Agreed to review a book. It's awful. Now what?
April 24, 2011 2:51 PM   Subscribe

I agreed to review a novel. I just received the review copy and read the first chapter, and it's absolutely awful. What does professional etiquette dictate here?

So I got an e-mail from an independent publisher about a new horror novel they want to promote (obviously I won't name any names here). I always like to help boost indy horror, so I agreed to review it, and asked for an additional copy to give away as a freebie.

Two copies of the book arrived today. I sat down and read the first chapter, and it's terrible--just unacceptably amateurish. The dialogue is unrealistic, phrasing is awkward, and the exposition drags on and on.

So what should I do here? I really don't want to plow through another 300 pages of this. If I finish the book and write the review, I'm only going to waste my own time and hurt the author and publisher. Should I do it anyway? Should I write a polite letter and return the books? What's the etiquette for this situation?
posted by Faint of Butt to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not in this business, but I do think returning the books with a polite letter saying that upon reading the beginning of the novel, you don't think that you will be able to write a positive review, and that they probably don't want a review from you is a completely reasonable thing to do.
posted by yeolcoatl at 2:55 PM on April 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

If you are going to write an honest review, I am afraid you have to look at the whole thing. This does not, in my world, mean reading every word, but I think you need to at least skim to the end. Otherwise, you cannot talk about plot, pacing, development of characters, etc. If you want to mail everything back and say "I do not think you would like any review I would write," that is between you and the publisher, of course.

For what it's worth, it's been a long time since I reviewed a novel; mostly I review technical non-fiction, where reading the whole thing is pretty much not an option (I am not reading an 11-volume reference work just for a review!).
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:58 PM on April 24, 2011

Well, the ladies at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books seem to have their own protocol worked out. They are happy to review your book, but advise eager authors to beware because "life is a vale of tears, and . . . we're not going to make it any better". They're candid about the fact that they give out dismal reviews when books deserve them.

I would be honest, though polite in my review of the book. Say what you think in words that you'd be comfortable with your Mom reading. Link to the author's website and amazon. If the author/publicity is pragmatic, s/he knows that any publicity is good publicity (as long as you don't mind providing publicity for books you don't like).

In the future, respond to book requests with a "I'd love to review your book! Here's the standard proviso I send you: Blah blah blah about writing an accurate review blah blah please don't ask me to review it if you don't want that blah blah."
posted by arnicae at 3:01 PM on April 24, 2011

I think what you're saying is that you don't particularly care to be forced to write the bad review. So in that case, yes, it's fine to write them back and respectfully decline. They prob. don't want the book back.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:03 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh! But if you have only finished the first chapter and genuinely Can't. Read. Another. Word., just send your apologies and return the review copies to the publisher. No need to explain specifically why you won't be able to review the book

Dear Publisher, I'm sorry, I will not be able to review the book Horrific Horror. Enclosed are the review copies you kindly sent.

Yours sincerely, Faint of Butt

posted by arnicae at 3:03 PM on April 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'd apologize and tell them that you don't think you could write a positive review, as yeolcoatl suggests. You could return the books, or you could ask if they'd like you to.
posted by Beardman at 3:27 PM on April 24, 2011

This is why review policies exist.

A good review policy should outline under what conditions you accept review books (do you only review books published through an indie or mainstream publisher, or do you accept self-pubbed, too? E-books, or only hard copies?), and, more importantly, under what conditions you'll actually review books. Some venues are very explicit that they only post positive reviews. This information is valuable not only for the author being reviewed, but the audience, as well, who will understand the larger context of the reviewing climate of your site. Some places post reviews that are both positive and negative (my site is like that)--a written review policy is helpful there because you can point those with review requests to your policy so that they know what they're in for, and know that sending a review copy doesn't guarantee them positive promo. Do you review all books you finish, or only some? Do you review all books that are sent to you, or just certain books? All of this should be stated explicitly. This situation will come up again, I guarantee it.

As for the book you have now, I'm of the opinion that a review book is not a contract for reviewing--it might have been sent in the hope that you'd review it, but I've found, as I've gotten more clout as a reviewer, that I'm sent (sometimes unsolicited) such a number of books that it's not humanly possible to read and review them all and, you know, sleep and eat and all of that. You're not obligated to review this book just because someone wants you to--I'd say that you're not even obligated to send it back to them, though either doing that, or sending the copy on to another review, is nice of you.

And, more, I'm not of the opinion that a negative review is the same thing as a "bad" review, and I don't think that negative reviews damage sales, either. In fact, I know for a fact that mixed or negative reviews that I've written have both helped people with very different tastes than mine find books, and subsequently buy those books. A good--as in effective, interesting--review is not solely promotion but rather thoughtfully explains the cross-section between the reviewer's tastes and the reader's and explicitly explores them. To what end are you posting reviews on your site? What's your goal there? Are you trying to help readers make book selections, or are you in it to provide ungarnished positive promotion for publishers in exchange for free books? Because the latter isn't really a "review"--it's a commercial. That's fine, but I'd just be aware of that and disclose it to your audience.

