Read. Review. Rinse. Repeat.

by Mike Duran · 56 comments

Back in 2006, in a post entitled In Praise of Bad Reviews, I lamented the echo chamber that is the Christian review circuit. It is hard for a Christian author, especially a non-established, small name author, to get professional reviews. Before you go off, let me clarify: Certainly, “amateur” reviewers can offer quality reviews. They just don’t carry the clout, academic pedigree, and/or breadth of influence that more established reviewers or review sites carry. That’s what I’m talking about.

Anyway, in that post I offered three reasons why I think Christian reviewers contribute to an insular industry. It was my first real shot across the bow of the Christian fiction industry. Those three reasons why Christian reviewers rarely give “bad reviews” were:

  1. There’s a fundamental confusion about love and approval; somehow, we think that a negative review is unloving.
  2. Christians are so eager to see the Gospel / Christian fiction advanced that we’re willing to wink at mediocre presentations of it.
  3. Most Christian reviewers are trying to break into/stay in the industry they’re reviewing.

The longer I’m involved in the Christian fiction industry, interact with other writers, follow blogs, and trends, the more I’m convinced there’s a sort of “literary incest” that keeps the Christian industry “healthy.” Much of that has to with do with the market, who’s reading Christian fiction (as it’s currently constituted) and who’s providing that fare.

From one perspective, the Christian fiction industry is doing fine. Even in our down economy, Christian books are selling. However, that take can be a little misleading, especially if you’re an author. Here’s the dirty truth (which is what you’re waiting for, right?). Christian fiction is doing fine… if you belong to one of two groups:

  • If you write Women’s Fiction
  • If you’re an established Christian author

This is not to suggest that new authors can’t break into the Christian clubhouse. In order to do so, however, they have to play by the existing rules. So if you write Crime, Horror, Sci-fi, Men’s Fiction, Espionage, Literary Fiction, Epic Fantasy, the Christian fiction industry IS NOT a friendly harbor. Which is probably why I was asked (and several other male authors I know) to consider writing Women’s Fiction.

So is the Christian fiction industry doing fine? Yes and no. If you write what’s selling in Christian fiction circles, the way they want it written, then yes. If you write something else, well, have fun.

But I’m beginning to think that one of the big reasons for this “clubhouse” feel to the Christian fiction industry is #3 above: Most Christian reviewers are trying to break into/stay in the industry they’re reviewing. Which is why the reviews typically feel cursory, they’re typically positive, and they don’t get outside the Christian fiction community. In fact, they’re not intended to. Which feeds the cycle and keeps the Christian fiction industry “healthy” (see above).

If this is true, then blog tours and amateur review sites can’t help but contribute to the echo chamber effect within our community. Their goal is not to make Christian fiction better, critically analyze it, or really give an honest review. Instead, they want to 1.) Affirm the product and 2.) keep their foot in the door. And — this is important — genres that are NOT in the Christian fiction wheelhouse (i.e., Women’s Fiction and Historical Romance) typically have a hard time finding traction whatsoever. It takes sci-fi / literary / crime readers to get the genre. So how can Christian reviewers whose literary diet is 80% Women’s Fiction ever hope to really “sell” readers on Christian horror?

Yet the cycle is repeated.

This weird relationship between reviewers, writers, and publishers looks something like this:

  • You give me a free book.
  • I skim said book.
  • I write a short, but positive review.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Often, what’s unspoken in that symbiosis is the agreement from the reviewer, to the publisher and other authors:

  • To the Publisher: I favorably review your book so when I write MY book you will look favorably upon it.
  • To Other Authors: I favorably review your book so when I write MY book you will look favorably upon it.

I’ll scratch your book, if you’ll scratch mine.

I read a review of my latest novel recently that seemed so far and above others. (Yes, I read reviews of my novels.) It wasn’t uncritical, it wasn’t a puff piece. There were some “negative” observations which I found astute and helpful. But in the end, it was the feeling that the reviewer didn’t skim but took genuine time and care with my novel that encouraged me. And that’s what I find lacking in so many Christian reviews.

Probably because they have a stack of novels to finish for their next blog tour.

Perhaps all of this goes back to me wishing that Christian fiction would expand its borders, leave the clubhouse, puncture the echo chamber, take more risks, and topple some sacred cows. I mean, aren’t we just talking to ourselves? But as long as we’re convinced the Christian fiction industry is healthy, we’ll keep seeing great Christian authors who can’t find their place, go elsewhere.

And the cycle will continue.

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{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather Day Gilbert July 27, 2012 at 8:11 AM

These thoughts have definitely occurred to me as I’ve ventured into a few CBA book reviews. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” (or tick off the publisher you’re vying for) comes to mind. I’d just like to re-iterate that not ALL historical fiction gets picked up immediately–there’s a “box” that you need to fit in there, as well. This box includes only certain time periods/locales, which is sad, because (I’ve said it many times before) God has been at work in ALL time periods, and, as Christians, wouldn’t it do us good to learn about what was going on then? Sorry, enough soapboxing for me.

