Peer reviews—authors reviewing authors—are the subject of frequent and heated debate. I’m so pleased to bring to you today the first episode of a new panel discussion that will be featured on the first Friday of every month. We are fantasy writers, and we’ll be discussing the industry and our experiences, and we plan to throw in some fun things as well. Our first topic? Peer reviews. (You guessed that, didn’t you?) Enjoy!
Author of the short story, Sanguis Dei and a poetry collection, Light and Dark
The peer review. Just the words are frightening. They should be. When it comes to writing scientific journals, the peer review can often determine whether or not a scientist’s paper is published at all and if published, taken seriously. The concept of the peer review is honored by its roots in the dialogues of Plato. In the tradition of Socrates, peer reviews in science are all about questioning, challenging and turning suppositions and pre-suppositions, inside out. Follow the data! What is the truth? Thank goodness that peer reviews in the world of writing are not so consequential. Then again, aren’t they?
It can be more than terrifying when an author hands over his or her baby to a group of peers for that precious document to be dissected and evaluated. Often, a writer will take the things said by such reviewers as gospel. Condemnation by one’s peers that the work is awful can lead to the thought that one should never publish. The gold star review that says, “publish everything you write! You’re amazing! Do it now!” can be just as detrimental. However, when a writer’s focus is on the words he or she has written, rather than what he or she thinks others think of him or her, a peer review can be an valuable tool toward improvement. Often, we focus on not being good enough when, delightfully, we can always learn, study and rewrite.
As authors of fiction—be it science, fantasy or historical—we go to our peers for their input because they are the fact-makers. They are the world-builders. Our fictional worlds need to make sense, even when they come completely out of our heads. (I’ve often been told I’m out of mine…) If one thing does not lead logically to another, even in the most fantastic world, we might be left with the question: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” A question even Charles Lutwidge Dodgson never really answered to my satisfaction. Still, I thank God that no peer reviewer stopped him from creating such a Wonderland.
In the end, the peer review must be taken with quiet dignity and grace and a few grains of salt. The writer must keep on writing, humbled that others take an interest and encouraged that there is room in the world for all manner of works, no matter what anyone says.
I’m undecided about exchanging book reviews with authors. A sticky question of ethics rears its ugly head the instant the deal is made because each author writes the review with the understanding that it’s going to be quid pro quo, and however much we tell ourselves that we can be unbiased, it just ain’t so. We’re a morass of prejudices that include everything from food preferences to standards of beauty.
I’ve had two interesting (and enlightening) experiences with review trades. I didn’t know the author of the first one I did. He posted a Goodreads thread asking for review exchanges and we swapped books, I giving him a Smashwords coupon for a free download and he sending me a paperback. He finished mine first and gave it 5 stars on Goodreads without posting his review elsewhere. A week or so later, I finished his and gave it 4 stars. Shortly after that, he posted his review of my book on Smashwords and gave it 4 stars. The lesson? He’d expected me to give his book 5 stars because that’s what he gave mine. Truth be told, his didn’t deserve even 4 stars, but I allowed an element of guilt to influence my rating: He’d spent the time and money to send me a paperback. That’s one problem with review exchanges. What would he have done had I rated his book 3 stars or lower? Unfortunately, indie authors can’t afford to discount the possibility of retributive ratings. That’s another problem with trading reviews.
The second exchange was with a Goodreads friend, but we bought each other’s books through a program on Facebook. I finished hers first and gave it 4 stars because it really does merit that rating, but I pointed out in my review that it had editorial problems. Then she finished mine and gave it 5 stars, which pleasantly surprised me not (entirely) because of the rating but because—let’s face it—friend or not, I really don’t know her and expected strict quid pro quo at best. Did the fact that we’d paid for each other’s books free us from tit for tat? I don’t know. But I do know that I feel more comfortable reviewing books by authors with whom I’ll never have any interaction.
Author of Oathtaker
A peer is a person who is “equal to another in abilities, qualifications, age, background and social status.” Thus, I begin by saying that I do not feel I’ve earned the right to call many other writers my “peers.” They have been at this much longer than I and have accomplished much more than I. They are not “equal” to me—they are superior to me. I acknowledge that fact and I honor them for it. Further, I cannot speak to how others might review my work, as I cannot know their intentions. So, I find I am limited to speaking to how I review the works of others. Whether fair or foul, I will leave to you to decide.
