Want a book review? Try these tips

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

The Oklahoman newspaper

The Oklahoman newspaper

It’s my pleasure to introduce someone I’ve known for a long time, an Okie friend. I first knew Ken Raymond of The Oklahoman newspaper as a crime beat and features reporter. He is a talented author as well. After he graced me with a glimpse of his work, I’ve been trying to coerce him to write a novel ever since and hope he does one day. Very talented guy. Now he’s the book review editor at the paper, a man of many hats. Please chat Ken up, TKZers.

P S – I will be traveling and in remote spots this week. I may not have access to the internet, but I will try to check in on post day.

Ken Raymond’s Post:

Last year I interviewed David Sedaris, the humorist renowned for essays such as “Santaland Diaries,” a hilarious chronicle of his days working as an elf at Macy’s one holiday season.

We didn’t have much in common, aside from our mutual appreciation of his work, but we both love books … and we share a similar problem.

Whenever Sedaris makes a public appearance, would-be authors thrust their manuscripts at him. He’s not sure why, but he thinks they hope he will read all the books, pass them on to his editors and launch the writers’ book careers.That never happens. Sometimes he says no to the manuscripts; other times he takes them out of a sense of politeness and civility.

Even if he wanted, he could never find time to read them all.

I’m not famous. I don’t make many public appearances, and when I do, they’re usually at writing conferences or classrooms. But I do get buried in books, most of them unsolicited. Dozens pile up outside my front door each week, and more still find their way to what used to be my office.

Who am I? I’m just the book editor for The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City. Book editor sounds important, but really I’m just one guy who reads and reviews books and tries to convince other people to do the same. My staff, such as it is, consists of volunteer newsroom staffers and a handful of stringers, whose only recompense is a byline and a free book. I interview authors, write about industry trends and work hard to deliver the best possible product, but I’m also a columnist and senior feature writer. There are only so many hours in the day.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I’m among the fortunate few in this world who are paid to read books. The problem is that there are just so many of them, good and bad, in all genres and styles.

Given all that competition, how can you make your book stand out — to me and to the countless other reviewers out there?

There’s no guarantee of success, but these tips may help:

Be honest.

For some reason, no one wants to come across as a beginner in the writing business. I guess everyone assumes that if they’re not all polished and shiny, they won’t stand out.

Me, I’m sick of flashy. I get hundreds of emails a week from authors or publicists, and sometimes from authors pretending to be publicists. The messages are so flashy they look like old Geocities websites, with weasel words thrown in to make it seem as if the books they’re pitching are the biggest thing to hit literature since the Gutenberg Bible. Read them closely, though, and they’re largely unappealing campaigns of self-aggrandizement.

I prefer a simpler approach: the truth. Don’t try to impress me; your book should do that. Your emails should tell me who you are, what you’ve written and why you think it stands out. Talk to me like we’re eating lunch together, and I’ll listen.

I’ll also tell you what I tell everyone these days. I can never promise coverage, but I’ll give you the same chance at a review that every other author gets, including the famous ones. I’ll look at your book, and if it’s not for me, then I’ll offer it up to my review team. If anyone picks it and thinks it’s pretty good, I’ll run a review. If they don’t like it, I probably won’t run a review.

Follow up.

If you apply for a job, odds are you won’t sit by the phone for two weeks, hoping it’ll ring. Instead, you’ll follow up a few days after the interview, letting the company know you’re interested and making sure you’re remembered. You may follow up again a week later.

The same goes for book promotion. Often someone will pitch a book to me, and I’ll ask for a review copy. By the time the book arrives in the mail, I may not remember it at all; I’ve dealt with a bunch of other books in the interval.

A simple follow-up email reminds me that we communicated about the book. It tells me that I was interested enough to request it. It’ll make me take a closer look.

Don’t take it personally.

Nothing turns me against a book more than an argumentative author. Earlier this year, a guy blitzed me with phone calls and emails, demanding that I review his minor book about his favorite subject: himself.

Somehow he had browbeaten other news organizations into writing reviews, none of which were particularly flattering. When his berserk behavior persisted, I told him I wasn’t interested in interviewing him or reading his book. He promptly called my boss eight times in a two-hour period and drowned him in email.

He seemed shocked, absolutely shocked, that he couldn’t force his way into the paper.

I don’t want to be a puppet. Most people don’t seek out needless confrontation. If we all act professionally, we should get along fine, even if I can’t get to your book or publish a review. I bear you no ill will; without you, I couldn’t do my job.

Play the odds.

Major publishers release fewer books during the cold weather months. The spring, summer and fall are all pretty hectic, so those winter months are your best opportunity to contact me. You simply won’t have as much competition.

