Review requests

February 6, 2011

From time to time I get requests from reviewers for our books. I’m more than happy to send out a free review copy to them.

Most of the time.

The problem is deciding who gets them. Not all reviewers are alike, and it doesn’t bode well to blindly send out a book without knowing the quality of the reviewer.

Letter of introduction

The initial email to the editor is as important as a query letter. Of course, a well-known reviewer could write his request for a review copy on a cocktail napkin, and I’d stumble over the beagle to get it out to them. So yes, reputation has its advantages. But there are many very good, solid reviewers, such as BiblioBuffet whose name may not drip off your tongue like Kirkus does, BUT their reviews are oftentimes far more thoughtful, insightful, honest, and unbiased than their more famous counterparts. It’s important to know these reviewers.

The good ones know how to write an effective query letter. They give a brief introduction as to who they are and the book they are requesting. They are polite and are more than happy to offer information as to their reviews site/magazine, such as traffic or magazine readership. They always act like the consummate professionals that they are. I’m always happy to send these folks a book.

Then there are those who I suspect are trolling for books to simply pad their private libraries. Their query letters are as dismal as the beagle after a weekend bender with the German Shepherds and a bottle of bad vodka. Here is an example I received a while back:

I am “Mr. IWannaBeAReviewer,” a reviewer for (website redacted), a blog to do reviews for books and other items. I would like to do a review of: Title redacted

Could you please send this, so I can do the review of the item, please? If you can, Please send them to: (addy redacted – but it was in Canada)

Aside from the clumsy formatting and wording, I felt this was on the terse, rude side. Obviously, we’ve never established a relationship, so this would have been the perfect time to show his genial side – not simply demand a book.  Why would the reviewer like the book? Does he have a specialty? Who IS he? It’s simply good manners to not appear as though you were born in a barn.

Look at their site

Appearance: The first thing I do is go to a reviewer’s site. In the case of my ill-mannered friend, I went there post haste. It was as I expected – brand spanking new (only four reviews), and very poorly constructed. It looked like one of those early cookie-cutter templates that his second grader slapped together.

Is this fair? Not really. But just like we all judge books by their covers, we judge sites by how professional they appear. If someone is serious about their craft, they are concerned with presenting an equally professional appearance, not something that looks like it’s stuck together with spit and glue.

Traffic: I look to see what kind of traffic they have. I usually look at the number of comments on the reviews, if they enabled the comment feature. If I can’t tell what kind of traffic they have, I ask them. They should be able to easily give me that info since their business relies on traffic.

Content: I check to see what their site offers. Is it a blog, or a formal website? Do they have a staff of contributing writers? What kind of posts/articles do they put up? Is is just reviews, or do they include other articles geared to interest the general reader? To whom is the site geared? Writers or readers?

Quality: Do they write well and have interesting reviews? One reviewer who consistently captures my attention with her sharp wit and excellent analysis is BiblioBuffet’s Nicki Leone. Go read her latest review and tell me you’ve seen its equal in any of the trade journals.

Mr. IWannaBeAReviewer’s writing was third-grade quality at best. Tons of typos and poorly constructed sentences littered his short posts. Missing were all the ingredients that go into a solid review: analysis of the plot construction, character development, pacing, flow, writing ability, did it maintain his interest, and why.

It’s the position of the reviewer who becomes the conduit to their readers. Obviously there is little in it for me to choke up a free book.

Specialize: He may very well be trying to be some sort of reviewer, but my suspicion is that he’s rounding out his private library because he has a very eclectic collection of books that he reviews. It almost looks as though he’ll review anything he can get his hands on…cookbooks, romance, mystery, steampunk. He’s all over the board. Most reviewers have a specialty – be it historical fiction, memoir, biography, romance, thriller/mystery, religion, or mainstream. But they don’t review them all.

Info: Do they include Amazon/B&’s links to buy the book? When I read a review, I like to have a link so I can buy the book. Your good reviewers do this.

