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Bad Books and Me

POSTED BY doug ON July 27, 2011

Photo credit: http://bookhaven.stanford.edu

It’s been said that 33% of all published books are ranked as “bad”. And by “33%” I mean that I made that statistic up. But bad books are a fact of life. Simply unavoidable. And usually, it’s the book reviewer who must break the news gently to the world when a bad book is born. What is it like for them, these book reviewers who bear this burden? Our guest blogger, Hubert O’Hearn, an arts and book reviewer, lets us know:

Bad Books and Me

As a reviewer, I’ve found that a comfortable pace is reading three books a week and reviewing two – sometimes one or two more of both, sometimes one or two less, but that’s par for my course. At that, I can’t, don’t and won’t read everything but I probably get a lot closer to everything than 99% of the readers out there. Still, it does beg the question: What bout the Third Book, the one that doesn’t get reviewed? Well as Eeyore might have said, there hangs a sad tale.

In the last two years I have only written two negative reviews. One was because I considered the book to be a massively hyped fraud foisted on the public by a talented writer who had completely phoned it in. I’d tell you the name, but I’m not sure if I remember the correct spelling of the author’s name. (Yes I can look it up – but why re-publicize something I don’t like?) The other was because I was assigned the book by one of the papers I work for, the editor is an old friend, and in this business you survive based on your talent and your word. I couldn’t very well leave them with a gap in the Arts section on Sunday, although I’m sure the advertising manager would have gleefully filled it with a blaring display announcing a hot sale on hot tubs, shaved beef, or canopy awnings.

The thing is, despite their being tremendous fun to write, I deeply dislike publishing negative reviews. I only have so much space and so many markets to fill and I would rather spend that time promoting the worthwhile than barbecuing the hacks. The hyped book mentioned above was an exception because I do like to protect innocent readers from being sucked into a vortex of craptacularity. Plus, its author has made lots of money so I doubt my opinion will have withered his bank account. As to the assigned book…well, I do owe my readers the truth. Otherwise, I just really don’t like hurting people. I’m always aware that my opinion is just my opinion. One tip for readers is to approach book reviewers like movie reviewers. Find one or two whose opinions on books you’ve read in common that you agree with and stick with them. There – just saved you a bunch of time.

But there are masses of truly bad books out there. I will, essentially, read anything or at least a few chapters of anything sent to me. You’ve taken the time to write a book. You’ve paid me the honour (and it truly is an honour) of asking for my opinion. You deserve that respect. Plus eventually bookshelves will fill every wall in my house and I need never paint again. Bonus!

 Because of WordPress and Kindle and all those little Google adverts raising a seductive eye and whispering Publish Your Novel Now, there are more books than ever going direct to market without benefit of professional editing. And – I truly hate to say it – 98% are Bad.

If Shakespeare was revived from the dead and taken to a modern production of Hamlet, hearing his play delivered word by word, line by line, as he wrote it, I will bet you dollars to doughnuts this is what his post-show reaction would be: ‘Could stand one more re-write.’ 

Oh I know what your reaction may well be, if you’re one of the happy indie authors out there twittering your praises: ‘Those editors are just a rip-off! And the big houses don’t ‘get’ me! I’m different!’ Editors – real ones – are never a rip-off. I edit books from time to time as well. I’m bloody expensive because it’s a lot of work. But if at the end of the day I have to tell you you’re book’s not worthy of a push, that’s not me ripping you off – that’s you not having one of either the talent or work ethic to fix it.  And the big houses are smart. They have to be. Publishing is actually in much better shape than the groaning pundits would lead you to believe (and by the way Groaning Pundits were a great proto-punk band based out of Syracuse in the late 70s…yes I’m kidding). But publishing stays in good shape by not making expensive mistakes. Your book that contains the phrase (I’m directly quoting here): “She had ample curves in all the right places” is going to be an expensive mistake. Unless of course the whole thing’s like that, in which case it might be a comic masterpiece.

I’m going to keep reading the indie books however and reviewing them whenever they’re worthy. One of the best books I’ve read this year is an indie: 33 Days by Bill See. I’m writing its review later this week. It may not have ample curves in all the right places, but it does have ample words in all the right phrases.

Be seeing you.

Hubert O’Hearn is an arts and book reviewer based out of Canada. His work is currently published in nine major North American cities. An archive of his review can be found at bythebookreviews.blogspot.com

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