Please Be Honest vs. If You Loved It: On the Weird World of Reviews

Stylized version of the article title, "Please be honest vs. If you loved it: On the Weird World of Reader Reviews" -- with a blue duck to match the "odd duck" that I am.
Stylized version of the article title, "Please be honest vs. If you loved it: On the Weird World of Reader Reviews" -- with a blue duck to match the "odd duck" that I am.

I’m an odd duck of a writer in many ways. I love receiving feedback once a story’s published — whether it’s good, middling, or negative — but I cannot stand the idle critiques of careless readers when a work is in progress. (I’m thankful, then, to have found one beta reader who understands my aims, and whose criticism I value precisely because it comes from a place of understanding.)

I think I learned to love negative critique of a finished work because one of the major reviewers of SF&F, when I first started out, was Lois Tilton, a no-nonsense critic who would flat-out say if a story was reductive, ill-conceived, poorly executed, or just — maybe most devastatingly of all — “meh.”

My stories were never good enough for her, but there was one interesting occasion in which Locus didn’t actually publish her review of my piece in an issue of Analog, and I wrote to her with a polite inquiry as to what had happened to it. Then Tilton-the-human-being, amid expressing her surprise at its absence (it turned out it had been an accidental cut, the last paragraph dropped off), also extended a kindness to me — because she knew full well the piece I was hoping to read was not a good review, and so she tried to mitigate the bad news in advance, by telling me that the piece could have used a better editor to rein in its line length, etc. I was charmed by her taking the time to try to reassure me, one industry member to another… but I also wish there’d been some sincere way to convey that I really didn’t need it.

(A lot of writers, granted, would have! A lot of folks in the genre really didn’t like Tilton’s style!)

But me? I love reviews. I love when people take the time to review something. Whether they’re good or bad verdicts about my work, whether the reader completely missed something important or read the work in light of their own, erroneous assumptions about the underlying science… the reviews themselves are still acts of engagement with something I produced. How cool is that?

Moreover, there is always something to be learned from a reader’s review — even if it’s just to avoid taking every single bit of criticism as Absolute Gospel Truth about any given tale.

However, as I enter into the realm of self-promotion — which is to say, now that I’m self-publishing a series of SF mystery novellas — I find myself struggling to set good ground rules for myself, with respect to the reviewing process. In the past, all my work has been published by established magazines that could expect to be reviewed by major industry publications. Now, though, I still need to figure out where I can send review copies of the first novella, but what I’ve learned to date from asking around is that… there is a huge (and no-doubt well-earned) aversion to self-published works in every facet of the publishing industry. My chances of finding someone at a formal venue who’s interested in reviewing the piece are probably… slim to nil.

Which, in turn, means that the random reader reviews I receive for Third Planet Fall Down, and the rest of the Menagerie Mysteries, are probably going to be the deciding factors in the series’ popularity (and of course, more concretely, in its sales).

And to that end, yes, of course, I know how the game is supposed to be played. Over and over, even with traditionally published books (because writers know they have to boost sales figures to keep publishers and agents), authors on social media recite the same phrase:

“If you read it and loved it, please leave a review.”

Which is why… I don’t leave many reviews, myself. Because often I don’t love or even like a given book. Heck, there were a few incredibly popular ones this year that left me, as Tilton would have said, “meh.” So, the common courtesy that I extend to fellow writers, in these scenarios, is to not post my two- or three-star review. Let the fours and fives (from those who can stand by them) soar.

And, yes, I also know that I’ll be considered naive for saying this, but I don’t want fake reviews. I don’t want people to leave a review only if they “loved it”. I want people, instead, to feel they can be honest about whether or not the story worked for them. I want people to endorse work that sings to them, and not just work they feel a collegial duty to support.

“But! But–that’s the system! That’s how the game is played! Don’t you want sales?”

Let’s be clear here: The above kind of thinking relies on the belief that there is One True Way To Become Successful In Publishing, and that if you deviate from this One True Way, then obviously your deviation is what caused you to fail — and not, say, the naturally fickle shape of the marketplace.

Real talk, parceros: There is never One True Way.

If there were, I wouldn’t be pitching my second novel manuscript to agents in the hope of achieving traditional publication, while also seeking to sell more short stories to traditional magazines, while also pursuing self-publishing for a novella series… in part to learn how to run an e-publishing platform to provide other people’s writing with homes once my visa situation is stabilized.

Suffice it to say, for many writers, the closest thing to One True Way is… to try everything. To see what sticks. And to get comfortable with moving on when something doesn’t.

As for me, I’ve already had to learn a lot about this “try everything” approach while prepping for the launch of my first novella, out on e-book tomorrow. I had to learn what kinds of distributor impediments I would face because I live in Colombia (a no-go for certain retailers), and can only use my Canadian bank account (with an expectation of a Canadian address to match) on yet other platforms. I had to learn, too, about different formatting styles and their issues (e.g. ePub renders differently on different stores!), and of course about the world of book-promotion in general.

And in that process, I’ve made choices.

I’ve chosen not to go for distribution platforms like Smashwords (or other, higher cost mass-distribution tools) because they reduce autonomy with respect to individuated pricing and repackaging of content — in contrast to selling directly to a variety of online markets — and still often yield low returns with respect to customer-reach.

I’ve chosen to elevate the lesser-known Gumroad as a viable platform for book distribution, because it gives me a 100% cut and allows me to offer the books in multiple formats to buyers.

I’ve chosen not to blast my book cover ad nauseum on my social media networks without providing added value (e.g. in the form of these essays on relevant aspects of writing culture and process).

And… now I’m choosing not to ask, “If you read it and loved it, please leave a review.”

Because I don’t think being gimmicky about this part of the process is going to give me a substantial leg-up in the industry — not when self-publishing is already a crapshoot in terms of success — but I do think it’s going to weigh on my integrity either way.

To recap, then: I love reviews.

I’m thankful to people who took the time to read and engage with my work.

And so, if you read this upcoming novella, if you feel so inclined to leave a review… please, be honest when you do.

And if that means not leaving the greatest review? Well, then I sorely hope that whatever title you pick out next from the to-read pile works out better for you — because there’s ever so much good literature in the world (more than we can hope to get through in a lifetime!), and no one should ever feel obliged to waste their time on anything less.

Happy reading, then, if — and whatever that — you do.

P.S. This is the end of my seven-day lead-up to publication. Many thanks for sharing in these last few days’ posts about writing culture around science-fiction mysteries, narrative tropes, and general e-publishing! Otherwise, I’ll be keeping up this series of reflections on literary practice on a weekly basis, then intensifying them again before the launch of Book Two: The Moon Is Not My Name (January 5). Stay safe this holiday season!

P.P.S. Oh, and if you’re a reviewer and by some wildling chance you’d actually like a copy in exchange for an honest review, please write me at It’s a long-shot, I know, but what isn’t in the publishing industry these days?

Third Planet Falls Down releases on December 14, 2020, but is already available for pre-order on kindle (35% author take, better reach) and Gumroad (100% author take, lower reach).

You can read the first three chapters here!

M L Clark talks about two schools of thought for reviews, and why they prefer honesty when it comes to their own work


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