It’s Nice to Be Important, but it’s Important to Have Armour-Plated Skin

I’m currently reading a book, one which is well written and which I’m enjoying.  However, there are a few things I’m not happy with, particularly in the first third of the book, so in writing my review I’m going to have to factor that in.  Balancing the positives and the negatives, that’s what writing up a book review is all about, right?  But what if that book happens to be one which you received gratis from your friendly neighbourhood book publisher…

Anyone who has been blogging for a while is bound to have come across this problem (some more than others…), and while for many bloggers it’s not an issue, for some it’s one that causes us many sleepless nights (OK, minutes).  When we are first chosen to receive an ARC (Advance Review Copy), the blood rushes to our heads, rendering us dizzy and gushing, incapable of writing a paragraph without a liberal sprinkling of superlatives and exclamation marks.  Once the novelty wears off though, we notice that the freebies we have been given have actually come with strings attached – strings that can, at times, have the weight of cast-iron chains…

So what is it that we’re actually agreeing to do when we accept a review copy of a book?  Let’s assume that it’s a book you’ve actually requested from a publisher (I know many of you are showered with unsolicited paperbacks, but it’s not something that happens much around my place).  In this case, there’s a tacit expectation that you will read and review the book at some point in the future, following any embargo dates that are mentioned and perhaps dropping the publisher a quick e-mail with a link to your post.  I’m a fairly conscientious kind of person, so I also feel that I should get this done within a reasonable period of time – I’m aware that not everyone shares my views on this last point 😉

So far, so good.  The real problem, of course, arises when the book you’ve received fails to meet your expectations.  In an ideal world, you’d just write a negative review, post it and move on with your life.  As long as it’s not a scathing, unfair assessment of the book, nobody (except perhaps the writer’s mum) is going to get too worked up about things, and expecting every book review in the universe to smell of sweetness and light is naive to say the least.

Of course, that’s not the way it usually goes.  The mere fact of having received a book for nothing imparts a perceived feeling of obligation, one which makes attempting anything more than the mildest of criticism a nerve-wracking ordeal.  There’s the possibility of annoying the publisher, and therefore ruining your chances of ever getting a review copy again.  There’s also the fact that you’re (metaphorically) spitting in the face of a living, breathing writer, telling them that even at a cost of $0 their work is over-priced.

Perhaps though your biggest worry is the reaction of other readers and bloggers.  We’ve all heard about some of the unsavoury antics happening over at Goodreads, and the possibility of being jumped on by a writer’s fans is always possible, dangling over the blogger’s head like an electronic sword of Damocles.  While this is less likely when the writer has been dead for a couple of hundred years (except in the case of Jane Austen – never slam an Austen novel, or you will be pursued through the blogosphere like a quivering yokel fleeing before a pack of – nicely perfumed and elegantly coiffed – hell hounds), sticking to books by the dearly departed is a bit of a cowardly way out.

By now, you’re probably thinking that the whole thing is just not worth it, and you may be right.  If you feel that accepting ARCs is compromising your integrity and your ability to write honest reviews, don’t do it – it’s not worth the hassle.  Before you all rush off to load a wheelbarrow up with books and trundle off to the local charity shop though, I’d just like to shine a ray of sunshine into this sorry situation. You see, while there are problems associated with accepting books for review, most of them are in your head.

When you’re in the middle of carving your words of wisdom out on tablets of metaphorical stone, it’s all too easy to delude yourself that publishers, readers and authors alike are waiting for you to descend from your Olympian retreat, desperate to hear what you have decreed to be the value of the latest release.  Don’t kid yourself – nobody really cares that much.  The readers will probably just skim your piece, roll their eyes and move on to the next blog.  The publisher may give your work a cursory glance – then again, they may not.  The writer… Do you think the writer really knows you exist?

So don’t be afraid to say what you really think, whether you’ve paid hard cash for the book or not.  It makes little difference to other people, but it will make you feel a whole lot better.  As long as you don’t resort to personal insults, make stuff up or publicly burn the writer’s work, the chances are that everything will be fine.

Please let me know what you think on this topic; I’m bound to have rubbed someone up the wrong way, and it’s only healthy to get all that bile off your chest.  Anyway, I’d better get back to my review – I’ve got to find another five hundred words saying how wonderful the book is, or the publisher’s going to be really angry with me…

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41 thoughts on “It’s Nice to Be Important, but it’s Important to Have Armour-Plated Skin

  1. I thought you are perhaps trouble by the dilemma but you have at the end answered your own dilemma, which is good. If there is one virtue that needs to be upheld by a book blogger, it's integrity. Integrity to the readers and integrity to self. I'm not afraid of calling a spade is a spade because what is the worse that can happen? not get any free books? Fine there is the library, the free ebooks, the paid ebooks or used books, there is no dearth of books to read (although reading a brand new copy of books is quite a special feeling but still there is really an abundance of books to read without resorting to publisher's free copies).

