Auld Lums new Reeks a personal perspective

Live from Festival HQ where the lums are reeking nicely thank you.

By Cally Phillips, editor of IEBR and festival director 


The first personal disclaimer:  Honesty and transparency.

I have only ever met 2 of the people in this group of 12(self excluded) and only 1 of them do I claim to ‘know.’ I would challenge you to work out which, simply on the basis of reviews written! And that’s my key point.  I write honest reviews based on my understanding of the ‘quality’ of the work written.  As a writer I believe I have the ‘epistemic’ authority to do this for a range of writing, but by no means all. For example I do not personally review romance because I don’t read the genre and know nothing about it. I’m not interested in giving my personal opinion unless I believe I can back it up with professional knowledge. That way I believe I keep my reputation intact.

I do not know how many of the other writers ‘know’ each other personally (or even if they are related!) because I don’t believe it matters. I respect them enough as writers to believe that when they write a review they are giving an opinion and a critical appraisal based on their professional skills not on their personal friendships.  I hope that by engaging in this ‘event’ you will accord all the writers and reviewers the same respect!

Of course subjectivity exists in reviews. We are humans. We are individuals. We have opinions. We like some things and not others. We understand and have empathy for some things and not others.  But there is also a more objective stance that can be taken.  And this is what we aim for at IEBR.  Our peer review system requires that reviewers (for no money) read and review only books that they like (find worthy of the time and effort of reviewing).  They review on the quality of the work, not on the name of the author.

Every writer reviewed on this site is here on merit of their work not because of any  personal connection.

It’s really as simple as that. It’s an example of epistemic authority at play in the world of epublishing.  As a reader/ festival goer, I can guarantee you will not like all the work presented for review here.  You will not think all the reviews as ‘good’ as they might be. (We as reviewers are also painfully aware of our shortcomings and strive for better, more incisive, insightful reviews, believe me!)

The reviews come from a variety of sources. Some were written for Amazon, some for IEBR and some for a range of other review sites (we’ve attributed where possible). All of the writers have reviews (good and bad) from other people in other forums.  Our peer selection here is a deliberate attempt to show you that professional peer review does have a place and a value for reader and writer alike.

Our reviews are offered here to help you when making your own reading choices. They are recommendations and referrals by writers as reviewers. Our aims are simple:  To throw off the cloak of invisibility from writers we like and to give readers informed choices about things they might like to read.

I believe there are a couple of salient questions to be asked regarding reviews in general:

What kind of review can you trust?

Do we need reviews at all?

So let’s get into that.

What kind of review can you trust?

For me, to trust a review, it needs to be based on what I shall term ‘epistemic authority.’

This  principle basically means you’d get a plumber to fix your drains, a doctor to fix your heart and a butcher to cut your meat. Before ‘trusting’ someone in authority you find out what ‘knowledge’(episteme) that authority is based on.  If a writer/reviewer whose professional opinion I trust can give me a range of good, relevant reasons why a work is worth my time and money, I’ll have a look. And make my own mind up. That’s the grown up way to do it in my opinion. As a potential reader it’s my responsibility to interpret the review and the sample and make my choice.

I understand that many people don’t make their choices this way. Many people want to be told what they like. I’m sure I’ll never convince them to my way, and they’ll never convince me to theirs. We all exist. We can all co-exist.  But I think writers can do themselves a favour not to solicit reviews from sources other than those they respect and not get hot under the collar when they get no ‘stars’ from someone whose opinion cannot be respected because it is not using ‘epistemic’ criteria of judgement in review.

A lot of indie writers get upset when appallingly bad reviews (in every sense of the word) show up beside their ‘product’ description.  The only way to avoid this is a) not to give a damn about what someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about is saying  b) to challenge, where appropriate,  badly written reviews on such sites and c) not to buy into the whole culture which suggests that anyone’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s.   If you were choosing a school for your kids would you take the opinion of a person who lives in a different country, doesn’t have kids and tells you the school is bad because the uniform is purple?  Or would you seek the opinion of people whose children have been through that school, teachers who’ve worked there, people you do and don’t know who can give you information about how the place is run on a daily basis etc.  It’s a no brainer, isn’t it?

Of course a review can tell you as much about the reviewer as the work being reviewed. It is a subjective opinion on the one hand. But it is also so much more. People who get hung up on the ‘subjective’ element are those who tend to get hot under the collar about what might be called ‘reciprocal’ reviews.  However, reciprocity is only a problem if critical standards are waived. And this is where the idea of a writers peer review system comes in.

Writers (I argue) are well placed to comment on the work of other writers, both within their own area of interest/ genre and also on other work. If they ‘like’ something they are likely to have good solid reasons why.  The ‘Death of the Author’ and ‘Postmodernism’ have a lot to answer for in my opinion.  On the one hand I can appreciate that a work is ‘only as good as its reader’ and ‘has as many meanings as readers’ (which I understand to be the basic premises of these critical positions) but on the other hand, we are not all monkeys typing Hamlet.  Many writers have learned a craft, constructed a well made thing.  Whether it is appreciated or not by consumers does not (at least in one respect) alter the intrinsic value of the work. I do not believe EVERYTHING is just fashion.  Do you throw away a Chippendale because your cousin says ‘plastic is better’?’ I think we all need to look a bit more critically at how and why we make choices about what we read. And that’s where reviews come in.

Do we need reviews at all?

