Recently, The Guardian published a controversial article by the Booker prize head judge arguing that book bloggers are harming literature. You can read his arguments here. Personally, I’m a big fan of book bloggers – as a reader because I know they are going to be honest and ‘real’ and as a writer because it’s a great way to get some coverage and feedback when the newspapers don’t review you and Amazon reviews are, as we all know, hard to trust.
I asked Roz Davison, a book blogger who runs a very entertaining blog called Don’t Read That, Read This, to write about what it’s like being a reviewer – and her words are pretty eye-opening for writers. Roz can be very scathing in her reviews – and I’m very happy never to have been on the end of one of her negative write-ups – but she is unflinchingly honest. Here, Roz explains what makes her, as a book blogger, tick and offers some advice to writes, especially self-published authors. You can find her on Twitter at @RozD.
My name’s Roz and I’m a blogger/reviewer. I became a reviewer a bit by accident. For a variety of reasons, 2010 was pretty difficult for me, and the effects lingered into the following year when, to escape my problems, I immersed myself in books. When March came, I suddenly realised that I had read 10 books, I thought this was pretty good, even for an avid reader like myself. Almost directly after this someone asked me to recommend them a book, knowing they could value my opinion.
So then I challenged myself to read 100 over the course of a year and created a blog, recording my thoughts about each book as I went. I called it Don’t Read That, Read This, recommending books to people or warning them off as I went along. It gave me a focus and a task which was something I really needed at the time.
I’ve been on Twitter since 2008, and have amassed over 900 followers since then, some of whom, though we’ve never met, I consider real friends. As I completed a review I would post a link on Twitter, and to my surprise my blog got hits and decent amounts of them too. Friends would RT my links and then I’d get more hits, people favourited me, people recommended me, people linked to me off their own sites. The blog has had 12,000 hits in 18 months and I think thats pretty good seeing as it was really just for me and then snowballed
As far as the 100 books went, in 2011 I managed 99 (so close!) and have restarted the challenge for 2012. (Currently 80.) My plan for 2013 is to lose the challenge aspect of the site and to turn it into a more professional entity, but that’s for the new year.
Along the way something happened, like many people I have writing aspirations, but when I pick up a book I tend to be looking at the title and the blurb, and the writer is just a name on the cover, a person I don’t know and probably never will. When I wrote about the book, hand on heart I didn’t really think about the writer, just whether I liked the book.
So when suddenly I found myself getting tweets from various authors including Jonathan Trigell, Patrick Ness, Harriet Lane, Elizabeth Knox and Madeline Miller thanking me for my review, and RTing my review it felt great, it felt all warm and fuzzy. But then, I started to think about poor John Niven, whose novel ‘The Second Coming’ I had heavily criticised or Ali Smith whose novel ‘There But For The’ I described as “insufferable people talking insufferable twaddle” I remembered how Ben Aaronovitch never tweeted me back when I said Moon Over Soho had room for improvement. I started to feel bad, guilty even.
My most recent review is of a Chris Cleave book (The Other Hand). I didn’t like it and I said so and I didn’t shy away of saying why, but I can’t help but place myself in the position of Chris should he ever read it, and sort of cringe that he might be upset.
A writer pours a lot of themselves into their work it’s not like another job if someone criticised for example your filing methods, you aren’t going to be devastated, but if someone pours scorn on your “baby” as writers often see their projects – then the human response is anger, dislike and frustration that whoever this person is, they just haven’t “got it” and just who the hell are they anyway?
I’m just me, a lifelong reader, but the difference between now and as recently as 15 years ago or less, is that I am a reader with a keyboard, and an audience and there are lots of us out there. Which is one opinion, amplified. My audience may be comparatively small, but I am the classic example of the ripple effect. Friends go into a Waterstones, one of them reads my blog and says “Hey, I’m going to get this, Roz said it’s amazing, and, oh god, don’t get that Roz TRASHED IT on her blog”. My best friend’s husband phones me every June to see what books he should buy his wife this birthday. Essentially it’s “word of mouth”, the difference being I’ve got a BIG mouth.
I’ve also taken, after advice, to reprinting my reviews on Amazon. This is really helpful to authors when the review is praiseworthy as it effects the star rating, less so when the review is critical. I know that my buying choices have been effected by star ratings in the past, but reviews on Amazon come with the territory, and part of the life of a writer along with rejection is knowing that the whole world isn’t going to love what you wrote. I’ve been searching for a quote by Virginia Woolf, which I can’t find, which says something along the lines of ‘Your book is yours until it goes out into the world, and then it belongs to the world,’ rather like your child, I suppose.
The advice for published writers who want their book to gain a bit more notice is simple. Track down bloggers online, either bloggers such as myself who read a variety of genres or bloggers who specialise in your genre. Find bloggers who you think may actually love your stuff and have your PR send them a courtesy copy. There’s no guarantee of a good review, but there’s usually a guarantee it’ll be read. If it doesn’t work out, so what? There’s plenty of other opinions out there.
