By Jack A. Urquhart, ©2012
It is with trepidation that I undertake this long-winded piece, the topic of which is indie book reviews and my questions and misgivings about same.
I say trepidation because it could be that I’m missing something; it could be that with regard to reviews and their creators, I’m not savvy enough ‘to get’ how things work in the Indieverse. It could also be that by publishing my questions and concerns here, I guarantee for my current and future work a permanent place in indie exile, a place where my stories will never again be granted a single sentence of critical notice. I hope that isn’t what happens, for I pursue this post with no malicious intent.
But to get on with the pursuit…
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll begin by recounting that I recently paid for an expedited Kirkus’ review of my short story collection. I decided on the Kirkus’ investment because of my concerns about the objectivity of some of the indie reviews I’d read online and because of the difficulties I’d experienced in obtaining notice via several of the well-known Internet review organizations.
In fairness, I’d expected that the length of my tome—some 670 odd pages in paperback form—would be an obstacle in securing a review from these organizations whose team members, for the most part, receive no compensation (other than an endless supply of free reading material) for their considerable efforts. For that reason, I released several of the individual stories from my collection as stand-alone e-books and focused my efforts on obtaining reviews for those few pieces. With that goal in mind, I visited multiple review team web sites, read the reviewer profiles, studied the organization’s requirements, and then carefully composed and duly sent off six e-mail requests for a review—each request for a separate story or small group of stories.
That was nearly four months ago.
To date I’ve received one review from an online review team member, as well as three individual reader reviews—responses for which I am grateful in the extreme. Indeed, my gratitude cannot be over-emphasized; that is because, having written seven reviews myself during this same period (five of them for independently published authors), I know well how formidable is the investment in producing a credible, hopefully objective review of another author’s work.
As for the remaining five review queries forwarded all those months ago, three cursory e-mail ‘acknowledgements of receipt’ have found their way into my inbox—none of which has, as yet, resulted in a published review.
I can report that a few weeks ago one review team member did stir up a brief flutter in the Twitter feed by announcing that they had undertaken to read one of my stories; but then, complete silence. Seems my story had failed to impress. That happens. Tastes vary. Nothing untoward in that. I was disappointed but not offended. Best to keep writing, I decided; best to hope for better luck with another reviewer.
But then, a conundrum: what, I began to wonder, was to be made of the promotional posts I’d begun noticing in the Twitter feed—tweets by review team members that seemed to indicate a relationship between themselves and numerous frequently reviewed authors? Those tweets seemed to suggest a kind of fraternization that didn’t jibe with my traditional notions of objectivity.
Then I considered—perhaps things had changed so drastically in the industry that old-fashioned concepts of objectivity didn’t apply. Perhaps in the Indieverse, those concepts had become nothing more than parochial artifacts, quaint notions that were irrelevant in the social media marketplace that authors and their reviewers currently share?
Maybe the primary responsibilities of the author/content creator and the reviewer/evaluator of said content no longer required any degrees of separation? Maybe my notion of those responsibilities was completely outdated? Notions that held that while the author shouldered the burden of producing content of the highest quality his or her individual talents could muster, the reviewer was charged with reading and then rendering for the prospective customer a cogent evaluation of that content with as much objectivity as his or her gifts of perception, analysis, and rhetoric could permit.
But wait! It seemed to me that those very responsibilities, at least those associated with the reviewer/critic, closely mirrored the mission statement featured on some of the best known indie review team web sites—i.e., to provide an objective ‘filter’ (presumably against literary imperfections) that would be useful to readers in choosing their library. That was, it seemed to me, a worthy mission; but wouldn’t it be compromised if anything other than the reviewer’s objective reaction to the writer’s material passed through the filter—impurities such as, for example, anything carrying a tinge of promotion or favoritism? Wouldn’t any such rift in the filter muddy the waters between objective evaluation and something more akin to fandom or even those duties more closely associated with a publicist?
Note that I am referring here not to individual readers whose published response to a book might understandably be influenced by their preference for a particular genre, or even shaped by their familial relationship (spouse, brother, sister, friend) to a given author. Rather, I refer to those individuals who are affiliated with the previously referenced review teams—organizations (however loosely held) whose mission statement would appear to carry the burden of objectivity, or some modicum thereof. Is it possible for those individuals to discharge that mission while maintaining a relationship—even a cyber relationship—with an author whose work they have been called upon, or might be called upon, to judge?
Consider the following hypothetical tweets, which are typical, I think, of what one encounters in the Twitter feed. Does the difference between:
Anne Arbiter @annearbiter
My 5* review of H. Diddle’s scintillating page-turner #CowsOverTheMoon at bitly.me/abc member LottaRevws.com
Anne Arbiter @annearbiter
Rave reviews continue 4 H. Diddle’s #CowsOverTheMoon Congrats 2 Diddle. I’m a huge fan. My 5* at bitly.me/abc member LottaRevws.com
matter at all?
And what about a tweet such as:
Anne Arbiter @annearbiter
H.Diddle just told me about her new novel #CowsOverTheMoon. Going 2 be terrific. Can’t wait to read it.
Does that kind of tweet, posted by a well-known reviewer, suggest favoritism and compromise any semblance of objectivity? Or does that no longer matter in the Indieverse?
And finally, what if a known review team member allows himself to be interviewed on an indie author’s web site? What if, during the course of the interview, they offer a promo for their favorite book by said author—an author whose work they have previously reviewed? Would that matter?
Perhaps you will think I am too hard on review teams in posing these questions. You might even exclaim, “But they aren’t professionals!”
As previously mentioned in this piece, and as most indie book review organizations disclose on their web sites, most review team members receive no compensation for their work . Why then make a stink over any non-compliance with fussy standards of objectivity?
Only consider the following questions in formulating your answer: Would an indie author in his/her right mind discount the importance of obtaining multiple and impartial reviews when it comes to building market credibility and sales figures, especially when most indie authors cannot expect their work to be taken seriously in the absence of twenty or more reviews? And who provides a goodly portion of those reviews? Indie Review organizations and their team members?
And let’s return for a moment to the notion of professional status in the traditional sense of the term: Is that even relevant in the Indieverse?
After all, very few of us operating as Independents—writers, publishers, bloggers, reviewers—are remunerated, much less adequately, for our efforts. Couldn’t one argue that for the most part, we are all then, by the de facto standards of market dominance, under-compensated professionals, or at the very least, semi-professionals—Indie team reviewers included? Doesn’t the role indie-team reviewers play—i.e., providing primary source opinion pieces and/or summary reviews of an author’s work—underscore that premise?
Aren’t indie review teams providing services crucial to the success of the indie author? And if that is so, shouldn’t they endeavor to maintain some semblance of objectivity in the authors they choose to notice, in the reviews they produce, and even in their tweets?
As I mentioned in the first sentence of this post—these are questions that worry me, issues on which (it must be patently obvious) I have definite opinions but can claim no special expertise. Indeed, I bring up all the forgoing fully aware that there are factors I’ve overlooked, that I’ve not thought of—factors that may account for what I’ve experienced, what I’ve observed. If I’ve missed something, erred in my observations, based my opinions on mistaken assumptions, then I am eager to be disabused. But I am even more eager to learn how an independently published author like myself might more effectively navigate the route to critical notice.
Your comments, opinions, advice is more than welcome here.
 It is worth noting that many review team web sites accept paid advertising—revenue that while not shared with the individual team members, covers web site expenses and, in some cases, presumably provides some compensation to the web host, who may or may not be a review team member.
- Welcome to the indie wild, wild west… (alchemyofscrawl.wordpress.com)