discussions genre stuff writing & publishing

On Honesty & Reviewing

The discussion of openness and impartiality of blog reviewers did the rounds on Twitter, and I realise it’s a storm in a teacup and hardly that important when the world is undergoing financial and environmental meltdown. That said…

First, here’s what I tweeted on the debate:

I like that bloggers are questioning how impartial they are. This is good, because publishing can be deeply nepotistic at times. Before blogs, the nepotism used to be behind closed doors. Now at least there is a discussion to be had.

@gavreads In my years in publishing, I found more than a few blog reviewers simply repeated the enthusiasm of a publisher… Which is, perhaps, to say the publisher can influence.

@Weirdmage I have big respect for bloggers. They are, largely speaking, honest and open. All I ask is that they don’t swoon to publishers.

@JonCG_novelist @gavreads Indeed, it isn’t the publisher’s fault; or anyone’s. Simply that things are regurgitated.

@Weirdmage @JasonBaki @murf61 Deep down it comes to: If a publisher invites a reviewer to dinner, would that reviewer give more coverage? … Because it’s not just the quality of coverage, it’s the amount of coverage.

Bloggers: forget the nonsensical debate of free ARCs. Publishers have been dishing those out for years, they’re just a marketing tool, hopefully you’ll shout about the books positively and everyone’s a winner, apart from the scummy dudes who throw them on eBay straight away before publication date (there is a special place in Hell for you).

No, this is the point of interest: you’re getting to that point where many of you should realise that you’ll be courted at parties and conventions with free booze and if you’re lucky a dinner or two, and some of you will be given guest post spots on their own blogs, or a little reviewing side-gig. How terrible for you. And this is in the interest of publishers, because (a) they want to thank you for giving free coverage and publicity to their books and (b) you’re probably helping them sell more books (not necessarily individually, but certainly as a hivemind). Also, don’t forget (c) it’s a small industry, so they probably enjoy speaking to you as fans, too. It’s not black and white. You have a mutual interest. Isn’t it lovely?

You just have to ask yourself the simple question: does a few free drinks or dinner, and a better relationship with a publisher, mean I’m more inclined to show more cover art or give better reviews of their books? Most of you will genuinely say no, which is a good thing.

And yes, I realise the same works with authors, too – I’m happy to admit that. If you like me as a person, I don’t expect you to like my books (and vice versa!), but don’t think I’m buying you dinner – I’m a writer, we have no money. Publishing is a small industry, and has been phenomenally nepotistic in the past. I realise that many of you are struggling writers, too, and getting close to industry people could possibly open up a dream career.

This industry is, and has always been, about relationships (apart from when it’s about money). Social media has just thrown a spanner in the works and no one quite knows how to handle the etiquette. The important thing is that you’re at least thinking about it, because this didn’t happen so much before we all aired our dirty laundry on Twitter.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

25 replies on “On Honesty & Reviewing”

I do revews (genre literature) and I’m known here in Brazil as a extreme critical reader. Publishers send me books and they know exactly what they’ll get.
And they continue sending me books. And they thank me, too. Isn’t it a good signal?
Some writers have told me that if I keep writing the same critical reviews I’ll close any door to my future books. No one publisher house will want to publish any book of mine.
It’s not true. My relationship with editors now is better than it was before.
My advice: just keep doing the best. And keep being honest. Always.

(Side note: Posting cover art is different from giving ‘free pass’ in a review – the former is content, the latter is false criticism.)

I think this particular debate, like all the other bloggers-on-blogging, has a dangerous tendency to make it sound like there’s a “right” way to blog. Way too many people forget that the only “right” way is the way that keeps it fun for you.

If writing merry puff pieces and getting free shit makes you happy? You’ve won. If you want to pretend that you’re doing proper journalism & enjoy the view from your soapbox? You’ve also won. Congrats to you both.

(I forget the name of the blogger that spoke about how they refused to meet authors, as that might cloud their reviews. That’s a completely alien perspective to me, but they seemed to be having a grand old time. Good for you, friend. More space at the bar for me.)

