How Honest Should You Be When You Review Self-published Books?

A.J. O'Connell

Staff Writer

A.J. O’Connell is the author of two published novellas: Beware the Hawk and The Eagle & The Arrow. All she’s ever wanted to do in life is read and write books, and so, is constantly writing at least one novel. She holds an MFA in creative fiction, but despite the best efforts of her teachers at Fairfield University's low-residency program, remains a huge dork for sci-fi, fantasy and comic books. She is a journalist and has taught journalism to college students. She blogs about feminism, the writing life, and whatever else comes into her head at www.ajoconnell.com. Blog: A.J. O'Connell Twitter: @ann_oconnell

I’m a dedicated Goodreads user. For years, I’ve been recording and rating everything I read over there. Recently, though, I’ve started avoiding the site, because I can’t bring myself to give self-published authors bad reviews.

Let me unpack this dilemma for you.

This year, I’m reading more self-published and independent authors. My plan has been to read at least one self-published author every month. It’s only been a month and a half, and I’ve picked up many self-published books. I’ve also put quite a few of those books down because they’ve been bad. Like, bad. Really bad. So bad, I nearly threw my beloved Kindle across the room once.

The first time something like that happened, I rushed to Goodreads to leave a review. And then, as my finger hovered over the one star, I began to think of the feelings I was about to hurt.

I’m an independent author myself. While I’ve gotten used to criticism of my work — from my editors, from my publisher, from my mentors and my peers — reader reviews still frighten me. My heart rises into my throat when I go to my Amazon Author Page and see I have a new review. Most days, I try not to even look at my Goodreads reviews. Yet I still crave reviews.

In the end, I didn’t leave any review at all for that first book. Now, when I’m reading a self-published book, I only add it to my Currently-Reading bookshelf if I already know I like it.

Is that wrong? I’m not sure.

Here’s the thing. I have absolutely no compunctions about giving something published by a major publishing house one star and a scorching review.

It’s not because I think that an author who has an agent and goes through publishing house doesn’t have feelings and won’t be hurt by my review. It’s because traditionally-published books go through so many layers of scrutiny — readers, agents, editors — that if I dislike one, I feel like have a really good reason to leave a poor review. Either the content repels me or that team has failed the book.

Self-published books should go through layers of scrutiny as well — a smart author knows to hire beta readers and editors — but not all authors are willing (or able) to hire an editor. And it shows.

I firmly believe that the world needs self-published books. Many of the self-publishers I’ve encountered are doing so because established publishing houses won’t take a risk on them, or on their books. We’d never have their stories if they didn’t publish their books themselves, with their own money, on their own time. That is important.

That said, the reputation self-publishing has gotten because unedited or unfinished works have been put on the market isn’t entirely undeserved.

So back to my question: do I leave a bad review for a bad or unedited self-published book? It might be good for the market as a whole if I did, but I still can’t bring myself to do it.

Here are the things I worry about.

Will it crush the writer’s soul (especially if it’s their first effort)? I don’t want that.
Will it cause them to pick a fight with me? I don’t want that, either.
Or will it help them to grow as a writer? That’s what I’d like, but there’s no way to be certain that my comment will help.