Wednesday, March 4, 2015

My Book Reviewing Agony!


Hello. My name is Jackie Houchin and I'm a book review addict.

Yes, I know. There are lots of blog posts and articles on Book Reviewing: How to Do It, How Not to Do It, How to Get Someone Else to Do It (for your book). Here's my take.

But first a word on "blurbs." They fall into this "reviewing" category too. You think they are easier to write because, well, hey, they're only a sentence or two long, or occasionally an ecstatic 5-word blast that lands on the front cover with your name right there beneath the author's! Granted, much smaller, but nevertheless, there.

But blurbs are not easier. As with book reviews, I read the entire book (not just the first and last chapters with a breeze-flip through the middle) and then I actually write a complete review from which I can extract that blurb. Upside is, I now have a review that I can peddle or post somewhere. 

There are many blogs that would love to have your reviews for free and to give your name a boost. Also, you will be BFF with authors if you spread your love for their books around. (Result: A definite "feel good" if not lucrative, opportunity.)

Back to book reviewing. How about remuneration? Authors don't like to pay you – and they probably shouldn't because it might look like bribery or worse – but they do offer you a free book, ARC, or digital file.

Personally, I like hard copies because they are easier on my eyes, and I like to underline and write notes on the pages. I sometimes use the blank space after the chapter ends to write a brief synopsis.

With a digital file I have to print out the pages, using MY paper, MY ink, and MY electricity, which is costly even if I print gray scale (which is also hard on eyes), and use the backside of previously printed paper.

So, how DO you get paid for reviews? One way is to write for a magazine or online newsletter. I have written for Mystery Scene Magazine ($15 per review) and The Strand Magazine ($10), plus a few for Crimespree Magazine when I first started, which pays zero but you get clips.

If you are a prolific reader/writer and the paying magazines like your stuff, you can earn a fairly decent check every quarter...to cover your Starbucks habit. Okay, $60 or $75 doesn't seem like much, but what have you invested? A couple days of (hopefully) enjoyable reading and some time at your computer. Plus the free book.

By the way, you should never sell ARCs on Amazon, etc. It's nice to get that extra cash, but it's not fair to the author, especially if you list them BEFORE the book is launched. No-no-no!

Naively, I used to take on four or five books to review in one issue! Now I'm lucky to manage two, and in most issues only one. True, Mystery Scene Magazine gives me books by well-known authors to review – Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, Susan Wittig Albert – but that adds to my stress level.  But why, you may ask.

Well, for me, book reviewing is a perilous journey, fraught (like that word?) with doubts, delusions, and ulcers. For one thing, I am a self-doubting, paranoid perfectionist. For another, I have a very professional magazine editor. She examines my reviews for clarity, accuracy, and word counts (as she should), then lets me know – gently but firmly – where they need work. Eek!

So, consider my cycle of "Book Reviewing Agony" before accepting YOUR first book for review.


  • Request – "I know you like books by --- do you want to review this one?" says my editor. Or sometimes, "Choose a book(s) you'd like from this list." (I feel magnanimous and agree/choose.)
  • Arrival – I'm excited to get a first look at the ARC. I check page numbers, and divide the amount into the days she gave me to leisurely read the book, allowing 3 days for writing the review.
  • Reading – I love this part best, getting into a good story. I use a pencil as a book mark so I can make notes on the rough newsprint.
  • Winding down – My anxiety mounts as I anticipate finishing and having to actually WRITE a review. Often I slow down my reading here, although the climax is approaching.
  • The PC screen – I'm frozen (yes me, not the screen). That first sentence is murder! I write and rewrite it 50 times, then leave it and skip to the end (author style evaluation) which is easier. Finally disgusted I save the file and go to bed.
  • Reading my review – After a horrible night's sleep I reluctantly read what I've written. OH NO! It's horrible! I rewrite, massage, delete, cut & paste, edit out, add in. Oh, why did I ever agree to review books? After a day of misery I punch "SEND."
  • JOY! – I'm done! Relief! Freedom! The euphoria of having completed it makes me dance around the house.
  • Editor email – Down the roller coaster of despondency I plunge. I have to look at this thing again? I pull out the ARC (which fortunately I haven't tossed in my elation over the previous bullet point). I go over my notes and mini-synopses. I struggle to wrangle those words into submission and try to cut 75 words. At last it's done (again) and I am exhausted. Weakly I hit "SEND" and make a solemn self-promise. "I will never accept another book to review."
  • The 60-day wait – The magazine finally arrives. I grab it and flip immediately to the "Reviews" section, and look for my name. I read the review. I WROTE THAT? Seriously? Wow? It's amazingly good! (Okay, she's tweaked a couple words, but that's okay because she made me look great!) I display the magazine prominently on the coffee table with a Post-a-note marking "my" page.
  • Another 60 day wait – The check arrives. I smile smugly, feeling cocky at having earned a couple "Star" bucks. Hey, this reviewing isn't so bad. I could probably do another one....  
And so, I fall off the wagon again.

