Joining the reviewers: a bit of give and take

In this week’s blog, Evie Woolmore discusses her decision to join Awesome Indies as a reviewer.

In the last blog of 2012, it was noted that I had exchanged one of my books, Equilibrium, for review with Tahlia Newland, author of Lethal Inheritance. It was an interesting experience, knowing that I was going to get a thoughtful review from someone who genuinely cared about providing an opinion – not unlike the editorial experiences I have had as an author, and that I have provided in my other professional lives. The blog suggested that the exchange aspect was not part of the rules of the new game, particularly not for the other reviewer. But it got me thinking.

What if – in this raw, still evolving world of indie publishing – I could consciously participate not in making rules as such, but in establishing a community of indie writers who – rather than waiting for print publishing reviewers to review our work – collectively contribute to establishing a strong, credible review culture of our own work that promotes quality.

Admittedly, there are some who will think that getting indie writers to review other indie writers is like asking British newspapers to regulate themselves. Pointless, and unlikely to contribute to a raising of standards. But that is to make a few assumptions that I think we can challenge.

1. Indie writers will always scratch each other’s backs, giving flattering reviews in exchange for flattering reviews. Yes, some people operate on that basis. Let’s not lie about it, let’s not pretend it isn’t true. Follow me, I’ll follow you; praise my book, I’ll praise yours. Even print-published writers have been going to extraordinary lengths to promote themselves, scratching their own backs, as it were. But a steady impartial review process that sticks to clear commonly agreed criteria for quality (see below) is in everyone’s interests. And quality in reviewing rises to the surface just as quality in writing does.

2. Indie writers don’t know quality when they see it, because they weren’t good enough to be picked up by a publishing house in the first place. Reviewing is subjective by definition, whether it’s on a blog, in a national newspaper, the London Review of Books, The Economist or The New Yorker. That is the glorious thing about writing and reading: one person’s unputdownable is another person’s unfinishable. But there are basic features we generally agree as readers that all good books have to have: strong characters, a compelling storyline, readable and error-free writing style. What is more, reviewing isn’t just about providing one person’s opinion. It’s about encouraging others to read the book, and provide their own reviews. The more reviews there are, the more likely that they will genuinely reflect the quality of the book. Further, while I hope that the ability to judge a good book doesn’t require professional qualifications, in this case I personally bring a twenty year career in writing and editing, of helping others produce excellent, readable books. Besides, as allonymbooks has blogged before, not being picked up by a publishing house is not always about being not good enough: it’s often about not fitting in the marketing pigeonholes that print publishers cling to.

3. Indie writers are too subjective to be good reviewers. There’s an adage in writing that agents and publishers don’t make good writers. They are too reactive and not proactive, confined by an incremental exploration of what the next big thing is, based on a small move away from the last big thing. They lack the rambling vision of creativity, the freedom to be different, to innovate, to challenge and change. In other words, they are too objective to understand the subjectivity required to live within the creation of a novel. The relationship between a writer and an agent/publisher, as many on both sides will tell you, is akin to the immovable object in the path of the unstoppable force. And thus, the argument goes, if the agent/publisher lacks subjectivity, so the writer must equally lack objectivity, lack the ability not merely to peer over their own parapet but to fly up and away and see the whole world of possibilities from above. We compare our work endlessly to that of others – “I only wish I’d written that” – and are as confined to incremental exploration of our own territory as agents and publishers are to theirs.

But that is such a valuable quality when it comes to reviewing. Because an author brings to reviewing what a composer brings to conducting another composer’s work: insight. That envy is a form of empathy, an intimate understanding of what was possible, and how well it has been executed. Admiration makes for a powerful review, as does criticism. And besides, aren’t all readers subjective, whether they write or not? Isn’t that what we are endlessly searching for in a book as well as a review – someone who thinks like we do, who can seize our imaginations and speak to our souls?

So that’s why I have decided to join Awesome Indies as a reviewer. I think it’s a good place to start building a culture of credible, detailed, thoughtful reviewing that doesn’t just tell you what the book is about, but judges the quality of its three main criteria: story, characters and writing. I’m sure I’m going to read books I don’t much care for. That’s the risk every time you pick up a new book. But I hope that won’t stop me recognising when a book is good, even if I haven’t enjoyed it. Those three criteria are broad enough to incorporate a great deal of innovative writing and genre creativity, features very innate to indie publishing, and while the site is actually very specific about its parameters for quality, what I am most looking forward to is becoming part of a way of helping quality rise to the surface. By reviewing, blogging, and sharing with others in a structured way, I hope that we can collectively build a strong critical mass of respect and admiration for indie-published books, just as exists for good print-published books. Guardian Books already thinks that sites like Awesome Indies are going to set a strong e-publishing trend in 2013. But for me, it’s about giving something back to the indie-publishing community.

Evie Woolmore is the author of Equilibrium and Rising Up, and is currently writing a new novel, for publication in the spring. For links to purchasing her books on Amazon, go to the Evie Woolmore page on this blog.

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