The Book Review: Going on a Blind Date

March 27, 2013

beagle review

Let’s face it; reading a book is like going on a blind date. You’ve met oh-so briefly because the cover and synopsis looks intriguing, and now you’re going to see how well you get along. The first few chapters are akin to going to a bar to see if it’s worth it to invest in dinner and a movie. Then comes the inevitable question from your friends, “So…how was your date?”

How do you choose to respond? Hence…the review.

I look at book reviews with a bland eye…yes, even on my own books. Especially my own books. Then again, I learned from the school of hard knocks, and I’m grateful for the experience, oddly enough.

I’d asked a woman I’d long respected to read my book, believing that a huzzah from her – a well-known woman whose field is closely related to the topic of my novel – would give my book a lovely boost.

She hated it. No, that’s too kind. She LOATHED it. She detested everything about my plot, my characters, my dialog, probably the air I breathe, and the space I occupy.

To say that I was stunned is a gross understatement.But something really strange happened. When I wiped my chocolate-encrusted maw and sobered up, I took stock of my book and found that I still believed in it. As much as her rudeness stung, I had to ask myself if I thought it was a good book, and was her criticism valid. Hell yes, I did, and hell no, I did not.

And here’s why. Opinions are like the proverbial belly button – everybody has one, and no two are alike. Everyone reads with their own filters locked and loaded, so it only goes to reason that reviews take on different personalities.

A Throwaway Review

My reason for dismissing this woman’s opinion was that she didn’t give me anything concrete upon which I could improve. To simply say, “I hated your book and the very paper it was written on” is a throwaway statement because there’s no investment into the whys and hows. What was wrong with the plot? What was it about my characters that she hated? What was it about my dialog that she found objectionable? Does she just not like reading fiction? Gah!

Of course, she owed me no explanation, but they invariably accompany such strong opinions. When they don’t, then what can an author make of such a review other than to fold themselves into the fetal position and suck their gin-soaked thumb?

Best advice; dismiss it because there’s no useful information. The reader didn’t like it so unfold yourself, clean off your thumb, and move on.

Ulterior Motive Review

The thing about reviews is that they come in all colors and sometimes have all sorts of ulterior motives. The internet has afforded us the ability to say all kinds of terrible things under the guise of anonymity – things those same people wouldn’t have the guts to utter face to face.

  • I’ve seen horrible reviews of books because the reviewer has it in for the publisher, not the book.
  • I’ve also seen reviewers smash a book because they don’t like the author. Yes, this is your seventh grade nyah nyah review.
  • And I’ve seen scathing reviews from those who simply didn’t like the message. Controversial subjects collect these kinds of reviews all the time.

In all of these cases, the book is sort of the innocent bystander who got in the way of the bullet. It’s not about the book, per se, but some other element.

For example, one of our books received a few ulterior motive reviews because the subject matter was highly controversial, which is exactly what I loved about the book. But it brought out the haters. Since they didn’t like the issue, they were going to shoot the messenger – which really had zip to do with the book.

The telling thing about ulterior motive reviews is that few are fooled or convinced by them. Shrug your shoulders, move on, and hope the reviewer ups his meds or receives therapy very soon.

Book Review for Sport

We’ve all seen reviews that are written for sport. You know the ones I’m talking about. They’re brilliantly written and take great delight in cutting the author and book down to bantha fodder, yet giving no real concern for helping. It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s all make fun of the crippled guy.” It’s shooting fish in a barrel, mean, nasty, and not at all meant to help, but to ridicule. In these cases, the reviewer is more in love with his own writing and aggrandizement than offering a valid, constructive review.

Use these reviews for bird cage liner.

The Constructive Review

Ah, in a perfect world, we get reviews that carefully analyze the good and not-so-good parts in a constructive manner that will give the author insight on how to improve as a writer. If they like or don’t like something, they give reasons as to why. These are written by thoughtful readers who don’t let their own prejudices get in the way of analyzing a book’s quality.

