Sunday, March 06, 2011

So you want to write a review blog

Fantastic. First thing you should know about a review blog is that the purpose of a review is to help sell books.

Publishers don't give out advance reader copies because they're impressed by your eagerness to read. If you are given an ARC and you proceed to write a review where you imply that the book is a colossal failure that shouldn't be read by anyone, it's a bit like spitting in your host's food during a dinner party. Your poor behavior is unlikely to get you at the top of the list of people who will be invited back.

You don't have to like every ARC you receive, but you should understand that publishers hand them out to help create buzz and positive publicity so that the actual book has a better chance of selling enough to pay out the expense that has gone into its production.

Review blogs are becoming increasingly bigger players in marketing plans. Thus, the sooner you make peace with being a part of that process, the better off you're going to be.

The value of a review to a publisher is that the review inspires as many people who are going to like the book as possible to read it. Those people are then going to say positive things about the book, which increases the chance of selling additional copies.

The value of a review to a reader is that after reading the review, she knows whether or not she's one of people who are going to like the book. Review blogs that unconditionally praise books are as useless as review blogs that criticize for the sake of criticizing.

If you want to be a successful book reviewer, it's not enough to love everything you read. You have to understand why books work for you or why they don't—and you have to be able to communicate that in a way that helps other readers make a decision about whether or not a book is right for them.

Badmouthing a book, even one you purchased, has repercussions. It's unlikely a publisher or an author is going to sue you for slander, but you aren't telling a friend that you think the author is a no talent hack. You're putting it in writing and placing it in the public domain. With the internet, something you wrote will always be happening now for the people who read it. Doesn't matter if you wrote it five years ago after a fight with your friend and you were taking it out on that character who reminded you of her.

Furthermore, the purpose of a review isn't to discuss how you would have written a novel differently; you didn't write the novel you're reviewing. If you're using reviews to only point out how authors are writing things wrong (in your 'expert' opinion,) you may be better off to put that time and energy into your own writing.

The only one with the right to determine what should happen in a story is the author (with guidance from her editorial team.) This doesn't mean you can't be dissatisfied with the author's work, only that you need to recognize you are the source of the dissatisfaction. To quote Neil Gaiman: "George R R Martin is not your bitch."

There is a long discussion I'm omitting here about the process and the investement that goes into the actual production of every book on the shelf. It's an ordeal that you can't fully appreciate unless you've been through it or know someone who has, because that experience changes the way you view publishing.

When you crap on a book—consciously or subconsciously—it doesn't make you look like you're smarter or more talented or better than the author. It makes you look like a jerk.

Now, you might not be a jerk. You might just be someone who doesn't think about how what she writes can affect those who read it. You might have forgotten that each name on a book represents a person. So a reminder: Each name on a book represents a person, and most of those people know other people who are published. Authors talk to one another.

This is not meant to threaten or stifle you. There is no secret society who put your name on the list of People Who Will Never Get Published. There isn't even a list. But if you get a reputation of being a jerk, it's possible people aren't going to want to do you any favors. That's not out of malice; it's because people feel less motivated to help jerks.

Also, try not to assume you know what an author personally believes. You can only speculate on what the text is telling you. An author is not her text; a text is not its author. A review can only express your opinion, and your opinion is only one of millions of opinions.

Here's the secret—the great contradiction at the heart of marketing—not every book is going to be for every reader. We are all individuals with individual preferences and preconceptions. That's what makes books like Harry Potter so magical, because the same book connects with an astounding number of different people.

Remember, your dislike for a book doesn't render it incapable of being enjoyed by anyone else. If you can't think of anyone who would want to read the book... don't review it. There are so many review blogs out there that someone else probably did like it. Let her spend the time blogging about it. Go read something you will love. Overcome any need you have to finish reading novels you aren't enjoying. There are too many good ones out there—no matter what your personal good is—to read ones that disappoint or bore or aggravate you.

I realize this is a lot more than you were expecting. I certainly didn't consider all of these factors when I wrote my first review, and I know that I felt the same flutter of panic over the suggestion that my opinion about a published novel could affect the possibility of me getting help later. If you are genuine and thoughtful and you express your opinions with an open disclosure that you understand they are only your opinions, people will respond. You can disagree with someone without being a jerk about it.

If you take nothing else from my entry, let it be this: Be passionate—but more importantly, be kind.

Good luck.