A Reviewer must Read the Book, the Whole Book

In theory, reviewing a book is fairly straightforward. A reviewer reads the book, they may make notes or bookmark pages for quotes while reading, but they read the whole book. The book may be put aside for a while so the reviewer can think over what they’ve read or plan out what they want to say in their review. A review is drafted. The reviewer may put that aside and come back to it to check they’ve covered all the points they wanted to mention. The reviewer may re-read the book to check they’ve not missed something. The review is copy-edited, quotes checked and edited for publication. That may seem long-winded but essentially the book is read, the reviewer forms a draft, their review is written.

A review is more than an opinion. Yes, it contains opinion(s). But it also acts as a guide: it gives the reviewer reader enough information to determine whether they want to read the book under review. Anyone can say they liked or didn’t like a book but a review needs to say why. Anyone can express an opinion on social media that a thriller wasn’t that thrilling but a reviewer needs to be clear about why the thriller fell flat. Anyone can write off a poetry collection as doggerel but a reviewer will back their opinion with examples and explanations.

A reviewer has to read the whole book. A publisher or agent, particularly an experienced one, may only bother with the first page or even paragraph before deciding they don’t need to read further. A reviewer may be tempted to give up after the first chapter, page or paragraph, but they need to read on. A general reader is free to stop reading whenever they feel they’ve had enough. While it’s a reasonable expectation that the publisher or agent won’t talk about submissions outside of their working environment, a general reader is free to tell their social circle about their disappointment in a book.

A reviewer has to read the whole book. Even if the first chapter sets the entire tone and there are no surprises mid-way though. Even if the wished-for plot twist never materialises – you’d have to read the book to know it didn’t. Even if you’ve read the last twenty books by this particular author and know they never deviate from their formulaic plots. Even if you’re familiar with the writer’s work from extensive reading of poetry magazines, know the type of poems their publisher favours and can guess what the contents will be like before opening the collection, you still need to read it. If only because that plot twist just might happen in the final chapter, that final poem might be the stunning gem that outshines all others and if your review doesn’t mention it, you’ll look like the idiot.

“Surviving Home” Katerina Canyon (Kelsay Books) – book review

Katerina Canyon Surviving Home book cover

As the title suggests, these are not rose-tinted memories of home but memoirs of growing up as witness to domestic violence and addiction, then in turn surviving the same. There’s nothing cosy here and no triumph over adversity either, but the messy job of survival and making a way through life when you have no examples to guide you. The opening poem, “Involuntary Endurance”, sets the tone,

“It is not the mother bear’s story.
It belongs to the cubs who wander
The forest without her after she sacrificed
Her life to a boar grizzly to protect them.

It is told through hot cylinders of pain
That sear experience into the skin.

It is told in front of the sharp bayonet
That sprays blood-red existence against
The multi-colored palette of the universe.

It may sit silent and still
On these black and white pages,

But it exists in every tremble
Of my leathered hand, and it is smeared
Into every tear-stained scream
that flows through my quavering pen.”

A predatory father and a mother worn into passivity, trying to protect her children don’t make great role models. Katerina Canyon clarifies that this isn’t a story about how her parents fell into those roles, but the effects those roles had on their children. Of course, none of us have perfect childhoods, but some start with greater disadvantages and parents so caught in their own drama, the children are unsupported and practically raise themselves. However, there’s also a risk they recreate the bad examples they learnt from, e.g. in “An Afterthought of a Netflix Show”,

“My mother lived with a man who abused her
every day. She said there was nowhere to go.
She died before I hit 20.

When I grew up, I lived with a man
who abused me everyday.”

Without a template of what love and respect should look like, children don’t recognise love and see abuse as normal. Abusers do dole out morsels of kindness and love alongside the abuse to keep the victim chained to them and isolate their victims from friends or relatives who might have helped them escape or give them some perspective on the relationship. When caught up in abuse, the victim doesn’t have the breathing space to step back and assess the relationship. It doesn’t stop the children dreaming of love. In “Child Bride”,

“I wish for ice cream
Melting over my tongue
I hope for an lovely prince
Who can rescue me like a lost kitten
I wish for a feathery life
I wish for a great deal
I do!”

