Write Byte

Authors & Reviewers: A Symbiotic Dance

(August 15, 1999)

In the June 1st edition of Laurie's News & Views, I set forth my views on reviewing. Shortly thereafter, I received a message from Laura Lynn Leffers, who administers the Spotlight newsletter for the Eclectics web site. She wrote,"I am so impressed by your June 1st commentary at AAR. Would you consider contributing a short piece for Spotlight on what a reviewer of books wants to see from authors? I believe you could impact Spotlight's authors, give an educational advantage and tell them things we all (as authors and readers) need to hear about what reviewers deserve and expect from writers."

I was pleased to write a piece for Laura's newsletter, but then had the idea to ask her to write a piece on reviewing from the author's perspective for AAR. I'm a tremendous fan of synergy, and luckily, Laura is as well. I hope you'll enjoy her article; feel free, after you read it, to link to my article for her.

“Years ago I was working in Schenectady for General Electric, completely surrounded by machines and ideas for machines, so I wrote a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will. . . . And I learned from the reviewers that I was a science fiction writer.”
--Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Vonnegut goes on, after this excerpt from Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, to say that he hadn’t known he was a science fiction writer, that he’d thought he was writing a novel about life. He says that he’s been a “soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since....”

So, who needs a critic? We all do. In support, consider the fact that the Dell edition I’m reading of this particular Vonnegut book has one New York Times reviewer’s blurb plastered on the front cover: “God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut!”

I’ve had great luck with reviewers. In this article, I’ll try to explain what I see as the symbiosis between authors and reviewers, how the relationship can and does work despite the fact that authors do occasionally get “misfiled” by reviewers. These two factions, in my view, are connected and necessary segments within the same industry. We two can learn from each other as writers and readers must always do, as any artist and any critic should, whenever the perceptions are honestly gleaned and the craft is creative.

To illustrate my personal experiences with reviewers, I’ll drag one of my first reviews out for inspection. I received it for my very first novel from Margaret Chittenden, who’d offered, through a program sponsored by Romance Writers of America, to review a book for a first-time novelist. I got to be that first-time novelist. Meg liked Dance on the Water (Blue Star Productions, 1996), and gave me a great gift of words (a portion reads: “...An elegant, magical novel...reality blends superbly with mysticism.”). Meg Chittenden (Don't Forget to Die, Kensington), as most readers and writers know, is an author eminently qualified in both the mystery and romance genres, and generous to boot. Follow the cowboy boots in her website at http://www.techline.com/~megc/

My ally in initial explorations of the murky space between what the author is struggling to express and what the reviewer is grappling for is - believe it or not - my mother, Mary Jeanne Leffers. She began in service as a reviewer because she loves books and got to keep the ones she reviewed. And, as a librarian, she was in the business of promoting reading. Her reviewing skills became so honed that she was able to predict bestsellers (Peter the Great, by Robert K. Massie, was one prediction she remembers that gave her great satisfaction when she was proved correct). I’ve learned from her that, basically, reviewers are readers. They’re better readers, readers who’ve become skilled at grappling for concepts, identifying theme and theory, deciphering plot, and tuning in on voice, rhythm, and the nuances of character development.

And they don’t ignore, can’t ignore, bad editing. “In my opinion,” Mom says, “one of the worst mistakes an author can make is to let his/her book go out with poor editing. That includes typos!” She’s right: Poor editing, or no editing at all, is more than dangerous. It condones a lack of craftsmanship and promotes the concept that our words don’t matter - not to us, anyway, not even enough to check and correct. Poor editing gives writers the authorship of the ultimate industry sin: shoddy workmanship.

Ah, I hear an author crying, “But it’s the industry’s fault!” No, it’s not. Not very often. “We can’t do it all,” she whines, “we can’t come up with the novel idea, plot the thing, get together a cast of memorable characters, spend a year writing and rewriting, developing, and then edit, too....” Well, then don’t. Don’t write unless you’re prepared to rewrite. Don’t rewrite unless you’re prepared to proof. Just don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty of complaints about the changing book industry. But it has this truth on its side: It’s an industry. It’s a business and as is the nature of any business, it must earn its keep. Editorial positions are vanishing, editors themselves pop up elsewhere as different entities entirely. Books are sped into print - if their subject is timely - or conceived, written, and packaged by way of software, then published in hypertext or portable document files in a matter of countable heartbeats. But who can possibly take control of the content’s accuracy, grammar, and punctuation if not the author? No amount of industry dishevelment or reconstruction can change the fact that the author must be responsible for her work.

