Reviews Redux: Extra Considerations

So far in this series, we’ve pondered why to write reviews, how to write reviews, and how to respond when your work is reviewed. The prevailing theme, as we’ve discussed, is to be professional and courteous, which sounds like good life advice overall. But I have a few final observations on the topic that I thought I’d share.

Be selective in how you approach reviewers

If you’re going to invest your time—and money, in the form of hard copies and postage—in asking for reviews, maximize your chances of success by selecting outlets and reviewers with a track record with your type of book. I’m currently a Reviews Editor for the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society, and you’d be surprised at the number of requests I get for books that show no awareness of our guidelines, which are clearly specified on the website. I have to appreciate the author’s effort, but I don’t at all appreciate the time it takes me to respond with my regrets that their book was not selected for review.

“All I want is for you to review my book.”

It also seems there are influencers out there recommending that indie authors comb through Amazon review lists to find potential reviewers for their books. That may pay off, but it feels intrusive to me—the equivalent of a desperate author following patrons through the bookstore to say, “Hey, I’m signing this book today!” (That’s happened to me, too.) And I’m sorry to say that, despite the frequency with which I get these requests, there’s not a single one of them that I’ve responded positively to, usually because the pitch is for an entirely different genre from the books I review. The author, for example, begins with: “Because you favorably reviewed Philippa Gregory’s THE LADY OF THE RIVERS, I’d like to send you a review copy of my WWII alternate history, in which a young man finds that. . .”

THE LADY OF RIVERS is a historical novel whose protagonist is a woman little known in the historical record, it is deeply rooted in real historical fact, and centers on the lives of women in medieval Europe. How on earth does this author see Gregory’s bestselling book as a comp title ? I continue to be puzzled by such requests, in addition to wondering how the author tracked down my email address without learning that I run my own review website, femmeliterate, through which I gladly (and far more politely) consider the kinds of books I actually read, which are specified in the section titled “Submitting for Review.”

Be polite in how you decline offers to review

My reviewers for the HNR take the easy approach; they simply ignore my emails if they don’t see a book they like. I used to ignore the Amazon-inspired cold calls, too, until I learned from example that real professionals are polite and courteous. Now I take the time to say “Thanks, but I’m full up at the moment; good luck, though, with your book!” This isn’t a lie, because between Publisher’s Weekly, the Historical Novels Review, femmeliterate, and my own reading, I always have a large stack on the TBR table. (Gosh, it’s so hard to be me—people sending me free books all the time!)

There was a recent instance in which I was not polite, though. It involved yet another author combing through Amazon reviews and contacting me to say, “Because you liked A.G. Riddle’s THE ATLANTIS GENE, I wonder if . . .” I put off responding because I had a lot on my plate on the time, and because, to my bewilderment, I was starting to get review requests because of THE ATLANTIS GENE at the rate of one or two a week.

Were people pestering me to read well-written historical fiction about little-known women, I would be grateful. But do you know how many public reviews I’ve left of sci-fi/alternate history thrillers? One. ONE. A.G. Riddle’s THE ATLANTIS GENE, which I read way back when the book was first released, when Riddle was still an indie author, and I only picked it up because it was about Atlantis, and I borrowed it for free—I didn’t even buy the book until there was a 99-cent sale on the Kindle book. I thought it was well-plotted and an interesting concept, noted a few weaknesses, and gave it four stars.

The book now has over 15,000 reviews. Riddle went on to write a full series (I lost interest after Book 2), got taken on by a mainstream publisher, landed a film contract, and is a great success story. I’m delighted for him, but I’m sure everyone realizes this has happened to maybe five people in the recent history of indie publishing. Riddle is not an example for us all; he’s an outlier, more power to him. And yet someone is apparently out there recommending that new authors find reviewers who like Riddle and ask them to review their book, and for some reason, out of the 15,000 people who have done so, I keep standing out.

It probably would have ended there, and I probably would still be fielding these requests (or letting them drop to the bottom of the inbox) if the author in this case hadn’t nudged me. He NUDGED me. After two days, when I still hadn’t responded, he sent me the “did you get my email?” message. When I was in the middle of so many other things that his book was dead last on my list of priorities, he FOLLOWED UP to make sure I’d seen his request.

Reader, I did not reply with grace. I bit like a rabid dog. I rather sternly replied that I would not be requesting his book as my fields of interest—as the very briefest Internet search would show—are feminist or female-centric works (which I review on femmeliterate) or historical fiction, contemporary short fiction, or medieval scholarship, which I write. I expressed my bewilderment as to why I keep getting approached for reviews based on this single book, and I strongly encouraged him to approach reviewers who demonstrated a track record for reading and liking sci-fi/alternate fantasy thrillers, which did not include me. The message was so hasty and passionate that there was a grammatical error in it which I noticed after I fired it off, which only added to my humiliation when the author graciously wrote back (within 5 minutes) that he would carefully consider my advice, and thanks.

The humiliation was good for me, a reminder to keep my poise, among other things. (It also reminded me that real indie authors put a great deal of effort into marketing, because really—a 5-minute email turnaround?) But it also urged me to carefully consider my own review of A.G. Riddle’s THE ATLANTIS GENE. Amazon doesn’t let you delete reviews (though it will helpfully, and apparently randomly, delete them for you) so I edited it. I toned down my praise, leaned on my complaints, and demoted the book to three stars. My apologies, A.G., but as this left no visible dent in the book’s rating, I don’t regret it. Thus far my requests to review books like THE ATLANTIS GENE has dwindled to zero, and I am just fine with that.

Moral of the story? Keep your poise. And also, see rule #1: Be selective in who you approach. And save your follow-ups for when it’s warranted, for instance when the reviewer responded positively, you send them the book, yet you haven’t yet seen a review—anywhere.

Don’t plagiarize

You wouldn’t believe this happens, but I’m dealing right now with a situation where it’s very clear a reviewer I work with liberally borrowed not just from the jacket copy/book description but from what other reviewers said of the book. I can’t believe it was intentional, but the result is plagiarism. It’s caused an enormous headache for several people, and it’s an affront to the authors who spent time and money to mail print books. Plus, I resent that I have to spend my own time and energy sorting out the mess when my emotional labor is better spent finding a  publisher for Thomasine’s story and getting my current novel revised and ready to send out.

Friends, don’t plagiarize, in your reviews or in life.

Other considerations I’ve left out? Advice you would add? Let me know!

Happy reviewing, happy writing, and happy reading, whatever’s on your TBR table.

Reviews Redux: Extra Considerations

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