One Book Reviewer’s Pet Peeves

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Image by Geralt [CC0] via Pixabay

On the whole, as I wrote yesterday, reviewing books over the past five years has been a great experience. I do have a few pet peeves though.

  1. Unsolicited requests to review books utterly unrelated to my reviewing interests. Mercifully they have been few, perhaps because of the link to “How I Choose Books to Review” in my “About” page.
  2. Publicists at publishing houses who don’t respond to requests for review copies. Even a note saying, “thanks, but our review copies are limited to…” or “thanks, but we have already sent our allotted review copies.” I’m a person and not a bot and am interested in reviewing one of your books and talking about it with my network.
  3. Books with important things to say, that unfortunately are said badly. One person commented yesterday, “I’ve wondered if reviewers get books that they just really have a hard time reading, whether due to writing quality, subject matter, or for some other reason, but they have to slog through regardless to produce a fair review. It would take a lot of the joy out of reading.” Yes.
  4. Books that really should have remained articles but were padded out. Ten chapters that are variations on a theme with different stories. OK, I get it, already!
  5. People who ask questions about a book without reading my review. They don’t want to spend a couple minutes actually reading the review. I wonder if it occurred to them how much time goes into the reading of a book, and then writing a review that distills a book into a couple minutes reading? I’m happy to take time to respond to questions and comments about a review someone has read. But it seems insulting to ask me to take time to tell them what they could have found if they took the time to read the review.
  6. I don’t like it when people try to hi-jack comments on a post to promote their own blog, or book, or make off-topic comments. No one likes people who do this at a party. What makes people think it is OK online?
  7. There are people who argue with you about a book whose point of view they don’t agree with. It’s fine to engage me when you disagree with my assessment of a book. But if you disagree with the content of the book, your argument is with the author.
  8. Finally, I’m not a fan of e-galleys, especially the ones that expire. Worse is when they mix capitalization and lower case and weird formatting to prevent distribution. dO yOu like ReadIng senTences like thiS? I don’t have a tablet other than a Kindle. If you send an e-galley in an Adobe Digital Edition or epub format, the only way I can read it is by squinting at my phone. A print copy, even an advanced review copy, costs more, but it tells me you value the publisher-reviewer relationship. An e-galley doesn’t.

Apart from the last, most of these things happen rarely. E-galleys seem to be becoming more the rule than the exception. Most publicists respond quickly, usually positively and graciously when they can’t send the book I’m requesting. Most commenters read the reviews and take the conversation I’ve started in my review further. I enjoy most of the books I read–relatively few are a slog.

I think, on balance, book people, whether they write, publish, sell, review, or read, value and respect each other as well as sharing a common love–books! I think all of us realize that we need each other to sustain a reading culture.

Things That Book Reviewers Love

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“Open Book Policy” by Alex Proimos [CC BY-NC 2.0] via Flickr

Reviewing books, like most things in life has its upsides and downsides. I thought I’d take the next two posts to share some of each from my own experience, and would love to hear what others who review think.

Here are some things book reviewers like:

  1. Review copies which we don’t pay for. Before you think you’ve died and gone to book heaven, though, realize that the implicit contract is “we send you this book with the expectation that you will read it, review it, and send us a link or your written review in a reasonable time–usually within two months.” And if you think you are getting a deal, just consider the retail cost of the book divided by the time it takes to read it, write your review, and post it.
  2. I like getting real books rather than e-galleys. I know this is more costly, but I find I interact better with print copies than e-galleys, and hopefully write better reviews.
  3. I appreciate it when publishers and authors re-tweet, post, and otherwise share reviews, particularly with links to the blog. I understand that they won’t publicize something they think is unfavorable, of course. But we work in a symbiotic relationship. I help get the word out about books and usually I choose to review things I think are worthwhile. Publishers and authors can help bring new people to my blog and extend its reach.
  4. I don’t expect it, but it is always nice to hear from an author. Perhaps the best message is, “you understood what I was saying and represented it accurately.” Of course, I don’t mind being corrected if I am wrong.
  5. I enjoy people who read my reviews and ask questions or share their own take on a book if they have read it, even if they disagree with mine. Reviewing online is an interactive process. I appreciate it when people take the time to understand what I’ve written and engage with me. I hope I show that! I learn, and sometimes change my own mind when I read others thoughts.
  6. I love it when a review encourages someone to get the book. I’m not a bookseller, but reading worthwhile books and reading them well is something I care about because it is vital to lifelong learning, and thoughtful engagement with our world.
  7. I love it even more when I hear from someone after they’ve read a book they bought because they read a review at Bob on Books, especially when they’ve had a good experience with the book.
  8. Sometimes there are people I don’t even know are paying attention, who I’ll run into personally, who tell me they follow the blog, or really appreciated knowing about a particular book, or reading a particular post.
  9. I started writing reviews because they helped me remember what I read and what I thought about what I read. I still love that because it makes me a more intellectually engaged reader. And if it proves helpful to others, all the better!

