Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Good Review / Bad Review

   If you write a book, you will most likely get reviewed.  Like it or not.  Some reviews are perfectly nice; some not so nice.  And then there are those reviews which seem to be lazy repeats of the front jacket copy, but that's another story.
   I read all the reviews that I get to see (my first book had well over 200 reviews, every one of them carefully clipped out and mailed to me by my publisher; I saw [maybe] ten reviews of my last book, all via e-mail!).  Because I always blame myself for falling short, I study every line of the reviews, trying to figure out how to make future books better.  I was thinking about my process with reviews a few weeks back and how both the good and bad ones have helped me to re-evaluate and change how I write.
   The Good Review:  Way back in another time and dimension, I wrote a history of tractors (brilliantly titled -- wait for it -- TRACTORS: From Yesterday's Steam Wagons to Today's Turbocharged Giants, available as we speak at Amazon used books for $0.70).  I may have told this story here before, so I'll make it brief.  I was telling my Dad about this wonderful, innovative, amazing book about tractors I'd just revised and was ready to mail back to my publisher.  After I stopped yammering, my Dad sat back, smiled knowingly, and said: "Jimmy, that'll be a big hit in Russia."
   I thought that line was brilliant and laughed out loud.  But later I started to wonder who, in their right mind, would actually want to pick up a book about tractors, let alone read it.  Panic set in.  The package with the manuscript was sitting on a table, very neatly wrapped and ready to go out.  But I hesitated.  I had to do something before the published book was banished to the far away remainder Gulogs, but what?  Which is when I remembered that almost all of the early steam tractors blew up at some point or other, and that the inventors and on-lookers often wrote about these unexpected and exciting developments.  I opened the package and spent the following days putting in quotes, many of them offbeat and funny (what's not to laugh about when a giant metal tank of steam explodes?).  And guess what; it not only received very positive reviews, but School Library Journal gave it a star (and this was when starred reviews weren't very commonplace).
   The thing about the SLJ review is that it mentioned the quotes.  Not in any depth; more in passing briefly over what the book was about.  I didn't think much of that little phrase until a few years later I began doing research on underage boys from both sides in the Civil War.  As I gathered in more and more research, I began to wonder how I would present the information.  Happily, I remembered the SLJ review for TRACTORS and decided to let these young soldiers tell their own stories, using pieces from their letters home, diaries, memoirs, and company histories to describe their enlistment, training, battle experience...in short, their stay in the army start to finish.  This wealth of firsthand accounts also provided the book's subtitle.  THE BOYS' WAR: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk abop the Civil War received very nice reviews (and it didn't hurt that it was published the very same week that Ken Burns' Civil War documentary was first aired!). 
   The Bad Review:  Okay, this should be 'reviews.'  So I was able to have several nonfiction books published and the reviews were encouraging.  But one review source, while saying very positive things about these books, also tacked on a brief complaint.  They wanted citations for my various sources.  Please remember that this was a very different time (the 1980s); most nonfiction books then, even the most serious, usually had a brief bibliography and little else.  So when this review source said this, I was troubled and wondered what to do about it.
   Here's a bit of publishing history.  I'm sure there were people around back then who championed having more sources, but I never came across them.  Not in person, that is.  When I spoke to editors and other writers, just about everyone thought the idea of extensive notes and sources was a bit, how to say this, excessive.  It would take up a decent amount of space in the book (which could be used to add text or illustrations) and would enough kids really use them to justify this?  I know, this seems like a silly question now, but back then it was real and we were all trying to puzzle out what to do (or not do).
   When the first negative review like this appeared, I had another book at the binder about to appear and another in galley pages (yes, it was a different era).  I dithered a bit and both books were published sans notes and sources.  And, yes, that review source criticized both titles for this lack of information.
   What to do? I wondered.  I had another manuscript ready to go off and I was wondering if I should ignore my colleagues and just put in the info.  Which was when I happened to have dinner with a friend, Jim Giblin.  We spoke about this emerging notes and sources situation (me feeling a bit put upon and undecided about what to do).  Jim's response was characteristically practical.  Why risk having a negative sentence or phrase soil an otherwise good review.  Put the notes in!
   Fine, I said.  But most backmatter is a bunch of ids and ibids and such that even adults find boring and difficult to interpret.  His answer: Have some fun with them.
   Which is what I've tried to do ever since.  I try to play with and change up the backmatter in every book, shaping it in a way that makes it not just possible for young readers to know where my information came from and how to access it, but easy and non-threatening as well.  Every time I do backmatter, I learn new things about how to communicate this to the readers (a quest that will probably never end but keeps me on my toes and having some fun).                 
   Good Review/Bad Review.  Each kind is trying to tell me something besides whether the book works or not.  Sometimes it takes a while for me to see exactly what it might be, but if I stay open to the reviewer's emotional response and hints, in time it'll register and lead me.  

1 comment:

Susan E. Goodman said...

I agree Jim, I have learned much from the good reviews--and, by god I mean the ones that had something interesting to tell me. Although some might have stung a little, I eventually appreciated their perspective. But I really hate the snarky ones that are either trying to prove how clever they are. Or the really dumb ones on Amazon that give you one or two stars because your book is too old for that child or it came with a damaged cover.