To Review or Not To Review

When I told my former agent I knew a very famous writer, the first thing she said was “Can you get her to write a cover blurb for your book?” I said “no.” I knew this writer was overwhelmed with obligations and had a stack of galleys from her editor waiting for blurbs that had sat unread on her coffee table for months. My agent was quite disappointed; she said a good cover quote by a famous author helps sell a book. Before it sells in the  store, a diamond quote can sell a book to an editor or a publisher.

Which I find interesting because for a few days now on Twitter we’ve been talking about book reviews. Who should you review? Should you ask your friends to put up Amazon reviews? Should you review a friend? And if you do, should you cop to it in the review?

Indie authors have scruples the traditional publishing world never worried about. Louise Erdrich’s husband pretended he was her agent to get her first book deal. Traditional publishers, editors, and agents push their contracted writers to read galleys and rain praise on others in the same stable. Literary elite reviewers are often literary writers who know the novelist whose latest book they are reviewing. And they don’t put that fact in their New York Times review.

I know this stuff because I worked for two trade review magazines, RT Book Club and Publishers Weekly. Nothing in either of my contracts stated that if I received a galley by someone I knew from a conference or a writing group or social media, I must immediately return the galley or at the very least confess to “knowing” the novelist under review. In fact, I knew many writers I reviewed. They sent email thanking me for my reviews, and one email led to another, as they used to do, and that’s how I got to know many wonderful writers.

Are they my best friends? No. Not in Real Life. But what if my best friend did write a novel, and what if she did ask me to review it on Amazon and interview her on my website? Would I do it? Yes! And I’d start the review by saying “My best friend just wrote a wonderful novel…” Wait. What if the novel isn’t wonderful? What if I hate it? What if it’s amateur and full of cliches and just plain sucks?

In that case, I wouldn’t write the review, because now that I don’t make a living as a book critic I will never write a negative review again. I’m committed to only writing reviews of books I love, and even then, I’m not going to be able to review every book I read and enjoy. There’s just not enough time in the day. What with writing novels myself and teaching other people how to write novels and flitting around like a social media butterfly writing blogs and tweets. Then there’s dinner to cook. 

The publishing world is small and everyone is trying to become the next #1. We used to have indie bookstores where booksellers would hand sell a book they believed in. That doesn’t happen much anymore. Instead, indie authors are looking to online communities for reviews, for a cover blurb, for a good word. And they shouldn’t have to feel bad about that. It’s part of the business of writing.

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  1. I still think it’s sweet that Louise Erdrich’s husband did that for her. Anybody can be an agent. Anybody can publish their opinion of anybody else’s book on Amazon.


  2. Hmm… ‘I will never write a negative review’. What will happen if everyone does this? Will we see only 4 and 5 star reviews on published books? Will they then mean anything?


  3. You make a good point John, but as the world has no dirth of people willing to write negative (and sometimes vile) reviews, I don’t see it happening. This is a personal choice after years of writing negative reviews because it was my job to read whatever I was assigned, and to read the entire book. Even if I hated it. So I told the truth. I’m retired from that now and I don’t have to finish a bad book anymore. If a book doesn’t grab me in the first chapter, I don’t finish it. Hence, I read only good books.


  4. I totally admire that you only write positive reviews. I was contracted to write book reviews for an online news site at one point. It was great when I had books that I enjoyed but when they gave me the Dalai Lama’s recent book (co-authored) and I couldn’t find anything positive to say about it – despite being a “fan” – I realized I couldn’t write reviews for money anymore.


  5. Yep. I do know what you mean, Donna. It’s one reason I quit reviewing for money too. The rule is you have to finish the book and if you say anything negative you have to back it up. Those were always the hardest lines for me to write because a bad book is just as difficult to write as a good one. The writer puts her heart and soul there on the page and I don’t feel good about messing with that. I’m a fan of Dalai Lama too, whew, that would be tough. Publishers Weekly is nice because the reviews are anonymous. So people you adore who don’t hit it out of the park will never know it was you who didn’t like the new work. Feel safe here, I’m pretty sure the DL doesn’t visit this site regularly:)


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