Review Series Part 2: The Value of Professional Commentary

This article is part of a series on reviewing and review-related issues. In addition to discussing the value of professional review commentary, this article touches on ideal reviewing practices for professional, trade, and online book reviewers. 

The Value of Professional Commentary

The argument for professional commentary.

I believe in the value of professional commentary and there are many reasons the decline of professional commentary harms the publishing industry. 

Professional commentary refers to paid review venues and publications that pay writers to report on publishing matters. The New York Times is an example. Their book reviewers are paid for their time, and hired because of their knowledge and experience. This means they should review from a position of genre knowledge. Those writing about publishing news should have the skills needed to research and report on publishing matters instead of simply spouting uninformed opinions, but in the era of social media, uninformed people who do not understand how the industry works often share their opinions and present them as facts, creating misconceptions for others. In some cases, it even prompts bad behavior that harms a person’s chances of getting published or reviewed. 

People in publishing understand there’s more value in a good Publisher’s Weekly review than there is in a review from randoreader121 on Goodreads because librarians look at the trade reviews to inform their purchasing decisions and a quote from the PW review can be used in promotional copy. It’s harder to use a quote from an anonymous reader on a book cover because readers don’t know it’s a valid review source.

It’s also true that some reader reviews lack significant insight. I don’t have a problem with this when reading reader reviews; however, relying on reader reviews does mean you’ll get some one-sentence reviews that don’t tell you much of anything about the book. You’ll see reviews with spelling mistakes and reviews without punctuation. You won’t necessarily have a sense of why the reader thinks the book is good or bad, or whether you should trust their recommendations.

Any consumer can leave an honest review about a product they’ve used or consumed, and that’s the system we’re accepting when we rely on consumer reviews. 

However, if you want well-written, insightful reviews, you need to support professional industry review sources. Tragically, many authors don’t seem to place a premium on investment in review blogs, review sites, or other valuable industry sites. My background noise show this week has been a show available on Prime via IMDB with ads, and I’ve seen at least three book ads on that show, featuring traditionally published books from a NY publisher. Someone clearly invested in advertising on TV shows streaming online, but I haven’t seen a single paid ad from those publishers or authors on prominent industry review sites.

As a society, we’ve devalued publishing and accepted the lack of investment in professional commentary, and undermining journalistic integrity has had undeniable consequences for our society, the education system, and the political landscape. Professional commentary matters because it goes beyond a person’s opinion and draws from industry insights and publishing trends to present informed material. There’s also an expectation that the writer will present accurate information and invest the time required to research the piece before publication. 

We don’t often get that when we rely on consumer opinions.

Looking at major publications, it’s easy for people to think there isn’t much happening in some genres at all. Readers relying on the NY Times couldn’t be faulted for thinking Stephen King is just about the only one writing horror these days. Head to the movie reviews and you can find out about the latest romcoms, horror flicks, and superhero films. Meanwhile, book sections often emphasize literature and “acceptable” genres. Since horror has a large indie publishing scene, these sections overlook a lot of contemporary horror novels and, in my opinion, they miss out on the impressive works that are shaping the genre. I’d venture a guess that this is also true for romance, because many disrespect that genre.

I firmly believe that if you read a book you enjoy, you want to read another book you enjoy. If you read a book that you don’t like, you want to go bowling. Creating readers means helping them find works that they’ll love, and that means featuring a wide range of content suitable for different types of readers with varying interests.

The narrow focus afforded in the limited professional review sites is harmful for readers, publishers, and authors. The lack of professional commentary for some genres has also created issues because new authors don’t understand how to distinguish between general commentary and personal attacks. Critiquing an event or a performance or a book isn’t the same as attacking the event organizer, performer, or author. However, when people rely on 280-character tweets for information, they certainly aren’t getting the full story. Professional commentary encourages us to analyze issues, works, and events through an objective lens. 

