Guest Post: Kay Green on Reviewing Reviews and Reviewers

Posted: May 14, 2012 in Guest Blogs, Writing Talk

Earlyworks Fishing BoatSpeaking as a low-budget, small press publisher, sending out review copies of soon-to-be-published books is an expensive pastime. At Circaidy Gregory, we normally earmark about 20 copies of a new title for reviewers and the result is normally somewhere between five and ten reviews. What happens to the other 10-15 books? For sale on eBay the next day? Probably not. They may still be sitting in the tottering reading piles of potential reviewers who are as disorganised as they are well meaning. Or reviews might have been submitted to magazines that didn’t have space that week – or perhaps they were published and we just didn’t spot them.

So how do you make the best use of your precious review copies?

Rule One: Here are three kinds of people you should not send review copies to:

  • Your mum. She’ll gush and praise and nominate you for the Booker Prize but people will notice, and won’t be impressed. Send her an advance copy by all means but don’t let her review it in public.
  • Over-grown adolescents with very funny but aggressive blogs. They will have more to say than you do on every theme your book touches upon and will probably forget to say anything useful about the book.
  • Would-be freelance proof-editors. However much we’re all after perfection, first print runs are rarely perfect and I have more than once received comments on review copies which either implicitly or explicitly say “there’s a typo on page 367. My rates for proof-reading are…” Even worse are amateur proofreaders who actually post “there’s a typo on page 367” on their blogs and think it’s a review. I have news for the typo reviewers: in the real world, publishing houses rely on their advance reviewers to spot the rogue errors. Professional reviewers report them back to the publisher rather than posting them on the internet.

Rule Two: Always hedge your bets. I usually send four or five of my 20 copies to high-value but possibly too-busy-to-read destinations – people who write for the national or regional Sunday review papers, for example. It doesn’t often pay off but when it does, it pays very well.

Then in the mid range, I offer ten to people who regularly review small press books – enthusiastic bloggers being the obvious candidates. Do spend a bit of time finding out what they like writing about first, so you can choose people who are likely to enjoy your book. If you are a small press or indie author, beware of bloggers who say they don’t read self-published books. They are often completely unaware of the distinction between what some call ‘vanity published’ books and genuine independent and small press titles. Heck, we’re all a bit confused about the blurry bit between them but anyway, your blogger may make a mistake. Even worse, some of them have very annoying back-page ghettoes where they write sneeringly about books they call ‘author-supplied’ – with an almost visible shudder attached to the phrase.

The last five of my review copies go to dead certs – people I know personally or professionally. I am as sure as I can be that they like books of the kind I’m offering and are ready and willing to write about them. Do be wary of the wrong kind of ‘dead cert’ though. Most writers will be aware of a team of writing forum buddies, Facebook friends and Twitter followers who post glowing but very general reviews of each others’ books, presuming their fellow author will return the compliment… for their self-published and not terribly good book which is currently free to download from Kindle.

It is extremely and immediately obvious when a review is written by someone who hasn’t read the book. It makes the whole enterprise look extremely amateurish. A point to consider when you’re reading reviews for your own information, too: good reviewers always quote from the book, and do so in context and with an awareness of plot development beyond the first five pages. This is the most obvious difference between them and the millions of short and general reviews that seem to be mysteriously generated on commercial websites to drive search-engine ratings. When you’re buying books, don’t be fooled by a title that has dozens of one-line 5-star reviews. Apparently, there is a market in one-line reviews, just as there is in Facebook ‘likes’, which effectively makes a farce of the whole thing. The fact that a lot of robots enjoyed a book doesn’t mean that you will.

Rule Three: Always ask permission before sending a review copy. If a reviewer has said yes, at least you know they’re still alive and consider themselves capable of reading. But ask if you can send a review copy. Don’t expect anyone to agree to write a review before they’ve read the book. Even more importantly, don’t email them weeks later and say “you haven’t written that review yet” – if they absolutely hated the book, they will then feel obliged to go out and say so in print and/or avoid you for the rest of their lives.

