Serious writers read. . . a lot! I am no exception. I love books, print or ebooks, fiction or nonfiction; it doesn’t matter to me. It’s the ideas and insights that are put forth from knowledgeable and/or creative minds that count. Because I am a fast reader, I consume book after book, and some time ago, decided to review the books that I read.
When Goodreads.com came into being in 2007, a perfect venue became available for people like me to share the books that they love. In addition to books that I purchase or that I borrow from the library or from friends, many of the books that I review come through Netgalley.com, a website for publishers and authors to promote their books to reviewers, libraries, and others who might help give books exposure.
Most independent book reviewers are honest in their assessment of the books that they review, so that a potential reader can assess whether or not to spend their precious time buying and reading any given book.
The Dark Side
There is a dark side to this lovely scene, and perhaps it has been there for a long time, but it seems to be getting more reckless, and more uncaring about the audience that trusts them to give a fair review of a book. Let me give you an example.
I have been getting requests from book publicists to review books that they have been hired to promote. These promotion campaigns are not cheap, sometimes running into tens of thousands of dollars to promote a single book nationally, and even internationally, to radio, televisions talk shows, columnists in newspapers and magazines, movie agents, and more. These requests for reviews come to me probably because I give short, tight reviews that show a reader when a book is worth their time.
For publicists, I only agree to review traditionally or indie published books that might be of interest to me personally and that are sent to me by mail in hardcover. I do this for free, so the least a publicist can do is send me a hardcover copy that I can donate when I’m finished.
The most recent book sent to me by a fairly large publicity agency sounded good in the email description and looked good on its book jacket when it arrived. Upon examining the book, I was shocked at what I saw. The cover of the actual book was blank with no information, not even on the spine. The margins on the inside pages of text were too narrow. The leading between the printed lines of type was too wide. When I began to read the text, I was appalled at the quality of the writing: cliches abounded, transitions between ideas were confusing, and most troubling of all, the author was using the same names for different characters in this thinly disguised biography masquerading as a novel. One had to re-read whole paragraphs to follow the story line. I cannot emphasize enough how badly this book was written. Yet the book jacket was well-illustrated, and the promotion copy was professional, a very attractive and appealing come-on to a potential buyer.
Before contacting the publicist to say that I could not give this book a good review, I went to Amazon.com to check what other reviewers had said. Of the four reviews, one had given it a four-star and three had given this book a five-star. What was up?
If you click on a book rater/reviewer’s name, you link to all the other reviews that this person has given, an interesting exercise; try it some time. Three of the book raters had reviewed only this book and no others, implying that they might be friends of the author. The fourth was a prolific reviewer giving almost all of the books he reviewed five stars with only a sprinkling of four stars. The subject line of his reviews consisted of over-the-top hyperbole such as: Brilliant! Uniquely entertaining! Thought-provoking! Delightful! Delicious! Magnificent! Beautiful! Excellent! The reviews themselves were general, and one didn’t learn much about the subject matter of the books. Is this author being paid to give high ratings to books? It didn’t seem as if he had actually read them.
The Impact on Younger Teens
My seventeen-year-old granddaughter (pictured above) is smart. She’s been reading since she was a very young child and undoubtedly has read things over the years that I and her parents would question, but she is analytical about the books she reads and the movies that she sees. She sees THROUGH things to hidden motives and agendas. Not all teens are so blessed.
Beginning in middle school, kids become exposed to commercial publications outside of school. With a little spending money, they can buy and share with one another anything on the Young Adult shelf at the local bookstore. Take a look at these sometime. These shelves are filled with “will-they-won’t-they-OMG-they’re doing-it!” books written simplistically to sell to young teens. Is it any wonder that boys and girls think it is all right to engage in sex at a young age? People who are NOT their parents or teachers are telling them that it is okay. So who listens to authority figures such as parents and teachers anyway! Kids, beginning at about age thirteen, have entered the separation-from-parents stage of child development, and society at large is giving them clear signals as to how they may behave if they wish.
Readers love romance stories. It’s one of the top selling genres that is produced. Yet, romance and explicit sex are mutually exclusive. You can have one without the other quite easily even though today’s writers don’t seem to understand that. A beautiful romance is emotionally fulfilling and can leave a reader reflecting on it for long after the book has ended. A well-written and deeply insightful romance can be a treasure.
Titillating sex? Fun to read maybe, but utterly forgettable when the paragraph ends.
It’s All About the Money, Right?
If you want to sell a book, throw in a lot of sex, or if it’s only a little bit of sex, make sure it is exceptionally explicit. I wrote a sex scene in my novel Ambiguous, and I just now went back to review it to be sure that I still feel that it was appropriate to the story. Ambiguous is based on the true experiences of “Rick,” a young man in the Air Force in the 1950s struggling to hide his attraction to another airman. The sex scene comes about two-thirds of the way through the book after Andy discovers Rick’s feelings toward him, becomes so horrified that he becomes radically homophobic, and seduces his girlfriend Estelle to prove that he is a real man. In my opinion, the scene is necessary to show the innocence of both Estelle and Andy, and how this could go so terribly wrong. In this case, writing the scene was not about selling more books, although I’d certainly love to do that. It was about showing the outcome of Rick’s lack of control regarding his buddy Andy. If you read the book, please let me know if you think the scene was justified.
The publicity scam is when agencies indiscriminately accept any book that an author will pay big bucks to promote, whether or not it is worthy. That’s why these campaigns cost so much. The authors are buying their way into the public eye, and the publicists are doing their best to help them. Who can blame them? They are just doing the job that they are being paid to do. If you have the money, you can do it too. We all need to be aware of what is happening here. It’s not necessarily the best or the most relevant book that makes it onto Oprah or The Daily Show. It’s the one with the most money in its publicity campaign. Some of these are wonderful books: Short Nights of The Shadow Catcher was one that I had the privilege to review through Netgalley and it received wide publicity, deservedly so. Too many others are publicized simply because they have the money to hire professional publicists.
All the rest of the hidden gems that traditionally published or indie published authors have written must find their own way to rise to the top of the pack of merely-average books, corny books, misleading books, and just plain awful books. Some have done it. It’s difficult, but not impossible.