Friday, September 23, 2011

A Reviewer's Conundrum by L.J. Roberts

I can't remember a time I didn't read. I still have the first book I bought with my own money -- Jane Eyre for $0.50 through Scholastic Books. Since 1994, I have coordinated the East Bay Mystery Readers' Group.

My transition into being a reviewer started by keeping notes for my own sake, just so I’d remember which authors’ writing I liked.  Over time, I began sharing my reviews on-line.  Poisoned Pen Press asked me to be a reader for them, evaluating manuscripts.  After reading the vast number of really bad manuscripts, I couldn’t do it anymore, but they had taught me how to evaluate the various elements of a book and I started reviewing seriously.  

My reviews now are found in "The Strand Magazine," "Mystery Readers Journal," international e-zine "Calamity's Corner",  on-line at www.Mystery* , and  as well as being a Top 500 Reviewer on Amazon US, Canada and UK, posting on DorothyL, 4MysteryAddicts, and Crime Thru Time, a distribution list of people to whom I email  my monthly reviews and all of my reviews can be found on GoodReads.  I also have a blog, It is purely my opinion, where I write about books and other things.

The wall across from my desk

by L.J. Roberts

CONUNDRUM--don’t you love that word?  It has such a wonderful sound and it’s fun to say: conundrum.  But I digress…

I write reviews of mystery books.  I write them for on-line communities, websites, subscription e-zines, and print publications.  I enjoy writing them, which is a good thing.  Most of the books are ones I buy.  A very few are sent to me by author’s from whom I shamelessly beg.  Even fewer are from authors who, judging by my past reviews of their work, know I’m a fan and send me their newest book.  Two outlets do send me free ARCs, AREs, UPs or some other alphabet soup combination of pre-published works and, even better, from some, I am able to choose the authors whose works I’d like to receive.

There is one publication for which I review that actually pays me.  Real money.  And considering how few paid gigs there are for reviewers, being paid at all is a thrill.  Book publishers pay for advertising which supports this publication.  They also send copies of their new releases to the reviewers in order to spread the word about those new books and, hopefully, boost the sales of those books, thus increasing their revenue and justifying their marketing dollars spent on advertising

Now comes the reviewer, me. As a reviewer, I have always felt my responsibility is to fellow readers.  Over the years, I built my reputation on giving an honest opinion.  I received one of the greatest compliments to date when the publisher of the international e-zine for which I review said, “
I love the way your reviews are teaching tools for authors. You point out how the writer brings the characters to life and makes a story great.”  Through focusing on, and describing the strengths and weaknesses of the elements of a book, I believe other readers may judge whether that book will appeal to them; it is this for which I strive.

Therein lies my—here it comes—conundrum—I do love that word.  When reviewing for an outlet whose revenue comes from publishers, they want you to write positive reviews.  This wouldn’t be bad if the selection of books from which I have to choose were broad and diverse.  But it isn’t. There are three primary houses from whom I receive books:  two of which send me sub-genres I don’t normally read as they are not to my personal taste.  I do, however, love the third house as they are the source for some of my favorite authors.

One conundrum arose when the paid outlet changed the text of the review without my knowing.  For example, I wrote ”The plot is very well constructed.” yet in print, the sentence morphed into ”The novel is superbly constructed.”  Happily, I did receive an apology from the Editor for the copywriters ‘enthusiasm’.  So, the question is: do I own the copy because I wrote it, or do they own the copy as they paid me for it? Since the relationship I have with the magazine’s editor is quite casual, should I expect to view the changes in advance?

The desk, which I did clean up a bit; okay, a lot.

When reviewing books not of my selection, there often arises a double conundrum!  First, I’m faced with reading a genre for which I, personally, don’t care because it is outside my area of interest.  I tend not to read cozies, suspense/thrillers, or noir.  This is a generalization, of course, as there are authors whose books are the exceptions and books that have cross genres.  Second, as a reviewer, I must set aside, as best as possible, my personal preferences and be as objective as possible. 

How do I handle my review?  Carefully, and occasionally with small compromises, I choose from the selection I feel most suits me.  For example, I was asked to review a cozy.  There are a lot of people who love this sub-genre so I needed to look at it from their perspective.  The book did have some stylistic choices that bothered me.  I focused on the book’s strengths but didn’t completely ignore the weaknesses.  In my review, one line, of which I was particularly proud and thought quite clever as it was a play on the book’s setting of a pizza parlor, was:  “The book had more portents than slices of pepperoni one would hope for on their pizza.” The magazine editor disagreed and asked that I remove it or rephrase it. I changed it to:”There are a lot of portents…”, but I still prefer the original. In another review for a book I felt was poorly written, I wrote: “Normally a book such as this would be a good airplane book as one could lose oneself in it for a few hours. In the case of this book, however, one would do best to lose the book.”  Funny, that review wasn’t published. 

Normally, there is a middle ground.  I do strive for that, I really do.  I want to be fair to the publishers, writers, and readers, of all genres.  At the same time, I do feel it would not be fair to anyone, were I not true to myself first.

The wall behind my desk.  The books in my den are  ~1/6 of all my books.  And yes, that is a mini-T.A.R.D.I.S. on top of my monitor.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

L.J. - Welcome!!! I am so happy to finally get a peek at some of your books!

I loved this piece. I especially love that you still have the first book you ever bought with your own money. I wish I could say that. dang.

Thanks for being here, sweetie - Huge Hugs!

Kari Wainwright said...

The pictures show a room I would definitely find comfortable. A wall of books is one of the best room decorations ever.

