Reviews as Conversations

5 stars for me!

Last week, the most charming interview about my book was published. Nina and Caroline, editors at Publishing Trendsetter, chatted about what they thought. The conversation is what authors dream of—real-time comments by people who ‘get’ the purpose of the book. Like this!

But not just the ego-building comments made me happy; Nina and Caroline also pinpointed aspects of the book they thought could be better—and these are also what I thought myself, of the book, when I finished it:

One reason these sections are sketchier: transparency about these issues involves divulging information our authors might not want broadcast: titles that don’t seem to move the needle with readers, or that fall short of our projections. Some of the information I do include in the book already probably make some of the Belt fam cringe to see made public; it’s a balancing act.

Book coverage has been shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. Authors have fewer opportunities to hear critical response. Much of the coverage that remains are *previews*—”10 books coming out this fall you should read!” The copy is more often simply cut-and-paste from the publisher’s own publicity, not written by someone who has read the book. They give you a rush, but they don’t nourish. Reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon are often written by people who are not the intended audience for a book, and they are fascinating to read, but most authors imagine a particular reader behind their screens when writing, and are most curious how that audience will react.

The conventional review format is not the only way authors can hear from knowledgable readers. Nina and Caroline’s conversation, a discussion transcribed, is proof of that. So is Ron Charles’ wonderful weekly newsletter (which also included a discussion of my book). And conventional reviews have all sorts of generic hurdles: the standard format has become calcified, and experienced readers of book reviews can smell the expected moves in advance as easily as college writing professors can with 5 paragraph essays. (I used to write a lot of book reviews, and I adored so doing: I found the formal constraints enabling. I spent more time thinking about verb choice, turns of phrases, anything to sparkle the deadening “500 words, plot summary, add a quote or two, thumbs up or down” expectations of editors. I miss book reviewing, and want to do it again—but suspect my new role as publisher would make me unattractive to editors. And anyway: there are hardly any book review editors left.)

Poor Martha, our current publicist (as well as editor, and beating-heart-of-Belt-at-large), who has to send those hundreds of emails to “people who write about books” over and over again seeking coverage for our titles. It’s the toughest job in publishing, publicity. You can control almost nothing, and more often than not, success comes sideways, through some circuitous route, instead of in response to those very emails. I don’t think Nina and Caroline heard about my book from Martha.

Every 9 months or so I go “we really need to amp up our publicity!” and then I seek out advice from others with more experience with book publicity than we have for ideas. They ask what we do. I tell them. They shrug, and say “that’s pretty much what everyone does.”

But it is sad when authors don’t get to see smart responses to their books published. The venue is not important—a small blog, the NYTBR. Nor is the ‘pro/con’ question as big of a deal as you might think. What matters is an engaged mind who gets it. The right mind, at work, responding knowledgeably and honestly. Writing requires an audience, even it that audience is distant, or in the future. It’s nice when the audience talks back. Until we all can be hanging out chatting in the Agora again, we need to keep reinventing ways for critics to have conversations about books and allowing authors to overhear.

Speaking of my book (smiley face), I know exactly how many of you are signed up for this newsletter and exactly how many copies of my book I’ve sold. It seems some of you still need to buy it! Silly you. Here, I’ll give you some help: hop on over to the Belt store, use BELT15 at checkout, and you can take 15% off the already on-sale price. After all I am really appreciative—Nina gives it 5 stars!

Notes from a Small Press is a weekly newsletter by the founder and owner of Belt PublishingBecome a subscriber if you want to read all posts. Get yourself a copy of  So You Want to Publish a Book?, the book based on the newsletter!