It’s hard to succeed as an author. It always has been, but in today’s environment, we can find communities of authors under every virtual rock supporting and encouraging one another. It’s a beautiful thing. We don’t have to struggle through the grind of writing, editing, and publishing alone. We can share our struggles, doubts, and successes with each other on our blogs, Twitter, Facebook groups, and so many other places. I could wax poetic for hours about how awesome my fellow authors are and it would be true.
Yes, you knew there was a shoe about to be dropped.
I’ve seen many cases where this mutual support has gone too far. I see people casually handing out five-star ratings and reviews for fellow authors in the name of supporting them and, in some cases, expecting the same in return. A lot of the time, this is done without reading the books being rated. Though innocent enough from the point of view of the struggling author, there can be dire and potentially career ending repercussions to consider.
Let’s take this from the top.
What Do Those Five Stars Really Mean?
When we hand out a five-star rating or review, we are essentially telling the world that this book or story is virtually flawless. The writing shines. The plot and subplots are solid and free of holes or contradictions. The characters come alive. The book is well-edited, not riddled with spelling or grammatical errors. The list goes on.
How many books have you actually read that truly reach that lofty status?
I’m willing to guess not many. I can’t think of a single book that is perfect and I’ve only ever five starred books I thought were so exceptional in most ways that the few flaws didn’t matter. These books are so captivating I could forego food and sleep to keep reading.
If I give a five-star rating or review to someone because I want to support them even though I haven’t read the book or have read the book and it isn’t really as good as all that, I am lying.
Who are we lying to when we give a dishonest review?
The reader. We are lying to the very people we want to draw in and convince to buy our books. The people whose trust we most need to gain.
Supporting Our Customers.
As authors, we need our readers. They are the ones who will ultimately determine our success. When we give a five-star rating or review as a favor to another author, we are lying to their readers. When we accept the same from another author, we are letting them lie to our readers (unless, of course, the book actually is perfect).
This is also true if we pay someone to give us five stars (see Mike Cooper’s post on Why Amazon Reviews Are Not Helpful or this New York Times article In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5). We are paying someone to lie to our customers for us. Tell me how that can possibly be a good thing.
Who does this hurt?
In the end, it hurts the author. When a reader picks up a book and gives up their valuable time to read it because it has a five-star rating or review then discovers that the editing was atrocious or the plot was full of holes or the writing was simply immature and in need of polish, they feel betrayed. That reader isn’t going to recommend the author to friends and family or read other books by that author. Worse yet, they may leave a scathing review in response because they are rightfully pissed off. Get too many of those and your dreams of being a successful author may go down in flames.
One of the most avid readers I know recently told me that she doesn’t trust book reviews on Amazon anymore for this very reason. When readers stop trusting reviews, reviews become meaningless. Readers will turn to safer options such as familiar authors and publishers or recommendations from trusted friends. Folks, our customers are starting not to trust us already and it hurts all of us.
What can we do?
We have to put our best work out there.
Nobody forced you to write a book. You started with a vision. You put in the time and effort to write it. Why would you sell that work or yourself short? Make that book the best damned book it can be. Invest in an editor. Find a critique group or other people around you who are willing to read it and give real feedback. Then polish, polish, polish until it’s a book you would put in front of a real reviewer without fear.
If you aren’t confident that your book can earn good reviews, then it isn’t ready for publication yet. Your gut is telling you that something still needs work. Figure out what that is and fix it. Then, when the book is really ready…
There are book bloggers and reviewers coming out of the woodwork like termites. Book reviewers are all over the blogosphere and Twitter. There are even blogs dedicated to listing book blogs like the Book Blogger Directory. Put out the effort to contact these people. Find reviewers and even fellow authors who will actually read the book and give you honest reviews. Give them free copies to work with. It’s an investment in your career.
Those reviews might not be five stars and they will probably have some criticisms. That’s okay. It’s part of the job. Not everyone is going to love your work. Nothing will ever change that. If you’re afraid your gentle soul can’t handle criticism, you’re in the wrong line of work. I’ve gotten some brutal feedback from editors in the past and I know how criticism hurts. I’ve also gotten fan mail from people who really loved something I wrote. It’s worth the pain. Put a stick between your teeth, bite down, and take it. If you learn to move past the initial sting, you can find gems of wisdom in the less positive reviews that will help you grow as an author and make the next book even better (which is another powerful benefit we rob each other of when we don’t give each other honest reviews).
If this is your passion, your dream, then there will be a next book and you don’t want jaded readers immediately snubbing your work because they don’t trust you.
What seems like an innocent favor can turn into the equivalent of a gunshot to the head for an author’s long-term career. False reviews hurt all authors. If it was worth your time and effort to write a book, it is also worth your time and effort to cultivate an audience for that book that will trust you and look forward to reading more. Seek out honest opinions and strong feedback and your work will always be better for it.