to spend their money on. Fudging the results will only get you so far and not build the much desired word-of-mouth. Our readers are not all professionals- editors, writers, literary luminaries- but they are avid readers who love a good story. It doesn’t matter how many 5 star reviews you accumulate if your books doesn’t hold up- it will end with the reader. Reversely, a book with only a few reviews may take off because those that read it, and loved it, tell the world! So, as you said, a writer needs to work on putting out the best book possible and spend less time trying to work the system.

  5. David James says:

    I tried reciprocal reviewing some years ago – never again! I was sent a real bummer and reviewed it honestly. The author must have complained because Amazon took my review down. My co-reviewer didn’t even post a review of my book. As the promoter of The Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction I receive some pretty average books, but I let them down gently with the sting in the tail blunted – after all the entrants have paid for a Judges Report – and that’s the least I can do: tell the story, indicate its good points and suggest it needs ‘editing’.

  6. Geri says:

    Honest is all you can be. I am surprised at how many writers asking for reviews assume they will always be good! If you aren’t willing to take the risk, don’t submit your book. At indieBRAG we do not do reviews- that is not what we are about and there are plenty of places to get honest reviews. We have been very fortunate because we haven’t gotten a lot of “hate” from those whose books haven’t gotten a medallion. BUT, there have been a couple and boy were they harsh! I have heard other reviewers say their negative reviews were taken down by amazon. If only the good ones are allowed to remain, how can readers really decide if this is a book worth their time and money? An intelligent and fair negative review helps and doesn’t always turn a reader off but gives them information to make that choice.

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