Saturday, August 12, 2006

Deep thoughts on reviewing...

Here's an ethical issue I've been struggling with recently. Deep thoughts for a Saturday morning, I know, but I'm mostly awake for a change and am not going to question it.

Generally, I believe - have always believed, as far as my own reviews are concerned - that book reviews should stand on their own; that regardless of requirements in length, they should be written so that every word counts; and, as a consequence of this, that I don't feel right about going into detail on my thoughts about a book before (and, to a lesser degree, after) the actual review is written and/or published.

(Yes, that was a long sentence. If I remembered even 1/4 of what I learned in my linguistics grad program, I could probably diagram it, but I don't, so I won't...)

I even feel a little funny about mentioning the books I'm in the process of reviewing, which may be going too far even for some people. I have no problem discussing these things in private email, generally. But I know the number of hits that come to this site because people are searching for book reviews, and I'm concerned that casual surfers - and even egosurfing authors - will pick up on my thoughts about a book before the review's published. And that goes against my feeling that a review should stand on its own, etc.

On the other hand, the folks at Booklist (their blog, Likely Stories, is linked from the left-hand sidebar here) regularly list the books in their to-be-reviewed pile. They go into detail about their opinions on passages within novels, as well as their general approach to a review they're still writing. I have a lot of respect for the staff there (and not only because they asked me to review for them). They've also been in the "review" business far longer than I have, which is a mere seven years so far. I find their blog fascinating because it goes into the little details that I also deal with often, though don't talk about much here. Like the problems with reviewing and quoting from uncorrected proofs, my dislike of reviewing from photocopied galleys (sometimes necessary), the challenge of staying original even when reviewing similar books... and so forth.

Also, talking about good books in a public forum (like a blog) does give them additional publicity. This isn't, and shouldn't be, the ultimate goal of the book reviewer, though as a reader, I certainly do like to spread the word about worthwhile novels. The converse, I suppose, could be said for my going into greater detail (than a review allows) on what I didn't like about a book.

And finally, given that reviews are just one person's opinion, namely my opinion in this case, how much does this matter in the grand scheme of things anyway? (Probably not a good excuse, here.)

Anyway, if they are comfortable with posting details on reviews-in-progress, who am I to question it? Is it time for me to start rethinking my own position on the issue?

I have been testing the waters, to some degree, by not-so-subtly hinting at the book I'm currently reading for review. I still feel a little not-right about it, I admit, which is one of the real reasons why I deleted my earlier post about Hudson Lake, the novel I covered for HNR Online last week.

What do you think - should reviews stand on their own? Is it appropriate, or helpful, to post thoughts about them in advance of the review's publication? Or, third option, am I simply thinking about this issue way too much?


  1. To me the problem in a reviewer's giving her opinion of a book before the final review is written is that somewhere in the process of writing the review, the reviewer's opinion might shift. Granted, it's probably unusual to start writing a review liking a book and finish it hating the book (or vice versa), but there might be more subtle changes that make the published review inconsistent, partly at least, with the opinions previously stated by the reviewer. So I'm leaning toward your idea of keeping mum publicly until the review is written. To me, it's not so much as an ethical issue as one of avoiding a potentially awkward situation.

    But I don't see any reason not to mention that you're in the process of reviewing a particular book, other than perhaps the possibility that the author will e-mail you every day saying, "Did you like it? Huh? Huh?"

  2. This is true, and for me, a shifting of opinion may not be that uncommon. Depends on the novel, of course, but I usually wait a few days (at least) after writing it before I turn the review in, just in case I get any more thoughts on it in the meantime. I tend to do a lot of revision before the final version gets sent off.

    I have had authors email me while I was in the process of reviewing their book, asking for an advance copy, sometimes - which I never give out until the review has gone to press. That's my main reason for not mentioning what I'm in the process of reviewing, but fortunately, this doesn't happen very often.

  3. Whatever other reviewers do about reviews and their review process is their decision, and depends on their individual circumstances.

    I happen to be a purist. If there's a review in the works, I don't mention reading/having read the book till the review is printed.

