Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Guest Blogger -- A Reviewer's Plea

Today we have a guest blogger. She's a reviewer for several major publications, including various national newspapers. For reasons explained below, she needs to remain anonymous--but if you're a writer with a book under contract, there are a few things she'd like you to know about reviews--and reviewers.

(If you're a small press-pubbed author, pay special attention to her advice about galleys. Not sending out galleys in advance of publication is one of the areas in which inexperienced small publishers often try to pinch pennies--to their own and their authors' detriment.)

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A Long Growwwwl...

Well, BEA hasn't even started up, and I'm already being hunted…

Usually the hunting doesn't start until I walk through the door, but I made the mistake of registering on the BEA site as a reviewer. So I'm getting invites from people producing cartoons and from self-help gurus, and a lot of pings from authors of business books. I guess they're business people, and being business people feel they must be cheery and sell, sell, sell. I take my outlook on life from Eeyore, and find their smiles so much toxic waste.

I'm a book reviewer. I review for a couple of major papers and a lot of minor ones. If you're reading this blog, it's likely you've read my work. I don't know why the business writers are hunting me. I don't review business books—my areas are literature and poetry, with the occasional quirky book about history. I don't know why the publicist for self-help books and the woman writing a book about the Chinese middle class are hunting me. Maybe it's something they can take back to their bosses and say "look, I'm being proactive, I contacted a reviewer!"

Last time I went to BEA, I had an publicist actually grab my arm and pull so hard it hurt. She wanted to drag me over for a head-to-head with an author so that I'd review her book. It mangled my shoulder and made me mad. No, I didn't review the book.

So what do you have to do to get me to review your book? Well for starters, don't meet me. Ever.

Major papers in the U.S. have an iron-clad policy: reviewers can't meet the authors they review. I suspect this is relaxed a bit when major writers write reviews, but for run-of-the mill reviewers--the ones who, like me, search publishers' catalogs months before the pub dates and let our editors know what we think will be hot--it's a firm rule. Can't know you. Can't talk to you. Aren't supposed to accept gifts from your publisher.

A lot of people don't get this. As promos, I've received: cookies, a plastic horse, stuffed animals, t-shirts, and an electric tooth-brush. (I'm not sure of the reasoning behind the last gift. How is an electric toothbrush supposed to inspire me to give a good book review??)

If you're a new author, pay attention, because if your book is going to land a review in the New York Times or The Washington Post, the person who writes it will be someone like me. So if your publicist ever tries to drag you over to a book reviewer for either of these papers, run the other way. An editor is another story. You can have a bit of contact with an editor. But trying to get me to like your book by getting me to like you isn't fair play.

And it could get me in trouble.

A lot of book reviewers are also writers, so we're constantly skirting conflict-of-interest issues. Causes a lot of strange silences at parties, and the occasional ducking-into-the-bathroom. Recently, I attended a book party when I probably shouldn't have. The publicist grabbed me by the arm (ouch! again) and dragged me over to an author. Unfortunately, I was reviewing his book for a major magazine. I felt I had to tell my editor. My editor felt he had to pull the review. (He was kind enough to still pay me. A lot of editors wouldn't do that.) If you sense a nervous, slightly school-marmish tone here, it's because when a publicist or author slips up, the reviewer may lose a paycheck. I don't know if I'll ever be able to review for that magazine again—-that's a chunk of change, and a bit o' prestige, that I've lost.

So if you're an author, especially a new author, you don't want to meet me. I'm a nice person and all, and know a lot about literature and am kind to dogs and small children, but there are other nice people in the world. And you certainly don't want to ask me advice on your writing, or where to send a manuscript, or about editors or agents. If I give you advice, I really can't review your work. The New York Times, for one, specifically forbids reviewers to give advice, and I don't think it would go over well most other places either.

So how do you get your book reviewed? Well, I'm writing anonymously so I can give advice:

1) Write a good book. I got into this job because I like to tell people about good books. Personally, I’m not one for snarky reviews, and I know a lot of book reviewers who feel the same—-and we're the ones in the trenches, searching for the next great debut. If I don't like a book, or think it's atrocious, I simply won't review it. If I think that its merits outweigh its flaws, I'll still mention the flaws, but I'll spend more time on the good parts. 'Nuff said.

