Random Musings: Who am I writing book reviews for?

Readers. I am writing reviews for readers. I hope to inform and thereby assist in their choice of books to purchase or borrow from a library.

But it’s not that simple. I review many books from small presses. Every title they publish is a financial risk. No book is going to be liked by everyone so it is vital that each book finds its appreciative audience. Reviews and the related buzz on social media matter, to get the word out that a book exists.

Then there are the authors who have poured so much of themselves into their creations. A negative review can hurt.

I don’t wish to hurt anyone.

But I am writing for readers. If I am not honest in my opinions then there seems little point in what I do.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading and then reviewing a book from a small press I do my best to support. They do sterling work and are well respected. I have read every book they have published and regularly sing the praises of many of these. I have purchased them for friends.

I was excited to receive the proof and eagerly set aside the time needed to read it. The book is big in size and scope so demanded a greater than usual commitment. The structure is unusual and it gradually became clear that the subject matter was negatively affecting my mental health. In crafting my review I took great care to be fair in my criticism and also to convey the style of writing. However depressing I personally may have found it, there will be readers who enjoy other aspects of its wide ranging ruminations.

I posted my review. I was politely requested to take it down until closer to publication, preferably after this date.

I am feeling conflicted.

In the hour the review was up I received a comment that it was ‘perfect’. This particular reader, who has pre-ordered the book, was looking forward to reading it for himself. I took from this interaction that I had in no way put him off. This is good.

I have since heard that another reader, who had shown interest in the Tweets I was posting as I worked my way through the pages, has requested a copy of the book. This is what I aim to do – to generate interest in a title.

I posted my review many weeks ahead of publication. My understanding is that pre-orders matter so this did not seem out of order. I have done it many times before.

I write for readers. What of those who may not enjoy the style of the writing? What of those who may be upset, as I was, by the clear depiction of how unremittingly awful the human race is? It is hard not to feel, although this was denied, that had my review been glowing there would not have been an issue.

Taking the review down for the time being was my choice. I remain unsure if it was the right thing to do. I understand the points made in the polite request but am concerned I feel too close to retain the detachment necessary. I fail readers if I do not provide an impartial opinion. I am wary of reviews from authors opining about books written by their friends.

Here is a short list of things publishers could clearly state to help reviewers if a proof is being sent out well ahead of publication.

  • May pictures be shared on social media?
  • May early, short impressions be voiced?
  • After what date may a full review be posted?

I have no problem adhering to the same guidelines as other reviewers. I would have a problem if I were asked to act differently depending on my opinion. This is not what potential readers are looking for.

Blogs are not magazines or newspapers. I have no predecessor or editor to advise me or check my content. On one occasion I expressed an opinion in a review in a way that a journalist acquaintance contacted me to warn, in as friendly a manner as possible, could be problematic. I appreciated this voice of experience and changed my wording. It did not compromise the gist of the review.

The growth of blogs and shrinking of newspaper sales has changed the way readers seek out information. I work hard to provide useful content.

It is thanks to authors writing and publishers producing books that we readers have the vast choice and variety of literature to enjoy. I am grateful for every book I am sent.

I will not enjoy them all. Negative reviews can be useful if written with care.

My blog is my space to write and I feel fortunate that readers regularly seek out my musings. I value my autonomy.

I am writing for readers.

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23 comments on “Random Musings: Who am I writing book reviews for?

  1. The Bobosphere says:

    Hear! Hear!!

    In your review of that book you explained clearly what the book is about. I understand the type of book and what I’m in for when I start reading it. You did a great job.

    re ARCS – I tend not to share the early ones ( I have the new Colson Whitehead and I’ve had the Heavens since December) until two weeks before publication date. This is because most publishers tell me to put the review up one week before publishing. If you’re unsure I guess asking is the best solution. Saying that booktubers will mention the ARC in their hauls so I guess in the youtube world that’s ok.