To be honest, I divide other writers into groups. First are those who are enjoying the fame of mass publication by traditional publishing companies or who have already made it big as indie authors. While I am in no way the “peer” of such authors, I find it easier to review and rate their works. Why? I suppose because I feel that my rating will make no difference to the success of these writers or to what others might think of their works. Thus, I am free to rate based on nothing more than how much I enjoyed the work.
Then, there are the indie-published authors. Their works are the most difficult for me to review because my reviews of these works might actually matter—to the authors themselves and to prospective future readers who may decide on the basis of my words of praise or criticism, whether to give a work a try. Even so, I still only give a four or five star rating when I find a work truly well written, with an engaging and novel story line, elements of surprise, musical prose and, perhaps, a bit of literary magic. To me, that is fair, both to the author and to prospective future readers.
On the other end of the spectrum are the one- and two-star works. In truth, I’ve only ever read one work that was a one-star work. It was, in short, the single worst thing I have ever read. Ever. Period. I did not post a review for the work. I wrote one (so that I could vent), but I posted nothing. So no harm, no foul. Or, was it? Should prospective readers be made aware of such works before they spend their hard earned money on them? Are other indie authors damaged when poor works are not called out? I will leave that for you to decide. Having said that, an indie work that I rate two stars is one I believe has promise. There are significant issues with the work, but they are not insurmountable. In short, there is something that makes the work worthy of more than a single star.
That leaves the three-star middle. For me, this rating means that the work may not have moved me—personally—in a deep and significant way, but others may very well enjoy the work. It matters not whether the work fits within one of my generally preferred genres or how I might have done something differently. These are simply works that are well enough done that others might truly enjoy them. As a three-star rating is not a poor one, I contend that such a review is a fair one.
And My Word on the Subject…
The question of whether or not it’s a bad idea for an author to give critical reviews of the work of other authors comes up frequently on boards and forums all across the internet, and I don’t think it’s one that will some day fade away. While “peer review” can be a delicate undertaking, it can also be a useful barometer. Who better to read and critique the work of authors than other authors (who, we fervently hope, are avid readers, too)? The key is to critique constructively, not to be critical. And you’ve stepped into marshy ground right out of the gates, because true objectivity is nearly impossible to achieve. We humans are subjective. It’s how we’re built.
We’re in an interesting place in the world of publishing. When the “Big Six” stopped being main gatekeepers, a veritable flood of books hit the market. I truly admire the sense of exuberance and determination that comes with the ability to self-publish. And yet… readers expect (and deserve) a certain level of professionalism that is often missing. We have become our own gatekeepers. How does that happen? Through reviews. Reviews are critical to boosting the visibility of any work. Some authors claim that the negative ones lend credibility; working, I assume, on the theory that you can’t please all the people all the time, and even well-known authors get bad reviews. While a single review won’t likely make or break a book, several reviews describing the same flaws can help the author identify weak places and help develop stronger skills. Reviews given in a positive and respectful manner help both the writer and the industry.
However, authors giving bad reviews to other authors opens an icky can of worms. (Are you keeping up here with how I’m mixing my metaphors?) For starters, that bad review is going to hurt more than a negative review from Joe Reader. Authors come with an implied sense of authority, whether it’s truly earned or not. Secondly, the author handing out bad reviews runs the risk of losing readers. Fans of the condemned books will likely decide they don’t agree with you about what makes a good story, and there goes your sale.
And another detail to trip up the unwary? The various places where you can post a rating DO NOT GIVE THE SAME VALUE to stars. Amazon’s 2-stars means “don’t like it,” while Goodreads’ 2-stars means “it was okay.” A person can give a 4-star review on Amazon, and when they give a 3-star review with the very same verbiage on Goodreads, it means the same thing. “Liked it.”
So how about the notion of authors exchanging reviews? I did a couple of review exchanges shortly after the release of my book and… I don’t like it. I want the person reading my book to do an honest review, for better or worse, and I want to do the same with theirs. I can’t, in good conscience as one of the industry gatekeepers, give a good review for a terrible book. If I can barely choke out a 2-star review and they worship and adore me with a 5-star review, it seems unfair. Illogical, but unfair. Since those first experiences I’ve adopted the moderately satisfactory practice of not publicly posting reviews under three stars, and offering to pass that would-be review (generally more detailed than I would otherwise write) on to the author. If that helps them at all improve their work, I am pleased as punch. I want to help. I am delighted that people take the time out of their busy schedules to give their opinions of my work, either helping me grow or giving me the thrill of a job well done. Sometimes both!