Anyway, review policy. Plus a lot of long, hard thinking about why you review, what you hope to get out of it and create through it, and how to honestly disclose that to both future publishers/authors who will approach you for review copies (and believe me, they will) and your readers.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:32 PM on April 24, 2011 [16 favorites]

For what it's worth, I usually have enough awesome books to read these days that I don't waste time on those that are clearly painful--unless I think I can turn the reading experience into illuminating, interesting criticism. There can be value in reviewing terrible books.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:33 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Getting a free book does not require you to write a positive review. This is your blog, not the TBR, and you are not even required to read the whole thing. They solicited your review, gave you the book, and you read as much as you could stomach. Feel perfectly free to write a review saying you could only hack the first of 19 chapters and it was so bad, you lost the will to live, let alone read.

If you absolutely do not want to write anything other than a positive review, email the publisher back and be very straight. "I wish you the best of luck with Your Book Sucks, but there is no way I can give you the review you were soliciting. Would you like me to send these copies back COD or would you prefer I donate them to my local library?"
posted by DarlingBri at 3:33 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't necessarily think you'll hurt the author and publisher by posting a negative review. This article in The Economist puts forth the idea that for small or unknown authors, bad publicity can be good because it gets the author's name mentioned.
If you really feel bad about it, I'll agree with the majority here and say shoot the publicist an email, just to give them a heads up about the review.
posted by blueskiesinside at 4:38 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

So I got an e-mail from an independent publisher about a new horror novel they want to promote (obviously I won't name any names here). I always like to help boost indy horror, so I agreed to review it, and asked for an additional copy to give away as a freebie.

This is where the situation differs from the usual "I do reviews; people send me stuff to review; I review what I can" situation. Faint of Butt was approached, agreed to do the review and asked for a second copy to give away. Given that scenario, I think the publisher is owed a review. Not necessarily a positive one, but a review or an explanation seems to have been promised, especially with the sending of a second copy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:40 PM on April 24, 2011

You are not obligated to review books that are sent. You can choose whether to review negatively or not review. I write an author Q&A once a week for; if I *had to* include all the books I am sent, I would never do anything else! Publishers recognize this: it is worth the gamble to send out 100 books to reviewers in hopes of one big good review. They know that bad reviews are a possibility, too.
posted by Maias at 4:55 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would candidly tell your contact at the publishing co. that based on what you've read so far, you're not able to write a positive review, and that reading it actually pains you, so that writing any review is going to be a real slog. They should know this. They need to hear it. Ask if there is someone else on their reviewers list that you can send your two copies on to. It happens.
posted by mumkin at 5:00 PM on April 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you don't want to read the book, you can't review it. So I'd return it and say why: "This is too awful to read, so I'll be unable to review it. Thanks for giving me the option."
The truth is usually the best response.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 5:13 PM on April 24, 2011

I forgot to mention that I say the above as one who has reviewed books--fiction and nonfiction--for "prestigious" national newspapers.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 5:15 PM on April 24, 2011

This is where the situation differs from the usual "I do reviews; people send me stuff to review; I review what I can" situation. Faint of Butt was approached, agreed to do the review and asked for a second copy to give away. Given that scenario, I think the publisher is owed a review. Not necessarily a positive one, but a review or an explanation seems to have been promised, especially with the sending of a second copy.

For what it's worth, I've been approached in this wayplenty. The difference is that I now know to accept books for reviewing with the caveat that I can't guarantee that I'll actually be able to review it.

Most publishers, even indie publishers, understand that a submission of review material isn't a guarantee that the work will be reviewed. But FoB should just be careful with expressly agreeing to actually review a work in the future.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:20 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have been on both sides of this. On the publishing side. I'd prefer the "Sorry I'm not going to be able to review Title X. Would you like me to return the copies you sent?" method. It's only polite and as someone said, we often didn't want the copies back. It keeps you in a favorable light with that publisher.

On the reviewer side - I got some great books to read and some horrible ones. I tried my best to get through them if at all possible if only to serve as feedback for the author. I got some good comments back from the publisher author who were grateful for my time/. Unless they'd only given copies to friends and family, they'd heard that they weren't the next Hemingway. Sometimes I was pleasantly surprised by books that started poorly. Others. they were unreadable. I considered it karma for the good books
posted by TravellingCari at 8:01 PM on April 24, 2011

I have an amateur review website that used to get free books sent to me. They have stopped in the last few years, which is fine by me because now I don't have these lovely ethical issues hanging over my head any more. And I'm not really inclined to take any more random solicitations because of fun moments like this.

