Sunday, 24 January 2010

writer's etiquette: reviews

I received an email this week, from a writer whose book I recently reviewed.

It was interesting for me, because as well as thanking me for a thoughtful review, it also broached the subject of whether getting in touch was the correct protocol for a reviewee and reviewer, and the tone of the email was a little cautious as though worried I might be offended.

I wasn't offended. I felt it was lovely for a person to thank another person, and give a little feedback on how they received the review.

It's not the first time I've been contacted by a writer to say thank you for a review, thank you either because it was a very positive review, or because it was overall positive, but that I had critiqued certain parts of a book in a sensitive way.

One writer even used part of my review as an endorsement on the back of her second book and sent me a copy.

But this week I have been wondering about a question I have thought about in the past (as a writer as well as a reviewer), is there etiquette around this?

I mean, I write reviews to give thoughts on a book, spread the word to others, and because I enjoy reflecting on my reading and sharing that with others. I certainly don't expect a thank you, or to ever hear from a writer directly. So, when it happens it comes as a surprise, a pleasant one, but are there any issues with it?

Well, I thought of a few things.

1. I would not like to receive an angry email from anyone who hadn't liked a review I wrote about their book, or questionning my judgement... for me, this would not be the right etiquette. I try to be fair, sensitive, and also to 'own' my opinions (ie this is what I think, but other people might think differently), and given that reading is a subjective affair, then it's a given that I might not enjoy every book I read either in full or at all. I'm not going to get into a correspondance about this

2. If however, someone wants to blog about a review they are not happy with, fair enough. Although I would expect someone to give the same courtesy to me, and make sure it wasn't a bad-mouthing exercise.

3. Some people might think that thanking a reviewer might be about trying to butter them up for the next review. I can see that point.

4. However, there are a couple of people who have thanked me, and if I ever review their second or third or fifth books, I would be professional, and review it with the same fairness as the first. This means that if I don't like it, I will reflect on this. ie. I am not easily buttered.

5. So, what happens if I get into correspondance with someone whose book I have reviewed, or *god forbid* become their facebook friend, or even a real life friend. What then? My answer to this is... it doesn't detract from the fairness of the first review, and then it lurches into the etiquette around reviewing books by friends...

Ha! This is a whole new question. Should I review the books of people I know? I know there is a whole etiquette around this in reviewing world, and there are vastly differing opinions.

I've read reviews where I know for a fact that the reviewer is a personal friend of the writer, or is published by the same press. I understand why it happens, publicity is often rare, reviews are often very slow to appear if at all, and publishers send out many review copies for very few printed or online reviews. By asking another writer who is a friend, there is a guarantee that they WILL review the book, WILL be fair and sensitive, and it will be a positive review (because otherwise a friend would say kindly, listen, I didn't really understand the book so I don't feel I can review it (or some other explanation)).

Many publications have rules around this (The Short Review, for instance, has a 'rule' that the reviewer should not be connected to the writer personally, or the publisher), in order to try and avoid nepotism and unbalanced reviewing.

My own etiquette is something like this...

1. I only review books for publications or websites when I have NO personal connection with the writer. I might know of them, but they are not a friend, we don't hang out or give feedback on each other's writing. I might know them 'professionally', so I might have met them at a reading and talked about writing, or on the internet ditto. I might even read their blog, and comment sometimes. But, that's about it.

2. Equally, I don't review for my publisher, as I might not like the book, and don't want to upset them by being honest or in other words, bite the hand that feeds me.

3. If, I do want to review a book written by a friend, then I would post it on my personal blog, or say that I know them, and their personal relationship might become part of the review, as insider information can give an interesting perspective in a review. I might also promote their book on my blog, if I like it... but I think it's important to be upfront about this.

And then, what about me as a writer?

If my second book is published, I would use my relationships as much as possible to try and spread the word, publicise it, and would want as many reviews as possible. So, yes, I would approach certain professional friends, and ask whether they might be willing to spread the word on their blog, write a blog review or interview, or other such promotional thing. I doubt anyone would be upset by me asking, or being sent a review copy. The point is, there would be no obligation, if they didn't review it or promote it, I wouldn't be upset or offended. That is the world of publishing.

I would also want review copies sent to review editors including those I already know... with the hope they would send out the book to one of their reviewers (preferably who didn't know me) and find room for the review in their magazine/journal.

We all do this as writers. I might even email and thank a reviewer for their kind or thoughtful or contructive review, without expecting an acknowledgement, a friendship, or a further review from them.


I don't know whether other writers agree??

There isn't a code of conduct or a guide to etiquette (as far as I know, ha!), and we are all working our way through the issues, trying not to upset anyone or offend them, or be seen to be curry favour, or any other such thing.

Mm, etiquette is complicated.

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