DA Kentner writes the column THE READERS' WRITERS for the (Freeport) Journal-Standard and GateHouse News Service. My alter ego KevaD lives under a stairway of dreams where he writes stories and grumbles about everything. Click the pic to visit KevaD's blog.
Drop me a line at dakentner@yahoo.com

I invite you to read my award-winning short story posted on Calliope Magazine's web site.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Reviewing the Reviewers

Many of us readers take note of reviews from major sources such as the New York Times and USA Today. Times have changed and continue to change. While the Internet has allowed for a new generation of independent (indie) publishers, it has also opened the door to individuals, such as multi award-winning suspense, sports, and nonfiction author John L Betcher, who have elected to publish their work themselves. Literally, thousands of new books become available to readers each and every month. Obviously, a need arose for a platform by which these authors’ work could be considered. 

Some readers hold to the mistaken belief authors turn to indie publishers or self-publishing because the traditional major publishers aren’t interested and these books are somehow substandard or sub-par. While that certainly is true in some cases, the fact is, by clinging to such a narrow viewpoint, readers are missing out on a lot of extremely good stories. 

I offer in evidence “Staff Monkeys: A Stockbroker’s Journey Through the Global War on Terror” by Lt. Colonel Peter Clark, published by indie press Patriot Media, Inc. The book once received a Pulitzer Prize nomination. 

To help readers sort through the massive influx of books, a new breed of reviewer has risen to the challenge. These unpaid reviewers set up web sites and blogs to share their opinion of the books they read, for no other reason than their love of reading. On these sites, you won’t find reviews of books found on the NYT Bestseller list. Independently, these individual reviewers have created an entire new network of recognizing books not found in the window displays of bookstores. 

In order to better understand why these readers have engaged in this pursuit, I contacted three (there are hundreds of reviewers – these three are merely a sampling) very different reviewers and asked each the same questions. 

First up, Bobby D Whitney of BookWenches Reviews – an amalgamation of three women who read anything and everything that strikes their fancy. www.bookwenches.com 

Q) What prompted you to switch from casual reader to reviewer? 

A) I’m going to have to blame my review partner, Teagan, for that one. Once we found out that we shared the same taste in reading material, she and I began to meet at Starbucks on Saturday mornings just to talk about the books we were reading. At the time, Teagan was reviewing for a big website, and she lured me over there with the promise of free books. Although I enjoyed the creative challenge of writing the reviews, the rules and politics of that big review group were a little stifling, so half a year later, we were dreaming up BookWenches.  

In a way, I feel like a matchmaker, hooking up readers and writers. We offer readers the opportunity to discover new books, authors, and publishers and perhaps even win a free book on occasion. Through interviews and guest blogs, we give writers the chance to promote themselves and to shine in front of potential readers. Everybody wins, and I find that quite satisfying.  

Q) What makes you decide to read and review a book?  

A) Perhaps I should admit right now that I am a book junkie and a hoarder. I tend to buy just about anything that catches my eye when cruising websites like Omnilit (yes, that gets expensive sometimes!), and I’ve always got an eye open for something a little different as well as new releases from favorite authors.  

In general, I need to have a pretty strong opinion of a book in order to write a review of it. I want to be able to say in my review, “I liked this, and this, and this,” or even “I liked this but not that.” If a book is more “meh” than memorable, then I probably don’t have much to say about it. If it didn’t move me, or if it bored or irritated me, why would I waste my time writing a review that would more than likely have the very same effect on you?  

When I request a book from a publisher, then the blurb has caught my attention enough to make me believe I will enjoy it. My intent is to write a review of that book, and I try very hard to follow through on that. Of course, if a book is a terrible dud, it goes in the discard bin regardless of its source. Life is too short to read bad books, let alone review them! 

Q) Why should a reader value your opinion?  

A) I think I represent an “average” reader, one who reads for pleasure and escapism, and I hope my readers identify with me as such. While I do receive review copies of some books, I don’t profit from writing reviews in any other way, and I believe that this allows me to offer an honest opinion on what I read. Yes, I do try for an overall positive note in my reviews, but that is just my personality at work and has nothing to do with bias. There are plenty of reviewers out there who will tear a book apart with glee. That isn’t something that would bring me joy, however, so I don’t do it.  

My tastes may differ completely from those of the person reading my reviews. A savvy consumer will recognize this and won’t make a decision on whether or not to read a book based solely on what I have to say about it. Instead, they will use my review as a tool, perhaps compare it with others, and then make an informed choice.  

Next, Tom Webb of A Bear on Books, reviewer of the fastest rising genre in today’s publishing world, same sex relationships. www.tom-webb.blogspot.com 

Q) What prompted you to switch from casual reader to reviewer? 

A) I read all kinds of books, across the board, although I tend to favor mystery/horror/fantasy/scifi. On a giggle, I decided to do a search on my Kindle for 'gay cowboys', and 'Bareback' by Chris Owen was the first entry that came up. I downloaded it and was hooked. It opened up a whole new world of fiction to me – M/M and all its little sub-genres. And with that, there are literally thousands of choices. The problem was, how did I sort through all these books and make the best choice of how to spend my time and money? 

