Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Have a word with your authors, please, publishers

A review by some bloke
I know a bit about reviews. The first paid writing I ever did was a review for PC User magazine of a brand new shiny piece of software called Excel. I quite liked it. There followed a number of years writing reviews of business software, then computer games (which really is money for old rope) and finally books.

These days, apart from reviewing for www.popularscience.co.uk and for my blog, I do a fair number of book reviews for print publications from Wall Street Journal to Nature. And I have noticed a worrying trend. Probably because of the increase of easy communication through websites and social networking, people rather expect to be able to get in touch with a reviewer after reading their review. And a rapidly increasing number of authors are dropping me an email.

I put these emails on a scale, from 'appreciated' to 'not a good move', and sadly there are rather too many down the bottom end. Here's how they look:
  • Appreciated - a nice little note saying thank-you for the review. What's not to love, though the only downside is than when I see an email from an author titled 'Your review' I do get a few moments disquiet before I see it's a nice one.
  • Okay if justified - some emails correct an error in a review. This is fine with an online review as the correction can be published, though there's not a lot of point with a print review. However, make sure it is a genuine error. I recently had one complaining because I'd said the author used a technical term without saying what it meant. He asked me to correct the review, as he had explained the term in a note at the back of the book. Sorry, hardly anyone reads notes - the book was still difficult to understand as there was no explanation in context. I did correct the review, but I can't say I was impressed.
  • Silly - complaining about an opinion. A lot of the content in a review is inevitably an opinion. I recently received one as an editor (someone else wrote the review) starting 'I'm really sorry you thought this, and I am surprised at your conventionalism.' Frankly, so what? Why should I take any notice of your opinion of an opinion? All you are going to do is irritate me, and I may be responsible for another review of one of your books in the future. What's the point?
  • Not a good move - ad hominem attack. Some authors can't resist starting to make nasty remarks and name calling if they don't like a review I wrote. I'm sorry, I can't like every book. I didn't like yours. This is really self-defeating. Not only will this somewhat discourage me from saying nice things about you, if the insults are bad enough I will inform your publisher that you are a loose cannon and they won't be particularly happy. This isn't good for your career.
So, my recommendation: by default stick with a dignified silence. If you've got another review that's good, read that instead. If not, wonder why not. I really would only get in touch with a simple thank-you or to correct a specific factual error in an online review (e.g. if it says your book doesn't have an index, and it does). Anything else may make you feel good for a few seconds but isn't going to help and might make things worse.
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