    Out of respect for the paying publication, if I were ever to subsequently put a blurb on my blog, it would be a fresh-ly worded version--though the conclusions and recommendation would be identical.

    From the author side, I've rarely known exactly who or what was reviewing me, and sometimes didn't even know about reviews until/unless the editor told me. Occasionally the marketing dept. has used one I didn't even know about as a book blurb!

    Because of being by-passed, if the reviewer is known to me, from a conference or something. They do tend to hand out a business card. If I've got contact info, I might ask if they or their editor will provide the final review to me at whatever time is appropriate from their perspective. (Some of them have kindly passed on the ARC when they're finished with it. These don't always come to the author, and I like collecting them. Why, I don't know.)

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Margaret, both from the reviewer's and author's standpoint.

    I usually prefer to point to published reviews (if they're on Amazon or elsewhere) rather than reposting, but it depends partly on whether I own the copyright or not.

    Do you not regularly receive copies of the reviews of your novels? I wonder about this. I know some contracts state that the publisher will pass on copies of all published reviews to the author, but I frequently get notes from authors who have never seen reviews from the HNS publications (for instance). And I always send copies to whoever submitted the novel in the first place.

  5. I wouldn't call anything about it "regular"! It has really varied according to my book publishers and the source of the review.

    For my historicals, reviews regularly appeared in the romance genre publications, or online sites, and I either saw them, was sent them by the reviewer or editor (wanting a plug for their publication on my website).

    But for hardcover books, I didn't always see the Kirkus or the Library Journal, or, most especially, newspaper reviews. Until and unless the editor sent them, or marketing used them. (Which meant they were very good ones!)

    When I do a review, if I have the publicist's info and it's a positive review, I'll send it along after it's printed. (Even though the book might not have come from them.) Based on my experience, I often worry the author might not be aware it.

  6. Hmm, that is very interesting. I don't think I've ever sent anyone a review because I wanted a plug for my publication... but then, I don't usually send reviews directly to authors unless they're the ones who contacted me in the first place.

    But one of the reasons I started posting the tables of contents on the HNS site (for instance) was so that readers and authors would be aware of what books were covered, and I'm happy to send copies to authors who ask for them.

  7. For what it's worth, I would have no problem with posting information about what you're in the process of reading and/or reviewing, perhaps with a short one- or two-sentence comment about your general thoughts so far. I wouldn't have thought that would detract from the complete review when it appears. You can always edit the blog post later to put in a link to the complete review if it appears online, or the citation for the print publication if it's not online. Then anyone landing on your blog can see where to go to get the 'official' review.

    I also wouldn't have any problem with posting your personal thoughts and opinions about the book, or more detail than would fit in the review, on your blog, though it would probably be fair to wait until the 'official' review has appeared so that you're not stealing their thunder. If you only have two or three hundred words in the official review, you might have more things of interest to say about the book and your blog would be a good place to do that. It also makes your opinion available to any interested surfer who doesn't have access to the print publications - lots of people who read historical fiction aren't members of HNS and so can't easily get the print HNR, yet they would likely be interested in thoughtful reviews. Certainly I like to look for reviews of books I'm interested in, and I wasn't a member of HNS until recently. As you say you get a lot of hits from people looking for book reviews, maybe I'm not alone in that.

    But ultimately it's a matter of what you personally feel comfortable with.

  8. Thanks for your input, Carla.

    Yes, it's a matter of balancing the needs of the publication I'm reviewing for, versus the needs of outside readers in search of reviews, and my own desire to get the word out about books...

    Also - going back to what Susan said as well - simply mentioning I'm reviewing a book can encourage others to provide their opinions on an author's work, and sometimes I'd rather not hear that until the review's done. Because I wouldn't want anyone else's opinion but mine to creep into the review.

    In all, I'm pretty much a purist as Margaret describes, but I'm going to think about the issue a little more. I'll probably continue as I have been, but I may go into more detail on books after the reviews are published, depending on whether I have anything more to say.

  9. Sarah - well, you already know from my blog that I tend to be very purist as well. I never give away what I'm reading for review until the review itself is published. It just doesn't feel right to me, somehow.