If you can't say anything nice...
April 11, 2005 2:08 PM   Subscribe

I've been asked to review a book and I think the book is awful. What should I do?

Recently, I was asked by a publisher to review a "how to" book. It is the first time a publisher has approached me for a review, although I have published book reviews before.

I have a background in instructional design and I'm very familiar with the subject matter. I haven't read it word for word yet, however, the few sections I HAVE read are....terrible. Really terrible. The worst "how to" book I've ever read.

I've never been in this situation before. Once my review is out there, should I expect an angry phone call from the publisher? Anything I should consider before I procede?
posted by jeanmari to Writing & Language (34 answers total)
This seems like a no-brainer -- you should be honest. The way I see it, the thing that worries you is that they won't like your review -- but that only matters if you care more about getting repeat requests for reviews from them than you do about your own integrity.

You don't need to be ruthless to be honest, but be honest.
posted by delfuego at 2:12 PM on April 11, 2005

Unless you feel an obligation to tell the public that the books stinks, I'd suggest something along the lines of... "I'm sorry but I cannot give this book a good review. If you'd still like I'll review it but I don't think you'll want the results published." Keep it simple, short, and honest.
posted by pwb503 at 2:15 PM on April 11, 2005

They may have shopped it to you after running aground on the regular reviewer circuit. If it's truly terrible and they're heavily invested, they're in the market for a good review, any review.

Are you looking to make a career out of this?

Is this publication something like the Nat'l Enquirer or more akin to Sci Am? If it's a dime rag, bite down, sell out, sell out hard.
posted by unixrat at 2:15 PM on April 11, 2005

As Mark Twain said, "When in doubt, tell the truth."
Your publisher could be testing you. If not, do you want this kind of publisher? Oh, and check your spelling.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:15 PM on April 11, 2005

You might want to tell them that you think the book stinks before you actually take the time to write the review.
posted by bshort at 2:15 PM on April 11, 2005

Oh, and check your spelling.

i give up. i can't find it! what word is misspelled?

posted by fishfucker at 2:21 PM on April 11, 2005

Response by poster: I misspelled proceed. I am a dyslexic typist with an itchy trigger finger.
posted by jeanmari at 2:22 PM on April 11, 2005

This is the sort of situation that calls for a phone call to your client, the publisher, since you seem to have come across something outside the scope of what you thought you would be doing. As has been mentioned, be honest with the publisher and see if they still want you to go through with a negative review.

Unless you need the money (is there money?), in which case you should sell out under a pseudonym.

People write shit books all the time, so this must come up a lot, I would think.
posted by cardboard at 2:25 PM on April 11, 2005

I misspelled proceed.

gah! i kept looking at that, and kept thinking to myself, "no, procede is right -- precede would be wrong."

sorry for the derail.

posted by fishfucker at 2:28 PM on April 11, 2005

pwb503's suggestion seems reasonable.
posted by raedyn at 2:29 PM on April 11, 2005

Give it a bad review. What is the point of reviews if they are all positive?
posted by sophist at 2:35 PM on April 11, 2005

Francine Prose answered sophist's question on the radio the other day. She writes a lot of book reviews, apparently, and she said that she no longer bothers unless she can give it a good review.

Paraphrasing: "There's already so little reading going on in this world that I'm not going to spend my time giving you more reasons not to read. I will instead spend my time making positive recommendations of things which are worth reading, which people can use to select good things to read and read more often."

There's something to the logic of steering people away from bad stuff, but I like her logic, too.
posted by scarabic at 2:42 PM on April 11, 2005

Speaking as someone who does a fair amount of reviewing: yes, give it a bad review. You shouldn't be snarky--there are good bad reviews and bad bad reviews, after all--but once the book is in your hands, your primary obligation is to the potential reader. And if you give a good review to a bad how-to book, that won't exactly endear you to your target audience...! Publishers who ship books out for review know that they're going to get both good and bad reviews. It's the nature of the beast. The worst that can happen: the publisher won't send you another book.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:48 PM on April 11, 2005

Well I have written reviews of bad books, but I wrote them for academic journals. It can have consequences. One person whose book I panned pulled out of a conference where I was chairing. You can make enemies. I can't comment on the commercial side, but if this is your field or a field dear to your heart, do you really want something that bad getting fake good reviews?
posted by Flitcraft at 2:54 PM on April 11, 2005

Response by poster: I don't want to write a fake review at all! I feel very passionate about the subject matter...perhaps a little TOO passionate.

In the past, I have acted in a way similar to Francine Prose's strategy. I've focused on reviewing what is helpful and well designed. This was originally for the benefit of a relatively small community of readers.

Lately, the community of practitioners has expanded. I've been contacted by some TV shows for leads on stories, a few magazines, and this publicist. It's all a bit strange and I'm trying to feel my way along. I like it because the topics are important to me, but I don't like it because I'm unfamiliar with the territory.