At the same time, I scramble for content around that time of year. I suspect others in my position do, too. I start pushing gift books on Black Friday and continue every week until Christmas. Even if your book came out much earlier in the year, I may use it in one of my gift guides. I generally offer a range of books in different genres.

But winter isn’t your only window. Whenever possible, people like me prefer to publish reviews proximate in time to book release dates. If I could, I would limit most of my reviews to books that are about to come out in a couple days.

In order for that to happen, I need your book about a month in advance. Some critics prefer digital copies; I like physical books, even if they’re uncorrected page proofs.

Because I am in Oklahoma, I take special interest in books with some sort of Oklahoma ties. If you live here, went to college here, set your book here, whatever, that’ll up your odds of getting reviewed. The same applies to other regional newspapers. If you’re in Alaska, pitch your book hard to Alaskan publications.

Set up book signings, too. You probably won’t get rich at a book signing, since stores take part of the haul, but I always mention local book signings in print. Many other papers do the same. It may not be as good as a full review, but at least it gets your name out there.

Best of luck, and please contact me about your upcoming books. The best way to reach me is via email at kraymond@oklahoman.com. Follow me on Twitter at @kosar1969.

Discussion: Any questions for a book review editor, TKZers? You ever wonder what a crime beat reporter sees on the job? Or maybe you want to know what was the strangest features article Ken ever wrote? Ask away!

Ken Raymond - Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Ken Raymond – Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Bio:
Ken Raymond is the book editor and a senior writer at The Oklahoman. He publishes a monthly column called “Purely Subjective.” A Fulbright scholar and Pennsylvania native, he covered crime for much of his career, bringing dramatic stories to life through literary nonfiction. He has won numerous national, regional and state awards. Three times he has been named Oklahoma’s best writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. He lives in Edmond with his wife, three Italian greyhounds and a Chihuahua.

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Paid Book Reviews

Nancy J. Cohen

There’s a disturbing trend toward paid reviews. Indie authors may have a difficult time getting their books reviewed, so this is an option for them. But it’s an issue for any traditionally published author who wishes to get more critical reviews for their new release, aside from the places where their publisher has sent advance reading copies. Here are some sites I’ve heard of but am by no means recommending. Do the research on your own.

books2

Kirkus Indie Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/author-services/indie/ costs $425. You can submit 2 print copies or a digital submission.

Publishers Weekly: At a site called Book Life, you can register your title and decide what services you want, i.e. getting your book reviewed or help with marketing. http://booklife.com/ It appears to be free, but marketing services are available. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/diy/index.html

RT Book Reviews: This magazine offers a paid service for $425 through RT Review Source: http://www.rtreviewsource.com/

Net Galley: $399 for a six month title listing, or $599 for a listing along with a spot in their newsletter. https://netgalley.uservoice.com/knowledgebase/articles/105722-do-you-work-with-individual-authors . Here your book might attract the attention of librarians, booksellers, reviewers and bloggers.

Edelweiss: If you’re traditionally published, ask if your book is listed at Edelweiss. This is where booksellers and librarians go to browse and place orders. Reviewers can request digital ARCs there too. Publishers pay for listings. The pricing for the catalog is based on the number of titles the publisher plans to feature in a year. An administrative fee is also charged annually for this service. In addition, there’s a digital review service that publishers can participate in either separately or along with the catalog listing. http://edelweiss.abovethetreeline.com/HomePage.aspx

Choosy Bookworm: http://authors.choosybookworm.com/book-reviews/ . For $99, they hint you might get 30 interested readers who will post reviews but no guarantees.

Nerdy Girls Book Reviews: http://nerdygirlbookreviews.com/authors/ Their basic package is $49 for 30-35 reader reviews.

Chanticleer Book Reviews cost $325: http://www.chantireviews.com/book-reviews/

Of course, you have many other options. Go on a blog tour where the hosts offer reviews. Do giveaways on Goodreads and LibraryThing and hope that the winners post their consumer reviews. Or buy inexpensive ads where a review might be part of the package. It’s not easy to attract the big guns but you can still get bloggers on your side.

How do you feel about paid reviews?

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To Review or Not to Review

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was at a presentation recently on ways authors can use social media and the dreaded issue of ‘reviews’ came up – with the presenter advising many would-be authors that a great way to engage future readers is to use social media to review other people’s books that occupy the same ‘space’ as your own. 

