A Guide for Going After Rave Reviews

Over the last two years, I have written over one thousand reviews, the majority of which were of books and DVD releases. Unlike many reviewers (more on this later), I gladly review books from independent publishers and self-publishing authors.

Not every author can launch a book with the help of marketers and publicists, especially if it’s a first book and there are no profits from previous titles to invest in the project. Published reviews are cheap advertising; the only cost to the author is that of the book and postage. Being reviewed, though, is not the most important thing – getting a positive review is. The more a reviewer raves about a book, the more interested people will be in reading it.

“There’s no such thing as a bad review” has two meanings. One is the more commonly understood: it’s better to get a “bad” review than no review. Some people read reviews to find out what books are out there, but don’t necessarily take reviewers’ opinions seriously. Others are interested in what the reviewer thinks (particularly if it’s a reviewer who has similar taste) and may be attracted to a book because they like the genre or find the plot attractive, regardless of the reviewer’s verdict. In this respect – any review is better than no review – there are no “bad reviews” because the reviews publicize the book.

The less commonly understood argument against the existence of “bad reviews” is a matter of semantics. Generally, when people say a movie got a good review or a bad review, they are not discussing the quality of the review, but of the title reviewed. “Bad reviews” are poorly written reviews; reviews that point out flaws in a book are “negative reviews.” Ironically, some very good reviews (well written) are of poorly written material and labeled “bad reviews.” Ergo, although there is such a thing as a “bad review,” that is a criticism of the review, not the item reviewed.

Authors and publicists want positive reviews. To get them, their work should be professional. There is an overwhelming number of books being published and there are thousands of people who write reviews. Not all of those reviewers will accept self-published books simply because they have read too many duds.  When I am contacted directly with an offer for a book and I accept the offer, I have made a commitment (some publicists send books unsolicited in hopes that a review will be published). It’s an unwritten contract, from which all parties have different expectations.

When a publisher, publicist, or author sends a book, the expectation is that it be will be read and result in an honest, preferably positive review. When the reviewer receives a book for review (with the exception of uncorrected proofs), it is expected that the finished product – the edition that readers will be buying – is readable. If a story has a stupid premise, the reader is insulted; if a book is poorly edited, the reader feels assaulted.

The primary directive for getting positive reviews is “Do not assault the reviewer.”  If a product is on shelves for consumers to purchase, it should be perfect. It shouldn’t be falling apart, missing pieces, impossible to use, or inoperable. This is true for literary works, as well. When a reader buys a book, it is reasonable to expect that it is cohesive, correct, and readable. A book plagued with typographical errors, poor grammar, plot contradictions, negligent spacing, inconsistent style, and other annoyances, is not readable.

Presumably, the author’s intent is to tell a story, entertain, or enlighten, but each time the reader is hit with a misspelled or misused word, breach of grammar, or formatting errors, it is like a poke in the eye. If the work is fiction, disbelief is no longer suspended while the reader recovers from the author’s error, sometimes spending more time wondering if the author did any research, had any familiarity with the subject matter, or is conversant in the language in which the book is published.

While it would be nice if all writers produced perfect copy as they tapped away at their laptops, no reasonable person would expect that to happen. It would be foolish to require writers to know every rule of grammar, the spelling of every word, and the intricacies of formatting a manuscript. Writers are not expected to be perfect; there is an army of coaches, editors, copy editors, and proofreaders, ready to lend (or sell) their support.

The most important tool a writer can employ to insure positive (if not “glowing”) reviews is a good copy editor. Editors are essential, but can be expensive – copy editors proof the work and mark it for correction. A copy editor does not suggest substantive changes to the text; instead, he or she considers – and suggests correcting – formatting, style, and accuracy. While saving money on an editor or proofreader (proofing is the final step before publishing) might make sense; it is foolish to economize by forgoing a copy editor.

There are books on the market with hundreds of errors. The authors have up to a dozen people proofread their books, all friends and relatives with good intentions (or—worse—they rely on their word processing spell checkers). Some don’t want to hurt the author’s feeling by pointing out errors (and oversensitive authors must learn to accept correction); some are not particularly gifted with spelling skills and familiarity with proper grammar. Some don’t know the difference between style and poor grammar. There is a plethora of excuses for poor proofing, but proofreading cannot take the place of copy editors. However, when a writer is ready to go to press, having a half dozen or so people proofreading is better than no proofing or copy editing.

Since I began writing reviews (not literary criticism), I have read hundreds of books. Of those books, there was only one that I gave up on – and that was after only a few pages. Virtually every sentence contained misspellings and improper usage. The author would’ve had a better chance of a review had  she hit me over the head with the book.

By page three, I knew that any review I wrote would be so prejudiced that any redeeming qualities the book might have would be overlooked or forgotten.  Never forget that reviewers are readers, and readers are people who resent being sold shoddy products, literary or otherwise. Reading a poorly edited or unedited book generally results in resentment, a resentment that will keep readers away from future efforts, and may also tell them “you really don’t want to finish this one.”

When given a writing assignment in school, we ask “does spelling count?,” or “does penmanship count?” When submitting a book for review, everything counts.

Kathryn “Bob” Etier is a professional, free-lance reviewer/essayist. She is a regular contributor to Technorati.com (with two features, “Bob On Books” and A View from the Id) and Examiner.com, where she is the National Documentary Examiner and the Asheville DVD Examiner.

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