The panel that I thought was worth its weight in gold was the “Critical Reviews” session, chaired by Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal and author of the yearly BEA galley and signing guide.
My favorite speaker on the panel was Janice Harayda, editor-in-chief of the blog One Minute Reviews, as well as a journalist and author herself. She spoke about the lost art of the smart, witty book review. And the honest book review. Nowadays, “review inflation” (like grade inflation at universities) is more common than not, as is “self-censorship by critics.” Perhaps because of lawsuit fears? Or because reviewers are afraid to lose their valuable connection with certain publishers? (that fear was mentioned once, at least) I’m sure there are many other possible reasons as well. Janice does not accept review copies, I assume to assure no bias. I’m not sure I personally would go that far, but I admire her stance.
What she was saying matched my reviewing philosophy and reinforced that I am not alone in my views. I do write critical reviews (and by the word “critical,” I mean “characterized by careful, exact evaluation and judgment”-thefreedictionary.com) and the reason I do is because I truly believe review inflation “fosters cynicism in readers” (Janice’s statement). “False advertising” is another way to think of it, and my standards are clear regarding this issue. I write for the readers; I review to help readers select the best books in the genre, the ones worthy of their time and money—precious resources that should not be wasted.
Janice’s advice for writers of critical reviews included the following:
-Lay out the facts for the reader and allow her or him to judge
-Put the positive aspects of the book (and there is always something) in the lead
-Focus on the book, on the content, and never on the person–in other words, don’t personally insult the author
-Never use inflammatory words and never let anger rule. Don’t be in an agitated emotional state when laying out the facts; be calm. Simply quote what the author says, then cite the facts.
Janice also recommended taking a look at the reviews by Michael Dirda and Dorothy Parker as examples of smart, witty prose. She also posted a handout she gave us, called “A Neon Sign at the Topless Bar of Literature: 12 Tips for Writing Good Book Reviews When Publishers Hit You with Their Worst,” which can be found here: http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/how-to-write-good-book-reviews-when-publishers-toss-you-their-worst/.
If you want to improve your reviews, read this. It’s short, concise, and infinitely helpful.
Florinda Vasquez, of “The 3 R’s Blog” emphasized that critical or negative reviews should be 1) useful for the readers; 2) constructive, letting the author know where one thinks the book falls short; and 3) diplomatic.
I have been reading some posts complaining that the lawyer on the panel (Mark Fowler) was trying to scare bloggers regarding possible libel suits. That was not my take on his information at all. Perhaps coming from an editorial perspective myself (we, as an academic press, publish political, military, and international affairs nonfiction), where the issue of libel is a daily reality, I believe this is an important factor to be aware of. Mr. Fowler did state that the possibility of being sued for libel in a fiction review is quite remote, but how can it hurt for bloggers to be educated on the difference between “constitutionally protected opinion” and libel? These are the types of issues that professionals in the field take seriously, and if bloggers want to be taken seriously as professionals by members of the publishing sphere, then they must understand and practice professional standards as well. From my vantage point, this is what Mr. Fowler was attempting to do. Educate. Not frighten, but educate. Libel is a frequent occurrence, unfortunately, and what one does not know can harm oneself and others.
One other important topic that I want to mention is Janice’s recommendation to have a clear review policy on your blog. It should include statements such as if a publisher sends you an unsolicited review copy, you are not obligated to review it; and you will accept books for review consideration. The terminology is important and a publisher or author’s expectations do not mean that you have to review every single book that is requested of you.
Remember, she said at the end of the session, who you are writing for. Think about your audience and tailor your review to their needs. As for me, I am writing for the readers, not the publishers or even the authors. And I will stick to that statement.
Now, as for the other breakout panel, I attended “Demystifying the Book Blogger & Publisher Relationship.” And I was not impressed. Being told that blog stats are crucial in order to one’s blog to be recognized by publishers simply turned me off. Measuring stats is a quality vs. quantity issue, and I aim for quality. The stats counters would not like me. Discussion closed.
Truly, I didn’t find much information of value here. I’m not sure I want a relationship with a publisher, first because I review mostly self-published books, and second, I am not going to jump through anyone’s popularity hoops. This leads back to the “review inflation” issue I just wrote about and I simply won’t play the game to remain on anyone’s good side. Perhaps this panel offered good information for other attendees, but not for me.
To wrap up this observation piece, I do not anticipate attending this conference next year. The “Critical Reviews” panel saved the day, but the bottom line is that I didn’t appreciate being a captive audience to be marketed to by authors and publishers. That isn’t what a blogger conference should be about.
It’s dangerous to speak for an unruly bunch like bloggers, but I believe I can speak for our entire panel when I say: Thank you! You summed up my views fairly and accurately added your own helpful perspective.
A few comments on beginning a review with the good things about a book that I didn’t have time to make on the BEA Bloggers Critical Reviews panel: Those good things don’t have to involve the writing. I might begin a mixed or negative review by saying, for example, that the book won a prize; is a bestseller; or deals with a potentially fascinating topic. Or I might say up front that I enjoyed the author’s previous books; that critics have praised his or her work highly; or that a book started promisingly (and go on to explain why it ultimately didn’t deliver). To my mind, any or all of those things can help to keep a review fair by suggesting to readers that they might like a book even if I didn’t.
I like your “Review Policy,” too :).
Thank you for the compliment and the advice, Jan! I’m glad I managed to be fair and accurate; that’s my goal : ) Readers, take note of the advice here.