Over the last few days I’ve been talking about some of the tawdry practices that go on in our industry, and I’ve been wanting to talk about rules of conduct when giving reviews. Too often online I’ve seen instances where people are buying reviews or selling them or trading favors.
Here are a few rules that I think you should consider adopting:
1) Don’t review every book that you are asked to do. In the course of your career, you will most likely get thousands of requests for reviews. On an average week, I get two requests for cover quotes. Unfortunately, reading a long novel (say 800 pages of manuscript) can take as a much as 20 hours. If I were to read two novels a week, I wouldn’t have time to write anything at all. So, here are some basic reasons why you must turn things down.
a) If you don’t have time to give a quote, just be honest. There have been times in my life when I really wanted to give a quote and just couldn’t. For example, one of my students, Brandon Mull, asked for a quote a few years back for his novel Fablehaven. I felt terrible, but his timing was just bad for me. (I’ve read the novel since, and I loved it.) He’s gone on to have a great career (#1 New York Times Bestseller), but every time that I see him, I just feel crummy. Now that he’s in my shoes, I know that he understands just how hectic life can be.
b) If you give too many reviews, then it devalues your reviews. Many authors set a limit of say, 2 per year. That’s a wise thing to do. Years ago, when Terry Brooks gave me a nice cover quote for The Runelords, I felt grateful. When I later learned that Terry almost never gives cover quotes, I felt even more honored. (I think that he has only given a couple of quotes in his life, as I recall.) So lend some credence to your quotes by restricting the number that you give. More importantly, if you really want to give a quote to a novel, make it a priority.
c) If the novel is not in the genre that you write in, then most likely the publisher won’t want your cover quote anyway. I write fantasy. If someone who writes horror or romance or mainstream or young adult asks for a cover quote, then I don’t feel that it does them much good to give them a cover quote. In fact, I’ve given a couple quotes that the publisher has never used, so aside from heartwarming the author, it really didn’t help.
2) Never give a quote for money. I know a couple of authors who, in an effort to cut down on the number of people who ask for quotes, have said that they charge a high dollar amount for a cover quote. The argument goes like this: it costs me a lot of time (and therefore money) to read a book. If I’m going to read a novel with an eye toward a quote, which may have a huge impact on sales, why shouldn’t I get paid to do it?
The problem is that it causes a moral conundrum. If I get paid for a cover quote, will it be an honest one? Won’t the fact that I’m getting paid skew my perceptions? I think that it would. So I would never pay for a quote. On the occasions where people have asked me to give quotes for a reading fee, I’ve always refused to even read the book. Sorry, it just feels weird. Of course it goes without saying that you should never offer to pay for a cover quote, nor should you offer to give another author a quote in return for a favorable quote.
I do know that some places, like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, do offer to review books for a reading fee. Personally, I wouldn’t do it. I realize that it takes time (and therefore money) for a reviewer to read and critique a novel that way, but I worry that this is one of those practices that gets a little too close to the line.
Please note that there are times when you may have an author that you admire who also happens to like your work. For example, I’m a fan of Brandon Sanderson, so I was eager to give him a cover quote on his first novel. In fact, for enjoyment I picked up his novel Steelheart this last Saturday and it is next on my readig list. Brandon recently gave me a quote on one of my novels. I also happen to be a fan of several other best-selling authors. So I wouldn’t feel bad if one of them gave me a cover quote, and I would feel honored if one of them offered a quote. That of course is different from agreeing to give rave reviews to a stranger that you’ve only just met online.
3) Be honest in your review. I’ve had people send me books that I just didn’t enjoy. This is tough. Can you give a plug to a book that you don’t think is really any good? If you read the first chapter, and you really don’t want to read on, you have to stop right there. You can be gentle with the author and say, “This really just didn’t grab me. I’m sorry.”
You don’t have to be brutal about it. Remember that as authors, whether we’re indie or traditionally published, we are all struggling to get better, and we may have different aims and different emotional triggers. A novel that doesn’t interest me may thrill someone else.
When I read, if I suspect that I’m not the audience for that book, I ask myself, “Is there an audience for this book? And if so, can I tailor my remarks to that audience?”
I recall one author who hated Lord of the Rings. When he was asked to review a fantasy novel that he also hated, guess what he compared it to?
That’s a little bit cynical for me, but the concept is sound, so long as your remarks are honest.
4) Phrase your wording carefully when giving a review. Remember that you need to have short bites that can fit on a cover. You can review both the author and the work.
For example, I recently read a science fiction novel that I loved by new author Milo Behr. It will be debuting this week, and I’ll let you know more in a day or two. I could say something like “Milo Behr’s novel Beowulf: A Bloody Calculus was the most exciting cyberpunk debut I’ve seen in twenty years,” and I’d be completely honest about the book. I haven’t seen one that I personally liked as much since William Gibson made his debut.
But what if the author so impresses you that you want to give him or her a quote that could be used for all future novels? In Milo Behr’s novel, he did something both brilliant and nearly unthinkable. He wrote his novel as an epic poem, then put it in narrative form. The result is that the novel has a hypnotic effect, unlike anything that I’ve seen outside of Poe and a couple of mainstream writers. So, for example, I might say something like, “Milo Behr’s work is brilliant and mesmerizing.”
5) Remember that as a reviewer, you’re not always right. Many years ago I reviewed a novel that, quite frankly, really bothered me. The protagonist was so reluctant to do anything at all that I just couldn’t relate. I wrote a review for a small magazine, then heard from some fans who loved the book. They said, “When I read that novel, that protagonist was me.” And I realized, that there was a huge audience for the book, but I just wasn’t part of it. When offering a review, you’re making your own artistic judgment. Others might not share your opinions.
What I want to emphasize here is that giving reviews can be tough. It will take time that you may not have to give, it will present moral challenges that you might not want to face, do it with caution.
Registrationg for the Novel Rewriting Workshop in St. George will close this Wednesday. The workshops will take place September 22nd-26th, so if you want to come, get signed up.