Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Writing 101: Review Tips You Need to Know

I've written posts about getting reviews, swapping reviews and writing reviews, but I'm still learning new things all the time. In my admittedly brief experience with reviewing other authors, I've figured out a few things the hard way. To help you avoid some of the mess I've struggled with, I'm offering up some tips that you need to know if you're going to open yourself up to doing reviews. 

Review Tips

At this point, you might be thinking but you don't do reviews. I know I give that illusion; I haven't posted a new review in over a month. This is quite deceptive, however. In spite of what it looks like, I've been working on reading a book I'm committed to review this entire time. And that brings us straight to what I now believe is the most important review tip: 
  • Check the length. Every new ebook is a mystery. Unless the author has also published a print version of their book, you probably won't find a helpful little page count on the book's official Amazon page. But no matter what, there are ways to check the length -- and you absolutely should (unless you want to spend over a month reading the same book and you're not even halfway through it yet). Even ebooks have a giveaway: file size. Usually, this is a 3-digit number followed by the letters KB. For example, my book Justice is 364 KB. But if you want to know what the heck that means, just ask the author for their estimated word count before you agree to a review. A 60,000 word book is nothing massive; Justice, which is right around this word length, is only 154 printed pages long. But find a way to check the length, because you don't want to agree to read a book and find out that it's colossal after the fact. 
  • Set a limit. You don't have to overwhelm yourself. Give yourself a firm cutoff so you don't wind up with a review list that's 10 pages long. Your cutoff might be 5 books or 50 books, but figure out this limit. Once you have reached that book limit, politely respond to new requests that you just can't accept any new books. It's hard to say no, and I personally struggle with it, but it's also hard to maintain your sanity when you have 20 ebooks chasing you through your nightmares. 
  • View samples. Always go and look at the sample of the book before you agree to review it. Read the first few lines and make sure it's something you a) understand and b) like. Why? Because what if you agree to review a book based on a great blurb, and then you discover it's an unreadable mess? Either you have to torture yourself through the next umpteen thousand words, or you've got to go back to the author and tell them you made an error. Any which way it goes, it's bad.
  • Schedule reading time. Some books compel us to read, calling out to us during all hours of the day. Other books...aren't so compelling. Define a scheduled reading time and decide on a reading quota to make sure you're getting it done and making progress on your review commitments. For instance, I read two chapters a day. It's not a lot, and that's what keeps it manageable and possible. Don't set a limit that's difficult to reach, because then you're just setting yourself up for failure. Give yourself a limit that's easy to meet; if you end up reading way beyond it, more's the better. 
Reviewing Fearlessly

Once you agree to review a book, you have a responsibility to complete. It's important to take all responsibilities seriously, and everyone knows that. If you agree to do something, you should do it. But at the same time, you don't have to punish yourself. If you agree to review a book that winds up being offensive or otherwise godawful, don't be afraid to go back to the author and tell them you just can't finish the thing. Be polite, be succinct and be honest: I can't review this book because I cannot finish it. I cannot finish it because _____. I am sorry I must dissolve our review agreement, and I wish you the best of luck in all your writing endeavors. Yours truly, Book Reviewer. I have not followed this advice in the past, I admit; I'm not always fearless about these sorts of things. Honesty is usually the best policy, but if all else fails just write a polite, breezy email explaining that you over-estimated the time you have available for reading and reviewing, at this time you're going to have to back out of your previous agreement (and you're sorry, saying you're sorry helps).

Don't be afraid to be very specific about your reviewing needs and what you want from the authors who solicit you for reviews. Don't be afraid to tell them no. And don't be afraid to let yourself off the hook if a book is unreadable or intolerable. Everyone's life is limited to a certain amount of reading time (excluding vampires and other immortal beings, of course), and you don't have to spend it trapped inside books you just plain don't like. Review fearlessly, and draw the line wherever you need to draw it. After all, it's your time and you get to spend it however you like.

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  1. Sound advice. You always see so many sycophantic reviews on certain websites, purely because it becomes a mutual backslapping fest. I would suggest you make your review policy clear from the outset, so tha the author soliciting you knows from the outset what they're going to get.

    Reviewing should be fun, above all else, so you're quite right that you should be able to pull out if you want to.

    Great post! :-)