Additional Comments on Reviewing

(excerpts from the special message board online between February 5 and February 12, 2001)

Mrs. Giggles (sent via email):
Reviews are just words. They can be used, interpreted, misinterpreted, and misquoted by anyone as they see fit. A reviewer writes his or her opinions, and it's up to the reader to use that piece for whatever purposes. A reader can choose to buy the book, not to, or just laugh it off and forget about it soon after. She can also bite her lips and think, "What a silly reviewer!"

Maybe it's just me, but during my perusing of mainstream entertainment 'zines, I have never seen reviewers taken to task as often as those with the misfortune to review romances. Roger Ebert may be a nice man, but his review of Battlefield Earth is amusingly vitriolic for a man who looks like a nice grandfatherly figure in his press photos. But Ebert isn't taken to task for that.

I have no idea why this is, but I can only say this: I trust AAR. I trust TRR. Not because I expect their reviews to correlate with my reading preferences at all times, but because I know from my experience when these sites praise or give a book a thumbs down, they mean it. It also helps that these sites have clear-cut lines drawn in the ground, so to speak, when it comes to author's contribution. Author's objections/praises are raised in a professional, formal manner (Mailbag at TRR, the boards at AAR).

I doubt anything else I say will be anything different from undoubtedly many similar sentiments from your visitors. But out of curiosity, have you ever considered how the use of the word "unbiased" differs between readers, authors, and reviewers - heck, everybody! - and how this can cause potential conflicts in discussion boards?

a) To many authors, "unbiased" seems to mean a book review free from "personal attacks." Like the term "unbiased," "personal attack" can be shady in its definition. An author writes. She gets into her profession voluntarily, because she believes she has the gift to entertain her readers. So if I say 'she can't write' (or maybe, 'keep your day job' if I'm feeling nasty), is that a personal attack? If I say "Mariah Carey can't sing for peanuts", will I be attacking Carey's person? Maybe, but her marketable asset is her voice, the same as an author's marketable asset is her skill. I always believe a statement like "she can't write!" a valid criticism of an author's book.

But many authors expect reviewers to be "fair" and tell readers that hey, so if this reviewer doesn't like this book, maybe the reader will, so go buy that book will ya, pretty please? In this case, "I'm afraid this book doesn't work for me, but I'm sure many readers will love it!" is an expected conclusion of a negative review. Only in Romance Online Land, really.

The conflict here is when an author sees a review as a tool to market her books. She wants as many blurbs from TRR and AAR on her book jacket, and she wants TRR and AAR to tell their readers not to be swayed by their own reviewers' negative remarks. A paradox. The way I see it, an author shouldn't expect a reviewer to be her PR person. An author definitely don't go from site to site collecting good reviews to please her editor, etc.. A review is an positive or negative affirmation of her work, not a pat in the back at the end of a day for job well done. They should treat reviewers like driving instructors. Some instructors are kind and good, others are morons, but all (fair) instructors grade an author on perceived merit. Not because a romance author is new and needs all the support she can get.


b) Some readers expect "unbiased" to be a one-fit-all word. To them reviewers are like psychic hotline operators. "Hello? How come my friend love this book, I don't, and you do? Call yourself a reviewer? HAH!" They expect reviewers to do the homework for them and tell them what to buy or not, and get really mad if a reviewer is "wrong" about something.

Then there are readers who don't seem to get a clear idea how things are supposed to work. Many of these same readers sometimes set up websites to review books eventually, but their reviewing serves a different purpose than that of TRR and AAR. They want to promote their favorite authors' books. TRR and AAR want to review, not promote. But they can't see that, and can't accept this different raison d'etre between, say, TRR and some fan review site. Think of it like a Kevin Sorbo fan site vs the Entertainment Weekly site. The former will rave about anything Kevin Sorbo appears in, while EW will be less than kind about this author in his works. Of course, members of the fan site can start flaming EW, but that's because they don't get it - EW isn't a blind fan of Kevin Sorbo.

The same way, AAR and TRR aren't fans of Nora Roberts that will openly promote her books regardless of merit. They make that clear that even if the majority of the reviewers love Nora Roberts, if one doesn't like this one new book by Roberts, the negative review will be put up regardless. There's a measure of professionalism that these sites adhere to, and that's what makes them a class about a mere fan site.

I'm not saying fan sites are bad and a waste of bandwidth. It's just that both exist for different reasons, and it would be silly for one to measure up the other according to its own standards.

c) Reviewers. Hmm. Can I say that no reviewer is fully unbiased. One can only be unbiased as much as her honesty would allow. A person's reading experience is also influenced by her philosophy, her past experiences, her outlook in life, her personality, and events happening around her.

For instance, a stickler for history will give a well-written Roberta Gellis a thumbs up. One who still shudders at the memory of that dull Mr. Grey yammering about the Civil War in class will not like these type of heavy-duty historical romances no matter what.

At the same time, the former may lament the proliferation of "lightweight" historical authors like Julia Quinn, while the latter will see it as a good thing.

Likewise, an easy-going reviewer is more generous. A curmudgeon will be very picky (ahem). A stressed-out reviewer trying to meet three deadlines will scream if a book pricks her nerve, while one on a vacation will be more patient with the book.

Trouble arises when readers and authors see reviewers not as humans, but some perfect All-Knowing Graders who are supposed to be fair (or else...). Some reviewers dig themselves into a pit by making impossible claims about their unbiased-ness. Perhaps "impartial" is a better word that "unbiased" - nobody is free from bias. And when it comes to reviews, people tend to take things very, very literally.

The way I see it, reviews can cause trouble not because of the nature of the reviews, but how different sides - readers, reviewers, and authors - perceive the role of reviewer with relation to their career, hobby, anything. The current ra-ra atmosphere of romance as well as our own reciprocal disdain for mainstream critics have allowed many wrong perceptions to be taken as gospel. For instance, the notion that the reviewer must "respect and be fair to" an author (but never vice versa most of the times, it seems) will raise more than a few eyebrows in other communities. There, it is taken for granted that reviewers are more often than not impartial. In romance, a reviewer isn't a reviewer until she is an author's good buddy. Go figure.

Kathryn Smith:
As Dennis Miller would say, "I don't mean to get off on a rant here..."