Every girl is supposed to dream of a white wedding and a princess dress. The wishes here are childlike – ice cream treats, kittens, a prince fresh from a fairytale. But marriages happen between adults. This child bride hopes for the childhood she didn’t have. The marriage feels doomed.

Domestic violence is only one type of violence. There’s also racist violence, in “A Petition for Unrecognized Children”, the speaker asks

“If my daughter dies in a shooting,
Do not bury her.
Lay her at the feet of those
Made from stone,

So that they may see their work.

If my son dies, raise him up
In place of the flag, so the world
Can see what we worship!
—And for the rest,

Leave the graves empty and
Pile the bodies before the throne.
Enjoin the corpses hand by hand
Across the Washington Mall.

You killed them, our children,
and you will kill more—before the sun sets

And pluck out our eyes
to spare us!”

The speaker doesn’t want the victims tidied away into graveyards so life can continue, little changed. She wants the perpetrators held responsible, to see the results of their actions. She wants politicians to see the results of their policies and lack of action. She regards looking away and not seeing as unacceptable. Talk is not good enough any more.

Racism is picked up again in “I Left Out ‘Bells and Whistles’ Written with a Little Help from Websters Dictionary”,

“The year I was born
was the same year
the term ‘assault weapon’
was born”

Later, another phrase, “Band-Aids taught me the meaning/ of flesh-toned”. Of course, ‘flesh-toned’ was based on white skin, not black and white skin-toned plasters are all too visible on black skin. It’s only recently that black ballerinas have been able to buy shoes in their skin tones rather than the standard pink. The poem continues,

“White people like to say that I’m
‘playing the race card’ to
delegitimize my argument.
‘Delegitimize’ is my twin, and
we are inseparable.

Russia delegitimizes the election.
All Lives Matter delegitimizes Black Lives Matter.
Confederate statues delegitimize racial struggles.
Voting law often delegitimizes the black vote.”

“Playing the race card” implies using discrimination to an advantage, claiming under representation to gain representation which may not have been achieved through merit. Naturally all lives matter, but it isn’t white lives being prematurely ended by police killings. It isn’t white lives being disproporationately stopped and searched by police who seem to assume guilt on the basis of skin colour. Changes in voting regulations, often raise barriers to black voters, making it harder for politicians to challenge the status quo and effect change.

Katerina Canyon’s poems are hard-hitting and direct. “Surviving Home” explores how a place that’s supposed to be safe can be dangerous. How domestic violence affects not just the immediate victims but the children forced to witness it, no matter how much the parents believe they have hidden it from the children. It also has an impact that lasts beyond childhood. The poems also shift to investigate racism and how it restricts talent and expression. Underneath all the poems is a muscular strengthen, a champion for survivors.

“Surviving Home” is available from Kelsay Books.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin: Lilian Bowes Lyon and The East London Blitz“, Roger Mills’ book features quotes from the reviews I wrote of Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

How Not to Request a Review

2020 was the year of the review request. Poetry books are best sold through live poetry readings and while book launches and readings moved online, online events don’t currently generate the sales that in real life events do. Reviews became more significant as a way of creating a buzz for a book to attract potential buyers. However, the number of reviewers didn’t expand to absorb the demand. There were times during lockdown when I was getting three requests a day.

Writing a good review is not something that can be done quickly. Unlike a blurb or a puff piece, where someone is providing a quote to be used on a book cover or as part of the book’s promotional material, a good review can’t be written after skimming through a few pages. A reviewer needs time to read the book, usually at least twice, consider the contents and draft a review. I wrote a behind the scenes article on book reviewing for The Blue Nib which explains the review process.

I write reviews for The Blue Nib, The High Window Journal, The Journal, London Grip, Sabotage Reviews and this blog. I was the first person to win the Saboteur Award for Best Reviewer twice. I have decades of experience. I have one of the quickest turn around times in poetry reviewing, although I review around my own writing and other commitments. Even so, the most I can manage is three reviews per week (in short term bursts; this unsustainable in the longer term), not three per day.

