Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing 101: Review Swapping

Review swapping. It's always a hot forum topic on author boards, and it's a survival tactic for many indie writers who are trying to promote new books. But before you jump on the review swapping bandwagon and start putting your to-be-read list together, envisioning all those great reviews your work is about to receive, read this post...and find out why I'm passionately, deeply against the very idea of trading reviews -- with anyone

Tit for Tat

There's nothing wrong with trading. As a matter of fact, I've said more than once that we ought to simply do away with the money and go back to a system of bartering. Coinage is made up anyway; money has value because we give it value. Trading is the much older, much more reliable form of currency -- and it's been highly beneficial to a ton of indie authors out there. 

But it's also got a dark that just might swallow your reputation whole. 

Review Swapping Pros

There are obvious benefits to be gained from agreeing to a review swap with another indie...that's why they're so popular. 
  • You get reviews. When you agree to a review swap, you're pretty much guaranteed that you're going to get a review for your work -- and isn't that what it's all about? For many indies, this pro outweighs any potential con in review swap agreements. It shouldn't. 
  • You meet other indies. You can meet other indie authors like you when you agree to review swaps. This may lead to future networking and marketing opportunities, even a friendship or a future collaboration. It's a lot of potential, and it's pretty exciting. There are, of course, other ways to meet indies and you don't have to agree to do anything
  • You find great reads. In agreeing to review swaps with other indies, you might discover a great book or a great author you wouldn't have read otherwise. Since many authors are also readers, this is a thrilling possibility. 
  • You gain experience. Through your review swaps, you're obligated to write a review of what you've read. You'll end up gaining experiencing with each new review you write, and before you know it you'll be well on your way to a polished, professional review style. 
Review Swapping Cons

Full disclosure: I've done review swaps. When I first became an indie author I was exposed to the possibility of review swaps early, and it seemed like a great first. In my experience, there's a lot of good that can come from them...but there's more bad that will. 
  • You're obligated. Once you agree to do a review swap, you'd better do it. Your word as an author and as a person is on the line. Whenever you agree to do anything you should do it, so there's no backing out of a review swap agreement -- no matter how completely unreadable the book. The obligation can be a gigantic burden if you happen to discover the book you're supposed to review is a hate-filled, extremely offensive work that completely disparages one entire group of people (which is, yes, what happened to me). But it's also a huge burden if the book is bad, and to that end...
  • What are you going to say when it stinks? If the book is riddled with errors and absolutely horrible, your first reaction is probably going to be terror. What if you tell the truth about this book, and the author who's reviewing yours retaliates? A bad review is the least of what you might face -- potentially, a pissed-off indie can slam you on Twitter, Facebook and any other website you might like to visit. As committed as you are to promoting your work, it's possible that you could create a nemesis who's just as passionate about destroying it.
  • Are you a liar? So, okay. You don't want any backlash, and you're no idiot. So let's say you soften up your reviews a bit, maybe sugar-coat them, skip over all the editing errors and the glaring plot holes you found in that book you agreed to review. Here's the rub: people are capable of forming their own opinions. If they read a book based on the fact that you gave it 4 stars and it turns out to be terrible, do you know who looks bad? It's not the author who wrote the book -- it's you. You're the one who looks like a liar, and pretty soon others are going to know that your reviews aren't truthful. Think they're going to be lining up to read your latest book when you release it?
  • You give up your reading rights. Once you start agreeing to a bunch of review swaps, you're giving up your basic rights as a reader. You can't really put the book down when it sickens you, give up reading it when the formatting errors become too much to handle. You've got to finish it, and you don't get to decide what you're going to read next. If you're already spending your time writing and formatting and editing and promoting, why in the hell would you want to screw around with your recreational reading time, too? Why force yourself to read something you don't like on your free time? 
I personally have had terrible experiences with review swapping, and I just won't ever do it anymore ever again under any circumstances maybe I'm a little jaded on the topic. But at the end of the day, every indie has to make a choice. 