As a former reviewer, both for AAR and The Romance Journal, I can say that I treat all reviews, no matter where they're posted as one person's opinion. Sometimes these opinions are nasty, sometimes they're overflowing with praise. It's the plot of the book that ultimately persuades me to buy, not reviews.

As an author, of course I want everyone to love my work. I also know that this cannot be so, therefore I try to prepare myself for negative reviews, hoping that the reviewer will at least take pity and slam the book, not me. On the same hand, a overly glowing review will also make me raise an eyebrow, as I would hardly expect such praise - certainly not at this stage in my career.

Let's face it. A review of a book, bad or good is not going to change the world. It should give an opinion - one the reviewer can back up by pointing out areas of the plot that either gave her pleasure or were a disappointment. From there the reader can decide whether or not that book sounds like something he/she would like to buy. How did this get to be such an issue? Because someone decided that one site is too soft, or that another site is too harsh? Well, if you don't like their style, avoid them. Go with the one you like. These decisions are small and simple in the grand scheme of things, are they not?

Magazines that print movie reviews (ie Entertainment Weekly) also advertise those same movies. There's no problem there. No one wonders if such and such a movie got a great review because the makers of the film paid to have an ad in that magazine. So why is it so on romance sites? What difference does it make if ___ runs banners or ___ or ___ also hosts author sites? To insinuate that the integrity of a site could be diminished by such a thing is pointless and potentially damaging. There's really no way for the rest of us to know if someone is playing favorites or not. If someone wants to "cheerlead" or "slice and dice" that's they're decision and if they can go to sleep easily at night, then they're comfortable with the choices they've made.

Professionalism, unfortunately differs depending on who you're talking to. I've learned that you cannot change someone by telling them how you think things should be run - were it only so simple I could save myself so many hissy fits! *G* Every romance site out there would be gentle when reviewing books - not gushing with flattery, but simply pointing out what worked and didn't work in a book and why. So much easier that way. But then, we'd just find something else to put undue attention and energy into.

Of course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. *G*

LLB: Kathryn Smith reviewed roughly 50 romances as Kate Smith before leaving AAR. 8% received grades of A, 41% received grades of B, 22% received grades of C, 22% received grades of D, and 6% received failing grades.

Carrie:
If you are reviewing a book, well, my dear, THAT is what makes you a judge. People aren't all going to agree with you, no matter how convincing your review is. But you look really lame when you can't even agree with yourself, i.e..."This book was not to my taste but I'm just a stupid human whose personal opinion doesn't count. If you're a fan of the virgins who love cowboys and get pregnant the first time they have sex" genre, you're going to love it!" Why the constant second guessing? Don't you have faith in yourself? Don't you think you have anything worth saying in that bonebox? I think you do! So tell me about it! What's up with that book?

Now I'm not saying a review should say things like, "Nobody breathing is going to like this piece of crap," or "The author should be ashamed for writing such painful drivel." That's just lazy reviewing and a failure to give in-depth reasons for displeasure. Also, if a reviewer liked something, it's vastly preferable when they really tell you why instead of just generic gushing. But reviews shouldn't be condemned as "slice and dice and not very nice" when they fail to remain at the level of an eighth grade book report. In fact, I wish more reviews at more romance sites failed to remain at the book report level so I could get more in-depth opinions, not more plot summaries, about the books I read. I want to hear from someone who liked it, someone who thought it was okay, and someone who didn't like it, all discussing their reasons for having that opinion like the well-read, intelligent adults they are.

A. Gilbert:
I honestly want to know if a book is worth spending my money on. Of course, there are some favorite authors whose books I will buy regardless of the review...I find it hard to trust a website where all the reviews are positive, and whose advertisers may be influencing the reviews. And there are some reviewers out there who only do positive reviews - I don't feel that I can trust them at all to tell me whether a book is any good or not.

Jody Allen:
So a reviewer who chooses only to write what she/he finds good, or sites who do likewise are suspect? Why? Is it wrong to promote what is good about romance? And this is really only balanced by showing the bad?

That logic is silly. Come on readers aren't that stupid. Nobody reviews all the books that come out so no site or reviewer is saying every book is good but there should be nothing wrong in promoting only what a reviewer or site feels is good in the industry.

I have been reading romances for over 30 years and although I do reviews, I don't need a review to make my purchases. Reviews are great for synopsis and for plot themes but as to what worked and didn't work is so subjective for that to be the determining factor in a purchase. But no one forces the reader to make a purchase, that is a personal choice and no one is to blame but the buyer, Why should purchasing books be any different than any othe purchase? You are giving reviewers way too much power in your life choices.

I review books I have enjoyed because I prefer to promote what is good (in my opinion) in romance and don't care to promote what is not good. I am not wasting my time on it. I save those comments for Amazon or B&N. So this makes me suspect as reviewer and a cheerleader for publisher/authors, and readers be damned. Hardly!

That is not to say my reviews don't discuss what didn't work but unlike what some here call "honest reviews" I can do that without insulting the reader, and author. A good review doesn't mean a book is recommended to buy. A good review is one where the work is discussed in a manner that doesn't insult. It has nothing to do with whether the reviewer recommends or doesn't.

Every reader needs to find a reviewer whose style and opinion they liken to their own, but that doesn't mean they have the right to condemn other reviewers or readers.

As to advertisers influencing reviews I can't think of a more blatant example of this but those site who are Amazon or B&N affiliates. Controversy always generates sales, and these site do get paid for these sales, so doesn't that make them suspect as well?

LLB: AAR is an amazon.com affiliate, but we include links to amazon.com on all our reviews, from those given grades of F to those granted Desert Isle Keeper status. Could we make oodles more money if we only gave positive reviews so that our commissions would increase? Of course, but we like to think our record stands for itself. Remember, this is the spread - over time - for our AAR Reviews:

A'sB'sC'sD'sF's
9%37%32%17%5%

Sharon W.:
I think most people understand promotional reviews vs opinion reviews and take them for what they're worth - if you want to know what a certain book is about, for instance, almost any review will do - if you want an opinion of the writing you come to a place like AAR where you will actually get opinions from those who read the book.

I do sometimes look at reader reviews at Amazon because I like to see what other people think, but who knows who is actually writing those reviews? What is bothersome to me is propaganda/promotion that is disguised as a review - that's a problem.

