Sunday, 26 August 2012

It's Nice to Be Important, but it's Important to Have Armour-Plated Skin

I'm currently reading a book, one which is well written and which I'm enjoying.  However, there are a few things I'm not happy with, particularly in the first third of the book, so in writing my review I'm going to have to factor that in.  Balancing the positives and the negatives, that's what writing up a book review is all about, right?  But what if that book happens to be one which you received gratis from your friendly neighbourhood book publisher...

Anyone who has been blogging for a while is bound to have come across this problem (some more than others...), and while for many bloggers it's not an issue, for some it's one that causes us many sleepless nights (OK, minutes).  When we are first chosen to receive an ARC (Advance Review Copy), the blood rushes to our heads, rendering us dizzy and gushing, incapable of writing a paragraph without a liberal sprinkling of superlatives and exclamation marks.  Once the novelty wears off though, we notice that the freebies we have been given have actually come with strings attached - strings that can, at times, have the weight of cast-iron chains...

So what is it that we're actually agreeing to do when we accept a review copy of a book?  Let's assume that it's a book you've actually requested from a publisher (I know many of you are showered with unsolicited paperbacks, but it's not something that happens much around my place).  In this case, there's a tacit expectation that you will read and review the book at some point in the future, following any embargo dates that are mentioned and perhaps dropping the publisher a quick e-mail with a link to your post.  I'm a fairly conscientious kind of person, so I also feel that I should get this done within a reasonable period of time - I'm aware that not everyone shares my views on this last point ;)

So far, so good.  The real problem, of course, arises when the book you've received fails to meet your expectations.  In an ideal world, you'd just write a negative review, post it and move on with your life.  As long as it's not a scathing, unfair assessment of the book, nobody (except perhaps the writer's mum) is going to get too worked up about things, and expecting every book review in the universe to smell of sweetness and light is naive to say the least.

Of course, that's not the way it usually goes.  The mere fact of having received a book for nothing imparts a perceived feeling of obligation, one which makes attempting anything more than the mildest of criticism a nerve-wracking ordeal.  There's the possibility of annoying the publisher, and therefore ruining your chances of ever getting a review copy again.  There's also the fact that you're (metaphorically) spitting in the face of a living, breathing writer, telling them that even at a cost of $0 their work is over-priced.

Perhaps though your biggest worry is the reaction of other readers and bloggers.  We've all heard about some of the unsavoury antics happening over at Goodreads, and the possibility of being jumped on by a writer's fans is always possible, dangling over the blogger's head like an electronic sword of Damocles.  While this is less likely when the writer has been dead for a couple of hundred years (except in the case of Jane Austen - never slam an Austen novel, or you will be pursued through the blogosphere like a quivering yokel fleeing before a pack of - nicely perfumed and elegantly coiffed - hell hounds), sticking to books by the dearly departed is a bit of a cowardly way out.

By now, you're probably thinking that the whole thing is just not worth it, and you may be right.  If you feel that accepting ARCs is compromising your integrity and your ability to write honest reviews, don't do it - it's not worth the hassle.  Before you all rush off to load a wheelbarrow up with books and trundle off to the local charity shop though, I'd just like to shine a ray of sunshine into this sorry situation. You see, while there are problems associated with accepting books for review, most of them are in your head.

When you're in the middle of carving your words of wisdom out on tablets of metaphorical stone, it's all too easy to delude yourself that publishers, readers and authors alike are waiting for you to descend from your Olympian retreat, desperate to hear what you have decreed to be the value of the latest release.  Don't kid yourself - nobody really cares that much.  The readers will probably just skim your piece, roll their eyes and move on to the next blog.  The publisher may give your work a cursory glance - then again, they may not.  The writer... Do you think the writer really knows you exist?

So don't be afraid to say what you really think, whether you've paid hard cash for the book or not.  It makes little difference to other people, but it will make you feel a whole lot better.  As long as you don't resort to personal insults, make stuff up or publicly burn the writer's work, the chances are that everything will be fine.

Please let me know what you think on this topic; I'm bound to have rubbed someone up the wrong way, and it's only healthy to get all that bile off your chest.  Anyway, I'd better get back to my review - I've got to find another five hundred words saying how wonderful the book is, or the publisher's going to be really angry with me...