Trust me, I’m a reviewer …

3 11 2012

If you’re a crime fiction fan who spends any time on social media, you’ve probably been scraping your jaw off the ground at the shenanigans over sock puppet reviews where a number of big – and not as big as they’d like to be – names have been posting negative reviews of other writers’ books under false names.

Enough has been written already on the whole nasty saga. What I want to do, though, is to offer up some suggestions on how readers can find reviewers they can trust …

The fake review saga has undermined any credibility that Amazon reviews had – and that wasn’t much to start with. I feel immensely sorry for honest and thoughtful reviewers like British reviewer Maxine Clarke and John L Murphy, an American academic, who both continue to push a rock uphill by posting their excellent reviews to Amazon.

My illusions were shattered early on in my career about reviewing – my mildly negative comment about the vegetarian food on a Rhine cruise for a travel piece was doctored so the travel editor would continue to get freebies.

I’ve stopped reviewing for two other magazines where even faintly negative comments were excised. And when I edited ReviewingtheEvidence, I suggested a very prolific reviewer (four or five reviews a week) might like to find another outlet for her efforts, as she never criticised anything. And those of you on the crime fiction scene will know of another ‘reviewer’ who appears to read hundreds of books a month and has never found one she doesn’t like.

So how do you find publications and reviewers to trust …?

Don’t assume that a newspaper reviewer is automatically going to be better than a blogger. Far too much newspaper reviewers are authors who may not be prepared to give an honest review. A writer/reviewer once told me that they never write even faintly negative reviews, as they don’t want to turn up at a convention and find they’re on a panel with someone whose book they once criticised. My view on this? Give up reviewing once you’re a published novelist –  it’s more honest and comfortable all round and stops any conflict of interest.

There are some very good bloggers out there, but you are generally safer with a specialist review site where there’s a range of reviewers. Certain bloggers have got onto the free book gravy train and they suddenly become terrified this will dry up if they write negative reviews. I can assure them this isn’t true. Most publicists and authors are realists and know that poor reviews are an occupational hazard. If a blogger gets grief from a self-published author (and believe me, this happens a lot), then more fool them for reviewing self-published books in the first place.

I don’t attend conventions and have only been to a couple of meet-and-greets – my choice, I hasten to add. I was taught by a very grumpy old-school newspaper editor who warned about getting too close to contacts. I know other very good reviewers disagree and think I’m being over-paranoid, but it means I feel more comfortable as a reviewer.

And check the following when you find a publication you like the look of:

  • Do they review a good range of books? If they only review cosies and you prefer noir, then it won’t be much help to you.
  • Do they criticise? You don’t want wall-to-wall hatchet jobs, but you do want thoughtful and constructive reviews. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time all round.
  • Do reviewers appear to use their own names? One UK site uses initials, which makes me wonder what the reviewers have to hide.
  • Who’s reviewing for them? You don’t have to be a journalist to be a good reviewer, but it’s useful to know what a reviewer’s background is (see my comments above on authors reviewing …)
  • Do they have a stated policy – or do you suspect they only review books they like and quietly forget the duds? RTE, for example, states explicitly that they won’t review self-published books. Some reviewers admit openly that they don’t review books they don’t like – which is pretty unhelpful.

Ultimately, my best advice is to read widely. You’ll find gems that way – both books and reviewers. And when you find a reviewer you can trust, stick to their coat-tails. Good reviewers should be prized above rubies!


Why authors shouldn’t be reviewers

2 09 2010

The eminently sensible Nick Hay, who reviews for us at www.reviewingtheevidence, has written a typically thoughtful — and absolutely spot-on — blog on why authors shouldn’t review books by their fellow writers.

It’s been a major peeve of mine for a long time — particularly when one author admitted to me that they never wrote negative reviews in case they came across the other writer on a panel or at some other event. Several times I’ve been on the verge of emailing book or features editors on some of the national papers and asking if they truly think they’re getting impartial reviews from their author/reviewers.

Nick’s blog entry is here.

Burying the hatchet

31 07 2010

My first editor was a morose sort of chap who used to intone gravely “there’ll be tears before bedtime” at moments of conflict or stress. But he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever had – don’t get too close to contacts, or it’ll compromise your ability to be impartial.

It’s once of the reasons as a reviewer that I’ve kept my distance from writers and musicians. I don’t go to meet and greets or signings, and tend to avoid conventions and writing festivals. It’s much easier to be honest about a book or an album if you’re not worried about hurting a friend’s feelings. That’s not to say I’d want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but reviewers who aren’t honest make me grind my teeth. I always want to shout: “You’re a reviewer, not a PR person for the author!”

In 25 years of reviewing, I’ve only written a handful of reviews where I couldn’t think of a single positive thing to say about the book or album. Usually there’s something good you can clutch on to like Linus and his comfort blanket to soften the criticisms.

Most authors are refreshingly pragmatic about less than glowing reviews and keep their thoughts to themselves. A few, though, send ranty or hurt and doggy eyed emails about how you’ve clearly misunderstood their opus and how everyone else liked it . . .

I have a prepared response now: “Thank you for your email, but I don’t enter into discussion about reviews I’ve written.” I mean, do they think I’m suddenly going to say: “Oh, silly me, I clearly can’t recognise classy writing when I see it, you’ve shown me the errors of my ways, so let me go and change my review . . .”?

I had a classic this week, with capital letters in the subject line and half a dozen pars of whining about my review. The irony was, I hadn’t completely trashed the book and had commented that I’d probably read something else by the author. I resisted the temptation to respond with the observation that if she thought I’d done a hatchet job then she’d have a surprise when she saw a totally negative review. I deleted the email without responding – it had the feel of a missive written to get something off someone’s chest. Maybe I should send her the bill for therapy . . .

It was in stark contrast to a very gracious email from an author whose first book I really hadn’t rated. She’d sent a polite ‘thanks for reviewing it’ note at the time and then got back in touch to say her second book was out, if I was interested. Coincidentally, my review copy had just arrived, so I picked it up, started reading and 100 pages in am enjoying it a great deal more than the debut novel.

When it comes to the next book from Ms Whiner, though, I shall be too busy watching paint dry . . .