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Reviewing Under Pressure: 7 Things Book Bloggers Should Know

Happy Halloween everyone! I hope those of you who are dressing up have some incredible costumes planned. I can't wait to see your photos!

This week I'd like to talk about something I come across a lot as a book blogger and as an author: reviewer pressure.

We've all done it: you know your TBR pile is three storeys high, but you still can't stop yourself from requesting ten ARCs on NetGalley, or accepting that review request that's hit your inbox, or going to the bookshop and buying six more books, just because the covers are soooo pretty.

Then comes the regret, because you realise that you actually do have a life to run, and you can't just sit in bed all day reading.

So you self-recriminate. You tell yourself you're not good enough, because you can't read a five-hundred-page book in an hour, because you're not going to get that ARC reviewed by the publication date, and you wonder why you got so excited about reading books that now feel like a chore. Underneath all of that is the worry that publicists and authors aren't going to want to work with you in future if you write a late review or, god forbid, a negative review.

So why do we get ourselves into such a tangle, and how can we untangle ourselves?

On Monday, I joined a discussion on Twitter that originated with @HowlingLibrary. I decided to throw in my view:

As someone who has just over a thousand Twitter followers, and usually receives only ten likes per tweet, I was surprised when this quote tweet received such a massive response. Surprised and worried, because to me it was self-evident that book bloggers should be entitled to set their own timelines. So I asked book bloggers where the pressure was coming from.

The vast majority of the responses I received were from book bloggers who felt that they put the pressure on themselves, but some did feel pressured by authors and publicists, particularly because (as I mentioned above) they're worried that long timelines and bad reviews will harm their reputation as bloggers.

I see this from both sides, as a blogger and as an author, and this is my take:

1. Your blog, your rules

You read and review FOR FREE. The author or publisher provides you with a copy of the book, which if it's an e-copy costs them almost nothing, in return for your review. But they're not paying you to review it, so they can't dictate your timelines. They have no leverage to bargain for short turnarounds, they can only ask and see if you're able to accommodate them. You can always say, 'No', because:

You get to review at your own speed.

It's your free time, that you're giving up to someone else's commercial venture. Digest that. They're hoping to make money from this (if they're anything like me then they won't, but we authors can dream!). You're helping authors to achieve their commercial goals by reviewing for free.

They might say, 'It would be great if you could read and review by X date,' but you can always reply saying, 'I'm happy to review, but I can't commit to any particular timeline.' Even if you do agree a date, that doesn't mean it's set in stone.

I receive a few emails every month from reviewers who are hugely apologetic about not being able to review by a date they promised. It worries me that reviewers worry about this so much, because of course I'm not going to complain if a review is "late". You're doing me a favour by reading and reviewing my book, and I'm hugely grateful.

Let me say that again:

You are doing authors a favour by reviewing their books.

Post your review three months later than you promised it, and I'll still smile and say, 'Thank you'. Really.

The only deadlines I ever perceive as being 'hard' are those for which I've agreed to post a review on a certain day for a blog tour, but even then I'd hope that publicists would provide bloggers with alternative content to post in the event that something went wrong and a blogger was unable to review by that date. Shit happens, and every reasonable human being knows and accepts that. Just drop a polite email to the author/publicist explaining that you won't be able to make the date you promised, and if they're a dick about it that's on them, not you.

And let's get one thing clear: I don't blacklist reviewers for late reviews, and I hope that other authors don't either. I've sent out hundreds of copies of my books, and I know that I'll never hear back from the majority of the reviewers (check out this post from last year for some figures on blogger responsiveness).

2. FOMO is your enemy

You're scrolling through NetGalley, which for some reason you do every day, even though your TBR already has fifty bajillion books on it. Then you see a cover that rings a bell, because people have been discussing it on Book Twitter, or it's popped up on Bookstagram or BookTube a few times. So you click the request button, because everyone else is raving about it and so it must be good.

Except it's a Contemporary YA Romance and you usually only read Adult SFF. And although you might enjoy it if you read it, it languishes on your Kindle making you feel guilty because you never make time for it. Turns out, you just weren't that interested in the first place.

Now, there's no judgement here. I do this ALL THE TIME. FOMO grabs me by my clicky finger and goes, 'Oooo, go on.' I think part of this comes from the vague feeling that if I review what everyone else is reviewing, more people will read my blog. But the numbers just don't bear that out. On my YouTube channel, the most watched videos are reviews of books I'd never even heard of before I picked them up, that no one else was reviewing.

We don't all like the same things, and that's GOOD.

People like novelty. They don't want to read fifty reviews of the same book, they want to discover things they've never heard of before.

So when you receive a review request, or when you're skimming NetGalley, read the blurb. Twice. Ask yourself whether this is a book you're actually excited to read, and don't just base that judgement on the cover. Buzz is deceptive. Only you know what tropes you like, and you're individual enough that a recommendation from a BookTuber who doesn't even know you isn't enough to guarantee a book is worth your time.

