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How Toxic "Book Review Groups" Can Destroy Your Writing Career

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Poppy is the author of "A Bard's Lament" and the Black Diamond series. She lives in Enoshima with her husband and young son.

There are more productive ways to get reviews than with book review groups.

There are more productive ways to get reviews than with book review groups.

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.

Some book review groups refuse to rate anything below 4 stars.

Some book review groups refuse to rate anything below 4 stars.

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.

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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.


Poppy (author) from Enoshima, Japan on April 28, 2018:

Thanks :) I hope it was helpful.

Prajakta Karekar on April 28, 2018:

You did an extremely good job by choosing this topic.

Poppy (author) from Enoshima, Japan on October 28, 2017:

So sorry this article upset you :) have a wonderful day

Arcane on October 28, 2017:

Yes, in a perfect world reviews would all be real and both readers and promotion services would recognize that books with a three-star average can be brilliant.

But that's not the world we live in, and it's not the world we write in or market in. In this world, how well you write isn't all that important. I know, fight against it all you like, but that's just how it is.

Finding the group of people that only want you to hit their favorite tropes A, B, and C, is the key to success.

Writers refine, they don't improve by leaps and bounds, and they also actually kind of go downhill after a while. They lose that spark, they turn into Metallica for the last 15 years.

I've found that feedback doesn't really improve anything. It might help a few rough or weird spots, but not overall. People write how they write, at least once they are 25 or so.

What indie writers are trying to do is just have a chance at success, of finding their readers. And in today's market, they are competing against not only the big five, but against a massive amount of independent authors. And almost all of them have tons of softball reviewers ready to go to bat with every new release to shower it with false praise and make sure it stays above a 4 star average.

How is an indie to compete with that? Any good, and I mean truly good book (barring established works) is going to have detractors, and a lot of them. Consider what it would be like if every reader wrote a book. How would those turn out? Not great, right? Because most people are dumb, and I include most writers in this.

So of the people who read your book, a lot of them are going to just be dumb people. And they may like your book for the wrong reasons, or they may hate it for really stupid reasons. You can't control it except by excessive pandering that devalues writing as an art.

No book with only real reviews will maintain a 4 star average. Take that to the fking bank. But most big promotional newsletters are picky, and if your book is under 4 stars, well then you aren't getting promoted. And readers, unless they know you've got those tropes they love, are going to be very hesitant to spend even a dime on something with less than those magnificent 4 glowing stars.

This is the world of indie and even big name publishing. It ain't pretty. You want to be a 'great' writer? This isn't the game for you. This is a marketing and trope game. This is shifter romance. This is YA mindless nonsense. Get with the times and feed people the sht they love or get out.

You finished a manuscript? How nice for you. Now spend a few thousand on editing, fake reviews, a cliched cover, and marketing. FK the publishing industrial complex, fk readers who are too dumb to know good from bad, and fk you for writing something shaming those just trying to get a foothold.

Terrie Lynn from Canada on July 14, 2017:

this is a very interesting topic. I working on two books right now. they are 2 totlly diferent types of books. this article is very helpful

Gisela Hausmann on May 15, 2017:

@Poppy - This is an excellent and much needed blog, with lots of industry smarts!

Like you say, though "other writers" are genuinely interested readers they aren't reading a book like "reader-readers."

While an author-reader may admire a writer's way to construct sentences or describe a scene, reader-readers may think that the scene is simply too long.


I too dropped out of reviewer groups but for a different reason.

In every reviewer group are people who "push harder." Some of them don't learn the rules, don't know what's allowed and what's not; in short: they leave a mile-wide trail for Amazon to find them.

If a person who interprets Amazon's guidelines rather loosely reviewed your book or you reviewed their book you may lose reviews too even though you never did anything wrong.

Amazon's algorithm is not a person (a detective), it's a computer program that decides who may be cheating.

Hence, my advice: Authors, be sure to check what the authors you work with are doing, or you could be in for a bad surprise.

Last but not least, thank you, Poppy, also for mentioning my book, it's the result of three years of research.

Poppy (author) from Enoshima, Japan on May 14, 2017:

Well it's true, right? If you're only told you're brilliant and nothing else, then there's no way to improve.

Deng Xiang on May 13, 2017:

Hmm ok.

Poppy (author) from Enoshima, Japan on May 13, 2017:

That's not really the bottom line. "Unwanted" criticism is often very helpful.

Deng Xiang on May 13, 2017:

Informative article, and well, the bottom line is, believe in yourself and stay away from unwanted criticisms!

Poppy (author) from Enoshima, Japan on May 12, 2017:

Thanks for your great comment, Rosa! It's great to see you here, I'm always pumped out when you read my stuff.

Poppy (author) from Enoshima, Japan on May 12, 2017:

Hi Sally Rose! Thank you for commenting. I have never been part of review groups that work!

Rosa Marchisella from Canada on May 12, 2017:

Awesome article. It hits exactly the points that drove me out of review groups. There are too many fragile egos; writers don't improve that way and readers are lied to.

Another issue I've seen is writers wanting reviews, but not willing to post any for others. I'm not sure, but I suspect part of that is because they don't want to get ostracized from the writing community which really is small than most people realize.

Sally from Fort Worth, Texas on May 12, 2017:

Great article. This all makes so much sense. It makes me want to stay away from reviewing groups.

Poppy (author) from Enoshima, Japan on May 12, 2017:

Thank you for your comment! It's a shame you had such an unfortunate experience and that guy sounds like a creep!

mactavers on May 12, 2017:

Great Hub with good information. Over the last 15 years, I gave two local writer's groups a try. In one there was only one other non-fiction writer and the other writers were not interested in talking about research and documentation. The second group I tried had both non-fiction writers but was dominated by an egotistical man who was willing to dish out criticism but wasn't willing to accept any. I'd say finding a couple of good beta readers works much better.

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