    I think a writer do care about what the reviewers think. Some wrote in personally to ask for reviews and if it is something I like to read, I will accept it. If it not, I politely reject the request. I think you are able to gauge whether these free review copies are one that you will want to read or not. so if you read and found out that you don't like it, go on and write a negative review Tony, it's your right. 🙂

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  2. I forgot to say that I didn't quite think Jane Austen was as great as what other make her out to be. I will finish P&P soon but I still think the Bronte sisters write more interesting novels. 🙂

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  3. Interesting thoughts, personally I feel my loyalty is to be honest with myself and my readers so I don't worry about slamming a book (mostly constructively). If a pulisher gets angry and stops sending me ARCs it just means I have more freedom to pick the books I wanna read. It would never stop me from being honest

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  4. Jo – It's more of a rhetorical question, but it's one which we should all ask ourselves from time to time, just to make sure that the answer hasn't changed. As you say, the worst thing that can happen is that you have to pay for your own books, or go to the library 🙂

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  5. Michael – It's all about the constructiveness 🙂 I wonder though if that comes more easily for some than others (e.g. well known, ARC-rich bloggers v new reviewers…).

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  6. I'm so glad reviewers (bloggers and journos alike) are starting to openly discuss this issue. I review for a number of publications and always find it a difficult choice to write negatively. I always try to make sure my research is impeccable, that I read the book right through in its entirety and that I take all possible tastes into account. But at the end of the day, I refuse to compromise myself by putting my name to something I don't agree with. This has its costs – I have submitted reviews in the past that have not been published purely on the basis that they were of a negative tone. This is very sad for criticism and reviewing in Australia. The more reviewers and bloggers who discuss the issue and question the ethics of reviewing, the better I say. I, for one, don't want to find myself reading reviews that are all the same shade of beige!

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  7. Angela – Or grey 😉

    So newspapers and magazines ask you to review books and then back out if they're too negative? Seems like we're not the only ones who get nervous – although I suspect that they're more worried about advertising revenue than free books 😉

    Michael – That's something it's very important to remember, and equally easy to forget when you're lucky enough to get some free books.

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  8. Because of this mainly perceived dilemma, I on the advice of another blogger (thanks Judith) set up a review page setting out my criteria, at first I wasn't sure what this would do but at the very least it does forewarn people of what my stance on a particular genre is & has all the additional information on what I will or will not do.

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  9. I totally agree that honesty is vital when reviewing ARCs–and all other books 🙂 One reason that I don't deal directly with authors is that it's too awkward to send a link to a negative review. It's less of a problem with a publisher. And I think most publishers aren't going to stop working with bloggers who give negative reviews now and then. If the reviews are always negative, that's another matter, but do any of us want to keep getting books from a publisher who only sends us books we dislike?

    The one area where I disagree (and only slightly) is with the idea that a review copy involves a tacit obligation to review. I do think that a good faith effort to read and review is common courtesy, but I make a point of accepting books only for review consideration. I've received a couple of review copies that I knew within a chapter or two weren't a good match for me, and I didn't want to finish and didn't feel I'd read enough to write a DNF post. Sometimes, too, I can get a book and the timing is just no good because life is too busy or I'm in the wrong mood. It seems better then to postpone. But I make that clear in my review policy and in communications with publishers.

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  10. Gary – I think that's another issue, one I sidestepped in my post, the one of unsolicited offers of books (mainly from self-published writers). There's less of a feeling of obligation here because you feel you're doing them a favour, whereas with a publisher I almost feel that I'm the one receiving the favour.

    Not sure what I said there makes sense really…

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  11. Teresa – Interesting what you say about authors and publishers… As you can see, I pretty much said the opposite in my previous comment!

    I'd like to clarify what you said about the obligation to review though. Does that also apply to books that you specifically requested? This is really what I'm talking about in my post, simply because I hardly ever get books sent to me out of the blue. If I've asked for the book, a review is a must – if I haven't, then I can choose to ignore it or review it as I see fit.

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  12. I am talking about books I've requested–or to be more precise, books that are pitched to me and that I agree to accept for review consideration. I rarely request books that haven't already been pitched to me. I also hardly ever get books sent to me out of the blue.

    Most of my review copies these days are e-galleys, and I love those because if it doesn't work out, the publisher hasn't wasted an ARC on me. And if the publisher considers a review by a certain date to be a must, they can just set the book to expire by that date.

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  13. Interesting thoughts, Tony! I am a very conscientious reviewer too, so when I request a book, I always review it. It says so in my review policy, and it also says that a review may be positive or negative.