‘No’ is not a word anyone likes to hear, but no was what some review requesters were going to have to hear. Here were things requesters did that made it easier to say no:

Didn’t Read the Guidelines

My review policy is here. Notice I ask for an email giving me details of the book/pamphlet and poet. I do not ask for the manuscript itself at the request stage. I only want to see a manuscript if I’ve agreed to review. Sending the complete manuscript is presumptuous and I’m not obliged to review just because you asked.

Made a Public Request

Yes, it’s tedious searching out reviewers’ contact details and contacting them directly. Far easier just to post on social media and tag a few reviewers.

However, making a public request places an obligation on the reviewer to make a public reply. Ignoring a post you’re tagged in makes you look lazy or arrogant. A reviewer who needs to turn down the request, either because it’s not something they’d review or because they don’t have time to review it, makes the reviewer look like the bad guy.

So a public request feels like the requester is bullying the reviewer into saying yes.

If you can’t find a reviewer’s contact details, try a private or direct message or contact a magazine they review for.

Targeted the Wrong Reviewer

Generally I don’t do non fiction or children’s books. A reviewer whose focus is historical novels is not going to appreciate your cyberbot space opera. At The Blue Nib and on this blog, I review books/pamphlets I think are going to interest readers. A good review is more likely to be forthcoming from someone who’s as passionate about your subject as you are.

Also bear in mind that individual reviewers generally don’t get to decide what a magazine reviews. They might be able to make recommendations, but the reviews editor makes the decision and that’s where your request needs to go.

Don’t Share Reviews

It takes seconds to click a ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ button on social media. If you don’t share reviews of your books or anthologies that have included your work, don’t be surprised if reviewers are reluctant to say yes to review requests. A share is as good as a thank you. It’s also for your benefit: you get a bigger audience for the review of your work.

Ask a Reviewer to also post to other review sites

I get it: you’d like to see reviews of your book/pamphlet on goodreads, Amazon, other booksellers and anywhere that takes reviews. However I’ve blogged on why I don’t post my reviews to other sites here.

Check Your Search Engine Results Pages

Reviewers are writers, writers do their research. I’m also an avid reader and subscriber to publishers’ lists so usually when I get a review request I am likely to know either the poet because I’ve seen their work in poetry magazines or the publisher because I’ve read other publications from them. On the occasion where I’ve not heard of a publisher or poet, I’m not going to take an author information sheet or publisher’s blurb at face value. I’m going to stick names into a search engine. What I see in the results matters.

A new-to-me publisher is more likely to be a source of interest, particularly if I’m familiar with poets in their forthcoming publications list or familiar with the work of the people setting up the new publisher or can see reviews of their other publications.

A new-to-me poet is also more likely to be a source of interest, particularly if the search engine results pages show links to their work in poetry magazines and other publications or links to spoken word and live literature events.

Even if there’s no publication history, someone who is a member of/helps with a local writers’ group or spoken word night or reviews or blogs or contributes to the literary ecosystem is going to be of more interest than a request from someone unknown with no such connections.

However if a search engine results page shows listings for the publication but no other publications and an interview where the poet appears to boast about not reading contemporary poetry because poets writing now are “mere poetasters”, yet is asking one of the people they’ve just insulted to help promote their work by writing a review, that’s an easy no.

My maximum review capacity is up to 2 books per week or 104 books per year. In 2019 I wrote 92 reviews. In 2020 I wrote 119.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress by Emma Lee book cover

Why I don’t post my Reviews to Good Reads or Amazon or any other site

Whilst it’s great you like my review of your book and you want good reviews to appear everywhere, please be aware that asking a blogger to also post their review on places like Good Reads or Amazon or other review sites, doesn’t do you or the blogger any favours.

My first priority is my readers

I want them to enjoy my posts and come back and read or subscribe to my future posts. They won’t do that if they can read my content elsewhere.

My next priority is to attract more readers

The more readers I have, the more readers there are for the review I wrote of your book. There are two ways of attracting more blog readers:

Link to and share posts on social media

And encourage readers to click through and read my reviews. It’s fabulous when readers of my review, authors I’ve reviewed and publishers of books I’ve reviewed also link and share: wins all round.