Did they include the book info so readers can order/buy the book? Many of them will have something like this:

252 pages * $15.95

In short, a review is as good as the person writing it and the audience who will read it. That’s the beauty of word of mouth. Someone needs to have a big enough mouth for the message to be heard. And this is why I take the time to look at reviewers’ sites and get to know the good ones. Solid relationships like these can lead to all sorts of great things, especially in this business.

While many of you are interested in creating your own reviewer site, it’s important to establish yourself. Learn how to analyze books so that your reviews have some meat to them. “I loved this book,” isn’t going to do it.

Reviews are achingly hard to do and require a lot of time. It’s the same as giving a solid crit to a writer. These don’t roll off our fingers in a matter of minutes. I’ve been known to take a couple hours just to write a crit – and that doesn’t include the time it took to read the pages.

Knowing this, I’m picky about to whom I cough up a book. It’s not that I don’t have them and aren’t happy to send them out – I do and I am. But I want that to count for something other than filling up someone’s private library.

And speaking of reviews…the bad makes good

January 24, 2011

In my Bite Your Tongue post, I talked about the need to remain professional in the face of adversity. In this post, I’m going to suggest that you lean into those bad reviews as a way of maturing and improving your writing.

I’m not talking about the ones that are personal attacks. Those folks have mental problems. Though even the scathing, angry reviews could have some grain of truth.

What, Pricey? You want to depress me even more?

No, not at all. I want you to take your writing seriously and be willing to listen to opinions that are vastly different from yours. If you only read the great reviews, you aren’t learning – you’re basking. Preening. And why not? You’ve earned your praise and lovely reviews. But when you’ve downed a few of the beagle’s margaritas and consumed a box of Twinkies, read the bad ones, too. They’re eye openers.

I know lots of authors detest the Amazon review feature, but I love it. Just last night I happened to check the reviews of one of our backlist titles. I went down to the three-star reviews (he didn’t get anything worse than that) and read what they had to say. They were generally happy with the book and felt it a great tool, but they commented on what they felt was lacking.

Their comments impressed me because I noticed there weren’t any other books that deal with those issues. This means a book that had that information would be in a league of its own. I know this has big audience potential so I’m in the process of writing up a book proposal for the author to see if he’d like to do another book that deals with those specific issues. Had I never read those three star reviews, I wouldn’t have come up with the idea for another book. Since his first book still sells very well after all these years, I’m sure this next one would have a long shelf life as well.

Now this is nonfiction. But bad reviews are an equal opportunity employer. I see many, many solid reviews on Amazon that cut to the chase in a professional manner and explain why the book didn’t work for them. But even the angry ones sometimes have something valid to say regarding plot development, the characters, pacing, flow.

My advice? Don’t shoot the messenger. These are people who paid for your book. They’re your readership. If you’re serious about your craft, then listen to what they’re telling you. Cut through the vitriol and look for the advice. Some of it may not be worth the cyber ink they’re written on, but I promise you, them thar’s tomes o’ gold in there.

How ’bout it? Is there a time when a stinging review opened your eyes?

Pay attention. Lean into the bad. Learn. Get over yourself.



January 13, 2010

I’m ending this week early because The Daughter is making one last trip home before her second semester starts. The two of us are bugging out of town to soak up the sun ‘n fun in Palm Springs – Rancho Mirage, to be exact. So I decided to end my week with this review of Tackle Box.

I worried that posting it might sound like I’m being all horn-tooty, but I really believe this book is one of a kind because it’s based on my experiences of talking to authors just like you. You were the ones who told me what you wanted to learn and what information you had a hard time getting. So this really isn’t about me at all, but I do hope it’s okay if I feel just a bit gloaty here because, well, I worked awfully hard writing it.

This review has a particularly sweet note to it because the author, RL Sutton, and I have had our differences regarding publishing options. As much as we’ve vehemently disagreed, I have to hand it to him; he may have been angry at me, but he’s always come back to be a gentleman.

