Watch Your Reviews | Writing & Publishing Advice with Engen Founder Matthew LeDrew

It’s been a long time since I wrote an ongoing series of articles on this, or any other, website. That’s weighed on me. Since graduating I miss the exercise of penning essays. I’ve even encouraged my fellow Engen authors to write ongoing writing blogs (namely Ali House, Brad Dunne, Kit Sora, and Jon Dobbin, all of whom you should check out). But I never have myself. Writing advice is one thing, all our authors can offer that… but publishing advice? Marketing advice? Social Media advice… that comes with a different set of expectations, and a lot of hurt feelings.

Part of my anxiety around this has become the subject of today’s piece, because I want to address the evident hypocrisy in it right off the bat.

Today’s advice is: don’t post negative reviews, especially of authors at (or near) your current level of notoriety.

I’m a part of a group for Genre Writers and have shared very similar advice to this is the past, and it’s one of the only things I’ve ever posted to that group to get an unhealthy amount of negative backlash… which, in itself, proves the point. People get defensive. People get hurt. People get mean. The back and forth can quickly become toxic (it didn’t in that case, I just didn’t engage back).

There’s a certain amount of back-and-forth to this argument, and I’d like to explore some of it before arriving at a solid conclusion as to exactly why writing negative or overly critical reviews is a bad idea.

Photo by Tony Rojas on Unsplash

The backlash on my original private group post took the main form of: How dare you suggest I not use my voice / that would be taking away my voice. The problem with this sentiment is where you see yourself in the overall scheme of pop-culture, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Criticism is kind of like comedy: it’s okay to punch up, less so to punch down. I have the utmost respect for book critics and essayists, but as a rule when they review an author’s work they are setting themselves lower on the “creator pyramid” than the author: it’s okay for them to critique because they’re just talking about art, whereas you are creating the art. It’s perceived as ‘punching up.’

The problem comes from authors who have books out but maybe aren’t yet still where they want to be wanting to occupy both parts of that equation.  Sure they have books out, but they still want to comment of problems they see with other books, because they feel they haven’t “risen high” enough that it counts as “punching down.” The problem: that review will live on forever. Even if you delete, try and get rid of it from all four corners of the Internet, it will live on in memory. In the popular consciousness, you’ve locked yourself into the lower level of the “creator pyramid” thing (which I admit is a shaky metaphor, I’m just trying to get my point across). Look at it this way: writing overtly negative reviews can either lock you in place as never becoming a bigger author, or, it can make it so that if you ever do become big, those reviews will be perceived as “punching down” at less-successful author and you’ll get a bad rep in the industry and beyond. It is literally lose-lose.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t or can’t speak your mind, I’m just tying to be real: that action has consequences you might not foresee.

Photo by Simon Connellan on Unsplash

It can paint a huge target on your back: And I don’t mean in the “people will come to get you” sort of way. I mean, whatever criticism you railed against in your review, a lot of people are going to be unconsciously looking for that in your work, now. If you’re going to critique a peer, you had better be perfect in that field yourself. And none of us are perfect.

My favorite example of this is TYPOS. I will never, ever, mention typos in a review of a book, for a long list of reasons.

  1. If it’s an indie book, its entirely possible those errors will get fixed in a very-soon edition… but that review will stick around, which seems unfair.
  2. I helped judge the 2018 NLBA awards. Read just about every fiction book from just about every major publisher in my area… every one had at least one typo. There is a strong cognitive bias against small-press and indie books: when we see a typo in a book that we think was put out by a big publisher, we shrug and say “it happens.” Or we may even assume we missed something. When we see it in an indie book with far less resources? We call it out. Which again, see above: calling out the little guy but not the bigger ones feels like “punching down.” Take it from me: every book has typos. If you didn’t see any in your favorite, you were just enjoying reading it too much to notice.
  3. Hypocrisy. My books have had typos. Early on, before we hired on Erin Vance, there were a ton of typos. There are still some, in all our books (see above: every book has typos). They get fixed as I’m made aware of them, and for the most part, the books are clean. I’d call them as typo-free as any major publisher at this point. But I would never point out typos in another book derisively… because then people will judge me even more harshly for mine. Because then I’m a hypocrite. And if a fellow author calls out my work for having them… you best believe when I pick up their work I’m checking for them. And if they’re there? Never working with that person. I cannot abide hypocrites. No place for it in our industry.