I’ve also noticed that there’s a CBA way of editing dialogue tags, etc. I don’t see the same sort of editing in ABA books. Sometimes, quite honestly, I miss the “‘Get out of here,'” she said, throwing her towel in the sink” structure vs. the “‘Get out of here!'” She threw her towel in the sink” structure. I miss the smoothness that the he said/she said brings to some dialogue. Sigh.

But I will say that when I reviewed THE TELLING, though I gave it a glowing review, I wasn’t afraid to mention issues the reader might have w/it. And BTW–Please do not EVER write woman’s fiction, Mike! Paranormal is such a good fit for you!

Good post, and I’m totally on-board w/what you’re saying here.

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Joanne Bischof July 29, 2012 at 8:45 PM

Heather-

I think you make such an important point here how God has had his hand in all of humanity for all time and yet a good portion of Christian Historical fiction takes place during a hand full of time periods. Whenever a new time period/genre/local pops up outside the normal standards, it’s so refreshing!

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David N. Alderman July 27, 2012 at 9:37 AM

Excellent post! You hit the target quite a few times with sentiments that I’ve been feeling myself lately. As a writer of (edgy) Christian speculative fiction, I find it incredibly difficult to both write what I feel led to write and at the same time cater to the ‘expectations’ that many readers have when they agree to read/review Christian fiction. I have also observed on many occasions fellow Christians writing glowing reviews for Christian books that really fall short in terms of literary excellence. I agree that it is time to topple some sacred cows and shift the lines in the sand.

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Cindy McCord July 27, 2012 at 10:06 AM

I know that I’m speaking from a reader/amateur status but I agree with what you are saying. Even if my reviews only reach a few I do want to improve on them to help other readers out.

I am not a reader of women’s fiction or historical fiction except for maybe every once in a while if a book description catches my attention. I do have a problem finding books in mainline book stores that don’t fall into those categories so I tend to watch for info from online sources such as Family Fiction Edge, Marcher Lord Press, etc . I have even branched out (a little) and read a couple from the fantasy genres which I have enjoyed.

If anyone can point me to others, I will be glad to check them out.

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Mike Duran July 27, 2012 at 6:02 PM

Cindy, was there a specific genre in particular you were looking for some recommendations in?

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Cindy McCord July 27, 2012 at 7:02 PM

I especially enjoy reading those that deal with spiritual warfare. If a book has angels and demons in it I will usually give them a try first. Maybe because This Present Darkness was the first CF book I ever read. Don’t know if you are familiar with Roger Elwood but I read several of his books several years ago and still have a few of them.

Mystery/suspense/thrillers are what I read the majority of the time.

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Mike Duran July 28, 2012 at 6:55 AM

Cindy, this is awkward… but my first novel, The Resurrection, is right up this alley. You can find a synop HERE and reader reviews on Amazon. I’d love to send you a free signed copy if you’re interested. You can find my email on the Contact tab.

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Cindy McCord July 28, 2012 at 9:41 AM

Thank you Mike for the generous offer but it so happens I picked it up for Kindle just haven’t gotten to it yet. I will let you know when I do. :)

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michelle pendergrass July 27, 2012 at 10:09 AM

I admire your persistence. I remember that 2006 post and sit here in awe not quite believing it’s still going on, but at the same time, it’s like so many Christians and Christians attending churches out there. They look good, but they’re rotting on the inside.

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Kerry Nietz July 27, 2012 at 10:31 AM

Hmm…I think there is some truth in what you’re saying, Mike, but maybe not the whole truth. :)

I know I’ve often felt when marketing my books, while in the process of doing blogs and interviews and giveaways and whatnot, that I was bouncing around in the same group of people. That even if the potential readers were new to me as individuals, they were still probably closely connected to other readers I’d already met. I remember thinking that their must be some way to break out of this bubble–or increase the size of it–that we haven’t quite found yet.

And there may be an element of backscratching in reviews, though I try not to do that. I try to be as honest as I can be on every single book I review–secular or Christian. I may be more lenient than some non-writers might be when writing reviews, because I know what it takes to author a book. It is hard, hard work. There are lots of balls in the air that you have to try to catch in just the right order. It is tough!

Still, I try to read everything I’m given from start to finish (unless I just can’t make it through it) and comment honestly. I’m a Vine reviewer for Amazon now too, so I think that habit is even more important.

I hear what you’re saying about always having a stack of books. Since becoming a Christian author, I’ve never run out of reading material. (And the “free or cheap eBook” revolution has only magnified that situation.)

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Evangeline Denmark July 27, 2012 at 11:47 AM

Thanks for this post, Mike. I very much agree with you.

I am a part of the growing community of Christian writers who feel disenfranchised by Christian publishing as it is today. Maybe it’s because I surround myself with writer friends of a similar mindset, or because I read blogs like yours and shy away from those that are part of the machine, but it seems to me that every day I hear a new voice crying for change. And I hope that we will someday become the majority.

