An email arrived in my inbox yesterday from one of my editors at the paper.
“This is what writing has come to,” the email said. Pasted in the body was a link to a New York Times article about how self-published authors are paying for good reviews. (Not just reviews, not reviews you can trust, but good reviews – because “good” is what was paid for.)
I’m sure there’s been some sketchy reviewing since the days of yore when books first arrived on the market. Surely, people in the literary world knew people in the newspaper world, and surely the people in the newspaper world wrote nice things about their friends’ books. Dare we hope they were being honest, that had they not enjoyed the work, they’d have said, “Sorry. I just can’t do it. Uh…drinks later?”
For someone trying to push a book/novel (or anything else, I imagine), it can be hard to know when it’s okay to rationalize, “A writer’s gotta do what a writer’s gotta do. All’s fair in marketing.”
I only know this because I relied on that rationalization to ease my own conscience.
A couple of months after returning to the paper (I worked here once before, from 2007-2008), I asked my editor if he knew of someone on staff who regularly wrote book reviews and who might consider writing one for Pretty Much True…, releasing Sept. 4.
He said no, but that there was someone who sometimes wrote book reviews, and that I should ask him.
This person is older, a book snob, and worse than that, a non-fiction book snob. He very rarely reads fiction (he shared this with what sounded to me like pride), and when he does, I don’t know what it is, but it’s probably something obscure and brilliant. Possibly Russian.
Trust him with my book and take my chances, or say “No way!” and be assured safety?
In college, one of my lit professors told our class on day one that half of us would be gone by day two. Not because he would have kicked us out, but because he would have scared us off. (“This is not an easy class,” he said, and he may have mentioned his extraordinarily high IQ.)
This man who knew everything there was (available) to know about Shakespeare would not scare me away from his class, I decided. Nosir! (But he did convince many others to leave, and his estimate was accurate. Attendance had shrunk by half when the second class met.)
He wasn’t as scary, or even as difficult of an instructor, as he’d pretended to be. He actually ended up being one of my favorite professors (even if he did once call me “slow” when I visited his office with a question, which is the kind of valuable feedback you hold onto for a long time).
These days I regularly read his Facebook updates about fantastic trips he’s taking with his wife now that he’s retired. Part of me is glad I stayed in his class because I was rewarded with the acquaintanceship of a truly good man, and part of me is glad I stayed because I’m kind of proud of myself for having not chickened out.
The idea of handing the book snob my novel, which has already had about five years of struggles, was unnerving, but playing the writing and publishing game – and dealing with tough-ish professors – has helped me form a nearly impenetrable shield. I could handle it (…?).
(Besides, how bad could it be?)
I asked him if he’d do it, and he said that if it was for someone who writes for the paper, it was the least he could do. It was very generous of him, and I told him so. He shrugged.
Cut to: A few weeks later. Another writer at the paper had been reading an advance copy of PMT just because he was curious. Every few days, he’d stop by my desk and talk at me over my quasi-wall about the protagonist, Mia.
“You didn’t really do that, did you?” he’d say.
“No. It’s fiction.”
“Riiight.” *wink* “Fiction.”
Other times, he’d have things to say about the character of Donny Donaldson, whom he finds “creepy.”
However, he would also tell me he was enjoying the book and even wrote me a nice email to tell me how much he liked it.
Then, one day, he asked if I wanted him to write a review for our paper.
Well! Did I!
He liked it. He was even so involved in the story that he had strong feelings about the characters’ behavior. Who better to write a review that could possibly snag a reader or two? (Not to mention inflate my ego, which is also very important.)
“Let me just check something,” I said.
I went back to the first reviewer to let him know he was off the hook, that someone had actually volunteered for the job.
“I already wrote it,” he said. “I mean, I don’t care if you’d rather have someone else write one. You don’t have to use mine. But it’s done, already filed. It’s up to you.”
I knew (and believe me, I had/have good reason to know) the review that hadn’t yet been written would end up sounding far more like the Kristen-Tsetsi-is-the-best-writer-in-the-universe-and-I-want-to-marry-her-book review every author wants, even if it probably wouldn’t say exactly that, and less like the This-isn’t-the-BEST-book-I’ve-ever-read, already-filed review (which I can read in the database if I go looking for it, but I won’t) that drives a writer to drink.
What to do, what to do… I really really reallyreally wanted a good review, and for this re-birth of my book to start off well.
After several minutes of agonizing (yes, minutes; I’m not much of a muller), it was decided: for the good of the book, I would opt for the safer review. It was just smart business. A book trying for a second chance needs a good review.
Besides, it wasn’t as if I had facilitated anything. This was all thrown in my lap. I would be an idiot not to take advantage of it. All that was left to do was share the decision.
I sat at my desk.
The thing is, anyone else who sends their novel to a publication for a review gets what they get. They don’t have the option to select the reviewer. No one is going to call them or send them an email saying, “Well, this one reviewer we have? We can’t say we’re confident he’ll make love to your book all over the pages of our newspaper. But the other one, well, you might have a shot at some heavy petting. Which do you want?”
So, there’s that.
There’s also this: How would it feel to know that I’d chickened out, that I’d yanked my book away from someone’s opinion because I was afraid of what he’d say? And what would I be saying about what writing – or even writers – had come to? If I were to choose the reviewer I knew was safe, I might just as well have paid for a good review.