ALAN: You asked me how my experience of becoming a reviewer compared with other people’s. So I asked around.
Jan Butterworth is world famous in New Zealand as a reviewer. You can read her reviews here.
“I was offered a chance to review books when the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand (SFFANZ) set up a programme with Hachette New Zealand many years ago. I don’t enjoy writing, but the chance to acquire free books was irresistible, so I put my hand up.”
JANE: Free books from publishers seem to be a powerful motive to start reviewing. Now that I think about it, I’ve seen our local SF club use the same tactic to get people to write book reviews for its newsletter.
ALAN: I think it must be the starting point for almost everybody. The lure of free books is impossible to resist.
JANE: Above you say that Jan is famous as a reviewer in New Zealand, so she must have gotten over not liking to write.
ALAN: Absolutely! She really got bitten by the bug. She says:
“After a few years of reviewing only fantasy, I decided to branch out to reviewing all genres, reflecting my reading tastes. I set up a blog, loaded it with reviews I’d written to show my work, then started contacting publishers to beg for free books – I mean offer my services as a reviewer. The main NZ publishing houses were receptive and offered helpful advice to gain more hits on my blog. I’ve since built up a network of helpful contacts of book publicists and have a few reviewers I source books for in exchange for their reviews of them.”
JANE: That shows impressive initiative. How does she approach reviewing a book? Are her techniques anything like yours?
ALAN: I think so. Let me let her explain how she goes about it in her own words.
“I read the book, then generally summarise the plot (WITHOUT spoilers) and say what I thought about it. If I have something negative to say, I try to sandwich it between two positive things, or, failing that, emphasize it is my opinion only and other readers will have different tastes. Being honest seems to be appreciated by publishers and I’ve had some lovely comments from my blog readers.”
JANE: It’s interesting that she emphasizes within her reviews that she is expressing an opinion. I think that’s very wise.
Tastes certainly do vary. I know people who will read anything that has a sniff of vampires, while the same thing drives me away to the point that I need to be coaxed to try the book – even if it was written by an author I otherwise like or respect.
ALAN: I have similar feelings about military space opera.
JANE: Another thing that varies from reader to reader is how much a strong quality of a writer,(say,interesting characters) will compensate for a weak point (say, formulaic plotting). The reviews I like best are those that are specific, rather than relying on generalizations like “excellent” or “terrible.” Those don’t tell you anything.
ALAN: Yes indeed. It’s all too easy to say that you like or dislike a book. As we’ve said before, the challenge for a reviewer is to say exactly why those feelings are evoked. But even if the reviewers are not very specific, their opinions can still be valuable.
When I lived in Wellington, I belonged to a book discussion group and there was one person in the group whose tastes were very well defined, and which were diametrically opposed to my own. If he raved about a book, it was a virtual guarantee that I would hate it. And vice versa, of course. Once you understand that, a review that says a book is “terrible” can make the book sound very attractive indeed…
But sometimes there are toads.
ALAN: Once when we were contemplating a pile of books that looked distinctly unattractive, someone said, “OK – whose turn is it to eat the live toad?”
Ever since then, among ourselves, we’ve referred to the more appalling wastes of paper and ink as toads. Sometimes they are live toads, sometimes they are dead toads. But they are always distinctly unpleasant to eat.
Some of the toads are self-published. But a surprisingly large number of toads come from professional publishers as well. It doesn’t matter who reviews a toad. Nobody can ever find any shred of merit in it.
JANE: So how do you review a toad?
ALAN: These days, I simply ignore them. I have better uses for my time. Jan has a slightly more professional approach.
“If a book is a dead toad I don’t finish it and state why. If I’m lucky I pass it off to another reviewer. Really rancid toads get a negative review and then are added to a pile in my office. I’ll do something with it someday, not sure what though.”
JANE: Writing that negative review, even if she doesn’t use it, probably helps her purge her mind of all the things she’d like to say but is too polite to share with the public.
But that’s a lot of writing for nothing. I’ve been meaning to ask, how long is an average review? Earlier, you mentioned a need to write tight.
ALAN: One advantage that both Jan and I have is that we publish our reviews on our own web sites. So we have no constraints on space, and our reviews can be as long as we feel they need to be.
However, in the past, I have written reviews for professional (printed) publications and they, of course, have very firm limits on the number of words they will allow you to use. Saying something deep and meaningful about a book in 200 words (or less!) can sometimes be quite a challenge. The famous advice to “kill your darlings” applies in spades, and much biting comment often has to be sacrificed. Which is probably just as well…
JANE: So given that both you and Jan are world famous (though only in New Zealand), will I find lots of your reviews if I search for you on google?
ALAN: You’ll certainly find references to Jan – though the first few links to a dog walking service in Massachusetts are nothing to do with her.
But, if you search for me, I’m afraid you will be overwhelmed with references to a completely different Alan Robson who really is world famous (in England, at least). He’s an English DJ, radio presenter, author and occasional reviewer. Amusingly, I’ve sometimes found books that I’ve written listed on his bibliography (though, to be fair, not on bibliographies prepared by him). And once, quite out of the blue, I received an email asking me if I’d be willing to review a book and talk about it on my radio show. So we’ve both been mistaken for each other. Hopefully he finds the confusion as entertaining as I do.
JANE: I’m sure he does…
I’m curious if any of our readers have ventured into reviewing in any systematic fashion. Or, if not, why they avoid doing so, especially since it’s so much easier these days to get your opinions seen. Any takers?