Indie Book Reviews: Objective Notice or Subjective Fanfare?

By Jack A. Urquhart, ©2012

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It is with trepidation that I undertake this long-winded piece, the topic of which is indie book reviews and my questions and misgivings about same.

I say trepidation because it could be that I’m missing something; it could be that with regard to reviews and their creators, I’m not savvy enough ‘to get’ how things work in the Indieverse.  It could also be that by publishing my questions and concerns here, I guarantee for my current and future work a permanent place in indie exile, a place where my stories will never again be granted a single sentence of critical notice.  I hope that isn’t what happens, for I pursue this post with no malicious intent.

But to get on with the pursuit…

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll begin by recounting that I recently paid for an expedited Kirkus’ review of my short story collection.  I decided on the Kirkus’ investment because of my concerns about the objectivity of some of the indie reviews I’d read online and because of the difficulties I’d experienced in obtaining notice via several of the well-known Internet review organizations.

In fairness, I’d expected that the length of my tome—some 670 odd pages in paperback form—would be an obstacle in securing a review from these organizations whose team members, for the most part, receive no compensation (other than an endless supply of free reading material) for their considerable efforts.  For that reason, I released several of the individual stories from my collection as stand-alone e-books and focused my efforts on obtaining reviews for those few pieces.  With that goal in mind, I visited multiple review team web sites, read the reviewer profiles, studied the organization’s requirements, and then carefully composed and duly sent off six e-mail requests for a review—each request for a separate story or small group of stories.

That was nearly four months ago.

To date I’ve received one review from an online review team member, as well as three individual reader reviews—responses for which I am grateful in the extreme.  Indeed, my gratitude cannot be over-emphasized; that is because, having written seven reviews myself during this same period (five of them for independently published authors), I know well how formidable is the investment in producing a credible, hopefully objective review of another author’s work.

As for the remaining five review queries forwarded all those months ago, three cursory e-mail ‘acknowledgements of receipt’ have found their way into my inbox—none of which has, as yet, resulted in a published review.

I can report that a few weeks ago one review team member did stir up a brief flutter in the Twitter feed by announcing that they had undertaken to read one of my stories; but then, complete silence.  Seems my story had failed to impress.  That happens.  Tastes vary.  Nothing untoward in that.  I was disappointed but not offended.  Best to keep writing, I decided; best to hope for better luck with another reviewer.

But then, a conundrum: what, I began to wonder, was to be made of the promotional posts I’d begun noticing in the Twitter feed—tweets by review team members that seemed to indicate a relationship between themselves and numerous frequently reviewed authors?  Those tweets seemed to suggest a kind of fraternization that didn’t jibe with my traditional notions of objectivity.

Then I considered—perhaps things had changed so drastically in the industry that old-fashioned concepts of objectivity didn’t apply.  Perhaps in the Indieverse, those concepts had become nothing more than parochial artifacts, quaint notions that were irrelevant in the social media marketplace that authors and their reviewers currently share?

Maybe the primary responsibilities of the author/content creator and the reviewer/evaluator of said content no longer required any degrees of separation?  Maybe my notion of those responsibilities was completely outdated?  Notions that held that while the author shouldered the burden of producing content of the highest quality his or her individual talents could muster, the reviewer was charged with reading and then rendering for the prospective customer a cogent evaluation of that content with as much objectivity as his or her gifts of perception, analysis, and rhetoric could permit.

But wait!  It seemed to me that those very responsibilities, at least those associated with the reviewer/critic, closely mirrored the mission statement featured on some of the best known indie review team web sites—i.e., to provide an objective ‘filter’ (presumably against literary imperfections) that would be useful to readers in choosing their library.  That was, it seemed to me, a worthy mission; but wouldn’t it be compromised if anything other than the reviewer’s objective reaction to the writer’s material passed through the filter—impurities such as, for example, anything carrying a tinge of promotion or favoritism?  Wouldn’t any such rift in the filter muddy the waters between objective evaluation and something more akin to fandom or even those duties more closely associated with a publicist?

Note that I am referring here not to individual readers whose published response to a book might understandably be influenced by their preference for a particular genre, or even shaped by their familial relationship (spouse, brother, sister, friend) to a given author.  Rather, I refer to those individuals who are affiliated with the previously referenced review teams—organizations (however loosely held) whose mission statement would appear to carry the burden of objectivity, or some modicum thereof.  Is it possible for those individuals to discharge that mission while maintaining a relationship—even a cyber relationship—with an author whose work they have been called upon, or might be called upon, to judge?