Martha:
I think intelligent readers will always be able to assess a site's advertisers (or lack thereof), along with the reviews, to create an info combination that helps them decide whether to buy a book.

And I, like most people, am able to understand that it's possible to have a site which benefits financially from some of its constituents, yet still posts balanced reviews.

As for "mainstream" vs. "cheerleading" reviews, a perfect review makes me suspicious. On the other hand, the romance genre primarily serves people who have an affinity for the soft emotions. So I find the more acerbic reviews to be discordant with the genre and I don't understand why people who like to read romance can stand them.

I prefer a review that is balanced, and which gives examples to illustrate both the criticisms and compliments, regardless of whether or not the site accepts advertising or has other financial relationships with authors.

Jane:
I tend to look at the review sites the same way I view movie review sources. If I'm an episode of the Rosie O'Donnell show and she has a guest on to tout a movie, I know that she will not be saying that she hated the movie. I've watched her enough to know that if she didn't like it, she doesn't say much of anything. That's because these guests are coming on to promote the movie, so I know to just pay enough attention to find out what the movie is about. If Rosie did like the movie she says so.

On the other hand if I watch Ebert and whoever he's currently reviewing with (I think his name is Roeper), I know that their reviews are not only more informative about the good and the bad, but are also more objective. They don't have the star of the movie sitting right there.

The parallel is in who they are serving. Rosie is providing entertainment and information for the consumer, but she's also providing a forum for the producers and artists. Ebert and Co. are serving the viewing public. It's the same with review sites or magazines. Sites that are set up as promotional vehicles may provide informational and entertaining reviews, are not going to be the most objective. They have to act as though the author is sitting right there. Sites that are reviewing solely for readers don't worry as much about the artists. Their concern is for the reader and their product is for the reader.

So as a visitor to the two different kinds of sites I have to try an figure out who the intended audience is. I have to be savvy and pay attention to what's going on throughout a site. I try to be savvy and always try to figure out the context of the reviews.

Lancene:
For purposes of argument I looked up the word "review" in Webster's New World Dictionary and was informed that, in this context, the word means: "a critical evaluation of a book, play, etc." If there is no critical evaluation in a review, it ceases to be a review and becomes either a synopsis or a promotion.

Why would anyone assume that readers of romance are less deserving of a "critical evaluation" of our reading material than are consumers of other types of literature or entertainment? What do "softer emotions" have to do with anything? I just want an honest opinion about a book's content before I waste time and money and I am enormously grateful that this site provides it. I don't always agree with the reviews here, but I always appreciate the effort that goes into them and the ability that is provided for feedback. I have no problem with the advertising as it now exists at this site - I'm just glad the site is here and anything that helps to facilitate its existence is all right with me.

More from Jody Allen:
You claim reviewers of romance are using the Pollyanna approach and we should be more biting in our criticism like reviewers of other genre' and I ask why? Do we have to lower ourselves by ripping apart an author's work, the author or call reader's stupid to get be taken seriously? Many reviewers and readers don't think so and if that is the kid glove approach, which I don't believe is the case it is, why does it appear to be a threat to AAR?

I find it an unfair comparison that when we write reviews that aren't laced with biting criticism then we are taken to task as being soft. Well I see my role as a reviewer to tell the reader what the story is about, minus spoilers which seems to be a growing problem in reviews, who the characters are, the tone of voice and or writing style, what did and didn't work for me as the reviewer. If I touch a like minded cord with another reader so be it.

I am finding it difficult to fathom why someone suspects my honesty and opinion of a book because I don't write biting reviews.

Lolly:
Where are these biting reviews? Where is all this nastiness? All this trashing of authors? Reviewers who accuse other reviewers of "personal attacks on authors" and "nastiness" are creating a myth, a monster in order to make their own soft-hearted (and, to me, soft-headed) "reviews" seem honest. You might be doing all this author-friendly reviewing out of the goodness of your hearts, but you're not doing readers any favors. And that's who reviews are for. Readers.

More from Jody Allen:
Well one of the classic nasties for me is right here on AAR when one reviewer ended her review by saying: "any reader who liked this book should have a designated driver for their intelligence." Yep reviews for the most part are for readers or those who are buying books such as bookstores and libraries but should their parting shot insult readers. Especially at a site who say the readers come first? I found this insulting because this statement told me little of what was wrong with this book in this person's opinion. This is the most biting one that comes to mind. One better have enough in the review to support such a nasty remark, but then I don't think readers need to be insulted to get one's point across. It is not what is said that but how it is said that bothers me. Others reviewing genre's like Science Fiction are that nasty. I think the focus should be the work that is reviewed not the so called writing talent of the reviewer.

LLB: This comes from the February 8 - 14 issue of The Dallas Observer and a review of the movie Silverman. Not only is it biting and nasty, it also insults anyone who would like the movie. My point? Our reviews may not be in a style everyone likes, but they are in a widely accepted mainstream style:

"...every movie Dugan releases looks like something made on accident...tosses yet another stink bomb into theaters for audiences to sniff over. It's as if Dugan exists in an alternate dimension, a Bizarro universe where Carrot Top and Yahoo Serious are box-office draws and Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and David Spade sit around the Algonquin Round Table tossing bon mots - when not passing gas...But the film's so mean-spirited and juvenile...Dugan and his screenwriters have tossed in enough sicko humor to satisfy the most stunted third-grader...." (emphasis added)

Jessie:
I've approached romance reviews both as a reader and as a writer who is still only hoping to someday (probably not for some time) be published. When I discovered romance novels in high school, at first I made weekly (at least) trips to the UBS. It didn't take me long - maybe a month? - to realize that quotes from Romantic Times were featured prominently on almost all the romance books! My mom and I joked about their lack of discrimination and placed no dependence on the blurbs that sang the praises of both authors we loved and those whose works we disliked.

Since I've gotten older and have learned more about the industry I've come to realize that publications like RT do, indeed, have a purpose. That purpose is to sell books and promote authors. It's kind of like (to continue the movie review parallels) that magazine Hollywood Raves (I think that's what it's called). No matter how badly a movie sucks, there's always a positive quote or two on the ads ("Jennifer Aniston shines!" usually with the name of the publication in too-tiny-to-read font). You can count on that quote having come from Hollywood Raves or one of its counterparts if the movie's bad. Why? Because Hollywood Raves is there for the convenience of the people who make and advertise the movies HR...um...reviews. Of course, if the movie gets a good review in the New York Times or Entertainment Weekly, the HR review is nowhere to be seen. The reason why is obvious: the HR reviews are meaningless and everyone knows it. The same thing applies with a good AAR review; usually if The Romance Reader or AAR have given a positive review then it's featured way more prominently than a RT review.

