Our raison d’etre

I got what I’d politely call a very confrontational e-mail from an author last week. She writes for a smaller press (electronic and POD), and referred to herself as an “independent author.”  The gist of her e-mail was that AAR unfairly discriminates against “independent authors.”

Now, I’m not new to this job; I’ve been doing it for over a decade now. I learned long ago that there’s no way to please everyone. In fact, there are some days when I feel like I can’t please anyone (reviewers, readers, authors, publishers). But this particular e-mail made me realize that perhaps some clarification was in order.

1. We make decisions with readers in mind. Advertising and Amazon commissions pay the bills, but we review books for readers. It’s reader interest that I keep in mind when I make book assignments, and when I prioritize books for review. In that sense, it’s never going to be “fair.”  “Fair” would mean I lined books up in a row, without regard to author or publisher, and randomly jabbed them with a hatpin. Then assigned them on that basis. Which, as you can imagine, would make our site completely irrelevant. Fair or unfair, Lisa Kleypas and Nora Roberts are going to get preferential treatment over a self-published author you’ve never heard of.

2. We love to promote great new books, but that’s not our job…at least not exactly. Believe us, when we read a great book, we want to shout it from the rooftops. I remember when Anne Marble wrote that DIK review of Adele Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline.  At the time, the only print game in town had completely ignored it (and then later gave it a half-hearted review).  There’s no question in my mind that Anne helped put Adele on people’s radar. Because AAR has become something of an institution – and because there are plenty of honest bloggers out there offering opinions – I think it can be easy to forget that candid reviews used to be much harder to come by.  I’ve had plenty of my own promotional zeal at times.  But our job is really reviewing, not promotion.  Our goal in reviewing a book is to help the reader decide whether it’s worth buying…whether we liked it or not.  I’ve had people tell me they rushed right out and bought something that I’ve recommended.  I’ve also had them tell me they rushed out and bought something I hated, or not bought something I loved because they could tell they wouldn’t love it.  I’m fine with all those reactions.

So you may wonder, how do we prioritize?  First of all, reviewers choose their own books from a list of what’s available. So their interest has a lot to do with it.  But the list itself is prioritized (because, as I said, more people are going to want to know about Lisa Kleypas’s latest than the newest book by a self-published author they’ve never heard of).  Top priority is given to romances by major publishers.  Then, as time and interest allows, we review women’s fiction (or books with romantic elements that aren’t straight romances), romances published by smaller presses, chick lit, mysteries, etc.  When you see reviews for books that are not romances, it’s often because the reviewer read it on her own time and wrote up the review as a bit of a bonus – it’s not a zero sum game where reviewing a YA book means forgoing a mainstream romance.

And I’ll tell you something I told the “independent author” of the e-mail: Authors are published independently (meaning not by a major publisher) for two reasons. The first is that they have written a niche book that mainstream publishers do not deem marketable.  It may be brilliant, but it’s not something that has a wide appeal.  The second reason is that their work isn’t really ready for prime time.  Every independent author thinks her book belongs in the first category.  A few of them are right, but a lot of them aren’t.  It’s wonderful to find a gem out there, published by a smaller press.  Unfortunately, we’re never going to have the manpower to read them all.  What we can do, however, is keep our ear to the ground.  We try to find books that people are talking about, books the grab our interest – while making sure that we still review the Lisa Kleypases and Nora Robertses of the world.

We do this because we love it – and we also do it for free.  All of us have jobs, families, and other demands on our time. We review for AAR for the sheer love of it.  Free books are great, it’s true.  But there have been quite a few over the years that felt very much like work.  We read them so you won’t have to.  Because I’ve been at this a long time, I’ve seen people come and go.  I have a good idea of how much dedication it takes to do this year in and year out (a lot).  We do it because we love it, because it’s worth it, and because we think providing honest reviews is important (even if, as we so often say, it isn’t rocket science).