I don’t often review books on my blog, but I have reviewed books I wouldn’t normally read that are written by friends. Personally, I think that’s probably good for me. It’s funny that reading a Christian women’s fiction novel is now a stretching experience for me. But I was recently dismayed to discover that I’d unknowingly accepted an influencer copy of a novel with Amish leanings. Not only is it not something I wouldn’t ordinarily read, but I can’t in good conscience contribute to that juggernaut genre regardless of any personal connection with the author. Your post reaffirmed the decision I’ve made not to read and review the book, although I still feel bad about it. And I’m still asking myself if I’m refusing to read this book based on valid principles or out of bitterness that this sort of book gets published when mine do not.

And that is my constrant struggle, to champion the cause of outside-the-box fiction written by Christians while remaining loving and accepting of my brothers and sisters who write more traditional Christian novels. After all if I want them to accept me, I better be willing to accept them.

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Mike Duran July 27, 2012 at 6:12 PM

Evangeline, championing out-of-the box fiction gets the wheels turning. But until we can show sales of non-traditional Christian fiction, change will never happen. I think we can be both “accepting of brothers and sisters who write more traditional Christian novels” and still push for more. But if the “non-traditional” books are not being bought, publishers have no reason to expand their market. They’ll just keep sticking with what works. Thanks for commenting!

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Nicole July 27, 2012 at 11:48 AM

As you know, Mike, I read and review a lot of CBA novels. I’ve asked those publishing reps if they wanted “honest” reviews before I signed on to do reviews for free novels. It’s never pleasant to do a less than complimentary review, especially now that most of them require an Amazon, etc., presence in addition to the blog post, but there are ways to present “problems” with novels without berating an author and by segregating tastes and preferences from real writing problems.

However, you’ve hit the nail on the head with some of your statements:

“So is the Christian fiction industry doing fine? Yes and no. If you write what’s selling in Christian fiction circles, the way they want it written, then yes. If you write something else, well, have fun.”

“Perhaps all of this goes back to me wishing that Christian fiction would expand its borders, leave the clubhouse, puncture the echo chamber, take more risks, and topple some sacred cows. I mean, aren’t we just talking to ourselves? But as long as we’re convinced the Christian fiction industry is healthy, we’ll keep seeing great Christian authors who can’t find their place, go elsewhere.”

I guess I shouldn’t be – because it hasn’t changed – but I continue to be surprised at the restrictive nature of CBA fiction.

(Did a similar but different post today.)

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Jill July 27, 2012 at 12:56 PM

I always find it funny to see the same names in blog comments and as blurb authors and in Amazon reviews. It really is an echo chamber after a while, even if these people are just trying to support each other. I suspect you have your own echo chamber, however.

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Mike Duran July 28, 2012 at 6:18 AM

“I suspect you have your own echo chamber.”

Indeed! But people in mine don’t mind pointing that out.

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anon July 27, 2012 at 1:15 PM

Who pissed in your corn flakes?

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Katherine Coble July 27, 2012 at 3:23 PM

I wrote a less than favourable review of a CBA book awhile back. I write honest reviews of everything, even if you’re my friend. I figure, as Oscar Wilde said, A good friend stabs you in the front.

My review elicited a private email (NOT from the author but a fan/friend/relation of hers) saying that I had just killed any chance I ever had of getting published in the CBA.

I have never once _wanted_ to publish in the CBA. Having worked there I certainly had enough opportunities to do so had I wanted to. I just thought, though, that it was really telling. The belief is that honesty in a review will kill your career.

http://www.amazon.com/review/R2BQ0DEE1491AK/ref=cm_cr_pr_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B002S0OACO&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=

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Heather Day Gilbert July 27, 2012 at 3:57 PM

Katherine–OH.MY.WORD. Listen, you have full freedom to diss my book when it comes out, if you don’t like it. You’re right, if you have something bad to say, I’d rather have you say it to my face. I’ve seen lots of books with horrid reviews that are still selling like hotcakes, so it’s certainly not going to destroy a writer’s career. No book is going to please everyone all the time.

I do think Mike is right–the CBA is a different animal than the ABA–more like family. That’s good and bad. Good that we have the support of other Christian writers, willing to see the best in our work. Bad if it squashes creativity and promoting anything less than stellar writing.

Personally, I choose to blog reviews for CBA books that literally blow me away. If I’m not effusive in my praise on Goodreads, you can probably read b/t the lines that I wasn’t thrilled. But I don’t like ripping up my fellow authors, either. I’m fully aware that my taste isn’t representative of the masses–masses who love Amish fiction. Grin.

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Heather Day Gilbert July 27, 2012 at 3:58 PM

(Oops, I meant PROMOTES anything less than stellar writing, but you probably figured that out…)

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Iola July 27, 2012 at 5:57 PM

I’ve had that book sitting in my TBR pile for about a year, having never quite managed to get into it. I suspect your review explains why.

I’m another reviewer who gets negative votes and comments whenever I dare post a less-than-glowing review. It appears that not liking the latest book by their favourite Christian author must mean that I’m backsliding (or worse).

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Nikole Hahn July 28, 2012 at 8:05 AM

Keep it up, Iola! :o) Negative reviews make us better writers.

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Jessica Thomas July 28, 2012 at 6:12 AM

Wow.