That being said, I'm not usually dissuaded by a review from reading a book that I was already intending to read anyway. I only check out reviews for books that I'm undecided about. That's where honest reviews come in handy. However, if an author I was already going to read gets a negative review, sometimes the points listed in that review can diminish my enjoyment of a novel that otherwise I might have liked without reservation. For instance, I read a review that complained of "head-hopping" in a book I had already read and liked. When I re-read the book, I was bugged by the head-hopping, which hadn't bothered me at all previously. So honesty can have its drawbacks as well! :D

Carol Maffitt:
1. Reviews: I do not find it a conflict to have reviews at commercial and author sites. However, I will take that into consideration when reading the review. As I generally only use a review as a guideline anyway, I will use a review from any source.

2. Advertising: I do not care if there is unobtrusive advertising at a site. If it is one I visit regularly, it soon becomes evident whether the advertising is affecting the content. Done properly, advertising is good for both sides; it informs the reader of books, etc. that are available and gives authors/publishers, etc. an added avenue of exposure.

3. Positive vs. Negative: I find a totally either a totally positive or totally negative review not much help. No book is perfect or totally unreadable for everyone. Thus, for a bad published book, someone who read it must have found something good about it. (I must admit, in a few that I have read, it might have only been the characters' names.) On the flip side, a very good book will not be to everyone's taste either. AAR does a good job with its reviews, trying to remember to be objective and state why the reviewer reacted to the book as they did.

Erin:
I think Romantic Times does readers a big disservice by pandering to authors and not writing a true review. I understand this is someoneís personal work but once its out on the market honest reviews need to prevail. You shouldn't be mean like say movie reviewers are, that is just not necessary and we should be beyond school yard talk. For the money I spend though I just want honesty, and even though I buy RT to find out what new books are out I do not take their opinion at all because I don't believe they are truly telling us what they think.

Barbara N. (responding to specific questions posted by LLB in her intro to the special message board):
(LLB: What do you make of the reviews at online bookstore sites? Do you give reviews at this site equal consideration to reviews at sites that are not in existence primarily to sell books?)

A general comment that the difference between critical review and bias is a tough one, but one way to lean toward critical review is to start by acknowledging at least 5 strengths of what you are reviewing.

So what do I make of them? They are one person's opinion. No less valid than any other person's. Are they biased? Maybe, as are many opinions. Are they worth consideration? Maybe, as are ... Are some sites overly enthusiastic? Absolutely. Are some sites unable to find the redeeming qualities because of reviewer bias? Absolutely.

(LLB: What do you make of the reviews at sites that are primarily author hosting/authors services sites? Is there an inherent conflict in their reviews?)

Alas, there is no perfect site. Is there conflict? Probably not, but there may be bias. It is up to the reader of the reviews to determine what bias the reviewer has and take the reviews with a grain of salt.

We accept marketing as a necessary evil in the U.S. today - down to the placement of products on end caps in the grocery store.

(LLB: When you visit a romance novel site, do you try to determine its overall purpose and mission?

Well, yes. Some are promotional vehicles, some are just fans who want to encourage romance reading.

(LLB: Is allowing the placement of author/publisher ads no different than would be if AAR hosted author sites? Is our providing links to amazon.com after each positive and negative review so that readers may order books and provide us a commission different than what online bookstores do?)

Splitting hairs. It only makes a difference if it is allowed to make a difference. Being aware you may be biased is the first step. There may also be times when a book is less than favorably reviewed because of reverse bias, and so Pandora's Box where the reviewers disagree is always more useful than single reviews. Some reviewers don't like long sex scenes, some nit-pick on historical accuracies, some dislike shorter works, some dislike fluff, some hate alphas, some hate misunderstandings (and all other cliches). These reviews are still honest but not unbiased.

(LLB: On AARlist over the weekend, I read a post that said that if a publisher bought a book, there must be something good in it, and therefore all reviews should reflect something positive. What do you make of that?)

I happen to agree. In the two professional things I judge for a living, the phrase is to virtue judge, not fault judge. Anyone can fault judge - find fault in something - but you must have a better knowledge of your subject for an ideal to exist and find the ways in which the subject meets that ideal. Alternately put, the absence of faults is not a virtue. The presence of virtues is a virtue.

(LLB: Who are reviews for - should they exist primarily to provide entertaining information for the reader, constructive criticism for the author, or both?)

Entertaining is nice but you can also go so far as to *be* the entertainment rather than forgetting the intent is to inform. The reader must be enticed to read the review, but the purpose of the review is to impart information.

I have phrased some comments about books as "I would have been happier with chapter 7 if we had experienced the fear more". But the book exists as it was written, a done deal. I have not been called to provide criticism on the work, I can only report what I wanted more or less of and what worked for me.

(LLB: Should reviewers not review books if they don't like them?)

A different question. Should reviewers not be able to find good and bad points on any book in print? Yes, I think the reviewer should tell me if they liked (or didn't like) the book, but I expect reviewers to separate personal opinions from critical appraisal. Even if they like the book and give it a A+, I want to know that transition between then/now was awkward - and if they give the book a F, tell me it might appeal to less sophisticated readers who like pregnant amnesiac rodeo brides who were beauty queens. And BTW, it was an innovative concept.

(LLB:Is the "line in the sand" between so-called "slice-and-dice-free" reviews and AAR/TRR style reviews something that wouldn't have arisen were romances not written for women by women?)

I took a different view, one of reader sophistication. readers have become more demanding in reviews - read the comments on what weaknesses are among some reviews/reviewers. But that works both ways - reviews are able to give less information, so I find some sites refreshing in telling me major plot points. Alternately, my sister, who reads an average of about 300 books a year, relies exclusively on author knowledge, back blurb, and promotional information. There is way too much sophistication is plot points in most reviews for her, and they get in the way of enjoying the book.

(LLB: Has the Romantic Times cheerleading-style of reviewing over the last 20 years made it impossible or nearly impossible for mainstream-style reviews to be accepted completely by romance readers?)