I know the Smart Bitches have a policy of reviewing Did Not Finish books-- and when I've asked around, people said that they'd rather KNOW a book was That Bad rather than me not review it at all. But I don't feel comfortable saying, "This book was so awful I couldn't get past chapter three" online where the author WILL Google him/herself and see it. (I did have my own "author finds website and loses it" moment of joy myself.) Maybe it DID get better past that point and if I'd given it a chance it might have. Though honestly, the shitty books I did read all the way through to the end were still shitty, and I only finished them so I could write a scathing review because I was so mad. I only ever got close to changing my mind on one, or at least the book got less awful in the middle and then turned into a giant turd again by the end...

But anyway: it's one thing to write a scathing review of a bestseller everyone's reviewing, or a book you picked yourself that most people have heard of. It's quite another to have someone specifically ask you to read their book, because you KNOW they will find the awful review. And if this is an indie publisher, you'll probably be one of very few people even mentioning this book. Frankly, I don't think the impending drama of the author/publisher/publicist, etc. seeing your "this is awful" review is worth your time. It's not worth your time to slog through something you found awful in page one, it's not worth the drama bomb that will go off in your face if you can't say anything not awful about it. Yes, you'd be doing a service to the 2 people who might have heard of that book and find the awful review, but do you really want to deal with the burden of a stinky book in your life? Especially unleashed on the Internet instead of in a private "I'm sorry, I just can't do this" note?

Hell, send it back.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:28 PM on April 24, 2011

Call the publisher or publicist. Tell them the book is not up to your standards, then ask them what they want. They probably don't need their books back. Tell them it's not going to work out in their favor, and let them decide whether they'd like to go to the next step or not.
posted by Gilbert at 9:06 PM on April 24, 2011

Instead of reviewing the book, interview the author.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:27 PM on April 24, 2011

This is something that every reviewer struggles with, in one way or another. Years and years ago I had a movie review website. I emailed Roger Ebert and asked him how he was able to balance writing bad reviews with knowing that the people involved in it would read his review and potentially be hurt and angry.

He emailed me back (BECAUSE HE IS SO COOL) and said that he is always careful to ensure that every bad thing he has to say is supportable. "That actor is stupid and lame" is not supportable. "That actor has a very stilted demeanor" IS supportable.

The phrase that he used was, "Let the movie review itself." Describe it as accurately as possible. If what you describe sounds like a very bad movie... well, so be it.

I have been sent things to review, and I have hated them, and failed to review them, which is terribly cowardly of me. But at least it's a common cowardice.

But on the other hand, I feel it does the public a disservice to never write bad reviews. Imagine if Ebert only reviewed the five star movies, and ignored the rest. You would end up seeing a lot of bad movies by accident.

If you want to go forward with this, ask yourself, what specifically is bad about the book? Is there a quirk to the writing that you find grating? Can you look past that quirk to see the rest of the book? Is the plot fatally flawed? If so, how? Can you find two things you like about the book, and make your review a "compliment sandwich" with the criticism in the middle?

But really, this is more along the lines of an intellectual exercise for you. For the most part, I feel like life's too short to waste on bad books.
posted by ErikaB at 9:57 PM on April 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

Write the review. Bad reviews are hilarious.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:49 AM on April 25, 2011

So diverse here - yet I'd like to ask the OP about his audience and his goal here. If this is your first review, it might also be your last if you write a bad review...

Whether the book is good or bad, the review can be hilarious or not - it's up to you. From a fellow blogger that does reviews, I'd say write the review, establish a reputation of honesty and fairness, and look forward to doing more reviews in the future.
posted by chrisinseoul at 7:45 AM on April 25, 2011

I guess if you agreed to do a review and believe you would be breaking a promise if you decided not to, then you can a) do as has been suggested and give the publisher a head's up that the review will not be positive (in the hope that they'd release you from your promise); or b) just skim the thing from here on, see if it gets some traction, and do the review based on that.

I have been on numerous panels judging novels and stories, more times than I care to remember (I no longer do it - it's literally searching for the pony), and Rule 1 for me is: If the opening sucks, _the whole thing sucks_. The opening is where the writer is showing you the best they have because they want to lure you in. If that's the best they have, then. . . .

You have to think about your own quality of life and how much of your time do you want to invest plodding through something that is painfully awfully excruciatingly bad. I personally opt out, but that's just me.
posted by charris5005 at 10:31 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Via the Library Thing website, I have received several books for free to review. Most have been good, though a recent one was a stinker. (I started to write the review this weekend and just couldn't bring myself to do it to a guy whose other work I like so much. I'll save it for a rainy day this week.)

The publishers know they are going to have to accept whatever they get, positive or negative, and yet they still contribute hundreds of books per month.

It's classier to offer to return the books, but more honest to write a strong review -- even unto panning the book. If you can put together some good constructive criticism outside of the review, that may help ease some of the sting.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:09 PM on April 25, 2011

« Older What is early labor like?   |   Alice's Dress Changed Colour Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.