–Blythe Barnhill

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31 Responses to Our raison d’etre

  1. elainec says:

    Hi Blythe,
    Your article was very illuminating. The AAR reviews are one of my first daily stops on the Internet, but I just discovered it about four years ago. I’ve often wondered how you chose the books you review. I enjoy the reviews even when I don’t agree with them. I read very few contemporaries and no vampire books, so even though those get reviewed because they are popular, I don’t run out and buy them. I love historicals and always read those reviews. AAR has introduced me to two fabulous writers this year alone – Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran. I went out to buy all their books and loved them. Different books resonate with different readers. I love bright women and tortured heroes. I like it when the principals can overcome their families, backgrounds, poverty, etc. and help each other grow and love. It’s that hope for people that keeps me reading lots of books. I also like that 100 – 800 year buffer that historicals give me from the pain so many characters bear.
    Keep up the good work. Many readers appreciate your efforts.

  2. Cindy W says:

    I always wondered too, great info. I also stop here first thing in the morning. I want to know the reviews of the new releases and soon to be released book, I’m all for trying new authors, but I’d rather my curiosity filled on the ones I already have on my radar, before I’m focused on adding new ones!

  3. Tee says:

    I wish I could think of something clever to say in response to your article, Blythe; but I can’t. You said it all and you said it well.

  4. katie bug says:

    When I discovered AAR it opened up a whole new world for me. I also check it first thing in the morning. However you’re doing it just please keep on doing it!!

  5. Renee says:

    Hi, Blythe,

    Great article. I, too, have wondered how you make your book review selections. One question I had, though, was how a small, niche publisher gets on your radar screen if they want to get their books reviewed or if their books fall in a certain category (for example, interracial romances)? I know as a reader, I often rely on Amazon to direct me to books that have certain elements that I am interested in and then make a decision to purchase based on other reader comments/blogs. And sometimes have been disappointed for just the reason you mentioned that the writer was not ready for primetime. However, I do appreciate AAR because it has exposed me to some books and authors that I would have potentially missed.

  6. MarissaB says:

    Blythe, thanks so much for the info. It was very illuminating.

    I, too, check AAR everyday. With all the books out there, it just isn’t possible to buy/read them all, so a review really helps to narrow down the field. I’d rather spend my time reading a book I would probably enjoy.

    That said, I sometimes read an independent author that has tweaked my curiosity. I am sorry to say that it is really hit or miss with this group, as a lot of them have to work more on their craft. If I like what I have read, I sometimes encourage the author to request a review from AAR, trusting that any criticism or praise earned would help them write better. I hesitate to give a review myself because I don’t analyze/articulate as well as you. Should I stop pointing them to AAR?

  7. xina says:

    Well, you know what they say about not being able to please everyone. Reviewers can only do so much. That author may want to make friends with a review blog. They seem to take authors under their wing and promote more than a huge message board like AAR. There’s also Twitter, Facebook. AAR isn’t the only game in town for independent authors.

  8. MaryK says:

    Brava, Blythe!

  9. Lee says:

    I think AAR does a great job – I’ve seen other genres reviewed here that I never would have tried otherwise, since my preference is historicals. I do remember looking at old reviews, however, that seem to have been submitted by readers, not staff reviewers. Is that still done? Or is that now considered not professional enough? Or is it just making more work for the editors to read? I was just thinking that that might be a way to highlight interesting new authors that a reader wanted to share without overburdening your already hardworking staff.

  10. Tinabelle says:

    Thanks for the informative article, Blythe. I have always wondered, too, how books are chosen for review. Count me amongst the group that visits daily and sometimes more often. While I read more historicals than anything else, I do read other subgenres within romance and also outside the genre. I so appreciate the diversity of books reviewed here and like to keep up with what is going on in the world of romance whether I read that subgenre or not. Like others, I would be lost without you. Keep up the good work and thank the staff for all for your time and dedication to romance.