It's not about money. It's about advocating for something I feel is important.

I don't want to make "enemies" but I really feel that this is a poorly designed product. In fact, it's so awful that it is funny...but I don't think I should go that far in a review. Bad karma.

These answers all give me something to think about. Thanks.
posted by jeanmari at 3:15 PM on April 11, 2005

I'm a little confused. Is the publisher of the book asking you for a quote to put on the book? Or is the publisher who contacted you someone else, who wants to publish a review? If it's the first, then where do they expect this review to appear?

I was contacted by a magazine last year to review a book on a subject on which I am a world expert. It wasn't the slam-dunk you describe, but it still came out to a negative review. It never occurred to me to not write the review. But because of the above confusion, I'm not sure if this is at all helpful to you.

If you want to see a truly ruthless book review (in PostScript), this one's really delicious. It helped cement my resolve. (If you're at a university, you might be able to get the PDF here.)
posted by Aknaton at 3:23 PM on April 11, 2005

Yeah, I'm also surprised you had a question about this. You were asked to review a book, right, not to provide a blurb? Then you review it. That means you boil down for potential readers what the good aspects and bad aspects of the product are, and all in all, whether it gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. Negative reviews are absolutely essential: we already have advertisers to push the positive spin! If we don't have negative reviews, there's no real reason to believe the positive ones. It's like those certain movie reviewers who only write positive reviews - they just like getting free tix to movies so they find something nice to say. As a moviegoer, you learn to ignore them because their opinion is useless if they never distinguish between good and bad. I only trust reviewers (including recommendations of friends etc) who can explain intelligently why a product does not measure up as well pushing the stuff they do like.

As for the "but people will stop reading" argument, what's the point of people reading if they're just reading crap? :).
posted by mdn at 3:48 PM on April 11, 2005

Bear in mind that something which can't get any reviews won't get much publicity and will wither on the vine to some extent. You don't have to put out a bad review as a caution to the market. The market relies on reviewers and editors to surface quality works. The only case where a negative review is really helpful is when a book already has great PR momentum, as with a celebrity biography, a new work by a well-known author, something that's been in the news (SwiftBoat Shite) etc.
posted by scarabic at 3:48 PM on April 11, 2005

Alright, I'll be the lone dissenter. I would not review the book. You don't have to give the reason, just say you don't have time review the book.

I just don't think there's any benefit to your career from writing a negative book review. Why make enemies if there's no benefit to be drawn from it. Sure the book might suck, but that's not your problem.
posted by duck at 4:11 PM on April 11, 2005

You should review it fairly and honestly. End of story.
posted by Decani at 4:53 PM on April 11, 2005

It sounds to me like they want a blurb for the cover, not a review. Publishers don't solicit reviews, do they? I would let them know you didn't like it and then see if they still want you to write something. If they do, absolutely be honest.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:31 PM on April 11, 2005

Best answer: There's already so little reading going on in this world that I'm not going to spend my time giving you more reasons not to read.

That makes sense when it comes to novels, but none whatever with regard to how-to books. A bad novel can only waste your time; a bad how-to book can wreck your house or car. Be honest (but try to resist the temptation to be pointlessly cruel, which negative reviewers often do).
posted by languagehat at 5:40 PM on April 11, 2005

You should be absolutely honest. Forget about what the publisher might think of you: Would you want your endorsement associated with something that you think is lousy?

Put yourself on the reader's side. Suppose you read a book based on someone's endorsement, and thought the book was terrible. Wouldn't you think less of the person who endorsed it, because she either liked something that bad or were willing to endorse anything in order to get her name on the book?
posted by cerebus19 at 6:40 PM on April 11, 2005

Response by poster: I think it will be fair to give an honest but "tempered" review. In reviewing the book further, I've bounced around from feeling insulted to amused. I just have to be careful not to be "snarky".

It isn't a blurb that they are asking for...they already have those sketched out. I believe they want a review that would be an endorsement, but I did not agree to that. And...languagehat hit the nail on the head. I would feel terrible if someone purchased this with the intention of upgrading their skills and they became discouraged.

I don't feel entirely comfortable putting the title out there until the book is released, but when it is, I'll circle back around and let you know about it. Thanks all.
posted by jeanmari at 7:17 PM on April 11, 2005

but try to resist the temptation to be pointlessly cruel, which negative reviewers often do

I'll second that. The key is to review the *work* and not the author. It isn't difficult to focus on specific issues in the writing itself, rather than attack the author personally (far too many reviewers seem to revel in attacking the person who produced the writing). To anyone with a brain, that kind of attack is a clear sign of an unimaginative reviewer.
posted by mediareport at 8:06 PM on April 11, 2005

Best answer: but try to resist the temptation to be pointlessly cruel, which negative reviewers often do

I'll third that. I often see reviews that basically boil down to "I hate this thing, and the person who wrote it is stupid/brain dead/etc". It's an easy thing to do, but it doesn't help.