Frankly, it is the internet. We all get to share our opinions and that’s absolutely awesome. It is just, as a group of narcissistic intellectuals with broadband access, we often spend too much of our time worrying about which is the *right* opinion and whether or not our opinion is *ours* enough. It starts to take the fun out of the thing…

(This was standing on a soapbox and bellowing a puff piece. I double win!)

It seems you’re mostly attributing the dishonesty to the publishers and that the bloggers’ only problem is falling under the siren spell of free books and prestige.

I won’t disagree that there are certainly instances of that, but it’s perfectly possible to find more than a few instances of a blogger being dishonest on all their own.

Hey Mark, I get what you’re driving at and it is a very fine line indeed – but at the same time, it’s so obvious that you could give yourself concussion with it.

I think it’s important for bloggers to be honest and open about there opinions, definitely, but how exactly to you decide whether excitement about a novel is really excitement or ass-licking? I’ve just reviewed Curtis Jobling’s Rise of the Wolf and I’m waiting to be ripped to shreds for my review – some readers might think it’s overly fist-pumping but I chose to review it as if I was a kid reading the book; I didn’t go into any detail, precisely because kids don’t need detail to get excited about a book.

I also try and write my reviews in such a way that I talk about what I enjoyed, what caught my attention – someone might not like what I like, sure, but it’s better than me telling people about something specific that I didn’t like only to have them scratch their heads and go, “Huh? What’s this guy on?”

I might be one of the luckier bloggers out there, though – since the industry here is so small I hardly get any SA readers on my site, and thus hardly any South African opinions.

See, I’ve got absolutely no effect on the industry as a blogger, but I love what I’m lucky enough to be able to do and I try to spread my excitement around; if a reader of one of my reviews thinks that I’m kissing ass, that’s fine with me.

Unless there’s some fair way to regulate bloggers (might as well regulate car accidents or politicians) it just won’t change; opinions are opinions, and opinions (and good marketing) are what sells books.

I guess we all just need to be aware of what our opinions can influence, especially choice; as long as we’re aware, we’re heading in the right direction, wherever we’re heading. 🙂

Tibor – very true, and sounds like you’re in a good position because of that. Kudos to you.

Jared – to some extent, though I still think it’s good free coverage when it happens regarding art. And you’re right, there is not necessarily a right way to go about it, but I think there are things that can always be improved – like any kind of writing, I guess. I just hate to see the manipulation of folk – unless they know they’re being manipulated and they’re happy to carry on regardless.

“a group of narcissistic intellectuals with broadband access”

I’m stealing that line for a panel. It’s Creative Commons, right?

Sam – Indeed, you’re probably right, but it’s harder still to question those folk.

Dave – also true, but sometimes the obvious isn’t always seen… There’s honesty, and there’s honesty. When a publisher is influencing coverage behind the scenes – for mutual interest (a publisher is a business after all) I think it pays to keep on questioning ourselves.

I think I can summarise all my reactions to the blogosphere like this: when I first started following the blogosphere as an editor, I loved it. It was a wonderful, anarchistic way of saying what books people loved irrespective of how much a publisher spent on it. It became, more or less, about the art.

And then publishers realised they could make money from blogs and joined in. Inevitable, perhaps, but still disappointing to see the arty discussions fall away. This isn’t just yearning for the good old days, but a hope that with integrity, and remembering just who is after what, we can get away from the advertorial nature of things.

I’ll stick my oar in when it comes to reviews from a purely reader based, non-industry side of things. I love reviews simply because I love books, old and new. I review every book that I read –I started doing this years ago when a group of friends asked me for book recommendations because I read very quickly and am happy to lend my copies out! Each book I’ve read has a piece of paper tucked into with a scribbled review on, they are solely for my memory or for my friends so I have no reason at all to be dishonest. My favourite reviewers write as if they were writing the same way, just to let their friends know what to expect from a book. With the constant increase in blogged reviews the good thing is that even if people have a personal bias (be that unconscious, deliberate or even fiscal) you can usually find out by reading their site or previous reviews.
As for meeting authors changing opinions of books I think that it ties in with the amount of information that people have on the internet about themselves. If I like someone’s opinions and interests it does make me more likely to want to read something they have had published. At the same time there are authors who I am reluctant to read based on their views. Which, is of course my own bias coming through.
In the end I like reading reviews of books but I never read just one review – surely we as readers and consumers can exercise a little control over how much we are manipulated by making sure our information comes from several sources so that hopefully any dishonest imbalance is equalised.