The target isn’t just with typos, though. If anything, that’s the least of your target-related concerns, because it’s objective. Worse is if you accuse a book of being sexist, or problematic, or some other issue… because those things exist mainly in the mind of the reader. We interpret books. A problematic character does not equal a problematic book, and authors who tear into what they think another author “means” can be subject to the same treatment… but it’s worse now, because they’ve set themselves up as having the moral high ground. At worst you have started a fight you cannot win with someone who is actually like-minded to you, and at worst: you’ve started a wrestling fight with a pig.

Never wrestle with a pig. You’ll just get dirty, and the pig will enjoy it.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

But isn’t it good marketing? I’ll review the books on YouTube / Goodreads / Twitter and people will like and follow me, and then maybe buy my book? That’s an idea, in concept. I’m not sure it’s ever happened. There are plenty of social-media stars that have gone on to write (or have ghost-written) successful books, sure… but that’s not what you’re talking about. You’re talking about starting with the goal of being an author, writing reviews, getting famous from the reviews, and that translating into sales for the book. I don’t think that’s ever happened.

Again, it kind of comes down to perceived placement on that badly-named, I’m-gonna-get-feedback “Creative Pyramid.” When people fall in love with a book or movie reviewer on YouTube, they recognize that the videos are the main product. They then buy the book later in the career to help support that main product. If you start with a book then move into critique, people sense that. People see what it is. At best, they’ll see it for what it is: marketing by jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else it talking about. Piggybacking, basically. At worst, it’ll be seen as a cart-before-the-horse situation: who does this reviewer think he/she is? They only have 29 subscribers and they have a book out already?

Again: critics and authors tend not to occupy the same space, and when people try to do so, they often end up stuck in whichever they didn’t want to be in.

You’re a hypocrite Matthew LeDrew! You have a GoodReads profile and you had a series of reviews called “Other Indie” that you haven’t updated in forever! Both true points. I’ve been tempted to get away from GoodReads for a while… but like people above, I see it as a personal account, not a business one. That’s a delusion on my part. If I write something negative it tends to be about something huge, like a big comic book crossover or something… but even that’s risky.

Other Indie” segues nicely into my advice on how to write reviews, if you must. If you go back and read those reviews, they are very positive. If there is anything negative, it’s framed as me questioning the text… that’s a system of critique I learned in University. It’s loosely based on “Freudian Theory.” Basically, whatever bothers you most about a book, try and re-frame it as though the author intentionally did that, and that that’s the point of the book, and then look for supporting material in the text.

My go-to example for this is HG Wells’ “The Time Machine.” It features a second-hand story about a nameless white protagonist traveling ‘back in time’ (a phrase people used to use for saying what it was like traveling to visit ‘less civilized’ cultures) and meeting two races of people: one simple and sweet, and the other monstrous. He immediately names the monstrous race a slur… and takes one of the “simple, childlike” people as his bride. You can see the problems here, I’m sure. If you take it as an allegory for colonialism… the racism becomes apparent…

But instead of tarring the book, I thought of that as intentional. A spotlight on those issues buried in this science-fiction book from the turn of the century. A critique of colonialism. Is there evidence of this in the text? Tons. When the lead takes the girl as his bride, it’s framed in a way that is almost assuredly meant highlight its hypocrisy. And how does the character fare? He disappears without a trace. He meets a bad end. When the main character meets a bad end, that’s a tipping point that maybe the book was never on their side.

Think about your audience: This mainly pertains to Indie Books. Think about who your audience is: if you’re producing indie horror, your reader likes indie horror. There’s a non-zero chance that you’re going to produce a review of a book that reader already read and loves… that doesn’t endear them to you.

This is a very long way around saying: unless you’re trying to make it as a reviewer and not an author, I’d avoid reviewing books. If you must review, I’d make it positive. Definitely don’t point out anything negative that you might be unaware you’re doing yourself. If you must be negative, be intellectual and self-reflective: what does your not liking this book say about you (it’s way harder to get mad at that). If you still must review, remember: no intellectual essay about a book that passed peer review ever contained commentary about the tpyos.

Matthew LeDrew is the author of the bestselling Coral Beach Casefiles series, the Xander Drew series, and the Infinity series. He is the publisher at Engen Books, the largest producer of genre fiction in Atlantic Canada.

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