3 April 2022
As a reviewer for Reedsy.com, I have access to a database of Advance Reader’s Copies available for review from self-published and small press writers. The manuscripts are rough, often with typographical errors, formatting problems, and plot holes. Through the typos, missed words, and grammatical errors, I look for writer’s work. They hammer out their stories alone, pushing themselves to finish, exhaling in triumph as they hold completed manuscripts in their hands for the first time. Authors are serious when they sit at the keyboard, pouring their hearts into their passion projects.
So, who am I to judge?
My first ARC from Reedsy was a brilliant book. With few distracting proofreading errors, it was a quick, enjoyable read. It thrilled me to uncover such a fun book, and I had a blast writing the review. The author reached out to thank me for what I’d written, an unexpected boost to my confidence. Since then, I’ve written several more and when I didn’t love the books, I practiced being honest without being personal. I’m up front with readers who won’t connect with the books while acknowledging the efforts of the artists whose souls I see shining in the pieces. When I had a book that truly missed the mark, I pointed out the flaws, believing that my integrity as a reviewer rests on my willingness to write negative reviews when necessary.
The gray area comes in when I’m asked to read unfinished work. Riddled with mechanical mistakes and muddled in its narrative, a book like this poses a genuine problem. It comes from a passionate amateur. But the honest reviewer in me wants to cut it down, remind the author that readers aren’t willing to fill in the gaps for an inexperienced writer. They notice every flaw, get frustrated when the narrative turns to navel gazing, and need breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout if you expect them to make it to the end. Failing to fulfill these basic requirements leaves readers with two choices: keep slogging through or give up, most likely for good. I want to sugarcoat it. But some bad news is too bitter for kind words to cover.
That’s when I wonder if I’m cut out to review books. Could someone else see something I don’t? The assertions I’m making are subjective. Could I be wrong? And what happens if I pan the book or, even worse, return as “unready for publication?” Whose dreams am I crushing? Can one reviewer determine success or failure? I didn’t plan for this.
Basic guidelines aren’t a help when the answer is a judgement call. Earnest in doing the right thing, I’ve erred on the side of civility. The most recent book I reviewed is a ponderous memoir, a nightmare of technical mistakes, and desperately in need of a professional editor. It is unfinished. Instead of saying so, I compromised my ethics and wrote a bland review, telling myself that the manuscript will pass through other hands before it reaches the public. Surely, it’s not my place to pick on grammar and diction. Not in a book review. Returning it as “unready” never crossed my mind. It’s not up to me to make that call. Is it?
The review I submitted was as gutless as a high school book report and as shallow. When the author reached out, asking me not to “spoil” what I hadn’t realized was a surprise ending, I knew I’d made a mistake. That writer didn’t benefit when I withheld the truth, didn’t gain book sales or attract an agent. I lied to him, letting him believe his ending is a surprise (by taking out the offending line) and his book might be a success. I don’t have insider knowledge, but from my years in academia, I had a responsibility to tell him that a year’s worth of writing classes wouldn’t be enough to pull his manuscript into shape. So, you won’t see my review of that book on this website. I’m ashamed of it. And even if I question my right to judge, I won’t be dishonest again.