    • Jackie Law says:

      Thank you. I hold most reviews until close to publication but sometimes the publisher appears to want to create an early buzz. Clarification from them when the proof is sent out would be useful – as when an embargo is clearly stated on the AI sheet.

  2. Marina Sofia says:

    I think I know which one you mean and I am still intrigued by the book and will probably get it at some point. However, I’m in a fragile mental state now, so I for one am grateful for your warning, so that I can read the book at a time when I can do it justice.

  3. Stuart Falconer says:

    I am a reader.

    I think the publisher was being unfair in asking you to take a review down if they had not provided guidance on a suitable timeline. Reviews are fair comment, and having read your blogs for the last few months I believe you are making a decent stab at impartiality. It is impossible to like everything, however well-written it might be. Not registering your misgivings about a book would have been dishonest to both the writer and the prospective reader.

    As a reader I am sometimes irritated at writers who seem to be happy to unload their burden of misery on the reader, often on the basis of “I’ve suffered for my art so now it’s your turn.” In this particular case I am glad to have been forewarned about something which I might have found unnecessarily depressing.

    As an occasional writer I am always interested to read reviews and comments about my own work, whether or not the reviewer has actually liked it. Fortunately I have only once encountered a review which completely missed the point of what I was saying. Though I was briefly tempted to respond by saying something like “Have you forgotten how to suspend your disbelief?” I am glad to say I took a deep breath and let the moment pass.

    Your blogs are providing a useful service in drawing attention to books which are often the output of smaller, independent publishers and might otherwise go unnoticed. Long may you continue to do so.

  4. Your blog. Your views. Nothing to do with anyone else. For what it’s worth, negative reviews often pique my interest to buy a book more than hundreds of gushing reviews of praise. I want to know if I agree…

  5. Absolutely love your views on this! I feel the same especially as I tend not to get the same amount of ARCs as others. So when I get that terrible FOMO I always remind myself that I blog to help other readers like myself make informed decisions on what books to buy and read…

  6. Bookishchat says:

    I know the review and boom you are taking about. I have pre-ordered it (before I read your review), after reading your very honest, very well constructed review it has made me want to read the book more!

    If you have been asked to take your review down because it is a little early then ok. Although I still wouldn’t be happy about this. However, if it is because it is not an entirely glowing review then this really isn’t on at all!

    As you say, it would be very helpful to be told by publishers what is and isn’t allowed.

    I recently was sent a proof of a book which had been crowd funded. A couple of people saw my tweets and took exception to the fact that I had a copy before them when they had helped to fund it. I assume they will get a full complete finished copy rather than a proof and said as much, but the publisher who was also tagged in the tweet didn’t help me out.

    If I knew it would cause consternation I would have limited my tweets maybe.

    Anyway, great post. Hope you get your review up soon x

  7. bookbound says:

    It is so important that people are allowed to be honest about what they read and how they respond to it. Otherwise life just becomes one bland observation without any difference of opinion. I fully appreciate that every single writer has put their all into their work, but no one can expect exclusive acclaim. It isn’t possible. I have started blogging in part to engage in debate about books, that means expressing opinion. I am finding dealing with ‘I didn’t like it’ aspect really challenging, but honesty has to be important, surely?

  8. Lainy SMBSLT says:

    *hugs* Jackie. I post reviews of all books I read. Some of the ones I dislike are often ones I get feedback folk have went and bought. What I didn’t enjoy they like. Same with books I want to buy but on the fence, the low star reviews pushes the sale.

    Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

  9. Shalini says:

    Lovely post. I don’t write for anyone except for readers like me for whom books are a luxury. I tell them what I liked and what I didn’t like. Then it is up to them to decide. I too was asked by the publisher to not write my negative review or give the book a glowing review. Luckily all conversations occurred on type so I took a screenshot of it. And asked the publisher directly if they wanted me to be dishonest.. They backed down and said all reviews are independent and up to me. I may not get books from them future but if I had written a glowing review, or removed my review, the book might have mental anguish to some reader. Well, this is my personal opinion. I don’t want free books if I have to lie about it.