    I think it's unlikely a publisher would stop sending you books if your reviews are occasionally negative. I actually very carefully choose my books anyway, because my reading pile is so high, I only accept books that I really, really want to read (even then they can be disappointing).

    I review every book because that's what I think is right, but also because I get books from abroad and I want to make it clear that the book plus extra postage isn't wasted on me.

    Anyway, if I never received another book from the publishers I deal with, there will be other publishers that I can go to, I'm sure. Or I'll read from the library, or buy my own books. I'd feel less stressed, for sure! 🙂

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  14. I like reading negative reviews. It helps streamline my to-buy books. Though there are cases when even negative reviews encourage me to get the book under review if the very things the reviewer didn't like about it are the ones I really dig. The reviews I usually seek in Amazon or other book sites are the negative ones; I decide from them if I want the book.

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  15. I used to get ARC's on a regular basis, but not anymore. I just had so many mediocre books that I felt obligated to read to the end so I could honestly review them.

    I should also say that I've found many wonderful books through ARC's, too, many of my yearly favorites have been ARC's.

    But I'm very picky about what I take now.

    I'm also very honest in my reviews, even a bit brutal when it was called for. I don't think we have an obligation to be constructive, just to be honest. We should try to be nice about it, but if you take enough ARC's you're bound to come across one that deserves a bit of honest anger over something.

    If that particular published chooses never to send me another book, fine. I've got well over a hundred books on my TBR shelf.

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  16. You're right to say writers and publishers are not waiting upon you review as words sent by God.
    But I think that Guy receives comments from writers rather regularly. So, don't put your head in the sand, I think they Google themselves and are tempted to read reviews. Wouldn't you if you were in their shoes? We're all interested in knowing what people think of our work. It's human.
    Plus, it's a fantastic way to have a direct look at what “real” readers think. (sorry for the potential literary journalists or scholars out there) If I were a writer, I'd love to read comments from common readers.

    Btw, I don't ask for ARC because I don't want to be in the position you describe. I'd want to read them quickly because I asked for them (and I'm not sure I could deliver in the time I'd think polite) and I'd be embarrassed to have to write a negative review if needed. But that's the coward's choice…

    Emma

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  17. When I started blogging I decided that I wouldn't write about books I really didn't like. I agree with you about there being a tacit understanding that if you ask for a book you'll write about it in a timely and probably positive way and generally this is what I do – there are always exceptions on the time front. Because of this if I am asking for a book I only do it when I'm almost certain that I'll love it, the same goes for when I'm offered something. If I don't think it's for me I'll turn it down.

    The few times I've read books that I've had mixed feelings about and written about them as such I've had really good responses/ conversations which is encouraging.

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  18. Very few books are perfect, so there's nothing wrong with saying what did and didn't work for you.

    I don't like writing negatively, but chances are that if I finish a book, there's a lot positive about it. If I really can't stand a book, I won't finish it let alone review it.

    I often think, when I put aside a book, that it's more a case of it's not for me rather than it not being for the human race. Takes all sorts, after all.

    I get some unsolicited books, and they tend to be WAY off the mark for my tastes, and so I don't read 'em. Problem solved.

    And don't be so sure that authors aren't paying attention. I've had a number of authors visit my blog.

    Finally what the hell went wrong on Goodreads. I haven't heard about this.

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  19. Teresa – I can see the logic with e-Galleys and books which you have been asked to review, but still… It sits very uneasily with me not to review a book I have been given – either I review it, or I don't accept the book in the first place. I suppose thtt's the difference between someone overwhelmed with offers and a blogger who has to beg for them 😉

    Judith – Your thoughts are closer to mine than Teresa's – I wonder if it's a bit of a cultural thing: are American bloggers less likely to review ARCs? I'm not saying they are, just a thought for you all to consider/contradict…

    Rise – I think the article that was circulating yesterday shows that Amazon's negative reviews are the only ones you can really trust 😉

    C.B. – I think being picky is the key – if you think the book sounds mediocre, it's probably a very bad idea to accept. I wonder if publishers prefer bloggers who say no, or those who accept and publish a negative review?

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  20. Emma – I'm thinking more of commercially-published writers than self-published writers here, specifically because of the issues of criticising a publisher's ARC, thus jeopardising the chance of receiving more in the future (this is less of a concern with a self-published writer's work). Of course, if Guy is being pestered by world-famous names, then I am suitably impressed!

    I try to read them fairly quickly and then get a review out – for me, the timeframe from receiving the book to publishing the review would usually be about 3-4 weeks, and a lot of that is waiting for a slot to become available in my schedule.

    Desperate Reader – I tend to read (and definitely ask for) books I'm sure I'll enjoy, but I agree that mixed reviews can generate the most discussion. People like to read things which ask for their opinion rather than telling them what to think 😉

    Guy – In our little cliquey world, we've been insulated from the Goodreads thing, but there's been an uproar about gangs of bloggers attacking anyone who dares to post negative reviews of certain writers (with many suspecting that there are ringleaders who go around targeting unsuspecting reviewers). Of course, some of these people believe that they are just outing nasty bloggers who are unfairly slating good books.