The fact is that readers, obsessive lifelong readers such as myself, don’t buy a book and think “I know, this book looks crap, brilliant, I’ll have an ace time slagging off this book and its writer, it’ll be SUCH fun” We’re on your side, we want your book to be AMAZING, we want your book to make us laugh, make us cry, make us identify. We want to finish your book and be able to say “That’s a definite Top 10” and have the anxiety of deciding what we can possibly push into spot 11 to make room. We don’t want to spend time on your book fervently wishing we were reading something else.
For self published authors, the advice is somewhat different. If self publishers want to know the truth….we’re scared of you. The publishing industry is scared of you, bloggers are scared of you, but for different reasons. The publishing industry is scared of you because you’re changing the face of the business but for bloggers it’s a different thing. It used to be that a self publisher was a person who paid a disreputable firm an extortionate sum of money for a vanity print run and were left with 100s of books in a box.
You could more or less guarantee it was awful. But as more and more writers find it next to impossible to get that moment of luck, speak to the right person, put their foot in the right door, and all the publishers you wish would notice you refuse unsolicited work, writers are turning their backs and some would say rightly on a closed industry that won’t even give them the chance at a chance, and doing it for themselves.
The awkwardness that I feel as a blogger towards self published work isn’t snobbery, it’s kindness. I totally get where your coming from and where your ambitions lie. Published authors have a whole mechanism behind them, there’s the editor, the agent, the PR person, press reviews, the designer, the Christmas party, the book launch, awards, suddenly meeting some of your literary idols. It shouldn’t matter to Chris Cleave, in the great scheme of things, that I didn’t rate his book, he has an abundance of people telling him how fantastic he is and he got nominated for the Costa, so does he give a damn what I have to say? I should really hope not.
But with that mechanism comes something of a remove, if an author has a publishing house and they behave badly towards a member of the public over a bad review, then there’s some recourse there. With a blogger and a self publisher, that’s a person to person relationship. I’m sure I’m not alone as an aspiring writer and voracious reader in having been asked to read some creative writing that someone has written. There is often no way to refuse this request without sounding like a pompous jerk. And the last time this happened to me, when I was asked to read early chapters, my worst misgivings were there on the page, I won’t describe the story out of fairness, but it had zero redeemable features, finding something to praise wasn’t clutching at straws, there were no straws. Finding words to respond to this eager would-be writer was just hellish.
It could be that up til now they had only had positive reviews off their family and their friends but lets face it, it’s really hard to criticise the creative work of the man/woman you have sex with or gave birth to. A few well-meaning relations helping out by posting up 5* reviews on Amazon is all well and good but unless you can get word-of-mouth going, you aren’t going to hit the kinds of success you’re looking for. And that’s where we, the bloggers, come in. We can give you that bump, we can tweet about you, we can blog about you, we can give you your first “real” review. If we loved your novel, great, but the downside is we might not like what you wrote.
As a woman living alone, typing on my keyboard, with a fag in my hand and my cup of tea going cold, the last thing I want is to be scared by angry emails, and general internet trolling from somebody who I have hurt dreadfully by posting a negative review of the novel they asked if I would read. Some might say I’ve read too many novels like Killing Cupid about the online stalker phenomenon, but even recent events show that I have a point.
I’m sure many of you have heard the story of RJ Ellory who created fake “Sockpuppet” accounts to praise his own novels whilst damning the work of fellow authors like Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride who he saw as rivals. It was a desperately silly thing to do, the point being that people do crazy things online. Because. They. Can. And nobody would have suspected it of Ellory, he was a success, he didn’t need to do it! He’d even had the publicity Holy Grail of the Richard & Judy Club, heights that the lowly self published writer can only dream of!
So if one man who doesn’t need to do it does….that’s why bloggers are a bit scared.
We don’t want to be personally approached by an author to read their self published work only to discover we’re dealing with a scary person. And perhaps it’s even worse when we’re dealing with a nice one, we don’t want to hurt their feelings.
For a while, I thought there was no solution to this – and then I thought of what happened when I downloaded a novel last year which sounded amazing and was lauded with multiple 5*, but was decidedly not amazing and turned out to have been self published. I blogged it, honestly, but I was kind and didn’t reprint the review on Amazon.
What I think personally in this climate where everybody just wants to succeed and I want you to succeed, is that I would do a deal with self published authors whereby, if I love it I’ll tell people but if I don’t I’ll give you private “honest reader feedback” about it, thereby sparing you any public embarrassment. You haven’t got all the tools at your disposal that the privileged published writer has and you deserve a shot at least. But that’s an arrangement I think would have to be done on an individual basis with each blogger, and some may refuse.
But the rule is as simple as it is for published writers, if I don’t like it, it doesn’t mean nobody will ever like what you ever write, so try not, even though I know how tough it is, to take it completely personally and be a good sport, be as fair with me as I am with you.
I would give two other pointers of advice – the first is that if you find you’ve become friendly with a blogger stop asking them to review your work. It’s difficult for them if they’ve entered “the friend zone” what if they loved your first novel but hate your third? It’s a really awkward place to be.
The last piece of advice is really for self publishers and it’s due to a tweet I saw, don’t give your ebooks away for free try and competitively price them, because “if you don’t value your own work, why should anybody else?”
Thanks for reading, hope this helps.