3. Negative reviews aren't necessarily bad

Sometimes you don't like a book. Sometimes you hate it. Sometimes you think it's so atrocious that you can't believe it was published, but you feel uncomfortable saying that in your review because you don't want to alienate the publicist or irritate the author.

So here's the thing you need to know:

Negative reviews are HELPFUL.

As an author, of course they're upsetting, but your reviews aren't for authors, are they? They're for readers.

But let's pretend for a second that they are just for authors. As an author, negative reviews aren't all bad either. A negative review can highlight trigger warnings, or tropes that annoyed you, and readers that would have hated the book for those reasons (perhaps leaving more negative reviews) will just avoid it. Plus point for author: the risk of further negative reviews is mitigated.

It's also important to remember that ALL Amazon reviews, positive or negative, count towards those precious first 50 that will cause Amazon's algorithms to start promoting a book more widely. Do I want negative reviews? Of course not. But if I could, would I delete a couple of negative reviews if they push me over that 50 review threshold? Absolutely not.

...But they can been upsetting

As an author, I don't want to have a bad review rubbed in my face. When I go to Goodreads or Amazon to look at my reviews, I always take a few seconds to prepare myself, because I know I may read some opinions that upset me. I only ever check my reviews when I'm feeling strong enough to cope with them, and I think most authors are the same.

Sometimes our egos are fragile things.

So the best thing to do is give authors the space to decide when and how they access your reviews. If I'm having a lovely day with the family and I get a Twitter notification in which a blogger says they hated my book, and I watch all their followers liking that tweet and retweeting it around the globe, my lovely day is immediately ruined, without warning. That can make some authors behave badly.

To keep authors (and publicists) on-side, you can go a long way by choosing the way you communicate carefully. I'm not suggesting you shouldn't be entirely honest in your reviews (you should), nor am I suggesting that you shouldn't post them on your social media channels (you can post what you like - it's your platform), just don't tag the author/publicist when you say negative things about their books, or when you post links to negative reviews.

I think some bloggers believe that tagging authors will increase the reach of their reviews, but the only additional audience you're reaching is people who are FANS of the author. They don't want to read your negative reviews, and may express their discontent to you. You don't need that, and the author won't like it either.

So when you do write a negative review, here are some suggestions I would offer for communicating those to authors/publicists:

- If you're sharing your review on social media, only tag the author/publicist if you're giving the book 4* or more. This does, of course, involve an element of judgement on your part. If your 3* review is almost all positive then tag, but if your 4* review is very negative then don't.

- If you want to share your review with the author/publicist, send them the link by email. That way, they can open it at their leisure.

- If you've agreed to participate in a blog tour for a book that you end up not liking, contact the author/publicist ASAP instead of just posting the negative review on the agreed date. That way they can organise an alternate reviewer, or give you alternative content to post if you're happy to do so.

4. Bad books aren't worth your time

Ah, the DNF. I struggle with this one. Completists, I feel your pain. I think most of us do.

I've DNF'ed one book this year, and it took me five months to accept that I hated it. In the end, I was dreading reading it. It was at the top of my TBR, but I'd already read thirty books while I should have been reading it. It was my book nemesis, and it had to go.

Don't be like me. Don't wait five months to ditch a book that's making you unhappy.

If you're not enjoying a book, stop reading it.

It's that simple. I know from personal experience that it feels much more difficult than that, particularly if it's a book that you've been asked to review by an author or, worse, that you've requested from a publicist for review. My advice in those situations is to keep communicating. Don't just quietly shunt the book off your TBR and hope the author/publicist never contacts you again.

And I'm not telling you that as an author, I'm telling you that as a reader. As an author, I do sometimes receive emails saying, 'I'm sorry, but this book wasn't for me so I'm not going to finish it.' My response to that is to shrug and get on with my day. It's not like a negative review; it doesn't feel personal, it's just that the reviewer didn't click with the book. Fair enough.

As a reader, the weight of a DNF'ed book sits on my conscience. I worry that the publicist/author is sitting, waiting for me to email my review. In all likelihood, they're doing nothing of the sort (I certainly never do that as an author), but I WORRY that they are. It's much better just to send a quick email letting them that you're not going to review the book, then you can hurl it off your TBR with a clear conscience and move on to something you'll actually enjoy.

5. When you're rushed, reading becomes a chore

You've promised a review to a publicist in time for a blog tour stop tomorrow so you're reading like a demon, but it's 2am and you still haven't eaten any dinner, your laundry's sitting wet in the machine and suddenly this gorgeous descriptive passage about the rolling plains of the Serengeti feels like the most oppressive and long-winded rubbish you've ever read.