The reviewer, then, is set to catch what the author sends: bad editing, good editing, or no editing at all. She is charged as well with the task of finding the book’s perfect reader, it’s “home.” Sara Hoskinson Frommer, a mystery writer (The Vanishing Violinist, St. Martin’s Minotaur, 1999), says, “I hope a reviewer would say the kinds of things about my book that would attract the kind of person who is likely to enjoy my book. It doesn’t help me or the reader if a reviewer makes my cozies sound like police procedurals.”

In return for the reviewer, catching what I as an author send and helping to find my book’s readers, I try to thank them the best way I can: I put their names and/or the names of their publications in every piece of promotional material I can devise. I quote them and use their blurbs on web sites, in mailings, and send them to my publisher for use in subsequent print runs of the book. I couldn’t afford to purchase a subscription to every single review publication, service, or newspaper that reviewed Dance, but I subscribed to those I needed to keep abreast of the business. I’ve bought an ad or two, but all those publications printed their reviews of Dance whether I did or did not purchase a subscription or an ad. With my second novel, an e-book titled Out of the Blue (http://www.ElectricUmbrella.com, 1999), I’m finding that all the traditional promotion routes have had to be reinvented to adjust to cyber-commerce, except one: reviewers remain a constant and as important as ever. There will never be a substitute for a skilled reader. Reviewers are the one rock impervious to erosion from the tides washing us into a new millennium. I’ve been nattering on for months about what works and what doesn’t work, in the hazy world of e-commerce, in my 32 month-old book promotion e-letter, Spotlight (http://www.eclectics.com/newsletter/spotlight.html).

But the art of the review remains constant. And reviewers continue to be author-friendly. Many, including All About Romance, accept manuscript copies from authors whose publishers either can’t afford to send out pre-publication review copies or can’t get the job done in time to meet the reviewers’ deadlines. None seem to expect authors to bear the cost of preparing and sending out review copies, and then advertise as well, which seems to me to indicate an ethical tradition. It would be wonderful if publishers whose authors do provide and submit review copies would then place an ad, but that - if seen as a requirement for posting the review - might jeopardize the validity of the review process. The real value of any review to a reader is in the reviewer’s reputable and honest opinion, an issue beyond price. That unswerving honesty seems to have remained a constant and carefully maintained ideal in the trade.

The importance of a review to an author is multi-faceted, then. On the dark side of the jewel of opinion we have Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., unhappily placed in the niche of science fiction. But, in 1965, what choices for pigeonholing visionaries did a reviewer have available? The whole business of pigeonholing is tricky; think of the genres and how they blend and blur into one another. But the light side of the faceted review jewel is marvelous: it gives readers an idea of the book’s plot and premise, and writers a sense of theory having found connection. A single review can catapult an author’s career into a kind of tenure, a taste of job security, however temporary. And it provides authors with promotion copy. Even a bad review leaves readers with--at the very least--the author’s name. It’s said that a reader needs to have seen an author’s name seven times before it becomes recognizable. And that bad review has the potential to give an author, especially one laboring without an editor, a new understanding of his craft. A good - or bad - review can lead any author astray, but surely it’s the author’s responsibility to allow himself to be led, or not.

Reviews are, of course, most valid when honestly written for readers, not writers. Reviewers, therefore, must simply tell the truth. The job of writing, as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., so plainly puts it, is to imagine.

Honesty and imagination are the heart in the body of the book industry. May books live on in any form: the classic physical state, and the classy new cyber-model. May we learn, may we listen to each other, and dance better together to the next tune.

-- Laura Lynn Leffers

Laura Lynn Leffers is an author and painter; visit her websites at:

E-mail Laura
Link to my article on reviewing for Spotlight