Choose integrity. Don't agree to do something you may not really want to do. Don't sweeten up a review of a book you know is bad and filled with flaws. Don't compromise your reputation to get a few cheap and easy reviews of your books. Don't fool yourself into thinking you can do review swaps and remain objective. You are a human being, and somewhere it's going to be in your head that your review could directly reflect on the review you're going to receive in exchange. That's not really an environment that lends itself to being truthful, is it?

It's a lot harder to comb book blogs and cultivate readers, but it's a lot more worth it -- and you won't have to suffer through any book you don't really want to read.

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  1. You've highlighted what I'd consider to be the biggest problem - even if the book is bad, you're almost obligated to give a good review. And the you'll be connected forever more with that review. I would much prefer people to review my book independently.

    1. I totally agree! I never swap reviews for that very reason! the obligation to finish reading something that should not have been written in the first place!

    2. I totally agree! I never swap reviews for that very reason! the obligation to finish reading something that should not have been written in the first place!

  2. Indeed, looks like review swaps arn't the best way. Contacting book bloggers is and probably always will be easier and far less troublesome.

  3. Thank you for coming out and saying that. I'm literally on the brink of putting together a media pack and sending out review requests for my debut and have wondered about this. Getting reviewed is scary but I also know that a 4 star review with proper analysis would mean more to me from a stranger/critic than a 5 star from a writer friend who was just trying to make me feel good.

  4. Great advice! I'm happy to trade interviews or guest posts, but never reviews. I don't want a reputation as someone who praises poor work, just because I don't want to hurt someone's feelings.

  5. Wow, this isnt something I had considered.
    Well... review swapping I had, but not what it would all mean.
    I would be so lost, to review a not so great book with a high rating is unfair, but I wouldnt want the author to retaliate.

    So... what do you suggest then? No review swapping... just asking for reviews and offer nothing in return?
    I could do that... but I would feel bad.
    OR only asking for reviews by authors who I have already read and reviewed... That may fix the issue.

  6. I think book blogs are a great way to get reviews, and that's where I personally focus a lot of my own efforts. It also never hurts to include a little note from you (as the author) at the end of the book prompting readers to review the work.

  7. Can't see the problem. If you both agree that if you don't like the book, you will tell the other person and they can decline to have the review posted, then none of the above objections apply.

    I have taken part in several review swaps. On two occasions I informed the writer I didn't like the book and would not rate it highly and they asked me not to post the review.

    Any other objections?

  8. Also, if you're a first time author, you simply cannot get any reviews these days (unless you're prepared to pay for them, which I'm not).

    So the only other alternative is spend 6 months writing a book and then watching it rot on some dark corner of the internet because nobody will review it, because nobody will buy it, because nobody will review it, etc etc.

  9. You raise some good points, Smatchum. Thanks for weighing in. Not all reviewers are willing to hold back reviews upon an author's request, I've found. Some of them will post reviews anyway.

    There are many ways to get reviews without swapping for those who are interested. I still look for book blogs all over the Internet and submit review requests all the time. Goodreads is another really good source for finding reviewers as long as you use the forums the right way (i.e. follow the rules).

    Review swaps are fine. However, I find myself questioning the value of anything that is given only in exchange for something else.

  10. "I find myself questioning the value of anything that is given only in exchange for something else."

    Why do you think journalists queue up to review the latest J K Rowling book? It's not out of the goodness of their journalistic hearts, but because they want copy to sell their newspapers, magazines, TV shows, etc. The famous author gets the review/publicity, the journalist gets the celebrity content.

    That's a whole different scale when it comes to offering something in exchange for something else.

    But I agree with a lot of what you say. I have sweetened a few reviews and didn't feel good about it, and your point about reading rights hit home too.

    I think the way to go about it is to be very clear about the rules before you agree to a review swap. In particular, each author has to have the right to decline a negative review.

  11. Good point! Rules are always helpful, and if you're both clear about your needs/wants/requirements at the beginning, this can help you avoid any sticky situations down the road.