That he even bought my book was enough to have me ordering the beagle to retrieve my vapors. To receive a review had me mainlining the bottle of tequila I keep in my desk for emergencies. Wow. Thanks, RL, you’re a gent to the end.

When I was a little guy, maybe ten or so, my Dad came home one night with a small, plastic fold-over style tackle box. You know the kind, the one with the little image of a tied fly or a jumping trout on it? Well, anyway, I put my little spinners and lures and split-shot in there with my hook remover, a needle-nosed pliers, a knife and some oil for my reels. I was ready for everything and anything. It swung in my hand as I walked, my pride shining with every swing.

My Dad, on the other hand, had a HUGE, dovetail-joined wooden monstrosity in the garage with several sliding trays and compartments below. That was his tackle box. It was chewed up, gouged and to put it lightly, it stank. There were recesses beyond which I dared not venture until accompanied by his guidance. He was, after all, a semi-successful steelhead fisherman, and even if it took both hands to lift it into the trunk at the beginning of a 5AM fishing trip, it came along. Every time.

The reason I bring any of this up is that after delving into your Tackle Box, both in an orderly as well as a random manner, I’m convinced that you must have had my father’s tackle box in mind.

It is, by far, the most useful compilation of materials for writers who want to publish than I have ever had the pleasure to stumble upon — and I stumble a lot. You will save many of us from wasted pratfalls and melt-downs. If we’re not saved, at least we’ll be able to recognize the scenery as we pass it.

The best part, I’m finding out is it will be something that I’ll refer to again and again in the future.

As publishing morphs into it’s new forms, your careful, balanced analysis and encompassing interview questions will be the ground zero that all others should be building upon. Or some such superlative I haven’t thought of yet… Thanks again.

RL, you will never cease to amaze me. I humbly thank you for your kind words. I hope it’s a helpful tool to your future success.

Save me from the FTC, and pass the chips

October 7, 2009

Warning: This is a commentary, and Lynn is breathing fire.

Oh dear god. Once again, our government works its magic in order to meddle in affairs for which it has no experience or knowledge. What am I talking about? I’m talking about how the Federal Trade Commission has seen fit to revise their “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials.” It states that bloggers who review books or video game systems must now disclose if they got those books or video games for free. Why the necessity for disclosure, you ask?

Because the FTC trembles in fear that those freebie copies we send out – called Advance Reader Copies – are the equivalent of an endorsement – that we send out books with the “expectation of a favorable review.” If these idiots at the FTC knew anything about publishing, they’d realize that we have absolutely zero expectation of a favorable review. Heck, we don’t even know if we’ll even get reviewed. It’s a crapshoot.

I’d sure like to see the FTC’s proof that freebies = favorable endorsement because I don’t know of a single publisher who has seen this be the case at all.  In fact, I’ve seen any number online reviews that were anything but laudatory about books they’d read, and we all know the books were sent for free.

This is just all kinds of stupid because it lacks any scintilla of logic. For one thing, book review bloggers are no different from the trade magazines and newspapers who review. But Bureau of Consumer Protection representative, Richard Cleland, insists that newspaper and magazines are exempt because “the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper.”

Now Cleland has no problem with a blog review provided the blogger doesn’t keep the book after h/she’s done reviewing it. In Cleland’s mind, hanging on to the book is paramount to the blogger being compensated, and this requires a disclosure. Good grief, I can see saying, “Hey, dudes, we got this book for freeeee…” Well no shit, Sherlock. Every reviewer gets free books, and no one is complaining. If no one cares, why does the FTC? Furthermore, why won’t they even listen to those who are in the business?

Does the FTC presume to know more about the publishing/review business than we do? Apparently so, since he told Edward Champion in an interview, “You simply don’t agree, which is your right.” Well, dang my buttons, Mr. Cleland, thanks for at least allowing us to disagree with you. But I’d like to know why is it when someone disagrees with a government action that we are dismissed, rather than consulted as to why we don’t agree. We don’t agree because we know our business – something Cleland clearly lacks.