I review stuff for a living, and here's my guidelines:

- be comprehensive. Read the whole thing, even if it's painful to do so.

- Give examples. If you read a chapter and think "that's awful", think about why, and cover that in the review. Is it factually inaccurate? Is it badly thought out or explained?

- keep notes. Always keep notes. Even on stuff that you don't cover in the review but don't like. These can be useful if you get attacked along the lines of "you obviously didn't look at XXX": you can reply "yes I did, and I thought YYYYY".

- look for positives. I've never reviewed anything that didn't have something about it that I liked. It may be a single pearl in a sea of shite, but it's worth mentioning and shows that you have been through in your research and aren't just being rude to show how tough and cool you are.

- Be prepared for an angry phone call. People don't like bad reviews, but you should always be prepared and able to defend your review. Don't hide: you said what you thought, you had reasons for saying it and you aren't afraid to stand by and justify them.
posted by baggers at 8:55 PM on April 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

look for positives. I've never reviewed anything that didn't have something about it that I liked.

Oh, yes, that's essential. I'd even say it's one of the best ways to convince the audience that your sharp criticisms are valid. Starting the review with a positive bit demonstrates you're being observant about the work.

(If you can stand a self-link, I found myself in a similar situation last August, reviewing a theater piece by a local puppet troupe that seemed to be getting a bit of a free ride by other critics. I made sure to emphasize the positives in the first paragraphs, then firmly but politely offered criticisms. It's the 2nd item on this page.)
posted by mediareport at 9:24 PM on April 11, 2005

Bad reviews can also be helpful to other writers--the review as genuine criticism, if you will. Since the publisher wanted the review as an endorsement, in this case I would just say you cannot give it a positive review. I would be prepared to tell the publisher why, as if this happened to one of our books, I would want to know what was wrong with the book.

More generally, I have no problem with what people call "cruel" reviews as long as the objections are intelligent and substantiated. When you publish a book, you make it a public article, and you have to be aware that some people will make devestating criticisms of your baby. Nothing has damaged the literary world more than fear of mockery.
posted by dame at 10:08 PM on April 11, 2005

Somehow I think the crux is that it's an esoteric industry that you love. That must shape your intended actions I would think - as others have noted, a muddied reputation may have unwanted repercussions.
Ring the publisher ( or publicist?) back and ask them what they are expecting - it would be different if it was an independent journal, but if it's the book's actual publisher (and indeed if they are serious in this field of yours) then politely declining in the situation where there's an expectation of positivity might equally keep you in their good books (err...so to speak).
No risk no loss in this case.
posted by peacay at 10:45 PM on April 11, 2005

I will instead spend my time making positive recommendations of things which are worth reading

I assume this means that she would, instead of giving a negative review to a book that sucks, review a different book; one that's similar in subject matter and/or target audience but which doesn't suck.

So. Maybe you could do that. Call editor and say "Listen. I know the topic on which this guy is writing and I'm telling you... he doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground. I can write a review of this thing, but it's going to be less than complimentary. Instead, why don't you let me tackle Other Similar Book. It's the kind of thing that will appeal to your readers and I can give it a glowing review."

Not that I know anything about the professional writing game or the publishing industry, mind you.
posted by Clay201 at 11:13 PM on April 11, 2005

Some quick clarification- for whom are you writing this review? A magazine/journal, or your own site/zine? People keep referring to the publisher as variations of "your client", but that strikes me as wrong- you don't work for him, right?

I guess I'm confused as to why you're involved directly with the publisher, as opposed to why this isn't going through your editor.
posted by mkultra at 9:31 AM on April 12, 2005

OK, follow-up: I checked out your site, and it looks like you're doing this on your own.

Yeah, decline the review, but be "gently honest" with the publisher. Be constructive- if there are factual errors, point out a few and recommend that another editor give it a pass. If it's an issue of writing style, put it in the context of "I and my colleagues have found that books written in the style of X are more effective at conveying information."
posted by mkultra at 9:35 AM on April 12, 2005

If you're looking for examples, Carsten Hansen's Checkpoint column at chesscafe.com reviews chess books and instructional CDs, and he freely gives negative reviews when they are warranted. The July 2004 column [PDF] includes several negative reviews. His ratings fall in the range 1-5 diamonds, so look for the 1- and 2-diamond reviews.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:27 AM on April 12, 2005

Best answer: My husband and I review games, music, movies, devices, and whatever else wanders through our path for an independent online magazine. Anything you get, even if you ask for it or even you are asked particularly TO review, you should be honest about. If I have to write a bad review, I always try to say a couple of positive things, and then go on to why the negatives overshadow the positives, and think of it as constructive criticism. Unless you think you've been selected as a "Yes Person." an honest review is the best thing to do. Otherwise, decline the review.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:28 AM on April 12, 2005

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