There are not just five stars. So let’s use them.

A lot of my friends know me as someone who likes to read books. More specifically, books on the topic of paganism and witchcraft. I have read a lot of books over the years – and as someone who formally taught English, I am pretty passionate about critical reading and reading widely. I also strongly believe in the value of books to one’s spiritual practice. So here is a ramble, perhaps a rant, about something I’ve noticed about books in the pagan and witchy spheres.

My advice has always been to read a lot, and to read it all – even the ‘bad’ stuff, or the books that have received poor reviews. My thinking on this has evolved in recent times. I have learned more about neurodivergent learning styles and I don’t really expect everyone to share my inclination for reading. Despite this I still place a lot of value on it personally; pagan books are as popular as ever, and it remains to be seen that the interesting phenomena of pagan publishing dictates that often our authors become our leaders – or as they are fondly termed, BNPs (Big Name Pagans), for better or worse. I like to stay on top of this discourse, as our ideas on praxis and belief evolves in what can be described as a dynamic collection of spiritual traditions.

Pagan publishing is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment due to the witchcraft trend experiencing a cyclic uptick of popularity. Something that was once considered fairly daggy, delusional or quirky has become cool again, and while this has happened, books on paganism or more specifically witchcraft and Wicca are now readily available in bookstores in Australia. A couple of years ago, I would stroll into a retail book franchise and find almost nothing in the diminutive ‘self help/new age’ section. Maybe some oracle cards, a few pop astrology titles, and some loose references to angels or fairies or psychic development. Today, I can walk into my local QBD or Dymocks and find an expansive section stocked to the brim with whatever titles are being promoted by the booksellers – still a limited, popularist selection, but now there are at least books with the big words ‘WITCHCRAFT’ displayed on their pretty hardback covers. Yay? Some of them are ghost-written. Some, by authors I have never heard of before – and I am Extremely Online especially when it comes to following witchcraft authors. Where did these people even come from, lol? And some are simply repackaged titles experiencing a resurrection from their mediocre first-run a decade or two ago. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these factors, but it is a limited offering compared to the breadth of content that is being produced at the moment.

There are other books out there – titles with substance, from authors with a bit more experience in teaching and leading in their communities, who have honed their writing as a craft, but they cannot be found on these particular shelves. Having worked in public libraries and having a small understanding of how publishing and bookselling works, I know that there is almost no chance that these titles of substance are likely to appear in mainstream book chains, in Australia at least. What’s worse, especially in my part of the world, is that the notion of an occult bookshop is a fond memory from the 1990s. Such stores do not survive long if they do appear, especially in the volatile retail world post-pandemic. If I could yell one thing from the rooftops for newbie witches especially living in Australia, is that while these readily available books found at the chain store in the shopping centre might be a cute start to your spiritual practice, the good books are probably found after some research and ordering online or direct from your small independent bookstore, not from what you might encounter by chance at the bookshop equivalent of a fast food restaurant.

The problem is, following trends and reading blogs online isn’t going to guarantee you a valuable read either. I’ve noticed that books are coming out fast and loose from some of the smaller pagan publishing companies, and it is becoming almost impossible to determine if a title is any good if you haven’t read anything by the author before. Today, it seems, the only thing needed to get a book deal from these publishing houses is an Instagram or TikTok account with enough followers. The beauty of giving a book deal to these personalities is that they already have their audience base, ready to go, and the book has a higher chance of selling if the author has an established social media following. No doubt, this audience has been built up with a lot of hard work and hustle, but often what is primarily needed to create this audience is a knowledge of marketing or algorithms rather than leadership or study into spiritual development. Being able write 3 blog posts a week or curate a pretty feed has become a greater factor than offering new, impactful or refreshing content. The people who manage to do both are a rarity and should be treasured. However, most prominent pagan bloggers are authors now too. And they are giving each other 5 star reviews consistently, with no sense of nuance or constructive critique embedded in the review. It would be easy to assume that all of these titles coming out from new authors, bloggers and social media darlings have decent information. 5 stars! Good Goddess, every book coming out is a banger these days, apparently. Unfortunately, being an ex-English teacher I have a trained eye for book reviews from people who have not actually read a book, or who have only skimmed it. My bullshitt-o-metre works pretty well, and it’s had a bit of a workout of late. I wish I did not have this magical power, but alas it is a burden I must bear.