Professional commentators shouldn’t work for the publishers producing works they review. Ideally, they’ll devote themselves to presenting objective information. Those that are also authors will identify any publishing relationship with presses discussed, but those that work as publishers, editors, or publicists will remain the subjects of professional commentary and not double as commentators about their projects. This article brings up some good points about conflict of interest, and why industry professionals shouldn’t write reviews, or professional commentary. 

Professional reviews are different from consumer reviews.

Suppose a professional reviewer, such as a NY Times columnist, presented factual errors about my book in a review or article. In that case, it would be appropriate to address this privately in writing and ask for a written correction. There are two primary reasons it’s acceptable and appropriate to address factual errors in this situation. First, the reviewer’s a professional reviewer. They’re paid for their time and they’ve been hired because they have expert knowledge about the industry or genre, and that knowledge enables them to review works for a national publication. They should strive to ensure their reviews are accurate.

The other reason it’s appropriate has to do with the scope of influence. A NY Times review can reach more readers than a review on a reader’s blog, and professional reviewers typically have larger followings. A professional communication shouldn’t influence their future review decisions if they’re professionals, and may enable publications to identify commentators that start to develop an agenda or bias.

The time invested in professional commentary elevates the product.

Although there are excellent articles written by unpaid commentators, those getting a byline in an industry publication tend to put more time and energy into their work. Since they write professionally at least part of the time, they also learn more about grammar and writing mechanics, helping them produce well-written content for readers.

Those writing for free may not choose to review their content and address grammatical or mechanical errors, or take the time to look up factual information to ensure accuracy when relevant. Those writing for free shouldn’t be expected to perform the level of research expected of a professional reviewer, and unpaid reviewers should want a clear distinction in the expectations. Otherwise, a passion project quickly stops being an enjoyable hobby and becomes a chore.

Reviewers should separate the personal and professional.

Any review should be considered a valid opinion as long as it addresses the work and avoids a personal critique of the author. Unfortunately, some people seem to lack the ability to discern the difference. Consider these two statements:

  1. The author’s sick because they’ve used this book to indulge their rape fantasies.
  2. This book includes rape and sexual assault, and it’s a very tough book to read.

Unless the author stated in an introduction that the book’s an exploration of their fantasies, statement A is a personal attack that’s probably impossible to substantiate from the text alone. Reviews are supposed to be about the story. Not the cover art, not the publisher, not the author’s personal life. Commentary could touch on other aspects of the work, but any commentary about the author’s personal life must be researched and substantiated. Professional commentators must be able to back up their work to avoid a libel charge. 

Extracting the Personal from the Industry

Reviewers are a vital part of the publishing industry, and it’s tragic that the publishing industry has devalued itself by failing to invest in review publications. If more publishers paid for magazine reviews, we’d have more paid reviewers and more professional commentary. Professional commentary is a good thing, because when individuals express their thoughts, many are inclined to take their views personally. As recent publishing controversies have illustrated, questioning a book’s promotional copy suddenly turns into accusations that people are calling the author a white supremacist. This was not the case, but how can our industry have meaningful discourse when people are fighting over false allegations?

Professional commentary elevates the discourse. The best unpaid reviewers strive for this level of professionalism, but they’re under no obligation to devote the time and energy to researching issues and writing industry features.

Unpaid reviewers are under no obligation to write reviews of any set length or that feature anything other than their thoughts on the book, and it’s unreasonable to ask unpaid reviewers to do more unless they’re writing for a review site that has posting guidelines.

If we want thoughtful analysis about the industry, different genres, our works, other books, then we need professional commentators. And we need a lot of them. Centering a small group of professionals in any genre runs the risk of creating gatekeepers. Genres are diverse and tastes vary, and even paid reviewers are influenced by their preferences to some degree. Having multiple industry experts ensures wide coverage for all subgenres, giving us the best chance of attracting new readers to the genre and ensuring they find the content they’ll love.

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