Bob on Books is coming up on its fifth birthday and over that time, I’ve written over 1600 posts, including roughly 700 reviews. On balance, it has been a great experience, and much of the reason has to do, not with books as much as I love them, but with people–ranging from helpful publicists to fascinating authors to booksellers who really love books and work like crazy to make a go of it. Finally, there are all of you, who follow, who write and comment–sometimes online, and sometimes personally. Thank you for reading, writing, and interacting and making this a space where people across their differences talk about things that matter!

 

Can You Make A Living at Book Reviewing?

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Thad Zajdowicz, “Book Review,” Public Domain via Flickr

It seems that this is a question being asked even among the elite reviewers of the National Book Critics Circle. Julia M. Kline spoke on a panel at Book Expo America about the challenges of getting paid to review books. A transcript of her remarks appears on Critical Mass, the NBCC’s blog.

The issue is both the shrinking space and the financial challenges both print and digital media are facing. Kline observes that the $1 a word rate paid Teddy Roosevelt seems extravagant today when freelancers might receive $.25-.50. Many review publications want reviews of 500 words or less. That is $125 to $250 for the time spent reading, writing, revising and submitting a review. She observed that the top rate paid by The Washington Post is $375. I’m fairly productive and might write 170 reviews a year. If all of them were accepted, I could earn $63,750. That’s in line with a median annual salary of $60,250 for all writers and authors in 2015 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Staff writers, the relatively few that are left, might do that well.

I suspect most freelancers are doing something else for their day jobs. Reports are that Kirkus pays its reviewers $50 per completed review, Publisher’s Weekly $25. I suppose if you are going to review anyway and are willing to conform to their formats, it’s a nice way to pick up a little extra spending money. If you are interested, here is one of a number of websites listing places that will pay for reviews. But making a living, including covering your own health care. Not so much…

But why do we need this, you ask? If you go on Amazon, you can read reviews of anything. Likewise on Goodreads. Some of those reviews might even be good. I hope some of mine are. There are lots of book bloggers out there like me doing it for the fun of it, and for some free books, which is the only pay many of us get. You might even argue that this is the democratizing of reviewing, rather than a small group of elite reviewers determining our book reading tastes.

What distinguishes the great book critics, it seems to me, is not only that they write well and perceptively, but also, that in whatever genre they review, they’ve read the significant works in the genre, and can assess books against the best of the best, and situate them on the literary landscape. It can be a fascinating exercise to review a book yourself, and then compare your review to one of these critics–fascinating and humbling. I review on the side, and have limited time and sometimes wonder what it would be like to have the luxury of being able to focus on that work.

I’ve been writing this week about book review aggregator sites. For them to work, and connect their users with quality, someone has to write these reviews. To truly be useful, there needs to be a level of quality to them. Otherwise it is garbage in-garbage out. These sites are only as good as the reviews they are aggregating.

What is clear to me is that we get the book and literary culture we are willing to pay for, and increasingly, it seems we would rather pay for less. We would rather not subscribe to a literary review when we can get some kind of review for free. We’d rather not pay the extra costs of overhead for the ambiance of a brick and mortar bookstore so that we can save a few bucks on books delivered to our doors. I kind of wonder if in our search for cheap, easy, and quick, we will wake up some day and wonder where all the richness of life has gone, including the delight of reading a book critic at the top of his or her game.

