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The Art of Reviewing, or How to Make or Break an Author’s Career by Matthew Cunliffe


Self-Publisher’s Showcase is my first foray into reviewing books. I’ve written a lot over the years, be it heavyweight articles on Politics (which I read for at university); the odd role-playing game; or generally for work purposes. And from an early age, I devoured books: my grandmothers fed me on a diet of Famous Five and the Secret Seven, as well as Swallows and Amazons. It wasn’t long before I was recommending adult books to my junior school teachers (I would have been about ten at the time), and even now, I’ll go through two large books a week.

So, I have an appetite for literature, be it fiction or non-, and have started writing numerous novels before abandoning them before the end of the first chapter. One day, I will get round to writing a novel, but in the meantime, what could be better than reviewing them instead?

I know Paul because in another world he is part of a great company called EightPointNine which delivers top class coffee to your door and I can’t go to work without my espresso fix. Bizarrely, he also lives in the same town I grew up in, so on the odd occasion I go to visit my parents, we meet up, have a drink, and then do stupid things like hold a plank position for two minutes because my wife told us to (you had to have been there). So when Paul asked if I’d like to review some books for the Self-Publisher’s Showcase, I jumped at the chance.

I thought it would be easy. I mean, I read loads of books, and in my work life, I work as a Quality Assurance consultant, so critiquing documents and correcting errors pervades my life. The trouble is, when I review a work document, I can correct mistakes and tell people they are wrong, backing it up with facts and being objective as possible, full in the knowledge that this is my job, and it’s up to the author to realise that I’m not out to get them – I’m out to improve their document and that’s it.

When it comes to reviewing someone’s novel, it’s completely different. This is their lifeblood, their infant child, born out of countless hours, often in their spare time, of muttering into thin air, throwing screwed up bits of rejected pages into the wastebin, and scratching at the vellum into the small hours. How can I even think of saying something nasty about thousands of words that these authors have made available to us to enrich our lives? And with that, you are tempted to laud the efforts of the author, irrespective of the quality of their work, lest you puncture their self-esteem with your harsh words.

My first review for Self Publisher’s showcase was like that. I was concerned about the impact I might have on the author, perhaps to the point of dissuading them from writing ever again. Looking back, I think I should have been more honest. The book was enjoyable, but it didn’t have the polish and pizazz that it perhaps should have had.

Now I try to be as balanced in my reviews as I can. If I love a novel, I will say so, but equally I will point out its deficiencies – and given my job in real life, I will always find something not quite right with any book I read. I’m not out to rip an author’s prized piece to shreds with no more concern than I might have for a mosquito attempting to suck me dry, but neither am I going to ignore the faults.

So spare a thought for the reviewer, stuck between a rock and a hard place, doomed to walk the knife-edge of fairness and objectivity. And look kindly on the authors who not only lay bare their souls for you to see their words and deeds on paper, but also have to look on as their books are dissected and analysed by us reviewers.

  1. Maureen FOSSMaureen FOSS02-21-2014

    I enjoyed your article, however being too kind does not help the author. We need a constructive critique. You have stated that. I have three books published by legit firms but I may have hit the wall on them. So many new authors producing brilliant, some not so, novels that because you have had them published in the past, does not mean it gets easier.
    Thanks for your input.

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