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 …


  1. Nik Perring
    8th February 2010

    God! That sounds ridiculously frustrating. How does the number of bad ones compare to the good?

    And so so sorry to hear about the migraine – they are the utter pits.


  2. deeplyflawedbuttrying
    8th February 2010

    THere is always space for honesty in reviews. If I ever ask for feedback, I trust the feedback from the people who are willing to tell me that offer me the criticism I need to improve, I like to be validated, as does anyone- but would rather receive honest feedback.

  3. www.katherinemay.co.uk
    8th February 2010

    To be honest, I think the problems you’re having aren’t to do with small presses – they’re to do with human beings. It never ceases to amaze me that so many people don’t get round to the basics of their job, like responding to emails without being chased. It makes me think that maybe I should be a little less conscientious in the future, if others are getting away with it. But as you say, keep writing the reviews you want to write. That’s the only sane way to proceed.

  4. Jim Murdoch
    8th February 2010

    I’ve only had a limited experience with small presses. I have accepted PDFs because I’m acutely aware of margins and it also means I can cut and paste and search which I like. The downside is that I don’t have an e-reader that will handle PDFs and so I have to use my laptop. I did try reading one on Carrie’s netbook turned on its side but it was awkward.

    Only a couple of times nothing has arrived but I have more than enough books to read and so I’m not heartbroken; it’s their loss because the odds are I would’ve given them a thorough review. I wouldn’t mind getting a few more offers if only to expose me to lesser-known writers. Also, to apply my wife’s well worn axiom: what goes round comes round – I need my books reviewed so it’s only fair that I show willing. I’ve only not reviewed one book so far which is not bad going. There are, however, only so many hours in a day and so maybe I should be content with the odd book from Canongate and Oneworld Classics at least until I get my to-read shelf down to half.

    I’m not one for confrontation myself but I’ll be interested to read what you have to say nevertheless.

  5. Adam Lowe
    8th February 2010

    I hear you loud and clear on that one! I’ve never really understood the ‘we can’t give you a print copy’ argument. If you’re not good enough for a print copy, they’re not good enough for a review. At least offer both, as a reviewer may not want to sit at their PC to read your book.

    And on the selling on Amazon thing: as a writer, I’d rather get a review of my book and let someone resell the review copy than get no reviews. I know authors get no royalties on these copies, but what’s 70p for a review? Besides, most reviewers don’t get paid either, so it’s a perk for them.

  6. writerspet
    11th February 2010

    Haven’t had any of these problems yet, but I am trying to decide what my policy will be on accepting review copies I may not have time to read. It’s been a few months and they’re already piling up.

  7. Anonymous
    12th February 2010

    Hi there – I met you last night at the WSWC talk – I was the woman who’d written the tale of older woman + younger man. Want to say – re migraines; Holland & Barret do ‘New Era’ homeopathic/ tissue salts fort migs I find helpful. Look at your minerals. (2) Aurelio Zen rocks yeah!! If you like Dibdin, you may like Andrea Camilleri’s detective. Not as dense, or literary, but similarly human. Sorry you’ve encountered such unreliable review requesters. Maybe when I finish my novel and self/ publish, you might (please) review it? I promise to send it to you. Won’t be for a while. Still editing. Great talk last night. Thanks. From Laurie.

  8. Tania Hershman
    18th February 2010

    Wow, how utterly frustrating! As the editor of The Short Review, a publication that reviews short story collections, many of which are, unsurprisingly, published by small presses, I run into this occasionally, but not on the scale that you have encountered it – despite the fact that I ask for books to be sent all over the world. I am quite surprised actually that the majority actually arrive – and when they don’t, the small presses have been pretty good at following up. A lot of the time it is the authors themselves, sometimes a publicist, who has approached me in the first place, so they are better at chasing things up and making sure the book gets to the reviewer.

    I really hope that next month’s update will be more positive!

  9. Kay Sexton
    19th February 2010

    Nik, it’s about 15% bad. Which is terrible when you think how much authors need coverage these days!

    Deeplyflawed and Katherine, thank you I concur with both your views.

    Jim – it does go around and come around, but there’s no excuse for unprofessional behaviour in those paid to do a job imo!

    Adam, Tanya, totally with you on what you say. Tanya, it’s true it doesn’t happen often but so very frustrating when it does.

    Writerspet – it’s a toughie.

    Laurie – it was great to meet you, I remember the discussion well, and I hope that you’ll complete the novel as it sounds very good indeed!

    21st February 2010

    Hi Kay
    Congrats on your Times longlisting, v well done.

    I too have had your experience. With small and large presses. I resent reading a book, writing a review, then requesting an author interview and meeting a wall of silence. I put valuable TIME into this work, usually for free and yet I get ignored. Answer? I don’t post the review.
    I’m sick of being obliging! Had enough. Game over.

  11. Kay Sexton
    21st February 2010

    Thanks for your congratulations. I’m still a bit discombobulated by it all, to be honest.

    As for (not) posting reviews, you’re right, it’s the only sensible response!

  12. Minnie
    22nd February 2010

    Visiting from Vanessa Gebbie’s blog & am whispering, with fingers crossed, ‘good luck’! But congratulations, anyway: what an achievement!
    Loved this piece about how the conscientious are always inconvenienced by the inefficient (& the Awful Knowledge that the latter don’t give a fig!).


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