Search engine optimisation

To make my blog attractive enough to rank highly in the search engine page results so that potential readers looking for book reviews find mine. For search engines duplicated content – content that appears on the internet in more than one place – is an issue, particularly if the search engine cannot identify which version should rank and if a search engine ranks another site more highly than mine, I potentially lose readers. Duplicate content created by scrapers isn’t generally an issue, but my review appearing on many sites at the same time begins to look like spam.

You, author of the book I reviewed, are also a priority

I’ve won awards for reviewing. I always aim to write a good review (even if I don’t like your book) and I know publishers have used quotes from my reviews to sell books.

However, if my review is published here, repeated on Good Reads, reposted on Amazon and appears on a couple of other review sites, readers are only seeing one review. No matter how brilliant that review is, it is still the same review duplicated to other sites. Readers will start to suspect you only got one review so your book isn’t worth reading or that there are other reviews but you’re hiding them so they must have slated your book. Bored of reading that one review, readers aren’t going to look at your book.

How about publishing an Extract and Linking Back to the original review?

Some sites don’t take links so all that will appear is the extract. Out of context, the extract is incomplete and may look odd. It could compromise search engine optimisation.

How about writing different versions of the review for other sites?

I review an average of 55 books, pamphlets or chapbooks a year, although not all of them for my blog because I also write for poetry magazines. I only have a finite amount of time to write reviews. If I had write one review for my blog and then two different version for two other sites, it would take away time from writing new reviews. I’m not prepared to do that.

To Review or Not to Review?

On the rare occasions I’ve had to turn down a review request, it’s generally been because I’ve already reviewed the book or poetry collection offered for review. However, news that Milo Yiannopoulos has signed a book deal with Threshold, made me seriously pause for thought. Milo Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart News, led a harrassment campaign against the actor Leslie Jones, which led to him being suspended from twitter, and plagarised Tori Amos’s song lyrics in a book of ‘poems’ published under a pen name, Milo Andreas Wagner. He claimed the quoted lyrics was an intentional artistic statement. I can see why Threshold are willing to take a chance on him delivering a book: he will generate a lot of buzz if not actual book sales.

Why would this be a problem? Why not simply boycott the book?

Threshold are an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Regular readers will have noticed I review Simon & Schuster novels because I’m on their list of book reviewers, i.e. if they publish a book they think will interest me, they send me an ARC. The Chicago Review of Books have stated they will not review any Simon & Schuster books this year. I can sympathise with this.

But it makes me uneasy. I am generally in favour of people having the right to say what they think. However, that right does not extend to the right to abuse and bully others. It does not extend to using a platform to attempt to silence others either. I don’t think it helps other Simon & Schuster authors to refuse to review their books, particularly when they’d already signed contracts (books take a long time to publish) and had no say in the signing of Yiannopoulos or chance to renege on their own contracts if they had known about it.

So I will not boycott Simon & Schuster books, providing I think that the ARC is interesting enough to justify a review. Do you think this is the right decision?

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How not to approach book bloggers

I write book reviews both on this blog and for other magazines. Occasionally I do review a book I have bought and enjoyed reading, but most reviews here are done because a publisher or author approached me for a review. I have a reviews policy: take a look if you want to know how to ask a blogger to review your book.

Here’s how not to approach blogger-reviewers:

Don’t call me “Dear Blogger” and send a mass-circulation email

I have a name. I know I won’t be the only reviewer you are approaching but if you can’t be bothered to send an individual email I can’t be bothered to review your book. Sending a mass email tells me you are broadcasting and don’t care if I reply or not.

Don’t send me a link to your book on Amazon

Letting me know your book is available for purchase is not a request for a review. If you want to ask for a review, be prepared to send a review copy free of charge. Writers get requests to work for free, usually from people who somehow think this is “good publicity” and will somehow translate into book sales. When that request comes from another writer, it’s actually an insult.

Don’t attach an eBook

Doing so tells me you are presuming I will agree to do a review. This makes it incredibility tempting to say “no.”

If your book is an eBook or has an eBook version available, let me know. If I agree to review and am happy to look at the eBook version, I’ll let you know. I can review eBooks, but sometimes it’s more practical to have a hard copy. I don’t write in margins, but some reviewers do so prefer a hard copy. Sending an eBook on the assumption they can print, at their expense, so they can write their review is unhelpful.

