One of the books I'm publicizing got a bad review recently -- and by bad I mean horrific.
The book -- an anthology of essays on what music you'd want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island -- is a solid collection. Really. It skews a bit heavy on the heavy metal for my taste, but the pieces are well-crafted and the contributors make up some of rock writing's best. But don't take my word for it; other reviews have since confirmed its worth.
Now I'm not saying that publishers don't, on occasion, publish books that are not exactly what the editor thought they'd be. That happens when you acquire on proposal -- meaning, when you buy a book from a literary agent based on a sample chapter or two, an author bio, and maybe an outline. Most publishing houses buy many (if not most) of their non-fiction titles this way simply because authors know they will, and therefore won't agree to write the book until they have a contract in hand. Makes sense, really -- why spend your time writing something that may never see the light of day?
It's also true that houses sometimes publish a book knowing it's not as good as it could be. Editors can't force an author to make changes to the text if the author doesn't want to, and while the editor could refuse to publish the book, that would mean not only the loss of the money they paid for it (the advance) but also the loss of the revenue that they'd budgeted to receive from it. Editors do reject a manuscript on occasion -- when it clearly doesn't meet their standards. They can't afford to take the hit often, though.
But back to our clunker of a review. The reviewer took the opportunity not only to condemn the writing -- as is his right to do, of course -- but to condemn the writers, suggesting that the world might be a better place if they were, perhaps, stranded on a desert island along with their musical choices.
Hmm. Is it me or is that mean? Points for cleverness, to be sure -- but didn't he go a bit "overboard" (to extend our shipwrecked metaphor)? Seemed like a personal attack to me -- and as a publicist I'm fairly thick skinned.
The reviewer shall remain nameless, and perhaps therein lies the problem. His review appeared in a publication where the reviewers are anonymous. I have mixed feelings about these "unsigned reviews," as they're called. On the one hand, anonymity breeds honesty. Reviewers are free to say what they really think of a book without fear of repercussion. This is particularly important because many reviewers are also writers, and understandably they don't want their own books to be negatively reviewed by the author or the author's friends as a form of justice or revenge. This I get.
On the other hand, when a review is unsigned the reader of the review isn't able to assess the reviewer's credentials. This person who thoroughly dissed our book -- is he a musician? An essayist? A disgruntled pirate? I really have no way of knowing. Consequently, I'm unable to determine whether I should trust his judgment.
The signed vs. unsigned debate is an important one, and I certainly see both sides. But I do feel strongly that the bar should be set higher for people who write anonymous reviews. Personal grudges must be ferreted out. Stronger standards should be applied. And reviews that are just plain spiteful have no place in any magazine or paper.