Posted in Book Reviews

When is a book review not a book review?

It seems simple enough. You write a book, someone reads it, likes it (or not), writes a review, and other potential readers interpret the review for themselves, deciding whether or not to read your book based on their own criteria. One of the most important factors readers might use to interpret a review is the identity – and therefore perceived credibility – of the review writer.

For example, for some readers there might be a big difference between a review written by the New York Times and one penned by Oprah (or at least endorsed by her). Or between the writer’s spouse and someone who doesn’t know that writer personally. That may be the line we cross into territory where a review is not really a review – it is an advertisement. And these are not the only kinds of ‘advertisements’ masquerading as book reviews.

There can hardly be a writer or ‘wanabe’ writer around these days who is unaware of the current book review scams visited upon readers.

In August of 2012 The New York Times published an article titled: “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy.” Author David Streitfeld reported on what appeared to be a newly established business model: writing book reviews for cash. He tells the story of Todd Rutherford’s gettingbookreviews.com, a business based on writing online book reviews – paid for by the writer. One of the service packages he offered was for him to write 20 online book reviews for $499. What could be better? Twenty reviews proclaiming a book to be worthy of 5 stars, the work of a literary genius. In my view, what would be better would be some honesty.

And Rutherford was merely one among myriad businesses that have been springing up all over the place to provide exactly the same service to writers desperate for sales. Quite often, the entrepreneurs offering this service are themselves wannabe writers.

But what happens when a reader finds out the truth of the review? Maybe the book is a good one; but maybe it isn’t. Readers searching for new, indie writers will soon become jaded from being burned. Buying book reviews hurts everyone.

So if a book review is not a book review when it is written for money, what about when it’s written by your spouse (or mother, or sister etc.)?

The Amazon review by a certain party whose last name is the same as mine was not penned by a relative.
The Amazon review by a certain party whose last name is the same as mine was not penned by a relative.

I was mortified when I went onto Amazon.com to see that one of the reviews (and a 5-star one at that) of one of my historical novels Grace Note was penned by someone whose last name is PARSONS. I’m quite certain that anyone looking at that would make the reasonable assumption that it was written by one of my relatives. It wasn’t. I’m just glad the reviewer liked it! The bottom line, however, is that a review by one of your nearest and dearest isn’t really a review either.

So…and here is the one where I’m going to get myself into trouble… what if the review is written by a member of your co-dependency group. These are those writing groups, usually virtual, or Twitter communities, wherein everyone gushes about everyone else’s books mostly so that when yours is published everyone will do the same. I have to admit that this really bothers me. It puts me off buying the promoted books, which is a shame for the writers. However, I just don’t trust these reviews.

I follow a number of otherwise interesting indie authors who also review books on Twitter, but I find that the reviews are always 5-star ones, or very close to it. I’m presuming that they only tweet their 5-star ones (surely there are books they dislike?), but I’d like to be directed to one that might be a 4 or even a 3 ½ star review so that I can make up my own mind. When everything is ‘awesome’, then nothing is ‘awesome.’

Let’s get back to some truth in advertising among writers and publishers. Please.

Posted in Book publishers, Self-Publishing

Holding self-published writers to account for quality

At the same time as I was contemplating what to do with my book that has reverted to me from a [now-defunct] publisher, I was preparing for my spring semester of teaching at MSVU.

One of the courses I’m currently teaching is related to my original area of specialization in communication: namely health communication.  I’ve written a lot in that area – including some four or five books – and had included a magazine health feature writing assignment for the undergraduate students in the course (there are also some Masters-level students who will do an analysis and critique rather than write a piece).  Since it’s been some years since I personally did medical feature writing, I thought that I’d update my reference materials so that I might be able to offer to the students a selection of recommended resources.  To that end, I began my book search where I usually begin: Amazon.  To my surprise, the up-to-date offerings are slim.  Of course, that always makes me see a trade literature gap; which makes me consider how to fill that gap; which makes me wonder if I have the expertise to write such a book…but I digress.

As I made my way through the list in search of what might be a useful book, I came upon one titled Popular Health & Medical Writing for Magazines.  I thought, well, that sounds just like what the students might need, so I ordered a copy to review it.  I evidently was remiss in my usual vetting of online book offerings.

I usually “look inside” reviewing the title page, table of contents, copyright page to see who published it and author bio to check for credentials.  I failed in my due diligence.  Published by iUniverse, the book turns out to be one of many (and I do mean many) books that this author has self-published.  Now, I’d be the last one to dismiss a book simply because it was self-published – many very worthy books have been published by the authors themselves over the years and I have dabbled in it myself as I’ve revealed in earlier posts – but when I began to look closely at the credentials of this “popular science journalist”  (as per the book description and her web site which I have sadly subsequently perused), I was hard-pressed to find those credentials that would lead me to recommend her work.

Her other books include such things as How to write plays, monologues, or skits from life stories, social issues, current events: For all ages, How to start personal history and genealogy journalism businesses: Genealogy course templates…, Creating family newsletters and time capsules: How to publish multi-media genealogy periodicals or gift booklets, and Middle eastern honor killings in the USA (a novel, I believe), among many others.  In fact, at the top of the author’s web site it says that she has published 80 paperback books, and half way down the front page it says 65+.  Okay, I guess that could mean 80.  Hmm…

I have no quibble with writers having wide interests – I suffer from that myself, so can identify – but I think that there needs to be some area of expertise that can be identified if we look closely.  And for someone to be writing a book about how to write health and medical pieces for popular media – well, let’s just say that I expect to be able to see that they have a grasp both of medical science and of journalism.  That was not evident – and I’m very sad to report that the self-published book that I paid for is bewildering at best.

Why I didn’t look at the first chapter title and get a clue is beyond me: “Making medical language specialists; Turning medical transcribers into medical writers and editors.”  The idea that all you need to be a medical writer or editor is to have experience as a transcriptionist made me see red.  Then sandwiched between a chapter titled “What to emphasize in medical writing…” and “Writing the self-help article” is a chapter titled “Writing about DNA and gene hunters.”  This made me begin to question both the framework and the agenda of the book.  Then the last chapter in this medical writing primer puzzled me even more: “Medical writing about pets: Care, food, travel, adventures, history, genres…”  What the h***?

So, I decided to actually read the book.  If I thought that the framework didn’t make a lot of sense, the individual chapters had something of a flight of ideas as well.  Then when I came upon this particular piece of advice: “…medical writers can also sell (or represent) the product discussed in the research and writing…” I slammed the book shut, realizing that there was a serious dearth of ethical considerations among the pearls of wisdom.   This led me to consider the following question:  Should I write a review on Amazon to save other bona fide budding medical writers from buying this book?  Or should I just let it go?

I had a sense that I didn’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings.  Where did that thought come from?  If self-publishing is to be thought of as a legitimate route to authorship, then writers need to be held to the same standards and measured by the same yardsticks as those published via the more traditional routes.  In these days of “everyone is a writer” and “everyone is a publisher” we do need some quality controls and if writers themselves are not prepared to do this, then writing and publishing is doomed to mediocrity or worse.

Clearly, the self-publishing model as it stands now is in serious need of reconsideration.  The problem is that the really well-written and edited self-published books do hold their own against anything that a more traditional publisher can produce.  Sadly, there is no way to figure this out unless you do what I did – and you buy it.  By then it’s too late.

So, it’s back to the drawing board to find another book for my students.