“At Your Service” is an ongoing blog where we ask a self-publishing industry professional to describe his or her services, in order to help self-publishers understand the intricacies of each step in the self-publishing process.
Today, we talk with Verna Noel Jones, a reviewer for BlueInk Review.
Jones studied English with a minor in journalism at Eastern Illinois University and subsequently served as a staff writer and copy editor for the “Chicago Tribune” and “Rocky Mountain News.” She has since written and edited on a freelance basis for numerous publications, including the “Chicago Tribune,” “Colorado Homes & Lifestyles,” “StrokeSmart” national magazine, “HealthOne’s” magazine, and the Denver Post’s “Sunday Magazine.” Jones is co-author of the parenting book, “Don’t Drown in the Carpool” (Indelible Press). She has also worked as an independent book doctor for numerous memoirs.
An experienced book reviewer, she has penned hundreds of reviews that have appeared in the “Rocky Mountain News,” “Elle,” and other publications and has reviewed for BlueInk since its establishment in 2010.
Q: When you get a book what is the first thing you do?
A: I just start reading and taking notes. If it’s fiction, then I take notes to keep track of the characters and write early impressions on how I feel about the quality… I usually go back and reread the beginning after I’ve finished the entire book to see if my impressions panned out, just to be sure I’m accurate. With nonfiction, depending on what type of book it is, I check to see if the author has a table of contents, documentation for his or her subject and if the author has knowledge of the subject. I don’t always get information about the authors and so I don’t always know if they have expertise. If their expertise is not obvious, I want to make sure they have found accurate information elsewhere. And sometimes I go online and check to see if they have plagiarized, which some people do. You just get a feeling about it. You’ll see something that just doesn’t sound like the rest of the book.
Q: Do you pay attention to the front and back cover of the book? Does this play into how you review the book?
A: Somewhat. I mean I don’t overly judge it…. I find that sometimes what authors write on the back is inaccurate. I think that’s because the authors often write it themselves and don’t have anyone professional doing it for them. I’m not overly critical about that though. To me, it’s more important to focus on the content (inside the book).
Q: Do you read the book first for content and then for grammar?
A: I read it for everything from the beginning.… I’ll look at grammar, structure, quality and interest — who it appeals to.
Q: Is it necessary to read the whole book?
A: Yes. It takes a lot of work to write any kind of book, and people deserve to have you read the whole book.
Q: How do you know when you’ve discovered a really great book?
A: It just feels good. (You’ll find yourself) talking about it to people as you read it saying, “Wow, this is a really good one. It’s got this, it’s got that, I learned this…” You learn something; you’re excited about it. It makes you happy, or sometimes it makes you sad. It just captures the subject matter so well.
Q: What goes into the consideration of giving a book a Starred Review?
A: Most everything has to be right. It’s got to be a compelling subject (for nonfiction) or a well-written novel that’s not predictable. It’s got to have great characterizations, virtually no spelling and grammatical errors, good structure and sometimes surprise, meaning that the book has a twist I have never seen before, if it’s fiction. And if it is nonfiction, the surprise could be the inclusion of unusual details or highly enlightening thoughts on a subject.
Q: How long does it take you to write a review? How many revisions do you do?
A: I usually can write the review in an hour but then I’ll sit on it and put it away for a couple hours. Then I’ll come back and make some changes, and then I’ll put it down and come back and do it one more time – usually three times. When I’m comfortable, I’ll send it to (a BlueInk editor) and see what they’re going to say.… Some reviews are harder to write than others. I actually think the better the book, the harder it is to write because you want to make sure you get it exactly right for the author.
Q: How do you ensure you’re being honest without being snarky or cruel?
A: I try to be as concise as I can so that I can fully explain the book within the required word count and the authors can then understand why it works or doesn’t work… I would never call a book “terrible,” for example, but try to explain precisely why I think it fails to entice. The aim is to review with words that ultimately can help the author improve the book so the writer can broaden its appeal.
Q: Are you ever tempted to write a good review for authors who are paying for a review?
A: No, I wouldn’t do that.
Q: Is the review finished when you send it in or does it go through changes after that as well?
A: Sometimes (the editor) requests revisions. Then we work on it.
Q: Do you read differently when you are reviewing vs. when you are reading for pleasure?
A: Oh yeah! I don’t take notes when I read for pleasure. I think when I read for pleasure I kind of know what to expect, so I can read it more smoothly, whereas a self-published book is often harder to follow. It is often produced without a professional editor, so that means that while it may contain some good content, it could be disorganized. Or with fiction, the characters may be poorly developed so you never can connect with them emotionally. Traditional publishers either reject such books outright or spend many hours helping the author to smooth out the wrinkles so the book is without flaws.
Q: Do you think it’s worth it for an author to pay for a review?
A: Yes, absolutely. If you know that (the reviewer) is someone with some credibility, it gives you a true view (of your book). And if you’re open to criticism, which hopefully you are, you can then improve your book. And I know that in this day and age, publishers are so biased (about the books they choose)…. They don’t care if you are a good author or not, they care what kind of money they can make (from your book).… If someone self-publishes because they can’t find a traditional publisher, having a paid review can help, especially if the book is so well written that it earns high marks. Publishers do pay attention to these review sites to see if they can pick up something good they might have missed.
Q: Why is a professional reviewer’s opinion better than the reviews you get on Amazon or from family and friends?
A: Because they (professional reviewers) are more skilled. A professional reviewer has more experience and a more trained eye than the typical (customer) reviewer of books on sites such as Amazon. People who only read for pleasure write many of those reviews. They typically comment on what they like and don’t like personally but may not understand or address what specifically makes the book work or not. A professional reviewer better understands structural and content flaws, lack of credentials or verification of subject matter, for example.… And some people just like to spout off, so I take Amazon reviews with a grain of salt when I read them.
Q: What are your pet peeves with self-published books?
A: Sloppiness. If you’re going to take all that time to write a book, get it right. If you can’t spell or you’re not sure of your editing, you should hire somebody to do it. You’re going to spend the money on everything else, and editing is very important.
Q: What advice can you give self-published authors?
–Don’t be afraid to go for it, but learn about your subject matter and pay attention to your character development.
–Make sure you are doing something that’s not out there already.
–If you’re writing a memoir, make sure that it’s something unique, if you plan on sharing it with a wide audience.
–I think it’s really good when authors include photographs, even if they are in black and white. I think those kinds of things (photos, tables and charts) enhance the read, depending on the subject matter.
–On the book cover, authors need to be very precise about what the book is about without giving too much of it away, and they need to say something about who they are so readers understand their areas of expertise.
BlueInk Review offers credible and unbiased reviews of self-published books exclusively. Visit us at www.blueinkreview.com.
Cassidy Ritter is a junior at the University of Kansas, where she studies journalism, business and global studies and is a correspondent for the “University Daily Kansan.” She was BlueInk’s 2014 summer intern.