Hmmm, cheerleading style? I found it not to be true with regencies, categories, or mainstream. I found median historical about 10% above middle of the road, which means a slight adjustment would be made there. I found strong author bias. If cheerleading is inferred by just looking at historicals, there is a slight shift of center for those. If cheerleading is inferred because they find something positive to say about most books, okay. But they also are pretty honest about the failings about books that really needed a bit more work before being polished enough for a general audience.

You then presented excerpts from some mainstream reviews. These reviews I considered to be amusing and with a certain wit, but written more for a by-line and shock value than to furnish information...These reviews I would consider unprofessional.

LLB: The reviews quoted came from the following publications: Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and The Denver Post.

Deborah:
I've been reading romances for years. I buy Romantic Times for the list of upcoming books, not for any reviews of romance novels. I've found that for me their reviews aren't even very good synopses of what I'm interested in knowing before I buy a book written by an author not on my auto-buy list. I view the magazine entirely as a promotional vehicle.

When I first got online, I read discussions of books on the discussion list RRA-L, but what struck me as a group of wide-read, knowledgeable romance readers. I collected excellent recommendations about books I wouldn't have thought of trying, especially non-romance novels with strong romantic elements. After a while, I noticed that the readers' recommendations or reviews were less useful for me in the pure romance novel area because of the reactions of fans of some writers to any negative criticism. The writers themselves seemed on the whole much more rational. Because of that experience, I'm very jaded about fan websites as a source of recommendations or, frankly, honest discussion, about a romance author's work. I rarely visit them. I wouldn't rely on a fan site in deciding whether to spend my money on a book. They can be useful sources of information about the scheduling of upcoming books.

I remember discovering The Romance Reader with great delight. They got credibility with me by having a mix of reviews - one of the first I clearly remember was of For the Roses by Julie Garwood, a book by a previous auto-hardcover buy author that I'd been very disappointed by. The reviewer's rationale for her review mirrored my own. Not every reviewer either liked or disliked everything they reviewed. The reviews gave me enough of a synopsis to determine if the plot interested me and enough of a feel for the book to decide whether I would try the book and, if so, new or used. I never noticed whether they had advertising or not. I still visit the site regularly.

I regularly read the AAR Reviews here; the DIK reviews much less frequently. For me, the site has the same credibility as TRR because of the mix of reviews. I haven't found the advertising intrusive to the point that it ever caused me to doubt whether the review reflected the reviewer's honest views. It seems to me that you have a good wall between editorial and advertising. I like the message forum you have for comments on the reviews and the discussions that engenders. I don't rely on that forum or the DIK Reviews for my decisions on whether and how to purchase a book, but after I've read the book, I enjoy reading others' perspectives.

What I want from a review site is a synopsis (without spoilers) of a book and a sense of whether the book is worth purchasing in hardcover, worth purchasing as a new paperback, worth buying used, or not worth my time beyond reading the review. I like to know what's behind the reviewer's recommendation or lack thereof - Is this a type of book or an author she usually enjoys? Is the subject matter or time period something she avoids like the plague? Does she have pet peeves that this book hits? Are there quotes from the book that support any rants or raves? Does this reviewer like or hate everything she ever reviews? Is the review itself well-written, logically presented, and (a bonus) witty? All of those are bits of information that help me decide if the review itself should be information I consider in deciding whether to buy a book from an author not on my auto-buy list. (Silence from a reviewer isn't that helpful to me - it may be that she didn't like the book or it may be that she never read the book.)

Advertising I use as a source of information about when a book will be available and where I can find it. A well-done advertisement for a book may pique my interest into checking out a credible review site. If the editorial material on a website reads like promotion or advertising, I only give that editorial material the weight I would advertising. Reviews by those who view their role as promoting the industry or a particular writer are just another form of advertising to me.

Sarah W:
I've been an AAR semi-regular - meaning that I lurk often and post occasionally - for about 3 years now. It's thanks to AAR that my romance reading has broadened where I hope I am reading the best of the best and weeding out the mediocre and the truly bad.

What I really appreciate about being here at AAR is the level of discussion and discourse - here is where the idea that romance should be taken seriously is truly being acted upon, and not just paid lip service. Because if the genre is to be taken seriously, then reviews must reflect this accordingly - meaning that they are treated fairly and honestly and given the fairest grade. That isn't to say that there can't be variety among this credo - some of the "F" reviews teem with frustration and sarcasm while DIK reviews tend to reflect the excitement of the reviewer.

But it's comments like this one that get to me (another post to the board not identified by Sarah):

"Today stuff that's very biting can be extremely funny. But they are writing reviews for a broader audience than sites that are writing reviews for an audience that almost exclusively consists of romance readers."

So the standards that apply to a so-called "broader audience" suddenly don't apply to romance readers? Why would that be? It almost reeks of a "can't handle the truth" kind of idea, which is not only frustrating, but borderline insulting.

Because ultimately, this is about respect. If some sites only review books glowingly, why? What about the bad books, is it buyer beware? Same goes for those who "slice and dice." What's the agenda?

AAR's agenda, IMO, is to advance the cause of romance reading, and to apply the same standards of other genres to this one. I sure won't see this kind of discussion for my other great reading love, mystery, or even the not-so-long ago-derided SF/F. Why is romance any different?

And the only way that we're going to get respect from others is to have it for ourselves. We've got to treat romance like we would expect it to be treated by others - meaning fairness, honesty, constructive criticism, and frankly, holding off on a lot of the meaningless fluff (I mean, maybe it's me, but the whole concept of drooling over cover hunks mystifies me. Or turning it into a big spectacle at conventions. But that's another topic altogether.)

Tanya (responding to specific questions posted by LLB in her intro to the special message board):
As a former film critic, and someone who works at a large metro paper, let me give some facts. There is no special degree or certification to become a film critic. Our current primary film critic used to be a sports writer. A current art critic shares the duties. As for the book reviews, the editor is a published writer himself, but he has no special degree. Most film critics have a bachelor of arts, and possibly a masters degree. Yes, you can get one in film studies.