2) Make sure the publisher releases galleys early and that they print a lot of them. 5-8 months before the pub date is optimum, and I can think of at least one excellent book that didn't get reviewed because the publisher only put out 75 galleys. Most newspapers take book review pitches 2-3 months before the pub date, but with the crush on book reviewing, that's expanding to 3-5 months. Glossy magazines take book review pitches 5-8 months beforehand.

3) Make sure the publication date is printed clearly and in large print at the top of the publicity letter and in the galley. This seems like a small thing, but book review pitches are structured around the pub date. I've not reviewed books I thought were good because I couldn't find the pub date. The publicity letter and the galley should both have contact information for the publisher as well. Some places like Bloomsbury and Penguin are hell to get a review copy from unless you have the email for the specific publicist involved.

4) Make friends with your publicist. Mostly, they are good-natured, but horribly overworked. Learn their name, their kids' names, the name of their dog (or cat). Form a relationship with them as early as possible. I've heard of publicists who have 60 books to market in a year. Give your publicist a reason to love you.

12 comments:

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

TERRIFIC post. Very informative. I was not aware of the "can't-know-the-author" issue at the major publications. I have written/published book reviews myself in smaller magazines/newspapers where that rule was not strictly enforced (i.e., I couldn't write a book review for my best friend's book, but meeting/knowing the author very casually was considered OK) so that is great information for authors to have.

The Grump said...

Thank you. Very informative. Nice to hear about a "nice guy" here.

Maura Anderson said...

Nice information, thank you.

Although I review for a small review site, I've always been mindful of the problems of conflict of interest so I don't review books for:
- People I have more than a passing aquaintance with.
- Anyone I've participated in the making of the book with (like critiqueing or test reading)
- Publishers that I freelance edit for.

It's not as stringent as the rules you must follow but you've given me good reasons to hold my ground!

Thank you

Anonymous said...

Thank you to the guest blogger for writing this and to Victoria and Ann for running it. It's excellent and should be required reading for all authors.

I run a literary web site, and our rules are stringent about not reviewing books of people we know. A casual, how-are-you-nice-to-meet-you moment wouldn't violate that rule, but spending a half-hour talking with them at a writer's conference or a party would.

That said, none of our reviewers are the least bit interested in writing a book--all of us love to write reviews about books--so there's no conflict there either.

We promise honest, straightforward reviews to our readers, and that's what they get.

Brian said...

Great info. I also did not know about reviewers not meeting the author in person, but it makes sense.

I will be interested in hearing more of your experiences.

Anonymous said...

Question: Does this mean that, after receiving a nice review, an author should avoid thanking the reviewer, so as not to prevent reviews of future books? Would a simple thank-you card prevent future reviews?

The Quoibler said...

Wow.

As someone with a "sales" background and mentality (i.e., you can't be too proactive with self-promotion), I truly appreciate this post.

Out of ignorance, I would have eagerly attempted to connect with reviewers, simply assuming that the publishing industry worked the same way as does the corporate world.

Yikes. What a disaster that would have been!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2:42, I can't speak for anyone but me, but I wanted to let you know that a thank-you note to a reviewer is one of the rarest things on earth. I have received one--a lovely, handwritten card--in about seven years. And I still show it off.

Anonymous said...

But I don't understand why she even publicized herself as a book reviewer on MY BEA, which is social networking site and its sole purpose is NETWORKING! To me, it's clear she is asking for being "hunted." Perhaps it's something she can take back to her boss and says "look, how popular I am and many people contacted me!"

Williebee said...

Actually, were I a reviewer, I would publicize the fact that I was at BEA, just so that people who knew me or knew of me would know that I was there "on the job", (i.e., don't bring your new buddy/star over to meet me.) And, it shows potential job opportunities that I do pay attention to the world I write about.

Anyway, Thanks Miss Victoria, and thanks anonymous, I'm glad to have not met you...

Jodi McMaster said...

I also think that what authors don't realize is that reviewers, for the most part, are not out to get them. Reviewers do their best to think about the reader, and even when they feel bad for the writer, the reviewer isn't doing her job if she doesn't give an honest appraisal. As both a reviewer and a developmental editor, I get frustrated when I read books that could have been good to great with a little more work but have to say "Readers, it may not be worth the slog."

Jodi McMaster said...

And, FWIW, the only writer to come back and ask about editorial services was one whose book reviewed well. I don't think it would be ethical to accept a book to edit after reviewing it; that sounds like a conflict of interest.