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Mike Duran July 28, 2012 at 6:46 AM

Sadly, I’m not surprised by this, Katherine. I’ve been told countless times now that being openly critical of the industry, as I do / am, is both “courageous” and “dangerous.” It’s hard to believe that those who fight for moral purity in their books could even entertain blacklisting (or tolerating the blacklisting of) those who simply disagree or write a negative review.

As a sidebar… I recently spoke to two industry reps who’ve been involved in the CBA for a long time and who are both familiar with my blog. I asked them if being openly critical of some things in the CBA hurts me, my career, or reputation. They both said “No.” In fact, I was told that not only am I voicing what many personally feel, but that many CBA insiders read this blog. I’m not saying this to boast of myself, but to suggest that there really is a type of echo chamber effect where readers / reviewers / aspiring writers are afraid to voice… the truth.

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Nikole Hahn July 28, 2012 at 8:14 AM

Katherine, I thought that myth was debunked all ready by various blog posts? One rude comment (a hit and run comment…you know the kind) said that I obviously didn’t finish the book and that I took it from the free portion that was offered, insinuating quite strongly that I was lying to the public. I noticed shortly after I posted the bad review on this novel three or four other glowing reviews followed. One posted a glowing review within a day of downloading the novel from Smashwords. It really opened my eyes to some in the writing world who would act with so little integrity just to make a buck off a reader. Being a reader, I can’t always afford to buy books and I appreciate the negative reviews. It gives me a balanced look at what I might invest my money and time on. Some writers are so into their “art” they think of nothing or no one else.

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Katherine Coble July 28, 2012 at 7:13 PM

Nikole, I’m confused…which rumour has been debunked ?

Was your experience that you mention with the same title I reviewed? I can honestly say that I was uncomfortable with the overall reaction to negative reviews on that book. It felt like the publisher or author (or both) had a VERY devoted following. Pathologically devoted.

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Nikole Hahn July 28, 2012 at 10:03 PM

Rumor about bad reviews killing your chance with the CBA. That rumor.

Probably not. It seems I get the negative comments from fans of self-pubs. Scary, Katherine, to have that kind of devotion. Yeah, I might stay away from reviewing any further books by that author.

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Kessie July 27, 2012 at 4:01 PM

You got asked to write women’s fiction?

…so, are you going to?

*imagines Mike churning out a story about a strong Christian feminist who fights crime and defeats demons*

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Cindy McCord July 27, 2012 at 7:03 PM

That sounds like a book that I would enjoy reading!

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Heather Day Gilbert July 27, 2012 at 7:29 PM

In light of this post, I just opened my email and found this fantastically balanced and honest review by Rebecca Luella Miller. Here’s the link to her review of the post-apocalyptic book, THE KINGDOM: http://rebeccaluellamiller.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/fantasy-friday-the-kingdom-review/. I love reading reviews like this–makes me feel the reviewer isn’t pulling any punches, but isn’t deliberately trying to be spiteful. Just honest.

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Mike Duran July 28, 2012 at 7:01 AM

I’ve always liked Becky’s reviews. She is fair, kind, and honest about what she thinks didn’t work. That post is a good example, Heather. Don’t always agree with her, but I actually think Becky Miller is a pretty good model for a Christian reviewer.

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Katherine Coble July 29, 2012 at 8:20 AM

We disagree on a few things, but I still think she (RLM) is one of the best reviewers of CBA books.

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Mirtika July 27, 2012 at 7:39 PM

I used to review books sent to me (when I accepted, which was not always, natch) back when I was more active on Mirathon/with ACFW/etc. I always warned the author or promoter that I only did honest reviews. If they were fine with me being critical and even giving a low rating, then fine, send the book to me. I gave some 4 and 3 star reviews. In general, I try NOT to review something I’d give 1 or 2 stars to, as I don’t tend to finish such. :)

After a long hiatus from writing (and for a while, reading, due to eye issues), I’m getting back in the swing. Reading your blog again just shows me so much has NOT changed.

I will say that I understand the “female” church vibe that creates this situation. We want to nurture, support, care for, not offend, be sisterly. It can be difficult to get real feedback when the culture says, “Just be supportive and only give a negative comment if you can back it up with two positive ones.” But at the same time, this is an environment that can be cheering to someone laboring year and year to get published. Perhaps if real honesty saturates the critique/group process, then having affirmation in the review support is just part of the “let’s sell this book” business. (We all are aware yes, of the promotional tactic many companies pay folks to do this at amazon for all sorts of products from coconut water to snack bars to whatever.)

I still am reeling a bit that W. Dale Cramer is doing Amish romances, though the fact that he is the one doing them makes me want to try one. Budget isn’t allowing it at this time (no income due to job loss in this household), but it did catch my attention. The guy is doing Amish women’s fiction. Clearly, this really stood out to me and spoke to the dominance of WF in the CBA.