Consider the following hypothetical tweets, which are typical, I think, of what one encounters in the Twitter feed.  Does the difference between:

Anne Arbiter @annearbiter
My 5* review of H. Diddle’s scintillating page-turner #CowsOverTheMoon at bitly.me/abc member LottaRevws.com

and this,

Anne Arbiter @annearbiter
Rave reviews continue 4 H. Diddle’s #CowsOverTheMoon Congrats 2 Diddle. I’m a huge fan. My 5* at bitly.me/abc member LottaRevws.com

matter at all?

And what about a tweet such as:

Anne Arbiter @annearbiter
H.Diddle just told me about her new novel #CowsOverTheMoon. Going 2 be terrific. Can’t wait to read it.

Does that kind of tweet, posted by a well-known reviewer, suggest favoritism and compromise any semblance of objectivity?  Or does that no longer matter in the Indieverse?

And finally, what if a known review team member allows himself to be interviewed on an indie author’s web site?  What if, during the course of the interview, they offer a promo for their favorite book by said author—an author whose work they have previously reviewed?  Would that matter?

I’m asking.

Perhaps you will think I am too hard on review teams in posing these questions.  You might even exclaim, “But they aren’t professionals!”

As previously mentioned in this piece, and as most indie book review organizations disclose on their web sites, most review team members receive no compensation for their work [1].  Why then make a stink over any non-compliance with fussy standards of objectivity?

Only consider the following questions in formulating your answer: Would an indie author in his/her right mind discount the importance of obtaining multiple and impartial reviews when it comes to building market credibility and sales figures, especially when most indie authors cannot expect their work to be taken seriously in the absence of twenty or more reviews?  And who provides a goodly portion of those reviews?  Indie Review organizations and their team members?

And let’s return for a moment to the notion of professional status in the traditional sense of the term:  Is that even relevant in the Indieverse?

After all, very few of us operating as Independents—writers, publishers, bloggers, reviewers—are remunerated, much less adequately, for our efforts.  Couldn’t one argue that for the most part, we are all then, by the de facto standards of market dominance, under-compensated professionals, or at the very least, semi-professionals—Indie team reviewers included?  Doesn’t the role indie-team reviewers play—i.e., providing primary source opinion pieces and/or summary reviews of an author’s work—underscore that premise?

Aren’t indie review teams providing services crucial to the success of the indie author? And if that is so, shouldn’t they endeavor to maintain some semblance of objectivity in the authors they choose to notice, in the reviews they produce, and even in their tweets?

As I mentioned in the first sentence of this post—these are questions that worry me, issues on which (it must be patently obvious) I have definite opinions but can claim no special expertise.  Indeed, I bring up all the forgoing fully aware that there are factors I’ve overlooked, that I’ve not thought of—factors that may account for what I’ve experienced, what I’ve observed.  If I’ve missed something, erred in my observations, based my opinions on mistaken assumptions, then I am eager to be disabused.  But I am even more eager to learn how an independently published author like myself might more effectively navigate the route to critical notice.

Your comments, opinions, advice is more than welcome here.

[1] It is worth noting that many review team web sites accept paid advertising—revenue that while not shared with the individual team members, covers web site expenses and, in some cases, presumably provides some compensation to the web host, who may or may not be a review team member.

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About jaurquhart

Jack Andrew Urquhart was born in the American South. Following undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Gainesville, he taught in Florida's public schools. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared online at Clapboard House Literary Journal, Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. He is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories and the short story, They Say You Can Stop Yourself Breathing. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Mr. Urquhart was, until 2010, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in southern California.
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18 Responses to Indie Book Reviews: Objective Notice or Subjective Fanfare?

  1. ggallen says:

    You have hit on something I think we all ponder, Jack. That elusive review for the indie author that is so hard to come by. I’m so appreciative of those people (like yourself) who have reviewed my work because it is difficult to get reviewed in other places (and remember:I paid a publicist and still came up empty-handed). I’ve also sent many copies of books to reviewers (for blog tours) that amounted to absolutely no reviews (and yet copies of book were listed on the internet by people at discount rates: coincidence?) You are right in starting this conversation. I have nothing more to add except to say “you are not alone”.

    • jaurquhart says:

      Hey Gregory. Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experiences. Glad to know I’m not alone 🙂 . It will be interesting to see what, if any, other feedback the post receives–and more particularly, if counter-arguments are offered. Best, Jack

  2. Great article, Jack, but I have to tell you, your response rate was much better than mine. For my first novel, Songs for the New Depression, I sent emails or actual letters to every single book blogger I ran across, over 200 of them! Maybe 10 of those indicated interest in reading it, and received books. And I’ve reached out to over 100 newspapers, magazines, etc., for review as well, some with query letters, others with actual books–Less than a handful have read it. I also sent copies to many prominent LGBT figures (given the book is gay themed), thanking them for their contributions to our community, but have received only one note back confirming that the person had even received the book (so much for manners!)

    To me, though, this is all part of the struggle of doing it yourself. While not easy by any means, I know that most of these bloggers are overwhelmed with material, given so many others out there following similar publishing paths.

