Why I always leave honest reviews even on books I didn’t like

Thumbs down

One of the most controversial topics for authors revolves around reviews, specifically whether or not we should be leaving negative reviews on books we didn’t like or didn’t finish.

If you’re not an author, you may be asking yourself what the big deal is. If you buy a crappy product you leave a crappy review, right? Well, as authors, we understand how much time and energy goes into writing a book (hint, it’s a lot), so a lot of writers will stick to the old adage, if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.

And I am 100-percent on board with this mentality. Saying negative things about someone’s work may help influence a potential customer, but it doesn’t help the author improve. However, not saying anything at all can be just as detrimental as telling the author their book sucks.

I get it. In the United States alone, nearly 1,000,000 new books are published every year. In order to succeed, we need to stand out from the crowd and one of the ways we can do that is to help lift each other up.

But here’s the thing, independent and self-published authors start at a disadvantage compared to those who follow the traditional publishing route. Yes, there are many benefits to using alternative publishing techniques and yes, there are many fantastic self-published and indie books out there, but there’s also a LOT of crap.

I will never talk down about someone who has taken the time to write a book. It’s an incredible achievement worthy of celebration. However, once print-on-demand technology took the keys to the industry away from the large publishing houses, many authors have skipped some of the most vital steps in the publishing process (like editing or formatting) and released books that just weren’t ready.

As a consumer, I have bought and been burned by books that read like first drafts: zero world or character development, significant gaps in continuity, and more grammar and spelling errors than I could count. But do you know what hurt the most about these purchases? They were referred to me by my fellow indie authors and had 4+ star reviews praising the author and book by comparing them to some of the biggest names in the industry.

Before you jump to the comments, I know there are books out there that are beloved by millions of people that I just don’t like. We can’t satisfy everyone. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about stories that are so fundamentaly flawed that I wonder if anyone ever talked to the author before he/she hit publish to discuss the need for edits.

The problem I have with this method of helping authors get visibility and sales is the fact that it’s false praise and it’s actually setting them up for failure. As the consumer, I felt jipped. I felt like I wasted my money. And this behavior is only going to lead to more people being disappointed which will lead to negative reviews from non-authors who don’t understand how much work goes into creating a book.

And where does this leave the author? Does he trust his peers or the consumers? That’s up to the author, obviously, but the truth is that the consumer is (most likely) leaving unbiased, honest reviews.

Because of this, I’ve thought a lot about how I would want to receive a review from someone who didn’t like my book and how it could be beneficial for both the author and the consumer. Here are some general responses I’ve come up with that I tailor to each book:

For a book I think was published premature

These are the types of books I mentioned earlier. Those stories that need a good developmental edit, some copyediting, and a beta reader, or two. For these, I find one or two redeeming qualities and form a compliment sandwich.

I bought this book because it had a great cover and the synopsis had a great hook. Unfortunately, once I started reading the story, I found quite a few errors with continuity and grammar. I think this story has great potential but the author may want to consider a developmental edit or finding a few beta readers who will help buff out the flaws and polish this into a fantastic piece of prose.

For a book I didn’t like/didn’t finish

I’ve seen a lot of people say they won’t leave a review on a book they DNF’d. I can understand why they would do that, but I also wonder how many books I wouldn’t have bought if I knew why people didn’t finish it. I think giving this information can be very valuable for a consumer. Here’s an example of how I would review this book:

I want to preface this by saying I didn’t finish the book. All the reasons why are personal. Overall, the story was very professional, but I felt like I was constantly pulled out of the story by all the world building and character development info dumps. Although this wasn’t the right book for me, if you’re someone who enjoys extreme detail and imagery, you should definitely give this book a shot.

In conclusion

I may have ruffled a few feathers with this post, but I hope I helped people understand why I think it’s important, both for the author and the consumer, to leave honest reviews on books. As authors, we NEED to help each other swim in the ever-rising ocean of books, but we also need to make sure the help we’re giving is actually beneficial. Honesty can hurt sometimes but it also helps us grow and improve out skills.

If you have comments, questions, or want to rebute anything I’ve said in this article, I hope you’ll leave a comment or send me tweet or Facebook message. I would love to open this conversation to more people.

Published by Tim Koster

Tim Koster is an American author who was born and raised in Portland, Maine. After graduating from Deering High School, Tim attended Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire, where he studied English with an emphasis on creative writing. In his junior year, Tim enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve as a public affairs specialist and deployed on two combat missions – his first was to Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn (2011) and his second was to Syria in Support of Operation Inherent Resolve (2018). Tim currently lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

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