Years after publishing my book, I still remember a review that ferreted out some elements of my writing that I still apply today. And that’s what constructive reviews do. They make us better writers PROVIDED our egos are turned off and our ears and hearts are open. You live for those kinds of reviews. Embrace them – even when they point out the negatives. That’s how we learn, and there are no better teachers than our readers.

How to React

So we have all kinds of reviews, so how do we react to them? My advice? Don’t. Just. Don’t.

I’ve talked to many authors who, upon receiving a bad review, have blood-letting on their minds, and I always urge them to back away from the scimitar because they’ll only make themselves look foolish. We’ve all seen a few of the messy war of words between reviewers and well-known authors, and they make me wince.

Someone didn’t like your book. Big freaking deal. Yes, it stings, but that’s no reason to sacrifice your dignity. After reading the scathing review from my idol, I gulped down a huge breath of air, blew the smoke off my singed monitor, then grew a brass pair to write her back, thanking her for her time. My jaw hurt from grinding my teeth, but it was the right thing to do. To invite her to make merry with a barnyard animal would have taken me to a new low, and I felt crappy enough.

Snapping back because you’re hurt will only damage your credibility, and it’s hard to get that back. You smile bravely, hold your head up, and grit your teeth. Your reader went on a blind date with your book, and didn’t get past the bar scene. It’s ok.

We can’t expect to please 100% of our readers, and if you encounter a less than stellar review, you’re better off taking a deep breath and  asking yourself whether you’re going to let it destroy you. Only you give yourself that permission, and it isn’t useful at all.

Here is one certainty; you will get a bad review or two. If you did, how did you react? Did it devastate you? What kind of a review was it? More importantly, what did you learn from the experience?


Great expectations: of titles and pitches

December 8, 2010

There is nothing cooler than getting reader feedback. Too often, we sit in our gilded batcaves and go about our jobs as if we were the ruler of all things wonderful. Then you get the opinions of those who shelled out money for your little beauties and get a bitter taste of reality.

While in my own gilded batcave, I happened to be roaming around Amazon.com, looking at books that I’d stashed in my Wish List – a list so vast, I’ll be 190 y/o before I finish reading them all. While I was perusing one particular book because I liked the author, I stopped to read the reviews – and got an interesting education regarding expectations.

In amongst the mostly good reviews were a number of reviews that took the author to task because they didn’t feel they got what they were expecting. The chief complaint was that the title, subtitle, and synopsis didn’t deliver the goods as advertised, and the reviews concentrated on what they felt the book did NOT do. Gah! This is a marketing brain fart. It’s literary bait and switch.

How you brand a book is what lets readers feel satisfied that you delivered the goods. So it goes to reason that your title, subtitle (yah, cover art, too), and synopsis all give the proper face to the inside of your book. If your book carries the title Training Errant Beagles: This Side of Crazy, then the content better speak to that subject. If, however, the book goes into great detail about the author’s personal relationship with the beagle with only a tidbit about the actual training part, then I guaran-dang-tee you there will be a percentage of readers who will be snarling at you because they bought the book to learn how to train a beagle.

* Just a quick aside – beagles can’t be trained. I don’t care what the literature and other beagle owners say, they’re all lying.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. This was pulled off the reviews of a book listed on Amazon:

Overall, this book was very disappointing. Yes, the author’s story is quite poignant, as she recants her struggles in very good detail. It even has its funny parts. The problem is what the book does not do. Honestly, as a person who has had trouble with eating from time to time, I was hoping this book would give me some insight about why people become addicted to food, and some tips on how to overcome it. Unfortunately, I am now much more aware of the author’s early sex life than I am of the nature of food addictions.

I suppose that one could, after reading this book, come away feeling better about themselves, knowing that they are not alone or others may have it worse, but most readers of this book would probably know that already.

You don’t ever want to absent-mindedly misrepresent your book. If you give yourself a title (or your editor does) and you write your pitch – or the editor writes the back cover copy – then it jolly well better deliver as advertised, or you’ll get comments like this.

Expectations don’t happen just in published books

This happens in queries all the time. Actual pages have little in common with the query. It’s like the author took the smallest element out of his story because it made the query sound good, but in reality had little impact on the actual story. Kinda makes me cranky because we wasted each other’s time.

