Dos and Don’ts of Chatting with Book Reviewers

Being a book reviewer is tough work.

At least for me.

Not only am I an avid reader, but I also write fiction. When I go into a story, I’m searching for not only what works as a reader, but what works as a writer. And when dealing with authors, I’m thinking as a reviewer as well as a writer.

Writers are notoriously sensitive, so when I have to give a harsh review, it’s not easy. But it has to be done. Writers must have thick skins in this business. After all, the biz is filled with rejection from agents, publishers and, sometimes, readers. That’s why I don’t charge for reviews. You must show you are objective and accepting cash from a writer just doesn’t work. (Critiquing is a different story, but that is a topic for another day.) I think, overall, I have a pretty thick skin. I worked as a journalist for 10 years before hitting the marketing/PR market and freelancing as a writer, reviewer, blogger and podcaster. That helped. A lot.

But not everyone has that experience. And not everyone understands the "proper" ways to communicate with the people who will pen views on their work – just like many people don’t know the proper, professional ways to talk to journalists. (Like the woman who breast fed her baby while I interviewed her. Nice boob, lady. Too bad I didn’t have a photograph of it for the article.)

And that is where I truly begin.

Recently, I reviewed a book for PopSyndicate.com. Hidden within the pages of this novel was a fantastic idea. But it was difficult to find in the misspellings, poor grammar, clichés and awkward structure. I felt terrible, because I really saw the potential in this novel, but I had to write the review true to the book. I’m writing for the readers as well, and avid readers can smell a cranked up review. I made certain to give the novel kudos for the things done right before really hitting it hard. The author emailed me with a very nice letter thanking me for my honest review. He said he was putting the second part through the editorial process and was very pleased with it. He asked if I would review that installment as well. I accepted. I truly cannot wait to see what happens – and I’m eager to see his style evolve with some guidance. This gentleman was amazingly graceful in his email. I was so thankful the review did not put him off course, but instead strengthened his resolve to learn the craft. It was a fabulous exchange.

That same week, I received an email from someone who approached me about reviewing their work. They mentioned that if it is a bad review, they hoped it would not appear on the Internet. And this is not the first time that has happened.

Uh, hello, I am a reviewer. I have to tell it like it is. I did not respond to this email, because I didn’t know what to say. I understand this author’s trepidation, but again, you must have thick skin to be in this business.

I once saw an author refute a particularly nasty review of her work on Amazon.com. Now, I’m not saying that she didn’t have a point to make, but it’s better you leave it be instead of starting a slam fest. People who don’t know your work will remember the bitter exchange of words, rather than the true nature of your novel. Call a friend or fellow writer and vent your frustrations at this dope head to who obviously had zero appreciation of your novel. (I’m sure some do that to me. In fact, I can feel my ears burning right now.)

I’ve had people become impatient when their reviews don’t appear in what they deem a timely fashion. The fact is, I have a backlog of books and have to reprioritize every time I receive a mailing. I put the pre-reviews first. Books already published go to the backburner until all premies are completed. Since that never happens, I try to squeeze in something already published in between dates.

That’s the nature of the beast – at least for me. Some authors have been great about simply asking what’s up, but others are pushy, antagonistic, and down right rude in their emails. Think that kind of attitude makes a reviewer want to get to your work with eagerness?*

Then there are technical difficulties. Sometimes they keep blogs or podcasts from appearing in a timely fashion. Some podcasts I did in February are still not posted simply because they refuse to go up. A few of them worked, but the rest? Blah! Technology at its finest, right? But as soon as whatever the problem may be is fixed, those will go up. Promise. And sometimes reviewers – like me – get bogged down in the details and it’s difficult to follow up. I still have interviews to mail out to authors from a February conference, but it just has not happened. I moved, started a new gig and, on the few days I remembered, simply forgot. Totally not like me, but it all fell in a time when life was in flux. Did I remember to buy CDs to burn the interviews? Nope. I certainly did not. If it ain’t on a Post It, it ain’t happenin’.

All this to say, give reviewers a break. And before you send snarky emails, or a missive that shows your insecurities, type it in Word and save it to your computer. Turn off said computer until the next day, when you should read it. See if you really want to send it off. If so, then do. If not, be thankful you didn’t the night before. Remember: Not everyone is going to love you. It’s simply not possible. There will always be those out there who are not happy with anything, who compare your current work with the most impressive of your past, or who are just tired of the genre and your book happens to be the last one they get to before changing up their reading patterns.

Believe in yourself. Know that you rock. Take reviews in stride. Look at them objectively – have friends do it, too – and see what you learn from them. You never know when something will strike you in a way that makes your next work even more powerful.

*This is not to say that it is inappropriate to ask if the reviewer has received the book, or send an initial email about what the reviewer thought about the book, or when the review might appear. I don’t mind these emails at all. They are perfectly acceptable to me. You can even send a few if it’s been a few months. Just keep it cool and professional and understand that priorities change.

I hope I don't come as a snob in this post. I really want to writers who just need some gentle guidance. Of course, gentle isn't much in my nature - which is probably why I'm still single. =0)

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Comment by Angela Wilson on June 7, 2007 at 12:44am
I think it is easy to "forget" that reviewers are people, too. I had similar problems when I worked as a reporter at a newspaper. People got mad because stories didn't run right away (that plane crash into the hospital should not have bumped by feature story on flowers), or if the story wasn't what they wanted. Crazy. But it's all good. It's just about understanding how it works.

Now... I've got to get back to reading!!! =0)
Comment by Sandra Ruttan on May 30, 2007 at 7:14am
I walk both sides of the fence, as a reviewer and author, and I appreciate your candor here.

If anyone said to me, "I hope if it's a negative review it won't appear online" I'd say, "Take your book elsewhere and don't waste my time." Nobody dictates the nature of the review. As long as it's fair and not a personal attack, it's fair game. Doesn't mean I have to agree with every reviewer, but you send out the copies and leave it there.
Comment by Pepper Smith on May 30, 2007 at 2:02am
Writers work so much in isolation. It's good to get reminders that other people have lives, too. They're not just email addresses or names on a blog. Thanks.

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