    • Jackie Law says:

      Just to be clear, I wasn’t asked to change anything about the review and it was a request not a demand. I hope I have a good relationship with the publisher and that this continues. I get where they were coming from but am still unsure if taking my review down was the right thing to do.

      • Shalini says:

        I understand Jackie. I think the publishers don’t understand basic human nature. If a book has negative reviews, the mind wants to know why. It is the curiosity which is the same in all of us. So ideally you should do what your conscience tells you in such cases.
        I put forth my circumstance because I couldn’t sleep the whole, I was in a mental dilemma when I was asked to not review after I had read the book twice. Hence I felt very sad and very disturbed. But it took the whole night to decide that for me books are very expensive and if free books is a kind of bribe, then the disclaimer we write has no meaning because we are giving in so I wrote the review.
        If you feel that you were right, then put up your review. Sometimes we have to stand up for what we believe in even if we are alone in that. The world might not like us, but it is important we would like us. I mean I need to like me before others like me.
        Sorry this was a very long comment probably not valid to your post. But it just touched something in me which caused me to say – do what you think is right

  10. Shalini says:

    P. S. I write directly what was good and what was bad. I don’t know how to be diplomatic or careful with my words. Books incite my passion good or bad, and my reviews are the same. If I can gush about a book, I can put it down too. Both should be accepted.

  11. TripFiction says:

    I believe I know which book this is…. I have always found your reviews measured and we all have different responses to what we read. In the review cited, you explained why the book was not for you and I felt you said so in a constructive and considerate way. I am sure that will not put off potential readers and indeed, as Linda has said, may even pique interest (bland 5* reviews always have me running for the hills!). But this is about the wider picture as much as anything, isn’t it…. ? I often feel that bloggers can be at the end of a scattergun approach when people are asking for reviews. There is of course a real need to get publicity for a book, but when the review is more negative or it goes out at the ‘wrong time” (because information perhaps hasn’t been given) then bloggers have to pick up the pieces. You, for example, now have a blank space where the blogpost was. You published the post in good faith. In essence, this is about value of what you do… and as a reader, I think what you do is amazing.

    No deets from the publisher, your blog, you do as you see fit, I think! (easily said I know…)

    • Jackie Law says:

      Thank you and yes, it is raising a wider issue, and that blank space is frustrating.

      I was wary of publishing this post as I don’t want it to be about one publisher, especially as I enjoy so much of their output. On the other hand we shouldn’t feel afraid to state our views, respectfully, in our own space.

  12. A.M.B. says:

    Well said! I’ve often bought and read books *because* of a carefully written, critical review. When I’m looking for books to read, the least useful review is the one that gives low stars but little or no explanation. As an author, I find those are also the most harmful.

  13. Thank you for writing for readers…if you didn’t (if you were a shill for publishers) I wouldn’t be reading and thinking of what you’ve written..I’m not slavish in my choices..but I appreciate what you do to help me make winnow out books that obviously are not for me..

  14. Beth Webb says:

    As a reader, I find your reviews really helpful (maybe because we have the same tastes?). As an author, your comments are invaluable. Thank you.

  15. Very good post, Jackie. It is a difficult path that we walk where we are part of a publishers marketing campaign for a newly released book, and yet also want to maintain our own independence of opinion and credibility for reviews. Like you, I see my target audience as readers first and foremost through my blog and on Good Reads. I have no problem with publishers having embargos for reviews and information prior to release, that is their prerogative after all, but they do need to make it very clear.

    I am considering at the moment reducing or stopping requesting review copies of books and sourcing them from the library or local bookshop as well as reading the enormous piles of books that I have at home(!!!). There are two reasons behind this, to remove the pressure of reading to a deadline and also to reduce the obligation that we all feel to be generous rather than honest.

    • Jackie Law says:

      It is tricky, that wish to be generous yet need to be honest. The size of my TBR pile helps comfort me when I ponder if a publisher may decide not to send me review copies because of my criticism. It would be a long time before I ran out of unread books.

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