The upside is that a consumer didn’t shell out money to buy something they will end up not getting, and my time is only worth a pitcher of margaritas.

How many of you have read a book that ticked you off because what was on the outside was far different than the inside?


Vanity reviews

July 15, 2010

Le sigh. I just received an email congratulating me on the fact one of our titles was “approved for review.” Grand! methinks. And then I read on.

Oh. Buzzkill.

It seems that our title wasn’t “good  enough” for their magazine, but I can pay for the “honor” of having our title reviewed. $99 to be exact.

To justify this fee, I’m told about the limited space in the magazine [like I don’t know this is the same situation that afflicts all review magazines?] vs. unlimited room online and how mahvelous this online review site is, but…they need the money to cover the cost of writing and posting the review. Oh, they assure me that they still maintain their high standards and that only “the best books” are chosen for review, and this is just the cost of doing business.

But wait, if I pay the fee and the reviewer declines to review the book – they’ll return my money. If that’s  the case, I have to wonder what determinates they employ for reviewing a book.

Mind you, I’m not angry the magazine didn’t feel our book warranted print space because I’m a big girl and know mags have limited space. My Vickie Secrets are in a twist because I question whether a paid-for review is an honest review and whether this is just a new profit center.

After all, it was about a year ago-ish when we were included in a mass email from the editor of this magazeine that angrily took us all to task for not taking out ad space with them. The fuzzy logic was that we owe it to them because they review our books.

Hmm. And here I thought they reviewed books because of their love of good literature. Yes, of course magazines make their money from advertising, and many mags are facing extinction because advertising is way down. Publishers know that ads don’t sell books, so they’re putting their money where they get better bang for their buck.

My heart goes out to magazines – and anyone – who help with  the advancement of reviewing books. However, I was appalled at being called on the collective carpet. Since this magazine caters to indie presses, including those which may not know a lot  about the industry, this is a line you just don’t cross.

Now they’re inviting me to pay a hundred bucks to have our book reviewed. I think not.

Cheap is as cheap does

This request for money – what I call Vanity Reviews – cheapens the idea of reviews in general and creates an air of suspicion of all reviews.  Just like vanity publishing, people now look at reviews and wonder if it was paid for or a real, honest review. How long before no one cares about reviews?

This magazine is far from the first to implement vanity reviews. I’ve been sickened to see other very big names in the  review world stooping to the pay-to-review as well. Even though those other entities make it very clear they are  paid reviews,  it still smacks of being a new revenue source that preys on the unwitting. And our industry is rife with them.

Honest?

If one pays for a review, the expectation is that the review will be favorable. I mean, who wants to shell out money and have the added insult to having their book trashed. The magazine realizes this and presents the “out” clause by offering to return the money.

Now really – if a cash-strapped  magazine stands to gain $100 for a review, it goes to reason that the magazine/reviewer will be motivated to find something nice to say – no matter how small. Publishers or authors starving for reviews will be sucked in – just like the vanity published author.

Why pay the vanity fee?

Ah, the rub. Bookstores lurve book reviews because they believe it will sell books. Personally, I’m ambivalent. We’ve had many fabulous reviews, and we didn’t see the giant sales. On the other hand, we’ve had authors whose promo plans were off the charts, and there were huge sales even though they had no reviews. So, yes, the silly realities are that reviews don’t,  by and large, sell books.

That said, when we get a good review, we slap that puppy right on the front cover. It’s all a part of the hoop-jumping game.

So welcome to the brave new world of pay-to-play reviews. I don’t care how prettily they try to tie this particular bow, let’s admit what it really is: a profit center where the veracity of those reviews is questionable.

I’ve taken this magazine off my review list.


Reviews – “They just don’t get me!”

January 27, 2010

“Did you see this?” my friend barked while waving the magazine around in the air, nearly spilling her wine in my lap.

“Get as mad as you want, dearie, but take it easy on the wine. It’s expensive,” I replied while moving her glass out of  the strike zone. Man, I hate it when it’s my turn to buy. Somehow the wine always gets dumped everywhere else other than down our throats.

