Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A REVIEWER’S CONUNDRUM by L.J. Roberts


I can't remember a time I didn't read. I still have the first book I bought with my own money -- Jane Eyre for $0.50 through Scholastic Books. Since 1994, I have coordinated the  East Bay Mystery Readers' Group

My transition into being a reviewer started by keeping notes for my own sake, just so I’d remember which authors’ writing I liked.  Over time, I began sharing my reviews on-line.  Poisoned Pen Press asked me to be a reader for them, evaluating manuscripts.  After reading the vast number of really bad manuscripts, I couldn’t do it anymore, but they had taught me how to evaluate the various elements of a book and I started reviewing seriously.  

My reviews now are found in "The Strand Magazine," "Mystery Readers Journal," international e-zine "Calamity's Corner",  on-line at Mystery*File , I Love a Mystery and Criminal History UK  as well as being a Top 500 Reviewer on Amazon US, Canada and UK, posting on DorothyL, 4MysteryAddicts, and Crime Thru Time, a distribution list of people to whom I email  my monthly reviews and all of my reviews can be found on  LJ Roberts_Goodreads .  I also have a blog, It is purely my opinion, where I write about books and other things.



CONUNDRUM--don’t you love that word?  It has such a wonderful sound and it’s fun to say: conundrum.  But I digress…

I write reviews of mystery books.  I write them for on-line communities, websites, subscription e-zines, and print publications.  I enjoy writing them, which is a good thing.  Most of the books are ones I buy.  A very few are sent to me by author’s from whom I shamelessly beg.  Even fewer are from authors who, judging by my past reviews of their work, know I’m a fan and send me their newest book. 

Two outlets do send me free ARCs, AREs, UPs or some other alphabet soup combination of pre-published works and, even better, from some I am able to choose the authors whose works I’d like to receive.
There is one publication for which I review that actually pays me.  Real money.  And considering how few paid gigs there are for reviewers, being paid at all is a thrill.  Book publishers pay for advertising which supports this publication.  They also send copies of their new releases to the reviewers in order to spread the word about those new books and, hopefully, boost the sales of those books, thus increasing their revenue and justifying their marketing dollars spent on advertising

Now comes the reviewer, me. As a reviewer, I have always felt my responsibility is to fellow readers.  Over the years, I built my reputation on giving an honest opinion.  I received one of the greatest compliments to date when the publisher of the international e-zine for which I review said, “
I love the way your reviews are teaching tools for authors. You point out how the writer brings the characters to life and makes a story great.”  Through focusing on, and describing the strengths and weaknesses of the elements of a book, I believe other readers may judge whether that book will appeal to them; it is this for which I strive.

Therein lies my—here it comes—conundrum—I do love that word.  When reviewing for an outlet whose revenue comes from publishers, they want you to write positive reviews.  This wouldn’t be bad if the selection of books from which I have to choose were broad and diverse.  But it isn’t. There are three primary houses from whom I receive books:  two of which send me sub-genres I don’t normally read as they are not to my personal taste.  I do, however, love the third house as they are the source for some of my favorite authors.


   
One conundrum arose when the paid outlet changed the text of the review without my knowing.  For example, I wrote ”The plot is very well constructed.” yet in print, the sentence morphed into ”The novel is superbly constructed.”  Happily, I did receive an apology from the Editor for the copywriters ‘enthusiasm’.  So, the question is: do I own the copy because I wrote it, or do they own the copy as they paid me for it? Since the relationship I have with the magazine’s editor is quite casual, should I expect to view the changes in advance?

When reviewing books not of my selection, there often arises a double conundrum!  First, I’m faced with reading a genre for which I, personally, don’t care because it is outside my area of interest.  I tend not to read cozies, suspense/thrillers, or noir.  This is a generalization, of course, as there are authors whose books are the exceptions and books that have cross genres.  Second, as a reviewer, I must set aside, as best as possible, my personal preferences and be as objective as possible. 

How do I handle my review?  Carefully, and occasionally with small compromises, I choose from the selection I feel most suits me.  For example, I was asked to review a cozy.  There are a lot of people who love this sub-genre so I needed to look at it from their perspective.  The book did have some stylistic choices that bothered me.  I focused on the book’s strengths but didn’t completely ignore the weaknesses.  In my review, one line, of which I was particularly proud and thought quite clever as it was a play on the book’s setting of a pizza parlor, was:  “The book had more portents than slices of pepperoni one would hope for on their pizza.” The magazine editor disagreed and asked that I remove it or rephrase it. I changed it to:”There are a lot of portents…”, but I still prefer the original. In another review for a book I felt was poorly written, I wrote: “Normally a book such as this would be a good airplane book as one could lose oneself in it for a few hours. In the case of this book, however, one would do best to lose the book.”  Funny, that review wasn’t published. 
 
Normally, there is a middle ground.  I do strive for that, I really do.  I want to be fair to the publishers, writers, and readers, of all genres.  At the same time, I do feel it would not be fair to anyone, were I not true to myself first.

The wall behind my desk.
 The books in my den are ~1/6 of all my books
And yes, that is a mini-T.A.R.D.I.S on top of my monitor.
Reposted with kind permission from Kaye Barley of  Meanderings and Muses 
(article Sept 23rd)

7 comments:

LJ Roberts said...

Thank you, Wendy. I am very flattered you've posted this on your blog.

Wendy said...

Hi L.J,
Thank you for an insight into the world of a reviewer. Your love of books shows through in your thorough and enthusiastic reviews. I'm proud to say your reviews are a hightlight each month in Calamity's Corner. Books are friends, aren't they and your have sooo many friends, books and real people because of your reviews. :)

Rosalie Skinner said...

L.J, What a great article. Conundrum.. yeah.. it's a great word but you really do explain how it applies to being a reviewer.
I look forward to your reviews each month in Calamity's Corner.
Great post Wendy. Thanks for sharing LJ's thoughts.

Michelle said...

It was nice to read about reviews from the "other side." As authors we all hope, pray and cross every digit hoping for a stunning review, but we seldom give thought to how hard it must be to give an honest review on the part of the reviewer. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your world. It's clear you love books, and, by the same token, authors and readers alike.

Michelle Pickett
Concilium, July 2012

www.Michelle-Pickett.com

edithparzefall said...

Fascinating read, LJ. I can't say I envy you. I write reviews occasionally, but only for books or movies I really care about. That makes it so much easier as I'm avoiding the conundrum you face. When the going gets tough...

Keep going, LJ. We need reviewers like you.

Best,
Edith

LJ Roberts said...

Thank you, ladies, for the very nice comments. Don't worry, Rosalie, as long as Wendy will have me, my reviews will be in Calamity's Corner.

Wendy said...

L.J. That is music to my ears!!! :)

Thanks for dropping by Rosalie, Michelle and Edith. Lovely to see you here. It's easy to review a reviewer as polished and thorough as LJ. I agree, it's not so easy to be one.