The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Best Foot Forward

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.

9 comments on “The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Best Foot Forward

  1. This is interesting to me. In the ARC of The Emperor’s Knife, the spaces I had created between scenes with different characters were gone, so that it was confusing to the reader. From one paragraph to the next, suddenly different stuff was going on, with a different character. I drew lines between character sections for the ones I sent out myself, but I had no control over the others. When authors bring this stuff up with the publisher we are told that reviewers are accustomed to this sort of thing, but I did get a negative review from someone saying he couldn’t tell the characters apart and that he didn’t know who he was reading about. Whether that had to do with the formatting error, or whether he really did find the characters to be too same-y, I don’t know.

    With my second book, my main publisher in England sent the manuscript to my American publisher before the final editing or copy editing had been done. The American publisher immediately made an ARC out of it. Remember, editing can include entirely changed scenes, changed motivations or anything. I never opened that ARC. Luckily I have worked as a copy editor myself, and my prose is pretty clean, though like anyone I make mistakes.

    My personal opinion is that if the ARC doesn’t represent the author well, particularly a debut author, it can be damaging. Of course “how damaging” is impossible to measure. More people read the finished product than the ARC.

  2. Hi Ria,

    I recognize when I am reading an ARC, I am reading a work in progress. I tend to not focus on line editing issue problems in an ARC, but I definitely do it for finished or final books. I generally don’t mention the line editing at all for an ARC, but more larger structural concerns? Yes, yes I do.

    The ARC versus final draft is coming home to me for Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire. The ARC is, from reports, significantly different than the final product. My review is already out of date, in respects.

    • Oo, that’s concerning regarding The Mirror Empire since I’m about to start that ARC… Ugh. I find it rather aggravating when major changes are made between ARC and final print because it puts reviewers in such a difficult position and basically wastes everyone’s time for exactly what you say: our reviews are no longer relevant because we couldn’t review the final story. Now I’m not sure whether I should try reviewing the ARC of Mirror Empire or just wait for it to be published… curses.

      • I’m a bit worried in that regard myself. I planned to review The Mirror Empire early next week, but hearing that there are so many differences… I want to know what all the differences are, for one thing!

  3. I agree with a bit of what all three of you have said, I think – I don’t expect flawless editing from an ARC, and I’ve seen varying degrees of ‘readable’ with them. Minor errors don’t bother me, but there was one case where I actually had to put down an ARC of a book I really wanted to read (I later bought the published version and read that instead) because, if I recall correctly, it lacked a lot of chapter markers…

    I’ve never considered asking a publisher for a finished copy the way I would ask for an ARC – if I’m that inclined to read the finished book I’d simply buy it, but it’s a good question to ask. I do think that there should be a certain level of ‘ready’ at which it’s a good idea to let reviewers read ARCs…

    (Apologies if this rambles on, it’s nearly midnight and my day, ’twas long!)

  4. I do overlook issues like a great number of typos or formatting problems when reading ARCs and assume those will be taken care of before the final version. If a lot of the book seems poorly written in general, though, the ARC is all I have to go by and I tend to assume that large portions of the book will not be rewritten before publication. I think most major problems should be resolved before a book is considered ready to be read and analyzed by others because I doubt most people are going to read the entire finished copy later to compare the two before reviewing (might as well just wait and read the final version rather than read the same book twice!). That may not actually be the case, but if I read an ARC and think it’s terribly written with clunky prose, I can’t ignore that in hopes that it will be fixed later. I can’t review the work based on things that may or may not be fixed later–I have to review what I read.

    Of course, I have to review what I read within reason with the knowledge that it the ARC is not the final, polished version, and that does mean I feel like I should not be picky about problems like typos. There is one time I didn’t mention a lot of distracting typos in my review of an ARC and almost feel guilty about it because apparently they weren’t fixed by the time the final version was released. One of my Goodreads friends read and reviewed the finished copy of the book and her one problem with the book was lots of typos. This was my biggest issue with an otherwise wonderful book as well, but I read the ARC and did not want to mention this in case it was fixed by the time the book was published.

    Regarding your side note, I am the EXACT same way. Copy editor is my dream job. :)

  5. I’ve generally heard from publicists that ARCs are supposed to be printed before they’ve gone to a copy-editor but after the various other editing is done so there won’t be significant changes in the final copy, but typos and perhaps things like name slips will be fixed. Therefore, that’s how I tend to read ARCs, since it is the best I can do with the time I have. I simply don’t have any interest in rereading a final copy to change my review after the fact since I don’t think it is a good use of my time and don’t honestly think I could force myself to do it! I feel that it is on the publisher to make sure that ARCs are ready for a reviewer to evaluate the story/characters/writing style with just a few typos. Manuscripts. on the other hand, are what I would generally consider the pre-editors copies and are much less likely to be mailed out since they could be so much rougher.

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  7. I have a slightly different view perhaps, I wouldn’t mind saying that I’m reviewing an advanced edition and I hope that they fix some of these mistakes before it goes to print if it were PARTICULARLY bad. Because if I’m reading it and finished it I deserve to have a say. Course have i done this before? No because i haven’t hit a super bad one – I did however one time note in a ARC review that I felt the character dialogue of all of the characters sounded exactly alike in the way they all said “you know” at the end of their sentences and little things like that on the dialogue. I said I hoped it went through another round of reviews to tweak the dialogue and make each characters voice more unique.

    And as for quoting – I will quote from an ARC from time to time and I put a disclaimer on the bottom boldy that “this quote comes from an uncorrected yadd yadda yaddda and may not be the same in the published edition* because you’re right now they do NOT always send final copies and I don’t want to go searching through a final copy just to find that quote that I want to use because I felt it did effect my thoughts. So with my disclaimer I feel like I’m safe enough.

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