This post is part of a series:
Way back when publishing was stodgy and old-fashioned — and there’s room for argument that it’s still wearing bell bottoms in this era of skinny jeans — the review process was just as traditional and well-defined. The publisher would send out galleys and Advanced Review Copies (ARCs) to well established professional reviewers who worked for organizations like The New York Times, or the Mid-West Book Review, a monthly magazine devoted purely to literary reviews. The publishers didn’t ask for permission. They just sent the galleys, usually several months before the publication date.
Reviewers would carefully read the book, write a considered review on the book’s strengths and weaknesses, and would send the review back to the publisher before either the review or the book were released, so the publisher could use the review for jacket copy, if they wanted to, or other publication materials or press releases.
It was because of these early reviews that a book built “buzz” before it was released and people would be lining the streets outside bookstores, waiting to buy their copy.
reviewers were paid a decent salary by their sponsoring association and were recognized as professional literary critiquers.
That was then.
The situation these days is much, much different, which is what this series of posts will explore.
As an author, I get asked to read other authors’ books all the time. Daily, in fact.
Most of that time, I’m being asked for professional feedback on the quality of the work, or some aspect of it and the author wants that feedback given directly to them and no one else. Occasionally, under certain circumstances, I agree. Authors critiquing each others’ work is a time-honoured tradition and a highly useful tool for improving your own work.
But the flip side of critiquing is offering an opinion about an author’s published work up for public consumption: In other words, reviewing.
These requests I decline. Always.
Authors can’t read another author’s work without bringing to the reading a whole cartload of baggage: pre-conceived ideas about how fiction should be written, their own writing habits and quirks and their own reading preferences. All these influence the review and shouldn’t.
Then there is the really big shoal in the water: Professional rivalry and/or jealousy. I’m quite sure that if I were ever to review another author’s book, I would do my very best to read with as unbiased a mind as possible, and to review with the same mindset. But if the book is absolutely brilliant and has all the hallmarks of being a New York Times Best Seller, and making my own books in the genre look pathetic next to it, am I going to ladle out the praise with quite the same degree of glow and enthusiasm as someone who isn’t an author published in the same genre? I know I wouldn’t deliberately kill the book, but I may damp down my enthusiasm even though the book is flawless and brilliant.
And what if the book was a total stinker? I’ve read more than my share of those lately, in the indie aisles. What if I can’t even finish the thing? How do I review that and still maintain my reputation as an author with a modicum of intelligence?
There are plenty of books that fall somewhere between these two extremes, but may have elements in them that hit my professional hot buttons if handled the wrong way: Werewolves. Rape scenes. Slavery. Getting the science wrong, or heaven help the author; getting the history wrong. Trip any of those, and I can’t guarantee the resulting review will be anything close to fair because I know what goes into writing a novel, and I have expectations I think a professional writer should meet.
Reviewers are supposed to review a book on the book’s merits: Its strengths and weaknesses and the overall story quality. Authors can’t maintain that neutrality because they are authors; editing and re-writing is hardwired into their bones. So is advancing their career. The book they’re reviewing, like it or not, is the competition’s. If it’s their best friend and writing buddies’ book, they’re going to lean towards a glowing review before they crack the first page.Any review any author makes of any book should be questioned from the outset. As soon as you question the motive for a review, you get into very ugly territory — the sort of area we’ve all seen too much of lately; author tantrums and reviewer hostility.
Because I don’t think I can be utterly unbiased, I don’t review fiction.
Next: Professional Reviews.