Honesty – who gets to decide whether the review is honest? The publisher? The reader? The author? See what I’m getting at? And what kind of review-honesty are we talking about? I understand what you’re getting at, but at the death, there are fewer people who will realize that who won’t; one reader of a review will click the link to order the book, one won’t; one will comment and say that the books sounds interesting and click the link, one won’t say anything and click the link; one will attack my usage of smiley-faces (yes, that’s happened), another won’t. It’s a toss of the dice, either way. That’s what makes it so much fun! 🙂

Hi Vick – I’m actually glad you made a comment like that. We often forget how personal the experience all is. There isn’t a set formula for it all.

I think the authors and opinions of them debate is an excellent one – like you, I won’t go near an author whose views I disagree with.

I’d like to share you optimism on manipulation, but I’m approaching 30, and feeling entitled to be a Grumpy Old Man on the subject. 🙂

Dave – I’m not sure I was really on about judging OTHER people for honesty, just if folk felt honest themselves. If they didn’t feel that their coverage was being ‘bought’ for want of a better word. Admittedly, this is usually for the biggest blogs out there, but the point has always been one about self-reflection. If you can know that yourself you’re your own person/reviewer, then you’re good to go!

Ah, yep, I misunderstood. 🙂 *Now* I understand what you’re driving at… 😛

That honesty would then probably come through loudly and the ‘bought’ opinions would be more readily apparent, for sure.

As an ex-full-time blogger (now occasional reviewer) and someone that has seen blogging change over the last five years I have to say that we may be in danger of doing a disservice to the books we love and are trying to get other people to read.

I have to say that the publishers I’ve dealt with have one agenda – to get books to you that you’re probably going to like or get you to try books in the hope you will like them so that you can tell your circle of readers about them in the hope that you’ll convince a few people to buy them (and whole snowball effect that could have).

And this meets with the goals of most bloggers – you want to share the books you’ve loved (and in some cases loathed) with people that share your taste and find people to talk about them with.

So at a basic level bloggers and publishers share the shame passion for books. I’ve never in all my years been pressured into reviewing anything I don’t want to or had any pressure from any publisher to promote one book over another. In fact I’ve received horrified looks when I’ve asked what books they want to me prioritise. That’s not their job. It’s mine as a blogger.

But, of course, some books are promoted more than others. WOT would be an example with lots of exciting material to make my life as a blogger easier. And as most of us do it in our spare time then we sometimes go for what is popular, easy and is going to keep our readers a good fix until the next time.

The challenge for any blogger to raise themselves this flood of information and turn away from the easy options (which will be books they like) and to go for the more obscure titles.

I spent a long time on my blog when I started reading and talking solely about debuts because I felt they were more worthy a topic than the current surefire bestseller.

I don’t think that being social is an issue but maybe that most of the time it’s not relevant to the prime focus of what you’re doing and when talking about it you need to remember that most people who read your blog don’t know who you are talking about or don’t care – all they want know is about the books they could be reading or the books that you are getting excited about.

I do feel though that there are some blogs that feel either spent too much time on industry talk and navel gazing (it’s fascinating and I’ve done it myself) or they are predictable and really don’t show me anything that I don’t already know from a sample of other blogs.

It would be worth those bloggers that really want to take a blog to the next level examining if they are using their blogs to really delve into the depths of the genre really hunting for what’s out there or if they floating with all the fishes at the surface eating the same fish food as everyone else?

From the Twitter side of this discussion:

@SpecHorizons @MarkCN @jasonbaki @murf61 @gavreads @weirdmage I know I’m late to the bun fight, & my bread’s full of ergot and weevils: 1/2

@SpecHorizons @MarkCN @jasonbaki @murf61 @gavreads @weirdmage 2/2 – BUT re letting readers decide, that sounds much like “trust the market.”

@SpecHorizons @MarkCN @jasonbaki @murf61 @gavreads @weirdmage 3/2 – I’m an unreliable narrator (shrug). I think the picture is more murky.

Yes, my own one-canon broadside – fired at (possibly) innocent strangers, but it sparked my thoughts below.

