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Random Thoughts: The Influence-free Review

An even bigger challenge than writing a spoiler-free review is writing an influence-free review. For the most part, reviews are subjective. And when something is based on opinion, it’s easy to be swayed by any number of things such as accessibility and likability of the author, visibility of the book and other reader’s opinions.

When sitting down to write a review, ideally it should be our own opinion in our own voice that comes through. What we thought, without these outside influences factoring in. But that’s nearly impossible to achieve, because as much as we want to remain sway-free, unless we live in a bubble, things do affect us.

The Outsider’s Opinion

Whether we like it or not, some of our opinions are formed based on what others have said. Being in the book blogging community, it’s nearly impossible not to hear the chatter about books. In fact, we seek out the chatter, choose to be a part of it. It’s why we do this thing.

But when we listen to the talk, we hear whether certain reviewers liked or disliked a particular book, even if we choose not to read their reviews until after we’ve written our own. When we go onto Goodreads or Amazon or Barnes & Noble we see just how many stars a book received before we have even cracked that book open.

As much as we don’t want other’s opinions to affect our own, just knowing there are a large group of detractors will make us less inclined to pick up that book. Just as knowing a book was phenomenal will make us that much more likely to move it up in our to be read pile.

Now, that doesn’t only influence us on whether or not we read. Knowing in advance that a book is liked or disliked can sometimes affect how we read the book. If we know a book was raved about, we begin to read it with great expectations and excitement. We go in with a positive, rather than a neutral, attitude. And the reverse is true if we’ve heard less than stellar things about that book.

So, when sitting down to write our reviews, we already have the potential to be swayed by outsiders’ opinions. If the general consensus is that a book was “meh” the fact that we may have loved it and want to gush about it might just be squelched. Not everyone wants to be on the fringe, as someone whose reviews always differ from the majority.

So, if we’ve loved a hated book or hated a loved book, we just might not be as vocal about it as we would have been if we were in the majority.

The Highly Publicized Book

There are so many books vying for attention in stores, on shelves and online. As a book blogger we get our early news about books mostly from our online experience. Whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, author blogs and websites or from other bloggers, we get the inside scoop about what’s just around the bend in the coming weeks, months or even next year.

This early chatter already begins to build an excitement for a particular book or author. It has the potential to elevate it from obscurity into the spotlight as a “must read.” From blog tours, to cover reveals, to excerpts, giveaways or other promotional efforts, the books that have been highly publicized are more likely to be put at the top of our to read piles and even more likely to actually be read.

While this doesn’t guarantee that a review will be influenced in any way, the fact that it is a book that everyone is talking about makes it more likely that it will be read, and with a much more enthusiastic attitude than one that got little buzz. This puts us, as reviewers, into a similar situation as the one with the outsider’s opinion.

When writing a review about a book that has been hyped, and where everyone seems to be either for or against it, it’s difficult to be the reviewer taking a stance against the popular opinion. The book is already in the spotlight and the review is that much more likely to be seen, and commented on, by others. And those others could include the publisher and author, in addition to readers and bloggers.

So, once again, unless our viewpoint falls in line, our reviews have the potential to be swayed. Whether we tone down our passion for or against the book, or we simply feel the need to take extra time to explain why we didn’t agree, our reviews have been altered in some way.

The Likable Author

Especially in the Young Adult book community, authors tend to be very accessible to fans, readers and bloggers. This is probably one of the very best perks of being part of this community. Getting a chance to interact with a favored author, getting to know them beyond what’s given on the jacket flap, is something that was virtually unheard of unless you attended book signings and events, even just a few years ago.

But making those connections, “meeting” the author online, can also have a huge potential to influence a review. Knowing that the author might read that review can seriously affect the way that review is written.

Leaving aside the author/blogger drama, writing anything negative about someone you feel you know becomes that much more difficult. Even writing positive, but not raving, reviews can also be uncomfortable.

And, even for authors that the reviewer hasn’t interacted with, but sees regularly online, just knowing that they have the potential to read what has been written about them can change how a review is worded. An opinion about a despised book might instead be phrased as something that “just wasn’t for me.” Or, a book that was so disliked might not be reviewed at all to avoid a potentially awkward situation.

So, while having an author so visible or likable is in most ways a dream come true, their presence has the potential to change how we review their works.

The Review Request

Yet another factor that has the potential to sway how a review is written is the requested review. Whether the request comes directly from an author or from receiving an advance copy from the publisher, there is the potential that our review will be influenced in some way.

Just receiving an advance copy may make us that much more likely to read the book, whether it’s to get future books from the publisher or whether it’s simply feeling an obligation to read that book above the many others in our to be read pile. (If you’d like, check out this great post from Wastepaper Prose about obligations.) And receiving a book for review directly from an author ratchets that feeling up tenfold.

When a book has been received directly from an author for review, it is pretty much guaranteed that the author will read that review. Disliking or criticizing a book that was handed over from the author, with a near one hundred percent certainty that they will read the review, makes things extremely complicated.

Just looking around the blogosphere one can find several examples of the drama that can result from being critical. Especially when it comes to the self-published community. All it takes is one or two bad experiences to ruin things for those other great independently published authors who are out there trying to make a name for themselves.

To avoid the potential for drama, we might just choose not to accept books for review from authors or may even modify our review so as to seem less critical. Sadly, either way, both choices are the result of an outside influence.