Fair enough…perfectly reasonable…why not…except I always feel a panic attack coming on when it comes to the whole issue of reviews. Perhaps it’s my English heritage but I’m very, very wary of offering any kind of on-line commentary on books that have been published that are of a similar genre to mine (and even those that are not) because:

  • What if I hate the book but I’ve met the author and he/she seem very nice…
  • What if I think the book was so-so but it’s a major bestseller and so my opinion might look like nothing more than sour grapes…
  • What if I love the book but my review seems like little more than vanity or pandering…
  • What if an on-line opinion starts a flame-war? 

Now in person I am more than happy to air my opinion on almost any topic:) My concern is always that once out there on the internet (via social media, blog posts or other review forums) it’s out there forever and it has an unlimited potential to come back and bite me. 

Of course, good reviews are rarely the problem, but I think your credibility gets called into question if the only reviews you ever write are of the gushing, over the top ‘I love it!!!!!’ variety. If I’m going to present my opinion on-line I want it to be authentic, informative and interesting…which isn’t going to happen if I only report on the books I totally loved. 

So I’m wondering what other writers do when they approach the issue of reviews in the online world. Do you:

  • Only review books you love?
  • Be honest, and just put your opinion out there? or
  • Avoiding reviews all together? 

I’m not sure how many TKZers post reviews on sites like Goodreads or Amazon (again I’m pretty reluctant to do either) or whether you express your opinions on social media like Google+, Facebook etc. On the one hand I think writing reviews can establish an authors credibility in terms of knowing their genre and being enthusiastic and involved in the writing world. On the other hand  I think reviewing other people’s work can open up a whole can of worms (especially if it’s not a glowing endorsement) and so I still hesitate…

So what do you do when it comes to reviews?

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Don’t Read Your Reviews

by Michelle Gagnon

As part of Thrillerfest one year, they gave a special award (if a piece of fossilized poop can be considered an award) to our very own John Gilstrap (even though he’s no longer officially part of this blog, he’ll always be the Friday guy to me). The award was for the Worst Amazon Review, and he won for this little nugget (no pun intended): “The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.”

I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, and for many authors, nearly impossible, but here’s my advice: don’t read your reviews, ever. Turn off that Google alert. Skip the Amazon reviews section. Ignore your GoodReads ratings. And if you must know what a blogger or traditional media reviewer is saying about your book, enlist someone you trust to skim the contents and give you the highlights.

This applies not only to negative reviews, but positive ones. Because here’s the thing. As we all know, a reader’s opinion of a book is enormously subjective. The way they approach a story can vary at different points in their lives, or even their day. They read things into it that you might never have intended–and they’re all going to have vastly different opinions about what worked and what didn’t. I’m always startled when I get feedback from beta readers–everyone always manages to come up with different favorite sections, and least favorites. So when taking their advice, I usually try to find the commonalities, the issues everyone zeroed in on. In the end, much of what they say is taken with a serious grain of salt.

The same applies to reviewers, naturally. Maybe Marilyn Stasio ate a bad oyster before reading your book, and the nausea she felt skewed her experience. Maybe the Kirkus reviewer was going through a divorce, so the way that you depicted a couple falling apart resonated too strongly with him (or not strongly enough). I know that for my last book, several reviewers felt the plot was tremendous, but the character development was weak. Others loved the characters, but the story left them cold. When writing a review, even when you loved the book, there’s an irresistible inclination to find something to pick at. That‘s what many of us were taught to do in school; otherwise it doesn’t feel like we’ve done the review justice.

As writers, we already have enough voices in our heads. Resist the temptation to let new ones in. This is particularly critical if you’re writing a series; if one reader hated your protagonist, do you really want that small seed of doubt planted in your head? Do you want to be swayed by Merlin57 if he declares that you should be the next winner of the fossilized poop award? 

Even when a review is entirely positive, there are drawbacks. Say a particular reader took a shine to a relatively minor character, and hopes to see more of her in the next installment. Should that be factored into your writing process? I say no, not if that wasn’t part of your initial vision for the narrative.

It’s a challenge not to dive into the fray–especially since, with all the blogs out there, there are potentially dozens of opinions on your prose just waiting to be perused. But avoid the temptation; don’t dive into the rabbit hole. If your book is amassing lots of great reviews and accolades, you’ll hear about it from your editor, agent, and friends. But knowing precisely what’s being said can be detrimental.

*side note: I’d also advise against doing a Google Search for fossilized poop. Trust me on this one.

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Et Tu, Amazon?

by Michelle Gagnon

So I just emerged from my editing cave (my second draft of book 2 for the PERSEF0NE trilogy is done- whew) to some disturbing news. Digging through a backlog of emails, I came across a few from fans that were extremely troubling. Apparently these fans tried to submit reviews of my book on Amazon, and their reviews either a) never appeared, or b) were abruptly taken down.

