NOTE: EDITED 28 March to add note about "minimum viable product".
I admire indie authors and have absolutely nothing against indie publishing - I republished my backlist as an indie earlier this year and every story you've heard is true: about how much work it is, how subject to luck it is, how long-term the game can be.
In that game, reviews - especially Amazon reviews - are like gold. All kinds of speculation abounds about the number of reviews you need to be treated well by the algorithm. Regardless of the truth of that, reviews definitely matter. Books without reviews are very hard to sell. Some promotion services won't accept your book without a certain number of reviews, and with an average above a certain number of stars.
So, it should be entirely predictable what happens next. Indie authors work out how to most effectively get more reviews.
This isn't a sock puppet story. Amazon has rules about that, and they also have rules about review swapping. And so when you enter reviewing clubs (mostly on Facebook) you'll find all kinds of elaborate rule sets designed to ensure that reviews are NOT swapped and that all is above board with Amazon. The groups vary enormously in how they run - some are only for "free" books, some require you to purchase the book. Some do monthly assignments, others keep a rolling review-last-post list, others just have open posts. The thing is, however they run, the rule sets usually include a policy about what to do if you don't want to give a book 4- or 5- stars.
And here, I ran into my problem.
The first book I ever reviewed, I couldn't give it more than 2 stars. I don't even know where to begin with the editing it needed. The site asked me to contact the author, which I did, and they were gracious about the feedback. That group's policy was if you couldn't give at least 3-stars, they preferred you contact the author first. That, I can almost be ok with - because at 2-stars, the book probably has huge problems that an author probably needs help with, rather than a flaming through the Amazon star system. But then this month, on a new group where I had paid for the books I was reviewing, I posted two reviews, one 3-star, one 4-star. Then next thing, I had a message telling me that in future, I needed to contact the author if I wanted to give a 3-star review (equivalent to "It's Okay" on the star scale), and give them the choice of whether to accept it.
I'm sorry, what now?
Look, reviews are the author's bane. Bad reviews are hell. But I have never in my life expected that I had the right to reply, let alone to silence a reviewer who wanted to give me a less than stelllar review. And yet here, in this club, the expectation is that an author can choose not to accept a review under 4-stars, anything less that "I liked it". What happens with a rule like this? I would suggest that predictably, reviewers feel pressure not to rate under 4-stars. Because then, you have to have that uncomfortable conversation direct with the author, telling them that their book was only "okay" in your eyes and asking if they're ok with that opinion going live. I'm not fine with that. I also highly resent being told to do this when I PURCHASED THE BOOK. I subscribe to the philosophy that someone who's paid to read my book can say whatever they want. That's just the nature of the industry.
I expressed my discomfort with the rule, and in the conversation with the (admittedly lovely) admin of the group, it was clear they didn't really understand why I had a problem. Not posting the review doesn't increase the author's ranking, I was told. Well, that's obvious, but it also skirts around the fact that their books rating doesn't decrease, either. This is the book reviewing equivalent of academic publishing's Achilles heel - no one publishes negative results, so the published record is skewed towards studies where a positive result was seen. So too then with book reviews, and I'm so frustrated with buying indie books stuffed full of 4- and 5-star reviews and finding they aren't that good. Not just not-my-taste not good but poorly written, wouldn't make it out of the slush pile not good. I never understood what was going on there. Now, I wonder if it's just group and club reviews pushing up ratings by deterring anyone who thinks different.*** The admin told me it was totally my choice to give a poor review, just not every author wanted to receive a 3-star review, that's why I had to contact them. Yeah, really missing the point!!
So I did the only thing I can do: I made my choice to leave.
I'm not going to be part of it, this culture of reviewing books of fellow indie authors with the punitive demon of a no-low-reviews sitting on my shoulder. It's against every value I have of fairness and justice and honesty. Reading these books takes a good deal of precious time, as does writing a considered and honest review. If I've paid to boot, then I'm damn well going to be honest about it, and not be held to a rule that allows an author to say, "no thanks, that review's no good for my ranking". But on Facebook, you can't be anonymous. Your picture is right there next to the reviews you've done. I felt I had no choice but so say I couldn't subscribe to the rule, and to bow out. I'm not handing out my reviewing time under those conditions.
So, I wish everyone luck. Indie authordom is a tough gig, but no one is really served by setting up an environment like this. It encourages inflated reviews, encourages skim reading, encourages reviews as a currency, rather than as a reflection of the book itself. Direct interaction between authors and reviewers is always fraught, and in this case, see nothing but conflict. So I choose not to engage. I feel the better for it.
***after publishing this blog, I came across the concept of minimum viable product, through Peter M Ball's newsletter. Basically, this is the idea that you put out a minimum standard of product to draw people in, because raising it to the quality of a fully finished and refined product exceeds your capabilities/resources/patience. A lot of indie publishing, I suspect, falls into this category, either deliberately or through lack of knowledge for how to actually edit a story to a high standard. I've even had an author tell me directly that they'd had a lot of trouble with a book that just didn't quite work, but they'd decided to push it out there anyway just to see how it might do. Now, not every indie is doing that. But the fact that some (many?) are doing this makes the concept of not allowing low reviews even less palatable.