Q: Do book authors have a similar cycle of agony?


15 comments:

  1. What an interesting examination of the process of reviewing a book, but it is a job when you do it that way and you have to be professional. I hope those you review as well as those who read the review understand the complexity and anxiety that goes into it. As a writer, I am happy when people enjoy my work, because for me it is the love of the written word.

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    1. Thanks, Gayle, for "understanding." I hope my magazine reviews help readers to decide if they want to buy the book now (new hardbacks can range to $30!) wait for the paperback, or maybe buy the eBook when it's available.

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  2. I try to post reviews of books I've read, but mine are (mostly) free reviews on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Even so, I agonize over them, too! Have I been honest? Fair to the author? Reading your post enhanced my appreciation for the tasks a professional reviewer faces. Thanks!! Fiction is soooo much easier.

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    1. Bonnie, your reviews are so well written and very fair. I don't agonize so much over the reviews I put on Amazon or my own "Here's How it Happened" blog. I try to be professional, but it's a bit more fun if I'm the only one critiquing it! Haha. (I cringe at what Heather Ames might say to that!!)

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    2. I do try to review most books I read. The more I got into writing, the more I realized it was just the right thing to do for fellow writers since I know how much time they put into writing their book. My reviews usually come quickly because I have it all fresh in my mind. And I love to find the one key thing in the work and write about that. And the title of the review is usually a key to the book. It's like writing the "elevator pitch" for my own work - short and to the point.

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    3. Hmmmm (as I busily write notes on your comment) I may get some tips from YOU, Gayle! I know authors so appreciate all your reviews. I really should do better!

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  3. Jackie, I have read books after you reviewed them. You make them sound interesting. Just like when you used to review plays. You made me want to see it even if I was sitting next to you at the theatre. You do capture an essence.

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  4. Jackie, I loved this article--looking inside to your process for book reviewing, and the emotions you go through. I've read your reviews and blurbs--and have no fear, you do an excellent job! I also found very enlightening how extensive and lengthy the "cycle" for your magazine reviews. I've read, then continued to follow authors based on either your review or recommendation. You have a talent for reviews--revealing what's important for a reader to know! Keep 'em coming...

    Madeline

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    1. Madeline, you are a sweetheart to buy and read books that I've reviewed or recommended. I try to tell what I really liked, what works (for me at least) and always be kind. But... there was one well-known humorous mystery author whose book I reviewed on Mystery Scene, who, in my opinion, did not follow through on a major plot point. The author contacted the magazine editor after the review came out, and then I was asked to explain directly to that author what I meant. Eek!! Talk about being scared to write another review!! However, when I explained what I meant, the author was very gracious, acknowledged that I was right, and confessed that he knew in his mind how that part ended.... but had simply forgot to write it in the book! Major WHEW!

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  5. Your question about authors going through a similar cycle of agony really grabbed me. Yes, yes, yes. After reading your post, an great one, I realize that I wouldn't want to do reviews on a regular basis. How can one go through the uncertainty of writing a book and then have the same feelings about writing a review? You've impressed me. Thank you for your insights.
    Marja McGraw

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    1. Thanks, Marja. I suspected you authors go through the anxieties, self doubt, struggle with words and edits that I do, but on a much smaller scale. I admire you guys very much!! And of course, without books.... where would reviewers be?

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    2. I meant *I* go through it on a much smaller scale, while YOU do on a much LARGER scale. Gadzooks, I even have to edit my own comments! Talk about a misplaced comma.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your process. I assumed it was a cinch for you!

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  7. Jackie V. It used to be easier when I first started. Maybe it's "age" or maybe the old perfectionism has got a firmer hold. Having been in several critique groups over the years, I know that writing books - though it may look like easy-peasy to the reader - is arduous and sometimes frustrating work. I am so impressed by authors who write several series and put out 2-3 books per year. Even ONE per year is amazing to me.

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  8. I admire what you do, and you're so good at it you make it look effortless. Now that I have a better understanding of your process, I realize that what you describe is similar to what many authors go through when they switch from Novelist mode to Business mode - query letters, blurbs for book jackets and back covers, summaries for promotional material - and yes, AGONY is the right word. Great post.

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