Two of the fans send transcripts of the reviews, and they were standard (and positive, thankfully): nothing offensive at all in terms of content.

One of the fans took the time and trouble to write to Amazon, asking why his review was removed. He received this form letter reply:

I’m sorry for any previous concerns regarding your reviews on our site. We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product.

We have removed your reviews as they are in violation of our guidelines.  We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.

I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.

Now, I’ve known this fan for years–he’s read (and reviewed!) all of my other books. And he has no financial stake in my work. He also doesn’t sell anything on Amazon, ever–never mind competing products (which would be what, exactly? Other books? Does this mean that I’m no longer allowed to review thrillers by my contemporaries?)

From there, it became even more disturbing. When the fan wrote back and pointed out that he’s never sold anything on Amazon, and doesn’t have any financial interest in my books, they sent another letter–and in this one, the powers that be declared that if he tried to contact them again about reposting, they would REMOVE MY BOOK FROM THE SITE.

That’s right, remove my book. Even though, had he not written, I wouldn’t have a clue that any of this was transpiring.

Hello, Big Brother.

Needless to say, I found this very disturbing, particularly since it doesn’t appear to be an isolated case. After all, two other fans sent similar messages; and I can only wonder how many others had the same experience, but didn’t write to let me know.

All I can think is that this is some sort of misguided attempt by Amazon to try and remedy some of the abuses that came to light in the recent sock puppet debacle (and if you missed all that drama, here’s a link to catch you up). But if so, it’s overkill. These days, with fewer review outlets available to writers, those Amazon reviews can be worth their weight in gold. And on what basis is Amazon is deciding that some posts should be barred? It’s very disturbing.

Thoughts?

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The Good, Bad and Ugly reviews

By Joe Moore

We’ve been talking quite a bit this week about online reviews, especially those on Amazon, B&N and other sites, and the fact that some authors have admitted to paying for glowing reviews in order to boost sales, so-called sock-puppet reviews. I think we all agree that this is a truly deceitful practice and should be condemned. Many well-know authors are speaking out on this. But I find it more that dishonest, it’s just plain sad. If a writer has so little faith in his or her work that a viable option is to purchase 5-star reviews, that’s sad. Our work should be accepted or rejected on its own merit—it should stand on its own.

No book has ever been declared great by everyone who read it. There will always be those who dislike a book for more reasons that we can count. As a matter of fact, it never ceases to amaze me the vast span of reactions to books including my own and those of my friends. Pick any bestseller and you’ll find someone who loves it and someone else who doesn’t. And often both are willing to say so, in the strongest of terms. There are more than enough good, bad and ugly reviews to go around.

So I thought that instead of talking about online reviews, I’d share some of mine with you. I’ve listed 5 of my thrillers (all co-written with Lynn Sholes) and a sample of the good, the bad and the ugly online reviews we’ve received over the years.

Disclaimer: I have no idea who wrote and posted these nor have I ever paid for a review. These samples were gathered from Amazon and Goodreads.

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES

Phoenix-cover-final (Small)The Good: “I’ll read anything these two authors write. I have to be careful not to put a spoiler in this review, but there is one scene that knocked me off the sofa. I don’t often squeal during a movie scene when the bad guy comes out from around the dark corner, but there was a scene in this book that made me jump and I almost flung the book across the room. I won’t tell which one it was because I don’t want to ruin it for any other reader.”

The Bad: “I just couldn’t figure out if this book was for "young adult" reading or "teen reading" or adults or Christian reading or even anti-religion.”

The Ugly: “The writing is deplorable, the style so bland I had to read a page twice to make sure it was indeed that bad!”

THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY

tgcThe Good: “What I want to know is when is this going to come out as a movie? It has to be one of the most exciting thrillers I have ever read. I was hooked from the first page on when Cotten Stone (the main character) stumbles onto the dig site of the Crusader’s tomb.”

The Bad: “This started with interesting characters and action, but the quality of writing was fair and the story went downhill. Would not recommend even as a beach book.”

The Ugly: “The book was simply boring and poorly written. The characters had no depth. The plot took forever to go anywhere.”

THE LAST SECRET

tlsThe Good: “This was one of those books you cannot put down. Basically I was on the edge of my seat so to speak whilst reading it. Exciting, mysterious. Well written, keeps you guessing. Loved it… Would recommend as great reading!”

The Bad: “It takes more than an exotic location and some perceived struggle between good and evil to make a good story.”

The Ugly: “Religious hype … I was totally disappointed.”

