Insights

Let’s Talk About: Reviewing Indie Books v. Traditional Books

There’s been some discourse on TikTok lately about whether or not a reader should review Indie Books on the same scale as Traditionally Published Books. This has opened up a can of questions: are indie book reviews artificially inflated? How can indie authors be respected in the industry? How can readers make sure they are consistent?

In my opinion, Indie Authors should be treated exactly the same as their Traditional Counterparts. If they’re not, then they won’t be looked at the same way as the rest of the publishing industry.

But, often times, Indie Authors aren’t treated the same. Some are attacked relentlessly for their editing, which might be just as good as their traditional counterparts. Meanwhile, you have the reverse side of things, where readers might opt to not rate a book OR rate the book higher than they would a traditional book even if they don’t like it so they don’t “hurt the author’s feelings”.

Indie Authors are often split on how to feel about this. Some believe that people should be kinder, since we don’t have the same resources as the traditionally published houses. But others – myself included – believe that you should rate these books with the same critical eye as you do a traditional book.

Personally, I believe by not treating Indie Authors like you do Traditionally Published Authors, you pigeon hole these Indie Authors into two categories (at least on Goodreads.com): Recipients of Unrealistic Negative Reviews and Recipients of Unrealistic Positive Reviews.

Generally, I believe most reviewers are honest. I like to believe in the best of people. But, some self-published authors become the victim (or beneficiaries) of malicious (or sometimes kind) intent.

As a reviewer, I know I have fallen into the latter category. Often times, I’ll read an indie book that only has a few reviews. So I re-evaluate, and end up rating the book higher than I might have otherwise rated a traditionally published book. Is this right of me? I’m not sure. But will it do any wrong? No.

But do overly kind reviews or overly negative reviews really help validate the Independent Publishing side of the industry? Probably not.

To be respected as indie authors, we should be treated the same as our traditional counterparts. Reviews should be consistent. No one should fall victim to needlessly harsh reviews or overtly kind reviews. Instead, readers and reviewers should remain consistent in their reviews no matter what type of book they are reading.

Yet, this isn’t always the case. While, as I mentioned before, for the most part reviewers stick with their rating system, there sometimes comes a point of artificial inflation and deflation in the reviews.

Let me explain.

First, I want to define how I interpret artificial inflation and deflation:

Artificial Inflation would be when either: 1) An author gets a bunch of friends or family who HAVE NOT read their book to leave positive reviews on their work, or 2) When an author has almost entirely positive reviews (once they hit, let’s say, 25 reviews) due to readers being “kinder”. Artificial Inflation of reviews, in my opinion, makes it appear as though books in the Indie Industry have a higher overall rating. This is partially due to the number of reviews, which in turn causes readers to pause before leaving a negative review. This, once again, can be seen as a positive or negative. More on that later.

Artificial Deflation would be when either: 1) A bunch of reviewers (or trolls) attack a single book because they don’t like the author, or they decide to pick on something in a book without reading it, 2) A reviewer is harsher on an indie book, taking issue with some grammatical errors or inconsistencies they wouldn’t note in a traditionally published book. Obviously the first issue here is much easier to identify.

Now, I generally believe that most people are honest in their reviews. I won’t comment on how Amazon’s reviews pan out though, since often this is very different and I don’t know enough about them. But on Goodreads, I’d like to think that most books with more than 25 reviews are representing what readers truly think.

But this isn’t always the case. Below are a few examples of artificial inflation and deflation:

Artificial Inflation Examples

  • Let’s start with my book! One review on my book is a 4-star review that simply says “This book wasn’t for me but a lot of other people like it.” While I appreciate a 4-star review, can I consider this a legitimate 4-star review? Not necessarily. Would this person have left a 4-star review if I was a traditionally published author? I’m not sure. Obviously I don’t know this person’s review policy – but in some aspects, I consider this an “artificial” positive review.
  • I was a part of an indie book club a few months ago. I had a discussion with some of the members, and a few of them said that unless they can rate a book by an indie author 3-stars or higher, they won’t rate it. Why? They didn’t want to impact the overall star rating since it will hurt the author’s feelings. But, they don’t hold the same discretion over traditionally published books. I think this is a great point in illustrating how reviews on indie books become artificially inflated – people withhold negative reviews. While this isn’t bad for an author, it does mean the reason someone dislikes a book won’t be available for other readers.
  • As a reviewer – I have found myself rating indie books higher than I would a traditional counterpart. While there are a few I have given low star ratings because I really didn’t enjoy them, there are others that I have given 3.5 to 4 stars, even though I might have given then 2 or 3 stars if written by anyone else. This is primarily because 1) I know the author or 2) they don’t have a lot of reviews in the first place.
  • Another good example I saw was on one book that I ultimately rated 3 stars. I was scrolling through reviews, and saw that someone left a review saying they DNF’d the book. But they still gave the book 3 stars. Perhaps that reader always gives 3 stars to books they can’t finish, but most readers often give 1 or 2 stars in that case. Would they have given 3 stars if it wasn’t an indie book? I’m not sure.
  • Speaking of knowing the author – this can also inflate reviews…when someone hasn’t READ the book. It is totally fine for friends and family to review your book, but hopefully they have read it before doing so. When you gather friends and family to leave reviews, but they haven’t actually read it, then this is not just artificially inflating a book…but scamming readers as well. Amazon has found a way to prevent this, often times removing reviews from people they believe have a personal connection with the author. Goodreads doesn’t do this though. This can fall almost on the same level of if you paid someone to review your book as well.
    • While I believe this example is far less likely, it does happen. The best example I have is a book my dad read – I don’t remember the name. But it had a hundred or so 4-5 star ratings, but no reviews. The balance was strange, especially for an indie book. My dad, personally, didn’t like the book – and he did not hold back.