“Forget the wine. Did you see the review of my book? The bastards trashed me. I’ll be lucky to sell a single book after what those illiterate wheezebags did to me.”

I had seen the review. Indeed, it was less than laudatory. Now I was at a crossroads. Do I play the supportive friend and join her in planning a sacrificial burning of the trade magazine’s edifice at midnight, or do I stay true to my opinions in an effort to teach her something valuable about reviews?

She took a deep breath. I held mine. Don’t say it, don’t say it… “They just don’t get me!”

Arrrgghhh! Beagle, my vapors! STAT!

Ego is as ego does

Book reviews are nothing more than public critiques. They are sometimes warped by social standing [as in, “who’s your publisher, baby?], politics [“Your views suck”], and pure snobbery [“You’re sooo not cool enough to get a good review out of me. Besides, I’m in a bad mood, and tag, you’re it”].

But at the end of the day, they are still crits – just like you get from your beta readers, writer groups, and friends. It’s very hard for writers to put themselves out there. They’ve dug deep into their creative souls and brought forth the contents that were churning within.  Reviews carry a lot of weight behind their names, so they can be quite influential to sales. It’s natural to worry.

“Is it good enough?”
“Did I bore you?”
“Would you buy the book?”

Crits, however, are private. Reviews are out there for The Great Cosmic Muffin and everyone to read. There are no dark corners in which to hide from a sucky review.

Consider the unthinkable

But rather than hiding in embarrassment or spilling perfectly good wine in a fit of puffed up outrage, there is one thing to consider: was the review correct?

In my friend’s case, it was. The reviewer had, in fact, nailed every one of the minuses that I’d tried to show her during her final rewrite before she submitted it to her editor [big conglomerate publisher]. She ignored my suggestions, saying I didn’t get her story. Huh?

I detest this kind of brush off, yet I hear it all the time. If I or any other reviewer have concerns about a story’s structure, it is rarely because I/we don’t get it.

Furthermore, this comment implies that the onus is on the reader’s shoulders to understand your brilliance. And you know what? That thar be arr-o-gant. It’s like when I tell the beagle she misfiled the stack of papers. Again. She simply snorts and tells me she’s instituting a new filing system and it’s my job to figure it out. I’d fire her, but she always sweetens the pot by having a frosty pitcher of margaritas on hand to soften the blow. Authors don’t have that option.

The reader invests in you, the writer. They forked over the bucks to buy your book and took time out of their day/night to read it. Therefore, it’s your job to give them the very best you have to offer. It’s an unspoken contract, and that means that you listen to those who have read your book. To insult the reader or reviewer by stating they don’t get you means that you are completely innocent in this reader/writer relationship. I can’t think of anything more damaging to one’s writing future than to not pay attention to her readers whether it’s Jane Reader or a Library Journal reviewer.

Payback is a biatch

In my friend’s case, her editor shot the book out with barely a whisper [which my friend interpreted as a testimony of her brilliance]. So what her editor giveth, the reviewer taketh away. And now my friend was a pile of raging hormones [she’s preggers], which only served to feed the fuel of her outrage.

“Darling,” I said gently, “did it occur to you that maybe the review brings out some valid points?”

A look of indignation crossed her face, suggesting that I had three heads and not one of them contained a brain. Le sigh. What a dilemma. Do I stick to my guns of honesty or do I commiserate?

Get outta your own way, baby!

The long and short of it is this: sitting back and saying “You just don’t get me” will never make you a better writer. It may very well be that the reviewer is a sodding pile of donkey droppings, but a smart writer NEVER dismisses anything. A smart writer considers the review to see if their comments apply. This requires a modicum of dispassionate objectivity. It’s easy to take offense, but it’s a lot harder to tell the ego to take a powder so you can consider the ways to improve your contract to your readers.

As for my friend… I lied like a cheap rug. After all, it’s her turn to buy lunch next time.

————–

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!! You are the very best, and I love you dearly.


When humor goes a long way

September 8, 2009

What do you do when you get a bad review? Some hide, some drink heavily – it keeps the beagle’s blender busy – and some lash out at the reviewers.