THE HADES PROJECT

thpThe Good: “Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore have given us an exciting, fast moving, and scary novel. The proverbial "page turner".

The Bad: “I had a hard time liking the main character, Cotten Stone. She was a bit too whiny for my taste.”

The Ugly: “A waste of my time.”

THE 731 LEGACY

731The Good: “Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore do a masterful job of telling an engaging story that involves religious prophecy, global disaster, mass plague and an unbelievable revenge plot against the U.S. and its allies by a long-forgotten enemy.”

The Bad: “It was so predictable.”

The Ugly: “This book was a big ‘I don’t care what happens to you, no matter how sad it may be’ kinda story for me. The first time I read a Sholes & Moore book, and definitely the last time.”

So now that you’ve seen a few of my good, bad and ugly reviews, how about you guys? Got the guts to share the best and worst you’ve received? What about those of you that have posted online reviews? Without revealing the book title or author, want to share your good, bad and ugly comments?

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The Future of Book Reviews

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We’ve had a number of blog posts about the future of publishing and the rise of the e-book, the impact of social networking, blogs and the plethora of book and author related websites filling our digital world…but one thing that struck me this weekend (as I perused the New York Time’s book review online) was the future and influence of the mainstream book reviewer. Now I can’t say I have any quantifiable data on the sales impact of a favourable book review in the NYT but I would hazard a guess that 10-15 years ago a good review in a venerable newspaper like the NYT or a great review in Publisher’s Weekly (or, heaven help us, Kirkus) would have had a sizable impact on book sales. Today, I’m not so sure…

I do think good newspaper reviews and starred PW reviews encourage publishers to spend additional advertising and marketing money on an author’s book – which would certainly help rather than hinder sales – but just how influential are they now? Would a critical mass of favourable Amazon reviews generate greater sales? Would a rave review from a popular online blogger garner more readers? It would be interesting to try and survey authors to see what they thought had the greatest impact on sales. No doubt a bestseller occurs due to the cumulative effect word of mouth and media exposure – but I wonder what role traditional reviewers play in influencing this?

I’m an old fashioned girl so a great NYT book review will get me out there searching for the title (either online or in a brick and mortar store). I will, however, also check out the Amazon reviews and Google the author/title to see what kind of buzz (or not) there is in the blogosphere. If a trusted friend raves about a book then I will also check it out but more often than not, I will hear about a new book from my mother (sadly, I sometimes think only her generation that still reads – my friends usually say they have no time…) who has read the review in The Times, the Financial Times or The Guardian (can you tell my mother is English?). Rarely will a blogger’s recommendation be enough, simply because I find it hard to assess the reviewer’s credentials and impartiality – of course, we could have another entire blog post in this regard (having heard some professional reviewers question ‘amateur’ reviewers’ ability to meaningfully review!)

What do our TKZ authors think? How do the traditional forms of newspaper or PW reviews impact sales do you think, when compared to say Amazon, Goodreads or online blogs? In a post-Oprah world who do you think is going to become the most influential word on books? How is the whole review thing going to pan out with the dramatic rise in e-book sales (many of which are self-published titles) – and, for all our TKZ readers out there – whose opinion or review matters to you as a reader?

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Criticizing the critic

Novelist Alice Hoffman created a dust-up recently when she used Twitter to fire back at a less than glowing review of her latest novel, THE STORY SISTERS.

Reviewer Roberta Silman wrote in The Boston Globe: “This new novel lacks the spark of the earlier work. Its vision, characters, and even the prose seem tired.” Hoffman posted a number of tweets calling Silman a moron. She asked, “How do some people get to review books?” Hoffman also posted Silman’s phone number and email, inviting fans to contact the reviewer and “Tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

By Monday, Hoffman had issued a statement of apology through her publisher.

OK, as authors, we’ve all received negative reviews somewhere along the line. As far as I know, no one has ever written a book that was accepted and loved by 100% of its readers. And even the most famous or best-selling books of all time have been lambasted with negative reviews. Just ask Dan Brown.

So what would cause any author to lose it and publically shoot back at a reviewer? Don’t we all know that when we take that giant, risky step into the public arena by having our words published, that we are aware the results might be positive AND negative? What could possibly be accomplished by criticizing a critic? Would it encourage the reviewer to be gentler next time? Doubtful. It might even narrow the number of future reviews by other critics.

There’s an old saying that if you do the crime, be ready to do the time. If you write a book and have it published so anyone can read it, be ready for the good and the bad, because that’s what you’re going to get.

How about you? Have you ever wanted to shoot back at a reviewer who gave you a less than favorable review? Did you? Should you?

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