23 April 2013

Let Me Tell You a Few Things About Book Reviews

By Gayle Francis Moffet

An absolutely shameless plug to start us off: If you're in the Portland, Oregon area this weekend (April 28 and 29), you should swing by the Stumptown Comics Expo and visit table H7 (ooh, floorplan) and introduce yourself because that's where I'll be all Saturday and Sunday.

Right smack in the middle of the floor. I feel
the location accurately displays my shamelessness.

I'll be tabling with a couple of very talented people--Jesse Snavlin an Dan Schkade. They run a website called The Committee Building, which is a webcomic site that hosts two comics called The Adventures of Stop & Go and The Fowl. They're comics for adults (meaning violence and adult situations amongst other things), and they're both excellent stories, relying on character and world-building to back their plots and ideas. I love these comics, I recommend them to anyone I think would like them, but let me ask you this: Knowing beforehand that I'm hanging out with these people, that we've clearly got a pre-existing relationship, do you actually trust my opinion on their work?

Maybe you do. You may follow me on Goodreads and seen enough of my comic reviews to decide that my taste in comics is something you trust. Maybe you trust me because I seem like I know what I'm talking about in comics in general, so you figure I might have good taste for new stuff.

But maybe you don't trust me. Maybe you look at this post and say, "She's just trying to prop up her friends," and you decide my endorsement isn't enough to get you reading something new.

Now, consider this: That situation--me knowing the creators of something--is pretty much publishing in a nutshell. It's not quite everyone knowing everyone. It's more, "Well, I know Bill who knows Sue who knows Carol, and Carol can get it to John who will give it a review." Not every reviewer knows an author personally, but you can bet the agent or the publisher of that author knows a reviewer by name and face.

Case in point: Bitch Magazine reviewed Blue Thread, a book I greatly enjoyed and reviewed with high marks. Go to the end of that review at Bitch and note that the reviewer notes how she got her copy: She worked for Ooligan Press. So did I. I didn't mention it in my review. Why not? I didn't feel it was relevant. I greatly enjoyed that book. My review reflects that, and I don't have the standards of an editorial board to answer to. But the truth is, there's a pretty good chance that the good reviews you read are coming from people who know people who know the author.

I'm not saying you shouldn't use reviews to decide what to read, and I'm not saying you should distrust every review you read. I am saying that publishing is as much who you know or are willing to pay (those tables at Barnes & Noble don't come cheap, nor do the end caps) can be as useful as being talented. Publishing is hard work partially because it's politics.

Let me be clear: doglover73 on Amazon probably isn't getting paid by anyone to sing the praises of the latest James Patterson, but the Publisher's Weekly starred review? The high-praise Kirkus review? The stamp of approval from Shelf Awareness? Someone made a deal with someone, or someone knew someone, or someone knew that someone had a weakness for that particular genre.

I always roll my eyes when I hear someone talking about how "tasteless" it is to swap a review for a review (as is common in self-publishing) because the traditional publishing industry has been doing basically the same thing for decades plus so much more when you consider the price of tables and end caps. Personally, I don't care how anyone gets a review, whether it's a big six title or a self-pub. I'm more likely to trust someone who talks to me face-to-face or enthuses via e-mail when I ask for an opinion. But if you read the book reviews in your Sunday paper, take them with a pinch of salt and go with your instincts. If it sounds like fun, go for it. If it sounds like a bore, skip it.

That being said, Stumptown is going to be tons of fun. Because I will be there and double-caffeinated and have no shame. So, you know, you should show up for that.

There is a 43% chance I will be wearing
this hat. You can't miss that.

Gayle Francis Moffet writes those fancy comic things. Her short comic, "April 16th, 6:44 am" is currently in the lettering phase (with pencils, inks, and colors by Adam Hurley). She is finishing the first of four scripts in her "Battery Babies" universe, but none of those have titles yet. She'll get there. You can check her out on tumblr.

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