Let's look at some major names in film criticism. Roger Ebert was a former screenwriter who worked on the Russ Meyer camp-fest, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. If anyone's seen it, you'll know it ain't exactly Scorcese. When Gene Siskel died, the revolving replacements included Harry Knowles of Ain't it Cool News, a fan-based site. Harry has no training, he got into it as a fan. He is seen as a "rah rah" type of guy, but that didn't stop Ebert from asking him on the show. Others included one of the two reviewers for Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwartzbaum. Also included were some Internet critics, including one who used to be a publicist but has since become a staunch "take no prisoners" critic. In the end, who did Ebert choose to replace Siskel? Richard Roeper, a features writer at a Chicago paper. What were his credentials in film? Not many, and he's been picked apart in the press for them - but that's the press. They eat their own sometimes.

What I'm trying to say is this - anyone can become a film, book or record critic. It happens all the time, esp. now with the proliferation of the Internet. I'm not trying to say "just anyone" is qualified, but it's essentially a matter of your professional record as a writer who's worked your way up the chain that gets you the big break to write or be in broadcasting. A good, working knowledge of film separates a so-so critic from a more informed one; this works the same for any field of art. If a critic knows, say, what a connecting shot, or a master shot is, he has more to offer the devoted cineaste than, "I laughed, I cried, Jim Carrey is the Grinch!"

Others in the biz call that type of statement "quote whoring," and it's true some critics at small broadcast outlets do this just to get the notice. I'm sure many may have seen a parody of this on SNL.

But, some people like that type of review. Is it because they're the lowest common denominator and not "in the know?" No, it just means different people look for different things, and there's something out there for everyone.

Now, for some specific points:

(LLB's question: There is an argument that if a publisher bought a book, there must be something good in it, and therefore all reviews should reflect something positive. What do you make of that?)

If any kind of distributor buys a work of art, it's because they think they can sell it, not necessarily b/c there's something good in it. Do the two converge? Sometimes, yes.

(LLB's question: Should reviewers not review books if they don't like them? Is the "line in the sand" between so-called "slice-and-dice-free" reviews and AAR/TRR style reviews something that wouldn't have arisen were romances not written for women by women?)

Reviews are for people who want to read them. You know who you are, I know who I am. Can there be all different kinds of reviews? Certainly, and I think I've shown above how this goes on in film reviews all the time. I think if ___ and whoever else want to only present positive reviews, that's certainly their right. It might be a good idea for them to have a disclaimer, something along the lines of "We do not believe in publishing reviews for books we don't recommend, therefore, you will only see books that rate on a grading scale of B or higher."

I think I'm the kind of person who can go to a sight and figure out there mission statement by reading their content. But for others, this might be helpful.

(LLB's question: Is our providing links to amazon.com after each positive and negative review so that readers may order books and provide us a commission different than what online bookstores do?)

If a site is an author hosting site, again, I think it would be obvious to visitors of the site, if not, that disclaimer would be a good clue. Let me state I have absolutely NO problem with sites who do this. It's a great help to some writers, I'm sure, who don't have the time to do a bunch of html programming to promote their books.

Accepting a banner ad (which is what keeps most sites in business) is different than hosting a writer. The question was raised about newspapers/magazine who do this. In a recent issue of Editor and Publisher, there was a super article on this very topic. These ads are considered the "bread and butter" of many a weekend newspaper section. But they are steadily being crunched out by MovieFone and online ads. That's a different topic, but papers and periodicals do run movie/book ads and negative reviews because the advertising and editorial depts. are separate.

I think more of a question is: what happens when writers visit a site like this? What separates AAR and TRR (which I like a great deal, except for their infrequent updates - compared to here) is that AAR has open boards that any writer can freely access. I would say 99% of the time, writers are gracious whether receiving praise or criticism. The "give your opinions and feelings on the books" here is a good thing, as long as it doesn't cross the line into attacks, flaming or profanity. Which it rarely does. Let's face it, on a open forum, there are always going to be some bad apples. My policy is to ignore petty squabbles, and let them flame out.

Just as the cognizant site visitor should be able to understand the policies of a writer-hosting site and abide by them, the same should go for authors who visit an open forum. It's simple logic. Know what you're getting into before you enter! Let me give an example: while attending a film festival two years ago, an Oscar-nominated British thespian was presenting his first film as a director. There was to be an open Q&A afterwards. Many in the audience were film students and cineastes who had no problem saying what they thought. After the film had screened, he got some serious criticism from the crowd. But he answered all their questions thoughtfully, and handled it like a gentleman ( he let loose in the free drink tent, but that's another story :-)). There was no, "You don't know what you're talking about, wanker!" He said "This is what I made, these are the decisions I made re: cinematography, plot, etc. Those are my reasons. If you didn't like it, I'm sorry, but I made the only film I could."

Do I like every review here at AAR? No. Do some writers occasionally write things that strike me as "clever for cleverís sake?" Once or twice. I've learned to follow my own mind on what books I purchase. I read so many critics per week, but in the end, I read them for information, entertainment, and a different perspective than my own. When the day ends, I will buy a book or attend a film because I want to. Not because of anyone's opinion.

I can only hope I've put across my preference for the school of entertaining reviews.

Martha:
If I want information about a book, I read a review. If I want to be entertained, I read the book.

Holly:
In my case, I'd say: "If I want information about a book, I read Romantic Times. If I want to be entertained, I read AAR."

AAR IS entertaining because reviews here are generally honest. To clarify, Honesty is entertaining, and a press release disguising as a review is not.

It's just that the majority of romance readers, in general, don't have much money to throw about. The question is: Is it a moral thing to push a bad book to avoid pissing its author off to those who really can't afford to buy books?

With this in mind, we deserve a balanced and honest review of every romance novel. If a site that hosts author websites can separate its reviews from advertising, I'll become a regular visitor. I know some authors, publishers and advertising managers make this impossible. It's a no-win situation, I feel.

Carla:
Every review site has different policies, practices and presentations in their reviews. Some of the examples you offer are of movies which is a whole different ball of wax from romance novels. As a reviewer for Romance Reviews Today and a member of Reviewers International Organization I still conform to the idea that constructive criticism is the best way to put forth what doesn't work for me in any particular novel. I see no need of being nasty - there is enough nastiness in the world, IMO. However, that is a moot point because it appears to me that some reviewers simply get their jollies off by being less than discreet in their reviews. *shrug*

And, yes, I agree that if a publisher chose to buy an author's work, there must be something positive about it - somewhere. I've read real wall-bangers, too, but most of those books would have soared with better editing or critiquing. Take into consideration just how much hard work goes into writing a full length novel and the whole publication process that follows. Would you want to hear that your book is junk? I'd rather hear exactly what didn't work for a reader and expound upon that in the next offering.

