Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Broken Peer Review Process in Fiction

Over on the Kindleboards, we tend to get at least one thread a week about a dilemma where an author is asked to review another indie author's work. In many (if not most) cases, this ends poorly for the reviewing author because when an author is desperate for reviews, their work tends to have a lot of issues with it (whether typos, flow, or whatever).

Thus, after reading the terrible book, the reviewing author is put in a delicate position. The original author is now wanting a review to be posted, but the reader didn't like the book. From reading the Kindleboards, this has resulted in a lot of retaliatory strikes by the offended original author - even if the reader simply sends a personal message describing some of the problems. Almost a "screw you for telling me that you couldn't get through my book!"

To me, this seems really odd. I come from a field where peer review is not just something that has to be tolerated, it's a way of life. Our papers generally only range from 10 pages to 60 pages in 8-10 pt font for journal articles, but the work to generate that paper might have taken tens of thousands of man hours. You submit your paper to other people that worked on the project or people you trust to give honest feedback, and those people rip your paper apart, and you know what? Your paper is far better, and you get better as a technical writer.

Submitting to a conference or journal might not seem in any way equivalent to self publishing a novel, and you may even argue that because of this difference, indie authors shouldn't have to deal with it well. However, I would argue that indie authors are ignorant of what peer reviewing does for each author involved, and how it can help an author accomplish their goals.

In submitting to a conference or journal, peer reviewing helps an author or set of authors achieve their goal - namely in conveying their research to the conference committees in order to get published. In peer reviewing a book that is to be or has been published, peer review can result in achieving the writer's goal of conveying the purpose and scope of their book to a wider audience in order to naturally get excellent reviews and further the appeal of their work.

Why is it that fiction authors can't see the peer review process for what it is and should be? As a book reviewer, you are there to help the writer become better - to help their books become better. Instead, fiction authors appear to have their egos so tied into how awesome they wrote their book the first time that they can't accept outside help - even if it's for their own good. I don't have a lot of experience in this issue (from a fiction point of view), but I'm getting the feeling from the Kindleboards and from people shying away from commenting on my chapters (which I know need work), that this appears to be a major issue and that authors are genuinely afraid of giving negative to mild feedback.

How do you guys feel about this issue? Do you think the review system is fine as-is? Any chance this will ever go away with indie authors?


  1. Oooo, the scientist in me just remembered my first paper rejection from a journal. It didn't just hurt because of what they said, it hurt because they were right. Now it only hurts when they make suggestions that are wrong, but that means I haven't done something because they have gotten confused. It is a great way to get better as a writer.

    I agree that you do have to be rational as an author and understand the criticism rather than take it personally. The trick is to realise that reviewers are ultimately trying to help, or at least they should be.

  2. Yeah, you can tell in some journals that they grabbed an "expert" that wasn't really comfortable with the specialization of the paper. And then there are times when you can tell that a graduate student, who might be reviewing because he got a best paper award by being tied into his adviser's work, was reviewing the paper and just really isn't that aware of what is acceptable and what is not - typically sticking to their adviser's template like it was life support.

    One of the interesting things about even this analogy is the EXACT SAME THING that happens with readers of fiction. Sometimes you get readers that review your book with something like "It wasn't my genre, so I'm giving this 1-2 stars". That fits the first scenario. Sometimes you get clueless reviewers who think something wrong is the correct way to write a book, and that's fine too.

    The peer review process though, from authors, is a different beast entirely though. While having the wrong audience for your book simply happens, advice from an author is often right on point.

    Why would they constructively criticize your work if they weren't trying to help you out? I think one of the issues with fiction is that a novel is so long that the constructive criticism might be short, more topical, and to the point (the reviewing author is not going to list every possible error because the manuscript is not just 15 pages long - it's 300+ pages long). Consequently, maybe the original author is seeing the feedback as destructive criticism, since it doesn't list every problem like an editor might do?

    I'm not entirely sure. This environment of attacking an author who is reviewing you is foreign to me.

  3. Great post - I found this through the Kindleboards blog thread. I wrote my own blog post ( and quote you - in academic history the process is similar. There is a level of professionalization that grad students are acculturated into. Not all of them make it (LOL) and can be bitter and retaliatory, but it's very rare for someone to reach the point of publication with that attitude.

    I cannot fathom putting my fiction out there without extensive peer review/expert reader critique, and I personally *hate* to ask people to read something I wrote and then receive nothing but praise. Please - no work is ever, 100% perfect. Any writer who cannot handle constructive criticism is a writer who will never grow or mature as a writer, and that's a shame.

  4. @Harper

    Sorry for the late reply on your comment here. It appears that your comment was marked as spam for some reason by the underlying system and was not showing up. Not sure if other bloggers might know how the system gauges spam or not. I have restored the comment.

    Yeah, I have had a lot of friends look at the first 3 chapters posted up here and not leave any comments. I have told them to be brutally honest, but I think they think my fiction-writing ego is fragile or something. It's not. I just want to get better at this, and if the chapter isn't working for you (as a reader), then I need to know about it and learn how to fix it! Cheers!