Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing by Mayra Calvani and Ann K. Edwards

If you're an experienced reviewer, [this book] will serve as an excellent reference tool and amalgam of resources. If you're a beginner, this book will show you hot to write a well-written, honest, objective and professional book review. It will also teach you:
  • How to read critically
  • How to differentiate the various types of reviews
  • How to rate books
  • How to prevent amateurish mistakes
  • How to deal with the ethics and legalities of reviewing
  • How to start your own review site
  • How to publish your reviews on dozens of sites and even make money while you're at it, and much more.
If you're an author, publisher, publicist, bookseller, librarian, or reader, this book will also bring to light the importance and influence of book reviews within a wider spectrum.

I'm sure you're asking why I, The Bookbabe, would pick up a book about writing reviews. After all, if you're reading this blog, then you already know that I write reviews. And that this isn't my first review. So, am I looking for a way to "make money" doing this? Am I thinking of a career change? (And would it really be a change, or sort of an obvious evolution?)

None of the above.

I believe that no matter what you do for a living, or even for a hobby, you can always do it better. And that's why I picked up this book: I want to write better reviews. The good news is that I'm already doing a lot of things right, such as being objective and never attacking the author. The bad news is that I still have much room for improvement, at least, according to the rules the authors lay out.

This book does have a lot of good advice about the basics of writing a review, although the majority of the advice is slanted toward the person wishing to do this professionally. They recommend focusing on things I usually try to do anyway: plot, pacing, character development, editing, etc. One of the things I very much appreciated was the advice to be honest yet tactful. Look, as should be obvious to pretty much anyone who reads, not all books are great. A lot of them aren't even good. But rather than post a review that simply says "This is the worst book I ever read! Don't waste your time!", you (the reviewer) need to be able to cite concrete examples of why the book isn't good. And keep in mind that "good" is a subjective term; what I love to read may not be your cup of tea and vice versa.

The authors include advice on things like how to set yourself a schedule, how to respond to emails/phone calls regarding negative reviews, how to start your own review site, how to contact established review sites to submit freelance work, and much, much more. In fact, I was surprised at just how much information they were able to pack into this very slim work (it clocks in at just 190 pages, including the appendices and the index). I will admit I skimmed some of this information, as I'm not interested in doing this professionally, nor do I have any wish to set up my own review site (I'm very happy with my little blog, thank you very much). They even include advice on how to handle the situation of "overload" - what to do if you suddenly realize that your hobby has become a full-time job and is no longer enjoyable.

There are a few problems, though. I was amazed at how often the authors contradict themselves. For example, they talk a lot about the major book review publications, such as Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers' Weekly, etc, and how those reviews are generally considered legitimate; they also talk about how most do not consider reader reviews on sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble to be on equal footing. And yet, they often talk about posting reviews on those same sites. So should or shouldn't you post reviews on such online sites? It's never very clear.

What also surprised me is that the blurb on the back of the back mentions being able to "make money" by writing and submitting reviews. And yet, in the page/chapter titled "Is There Any Money In It?", the very first sentence seems to state the exact opposite: "The sad reality is that, unless you work as a permanent staff reviewer for a major newspaper or publication, there's little chance of making any money reviewing." The authors do point out that you can make a few bucks if you get the right sites to accept your work, but pretty much, you're going to be doing this out of your love for books and your desire to share that love. Sorry, but to me, this is bordering on false advertising. If the authors want me to be honest in my reviews, then I'm gonna call them out on this money thing.

My biggest disappointment was a simple sentence in the chapter regarding the influence of reviews on readers. Obviously, most readers are going to be reading other readers' reviews, not professional publications. Or they're going to be going off what they've seen on TV (authors out promoting their works), what their friends are reading, etc. In speaking of how readers go about finding out what's out there and what's worth reading, the authors state: "In this age of computers when almost every person has a PC at home, it's easy for booklovers to access the Internet and read book reviews." WRONG. I work in a public library, as many of you know, and I can state that the authors are off base on this. "Almost every person" does not have a PC at home, and many who do often do not have that computer hooked up to the Internet. Granted, this book was written in 2008, and perhaps the authors were projecting forward, thinking that the economy would keep moving forward (although there were already signs that the crash was coming), but this is exactly the sort of thinking that has many libraries frustrated. There are hundreds of thousands of people, if not more,  who must rely on public access computers at libraries for Internet access. As such, they are not usually sitting around reading book reviews; they are trying to stay in contact with friends and family, applying for work, updating unemployment information, filing taxes, and the like. When people assume that everyone has Internet access, it really hurts those that don't - in the form of budget cuts, which results in the loss of public service hours, and often, library positions, finally resulting in complete closures. I would respectfully ask the authors to do a little more research next time (perhaps consulting a librarian).

I do think this book has some good information and advice. I just wish the authors had been a little more clear on some issues and hadn't used commonly held beliefs for others.

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