Will you read my book?

[January 2006] In keeping with the recent spate of essays that address frequently asked questions, I’d like to talk about the position we end up in when someone asks if we’d please read their book, be it in manuscript, review copy of finished form. The person making the request is usually either looking for a critique, a review or a blurb.

Many writers have a policy of not reading anything that isn’t slated for publication. The reason for this is simple—established writers have targets painted on their backs, and some have been sued for plagiarism by people claiming the writer stole their ideas. In some cases, the litigant has no logical basis for the claim—one person suggested that someone famous broke into her home and read her manuscript—but on other occasions, people say they sent the book to the author. If you have a clear track record of refusing to read anything unpublished and unsolicited, you have a better defense if you’re accused of story theft.

However, most of us don’t have targets painted on our backs. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely source of a lawsuit windfall than a group of writers. So, let’s put that concern aside for the time being.

I simply no longer have the time to read manuscripts to provide useful feedback. It takes at least a week or two to give a book that kind of attention, and another day or two to gather my thoughts and turn them into a critique. If I were a full-time writer, I might squeeze something like that in occasionally, but I have to select carefully how I use my “free” time these days because I have so many commitments and projects. I’ve stopped going to the local writers’ guild meetings because I decided those four hours a month are better devoted to writing. I suspect the imbalance between the number of writers seeking mentors and those willing to act in that role is an indication that many others have made the same choice.

My thoughts on blurb requests are less clear. On one hand, it’s a faster process. All I have to do is read the book and say something pithy and quotable about it. On the other, I ask myself—and the person soliciting the blurb—what currency they think my name will have in association with their book. I’ve been quoted a few times where the attribution is to the venue where the review was published (Cemetery Dance, for example) rather than to me personally, and that’s fine. However, who is going to pick up a book just because it has my kudos on the cover? The only case where I think a quote from me might be helpful is one I supplied recently for a book on a subject where I have some established credibility1. Otherwise, it seems a shame to cover up perfectly good cover art with my words of praise.

So that leaves review requests. On a good month, I might write several book reviews. On average, though, probably no more than fifteen or twenty a year. I read three times that many books, so clearly not everything I read will be reviewed. I prefer operating in stealth mode, popping up from time to time with critiques of books of my choosing.

If someone I’m not familiar with approaches me with a review request, I usually tell the person to submit the novel to the venue’s book editor rather than to me directly. That way if I don’t care to review it—or simply don’t have time to read it—I can ask for it to be assigned, which is the best outcome for both the author and for me.

However, people I know through various organizations occasionally ask me specifically to consider one of their books for review. If I agree to the request, there are two scenarios.

1) I think the book is good. Everything’s rosy. I can write a balanced review. If there are negatives, I’ll point them out, but I reserve predominantly negative reviews for the big guns, where the author’s name is enough to encourage people to pick up a book. That’s probably a subject for another column2, but suffice to say that I don’t think anyone is served by a negative review of a small press book people are unlikely to purchase without some positive buzz.

2) I don’t think the book is good. Or, worse, I find it downright unreadable. My sweat glands are popping open just thinking about it. I have received ARCs from small presses (some I’d never heard of before) where the books were so poorly written and/or edited that I could not make myself finish them. Life’s too short and I’d much rather spend my scant reading time with novels I enjoy. As Warren Zevon said, “We buy books under the mistaken assumption that we’re also buying time to read them.”

If I’ve agreed to accept the book for review and I decide to punt3, how do I respond? I could drag my feet, pleading scheduling problems, until I’ve missed the deadline. There are books I want to read that I don’t get around to for weeks or months. However, that’s a double-edged sword, because what if I really was too busy to meet the deadline? The implication might be that I’ve read the material and found myself unable to say anything positive about it.

This is where I’m stuck. I’ve been working on this essay for several days now and I don’t have an answer to this frequently asked question. I still don’t know how to respond to scenario 2. Maybe I’m too nice, or too eager to avoid uncomfortable discussions. I could say—in truth—that the book wasn’t to my liking but that’s just one person’s opinion, but as a writer I know how hard it is to hear any negative opinions about something we’ve labored over for months or years. So, Storytellers Unplugged readers, if you have any advice, I’m all ears.

1Stephen King: Uncollected and Unpublished. I also have an established reputation for footnotes.

2Though I expect this statement will generate more comments than anything else in this essay

3Excuse the gratuitous sports analogy. I’ve been watching a lot of football lately—when I should have been writing.

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