I wonder if ebooks and the move in that direction will be the thing that finally opens the CBA up (since it will not rely on the bookstores at all, but will seek readers out there in the interether). http://blogs.smartmoney.com/paydirt/2012/07/20/religion-like-sex-sells-on-e-books/

The fact that the genre of Wonder (ie, SF) is marginalized by the People of Wonder–which is what we ought to be given Who God Is–is still painful to me. And does make me wonder if, since I do enjoy romance stories and suspense and not just SF (though that is my preferred genre), whether hitting romance is the way to go.

I wonder just how well Dekker sells. I mean, that’s SF. Anyone know how many numbers of books his name moves?

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Mike Duran July 28, 2012 at 7:18 AM

Mir, I’m looking forward to you getting back into the swing of things. That’s a fascinating link (inspired a blog post that I just jotted down) and may say as much about the insular nature of the CF industry as anything. I know Marcher Lord Press’s success is evidence of the same thing, not just that there’s a market for Christian Spec-fic, but that the CBA is missing it. But whether or not this “opens the CBA up” is anyone’s guess. Thanks for commenting!

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Mirtika July 27, 2012 at 7:41 PM

I really need to proof my comments before sending. Sheesh. Sorry.

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Kevin Lucia July 28, 2012 at 12:01 AM

Back when I was still aiming for the CBA and writing reviews for one of the blog tours (and I’ll go further than you, and say that most people didn’t even skim the book and write positive reviews; in exchange for the free book, they posted the publisher’s back-cover blurb), I wrote a critical review of a top CBA name. Now, I felt all my criticisms were pretty justified, but my mistake was being the first person to also post my review on Amazon, making their very first Amazon review a negative one.

Very quickly, I received an email – in very junior high fashion – from a “friend” claiming how upset this author was, wondering why I wasn’t willing to “support his ministry”, and that said author (whom I’d never met, much less spoken t0), had thought I was a friend, and thought he could “count on me” for a good review.

I was stunned.

And, as the saying goes, that “was the end, my friends” for me reviewing exclusively for and wanting to be published in the CBA….

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Nikole Hahn July 28, 2012 at 8:01 AM

Kevin, there are trolls out there who look out for anyone who criticizes their favorite authors or who are on a mission to puff up Christian fiction when it’s a bad piece. I’ve gotten a couple of negative comments; one in particular was quite rude, but it doesn’t stop me. And because of it, people trust my reviews. I’ve even given a bad review to a friend and published it.

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Kevin Lucia July 28, 2012 at 9:13 AM

Yes, but this wasn’t from a troll. This was from another Blog tour coordinator and a well-known, ESTABLISHED CBA author. And it wasn’t the only reason why I decide to write in the secular market. Just the final push.

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Nikole Hahn July 28, 2012 at 10:04 PM

Oh my.

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BK Jackson (@BKJacksonAZ) July 28, 2012 at 5:56 AM

You were asked to write women’s fiction?

That blows my mind.

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Nikole Hahn July 28, 2012 at 7:58 AM

I take a a lot of pride in my reviews, and I never promise to write positive ones. I even wrote a three-star on a Jenkins book he co-wrote. Yes, it made me nervous, but if I’m going to stay with my brand of authentic Christianity, it requires courage and honesty. I have a one star review coming out soon (those take the longest to write) and while most of my reviews have anywhere from three to five stars with some two-stars in there, if someone got a good review its because I really did enjoy it.

But yes, there are some doing this who want to puff up Christian fiction. But not everyone. I, too, am discovering how hard it is to find people willing to take on Speculative Christian Fiction. I’m not sure why it’s a hard sell when I review spec fiction and there seems to be a lot of it. My friend once protested all the romance women’s Christian fiction cluttering our library with few spec Christian fiction. Given a chance, I think more people would read it–those same people who like Ted Dekkar and Harry Potter. So how do we write Christian spec fiction and appeal to the secular?

If you’re going to write women’s fiction, better get into our heads. LOL.

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sally apokedak July 28, 2012 at 12:02 PM

Interesting post and comments.

A couple of things: This is not a CBA problem. It is happening in the ABA also.

In the general market children’s world there are cheerleaders just as in the CBA. It’s a small world. And if you say you don’t like a book, you are sure to bump into that author at the next conference. It’s not comfortable. I dissed Neil Gaiman on my blog and he dropped by and left a comment. I was shocked to find that he was reading over my shoulder. Even worse, though, is facing authors at a conference after giving them a less-than-glowing review.

I hate it so much that I stopped giving negative reviews. I now only review books if I can give them, honestly, four or five stars.

What I think will have to happen is that some review blogs will pop up that will consider reviewing books and will not promise glowing reviews.

Hey…what if we started a group blog and there were no bylines, a la Kirkus and PW, and we could charge indie publishers, also a la Kirkus. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/indie/about/ But we could let it be known that they didn’t have the right to say that negative reviews would not be published. They might be published and they might not be. (And we couldn’t charge right away–Kirkus has a circulation of 50K.)

We’d just have to have to publish enough positive reviews so that authors would keep sending book, hoping to get a coveted starred review. And if we were fair and had readers that trusted us, publishers and authors would keep sending books for review.

