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 side...one 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 idea...at 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 whatsoever...so 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.