Rule Four: Don’t ask if you can see the review before it’s published. Just think about the implications of that request. It suggests that either you lack faith in the book, and fear they won’t like it or you lack faith in the reviewer’s ability to do a good job. Either way, those are doubts you do not want to sow in the reader’s mind. Which brings me to…

Rule Five Bad reviews, and what to do about them. The short answer is, there’s nothing you can do. Have you ever seen an author or publisher come up smelling of roses when they plough in with a blog-comment arguing against a negative review? Let others do the arguing. It might raise curiosity and sell some books for you. If you’re lucky, someone will mention that review to you somewhere along the line, thus giving you the opportunity to enter into the debate with enthusiasm, then side-step into your preferred sales pitch.

We’ve all heard the line “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” and, generally, it’s true. One of my authors recently said, “the only bad publicity is an obituary.” My first instinct was to say “oh, obits are great – they can sell hundreds of books,” but I bit my tongue, realising in the nick of time that the author wasn’t actually offering to die for his book. The first time you see a negative review of your work, you’ll probably think it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. This is where I generally say to my authors, there’s nothing wrong with feeling embarrassed, furious, upset and all the rest of it. You’re a writer – get used to it!

More constructively perhaps, have a good look at that review and see if you can see what they’re getting at. There is no book in the world that everyone will like and it’s useful to know who does and doesn’t like your work, and why. On the other hand, the review might be bad as in badly written, or a complete misunderstanding or misrepresentation of your book. Here’s a case in point:

We recently released a book that was intended as a ‘retro’ title and, as a result, had a lot of classical 20th century features, including commas after adverbs and to mark off relative clauses, and even some colons, and it had less gory deaths per page than is the 21st century standard. So far, all the reviews have been almost all positive. But a couple included criticisms that seemed worth checking out. One accused us of ‘lax editing’ and another of ‘too many commas’. Had our pitch for an old-fashioned, mid-twentieth century feel fallen on stony ground?

I went off to read the reviews in question and found myself floundering in a syntactical bog – the reviewer in question clearly didn’t have a clue how to use commas correctly in the classical or the modern style. Perhaps she aspires to that idea I’ve heard from a few amateur writers, that one should place commas where one would pause for breath (if that sounds sensible to you, imagine trying to read a book by a yoga practitioner (one comma per chapter?) or, someone, who’s, prone to panic,,, attacks.

Ah well, off I went to check out the other one. In a single line on that blog I found the words ‘clebrate’ ‘birhtday; ‘ocming’ and ‘vouge’ [sic – well, four sics actually. Sickening.] I haven’t laughed so much in months. Who’s going to take criticism from that particular site seriously? We were in the clear.

And finally, just in case you’re still worrying about that first bad review, here’s the worst review I ever had for a title of mine:

http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/jungspeople.htm

I was quite new to the authoring lark then, and I was upset. The reviewer seemed to have misunderstood and/or misrepresented just about everything that mattered to me. But I remember that review fondly now because, believe it or not, quite a few people have told me that they bought the book to see what the reviewer was on about… and loved it.

Herms SecretKay Green is editor at www.circaidygregory.co.uk and club administrator at www.earlyworkspress.co.uk

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Comments
  1. AJ Kirby says:

    Thank you very much for this wonderful guest post Kay. Much appreciated. And also, as I believe I mentioned earlier, close to my heart, seeing as though I’ve just had one ridiculously bad reivew on Amazon, for the whole world to see. Apparently my novel is the only one this reviewer has ever deleted from his Kindle, and he thinks there was too much swearing. And though I know I should take all things like this with a punch of salt, and know that not everyone will like my novel, still it does hurt. Still, apart from him all very positive, so he’s the one who’s wrong!

    Anyway, thanks again, and whenever you’re up for another guest slot, let me know,

    Andy

  2. SecretSpi says:

    I checked up your bad review (look how the psychology works…) and as well as your novel being the only one the reviewer has ever deleted from his Kindle, it’s also the only one he’s ever reviewed! Must be a lesson in there somewhere…

    A really useful piece with some excellent advice for those of us relatively new to the world of publishing – thanks!

  3. Some brilliant words of wisdom here; I shall be bookmarking this hub for future reference as both reviewer and author.

  4. Kay says:

    Thanks for the invite, AJ. I’ll be back!

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