While these are only a few examples of what I call “artificial inflation”, they are some of the best examples of what exist in the indie author community. Some people might not think of this as inflating ratings, but in a way…it does. But remember, it is only artificial inflation if the reader is acting differently because it is an indie book – NOT because that is their method of reviewing books. If that is their method, then they’re just inflating the rating…which isn’t bad. That just means the rating is improving.

But now, let’s talking about Artificial Deflation.

Artificial Deflation Examples

Overall, Artificial Deflation is much more malicious in nature. Let’s talk about it…

  • The best example I can think of is when a reader attacks a self-published book for not being edited enough and having typos, then failing to hold traditionally published books to the same standard. While some readers really do nitpick every book like this, if you only comment on the editing of self-publish books, then that is a double standard that artificially deflates the book.
    • Now, this is different than when you comment on a book that has an error on every page. There is an industry standard of what is acceptable – if a self-published book meets that industry standard, then why comment on it? Every book will have some typos!
  • Recently, I saw an author essentially get attacked on Goodreads. While this isn’t the norm, in my opinion, it does happen. This author received one or two legitimate negative reviews about their book, then within the course of a day or so, received an influx of more reviews similar in nature. While it is possible all these individuals read their book, it seems unlikely considering the number of reviews at the time. More likely than not, these individuals all knew each other and decided to “troll” this author. All of these reviewers had similar thoughts as well. This causes the reviews on the book to be deflated.

While Artificial Deflation is the more extreme example of this, often with much larger implications, I personally don’t think that it is the norm when it comes to reviewing. I personally believe that if someone chooses to alter their review preferences with indie books, they are kinder.

And this in turn causes indie books to have a higher rating on Goodreads overall – at least from my experience. Although some indie authors might disagree.

So let me tell you a bit more about my experience…

Let’s go back a year ago, June 2020, when I was preparing to publish The Mist Keeper’s Apprentice. Around that time, I started reviewing books more regularly, and I noticed that a lot of Indie Books had a star rating above 4.2 stars. So I thought that was the average.

Then I got a couple negative reviews, since I ventured into the world of ARC readers.

Suddenly I had a rating of about 3.8 stars.

I faced a sudden existential crisis. What if my book was terrible? What was I supposed to do?

Then I peered around Goodreads and discovered something – most books have a rating of 3.5 stars or higher.

For whatever reason, the indie books in my sphere of discovery had higher ratings. Were they artificially inflated? I don’t know. I know with some of them I was kinder in my rating than with other books. Were others? I still don’t know.

While generally I don’t think books begin to come into their “natural rating” until about 25 reviews (and it doesn’t really solidify until 100 reviews), it was still hard to wrap my head around the fact that my book fell below 4 stars. Some of these books did have over 25 reviews, without a single negative review! Why? Maybe they were that good. Maybe the writer hadn’t reached outside their own sphere of influence. Or maybe, just maybe, some readers were “kinder” because the book was published independently.

I don’t know. And I won’t speculate either.

What I do know is that because so many indie books, at least those I became familiar with, have a rating greater than 4 stars…it took me many months to be comfortable in my book’s rating. (Now, my book has 4 stars exactly. That could change at any moment…but I was very happy to see that on Goodreads!)

So what does this all mean?

Basically, the essence of this discussion is simple: rate indie books just like you would rate traditionally published books. The only way for self-published authors to be respected in the industry is to be treated similarly.

As an indie author, I would rather you leave an honest review than a positive but dishonest one.

But…I also understand why it can be harder to leave a more critical review of an indie book. I’ve fallen into the same trap.

Indie Authors, I think, seem more human than Traditionally Published Authors. We’re the ones doing our marketing, we’re the ones hyping our books, etc. So by negatively reviewing our books, some readers might feel like they’re attacking us. In that case, you have a couple options, at least on Goodreads.com:

  • Review Indie Books like any other! This is the preferred method, of course. As always though, be honest and kind.
  • Review Indie Books on a curve. This isn’t preferred, but understandable. When people do this, it is what leads to artificially inflated reviews.
  • Leave a review, but not a star rating. One reason why I like Goodreads v. Amazon is the ability to leave a review without any star ratings. I often do this for books I DNF since I don’t think it’s fair to an author to give a star rating – at least until I hit 50% read. If you omit a star rating, it doesn’t impact the book’s overall rating, but still gives you a chance to talk about what you liked/didn’t like.

Once again though, the key here is to keep your personal reviewing system consistent.

In Conclusion…

While there is no way to determine for sure if a book’s rating is being artificially inflated or deflated overall, since everyone’s review systems are subjective, if you stay consistent, then at least you know you are being honest to the author.

Indie Authors put just as much work into their novels as Traditionally Published Authors. To be treated differently only reaffirms the idea that we are beneath them. This is not the case. Many of us have spent thousands of dollars to get our book out into the world. Even those who didn’t spend that kind of money, they have put their heart-and-soul into their novel.

Treat us like you would any other author. Once we are seen as equals, only then can the industry change.

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