Examine the following if you will, gathered for your consideration:

Item A – A great book will be discovered, reviewed, and lauded by a small number of first adopters; and has a better chance of being picked up by bloggers than by mainstream reviewers of yore, especially if it’s from a new author or an obscure imprint. This would seem to be unmitigated good all around.

Item B – A good book will meet with varied results: some will praise it to the skies, others will fail to get it, and bloggers will spark off some royal shit storms in the process of sorting it out. Readers will be confused, and likely fall into two warring camps; but overall it won’t hurt sales. Noise still permeates the blog’o’sphere and adds to the market.

Item C – A mediocre to possibly awful book will accomplish almost exactly the same effect as Item B – provided it’s either from a publisher who’s savvy enough to push it creatively labeled as Item A, often crowing from the virtual rooftops that it’s a game changer, a masterpiece, the next “Insert Here Top Selling Respected Genre Author,” or a welcome breath of fresh air/long awaited return to form – OR it’s a sequel from an actual top selling (possibly) and respected genre author. A few voices will cry foul, but generally no one is going to say anyone else’s opinion is actually *wrong.*

Now why does this happen in the case of Item C? Could it be because people get pushed into reviewing it with expectations set, and give the book more leeway because they know the author, the publisher, or just because they’ve heard so much about it being the next big thing? And while this might work against a book you otherwise would approach with only modest expectations, I think there is an equal or even slightly better chance that many nice-enough bloggers will be concerned that if they don’t actually rate it, perhaps they’re missing something, read it on a bad day, and/or are constitutionally shy of saying a bad word (about books anyway). Also – if they do slate it, then how will the author/publisher/blogging community respond?

Obviously some people in the community are fairly immune. They may even have a reputation to maintain for being particularly hard-headed about their reviews.

But others because they’ve gotten it for free, there has been publisher giveaways, author interviews, hoops and circles, and all that – they’re going talk about it, and if they don’t have anything good to say, they’ll say something noncommittal rather than grace us with silence. They’re too far into the mill to reach the shut off button.

Again, some will be honest and criticize the book where it is due. But I think there are many more who will simply toe the line or mumble into their keyboards but fail to stick the boot in where the boot is due.

Is this dishonesty? I’m not convinced it is. I understand why people don’t want to say anything negative or that might be perceived as an attack/harsh review. Milage will vary, taste is subjective, etc.. But I think trusting the readers to pick out the truth in such murky waters is asking a lot. I’m not sure most people will dig deep enough or may not know the reviewers well enough, and what happens when they get such divisive results?

To me this is saying “trust the market” but the market isn’t trustworthy. Publishers, advertising, and bloggers can I believe, make a difference, in how a book is perceived, reviewed, and ultimately sells. At least I hope so, as that’s part of their job after all – or in the case of the last group, how they’re used. But as to a more unbiased accounting of the book’s possible merits (or lack thereof), I don’t think the first group can be fully trusted. I’m not saying they don’t fully believe in their authors and their work. Nor that they lack passion. But they must make the best out of what they have – even if what they have, isn’t always the best. Less, would be failing to apply due diligence.

So in conclusion, I’d like to see that bloggers worked a little more independently or at least, more aware, of their connections to the publishers. The publishers aren’t doing anything untoward, but they’re a current you have to consciously swim against if you want to keep rigorous objectivity. Perhaps, that’s asking too much for a bunch of hobbyists. But I think that a good dose of this is needed if most bloggers don’t want to end up being just a bunch of marketing tools.

Final disclaimer: I could be absolutely wrong. On all counts. About everything. I’m just raising a point that often comes to my suspicious, misanthropic mind when I’m reading through cheery review after cheery review – and hoping that some of you bloggers might weigh in on this and set me straight if I am.


First of all, I’ve never even sniffed a publicist, let along met any authors or editors or other industry types. I started reviewing because I don’t even know any other readers.

That said, I can’t see how being plugged in would make a bad book good. And I’d hope that if someone did want me to review their book, they’d at least have the forethought to see if it’s the type of book I’m likely to enjoy.

So is it that bloggers are being accused of bias toward certain publishers to the exclusion of others? Or that obviously bad material is getting a pass because of attention the bloggers are getting?