Reading is something we do to relax. When you put a clock on it then no matter how good the book is, you start wishing it was shorter so it would be over more quickly. That's a terrible frame of mind to be in when you review a book, and any sensible author/publicist will understand that.

You have to be romanced by a book. Its cover flirts with you, then when you read an appealing blurb it's the equivalent of finding out that it's into cats and rock-climbing too. By the time you get to the first dinner date, you want time to get to know it. You want to luxuriate. You want not just starters and main course, but dessert and coffee too, because a good book needs time to breathe.

Give yourself the time you need to read.

I'm an extremely slow reader. I read to myself in my head (yes, doing the voices), so it takes me as long to read a book quietly to myself as it would to read it aloud. Some people eat books in no time at all. But however quickly you read, you must not be rushed. You'll take all of the joy out of your books, and nothing is worth compromising your relationship with the story.

If that means emailing publicists/authors to let them know you'll be posting your review later than expected, then do that. Give yourself permission not to be perfect all the time. Save your energy for the important things in your life.

6. Impatience is the author's problem, not yours

I know that we self-published authors can be a pain the arse. Some of us seem to lack basic social skills when sending in review requests, and given how frequently my review policy is ignored I often wonder whether their reading skills couldn't do with a bit of work as well. But for the most part, we're reasonable human beings and we don't expect to receive reviews quickly.

The reality is that publishing is a world that moves very slowly. Authors who submit to agents know that they may have to wait 3 months to receive a standard rejection email, so why should they expect you to read and review an entire book in that time, when it's not even your job?

But sometimes authors do get frustrated. Writing a book often feels like building a mountain that looms heavily in your consciousness, but is utterly invisible to the rest of the world. We want our work to be acknowledged and seen, ideally even enjoyed, and book bloggers are a huge assistance in that process.

We NEED you.

But until people start noticing our mountain, that need can make authors pushy and weird.

In some respects, reviewers are replacing agents as the new publishing gatekeepers. Reviews are essential to our success. Amazon reviews in particular are instrumental in opening up publicity and visibility opportunities for authors, but Amazon are making it increasingly difficult for reviewers to post reviews of books that they have not purchased through Amazon. That makes it harder and harder for authors to attain those first 50 essential Amazon reviews, which makes it feel as though every book you write is destined for obscurity. I'm still trying to find my first 50 Amazon reviews for The Gilded King (shameless plug: you can request a review copy here), so I understand that impatience.

BUT that doesn't make it your problem. When authors stop asking and start demanding, you should stand firm in the knowledge that authors are not entitled to dictate the timelines on which you review for them.

Your free time is sacred, and you don't owe it to people who don't respect that.

7. Blogging is supposed to be fun

Don't forget why you started blogging in the first place.

We blog to share the books we read. But we don't blog just to discuss our thoughts with others. We blog so we can analyse what we liked and didn't like, so we can read more deeply with every book. Maybe you also blog because you'd like to start writing yourself, and this is your first step towards doing that. Maybe you blog to help authors, but I bet that isn't your primary motivation. You certainly don't do it so you can have another job, with demanding timelines and clients, for which you aren't even paid.

I think most of us blog for selfish reasons: because we love books and we want to talk about them. And being selfish about that isn't a bad thing. I certainly am. It's your free time, and you can spend it however the hell you like.

In fact, I want you to be MORE selfish. Or, in other words:

Be gentle with yourselves.

Most of the bloggers I've worked with are hyper-diligent over-achievers, who have a tendency to beat themselves up if they don't reach the sky-high standards that they set for themselves. They don't need anyone to chase them for reviews because they're already doing more than they should be.

But everyone needs time off. Five hours in front of the television binging Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn't five hours wasted, it's five hours you needed in order to gather enough energy for the next day's mile-long agenda.

Don't measure the success of your day by the things that are still on your to-do list at its end. Highlight the things you've crossed off, even if that's just a walk in the park with the dog, or spending time with a friend. You are not just your work, or your home life, or your blogging. You're a whole person, and you need to make time to feed every bit of yourself, so the rest of you has the energy to thrive.

Authors are, and should be, grateful for everything that book bloggers do to support us.

What you do is enough, so put your feet up and have a biscuit.


What I'm Doing This Week

I've been ill again this week, so I'm feeling sorry for myself. Still, writing is going well; I'm at 30k words in THE BLOOD PRINCE, and should be at 40k by Sunday. I also FINALLY managed to start my vlog on Sunday. You can watch the first video here.

I've also been working on some other projects. I wrote a historical YA novel last year that I've been shopping around agents, which has elicited some interest, but not enough to get it agented. I think it needs a little tightening up, so I'm going to be sending that off for an editorial review this week.

On the home front, I made 9 litres of rhubarb and vanilla jam yesterday, so that was an endeavour! I used the remaining rhubarb to make gin, which seems like a much better use for it if I'm honest.


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