Jennifer H:
A book wouldn't be published if it wasn't good? Get over it. A book wouldn't be published if it didn't have a chance of selling. And if no one speaks out clearly and intelligently, we're going to keep getting the same old trash. And we need honest, informed, intelligent reviewers to tell us when it's trash, and why, because we, as readers, can't know what's in the book until we've read it, and unfortunately that means we've already bought it.

Cheryl S.:
When I first began reading romance and looking for romance information on the web, I looked to Romantic Times, simply because of name recognition; I had never read the magazine, but knew the name. It didn't take me very long at all to find that they had never met a book they didn't like and to realize that its value to me as a reader was zero.

I found The Romance Reader and later All About Romance through links at an author's site (I don't recall which one) and was thrilled to find a wealth of information and reviews. After RT, it was refreshing to find a place that came right out and said "don't waste your time on this book." I sometimes did anyway depending on the author, story line, etc, and sometimes agreed with their assessment and sometimes not. But how nice to encounter differences of opinion, someplace that could tell me what was wrong with a book as well as what was right, so I could make an informed decision, instead of the "every romance novel is wonderful, so just buy it review" at RT.

AAR remains my favorite romance site for its depth of information beyond the reviews, its large and varied review staff and the energetic discussion boards. I enjoy my participation here immensely.

I have since visited most every romance site around, all those mentioned here so far and more, and it quickly becomes clear who operates the sites and for what purpose. Along with AAR, I daily visit a site which hosts author websites, The Romance Journal, which also reviews and has discussion boards. I don't find the reviews there particularly helpful, as there are so few of them and not necessarily the books I am interested in, though they are well-written, but I find the posters there very romance savvy and knowledgeable readers of the genre.

I also regularly visit a pure "rah-rah-fansite", the Avon Ladies Board. Several of my favorite authors are there, I like all the info on upcoming releases and the ladies are just a plain stone hoot.

I do not post on these two boards though. Why not? I'm not sure. I think partly because I don't see myself as a gushy fan (as are the majority of non-author posters at AL - though I am certainly able to gush and have been known to do so at length in private email to an author!) And while I enjoy the discussions at TRJ, I see it as being a bit clubby, and would feel as if I was barging into someone's living room if I posted there. Don't get me wrong, AAR is certainly very clubby, several posters here seem to spend a good deal of time talking only to each other, but I must have started posting here before I noticed that. ;-)

What this all boils down to Laurie, is that I visit and enjoy all types of romance sites, as, I would guess, do most romance fans. I am able to see each site for what it is, what its purpose and agenda is, and to evaluate its content accordingly. I think that perhaps you give the readers too little credit. We don't necessarily need to be warned about a site's ethics or standards; they become all too apparent with acquaintance. I think it a bit patronizing to assume we don't recognize it without it being pointed out to us.

There are all kinds of sites with varying degrees of "objectivity." Ultimately they will succeed or fail depending how well they meet their customers' needs and expectations.

Jeri:
As a reader and a sometime reviewer.

I find the customer reviews at amazon and B&N totally meaningless. I think you're too likely to get extremes, because it has to be written by someone really motivated to write a review. Also, having read some in the past, I have had books spoiled by people who gave too much away.

I visit three sites on a regular basis for reviews - I have them book marked - TRR, AAR and TRJ (where I also write reviews). I don't care where any of their revenue comes from - I know people need money to run these sites and services.

On one hand, I feel it's a case of 'caveat emptor' - let the buyer beware. Judge each site or each review on it's own merits and let that guide you in where you go to gather your data about books you would like to read.

On the other hand, in reality, there is no buyer! It's also helpful to remember that we we are not paying for anything here! These reviews are provided to us free of charge. They are a lovely tool we can use - but we are all responsible for making our own decisions, we cannot hold AAR or TRR or RT or TRJ responsible for any of the purchases we make.

I read reviews to get a sense of whether or not the book is one I would be interested in reading. I don't need to be entertained. I don't want to read only good things. I would rather a reviewer give me the synopsis and then tell me what was good and/or bad and why. I have read and enjoyed many reviews that were very witty and entertaining and have often envied those reviewers their abilities! Entertaining is good. I am bothered by reviews that are mean-spirited, whether or not they are amusing. I think the industry is better served by constructive criticism than by mean-spiritedness which is supposed to be funny.

I appreciate all of the sites that post reviews. I do spend a lot of money on books - more than I should! and it's helpful to me to get a sense of what a book is about, to know if I might be interested in reading it.

I don't go to RT for reviews, because my experience is that they are not helpful in giving me enough of the info I want. I rarely pay attention to ratings systems because they are so subjective. I'm more interested in a good synopsis, without spoilers.

Tammy:
I read reviews at several sites. I am more interested in finding a little more info that I would on a back blurb. Grading systems aren't real important to me, except for maybe curiosity on the reviewers thoughts. For as many reviews as I read, I can honestly say that I am not really influenced by how they rave or rant about a book.

I'm more influenced by other readers. Especially those on the boards that show the same tastes as I do.

As for ethics - the sites cost money to run. If the owners cover some of those costs by hosting authors rather than charging me to visit, that's fine by me. I think it's unfair to assume that they are being unethical without some major proof.

If they are being unethical and giving undeserved ra-ra reviews, it will eventually come back and bite them in the butt. The readers are smart. We talk. We share likes and dislikes. We'll figure out that even though a majority of readers think author A's books are horrible, reviewer/owner B will always give them 10 stars. We'll begin to disregard both the reviewer and the author and they will both lose out. Does that make sense?

Jill:
The impression I am receiving is that the ethics is in the eye of the beholder and an individual should be able to behave as he/she will and *gasp* how dare anyone voice and issue with any person's behavior.

Well, this is the real world folks and professional ethics is key. It is necessary to address what is acceptable conduct and it is critical to any profession is such profession is to obtain a modicum of respect.

Rules and Standards exist irrespective whether they have been codified on paper.

I keep reading the justification that since there is no written rules, no law so to speak, that anyone can do what they want and no one should question it.