Don’t demand to know when I’m posting my review

I usually email to confirm receipt of a review copy and email again with a link to the posted review. How soon I can turn around a review depends on my current work load and commitments. Review copies are dealt with in order of receipt so if I’ve already received a couple of novels and half a dozen poetry collections, yours is ninth in the queue and the review will not be posted next week. Even if my review tray is empty, there is no guarantee I can start reading your review copy the moment it arrives.

Don’t urge me to turnaround a quick review

I know the feeling: your book is out there and you want feedback (reviews) and people to buy it. But before I can write my review I need time to read your book. If I say I will review your book, I have committed to do a review and will post the review when I’ve had chance to write it. If I didn’t want to review your book, I would have said so when you sent me your request.

If I can read a book in an hour and write my review within thirty minutes, that’s a shallow, formulaic book with no complexity, no depth of character that deals in stereotypes or caricatures written in predictable text. Your book’s not like that is it?

Don’t get careless on social media

Social media is public, not private. If you complain on-line about my review or the fact I decided not to review your book, chances are I’ll find out and you’ll be the one who looks stupid. I’ve blogged about responding to reviews before.

A professional approach will get a professional response

It’s usually a good idea to check if a blogger reviews the type of book(s) you write. Sending me your carnivore recipe book might get an interesting review, but not the enthusiastic review you wanted. Some reviewers won’t review out of their favourite genre. Don’t lambast them for it, accept it. Reviewing is undervalued and bloggers are often reviewing in their own time so if they chose to only review books they know they will be passionate about: that’s their choice. It’s also their blog. If you think there’s a gap and no one’s reviewing space opera anymore, start your own review blog.

I know how many hits I get on my blog so it’s not necessary to mention that you’ve read some of my articles or reviews. My decision to review is purely based on the book you’re requesting me to review.

I can use a search engine and I have been reviewing for a long time. It’s not necessary to send an overwhelming amount of information about you or your book when requesting a review. A paragraph on your book is sufficient.

I don’t expect a thank you. My review is my opinion. My opinion of your book may not agree with your opinion of your book. If you like my review, please do post a link to it on social media. It promotes your book as well as my blog: win win.


How to Write a Review

A review should give the reader an idea of whether they’d like to read the book being reviewed. The purpose is to guide readers towards books they want to read but don’t know exist.

Good reviews aren’t necessarily positive. But those reviews that are critical are constructive. Reviewers aren’t always the target audience for the book they’re reviewing and their review should recognise this.

Focus on the book being reviewed. If space permits by all means mention that cover image isn’t suitable or the blurbs on the back cover are excessively hyperbolic, or the typeface was difficult to read but only if space permits.

A review is more than just an opinion. “I like this book,” is not a review. A reviewer needs to tell their readers why they liked the book and back-up opinions with illustrations of how that opinion was reached. “I recommend this book because I could identify with the characters, the pace was fast but not furious, the plot was complex but not complicated to follow and the final twist was credible but still caught me by surprise,” is a review.

Read the book you are reviewing. Be prepared to read it again. Compiling a review from a review of the same book published elsewhere or from the publisher’s publicity material is unprofessional and lazy. It might also come back to haunt you if you review a subsequent book by the same writer or a similar book by other writer and write a review that contradicts your compiled effort.

Don’t review the book you wanted to read. An article that consists of the writer telling the reader that the author should have written something else or should have changed the plot or written a sequence of villanelles instead of sonnets might be interesting, but it’s not a review.

Think about how much of the plot you are giving away. You need to give a flavour of what the plot’s about, but is it necessary to give away the ending? It’s not a reviewer’s job to discourage readers who would have liked the book but now feel that they don’t need to read it because they know what happens.

Don’t be tempted to show off your knowledge of the writer’s previous publications and start an in-depth assessment of the writer’s career to date. There isn’t space for a critical essay within a review. It may be relevant to mention previous publications, but generally treat the book under review as a stand alone publication. Even if the book you are reviewing is part of the series, readers need to know if they can still read the book in isolation from the rest of the series.

Don’t assume opinions expressed by characters are the same as those of the author. The point of fiction is to make it up and give writers the freedom to imagine what it’s like to hold contrary opinions or hold extreme views.