I think we do need reviews. And we need ‘good’ reviews.  By ‘good’ review I mean a review which does more than say ‘I love this’ or gives you an accurate plot synopsis, but a review which actually looks into the guts of the work and tells you why the reviewer thinks it’s good (in terms which are relevant to written work) Not just plot, comments about the structure, voice, characterisation, themes and embedded ‘meanings’ are all areas that can and perhaps should be covered by a ‘good’ review.

To engage with our peer reviews you just have to get over the worry that this is just a wee clique bigging each other up. It’s not.  And I hope that if you read the variety of reviews which come in this slot over the next couple of weeks, you’ll see that. Which will encourage you to engage with IEBR as a ‘trusted’ review site in the future.

Some of the reviewing writers doubtless know each other. Some may have got to know each other in the course of their professional careers.  But all of them at least aspire to write honestly about other people’s work. It’s like the Hippocratic oath. If as a writer you say something is good that you don’t believe to be so, it’ll come back to bite you. For a writer, their opinion is closely related to their professional reputation . That’s why a lot of  writer’s just don’t write reviews. And many don’t write reviews for people they know because they are afraid of being accused of nepotism or the like. But with the emergence of the 5 star review system this has changed and I suggest that rules and attitudes need to change along with that.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of a 5* system. I think that gold stars are for nursery school.  I also think that reviews should only be written (and certainly only paid attention to) if they are written by someone who knows what they are doing in a review.  Amazon (and others) treat reviews as if they are product placement.  You can give a 5* ‘review’ to a ceramic hob scraper as well as a novel. To me, that’s crazy.

I appreciate that readers are entitled to their thoughts, choices and opinions. BUT.  It’s of no value or interest to read the ignorance or vitriol of a ‘reader’ giving low score reviews to a work.  I’m only interested in reviews from people whose opinion I respect and whose judgement I can trust. I don’t have to share their tastes but if I’m thinking whether or not to buy an ebook I’d like to read something intelligently written about it (as well as the free sample) to help me make up my mind. I don’t want to read a character assassination of the author, or ill conceived, ill constructed personal comments which are mistakenly classified as ‘reviews.’

Now I’m sure that every one of the writer/reviewers featured here has written reviews they don’t consider come up to ‘scratch’ of the lofty ideals of ‘good’ reviewing. I certainly have myself. But I don’t say things are bad when they are good. I don’t say things are ‘bad’ because I can’t fathom them. Unless I think I’ve understood and have something sensible to contribute, I don’t write a review. If I don’t like the genre or understand the work, I don’t comment on it. I don’t proffer advice on how the work could be changed or improved – that’s not my job. I just tell it like I see it.  I try to explore the depths of the work, and give my thoughts on why it is ‘good.’

Especially in the ebook ‘market’ there’s a lot of ‘product’ competing in a very large market place.  In order to help the potential reader make an informed choice the writer gives away a free ‘sample’ of their work (allowing you to browse the beginning before you buy) but maybe you want more than that?  This is where a review comes in.

Maybe you only want to read a book because 76 other people have given it 5*’s.  That’s not my motivation to read a book. I don’t care HOW MANY other people like it, I want to know WHY I might like it.  And that’s where a ‘good’ review comes in. If someone whose writing I know and whose reputation (as a reviewer and possibly as a writer) I respect tells me what is good about a book, it may help me make the decision to try it.

Actually to be completely honest, for me quite often other people’s reviews don’t cut that much ice. That’s because I feel quite confident at being able to decide for myself whether I like something or not before I part with cash.  But I’ve spent a lot of my life engaged in critical appreciation  and am like the mechanic who can strip your engine and put it back together again while you stand there wondering what the term ‘internal combustion’ actually means.  I’d like to encourage others to become critical ‘mechanics’ of literature/fiction and that’s one function of the IEBR (and hopefully the ebook festival opens a few windows into it as well!)

I do accept that for ‘visibility’ a review can be a very useful thing. And visibility is a very important element in the epublishing world for the independent writer.  We all have to engage in marketing now to some degree. It can be worth the effort. The reader should understand that all writers don’t have the resources to make their work ‘visible’ all the time, and so reviews as well as recommendations can be a very good way to find new work.  As a critical reader you have to engage in a process. Go looking for things. Don’t just wait for them to come on your desktop shrink wrapped and washed and ready to eat.

In the last six months the ‘recommendation’ through review of all three of my favourite ebooks (which I wouldn’t have known about never mind read) have come from reviews by people whose critical opinion I respect.  [They are reviewed on the final day of the festival ]  That’s my reason for championing the ‘good’ writers peer review system. It helps me find work I wouldn’t otherwise find.  Any amount of reading 5* reviews doesn’t give me that.  Reviews from conventional sources don’t give me that (mainly because they don’t tend to review indie authors and also because I know they are being paid to review – which to me suggests if not a conflict of interests at least perhaps a question as to why they say what they are saying . I’m a cynic, I know. But there are shark infested waters out there and my time and money are precious resources.

For me if indie ebooks offer one thing they offer the possibility for the reader to move beyond fashion and fad and watercooler hyped up choice making and LEARN to actually make their own decisions about what they like without feeling they are being judged.  It’s a private deal between you and the writer. You read it if you like it. Our job is to try and tell you why you might like it. Your job is to learn how to know what you like and how to find the work you DO like without falling into the bear traps of a gold star mentality.

It’s in that spirit that I offer up to you the Auld Lum’s and New Reeks of this festival.  I hope you find something you enjoy as a result of the reviews. Then we’ll have done our job.