I'm sure I'm not the only one this has happened to: you receive a new book for review from someone you genuinely appreciate as a person, friend, blogger or writer... and, after reading through, you realize with a sinking feeling there's simply no way you can write a positive review in good conscience.
Let's face it: the writing world, and especially the indie writing and publishing world, is full of exaggeratedly flattering, contrived, fake glowing reviews by people who have chucked good conscience out of the window. When not given by friends and family (who, after all, have a natural claim to partiality) these are often penned by fellow writers acting on the principle of "review mine and I'll review yours".
Reviews are so very important to peaking readers' interest, getting a book out there and, ultimately, to book sales, that there's no wonder indie authors are scrambling for them. I'd like more reviews as much as anybody else, and I see the importance of networking and being nice to other indie writers as much as anybody else, but I refuse to gain my point by chucking my integrity aside. Neither will I caper around in a clown's suit, waving pom-poms and chanting, "Buy my book! Review my book! Promote my book!"
To do the trick, reviews have to be genuine. They must be disinterested, offered by people who don't expect to gain any favors by writing them. When I browse through a book's reviews, a few 4-star comments saying, "this is a good read, but I wish the author had done so-and-so differently" gain my trust as a reader a lot more than a host of glowing 5-star reviews that all go, "OMG, this is genius! Best book ever! Should be made into a blockbuster! Better than Stephen King/JK Rowling/ whoever is the king or queen of the genre".
So what, in my opinion, should conscientious writers do about reviews to keep them helpful and genuine?
1. Never commit in advance. There are many reasons not to review a book, something as obvious as genre being one of them. For example, I find it too emotionally trying to read Holocaust-themed books. I have read many of them in the past, but now they simply unsettle me too much.
2. Don't feel obligated to put yourself forward as a critic (unless you don't mind people hating you). You can read a book and decide it really isn't up to scratch, but it doesn't mean you should go ahead and deal a lethal blow to another writer's self-esteem (unless you are specifically asked for your opinion). And sometimes, what can be fit for a private comment would be unnecessarily cruel in a public review.
3. Don't be tempted to enter a "review for review" practice. It's beyond pathetic. I don't mean a case when two writers begin networking, get to know and like each other's work, and disinterestedly review each other's books. That's completely legit. I mean cases when complete strangers approach each other on forums or the social media, swap review copies, each skim through each other's work and each give each other an, "OMG, this is genius...", etc.
4. Do your best to reach readers, not other writers. Obviously writers are also readers, but if you reach people who are looking for stuff to read, not for reviews for their own work, you've struck gold. With my fantasy trilogy, Quest of the Messenger, I have the first two books complete on Wattpad, and have put up an excerpt from the third, adding a postscript that people who wish to read it may either buy it or contact me to receive a review copy. In a very short time I have received requests from people who like the genre, like my books, are hooked by the series and want to know how it ends. These are people who are likely to write a positive review for the right reasons, without any manipulation.
5. Be honest. Be real. If a book deserves 5 stars (in your personal opinion), give it 5 stars. If it deserves 3 stars and you aren't sure the writer wants such a review, contact them personally and tactfully ask. Some people would rather have a 3-star review than nothing. Others would rather not have you publish it.
Give your words value. Make your expressed opinions matter and cultivate a reputation of professional honesty and integrity. It is a long haul, but ultimately, it will get you a lot farther than contrived reviews.