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much how many didn’t respond, but of those that did, what were the take-aways?

    For me, while I would have liked “more” reviews, the ones I have received were extremely positive, and I’m able to use those to more fully promote my book. And all it takes is a few well-placed reviews to bring much needed attention our way.

    As far as reviewers becoming pals with authors, I haven’t really seen that, but given how social media is trending, where it is all about the connection, I can see that becoming an issue. I continually “thank” reviewers (multiple times on Twitter), not only as my way of saying thank you, but to highlight the review they gave me and steer traffic their way. I see that as a win-win, not as crossing a line, but maybe it is…

    I feel your pain, and send you my best wishes!
    Kergan

    • jaurquhart says:

      Hello Kergan, and thanks for your thoughtful reply and for sharing your experience of seeking critical notice for your novel. Had I not waxed so verbose in my blog post, I might’ve recounted something of my history in reaching out to print publications, LGBT and otherwise—an effort that, as you report, has born little fruit. I do, however, think there is much to recommend the attitude you’ve taken in all this—one that focuses on the positive take-aways that come our way. I am glad your Songs for the New Depression has garnered such positive critical notice. In truth, I do not see how anyone who reads the Amazon Product Description for your novel can resist purchasing it. I couldn’t.
      PS: Like you, I don’t think any lines are crossed when an author expresses thanks for an online review. After all, both parties aspire to reach an audience.

      • Thanks, Jack! I’m guessing, with mine, that many folks are put off (still) by any mention of AIDS. Seems to be a topic people think they’ve “seen” or “are tired of”… That might be my issue.

        I appreciate your great post–would love to hear others experiences as well!
        Kergan

  3. adauphin04 says:

    I believe that the partial thinking, or view of Indie authors is that they are self-published and not to be taken seriously. Being a film fan (especially of Indie films) I have watched the progression of Indie films from total obscurity to the same fame as that of studio films. Since the 1990s, Indie films have “infiltrated” the various awards ceremonies and in some cases they completely over-shadowed their high budgeted “brethren”. The Spirit Awards, an award given solely to the Indie filmmaker, is even in danger of being phased out because the Academy Awards have been taking more and more notice, and nominating these same Indie films.

    I guess what I’m saying is that maybe time is the key with regards to Indie authors/publishing? I will point out, though that a great many Indie production houses have since been either bought-out by larger studios, or because their prospective Indie films have grossed millions, said Indie production houses have gone on to produce larger scale and bigger budgeted films; thus, in my humble opinion, joining the larger studio/production house “family” and losing their indie “status”.

    Just my two cents…

    • jaurquhart says:

      Hi Traci. Yes, maybe in time, as self-publishers and their reviewers formulate their own best business practices, all this will sort itself out. Maybe it’s too much to expect protocols to be in place this early. Ah well. Glad you stopped by today. Guess I’ll have to keep beating the bushes for reviews — just like everyone else. — Jack

  4. Jack, as you know, I’m pretty new to this indie thing. I’ve been so busy trying to get my stuff published that I haven’t had time for a lot of promotion. But right before I started the marathon of trying to get permissions to quote copyrighted material for my epigraphs, I did some research on reviewers of indie books. I ran across this website called “Step-by-Step Self-Publishing ” http://www.stepbystepselfpublishing.net/reviewer-list.html. It has a very interesting list of reviewers and I made a list of some of them that cover SF. One of them, http://freebookreviews.blogspot.com/p/about-free-book-reviews.html, very candidly acknowledged that they had a backlog of 500 books and proceeded to list the titles! About that point, I gave up and went on to the epigraphs! So it seems to me, at least to begin with, I have to rely on people like you who have bought my book and liked it well enough to review it. All the people who have reviewed it were people I encountered and became friendly with through Twitter or through a comment on somebody else’s blog or through my membership in the Language Creation Society. But I don’t think that makes the reviews any less valid – I don’t think that my being acquainted with those people means their judgment is untrustworthy. I’m friendly with one person who read the book and didn’t like it at all, and that person has not reviewed it – yet. Still might. Anyway, for now (and especially if it’s going to cost me money) I’m going to avoid the professional reviewers and instead cultivate acquaintances in as many areas of the web as seems appropriate. And just today I published “Monster” on Smashwords, which maybe will get me a few more sales!
    And I do plan to review your book whenever I get it finished! I don’t spend a lot of time reading these days! I just completed “Irises, Purple Irises” and I thought that was pretty powerful and full of well-handled symbolism.