Let’s do this! I’ll buy the domain name and set the blog up–what about Lux et Veritas Reviews? (Light and Truth Reviews.) Anyone want to jump on board? We could have a founding board and we could recruit reviewers and we could all invite people to sign up for free subscriptions. Honest reviews. We don’t have to just do Christian books but we could have a large Christian section.

What about it? If you think this would be a good idea, sign up here and we can brainstorm.

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Kevin Lucia July 28, 2012 at 12:50 PM

This is actually very true in the horror genre, to be quite honest. There are folks who will blurb anyone no matter what they’ve written, and there definitely IS a horror genre ” echo chamber”. Just google “Bram Stoker Awards controversy”, and you’ll probably find dozens of blogs complaining about judging, pimping friends, etc.

And I agree with the part about reviewing books you’re more likely to give at least DECENT reviews of. My lowest bar is a 3 star. Usually, I can find something decent to say about a 3 star, yet keep my integrity. Recently, I stopped reading a book halfway through, because I might not have even given it a 2 star review. At that point, I’m not giving out CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.

A lot of things changed for me as a reviewer when I started writing freelance for our city newspaper, and then Shroud Magazine later. I had a weekly book review column, and people would literally come up to me on the street and say:

“Oh, hey – I bought that book you recommended. Looking forward to it!”

GULP!

or

“That book you reviewed last week sounded really good. Think I’ll get it!”

DOUBLE GULP!

or

“My sister read the book you were so positive about, and she agreed!”

WHEW!

So I feel very little loyalty or affinity to the person I’m reviewing, but more loyalty to….well…a readership. Who (then, I don’t know about now) were apparently buying or avoiding books based on my recommendations. I had to think of the newspaper’s credibility, just like I think about Shroud Magazine’s credibility – both when I was the Review Editor, and now as a freelancer. I don’t want to needless pat people on the back, speak into that “echo chamber” – but I also don’t want to destroy people with reviews that are so bad, they’re not going to help the author.

And then, guess how awkward it gets when you start traveling to Cons and MEETING these people you’re reviewing…..

But the echo chamber still exists, even in the horror genre. The difference being that no one’s ever accused me of attacking their ministry with a bad book review, here….

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Mike Duran July 28, 2012 at 1:09 PM

Sally, if this “echo chamber” happens across the board, CBA and ABA, the question I’d ask is… Shouldn’t Christians be different?

What I think is unique to the Christian fiction industry is this: Unlike the ABA which has different genres, Christian fiction IS a genre with subdivisions. All CF shares the same guidelines, restrictions, expectations across the board. Which is why most CF reviewers and blog campaigns don’t give much time to the sub-genres (which comprise only about 20% of the whole). So how can I expect CF reviewers who are up to their gills in parasols and bonnets and romance, to get my horror? Or Sci-fi? Or epic fantasy?

All that to say, while the echo chamber is certainly true of ABA too, I think it affects the CBA in a unique and different way.

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sally apokedak July 28, 2012 at 1:49 PM

Christians should indeed be different.

But, now I think you are talking about two different things here.

1) echo chamber
2) buggy and bonnet reviewers not ‘getting’ other genres

I would guess that most CF reviewers don’t give time to sub-genres because they don’t read sub-genres. Most CF reviewers love buggy and bonnet books and read buggy and bonnet books and review buggy and bonnet books.

Some writers give glowing reviews to books that don’t deserve them (echo chamber), but many readers give glowing reviews to books I hate and they aren’t lying. They really like the books. I know this because they keep buying these books. They are voting with their dollars.

I think the answer to both 1 and 2 is a literary review journal.

What if we recruited the best horror writers and readers and editors to give honest, critical reviews of Christian horror books and the best buggy and bonnet readers and writers and editors to review buggy and bonnet books?

I think that would work to get the word out about sub-genres and it would help get rid of the echo chamber.

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Jason H. July 30, 2012 at 9:32 AM

The Christian Fiction genre is by definition a niche market where authors write and market to their own, and write what sells. Considering the spiritual battle raging in the world, it is no surprise that faith-based works are a hard sell in the mainstream market. However, I wonder how much damage the faith-based segment of the industry has done to itself.

Nearly all the avid Christian readers I know predominantly read mainstream fiction now because they have grown unhappy with the quality and variety of work offered by certain faith-based publishers under the Christian Fiction label. They know that with the guidance of the Spirit they can choose (in their opinion) more well-written and thought-provoking fiction from other publishers and genres, while not violating their faith and conscience. It stands to reason that non-traditional Christian fiction is not going to sell well when it is offered by traditional Christian publishers and authors that readers may be avoiding.

I believe there is strong interest in non-traditional Christian fiction among believers, and that there is also a wonderful opportunity to introduce concepts of faith to non-believers through an amazing story. However, this requires authors to step outside of the Christian Fiction confines and start throwing their hat into the mainstream ring. It also requires a different perspective and approach to the audience. God will provide the success as he sees fit, and this may be the evidence that is needed to convince the industry that some much-needed changes are in order.

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shawna Williams July 28, 2012 at 1:19 PM

I agree with this post. I’d like to also add that even if you write historical fiction, if it’s not of a certain flavor it’s still hard to break in.