On the other hand, realtors seldom agree with me on that assessment. When we've had to put a house up for sale, invaribly the realtor wants me to put my books in storage. SACRILEGE!

L.J., I found your ideas on reviewing to be quite similar to my own. Thanks for sharing.

LJ Roberts said...

Thank you, Kaye, for inviting me in. I have ~6,000 book on shelves in every room except the bathrooms (too small and humid) and kitchen (I'm too messy so the cookbooks are in a bookcase in the dining room).

I agree with you, Keri. I can't imagine a home without books. When watching "House Hunters", I always look for rooms with bookshelves.

I bought my Jane Eyre in 1961. The cover is torn and the pages are loose from many, many reading, but no matter how many times I've moved, I always make certain she's with me.

Thanks, Kaye and Keri.


Mary Welk said...

I gave up reviewing for one magazine when the newly hired person in charge of that section began changing the wording of my reviews. She claimed to be "editing" them. I don't think a book review is something one "edits". A review is your personal take on a book and should reflect your views on the plot, characters, etc. Your question is interesting, though -- do you give up your rights to a review when you accept payment for it? Does paying you give a magazine the right to change your review? Would love to know the legal answer to that!

Anonymous said...

L.J., I agree with Mary Welk -- a book review isn't for editing.

I admire your professionalism and always take a look at your reviews on DorothyL, even though we don't read the same books.

My interest in "historical" novels only goes back to the 1920s, and I especially like books set from the 1930s on. Given my advanced age, even the 1920s sound contemporary.

But your reviews on DorothyL bring attention to books that broaden a reader's horizons, so keep up the good work.

Pat Browning

LJ Roberts said...

I agree with both of you, Mary and Pat. Paid or not, the review is my opinion and should not be changed. What I do appreciate is a good grammatical editor. As I tend to write stream-of-consciousness, I've been know to leave the occasional non-sentence sentence, or misspelling, etc. Those I love having some one catch. I don't mind when they ask for clarification. But changing the meaning of a sentence was really not acceptable to me.

LJ Roberts said...

Thank you, Pat. I definitely don't expect others to read what I do, or even agree with me, but I love that people appreciate my reviews. My favorite is when I can bring a lesser-known author to people's attention and make them curious enough to try them. That's when I really feel I've done my job.

Bobbi Mumm said...

I was looking to see if those shelves had a bow in them. Great post!

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

LJ, love your Tardis! Our daughter-in-law made one big enough for our 2 yr. old grandson to play in--big enough on the outside, even.

Thank you for sharing--I feel I know you better now.

Geraldine Evans said...

Interesting post. I do occasional reviewing and I often feel torn as to whether I should lean towards the interests of the reader or the author. A problem that's still unresolved, but your post has helped to clarify things. Well done!

LJ Roberts said...

Thank you, Bobbie. No bowing as there's a bracket every 12". Bracket and standard shelving may not be the most refined, but I love the uninterrupted board run of space it provides.

Donna, I am such a Doctor Who fan!! My neighbors brought my TARDIS back from ComicCon this year. How cool that your grandson has a TARDIS playhouse. I was delighted Kaye invited me.

Thanks, Gerladine. I try to serve both the reader and the author by breaking down the eight elements of the book and being as clear as I can about what I felt did, and didn't, work for me. I'm glad if I helped a bit.

Coco Ihle said...

L.J., I, too, enjoy reading your reviews on DorothyL. For readers and authors alike, it's helpful to know what works AND what doesn't in a book. I think you do that well in a fair fashion. However, thanks to you, I have too many books on my shelves throughout my home!

Gigi Pandian said...

I could always tell from your reviews what a thoughtful reviewer you were, but it's fascinating to hear the process that goes into it. I signed up to follow your reviews on Goodreads to make sure I don't miss any.

p.s. Love your bookshelves!

Wendy said...

What an honest post. Lovely you allowed us into a reviewer's physical, mental and emotional world. It's clear reviewers deserve a great deal of respect.

It's good to know, that in spite of your conundrums you stay true to yourself, L.J. I trust your opinion. I think a reviewer should lean more towards the reader (authors already knows how good they are :)). Then a really good reviewer will have a reader give her the ultimate compliment like Coco just gave you.

LJ Roberts said...

Thanks, Coco. I feel no guilt over adding to your TBR shelves. That's my job.

Gigi - Thank you! I actually love my bookshelves, too, although my front hall with shelves on both walls would never get past the fire marshal. If you want to know about the elements I consider when reviewing a book, I wrote about it at:

Thank you, Wendy. You've given me true compliment, indeed.

Jenny Milchman said...

Posts by reviewers that offer a real inside peek at the work and craft of reviewing make me feel like...better you than me. Honestly, LJ, I just couldn't do it. I admire your forthrightness and integrity and attention to detail.

I also admire your book walls :)

LJ Roberts said...

Thank you, Jenny. Some of us really do take writing reviews very seriously. On the other hand, I couldn't write fiction. Writer/reviewer; it's a nice relationship as long as we both do our jobs well.

LJ Roberts said...

In case you want to see more pictures of my books--not all of them, but more of them--I just wrote a new post at:

Margaret said...

I'm so glad to see someone else has books everywhere. I have slowly decluttered a lot of our house thanks to the Flylady, but I can't let go of books.....I have a LOT left from my childhood home, grandparents for that matter, as they also furnished with books. thanks for a lovely post.

Anonymous said...

Interesting insight into the dilemmas of a book reviewer, and I enjoyed reading the post very much. Your wonderful booklined walls rock!
Jackie King
(from DL)

LJ Roberts said...

Thank you, Margaret and Jackie. In fact, I've written two follow-up pieces on my blog: and