I started with Amazon, and read the reviews posted for the first few books I bought. Some were thoughtfully written, some were five words, some were diatribes on writers - women writers, men writers, women posing as men writers. Some were just pure snark. Then I discovered Goodreads, and was even more troubled by the lack of focus on the actual work, and how so much conversation tended to be on the authors and side issues not related to the merits of the book. 

So I started adding reviews of my own. My take was, focus on the strengths of the book and point out what works. To my huge surprise, I started getting feedback from other readers and even authors thanking me for keeping the spotlight on the work itself. I started talking with a couple of new-found friends, and they suggested I start a blog just for reviews.  

Their thought was that while the target audience for most M/M books is women, what was missing was a gay man's perspective on the stories being written. So last November, I started my blog, A Bear on Books. My philosophy is simple – only review those books I like, and only publish reviews that are strength-based. In just over six months time, I had over 10,000 hits and over 120 followers on the blog. 
Q) What makes you decide to read and review a book? 

A) For me, I separate the two things.  

First of all, I read a lot.  I probably read (and I am almost ashamed to say this) fifty to sixty short stories, novellas and full-length novels a month. And review maybe one in four. I get recommendations from other readers, check out new releases on Amazon almost every day, and read a few other blogs for books that sound interesting. I've also started getting some publishers who send me lists of new releases, and have started getting contacted by some writers directly asking me to read their works. I'm proud to have been contacted by and reviewed a wonderful gay deaf poet, and a man who lost his partner to AIDS, and who published the notes he wrote to him over the years as a tribute. 

My one condition with a writer or publisher who contacts me is that I am under no obligation to review anything they might send. Well, and that I won't review it if I don't like it. I will let the writer know, privately,what didn't work for me but I will never talk about it with anyone else. My feelings are, if a writer invested their blood, sweat and tears in a book, I owe it to them to not only be honest, but to respect the effort. 

Once I read it, something has to stand out about the book. I focus on three things – story line, characters, and 'voice'. The story has to be coherent and grab me. The characters have to make sense and be well-developed. And the 'voice' – it's the most esoteric thing for me, I think. It's that 'It Factor” that separates a good writer from a great one – how the writer approaches and tells the story. 

Q) Why should a reader value your opinion? 

A) I try to be fair. I focus on the work. And most of all, I respect the reader – hell, I AM a reader.  

I don't expect anyone to accept my words as the final end-all-be-all. But I do think if you take a few moments, read a couple of the reviews I've done, and then go read a book or two I've liked, you might find a kindred spirit. I won't blow smoke up your...well, I will tell you what's good, what to look for and what moved me, sometimes to tears. 

Most of all, I will tell you to trust your own gut on these kinds of things. Find someone with similar tastes – me, or someone else, I don't care – and let them save you time and money. Heck, start your own blog and let me know what you like. I'm always on the look-out for someone to guide me to a few good books. 

And lastly, Dawn Roberto, founder of Love Romances Cafe. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/loveromancescafe 

Q) What prompted you to switch from casual reader to reviewer?

A) I actually stumbled onto it by chance really. I liked letting people know if I read a really awesome, inspiring or heartfelt book and recommended several to friends. When I saw some of review quotes on some stories I was looking into trying, I clicked on a link and BAM! I was hooked. There was this whole world of reviewing I never knew about.


Q) What makes you decide to read and review a book?


A) It has to grab my attention. If the book blurb has me interested I will give it a try but can honestly say out of all the books I have read and reviewed; only a fraction is put down by me as unenjoyable for whatever reason. The cover, the author name-though this isn’t a make or break it thing with me as I enjoy finding new authors to explore, the genre of a book all work together to influence my decision in reviewing something.


Q) Why should a reader value your opinion?


A) Because I try to give what worked or didn’t work with me in a book I review. I try to give a honest opinion in my review and hope that just because a certain book may not work for me, doesn’t mean you may not like it.
DA Kentner is an author and journalist. www.kevad.net

7 comments:

  1. Excellent post. Very informative.

    Cheers!

    John

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  2. I've been reviewed by two of the three guests. As an author, I value a balanced opinion. Nothing suits everyone, but over-all I believe that reviews by readers carry a lot of weight. Authors are always hungry for a solid review that goes beyond a sentence or two. We put a lot of hours into our work and it's always gratifying when a reviewer talks about character development, plot, and editing in addition to overall opinion. I believe by naming these three their reading requests will jump substantially. LOL Thanks for hosting them, David.

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  3. Thanks, John. I hope you know how much I enjoy and respect your work.

    I don't know about their readership increasing, Margie. =)
    I'm just happy they agreed to answer my questions.
    And...I'm always thrilled to hear from you!

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  4. Thanks for including me, David. It's great to see how other reviewers got their start and how their process works.

    Tom

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  5. Many thanks for agreeing to be a part of this article, Tom. I truly appreciate it.

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  6. Just saw your link to this post on FB, David, and really enjoyed your Q&A! It was fascinating to get the inside view on what compels these three reviewers to read the stories they do, and I'm awed by how many books they all read every month ;). Thanks for sharing this!

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  7. Hello, Marilyn!
    Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and comment.

    I convinced my bookaholic sister-in-law to read your novel "A Summer in Europe," though she kept insisting she doesn't like books like that. She's since added your name to her 'must buy' list. =)

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