  11. msaggie says:

    Blythe, thanks for the illuminating post on how reviews are allocated to the various reviewers (they aren’t really – reviewers choose!) I have been a regular at AAR for over 10 years, since Laurie left The Romance Reader and informed us all online that she was starting AAR. I am online most of the waking day, and check in at AAR at least twice a day (morning at breakfast, and evening after work), and of all the very many review sites and blogs on romance novels which exist nowadays (compared to 10 years ago), I think AAR is still the best for community, reviews, and forums. You can’t be all things to all people – but you cover the most important things for most people, and I am so glad that you all have carried with AAR on after Laurie left. I think you have been exceedingly gracious to air it all out like this – I can think of some other romance review sites which would have been more pungent.

  12. There are many more reasons for writing for a smaller publisher these days, not just the two you mention.
    I do read the review section regularly, and enjoy it, but I find the range of books reviewed increasingly limited, and it doesn’t really reflect some of the genres I like to read. I really would love to read reviews of some of the limited niche categories you mention.

  13. Wendy says:

    Great article, thanks for the info. I really pick the books that I buy based on your reviews. I think it is a wonderful service that you are providing and I check the site everyday. I’ve found great new authors and known when to bypass some that I might have wasted my $ on. I’m also impressed with the quality of the reviews, I am not a writer myself and am always surprised by the depth of the reviews and the insights. Keep up the great work.

  14. Lynn Spencer says:

    Just to clarify our policy since some have mentioned it in the comments, we do accept and review books from small presses. You’ll find a number of reviews from various small presses here on the website, and we’ve loved some of the authors we’ve discovered there. However, we simply don’t have the resources to review the large number of self-published/vanity press books that are out there.

  15. Blythe says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments and support. To answer a few questions:

    @Renee – the typical way smaller presses (or their authors) get in contact with us is e-mailing and sending books. Some of them catch our eye (and to be fair, some don’t). But sometimes we’ll also hear about them because our readers found them first.

    @MarissaB – we’re always happy to have smaller press authors sent our way. We just can’t guarantee a review.

    @Lee – the older reader reviews are all (to my knowledge, anyway) DIK reviews. Those that aren’t DIK reviews (but are from reviewer names you might not recognize) are likely from reviewers that lasted a short time. We do still take reader DIK reviews, but we don’t get many submissions.

    @Lynne Connolly – My two reasons were definitely a simplification. I can think of others myself (including the desire for more creative control). But IMHO, those are the two MAIN reasons, even though they aren’t the only ones.

    Thanks, everybody!

  16. Susan says:

    Thanks for clarifying that it was a simplication.

    It’s tough out there in publishing, an extremely crowded field in the best of times, and given the economy, virtually no one will be doing any hiring if they can’t also back up a new talent they’ve discovered with a marketing plan from Heaven above. There’s just too much “noise” out there even within the romance genre, and plenty of known authors have put out the odd piece of crap. The type of book that makes you wonder what on earth they’re doing even when they’re seasoned vets. Case in point, the last two In Death books where the supporting players were so minimized in importance that it made me think that they were published just to meet consumer demand regardless of whether the story was halfway decent. I only hope Nora doesn’t go for three and four when the new book and short story come out next month.

    But yes, plenty of authors do write something that will have a limited audience, and they’ll have a more difficult time not only getting published but making any kind of living through their books.

  17. Elaine S says:

    Blythe – a very thoughtful and honest statement and I agree with you almost completely. I did wonder, though, if perhaps having a message board devoted specifically to members sharing “look at what I’ve found” books would help? If we had a board where people could post a synopsis and comment on an “independent” type of book or author, then AAR members and visitors could make their own decisions about pursuing matters further. AAR staff reviewers would not need to be involved in reading or reviewing these books and could concentrate on the more mainstream titles as you do now. Such a board would not necessarily need to be limited exclusively DIK reader reviews. It might be that a few “buried treasurers” would be identified and hopefully it would mean you don’t get any more confrontational emails.