Be aware that the author of the book you are reviewing will either read the review or receive comments on your review from others. Have you justified the opinions you’ve expressed? If you did meet the author and they mentioned your review, how comfortable a conversation would that be?

Be honest. If you don’t like a book, say so, but say why. If you don’t have anything to say, it may be better not to review the book. If you’re unsure about a review you’ve written, think about whether you need to review the book at all – could you pass it on to someone who’d love to review it or pass it to an editor who can find another reviewer? If the review is for a blog, you could do a notice of a book received and link to reviews by others or the publisher’s site.

Don’t be humbled by your own achievements: it’s your reading experience that counts, not your track record as a writer. You may still be trying to get your first full collection published and write a review of someone else’s tenth publication, but you are writing your review as a reader. In fact you don’t have to be a writer to write reviews, just able to communicate your experience as a reader to other readers.

Be aware of what your review is saying about you. If you only criticise or are dismissive of what you review, you may come across as arrogant. If you express opinion as fact (“The second stanza should be cut” rather than “I think the second stanza could go, it merely repeats what’s said in the first”), you will come across as too proscriptive. Aim for a balanced review.

Don’t write about yourself or your own book(s). Impressive as your achievements may be, they are not in the book under review.

Don’t write about the author. A celebrity penning or ghost writing a first novel may find it easier to get published than you did (or perhaps you’ll still waiting for your big break), but if you write about celebrities “taking away publishing slots from real writers”, you’re not writing a review. You may think the author is the worst/most wonderful person you know, but that may not be reflected in their writing.

Before pressing publish or sending your review to an editor, double check your facts: have you got the title and author’s name, publisher and price details correct? Check character names, check the poem you said was a sestina is a sestina, check for spelling, grammar and other typos.

Check your word count. Editors generally will specify word counts so make sure your review fits.

If you don’t have a word count, that doesn’t mean you can ramble on for 2500 words when 500 would be sufficient. If you are reviewing an epic you’ll need more space for your review but 300 words should be sufficient for a slender pamphlet of poetry. Check your review’s length is in proportion to what’s under review. Cut where you’ve made the same point twice, check quotations are relevant to the point they are supporting (do you need to quote the whole poem or just a stanza?).

Would a reader be able to decide whether or not they want to read the book under review?


Why Your Book should be Reviewed

You’ve created a website, Facebook Page, tweeted about it, done the press releases, book trailer and book launch, so why do you need a review? How do reviews help your marketing strategy?

Simply because readers and potential readers know you, your publisher, your friends and your mum think your book’s wonderful. But they are asking what your book is really like. An endorsement from a reviewer, perceived to be independent, can persuade those potential readers still reluctant to part with their money.

What a Review is

A review is an opinion that enables readers to decide whether or not they want to buy the book.

A review may include consideration of a writer’s career and how their current book fits in the context of their previous books, but most reviewers don’t have space to do this.

It may include references to broader trends in that particular genre and how the current book fits with those, but generally reviewers don’t have space to do this.

What a Review is Not

  • A critical essay – a reviewers have limited space so can’t do a critical essay instead;
  • unconditional praise – reviewers can fall in love with books but generally they aim to show the book’s strengths and weaknesses;
  • pure criticism – some reviewers take the title ‘critic’ too seriously and the resulting review is unbalanced and unhelpful.

Where to send your Book for Review

Generally publishers have a list of magazines and bloggers they send review copies to. If you have self-published a book, you can either send your book to anyone who reviews the genre you’ve written in or select only those reviewers/magazines likely to be sympathetic to your book.

  • Check the magazine actually reviews your type of book eg Sphinx only reviews pamphlets, not full collections;
  • Check the magazine actually carries reviews – some do a ‘books received’ roundup instead;
  • Check guidelines – some magazines are now limiting how frequently they will review books/pamphlets by poets;
  • Don’t overlook blogs that also review (like this one!).

Should you React to a Review?