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Elaine Baldwin July 28, 2012 at 7:00 PM

What a great discussion (post & comments). As a fantasy author trying to break in, I’ve often wondered if it is really valuable to me to get onto this crazy merry-go-round of I’ll review you if you review me with other authors. I enjoy all the new reads, but agree that I’ve just simply not posted if I couldn’t give a great review. I deeply value the new relationships and learning craft through the process, but don’t see how it helps me find Josephine Fantasy Reader who has thousands of stories calling out to her.
Have we so insulated ourselves that we’ve lost touch with our readers and potential readers; ie, ABA readers (Christian and Non-Christian) who are wary of Christian fiction?
And shouldn’t we, as Jesus’ followers, be able to accept all reviews with His grace and therefore be able to speak the truth in love with the books we review?
I have to wonder what the world reader thinks of the Christian book world in all of this.
I agree with Mike that the CBA should be a God-breathed example of how authorship & publishing should work.
Thanks for all the helpful insight!

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Guy Stewart July 28, 2012 at 8:45 PM

I agree. As a result, I’m just not interested in writing for this market. My intent as a writer is to GROW. Always. While this is tough enough in the secular market — because it doesn’t like people who “write outside of the genre”, either (be it skiffy or LIT-reh-chur) — it’s nearly impossible to write out of the Christian ghetto.

My intent is to share Christ with unbelievers, not to build up Believers. I bow to those whom God has called to do that. But my call is to stand on the Aeropagus in the heavy shadow of Paul and cry out, “Let me tell you about the Unknown God!”

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Lori Stanley Roeleveld July 29, 2012 at 7:23 PM

My nineteen year old daughter, Hannah, has been reviewing Christian horror at http://www.flirtingwithfear.blogspot.com/ and I sometimes hold my breath when she posts reviews that include negative critiques but she takes her review writing seriously and holds her integrity dear. She is still “outside” the industry and I think this provides her with a certain fearlessness. She recently read a novel written by a newcomer and worried through the first 1/3 of the book that she’d have nothing positive to say. She was relieved to discover some depth of character and plotting eventually but it was a mixed review. She feels a greater loyalty to the readers of her reviews than to the industry at this point (although she has great respect and admiration for the authors since she is, at heart, a fan.) I appreciate what you’ve written and feel the pain as a woman who writes speculative Celtic adventure. I hope to find a place for my work but I know it won’t be easy.

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Cathy July 29, 2012 at 7:23 PM

I don’t read Christian fiction any more, but I am sure that what you’re saying is completely accurate. Part of the problem may be that the people that review CF books, by and large, are not reading Alice Munro or William Gay or Stephen King (to cast a wide net.)

However, as I’m sure you know, the “puff pieces” are not limited to the CF world. I read a recent mainstream book about a legendary love affair, after I’d seen it lovingly excerpted in Vanity Fair. The book was intriguing but poorly edited. The writers sometimes used an unusual adjective (for example) and then repeated it a page or two later. They also quoted the exact same passage (from a love letter) in two entirely different places in the book. Quite a few such things jumped out at me. So I went to the NYT website, to see if the book had been reviewed there, and lo and behold, there was a glowing review for the book, with no mention of the sloppy editing. (The writer is a friend of Graydon Carter…and presumably, also of many other members of the NY literary elite.)

Anyway. That kind of thing frustrates me, as many great writers would kill for a review in the NYT.

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Rachel Brand July 30, 2012 at 2:29 AM

As a reader, reviewer and writer of Christian romance, I agree that there is a distinct lack of honest, critical reviews for this genre, especially when it comes to Amish and historical novels. There are a lot of reviewers who see giving an author a 3-star review on Amazon or GoodReads as incredibly negative, and would never, ever drop lower than that, no matter how much they disliked the book. There’s definitely a feeling of affirming fellow writers, or just being positive about anything that’s clean and professes to be Christian, even if the writing is absolutely abysmal. The idea that it’s unchristian to write a critical review is probably a factor, as well. And I do know one aspiring writer who refused to write a review of a book because she’d disliked it and didn’t want to ruin her chances of being published by writing a negative review.

As someone who is trying to break into the Christian historical romance market, this possible threat of being unpublishable because I wrote a negative review actually doesn’t bother me. I don’t think this threat is really that big. Although there are the occasional authors who get angry at a critical review, I’ve been astounded at the number of authors who have thanked me for my positive-yet-critical reviews and then gone on to promote said review on their Facebook page. The honesty of an author who will point readers towards a review that criticises the characterisation of their novel’s protagonist seriously impresses me. I don’t think this author – who writes Amish fiction – will be crying into her pillow if you give her book 3-stars on GoodReads. I’d never encourage bullying or genuinely cruel reviews, but if there’s a reason why you didn’t like the book, just say it. You may help some reader out. I often read the negative reviews of a book before the positive ones as a) they’re more honest, and b) they often highlight aspects of the book that I wouldn’t mind, even if the reviewer disliked them, thus encouraging me to read the book. But there has also been a number of times when I’ve picked up a book by a popular Christian author that has been given tons of 5-star reviews only to find that I really disliked it, and wished that there had been more obviously critical reviews so I would have known what to expect. Critical reviews can both point readers towards a book they’ll enjoy, and caution a potential reader to avoid a book that they know they won’t enjoy. To be entirely truthful, I think that reviewers – amateur or otherwise – have a duty to their readers to be honest in their reviews. You’re helping the author more if you’re honest, as you point the right readers towards the author and thus help their sales, than you are by writing an untruthful yet positive review that makes the author smile and say “Aww, isn’t that a nice review?” Yes, authors like affirmation and praise, but I’m sure they like to expand their readership as well.

