How Toxic "Book Review Groups" Can Destroy Your Writing Career
Heading into the world of indie writing is tough. Whether you're on your first book or your fifth, many indie writers - or indeed, writers with small-time publishers - struggle to gain popularity among the sea of books that are published by the thousand year after year.
Getting written reviews on websites, the biggest of which being Amazon and Goodreads, is an excellent way of making your work stand out. Getting reviews, however, can be extremely difficult. Readers don't usually write reviews, and people who are well-known for writing detailed, honest reviews tend to get swamped with pitches from writers seeking feedback.
Many writers, then, rack their brains as to how to gain reviews quickly and more easily. A popular conclusion is connecting with people who really understand them - people in the same situation - and promising the "give a review, get a review" system. But are these really a good idea?
What Is a Review Group?
Amazon has cracked down on reviews they believe to be biased, including paid reviews or ones written by close friends and family of the writer. Therefore, it's becoming harder and harder for unknown writers to gain more than a handful of reviews for their work.
It's important to know that review groups and swaps are nearly always created with good intentions. They are started by independent writers who want to help themselves and others collect reviews to make their work really shine.
Review groups usually take on some sort of system where if a writer joins, they must read a book and review it to "earn" their own review. The exact method varies according to the group, but generally it's where the last person who submitted their book gets read by the newest person. For example, writer A joins, reads the latest book and reviews it. Writer B joins the group, and therefore has to read writer A's submission.
There are many problems with this, of course, such as genre preference, book length and time frames. Despite these problems, review groups are a preferable alternative to review swapping; see this article about why you should never participate in a two-person review swap.
Why Review Groups Can Be More Bad Than Good
I was very recently introduced to an online review group and I thought I'd take a look at it and decide what to do. What I saw truly shocked me, which inspired me to write this article. I am sure the following signs were not only present in the group I saw.
Some (not all) writers in this review group made the following claims:
- "Anything less than a four-star review is harsh, unhelpful and unnecessary". These writers were not accepting anything less than four-star reviews? I was amazed! What were they doing if they gained negative feedback? Requesting the review to be taken down? Contacting the reviewer and hassling them?
- "You think you can do better?" One writer got very defensive when I called them out. The point of reviews is to show a group of customers' experience with a certain product. Not all reviewers of a video game, for example, are game developers. Are you not allowed to say a badly cooked meal tastes bad if you're a chef, or dislike someone's music if you're a pianist?
- "If you have negative feedback, send me a personal message so I can pull the book and correct it. Do not post your negativity online." This was shocking. The finished, published book is what a paying customer is getting. They aren't there to be an editor or proofreader - that comes before pressing "publish".
From the sounds of this group, it was filled with inexperienced authors who just wanted to get their ego boosted. I checked out the books of a woman who said or agreed with all three of the above, and as I expected, she only had four and five star reviews. How many people had attempted to give negative feedback, only to be shunned, ignored, or asked "you think YOU are better than me?"
Why Is This Bad?
The members of this particular review group, then, were only receiving positive feedback. That's great for the real talent in there, but what if you found a book that you absolutely hated? Even if it's in the genre you fancy, what if it's littered with errors, plot holes, or simply contains bad writing?
Give it a good review anyway? After all, you're only in there for yourself. With this attitude, the whole point of reviews is destroyed.
Here are some points to consider with the above review group (which, by the way, I promptly removed myself from):
- All of the members in the group end up with only 4- and 5-star reviews no matter what. No matter how good or bad their work is.
- People are reluctant to criticize or to point out errors. How can they, when they will be shunned? So what, right? If it's a review for a review, what's the harm in stretching the truth, awarding four stars to a book that deserves two, because ultimately you will be getting a review for your pains? The answer is that you're cheating real, paying customers. They are being lied to.
- Being told constantly that your work is great and never being shown your errors leads to an inflated ego. Nobody is perfect. How can you spot the real talent among the people who are average, but oblivious to any gaping errors in their work?
- In turn, all of this gives indie authors a terrible name.
What's Wrong With Just Good Reviews? That's What I Want!
The point of getting lots of great reviews for your book(s) is to make it look more desirable to potential "real" readers, not other struggling writers who did a review to get a review. However, consider this: what will you do when people start buying your book as a reader, and give you fewer stars? There is nowhere to complain, and it isn't possible to contact them and ask them to take it down.
Let me give you an example. Several years ago I was browsing free books and I found a fantasy indie book. Since fantasy is my genre, I was excited to discover someone new. I examined the reviews, and they glowed; they were all four- or five- stars and had nothing but good things to say.
I downloaded it and started to read. After three chapters, I gave up. Why did it have such fantastic feedback? I felt cheated.
Interestingly, I remembered the book a few years on and tracked it down on Amazon. It had lots of reviews, but way more balanced. A lot of the one- and two- star reviews were actually complaining about all the positive feedback, asking the same questions I was. Why was this mediocre book getting so much praise? Perhaps the early reviews had all been from friends and family of the author. Or perhaps the author was part of a toxic review group.
If all you are told is good things, you will never, ever, ever, EVER improve. Can a budding chef make the perfect dish if his meat is always burned? Will a musician ever make it big if he's playing in the wrong key or can't sing?
Get honesty. Potential customers deserve it, and you deserve it, too.
So What Now?
As someone who ultimately will always look to improve their craft, you must always welcome all kinds of feedback as long as it's genuine. For example, a one-star review from someone who obviously hasn't read it is not okay, but if it's a two or three star review saying "I didn't like A, B or C", that's absolutely fine. Is there a gaping plot hole? Pull it and fix it. Too many typos? Hire a proofreader. These basic checks are what will really separate you from the crowd, not tons of fake reviews.
Reviews are supposed to be a balanced consumer's experience. If all reviews are good, then none of them are.
Who should I ask for reviews?
Unless they buy and read your book because they genuinely want to (writers are, first and foremost, readers after all) try to resist chasing down other writers for reviews. Feedback, beta reading, editing are all fine, however. Writers know their craft, but it is readers who you're writing for.
Check out how to get real reviews from unbiased people. Some great and helpful blogs include the Write Life, Your Writer Platform, and the book Naked Truths About Getting Book Reviews by Gisela Haussmann.
Welcome all feedback.
If you feel a negative review is genuinely unfair, then by all means report it. However, always remember that you can improve. No one is perfect and no writer is loved by everyone. If you're only getting reviews from a group where they give positive feedback just to get it, you're going to end up with dishonest, biased and poor reviews that people will see right through. Integrity is more important than ego.
Review groups are there with good intentions but ultimately, they are at high risk of creating biased, dishonest reviews that won't only harm the writer's career and reputation, but the careers and reputation of all independent writers. Don't be a cheater in disguise - collect real, honest and great feedback and use it to become better and better at your craft. Your books deserve it.