Others make funny. And if you’re Brad Meltzer, who managed to garner some disappointing reviews, you make a side-splittingly hysterical video poking fun at his less-than-stellar reviews. In Brad’s case, it’s easy to laugh; his book was still a bestseller. May we all be Brad. Le sigh.

*thanks for the link, Donna.


Book of the Month – June

June 7, 2009

Defeated by S.D. McKee

193301623XI’ve been bad. I missed April and May’s book reviews of our backlist. It wasn’t for lack of interest; just time. I’ve put my order in with the Cosmic Muffin for more hours in a day, but I’m being met with crickets.

So without further ado, here is my June pick. Even thought I’m not a reader of Science Fiction, I fell in love with Defeated from the get-go. I admit to being a closet Trekkie. I don’t wear Spock’s ears or pretend I’m Kirk’s eye candy, but I adore many things spacie; but not just for spacie sake.

I love the nobility of selfless acts performed by ordinary men put in extraordinary circumstances, and this seems to be a reoccurring theme in SF.  I love the idea that they may sacrifice themselves in order to save something bigger than them.  And I love the whole “odds are against us” bit while fulfilling some uncertain destiny.

S.D. McKee scratched all my Trekkie itches with this wonderful book. Truth be known, I’ve replaced Kirk with Jonathan Quinn; something I never thought could happen. But Quinn has a quiet confidence about him that gives strength and faith to those who serve under him. He’s busy trying to save the planet, but he’s also fighting against his own demons, a personal journey that puts the jam in my jelly doughnut.

His enemy reminds me of the opening of Independence Day when the space ships come screeching into Earth’s atmosphere on a trail of burning smoke. It scared the granola out of me because it was so alien and mysterious. S.D. McKee captures that same primal fear of a malevolent enemy that will stop at nothing to destroy Earth in a brutal, ugly way.

His cast of characters round out the plot beautifully, and I could feel their ambivalence and shock at discovering exactly what following Quinn into battle would mean to their future existence. McKee writes his characters so fully that they leap off the page and sit down next you and say, “Got some time? I have one hell of a story to tell you.”

It’s no small wonder it was a finalist at the National Book Awards. I think USA Booknews said it best:

Defeated takes readers on a fantastic adventure! Sure to satisfy avid sci-fi fans.”

You can read the first two chapters here.
Oh…and take a look at his website; it’s one of the coolest I’ve seen in a long time. If you do the flash version, be sure to turn on the sound.

Pssst…Amazon is currently out of stock (we’re taking care of that right now). However, you can order Defeated directly from our online store (you’ll see the Order Now button), and we’re charging less than Amazon. It is available at Amazon.com/UK for you across the ponders.


March’s Pick: With It – A Year on the Carnival Trail by Barbara Bamberger Scott

March 3, 2009

withitI adored With It because Barbara Scott took me to a totally unfamiliar world and spoke an unfamiliar language – the language of carnies. Normally I wouldn’t have been interested in this, but Barbara’s writing made me care. Her character development is done so well that they leap off the page, ask to use your bathroom, and eat all your leftovers. They made me laugh hysterically with their special lingo, made me admire them with their code and how they look after one another. Most interesting of all is how they see themselves in comparison to the outside world.Theirs is an insular life, and Barbara sucked me in, cotton candy, stuffed animals, goldfish, and all.

What made the whole thing even cooler is that Barbara had actually lived this life.Even though this is listed as fiction, much of the experiences are real – which lifts the hair on my arms, thankyouverymuch. I can’t say this is Water For Elephants because I feel Barbara’s world is richer, crisper, more colorful, and downright amazing. This is a great read for the beach or being held hostage at home with five feet of snow. Barbara will make you laugh and grab your throat.

I love how Bloomsbury Reviews put it:

“Barbara Scott gives us an unusual look at a part of American life that most of us touch on but never see beyond the glitzy facade, and she does it with understanding, a fresh and breezy style, and an intimate knowledge. She has woven truth gained on the trail with a storyteller’s insight. And she has done it so well that we end up knowing the game and we, too, are ‘with it.'”
The Bloomsbury Review

Brava, dear lady, brava!

You can read the first chapter here.


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