If you read a review, remember:

  • The reviewer is entitled to their own opinion;
  • The reviewer is entitled to quote whichever part of your book they feel is appropriate to make their point;
  • The reviewer has limited space so cannot write a detailed, in-depth discussion of every aspect of your book;
  • If a reviewer did not like your book, it does not mean your book is bad;
  • Your circle of writing friends who have seen early drafts and commented on the book as a work in progress will have a more positive opinion of your book than someone who had only seen your book and not the effort that went into writing it (and, unfortunately effort is irrelevant for the purposes of a review, the book has to stand or fall on its own merit);
  • Limited review outlets means that each review takes on more significance – fewer poetry magazines include reviews so one negative review from three overall reviews takes on more significance than one negative review plus ten positive ones;
  • Reviewers are not writing blurbs;
  • Do you like the reviewer’s work? If you are not a fan of the reviewer’s work, chances are the reviewer won’t be a fan of yours;
  • Even if your book was published as the result of a competition win, the reviewer is still entitled not to like it and this does not mean the competition’s judge was wrong to select your manuscript as the winner or that you have the right to criticise the reviewer’s opinion;
  • Your book is permanent, a review will be supplanted by the next blog post or new issue of the magazine where it appeared..

Generally it’s not advisable for writers to respond to reviews (although a thank you letter/email to the writer of a good review is always welcome). Once work has crossed the boundary from private to public readership, writers have to let go and accept that readers will interpret the work according to their own experiences and prejudices and so develop opinions that differ from the original author’s. These opinions may be positive or negative.

If you feel the urge to respond:

  • Read the review carefully – are you responding to the actual review or have you managed to take a comment out of context?
  • Ask a friend/trusted reader’s opinion of both the review and your response;
  • Consider if the reviewer is part of the target market for your book – if you write poetry aimed at an edgy, young urban audience and a middle-aged reviewer didn’t get it, that may actually be a recommendation;
  • Is your response based on factual errors (typos, misquotes, the reviewer failing to notice your book was set in the 18th century, the reviewer getting their facts wrong) or on the reviewer’s opinion?
  • If there are factual errors or typos in the review, approach the editor so these can be corrected;
  • If you want to respond because you disagree with the reviewer’s opinion, stop. Unless you are the type of person who would willingly enter a public slanging match if another happened to mention they didn’t like the colour of your shoes;
  • Don’t criticise the reviewer instead;
  • Don’t presume to know what the reviewer looks like, what their political affiliations are or even what their class background is, if you get it wrong, you’re the one who will look foolish.


Why your Book may Not get a Good Review

The actual review will depend on the reviewer, but there are some pointers to some obstacles that self-published poets should consider before sending publishing and sending out review copies.

No Blurb or Back Cover Text

A book that appears to be lacking in endorsements is not an obstacle for a reviewer, but a blank back cover or a lack of introduction indicates a lack of consideration for the reader.

Who are you and what are your credentials for writing this book? What are you hiding? It only takes a couple of sentences to hint at the themes included in the book and let the reader know if it is a contemporary book or set in a historical period, whether the poems within are autobiographical or inspired by someone else’s story or a specialism the poet has. Without these hints a casual reader is unlikely to pick up your book.

No Acknowledgements

If your poems have been published individually or placed in competitions, you should acknowledge this.  Not only it is a courtesy to the editors or judges who selected your work but it gives the reviewer confidence they are reading a reasonably competent writer.

If you don’t have any previous publications to acknowledge, seriously think about whether publishing a collection is a good idea. It takes a lot of marketing to sell any book, particularly poetry books so, unless you have a sizeable number of friends or family who will buy copies to help you break even or can sell a book on the back of success in another field, start reading and submitting work to poetry magazines and competitions.

Every book I’ve read by a self-published author who does not have any acknowledgments has not been worth the effort. There may be exceptions, but I’ve never been sent them for review.

Shoddy Presentation

  • Can I read your poems? If you’ve used a difficult to read typeface or too small a font or printed in grey on a strong coloured background or a neon colour on white, your poems have to be outstanding to justify the effort required to read them.
  • Give your publication an urban, edgy, hurriedly-photocopied-and-stapled feel by all means but make sure you don’t cut the photocopying so fine, you miss line endings on some of your poems – I can’t review what isn’t there or make sense of a poem when half of it is missing.
  • If you use pictures and images overlap text, ensure the text is still readable.
  • Don’t send me the copy you split coffee over – I dislike you already and haven’t opened your book yet (I don’t sell review copies so don’t required pristine copies, but haven’t got time to separate stuck together pages or wipe covers clean).
  • Number your pages, page numbers make useful reference points and prevent me wasting time having to guess where the poem I wanted to quote from is.
  • Ultimately, if you can’t be bothered to present your poems in a readable format, why should I bother reading them?