Just to jump in (again) from a different angle, one thing I do as part of my actual job is teach marketers about how to interact with bloggers and social media. Not to give away the crux of the seminar, but a huge part of it is transparency. If you approach a blogger in any way other than with complete openness, it is guaranteed to backfire. You need to be honest about your goals and then step away. Publishers, in all fairness, seem to be doing a very good job of that.

Probably incidental, but most sections of the bloggernet are pretty self-policing, just like we are in genre-book-fandom.

Less incidental, none of this actually matters that much to readers (which I why I tend to snarkily brand the process of blogging-on-blogging as self-indulgent). The actual ‘normal’ consumers (the ones that account for most of the purchasing) Google an early review of Book X and find it on Site Y. They’re unlikely to go six steps deeper and learn that Site Y is notoriously unreliable because once the publisher took them to lunch…

Mark – You’re welcome to the line!

I think this particular debate, like all the other bloggers-on-blogging, has a dangerous tendency to make it sound like there’s a “right” way to blog.

There is no right way to blog, just as there is no right way to right a book. There are, however, some blogs that are better than others, just as there are some books that are better than others. This is subjective but it isn’t entirely subjectives; there are some fundamentals to be obeyed around personality, voice, articulacy, etc.

The person writing merry puff pieces and getting free shit might have won but no once else will have done. It is poisoning the well.

There’s honesty, and there’s honesty.

I think there is a link to the ongoing discussion about sexism and racism and the like in the genre. I think there are very few bloggers who are actively sexist but too few think about the underlying issues and hence any subconscious bias. Similarly, I don’t think bloggers are deliberately dishonest but the huge and ever increasing collusion with the publishing industry does raise issues at the subconscious level.

The elephant in the room is that a lot of book blog reviewers are simply very bad reviewers. Most of the time the question of honesty doesn’t even need to enter the equation since their lack of awareness and interest in literature predisposes them to be biased in favour of the publishers (that is to say, they can’t tell good from bad).

I think that talking about ‘honesty’ is something of a red herring. Invoking that word makes it sound as though people are reading books and then writing things they don’t believe about them. I don’t think that that is an issue.

The problem of corruption is much more insidious than that and it runs in both directions by which I mean that it is not just that people will produce more positive reviews because they get free stuff, it’s also that free stuff will go to people who are prone to write positive reviews. It would be interesting to set up a group blog that only ever produced negative reviews and see what publisher reactions would be.

Honesty and bias are just spokes in a much larger wheel of rubbish writing. The internet is clogged with bloggers who a) can’t write a lick and b) don’t have good taste. Honesty and corruption affect B but then so does a lack of capacity for critical thought, familiarity with great literature and possession of a decent conceptual lexicon with which to engage what you read.

If I look for an early review of a book I am far more likely to run into a series of rubbish reviews than a series of well-written, insightful but ultimately corrupt reviews. The problems with the reviewing blogosphere run way deeper than providing puff pieces in return for free stuff.

Bemoaning the disappearance of gate-keeping in reviewing as the last comments do, shows why it is wonderful the readers revolted against them and many donate their time and energy to do their own personal takes.

As for the original subject, I think that the most insidious thing as reviews go is knowing personally the author; there are numerous well known cases of authors who used to be friends and fell out on one reviewing critically the other’s book, think how much more pressure is when the balance of power is skewed as here, you a ‘regular’ reader vs the author you admire and met, got attention from…

Books are cheap all in all, but attention is not.

This being said, the flourishing of many review sites in recent times helps and I say, the more than merrier and let the crowd sort the useful from the useless ones and let the former gate keepers keep bemoaning

I keep my gates safe by building bridges in front of them. And then hiring trolls.

If they get past the trolls – then even worse, there are tolls. Best to bring your best pig or sheep as well as a bit of gold because the gatekeepers are avaricious, bribery prone lot.

Beyond that, the riffraff is free to enter at will – being by this time both proven resourceful and technically paying customers.

I even let them use the toilets, albeit grudgingly.


It’s definitely a lot harder to give a harsh review of someone you like. I’d probably swing for no review at all if the divide between the author and the books quality was vast.
I also think that even if you don’t think you are being influenced by the publishers courting you, you unconsciously are.

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