Depending on who you ask, it’s either a spoken or an unspoken rule that when it comes to advanced review copies, you don’t have anything in your final review about formatting errors, typos, that sort of stuff that tends to creep its way into anyone’s writing and file-making. Most review copies I’ve gotten state clearly at the beginning that things may change between that and the final copy, so please don’t quote from the review copy in any reviews, either.
And I can understand that, to a very large degree. I’m a reviewer. My job isn’t to format e-books, nor is my job to point out that the novel was in dire need of an editor. My job is to review the story contained within the book. It’s to talk about what I thought made a book work, my reactions to it, the characters, the style of writing. It’s what I like doing. It’s what I’ve improved at doing over the past 4.5 years that I’ve been doing this blog.
There are 2 problems with this idea that make doing so a lot harder than it at first sounds.
1) When reviewers are gifted with review copies, we’re not always gifted with final copies as well, making checking between one version and another extremely difficult. Especially when many review go up in advance of the book’s release date. We could wait and go spend a while in a bookstore post-release to double-check a couple of lines to see if something spontaneously made sense between the review copy and the finished copy, but that means delaying the review and missing out on much of the pre-release excitement and advertising.
2) When a book is so laden with typos, bad formatting, and/or poor word choices that it affects our reading of the book, it’s often very difficult to put the personal connections aside when writing a review. Oh, the book had an interesting plot, diverse characters, and pretty decent pacing. Why rate it only 3 stars? Erm, no reason. *shifty eyes* (Because I had to squint and turn my head sideways to figure out what characters were saying half the time because of thesaurus abuse and a poor general understanding of what words actually mean, perhaps..?)
See, when I come across a review copy that has these problems, reviewing it is tricky. Especially when you combine the two issues. Is it just the review copy that’s in need of another pass from an editor, or is this stuff going to make it into the final release copy?
And more than that, whose responsibility is it to prevent this from happening? Is it on the reviewer to contact the author or publisher and point out all the problems and ask for a final copy to check against? Or is it the job of the author, editor, and all those others who make a book to make sure that the review copy being handed out is of good enough quality to properly be reviewed without these issues coming into play? Whose job is it, when you get down to it, to put their best foot forward?
I’ll give you a for-instance here. A book I read recently, which I will not name, had the following issues that I came across in the review copy:
~ Character names changed a few times over the course of the book, sometimes between one page and the next.
~ The word malingering was incorrectly used to mean a cross between malicious and lingering, leading to the contextual impression that in a certain scene, ghosts were standing outside the door griping and exaggerating how bad their flu was.
~ The phrase “tobacco stalks were grounded” brings to mind the image of a field of well-planted tobacco plants, not cigarette butts in an ashtray.
Those are just a few examples I remember off the top of my head. While reading it, more than once I wished I could just sit down and red-pen the thing a lot, because there were a lot of problems with incorrect word usage. To my way of thinking, this book, in the state in which I received it, was not ready to be sent to people for review. I needed improvement. It needed those problems fixed, at the very least!
The problems I had with it spoiled my enjoyment of the book. I couldn’t, in all fairness, write a review of it without pointing out that part of my rating stemmed from the fact that it was a poor presentation, and having to step back and twist my mind to figure out what the author meant by malingering, for example, is not conducive to a good reading experience.
(Side note – Stuff like this is exactly why I would love to be able to edit someone’s work someday. Even just going over it for errors like the ones I found here would be something of a dream come true for me. I enjoy doing it. I actually find it kind of fun. I still get this giddy thrill when friends have approached me with writing projects and papers and say, “Can you read this over to see if it makes sense and if I made any mistakes?” Is that weird?)
So, is it my job to knock gently on the author’s or publisher’s door and point this out and ask for a finished copy so that I can compare? And at that point, would it actually matter; I’ll be honest and say that had those errors not been in the final version, I’d be happy knowing that someone took another pass at it before sending it to print, but ultimately what I read was what gave me my current impressions, and even if I could avoid rating a book lower if the errors were fixed, in the end it still wouldn’t be one that I would reread, or recommend to anyone, because I’d formed a mental idea of the book’s flavour and it wasn’t all that palatable.
Or, as the way I lean, is the responsibility of the book’s team to make sure that this stuff isn’t an issue before handing it off to reviewers and saying, “Tell me what you think”?
It’s impossible to fix every problem in a book. I know that. I accept it. I may wince when I find an easily-fixable typo in a finished copy of a book, but it’s just a typo. They happen. None of my posts here have been typo-free, and I’m sure some readers wince when they see them, too. These things happen. Sometimes print errors happen and entire paragraphs get repeated on the page and that doesn’t get caught until 100,000 have already been printed. I get that too. These aren’t things that can really be corrected ahead of time. They’re human error on an understandable scale. They don’t affect how I read a book. They jolt me out of my reading groove if I notice them, but then I fall right back into the groove and continue on my merry way. And sometimes I don’t notice them at all, because I’m absorbing the story, reading the idea behind the words rather than each individual word itself, so small errors just fly right on by. I’m not so picky as to say, “It said teh instead of the; this book should have gone back to the editor’s desk and never seen the light of day, rawr!”
Overlooking some of these things are what we, as reviewers, just have to do. If you can’t catch every tiny error before the final release, how can you catch it before the review release? Most of the time it’s very easy to let my eyes slide over a few errors and just get back to the story. I like to think I’m pretty good at that. Sometimes not being picky is an asset. But there comes a point where the things we’re usually required to overlook at too numerous or too egregious to keep going with, and it makes it pause and wonder why we got a book in such a poor state to begin with.
It’s a pain in the butt, but consider the saying that you only get one first impression. And consider that for reviewers, the copy of the book that they get for review is that first impression. There are some things that we take on faith, in this relationship between us and the people who supply us with any review copies we may get. Publishers and authors assume that we’re going to give the book a read and review and hope that it’s a favourable one, and we assume that what we’re getting is something that is, for the most part, already mostly ready for release and it’s maybe only a step away from being as good as it’s going to get. Everyone expects everyone else’s best foot forward. We all expect a good impression.
For my part, my assumption is that any books I get are not going to be books that are still in need of a lot of work. If that’s the case, then they’re not ready for review; they’re still in the stage where they need to be edited. I assume that by the time a book gets to me, the characters have fixed names! And I assume that if I can find a bunch of words that are used incorrectly, then numerous people dropped the ball. I assume that I’m being handed a review copy because someone has said, “This book is ready to be judged.” And I assume that if that’s the case, then they’re okay with my judgment being based upon what I received.
Here’s where I’d love to hear from reviewers, authors, editors, and anyone else involved in the book business who fancies commenting. Are my expectations in that regard unrealistic? Should I be making a greater effort to overlook problems such as the ones I mentioned? Should I be making a greater effort to contact people to beg for finished copies for comparison? Should greater care be taken before advanced copies get to reviewers to avoid situations like this, and how realistic is that? How do such things affect your opinions of books, and if you’re a reviewer, do they affect your reviews? I’d love to hear a wide range of opinions on this one, since it’s been strongly on my mind for a few weeks now, and I’m very curious as to how others approach this issue.