Reviewing process (Subtitle: no I don’t get a lot of free books)

I was asked recently where I sourced the books I review on this website. Do I get review copies from publishers/authors? How do I choose the books? In general, what is my reviewing process.

For the most part, the books I review on this website are books that I’ve chosen to purchase. The main purpose of writing a review is for me to reflect a little more on what I’ve just read, with the hope that this reflection might improve my own writing. Thinking about what I liked in a story and what didn’t work for me and trying to work back to what that means for writing. So, these reviews are in some ways personal meditations.

So why publish them on a website for the world to see? Actually that’s a slight exaggeration – I don’t think the whole world has seen my website. Perhaps Australasia and large segments of continental Europe. With small inroads into North America. Tops. But I digress.

Well, I like to publicly acknowledge books that I have enjoyed. I’ve been reading quite a few small press publications in the last couple of years and I know it can sometimes be difficult for small presses to get reviewed. Even my (very small) signal boost may help. Also, knowing that there is a theoretical audience for my review means that I want to feel that I could defend my opinions, which leads me to think those opinions through a little more. On top of that, publishing pieces on my website makes me feel a bit more connected with the wider speculative fiction community.

These motivations result in a couple of effects. Firstly, my reviews tend to skew a little more positive as I’m reviewing books that I’ve chosen to read. It is possible that I could select badly, but I don’t have a lot of time to read so I’m careful in what I pick. What influences my choices? Sometimes recommendations from people with a track record for picking out gems (for example Sean the Bookonaut), sometimes books by authors who I’ve enjoyed in the past, sometimes things that are on award ballets and sometimes because a really well written blurb sucked me in.

Secondly, I don’t feel any obligation to be nice. I’ve paid my money for the book and my opinions can be coloured by whether I think I’ve received value for money as well as the literary merits of what I’ve read. That’s not to say reviewers who get books from publishers have their opinion swayed by the fact that they have received something for free. Most reviewers I’ve spoken to have long since had the novelty of a free novel wear off and are too concerned with their reputation for independence for write a fluff piece. But for me, having shelled out hard earned for the story adds something to my reviewing process.

Those few times I’ve reviewed something that I’ve received for free I’ve found my reviewing to be a bit more tentative. Having said that, I’ve recently discovered a new reviewing experience. A publication (Antipodean SF) has provided me with a couple of novels to review for its monthly magazine. Having that extra distance between myself and the publisher has removed all sense of obligation. I’ll be interested to see how that impacts on the writing of the reviews.

What’s my opinion on rating systems? Well, you might have noticed that I don’t rate on my website, I’d prefer the comments to stand on their own. However, Goodreads and other online forums do tend to push for star ratings so when I rate on a 5 point system, I tend to use the following broad criteria:

  • 5┬ástars: excellent, superb reading experience. Not necessarily a perfect book, but one where any quibbles I have are minor. Can usually point to several specific positive aspects. I don’t tend to give out many 5 stars. Probably the critical point here is that I had to love reading the book. Worthy books where I can see the literary merit but didn’t love reading the book I tend to go down to 4 stars.
  • 4 stars: excellent book. Thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. Usually one or two things that I love, and maybe something I didn’t like so much (although not always – sometimes it was excellent but just not quite as excellent as the 5 star books). For some of the reasons I’ve outlined above, a lot of my reading averages around this 4 star point.
  • 3 stars: good book. Some good things, some bad but on balance I enjoyed it.
  • 2 stars: Meh. Probably more things I didn’t enjoy than I did, but also this rating can reflect being entirely indifferent to a book.
  • 1 star: Didn’t enjoy the book at all, actively disliked the reading experience. Haven’t given out any 1 star reviews so far to the best of my recollection.

Do I worry about annoying people with bad reviews? I don’t think so, but this is something that has crossed my mind as I’ve started to go to speculative fiction conventions in Australia over the last 12 months. I’ve met a few authors and they are by and large very nice people. This website is not a hotspot of speculative fiction review action, and as a result many of them haven’t read any of my reviews so the point is somewhat academic. However I try to give balanced reviews and I’d like to think that I’m never unfair or in any way spiteful in my reviewing. I’m more than willing to concede that my own reaction to a piece of writing is not the only reaction, and I’ve found that most authors tend to cultivate a similar attitude. Thinking of authors as real people helps me to keep my comments purely about the work, which I think is healthy.

As a corollary, I am also concerned that my appreciation of an author’s work might be impacted by the fact that I’ve met and liked them personally. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and to be honest it is possible. I don’t think the phenomenon could make me like a work that I would have otherwise thought was terrible, but could it boost a 4 star review to a 5 star review? Possibly. I try to be conscious of it, but I also don’t want to unfairly mark down a work for fear I might be seen as being partial. I also try to note any biases I think might be effecting me. But at the end of the day, sometimes your appreciation of someone’s artistic endeavours can be impacted by your appreciation of the artist themselves. It’s probably why a lot of the most impartial critical work happens after an author has died. I’ve decided to just live with it.

In terms of the reviews themselves, I tend to wait a few days after I’ve finished reading a book before I write the review, just to let things sink in. Sometimes I have a lot to say, sometimes not so much – I try not to write artificially long reviews just for the sake of it. I try to think about as many aspects of the story as possible – the technical aspects of writing, the emotional impact, how engaging it is etc. As discussed above, these reviews are really just me writing down what I’ve taken from each of the books and I don’t feel the compulsion to be comprehensive. I love getting comments from people and hearing different opinions, and after I’ve published my review I’ll often go seeking out other people’s reviews to see where people have had different experiences. Often I’ll find some comment that I wish I’d made, or see some aspect of the story that I missed but totally agree with but I’ll only tend to go back and modify the review if I’ve made a factual error. If I ever want to add something extra I try to make it clear it is a post-review comment.

So, that’s me. How about you? For those that review, what is your process like? For those that read reviews, what do you like to see in a review?

4 thoughts on “Reviewing process (Subtitle: no I don’t get a lot of free books)”

    1. I can imagine – my to-be-read pile is too large just with the books I've bought, I don't think my fragile mental state could take too many more books :-)

      -m

  1. This is where is begins, you review a couple of books and then all of a sudden you are swamped with review copy. But seriously good news, makes it a bit easier on the hip pocket when the books you are reviewing you don't have to pay for.

    I was actually thinking of getting you to review A Memory of Light for my blog, but I see you have already done it (received it yesterday and there's no way on earth I have time to go back and read books 1-13).

    1. Yeah, Memory of Light was actually hard to review. If you haven't read books 1 – 13, you're not going to read book 14. If you have persevered, then you're going to read book 14 no matter what a review says!

      Yes I was quick off the mark with Memory of Light – have been waiting so long for a conclusion and wanted to get it read while I was still on holidays.

      -m

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