And either requesting or receiving an unsolicited book from a publisher may also create an internal battle for us when we sit down to write our reviews.

Publishers send books out to bloggers to get reviews. Writing positive reviews isn’t required, just honest ones. That being said, constantly writing negative reviews will likely result in not receiving any books from publishers. It only makes sense. They want to spread the word about their books and why put money toward someone who is only going to be saying bad things?

Therefore, it puts reviewers into a situation where we can either not accept books for review or change our opinions on the books we receive. Neither option sounds even remotely ideal.

My Sway Factors

Being swayed is unavoidable. There wouldn’t be advertising and marketing campaigns in the first place if they didn’t work. We couldn’t possibly form all our opinions without the influence of the things we see and hear or the people we talk to. I know I love to hear other people’s opinions and take some of their viewpoints into consideration as I form my own.

But when it comes to writing reviews, I want to be as professional as I can be. And I try to stay as sway-free as possible. I won’t lie and say that I’m never swayed, because I am.

I am much more likely to read a book that is being talked about than one that remains in the shadows. If I haven’t heard about it, I wonder why, and wonder what might the reason be for its anonymity.

I’m much less likely to move a book to the top of my reading pile that has already gotten a slew of negative reviews. I don’t read reviews, when I can help it, before I write my own, but if I hear chatter or see three or fewer stars, it’s not likely going to be a book I’ll rush to read. Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t read that book and judge for myself, it just means it’s less likely to be read anytime soon.

I am much more likely to accept a book for review from an author I’ve gotten to know. It’s difficult to say “no” to reviewing a book when you’ve chatted with the author on Twitter, than if you’ve never heard of them.

I am much more likely to read a book received from the publisher before one that I’ve purchased. I consider those more “required” reads than “pleasure” reads and so they will take precedence.

But, I am not concerned about siding with the majority. I don’t mind having an outlying viewpoint. I tend to like many books that others don’t, and dislike a few that others do. I don’t tend to write a lot of negative reviews, not because of sway, but only because I don’t choose to finish reading books I don’t like from the outset. And I don’t feel it fair to write a review having only read one hundred or fewer pages.

At this point, I’m also not swayed when writing my reviews for books I’ve received from publishers. While I might feel guilty for not giving something five stars, that doesn’t mean that I won’t.

I also don’t feel that I’m swayed by the fact that I’ve interacted with authors about their books. I generally won’t spend the time talking to an author about their book unless I’m pretty sure, in advance, that I’m already going to like it. I, of course, always have that fear that I won’t, and will just have to face that situation when it comes, but for now I’ve been fortunate and loved the books that I’ve talked up in advance of reading.

Where I fight the hardest to stay neutral and true to my own voice is writing reviews for books I received from self-published authors. For self-published authors, sometimes bloggers’ reviews are the only publicity they have for their book. I know how hard it is to be a writer, to put yourself out there on the page to be critiqued. And a negative review, or several negative reviews, can be devastating. As a reviewer, just knowing what I’ve had to say can actually have an impact can be daunting.

And, when I accept a book for review from a self-published author, I know they will be reading my review. With published authors it’s not a given, especially since I no longer “at” them on Twitter. But for a review of an independently published book, positive or negative, that author will be checking out my review. If I’m way off the mark, I’m going to hear about it. And if they liked or disliked my review, I’ll know.

I’m also not too keen on the after-effects of rating something less than amazing. I’ve had a couple rather unpleasant (for me) experiences early on. Those experiences have affected how responsive I am to requests for review, but they have also left me wary about writing any critical reviews, even if critical reviews should be written. I will never say I loved something I didn’t, but I have stopped reading books I’ve accepted for review if I didn’t like them in the first twenty pages, not only because I don’t like reading books I don’t enjoy, but also to avoid any drama.

I would say that I’m most swayed when it comes to starred ratings, rather than the actual written review. I don’t give half-star ratings because Amazon and Goodreads don’t allow it. So, if I feel something is a solid four-and-a-half stars, sway can creep in as to whether I downgrade it to four or upgrade it to five.

I try to re-think the rating by looking at my review, checking to see whether there were any drawbacks from the book so as to have a reason to lower it versus raise it. But when I’m deadlocked, factors such as other reviewers’ ratings or author likability can help tip the scales one way or the other. So far I’ve been deadlocked only twice where I’ve let myself be swayed.

Parting Thoughts

Influence is unavoidable. I don’t think it’s a bad thing if it gets you to read something you wouldn’t have. I do think it’s awful if it pushes you to say you loved something you hated. Or even that you liked something way more than you actually did.

As someone who loves to read blogger reviews, I like seeing the different opinions, both positive and negative, about books I’ve read or will never read. If everyone succumbed to sway, there might not be such a diversity of opinion.

If I ever find that I feel compelled to alter my reviews, I think that will be the day I stop reviewing. Or at the very least stop accepting books for review or interacting with authors whose books I haven’t yet read.

Even if the books I read are affected by outside influences, I always want my reviews to be my own. No matter how difficult that may be, unpopular my opinion might be, or how few requests for review I receive. I own several hundred books that I can read and review without the likelihood of sway, so I’m not too concerned about running out of reading material.

What are your sway factors?

How hard do you find it to remain influence-free when writing your reviews?

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