 

Conflicts of Interest and Bias in Reviewing

managing-coiThe last few years of writing reviews on Goodreads and on this blog have been an interesting journey from writing reviews simply because I want to remember what the book was about and my “takeaways” to having a group of people following my reviews who are interested readers, and in some cases authors or publishers. I’ve gone from only reviewing books I’ve bought to getting review copies of books from publishers. Friends have asked me to review books they’ve written, and sometimes I’ve done so. I also review a fair number of books from InterVarsity Press, the publishing division of the organization for whom I work. Most of these books I purchase at a discount and some I receive on a complimentary basis, not for review, but for use in my work.

What this raises, which was called to my attention by a friend who forwarded this NY Times article, is the question of reviewer bias and conflict of interest. My first response as I think about this is that it is impossible to not be biased unless I am utterly ignorant of a subject, and even then, I have my own preferences about writing style and more. If I’m utterly ignorant of a subject, I may actually be an unhelpful reviewer, even if relatively unbiased.

On the matter of conflict of interest, it was interesting to discover what the New York Times Book Review considered to be conflicts of interest: writing a blurb for the book, having the same agent, or publishing under the same imprint, particularly if it is a small publishing house (none of which is an issue for me at present). They did not consider a personal relationship with the author to be a conflict of interest or strong feelings on the book’s subject to be a problem. Rather it may be an asset if it adds depth and insight to the review and is acknowledged.

So here are a few thoughts of how I am learning to deal with this that I hope will be helpful to those who read my reviews. I also would welcome the comments of other reviewers.

1. I do make a disclosure at the end of my reviews when a book I am reviewing was obtained on a complimentary basis for review. As I understand this, it may be an FTC requirement to do so and publishers actually request this. I have been critical of books I’ve received as review copies and try not to treat them any differently than other books I review. I send the reviews to the publishers as well as publish them on social media. So far no one has cut me off.

2. If I would consider the author a friend, as opposed to an acquaintance, I would disclose this and perhaps give a personal slant to the review where this is relevant. I consider someone a “friend” if we’ve had what I consider a significant and ongoing personal or professional relationship. If I end up considering the book really bad, I just won’t publish a review (I’ve never had this come up yet). I have raised questions or differences in reviewing the books of friends, as I have others.

3. Where I have strong feelings or a definite perspective that is similar to the author’s, I will often ask the question as I review of “what is missing?” or “what might I add?” to what they have written. In general, this would follow my summary of the basic content of their work, and appreciation for what they’ve written. I sometimes will mention books or authors with opposing views, as I’m aware of these.

4. Where I would hold a perspective differing from the author, I would first of all try to fairly represent what they’ve written and the merits of their work and only then, acknowledge questions, reservation, or critique of what they’ve written. I don’t always do this. If they’ve written well and presented their case well, I may simply try to situate their contribution within the context of the larger discussion and differing points of view. Sometimes, I may commend works giving differing perspectives that I’ve found helpful.

5. When would I acknowledge personal bias? I don’t like doing this all the time because I think the review should be about the book, not about me. I think if I come to the review with a strong bias against the book or author, I need to say so. Sometimes that will be true of me and I’ll be favorably surprised by some aspect of the book, or the book as a whole. I’ll say that as well.

6. So, what about those reviews I do of InterVarsity Press? I’ve acknowledged my connection to the publisher both here and previously. I don’t think I need to do this with each book. This is a private blog and not done for my organization. I try to approach reviews as I would for books from other publishers, trying to respect the author’s effort, give some idea of the content and value of the book, and critique where this is warranted. Actually some of my toughest criticism has been of a few of their books. That said, I do appreciate the high quality of books they’ve published over many years, and certainly am happy if people decide to buy one of their books because of a review I’ve written.

The truth is, I have a passion for seeing people buy and read good literature, no matter who publishes it, and even if I disagree with the perspective. I think what it comes down to for me is that in whatever I review, I want to be fair to the author and honestly represent the book to the prospective reader, whether people like what I write or not. If at some point, I fail at this, feel free to let me know. After all, that’s the social in social media.