  18. Renee says:


    I think your idea about an area where comments could be posted regarding an “independent” type of book or author is an excellent one.

  19. Blythe says:

    I think it’s a fine idea to post about independent books that you’ve loved…but I don’t really see the need for a special message board. Any discussion of books fits nicely on the “Let’s Talk Romance” forum.

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  21. Ari Thatcher says:

    While I appreciate that more people are going to want to know about an author whose been in print for twenty years or more, I also recognize that that author’s fans are likely to buy her books regardless of review.

    By limiting the number of small-press books you allow your reviewers, and thus your readers, access to, you are hurting your readers. There are some amazing authors out there who have chosen to not go the route of NY publishers, or publish through both NY and small press.

    There are a multitude of reasons an author chooses small press, and you’ve missed some of the bigger ones. A novel from a NY print house will be on the shelves in your major bookstores for approximately six weeks. Anything not sold is then returned. A reader has to hunt to find a copy after that, or order from Amazon and the like.

    At a small press, that book will continue to be available, continue to be read by readers who discover the author ten years down the road. No more missing the first book or two in a series because you hadn’t discovered the author yet.

    Also, NY houses are leery about taking on new authors regardless of how good they are. Or they sign a single-book contract and drop the author because of low sales. Low sales because the marketing money wasn’t there to allow readers to hear about the author in the six-week span her books were on the shelf. Because a review site chose to pass on her books, or put them lower in the reading pool because people would rather hear about Nora Roberts, perhaps?

    Sales at the major small-press publishers are good, so many authors who got tired of jumping through hoops with NY houses have chosen to sell future manuscripts to their small-press publishers. Let’s face it, we write because we love it, and have to let these characters out of our heads, but most of us would love to make a living at it. In a time where NY publishers are afraid to take on unknown entities, we are lucky to have readers who recognize a good book regardless of the publisher.

    You are missing out on some great books, and cheating your readers of the opportunity to discover new authors. Isn’t the purpose of a review site to review all that is available? Tell us you’re disappointed if the author let you down, but don’t judge our books by the publishing house on the cover. Assuming we’ve chosen our path because we couldn’t make it in NY is like saying “He’s only a TV actor, he’s never been on Broadway.” Thank goodness we’ve grown beyond that mentality.

  22. MaryK says:

    Ari Thatcher: At a small press, that book will continue to be available, continue to be read by readers who discover the author ten years down the road. No more missing the first book or two in a series because you hadn’t discovered the author yet.

    If that’s the case, perhaps you can tell me where I can purchase a copy of Greenwood by Sue Wilson.

  23. Baycat57 says:

    Funny the timing on reading this, a friend of mine who is one of those ‘independent authors’ sent me an e-mail after being dismissed by a family member for not being a ‘real’ author. It’s her first published work and she was incredibly hurt by the comments.

    A little knowledge being a dangerous thing, I pointed out to her that Stephen King got his start in soft porn and off mainstream publishers, and so did many other popular authors. Most people believe he’s a pretty good writer. I still know a great many people who believe that Harlequin/Silhouette is not a real publisher, and the people who right for them are not real authors.

    With fewer outlets for struggling authors outside of the ‘mainstream’ publishers – how many magazines offer short stories any more? – these outlets give good authors the ability to offer their work to the public, without having to offer a guarantee of a million sales.

    I know that my friend certainly went through a stringent editing process before she was taken, and then accepted. Already she’s achieved sales some Harlequin authors might envy.

    Given how much the ‘real’ publishing industry is struggling (and even more so now thanks to Walmart and its price war) on line publishing may be the only real outlet available to any author.

    It was unkind to suggest that any of these people had less than satisfactory work and that’s why they went to alternative presses. As a fan of Nora Roberts, and of many of these alternative authors, I can say that many of them have just as good skills. And Duma Key was a darn good read, too. So are the works of many of the ‘off-print’ authors I’ve read.

