When reviewers have a book published, what retribution can they expect for their (surely unintended) sins? I’m not asking for argument’s sake, but because I’m about to learn.
I’ve just had the temerity and timidity to have a book published. It’s a collection of stories (not “short stories,” since the term has apparently fallen into disfavor) called People Tell Me Things. The publisher is the new and small Nthposition, a spinoff from the award-winning political and literary Web site, nthposition.com, run by the enterprising Valerie Stevenson out of London. And it’s a paperback original.
So while I am very proud of the book and to be published by Nthposition, from a reviewer’s point of view, on publication People Tell Me Things has not three but four strikes against it: (1) unknown author; (2) a story collection; (3) a small house with exiguous publicity staff; and (4) a paperback original.
What chance do I have to see the work (over which I’ve diligently labored off and on for several years) make a meaningful dent in the marketplace? It’s both my good and bad fortune to have a better answer at hand than might other writers who haven’t reviewed books for more than a few decades as they send their printed (or Kindled or Nooked or iPadded or name the format) love child naked out into the world.
I know what I face. I’ve been on the other side and can’t ignore my own practices when considering new, original-paperback story collections by unknown authors from small publishing houses.
Since I was the New York Post book reviewer in the mid-to-late 1980s, I’ve received publishers’ catalogues and pored through them in search of releases that struck my reviewer’s fancy. As a sometime reviewer now (the Huffington Post, the odd contribution here and there), I continue to receive—in addition to fewer but still numerous hard-copy and e-mailed catalogues—unrequested books over the transom. (I use “transom” metaphorically, of course, since few transoms exist in the real world anymore.)
Confronted with innumerable books on what amounts to a daily basis, I know all too well how I react to them in such bulk. I pay attention, but I have my limits—as is the case, I’m aware, with all of us reviewing books, particularly freelance. And I know that, while I weigh reading many more books than I eventually request, I have to draw the line somewhere. Regularly, that line is drawn closer in rather than farther out. Which means, I’m sorry to report—more to myself right now than I’d wish—that books like mine can very quickly go by the crowded wayside. And while I believe what I’ve written has some worth, I understand this has to be true of an overwhelming percentage of the books to which I’ve given a thumbs-down. (Full disclosure: taking all of this into account, I’ve followed the advice I’ve frequently given other authors: hire an indie publicist.)
Throughout the years when I’ve paged through catalogues and rejected so many books, I thought to myself that what I was deciding due to reviewing reality could easily come back at me if I ever published a book. I knew I was setting myself up for what’s come to pass. So all I can say is that, accepting the realities of reviewing, I know there’s nothing I can do to stop the unfortunate response from applying to me as it has to countless predecessors. Actually, that isn’t all I can say. I can say—and more or less have to—that there is some kind of chance that People Tell Me Things will be noticed and reviewed.
I’ve probably been readying for this possibility, too, over many years. Luckily, I was raised by parents who read books, but would never have thought about either reviewing or writing them. Their teachings, meant to pertain to living in general and not strictly to book reviewing, included the dictum “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.” The advice made great sense, and I’m keeping it firmly in mind under the current circumstances. Since I’ve recalled their advice almost every time I’ve composed a negative review, I’ve also recognized that some day I could be on the other end of the dishing. So I can honestly claim I’ve done my best to prepare for what’s already begun—a couple snarky blogger responses I’m taking nicely in (my long 6-ft., 2-in.) stride.
Invoking contemporary parlance: bring it on.
David Finkle is the author of People Tell Me Things, the chief drama critic at TheaterMania.com, and still reviews books on occasion.