And get this; if those bloggers don’t comply, they can receive an 11K fine. I’m curious as to how the FTC plans on implementing this policy. Have they hired a bunch of brown shirts to invade the homes of thousands of blog review sites and verify whether those books are sitting on the shelves or have been properly disposed of?

Who the hell is the FTC to make distinctions about what is “compensation” and what is simply going about the course of performing one’s job? You want to talk about an industry dirty secret, let’s talk about magazines who strenuously peddle their ad space? It’s a well-known fact that buying ad space increases your chances of getting a book review. Ad space is far from free. But do we all go running to the government because we don’t like it? Of course not. It’s the nature of doing business.

Just who is getting hurt here? If Cleland spent a week sitting in my chair, he’d realize that bloggers are as far from paid endorsements as the beagle is finding sobriety.

And speaking about those newspapers and magazines; does he really think those books don’t disappear off the shelves once they are reviewed? Puhleeze.

Why is the blogger injudiciously accused of being compensated when there are very big trade magazines that offer paid reviews? They don’t disclose which reviews are paid for, so anyone reading the review section is none the wiser. All the publisher or author has to do is fork over some hefty cash and get a guaranteed big-name review. To me, this is far more compensatory than some blogger who keeps a freaking book because the author or publisher does have the expectation of a favorable review.

Lastly, I wonder why the FTC cares? Cleland’s answer to this is predictably anemic.

“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”

I really, really want what this guy is smoking.

My god, when I think of all the paid graft that takes place in the entertainment industry, attacking bloggers makes as much sense as sending the beagle to the Betty Ford Clinic. They have some real problems to deal with, like e-book piracy. Attacking a segment of the review industry for some trumped up grievance is pathetic at best.

Why does the government feel the need to “fix” what ain’t broken? I know, I know, the answer is “because screwing things up is what they do best.”

There are some very good articles that articulate the facts far better than I. I excel at righteous outrage.

After reading about this latest gasp at government intrusion, I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines; who is John Galt?

Alice Hoffman should have taken up tennis

June 29, 2009

It’s a fact that a bad review stings. This business requires a strong backbone and nonexistent gag reflex because, at some point or another, someone is going to say something about your writing that you don’t want to hear. That’s life; 100% of the people aren’t going to like your book. Get over yourself. How you react to it is what makes you gracious under fire or a rabid gasbag. How you are perceived should matter to you because it’s everything in this business.

This article is a shining example of what I’m talking about. Alice Hoffman’s over-the-top reaction to Roberta Silman’s review of her book reveals the intelligence of a bing cherry. She is a gasbag. There are people I would NEVER work with again because they proved to be bing cherry gasbags. Gasbags don’t sell books.

But Alice didn’t stop there. She blasted Roberta’s home phone and personal email over the internet, imploring others to contact her. Whoa. Now she’s no longer just a gasbag. She’s wandered into I’manutjob Land.

Alice, here is a newsflash, darlin’; there are idiots who don’t stop at sending nastygrams, and you need to know the risks you’ve placed on this reviewer. Idiots sometimes stalk and  do horrible things. I know because I’ve had this very thing done to me, and it scared the holy hell out of me.

And what about your publisher? Have they swallowed a carton of Rolaids for the embarrassment you’ve caused them? It’s no small wonder that you are suddenly “on vacation” and your Twitter page was pulled down.

I’ll tell you what; if you were my author, you’d be on something more permanent than a vacation. You’d be out on your butt. It wouldn’t matter how much money your book makes – who needs a psycho? You’ve ruined your reputation to the point where I’m hearing, “Whoa. What a bitch. I wouldn’t buy her book if it were the last thing in the store.” Your kind of nuttery doesn’t sell books, so who needs you?

Authors who feel the need to vent at a rejection or bad review should use that pent-up energy by smacking a tennis ball around or jogging. If you’re hurting, keep your feet moving and your mouth shut.

%d bloggers like this: