August 15, 2011


On the cover of Cassandra Clare's popular young adult book The City of Bones, there's a prominent quote from the author of Twilight, Stephenie Meyer: "The Mortal Instruments series is a story world that I love to live in. Beautiful!"

Neil Gaiman raved, "Stephen King's Under the Dome was one of my favourite books of the year so far."

Taylor Stevens' debut novel, The Informationist, got labeled "One of the best thrillers of the year!" by Tess Gerritsen.

Let me ask you this: When you see a quote from one big-name author singing the praises of another author's book, does your bullshit radar begin pinging?

Why would a famous scribe like Meyer stir herself to offer up what amounts to a huge advertising coup to another author anyway? Let's examine her possible motivation:

The quote was given after Meyer found herself truly moved by a book she chose on her own to read.

The quote was heartfelt and unsolicited, but Meyer was given a copy of the book by the author/agent/editor.

The quote was solicited and Meyer felt she had to provide it, but she honestly enjoyed the book.

The quote was solicited and Meyer was under pressure to say good things about it.

The quote was provided as a tit-for-tat to benefit both authors. Meyer's name and the name of her book appears on the other author's cover, thus giving her extra exposure while the other author gets an endorsement that will potentially sway Meyer's fans to read his/her book.

Unless some industry insider starts blowing his or her whistle, we'll never know for sure, but the fact is: it's common practice in publishing for authors to review each other. When I've seen these quotes in the past, I've generally taken them at face-value, especially if I like the quoting author's work. It never occurred to me to wonder whether I've just been duped into buying a book I wouldn't have if it didn't have such ringing praise from someone I admired.

In the Meyer and Clare scenario, can the reader trust that Meyer really would like to leap between the pages of Clare's book and live there?

I ask because I've been accused of unethical conduct by the reigning opinion-makers at a popular reader's forum (that will go unnamed to hopefully prevent retaliation).

Let me start at the beginning: I created a website, a place where indie-authors could connect and exchange honest, unbiased read/reviews. This was born out of the frustration I experienced trying to promote my books. There exists a series of vicious concentric circles wherein an indie-author cannot sell their book without getting the word out, but can't get the word out without being accused of spamming. Everything we do to promote our work is either restricted (we can comment about it only in segregated sub-communities on forums) or suspect (we cannot ask our family, friends or peers to endorse it). Since we are shunned by major book review publications and ignored by most book bloggers, what are our options other than to pour money we don't have into paid advertising (which is arguably just as suspect)?

According to my detractors on this particular reader's forum, agreeing to swap reviews with another author isn't one of them. The response to my little post announcing the website I created was immediate and fierce:

"Just an FYI before the feeding frenzy starts on your thread. Most readers on XX don't look on authors exchanging reviews with affection. It seems dishonest and some of us feel that we can't really trust a review done by one author in exchange for another review."

"There've been numerous discussions about WHY review swapping is a bad (BAD!) idea."

"We get these posts a lot, Mel, and the overwhelming consensus is that these sort of things are unethical."

"I think that the only reviews that are worth having are professional reviewer sites (not the kind you pay for)."

"…around here, we've had this discussion many, many times. And the consensus is always that this sort of thing is a bad idea. Not only because it can look like gaming the system, but also because it can be bad for business. The appearance of swapping favorable reviews with other writers can cast doubt on all of your legitimate reviews."

Given the admitted number of times this issue has come up in that forum, it seems obvious to me that the concept is NOT distasteful to everyone, but as soon as the idea of swapping reviews is proposed by some hapless forum member, these "self-appointed desk-jockey lynching mobs," as a friend describes them, pounce. Notice the phrases such as "most readers" and "overwhelming consensus." I was given the choice to read the links to previous discussions—proving that the issue has been well-and-truly argued and won—or to take their word for it that It Has Been Decided that swapping reviews is downright wrong.

While my thread was combusting from the negative feedback, I began to get private messages from sympathetic folks unwilling to go against these forum bullies.

"The same thing that's happening to you just happened to me! …Everyone slammed me and called me unethical to the point that I was in TEARS!"

"I saw your book review post and was about to sign up when the comments scared me away."

So why is it that these bullies seemingly don't recognize a practice that already runs rampant in the traditional publishing world? Is Stephenie Meyer "dishonest?" Is she more legitimate than me because she's backed by a traditional publisher who can influence a "professional reviewer site" to read her book? If Stephenie Meyer can give Cassandra Clare a quote, why can't I give one of my fellow indies a quote?

The goose does it, why can't the gander?

My friend puts it this way, "These little lynching mobs don't have any real or meaningful power, and in the petty power they DO exert, they slavishly ape the actions of the people who are over THEM in the rest of the world."

Really, people? Way to go…way to beat down the little guy.

Perhaps my biggest sin in this sad story was that I went public and embraced the tit-for-tat concept instead of accomplishing it behind-the-scenes like the big boys and girls undeniably do. Instead, supposedly I've "cast doubt on all of [my] legitimate reviews." All one of them.


  1. In a way I understand their point de depart, Melissa, and there are an awful lot of 'Please visit such-and-such a site and vote for my cover/trailer/blurb' messages around. On the other hand, if we read a friend or fellow indie's book and like it, we have the same right as anyone else to say so. It's easy to see the difference between a measured objective evaluation of a book and the 'Oh Auntie Joan, I thought your book was brill' contribution.

    Of course, this comment will immediately be taken as proof of the knockers' legitimacy because you and I have reviewed one another's books favourably. But if I read a friend's or anyone else's book and don't like it, I don't review it. I think there are already enough negative critics out there without adding to their numbers. There's also the fact that, if I praise a crap book, I lose credibility and any reputation I may have takes a hit. Don't let them get you down.

  2. As long as the reviews are honest - go for it.

    If a publisher were to call an authoritative author and say "write a blurb for so&sos what&what," the pressure would be on. I sometimes wonder if publishers write the blurbs and attach an authors name to them - and then tell the author they've just recommended something.

    As indies we have each other, and a huge group of readers that have been ignored or mistreated by major publishers -- because they are in small segments. That's our long tail. Together, let's help each other gather these folks into the joys of exploring indie. We will all benefit with more readers.

    And now to my self-serving blurb: I've put Melissa's wonderful ditty "The Indie-Author Lament" on a squidoo lens encouraging people to write for the love of writing.

    Thank you Melissa, for being radically you. This game we're playing, herding our muses, should be fun. It can be a team sport. I'm in your corner on this one.

    Ignore the monkeys throwing poop on each other.

    *enjoy life*

  3. LOL - thanks Allan! Herding our muses...much like herding cats, I'm sure! Maybe a little less fuzzy. ;o)

  4. And now that this post has been here for a year, I feel I should clarify that very last sentence, "All one of them." By that, I meant that, at the time I wrote this post, I had only one single review on Amazon for the book in question. NOT that all my other reviews were not legitimate! Just sayin'. ;-)