  24. Could you define what you mean by “independent”? Do you mean someone who is self-published where they paid to have their work printed? Or are you lumping anyone publishing with a non-traditional not-NY publisher into this category?

    If the former, I would say there are some self-published books that are good, but I can understand the hesitation you seem to feel to feature these books. After all this book is unlikely to have been reviewed by an editor and the author is not being paid for their work. They are paying to have their work printed. Still, you may be missing some real gems by ignoring these books.

    If the later, I would take have to respectfully disagree. Small press publishers like Ellora’s Cave, The Wild Rose Press, Loose-Id and Samhain (and others) have reputations for turning out excellent books. Many authors which started out with some of these publishers are now NY times bestselling authors. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

    You say: “Authors are published independently (meaning not by a major publisher) for two reasons. The first is that they have written a niche book that mainstream publishers do not deem marketable. It may be brilliant, but it’s not something that has a wide appeal. The second reason is that their work isn’t really ready for prime time.”

    EC’s web site says they currently accept only 4% of unsolicited submissions and that they have average sales in excess of 70,000 e-books per month. You know – I don’t think they’d have those kinds of sales if they didn’t have readers who loved this particular market niche and NY publishers have embraced erotic romance AFTER EC did so well with the genre. In addition, I think if authors make the cut there (being among the 4% of unsolicited books accepted) they’re ready for prime time.

    So, I’d appreciate a clarification of how you define “independent.”


  25. Lynn Spencer says:

    @Francesca Hawley – You may want to check my comment above. We gladly accept and review books from a number of smaller/non-traditional presses. We’ve had a number of great finds from Medallion, Sourcebooks, etc… However, given the huge numbers of books out there, we are not always able to take self-published (vanity press) books for review. Hope this helps!

  26. Blythe says:

    Just to clarify, “Independent” wasn’t really my term to begin with; an author used that term to describe herself to me (she actually compared herself to a independent film maker, an analogy I didn’t find particularly apt). But that’s beside the point. In the context of that particular sentence, I meant it as a broad term covering anyone not published by a mainstream publisher – whether they are published by an electronic press, a smaller press, a vanity press, or self-published. If you read the other comments, you’ll also see that I already clarified that the two reasons I gave are not the ONLY reasons someone might not be published by a mainstream press. There are many talented authors who choose to go that route (for a variety of reasons). But I stand by my statement that some pursue other publishing alternatives because they are not ready for prime time. I’ve been at this job a long time, and I’ve seen plenty of them. The truth isn’t always “kind”.

    As Lynn said, we accept both self-published books and books from smaller presses for review. The only books we don’t accept at all are those from vanity presses.

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  28. SepiBo says:

    I’d like AAR to know, I really appreciate this site. I do NOT purchase a book, until I check AAR first. This doesn’t mean I won’t purchase it but I have to consult your site first. As you may, for example, have the author’s previous books reviewed. I started reading romances in 2003 after a personal tragedy happened and nothing helped me quite so much as reading romances. I was finally able to find something that helped me forget and lose myself in worlds that brought me joy. And now I read romances just for the pleasure of it. AAR has introduced me to so many wonderful authors. So thank you and now that I know the personal cost to the reviewers I appreciate you all the more.

  29. SepiBo says:

    I’d like AAR to know, I really appreciate this site. I do NOT purchase a book, until I check AAR first. This doesn’t mean I won’t purchase it but I have to consult your site first. As you may, for example, have the author’s previous books reviewed. I started reading romances in 2003 after a personal tragedy happened and nothing helped me quite so much as reading romances. I was finally able to find something that helped me forget and lose myself in worlds that brought me joy. And now I read romances just for the pleasure of it. AAR has introduced me to so many wonderful authors. So thank you and now that I know the personal cost to the reviewers I appreciate you all the more.

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