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The Issue of Book Reviews

Sonal Panse,

I've been writing a lot of book reviews recently, since I participate in several Book Review Groups. It has been an interesting and positive experience so far, overall. Most indie writers that I have encountered, I'm glad to say, are professional and courteous, and are not prone to stirring up needless controversies.

A while back though, I had the misfortune of trucking into a writer who sent me what was essentially a rough-hewn outline, rather than an actual book, and expected a five-star review for this piece of muddle. It would 'harm' their career, they claimed, if they received anything less. That the work was just not up to par was not a matter that bothered them, and when I countered with 'one star or nothing', they went with nothing. The manuscript was passed on to another reviewer, who had no problem with giving it the writer-required rating.

“We need to help one another,” this reviewer later wrote to me.

For me - and I've been mulling over this for a while – this kind of conduct doesn't make sense either ethically, business-wise, and even helpful-wise.

A customer may be lured once by a five-star review into buying, but then, if they find that the book is just not well-written, they won't buy any more books by that author. They also won't trust my reviews anymore - they will either think I'm a person of poor taste, or, worse, a person of no integrity. A review from me might even automatically be taken to mean a shoddy book.

That will definitely come back to bite me in my career. 

Also, more important than other people's opinions is my own opinion of myself. I won't respect myself if I am less than truthful. There is a Hindi song from the film 'Pyaasa' - "Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye To Kya Hai" – roughly, it alludes to the pointlessness of winning a world that is base and corrupt. Or, as Mark from the Bible said - “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” In the long run, integrity matters.

As much as I want to help other authors - and be helped myself - I don't think giving a false review is the way to go about it. I study art and music, and I would never improve if I thought everything I did was absolutely fabulous. The same goes for writing; it is necessary for me to know where I'm weak to know what I need to change and develop. In my personal experience, without self-honesty, the work suffers.

But, of course, others are entitled to not have my opinion regarding their work, and I'm fine with that. I rarely offer unsolicited advice.

The issue with reviews though is that they are solicited. Every time you put a book out, you are soliciting the reader's opinion. If someone only wants an excellent review, no matter what, I wonder why I must even bother to read the book. I could be doing other, more constructive things with my time. So it might be better for both parties to avoid the farce in the first place.

And as I usually try to practice what I preach, I will take a low review of my own work on the chin. The reader has the right to their opinion, particularly when they have taken the trouble to read my book. If I feel the criticism is valid, I will learn from it. If I don't think it is valid, I will let it roll. It will hurt, of course, but I've been a freelancer long enough, you learn to live with the pricks of rejection. You wince a little, you indulge in a little self-pity, and then you move on.

I know there are the considerations of sales and marketing and how reviews do affect these, but when I buy a book, I don't do it solely on the reviews; I do realize there can be different opinions on the same book, and so I also read the excerpt and that is really the deciding factor. From my research, it seems to be pretty much a common practice with many other buyers as well. I also see plenty of great books with low ratings, and that doesn't seem to affect their popularity one whit; but then, they are great to start out with and there's a lesson in that in itself. 

I really believe in the dictum - Do good work first, as much as is possible for you at that particular juncture, and let the rest fall where it will.

I just want to keep things simple and uncomplicated.