    • jaurquhart says:

      Hello Lorinda. Your point about the validity of reviews posted by acquaintances is well taken; no reason to distrust their evaluation in most cases. I suppose my main concern was the appearance of possible bias and/or favoritism in the selection of who gets reviewed. Maybe I’ve just been reading too much in to tweets posted by several well-known reviewers that seemed to suggest, and I emphasize “suggest,” a bit of nepotism in that selection process. Could be I’ve over-reacted based on my difficulties in securing reviews. At any rate, I appreciate your comments here, and your kind words about my stories. — Jack

      • You know, frankly, I think you’re probably right about the nepotism! Undoubtedly reviewers are all too human! Maybe Twitter lets people say too much in a public fashion and and they should learn to keep their beaks shut! Also, I should say, the people who reviewed my book bought it in the early moments of our acquaintance and reviewed it before we became friendlier. (I just noticed that in the next post PeterHobbs1 had much the same experience but from the opposite end of the spectrum.)

      • jaurquhart says:

        Hi Lorinda. I don’t see anything untoward in the routes to review that you and Peter cite (so long as there’s no collusion–i.e., “I’ll trade you five stars for five stars.” LOL.). No. What got me started down this path is the appearance of partiality by those individuals who announce themselves on the Twitterverse as indie-author reviewers, tout their affiliation with a specific review team, and post many dozens of reviews each year. Maybe it’s my professional background in the judicial branch, a universe where judges do not fraternize with those individuals over whom they must pass judgement (and/or recuse themselves when necessary), but it strikes me as odd to see a known reviewer posting promotional tweets — not reviews, mind you, but straight-up promos — for an author whose work they’ve previously reviewed. Likewise, it seems peculiar when a reviewer is interviewed on an author’s web site. Then again, as others have pointed out here, the Indieverse has only recently big-banged into existence. Could be it’s just too soon for protocols to have evolved. Thanks again for your comments, which are always welcome here. Best, Jack

  5. peterhobbs1 says:

    Hello Jack, once again you post a very well thought out, researched and written post that provides the reader with much reason to stop and think. I fall into the category of amatuer or even less professional than an amatuer if such a thing exists. I have done a couple of short reviews on my blog and surprisingly here is what I have found. I read the Authors’ work with not a bit of knowledge about the Author other than perhaps a brief bio they might provide. I had no personal (social network) contact with them prior to reading their work.

    What I found though, after I had read their work, and reviewed it modestly on my blog, I then developed a “vitural” relationship with the Author and have communicated with them off/on since that time. I suppose this is the reverse of the favoratism you make note of in your post. Perhaps this is the way it should be, but then the Review Services are much busier and have a greater influx of review requests than I ever will.

    Thanks again for you post Jack, great points to ponder.

    • jaurquhart says:

      Hi Peter. As I mention above in my reply to Lorinda, it seems to me that there’s nothing amiss in the way either of you have pursued and/or provided reviews. I’ve followed much the same route myself. My previous professional background may be at the root of the feelings that prompted this most recent blog post. I come from a world where judges do not fraternize with individuals over whom they must pass judgement. Maybe it’s a mistake for me to think of indie-book reviewers (those individuals affiliated with a team and who post scores of reviews each year) as defacto professionals. If so, I’m open to being set straight. LOL. Thanks so much for stopping by to comment. Always a pleasure to have you come a’calling. Best, Jack

  6. sesshabatto says:

    I’ve stopped looking for reviewers, writing is a bit too edgy for most of them and I’m okay with that. If people read and leave a review, I’m ecstatic (good or bad – not everyone likes everything) but there are better ways for me to use my time and money than begging people who just aren’t interested 😉 Instead I’m concentrating on trying to find readers directly. Don’t know how it will work out, but at least it feels like I’m going in the right direction.

    • jaurquhart says:

      Hello Sessha. After reading your comment, I went Indie review team shopping to see which teams close the door on erotica (not to mention homoerotica); the quick and dirty 🙂 answer seems to be most of them. Too bad. Looks like there’s a market out there just waiting to be cornered. Just so you know, I’ve read and enjoyed all the short fiction on your web site — and there’s more than one of those stories that spur the “Downton Abbey” syndrome — i.e., can’t wait for the next episode!

      • sesshabatto says:

        I’m glad you liked what you read – I picked up Balance of Trust again yesterday just because you mentioned it and got me thinking about it again 😉 If you’re interested in reading any of the longer stuff, drop me an e-mail – I’ll be happy to send it to you

  7. I agree entirely, Jack! If a person is going to set himself up as a professional in any field, he ought to adhere to a code of ethics appropriate to that field. For example, I probably could have gotten away with quoting all those copyrighted epigraphs without permission, presuming fair use, but I chose to go the way of what I considered honest. I would have always felt a little guilty and been afraid that somebody was going to show up and sue me!

    • jaurquhart says:

      I admire you, Lorinda, for the time and trouble you invested in obtaining copyright clearances on those many epigraphs. Can’t help it: I think ethics matter — even in the Indieverse.

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