    It's all very (American TV show) high school 😉

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  21. I don't think I've ever ended up in the tricky situation of having asked for a book and then not liked it. I've received unsolicited ones that applies to, though – some that I've barely got through a few pages of. What I tend to do is a) wait a while till all the excitement over a book has died down and b) put a link or 2 at the bottom to better reviews of the book, that way stressing that whatever I may feel, others like it.

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  22. Somehow I missed the whole goodreads thing which is too bad because it sounds very entertaining. Nothing like crazed, passionate fans. Present company excluded, of course, we both know how rational and reasoned we are…

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  23. Maryom – Even with books I've specifically requested, I can have my misgivings (I'm a very picky reader!). Luckily, I haven't been sent a real stinker yet 🙂 If this were to happen though, I'd be in a a dilemma because there's no way I'd not review it…

    Guy – Yep, everone's crazy except us 😉

    Colleen – I would expect nothing less from you 🙂

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  24. Receiving a free copy of a book and feeling unable to write an honest review is akin to a travel writer, obtaining a freebie and finding the hotel, resort, airline, beyond criticism. The difference is that the newspaper, if itself is honest, publishes a small acknowledgement that Joe Blogs travelled courtesy of, stayed as guest of …(in which case, I personally would not read the article).

    Thank you.

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  25. Normally if I do not like a book I do not finish it. One of my reasons for posting on a book is to clarify my understanding of it and help me remember it and that also keeps me from reviewing what I do not like. The last book I posted on in a negative way was 1Q84 which I read all the way through. Of course no but me teally cares what I think of it. I only accept e books for review and I at least look at everything I am offered. I pass links to publishers and authors when I can for networking purposes. When the occasion does call for it, I think it is ok to be very negative on a book to advise others not to waste their money on it.

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  26. Christine – I think most bloggers will acknowledge the source of the book (I believe that this is actually required by law in the US). I also think that most bloggers will go with what they really think – however, they may be affected subconsciously, an invisible hand drawing them back from the worst of their poison arrows…

    Mel – I have considered just going with e-books (again, this may reduce the feeling of obligation) – still, I love the feel of the real thing 😉

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  27. I like the idea of not worrying too much, and wish it was easier to do so but so often it's not. There is definitely the feeling that you ought to be nice about a book you got for free, but then you have to choose if your loyalty is with the publishers or your readers. I aim to be as honest as possible no matter where the book is from, and luckily the few ARCs I get are ones chosen from a list so I can pick the genres and stories that appeal to me more. And a couple of the publishers now have an idea of what I like, which helps.

    If you did end up hating a lot of books you would have to decide whether to continue – I think there it becomes even more about principles.

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  28. Charlie – The feedback I'm getting is that you should be honest and damn the consequences (in a nice way, of course). I think even the publishers say that – hopefully they think it too 😉

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  29. I understand the difference you make about very famous writers and the others.
    Very famous writers don't care about your negative reviews, they have enough of good ones to keep their self-esteem. So write them, if that's what you think.

    The other writers are the ones that will land on your blog and read your negative review. And that's where it becomes tricky.

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  30. I have had several authors contact me – even famous/well known ones from the US and Europe – to thank me for my review – even when it wasn't very positive. I was shocked my review even registered with them and though I can't deny it didn't give me pause and I was perhaps a little blunter with my criticisms before that first message, I still review honestly, just a little more diplomatically.

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd out

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  31. Guy – I'm not an expert, but I believe there is legislation which technically requires full disclosure. Can anyone back me up here?!

    Emma – Well, nobody likes negative reviews, but famous authors can just shrug and count their money and prizes 😉

    Shellyrae – That's nice of them 🙂 I have had feedback from a couple of writers, but nothing like that. It's times like this when I realise how miniscule my blog really is 😉

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  32. I get a lot of books most unsolicited,I rview every book the same whether arc ,second ahnd or new ,I tend be postive but that is just me ,I think if you follow my blog for a while you see which I love and which I think are ok ,all the best stu

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  33. Stu – Ah, if I get as famous as you Stu, with review copies flowing in by the dozen every day, I'm sure I'll worry less about it too 🙂

    I always think that I'm fairly positive; when I look back though, I usually find that this is not always the case…

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  34. Such a tricky one – I've been struggling with it myself. Especially since I know myself to be a very demanding (almost unfairly so) reader and that a lot of other readers will enjoy the book far more than me. I do think writers care, even if you are just another small blogger reviewer. After all, even if you get ten positive reviews and one negative one, guess which one you will remember most?

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