It does not work that way in the real world. Mainstream reviewers and publicists do not have a set of written rules. But they have industry standards. These standards are unwritten yet are followed. Yes there are gray areas (heck, there are gray areas in the ABA rules of professional conduct...in all rules and laws...it is why we have administrative agencies and courts) and these areas get addressed when they arise.

You think industry standards don't matter because they are "not law and not written down"? Precedent says absolutely that industry standards matter irrespective whether there is a written rule someone. Example: case taught in every 1st year contracts law course. Seller sells Buyer stewing chickens instead of some other kind of chicken (don't remember what kind). Order asked for x number of chickens and didn't address type of chickens and Seller complied with order but sold stewing chickens. Buyer needless to say strongly objected. Case goes to court. Court says industry standards controlled here. Industry standards made it clear what type of chickens the Buyer was seeking. These standards were not written anywhere but industry standards prevail.

So let's end the BS of "no law was broken" "no rule is written" because it does not pass muster.

If we want the romance industry to be respected...then we can't be rogues making our own rules that suit our own purposes and must rely on behaving in accordance with industry standards...those oral, unwritten pesky rules and professional ethics that exist for the print industry.

Unless of course you aren't concerned about the romance industry being considered legitimate, credible and respected, industry standards must be addressed and followed.

That really is the bottom line.

LynnO:
I don't have a huge problem with conflict of interest, or advertising or such since its pretty apparent to me fairly quick on what the flavor of a site is. I have absolutely no problem with author and what are basically fan, vanity or fawning sites, as long as they don't stand and loudly protest how independent they are. However, I do not like when authors take over a site that isn't theirs and stifle free exchange of thought or criticism.

I think there is a place for both kinds of sites. For example, I might post some very negative thoughts on a AAR bulletin board about an avon book, but it wouldn't be appropriate for me to go to the avon site and do the same thing.

But this whole thing about the evil of criticism is absurd, and pardon me for saying so, such a girly girl thing. I'm a woman, I am not a woman who "likes men better," nor do I think women need to do things the same way as men. But it irritates me to no end when I watch women do the emotional manipulation thing to stifle any honest negative discussion.

I personally don't feel the romance professional will ever be respected until we as romance buyers respect it ourselves. So many readers are embarrassed to be seen with a romance novel. Also until authors start acting in a professional manner, it won't change either. When I get criticized at work, by my boss or a client, I wouldn't be respected if I had every coworker who I was friends with, try to step in and stop all discussion of the criticism, nor would I get very far if I stamped my feet and had a tantrum every time I was criticized.

For example, AARList is pretty much been neutered by 4 or 5 very vocal authors. Any time anything negative is said, they pipe in with their opinions and basically stifle all conversation. In fact one author, whose next harlequin duet I had planned on buying turned me off to her books forever, on the AARlist a few days ago. Someone had posted some purple prose as an example, and she, in a swoon, had to sign off, she's so busy, and my oh my look at someone posted parts of a book, just to make fun of it. Now I read the post, the poster was showing a written example of purple prose. Was her comment, oh what a hoot, no it was, I'm not sure I can read this old book, and look at this example of what we are hoping we've moved away from.

I also think authors should keep their egos in check, and not counter someone's opinion of their book. Its so arrogant, and again is just a technique to stifle any criticism. (I know, I sometimes use this technique with my husband, but at least deep down, afterwards, I acknowledge to myself that it is pure manipulation.)

In closing, my opinion is, the never ending discussion about romance novel reviews should only be nice, is a pure, absolute manipulation thing. Romance novels will never be taken seriously until authors start acting like professionals and stop all this "oh you awful person, you've hurt my feelings B.S.". Itís a book, get over yourself.

And as a final rant, just because something is published doesn't mean a darn thing. Just because an editor thought it was good enough.... Do we not have discriminating brains of our own. And just because you are a published author doesn't mean squat. If the reviewers and readers weren't the consumer of your product, that would be a different story. And in the end, you without consumers, you don't have a book.

Whew, glad to get that off my chest.

April:
If the real issue is that some consider reviews that are not "tainted" by advertising or any other corrupting capitalistic influence to be more valid than those that appear on sites or in print where there is none, please consider this; no review is written without some sort of influence. I mean, is there a reviewer alive that can totally wipe the slate clean in their mind and come to a book review without any sort of prejudice or partiality? I am not insinuating that the reviewers on AAR are not totally professional, in fact, I am always struck by the intelligence and insight of these women, and have come to trust their views. I am just saying that they are human. You say yourself, Laurie, that reviews are but one person's opinion. In a nutshell, my point is that there is no such thing as total impartiality in my mind. And that is OK. Advertising does not reduce the validity of your reviews on AAR. It is the quality of the staff that matters. I visit all the sites mentioned in this discussion and find some worth in all of them.

More from Mrs. Giggles:
I'm not going to bother about picking on fan sites anymore. They exist to promote authors, and just that. There's no pretension in a site like ___or ___, which make no pretension on its raison d'etre - promote an author.

The line blurs and things become more objectionable when a fan site starts making claims of impartiality when it clearly isn't. Romantic Times is a sticking point because it is clearly an author's press kit marketed as a "comprehensive romance magazine" - it's not, it just wants the reader's and author's $$$$.

I think fan sites and serious ezines can coexist with each other, *provided* both parties acknowledge the differences between each other. Frankly, both sides, myself included, should stop judging each other by their own standards. It's like a Kevin Sorbo fan site judging a Mr Showbiz website by its standards ("Why can't that website be like us?") and vice versa - doesn't make much sense when I think of it.

Can we have some discussion back? I want to know, for instance, the effects on readers these fan sites versus serious ezines. Someone said that a reader should be able to tell the difference, but trust me, speaking from experience, a newbie wouldn't know how to for months until she experiences both type of sites. And romance readers aren't the usually adventurous sort when it comes to websurfing. Find one site, stick to it. So what's it for readers?

Is it fair for an author to expect a reviewer to consider her feelings in a review writing process? Is it even "right" for an author to come onboard and say how a review should be done, even if they are doing it as a reader? Or should a clear thick black line be drawn between readers and authors when it comes to book reviews? (ie an author can bring it up with the reviewer, but no campaigning for 'fairer' reviews?) How much right does an author have when it comes to reviews of her books? To be heard only?

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