Reviewing Indie Books: The stories so far…

As we re-open the review list for indie authored books this week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore reflects on what she has learned so far about indie publishing from reviewing.

As a rule, I enjoy reading book reviews. I scan the pages of the main British newspapers two or three times a week, looking not only for the formal recommendations but also the reader-recommended novels. I read those little cards on the shelves in Waterstones written by their staff, and I read other book reviewers’ blogs. I even read The Economist‘s arts section to see which book they have allowed to rise to the top of the pile. If they are reviewing a fiction book, it’s usually interesting (if not good).

But do I ever read the books that are recommended by others?

That’s an obvious reason for reading a review, to get a recommendation. But let me give you the other reason I read reviews. Because they tell you so much about the reviewer too. The Guardian’s article last weekend, ‘Iain Banks: the final interview’ was a case in point. Stuart Henry wrote very movingly about his meeting with Banks, and about Banks’ last book, The Quarry, but what was moving was not merely Banks’ own words but Henry’s experience of Banks’ writing and his palpable sense of imminent loss. This was not a review, per se, of any of Banks’ books, but it was a testament to one of the true purposes of a review. Which is to convey not only the content of the book, but also the experience of reading it.

I feel a particular responsibility in this respect as an indie author reviewing the books of other indie authors. It’s one of the reasons I decided to start reviewing and though I haven’t reviewed an enormous number since opening this list, I have chosen to make up for quantity with quality. When you read one of my reviews, I want you to be reassured that I have taken your reading experience very seriously.

Last week, Guardian Books hosted the usual outbreak of verbal combat following some new statistics about indie publishing and a peculiar statement by Andrew Franklin of print publisher Profile Books about the need for print publishing to be the gatekeeper of quality in the face of  “overwhelming  [indie published] unutterable rubbish.” I say, ‘usual outbreak’ because as many frequent commentators noted, the standard complaints was doing the rounds, chief among them that indie books are poor quality in content and style, and lack the influence of an editor.

These are old arguments visited before in previous allonymbooks blogs but it made me reflect that, in some senses, the indie book reviewer has become a kind of editor, if not one that obviously has an impact on an indie book. But if an editor’s purpose is to assess the readability of a text and if, as Guardian Books commentor SeeleyJamesAuthor observed,”the indie/self published market has yet to find a way to distinguish those worthwhile efforts from the ramblings of the unemployed who try his/her hand at writing”, then what am I doing if not distinguishing those worthwhile efforts?

I ask writers who want me to review a book to submit a sample first, so I can see if I think the book has been edited and is of reasonable quality. I know that some authors are like me, that they use an editor even if they don’t publicly acknowledge it in the manuscript, but it’s always pretty obvious if the book hasn’t been edited. (Reviews of Dan Brown’s latest book reveal that even a book that has been through a print publisher’s editing process can be of poor quality, so it shows the assumed distinction between print and indie books is sometimes flawed).  And sometimes the editing isn’t so great anyway. So if I think a book still needs work before I read the rest of it, then I will tell the author that, I will give them examples of what I think still needs work from their sample, and I won’t ask for the full manuscript.

So in that respect, like the other Awesome Indies reviewers, I am a gatekeeper. I hope I do have some sort of influence on the content of that book, helping the writer realise it isn’t as good as it could be. But I man the gates because my years of experience as an editor, and of having my own books edited, have taught me that if the reader can’t easily see what the writer is trying to say, then it doesn’t matter how good the writer thinks they are. They aren’t doing what they have set out to do: communicating with the reader. That is my job as a reviewer, to help both writer and reader recognise what that communication is going to be like.

In short, what I hope that my reviews tell you about me as a reviewer is I want to know that a book speaks to its reader. One man’s John Grisham is another man’s James Joyce. Qualities of content are largely subjective and we should not judge readers for enjoying ‘crap’, whether it is Dan Brown or something indie-authored. But when you read my reviews, you should be able to trust that I am judging whether the book is the very best it can be.

I’d like to thank the authors who have offered me their books for review. It has been an privelege and a pleasure to read your books, as it should be. And I look forward to reading many more.

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