Why small presses don’t get many books reviewed

Today I am not happy. I have the comet’s tail end of a migraine, complete with weird black floaters and the sense that if I didn’t have my wonderful medication, I would also have pain. A world of pain. On Friday I had the full-blown, shutters-down start of a migraine, during which even my own breathing hurt my ears and my own pulse irritated me so much that I tried to work out how to suffocate myself with a cushion. So I missed hearing my story being read aloud at the New Brunswick Theatre. I am, to say very little, disgruntled about this.

Saturday was lost to slow motion movement and medication. Sunday was mainly spent talking like a Dalek (side effect of tablets) and staring at things that wouldn’t come into focus properly.

Monday is the day I get all my senses back, more or less, just in time to start work again. And as I have plenty of unhappiness to spread around, I am going to start with small presses.

I review books for small presses. I’ve never asked to do this, and often turn down proposed books because I think they would be a waste of my time. I also review self-published books which people insist on sending me, although the author who invites me so to do is a pretty brave author, and most decline my review when I contact them and say that I can’t be positive about their book.

And I know that small presses complain about the quantity of reviews they get compared to the big publishers, so I try to be sensible and positive about the subject, because I am a writer and I’ve been published by small presses so I know how tough it can be to get any kind of coverage.

But why do small presses dick around so much?

• Press 1 – emails me to ask if I’ll review an anthology. Of course I will. They don’t send it. I email, querying. They reply that it’s in the post. It doesn’t arrive. Repeat this sequence four times. I give up.
• Press 2 – sends me a short story collection. I ask if they can convey some questions to the non-English speaking author. They say they can. I email them the questions. Nothing happens. I email, querying. They reply, offering to send me another copy of the book. I beg them not to, asking if they can (a) send the questions to the author or (b) confirm that this isn’t possible so I can post my review without author commentary. No reply. I give up.
• Press 3 – sends me a book I didn’t ask to review (fair enough, I don’t have to review it) and a list of books I might like to review. I email, saying I’d like to review one of the books on the list. Nothing arrives. I email again. No answer.
• Press 4 – rings me (ooh, a telephone call, how exciting!) to ask if I will review an anthology of short stories. I will. Nothing arrives. I call to query (ooh another telephone call!) and can’t speak to their PR person. I get an email - as I am not a professional reviewer, would I accept a pdf instead of a printed book. No I bloody wouldn’t: my eyes are my livelihood and I don’t read pdfs unless I’m being paid for it. I reply, saying that I’m happy to take a ‘proof’ copy or a printed galley if they are worried that I might try and flog the book on Amazon and do them out of income. No reply.

Can you see a pattern emerging? A pattern that mainly involves me, a writer, who is trying to help other writers, being quietly ground down by small presses who whinge about not getting publicity.

I review a couple of dozen books a year that I have bought with my own hard-earned writing income, because I believe in supporting good writing. I review about another eight or ten that are sent to me because I think they are well-written and should be better known. No, I’m not a professional, but I’m giving my time in reading the material, my intellectual capital in constructing the review, and my support in blogging about, for free. And I feel dissed, I really do.

So from next month, a change. I will review books that I enjoy and I will review small presses and publishers that fail to deliver on their promises. I suspect this may make me unpopular in some circles, but writers need to know if they are being let down in the tough world of publishing and I’m miserable enough right now to have decided that I’d rather be unpopular than put upon. Watch this space …

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