Poems not in any order

The ordering of a collection will depend on the poems in the collection. It may make sense to arrange some in chronological order, some according to theme, some according to a narrative plan, some according to style. But give some thought as to how a poem fits with its neighbours. Don’t let the reviewer think you’ve not put any thought into it.

First Person Narration Throughout

Particularly if every poem is about “I” and “I” is the same person throughout and the poems have a semi-autobiographic feel by an author who thinks their suburban Sunday afternoon observations are worthy of repetition ad nauseam, it will feel less like reading a book and more like running a marathon and I don’t run. The only exception to this is when the collection is a series of monologues in different voices so the “I” refers to different narrators.

Quality of Writing

Ultimately whether you get a good review or not will depend on the quality of the writing. Reviews will be prepared to overlook a few mistakes if the writing is good enough.

Bad writing, especially if full of typos and incorrect grammar, will never attract a good review. If you’ve not tested your writing on an audience (and preferably not just an audience that will offer uncritical praise every time), you shouldn’t be submitting your work for review.

Kindle Reviewers on Amazon.com

A debate is ongoing at Techcrunch regarding reviewers on Amazon.com leaving one star reviews for books simply because those books are not yet available on Kindle.  Whilst browers have the right to post reviews on Amazon and Amazon have the right to moderate comments as they see fit, three misconceptions keep creeping into the debate which need challenging.

  • Authors can choose a different publisher.
  • Authors should negotiate Kindle releases in their contracts and should self-publish if they can’t.
  • Production costs are minimal.

I’ll deal with each in turn.

Authors can choose a different publisher

  • We’ll ignore the role of literary agents for now as the debates have excluded them.
  • Publishers are gatekeepers so get to choose the authors (not the other way round).
  • If a publisher asks to look at a manuscript they generally expect to have exclusive rights to it, ie authors generally don’t submit a manuscript to more than one publisher at a time therefore authors do not get several simultaneous offers for publication (which would give the author a choice).
  • When an author receives an offer of publication on reasonable terms, they have already accepted numerous rejections from other publishers.
  • Not surprisingly authors tend to regard offers in terms of “I can accept this or I can remain unpublished.”
  • Remaining unpublished is not an option.

Authors should negotiate Kindle releases in their contracts and should self-publish if they can’t

  • It’s usually literary agents that negotiate contracts.
  • Publishers tend to use terms like “digital rights” which include e-book releases regardless of the format of the e-reader.
  • Kindle releases come under the umbrella of “digital rights” and are not negotiated separately.
  • Authors can’t dictate to the publisher when books are released and what format that release takes.  Publishers decide publishing dates according to existing schedules and market conditions.
  • Publishers retain the ability to withdraw the contract.
  • Authors do not have the choice of simply going elsewhere (see above).

On the self-publishing point:-

  • Self-publishing is not suitable for every author.
  • Self-publishing is only an option if the author can afford the costs and give up time to promote, market and distribute the book.
  • As this article shows, authors are paid less than the average wage and generally have a supplementary job to enable them to pay bills so finding time for promotion, marketing and distribution is not an option for most authors.

Production costs are minimal

They are if there is a book to reformat for Kindle in the first place.  This argument fails to acknowledge that an author has to write a manuscript in order for a book to be available in any format.  Therefore, any production costs include the cost of the author writing the book.  Unless Kindle users are suggesting that authors shouldn’t get paid…

And that’s the puzzling thing.  Authors would be the natural allies of Kindle users, particularly if Kindle users want authors to negotiate contracts that enable Kindle-editions to be available when Kindle users want them.  But these “one star as it’s not available for Kindle” reviewers are slamming authors for events beyond their control. 

Perhaps it’s just easier to slam authors when Kindle amounts to less than 1% of total sales.  No business model would bother catering for that market share at the expense of 99% of customers.  The “one star because it’s not available on Kindle” reviewers have yet to put together a convincing business argument for their demands.