A Bookbagger's View:What it's like to be a reviewer

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A Bookbagger's View: What's it's like to be a reviewer

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Summary: Lesley shares her thoughts on what it's like to be on the Bookbag panel, and on reviewing books generally. She's perceptive and thoughtful as ever.
Date: November 2008
Author: Lesley Mason

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Not everyone who has braved the threshold of Bookbag Towers has found all to their ease. Given how much I love "working for" (or is that "playing with") our BB friends, I got to wondering why that might be. I've been on board for about 18 months and have just over 100 reviews under my belt, so obviously I've learnt a thing or two along the way – which I've persuaded Sue and Jill to let me share with you.

These hints and tips aren't aimed at experienced reviewers, the many good folk around these parts who have been writing for years and who are better masters of the art than I am. They're a quick-study guide for those new to the notion.

What exactly is a book review?

A commissioned book review is a very specific thing. It sits part-way between LitCrit and Précis. It is a kissing-cousin of the free-opinion product view (such as you'd post on Ciao or Dooyoo)...but there are subtle differences.

The main thing to understand is what a review is not.

It is not a synopsis. Don't try to sum up the story. Telling your reader everything that happens means that no matter how good the book, nor how good your re-telling of it, there is no point at all in them reading it. Yes we read for the enjoyment of the words, but mainly we read to go on a journey that we've not taken before, we don't want to know in advance everything we'll see along the way, and what the place will be like when we get there.

Can we bite the hand that feeds?

Yes. A review is not an advert.

The Bookbag is reliant on the goodwill of publishers to supply review copies. Does this mean we have to be "nice"? No, it means we have to be professional. It is tempting to try to please the publisher. That's not our job. After all, we are not being paid to produce advertising copy, we are genuinely being asked what we think.

The reviewer has to be honest and give their genuine reactions to what they’ve read. If you love the book you will want to "sell" it. If you hate it, you'll want others to avoid wasting their time on it. Criticism must be justified, however. It should be limited to the case in point, and not extrapolated into other works.

Being professional also applies to which commissions you take on. The Bookbag's ethos is that its reviewers read books in the anticipation of enjoying them. Unless you can be open-minded and objective about new areas, stay within your comfort zone. Only accept books that you would at least consider paying for.

Biting the hand that feeds is acceptable on occasion, if they're feeding you poor quality, but we don't want to chomp it off altogether.

But what if I hate it?

You have to be honest. If you really dislike a book, then you have to say so. But you also have to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself why? What is it about this book I dislike so much, and does that really make it a bad book?

If you've been misled by the title and the blurb, and the book turns out to be something entirely different to what you expected, you have two options:

  • Either you can finish reading it and try to review it objectively for what it is, while noting that this is something different to the raised expectation. It might be fun, frivolous chick-lit hidden under a highbrow title and cover, but it could still be enjoyable and well-written (if somewhat mis-marketed) chicklit, which deserves to be evaluated as such.
  • Alternatively, you can admit that this really isn't your thing and any review you write is likely to be biased – and offer to return the book, or pass it on to someone else.

No. Sorry. This book really is awful. It does happen. If you really cannot find a good word to say about it, then say what you must. A word of warning though: be careful how you say it. Be sure you criticise the book, and not the author. You do not want to risk accusations of libel.

A badly written load of old tosh is not a review, it’s an opinion. One that you are perfectly entitled to hold, but to turn it into a review you have to explain it. How is it badly written? What mistakes has the author made, what could they have done instead? One book I remember for all the wrong reasons. Everything you were ever taught not to do in creative writing was in there. The shame of it was, that the basic storyline was sound. Even in the worst of books, you might find a glimmer of the positive. Try to be fair.

How can I recommend buying a book if I wouldn’t buy it myself?

This is another of those "ask yourself why?" moments.

It could be that you never buy hardback books, for some reason, so could never recommend that anyone else does. That's a prejudice, or at best a preference. It should not cover the "to-buy-or-not-to-buy" question. As a reviewer you are judging the author's work, not the publisher's pricing strategy.

If it's a mediocre offering that really wouldn’t warrant the expense of buying the hardback edition, that is something slightly different. Similarly if it is exorbitantly priced, that might be worth a comment. The point is that the recommendation has to be based on the precise book in question, not on a general principle.

So much for the "how" ...a few words on the "what"...

What's the plot? Hold on. Didn't you just say, we're not to give away the plot? Correct. We do, however, have to give some idea of what the book is about. It is not enough to say that it is Science Fiction. Would that mean a Perry Rhodan cops-in-space jaunt, or a Dune epic? Setting is important – modern day, a specific historical period, an imagined future? Location can be crucial or irrelevant – is there a real sense of place, or does the "where" of the story have no bearing?

A taste of the plot is the easiest way to show some of these elements. The trick is to get the balance right. As a rule of thumb, if you're telling what happens beyond chapter 2, you’re probably going too far.

Who's in it?

Characters. Who are they? How well drawn are they? Again, no full cast-list please. Some folk don't appear until part way through a story for a reason, so don't tell us up front about the mysterious stranger who doesn't arrive until page 270.

Do we care about style, grammar, and technical production?

Only in-so-far as it affects your enjoyment of the book.

Style can be annoying enough to ruin a book. It can be quirky enough to turn an average read into a real pleasure. It can even start out as one, but as you get used to it turn into the other. Most authors write in a fairly unobtrusive style. Only mention it if it matters.

Forget the grammar. You're not marking a piece of schoolwork. Be aware also, that you may have a review copy which is an uncorrected proof – there will be errors in these. I say that in the certainty that there are in all those that I've had. It can jar on the nerves, but I figure I'm not being paid to proof-read. I’ve gradually learned to filter them out. I might make a passing comment if real howlers make it to the final published edition, but on a proof copy they have to be ignored.

Production quality. I love books. Not just reading. I actually love the physical object that is a book. When I get new books, I want them to be perfect. I want the covers to be stylistically appropriate. I want the pages to be pristine and untrodden by human eye. I hate creases and crinkles. But I'm probably just odd. It's the writing that really matters, so I do try to restrain myself. One area where I will always comment, however, is if the thing falls apart in the first reading. If the book is not fit for purpose (and how can it be if you have to keep shuffling loose pages?) then the publisher is doing the author a disservice, which deserves a mention.

And finally... The Last Word

When you've read the book, and slaved over the review, what if Bookbag Towers want to reject your offering?

Work with them, try to understand why, offer to re-do it. If you cannot come to terms, just accept it: the Editor's word is final.

If there are potential legal implications in anything you may have written, it will be their names (as well as yours) on the writ if the lawyers get involved – so they have to protect themselves.

Remember that at the end of the day, they are running a business. Reputation is everything. The 'Bag is gaining respect in the outworld – and that can only be good for all of us involved.

If you'd like to apply to become a reviewer with Bookbag, you'll find out how to do this here.