Unfortunately due to our collective concentration becoming diminished as a result of the negative effects of social media, it is becoming more and more difficult to read widely these days. If you’ve made it this far down my post, you’re one of the special few. I know I used to be able to read dozens of books and blogs when now I barely manage handfuls. With my phone nearby, my eyes gloss over content and I find myself needing to re-read passages, or getting bored easily. I know I am not alone. It is easier to scroll for 15 minutes on TikTok than to read a chapter from my pile of shame. I fully own this, but I worry about what impact this is having on all of us. Additionally, books are becoming more expensive – in Australia it can cost up to 40 to 80 dollars to order some books online that can’t be found elsewhere, with taxes, currency conversion and shipping. Not to mention the phenomena of boutique, limited-run publishing houses, publishing enticing grimoires that would look so beautiful in one’s collection, as long as you’re willing to pay though the nose to acquire them.

What is my point to all this, you might be wondering? Well my frustration with a few of these factors came to a peak when in recent years I have read a few books that were newly published that could be described as mediocre at best. I like to think I have good discernment, but these titles slipped through my radar. Due to the loop of promotion, I had the impression that these were ground-breaking, well-written titles when they were nothing of the sort. I’ve found poorly researched, padded information with misinformation gently nested in works that re-hash commonly held opinions. The misinformation goads me the most, especially when it foregrounds damaging or outdated ideas about climate change, gender or cultural appropriation. I felt like I was somehow misled into believing these books were decent, when they were honestly a bit shit.

The way books are promoted and published is changing rapidly. It’s not like authors can go on book tours, and let readers decide through their talks, their readings and their teachings in person at the moment. YouTube is a great avenue for this, but it remains to be a bit of a niche as far as witchy content goes and doesn’t seem to have as much of an impact on book publishing – I could be wrong, though. We are fully beholden to THE FEED right now, especially on places like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, and we need to consider how this is impacting how we learn about our spiritual practice. Reading, learning and sharing knowledge are sacred acts tied to community and leadership. This stuff is important to consider.

What I’m wishing for is the ability to publish book reviews with 2, 3 or 4 star reviews, to include detailed critique and nuance, without authors feeling ‘attacked’ for their work. 4 stars, in my belief, is a positive review. This would be a book that I would be proud to keep on my shelf, that I would recommend to others. 3 stars is still positive, and to be honest, the vast majority of new books being published realistically probably only deserve this rating. But because we are afraid of hurting each other’s feelings, and the algorithms are so punishing to authors, our hands are bound to not do this. We want to lift each other up, and promote hard work. It’s fucking hard to write a whole book! But then, no one wants to be dragged on Twitter for doing an author a favour by posting a review that promotes their work even if it isn’t glowing, and so the only voices that remain are the BNPs promoting each other. What we get are nuanced, carefully written and groundbreaking books that go out of print because the author didn’t play the social media game, and a hunger for the next big thing has allowed the publishing cycle to churn when there is so much knowledge already out there. Books are becoming pulpy consumer items rather than sources of insight.

No-one wants to buy or read a bad book. But we need to acknowledge a two-way relationship between readers and authors. I once dedicated a whole video to a very positive review of a book on my YouTube channel, only for the author to find the video and post a comment honing in on the one detail I questioned relating to relevance for my own context, without a thank-you or positive acknowledgement at all for the rest of my positive yet nuanced review. (You managed to pad out a book, why not pad out your YouTube comment – ever heard of a compliment sandwich? I kid, I kid). It makes me question promoting their work again, even though I’m a fan. But perhaps what is needed, is for both reviewer and author to build a resilience around healthy discourse.

What I would like to do if I find the time in the future is to post genuine, positive and nuanced reviews on my blog, and to not just focus on newly published works. I’m not going to bother with titles I’ve found to be problematic, that I wouldn’t genuinely recommend to my friends. I would like to read or hear from others who do the same. If you know of any blogs or social media accounts that give nuanced pagan book reviews, I’d love to know about them.

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