As I said, I primarily review “girly” books. I was originally hired by The Christian Manifesto, the website of which I’m now the Assistant Fiction Editor, because they wanted someone to review “girly” books (yes, that was the word they used when they contacted me). As a website, we strive to provide honest criticism of books, both in and outwith the Christian fiction market, and while I think we have a great team right now, we do get submissions from potential reviewers who do exactly what Mike described – skim the book, write a short blurb describing the plot and a couple of lines of affirmation of how the book is awesome because it’s clean and the protagonist is a Christian. Often these reviewers in question are the ones who churn out a review every two days, participate in half a dozen blog tours and have thousands of blog followers. In their attempt to keep up with the ever-expanding market, they start to skimp in their reviews, and in the end, they’re not so helpful to readers who just want to know whether or not they’ll like the book. The best reviewers that I’ve discovered are often the ones who don’t have a huge blog following and only post a review or two every week. They might read and review less books, but they know what they like about their genre and I find these sorts of reviews more helpful, both as a reader and an aspiring writer. I genuinely want to know what has turned a reader off a book in the genre they usually love, I want to know what to avoid and what to attempt to include in my writing. Critical reviews are helpful. In fact, whenever someone uses the phrase “bad review”, I don’t automatically think of a negative or critical one – in my eyes, a “bad review” is one that isn’t honest and doesn’t help the reader decide whether or not to read the book.

I don’t know a lot about the rest of Christian fiction; my thing is Amish and historical romance. But I do know that in my genres, we need more honesty in our reviews. Reviewers aren’t helping authors or readers by writing fluff pieces. It’s not Christian to be intentionally cruel, but it is Christian to build someone up, and help them to improve themselves, which is what critical reviews are designed to do. I wish more reviewers would realise this.

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Mike Duran July 30, 2012 at 4:57 AM

Rachel, thank you so much for the lengthy comment. I actually like what The Christian Manifesto is doing. (Did they change hands recently? the site looks a lot different than I recall.) The reviews I’ve read there seem very fair. Actually, I submitted my latest novel for review but was informed there’s a huge backlog. (Which reminds me, Didn’t the site recently announce that it was looking for reviewers?) Once again, thanks for commenting!

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Rachel Brand July 30, 2012 at 5:25 AM

I’m glad you didn’t mind my incredibly long comment! I was just so pleased to see that other people agreed on the topic of critical reviews, and slightly fuelled by my early morning cup of tea.

I figured you might have come across TCM, since we’re not an entirely conventional Christian review site. I feel like I’m shoving both you and TCM into a box by saying that, but I’m sure you know what I mean :) TCM didn’t change hands – it’s still run by C. E. Moore – but we did do a massive revamp of the design back in January, and we introduced a rating system for all the reviews. Our manifesto got tweaked a little, also, to suit our ever-evolving approach to reviewing. It’s definitely helped us expand our horizons, and no longer has the angsty/dark look that I imagine was a bit off-putting to those reading the more girly reviews. Since I enjoy reading your blog, it’s encouraging to hear that your approve of what TCM is doing. Thanks!

We did advertise for new reviewers back at the start of June, mainly because we receive far more book review solicitations than we can accept, so hopefully we’ll be able to accept more books now that we’ve significantly expanded our team. We’ve filled all the spots we were looking for, although we may still be looking for people for the non-fiction and music teams. But regarding the backlog, I genuinely got forwarded five different emails asking for reviews just over the weekend, and my schedule is pretty much packed up until December. It’s sad to have to turn down those sorts of emails. Anyway, if you contacted us before we took on the new writers in June, there’s always the chance one of the new reviewers might take on your book. I’m not promising anything, but if you want to try again, send me an email :) I’m rbrand AT thechristianmanifesto DOT com.

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Mirtika July 30, 2012 at 6:29 AM

Soooo, I just visited Amazon.com to check out a book (a Christian historical whose cover caught my eye). A ton of reviews on this recent release. I skimmed and skimmed trying to find an “amazon verified purchase” to get feedback from a person that’s not part of the publicity machine. Got tired of skimming. Even the non-five-four-star reviews were supplied by “I got the book free from X for review” readers.

Now, from an author’s perspective, I would think this is wonderful. Hey, not knocking having pals to up the rating in promo mode with dozens and dozens of reviews.

But as a prospective READER, it’s frustrating. I’ve gotten to the point that unless it’s a “verified purchase”, I pretty much don’t weight to the review.

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