How to drive a reviewer crazy

<p>Amanda Craig</p><p> It goes without saying that it helps to be crazy if you're a critic. Who but a blockhead would write for so little money? You can't live off cheques for &#163;25. And unless you've got your eye on a literary editor's seat, or are deluded into thinking that reviewing gives you power, you do it out of love, and stupidity. There are, however, a large number of things publishers do that actually drive you crazy.</p><p>I receive about five parcels a day, and almost as many special deliveries. More than 100 books a week flood into my house. Poor postman. This is bad enough during a weekday, when I am rushing to get the kids to school. But on a Saturday morning, being woken at 8 a.m. puts me in a foul mood. </p><p>Then there is trying to fight your way into the box or packet. I suffer from RSI, as do many authors and journalists. Securing the flap of a recycled envelope several times with super-strong brown tape is helpful to the environment, great for my biceps, but murder on my tendons. </p><p>By the time I've found my Stanley knife and hacked through a big brown envelope from, say, OUP, I'm not happy. That's before I get showered with grey fluff. Please, use the self-sealing, bubble-pack sort of envelope. But even the manky padded envelopes are better than the box I regularly get from Penguin containing huge chunks of polystyrene with one terrified paperback lurking in its depths. The postman won't deliver it, so I have to ring and arrange another delivery. Result: it goes straight to my local school library. </p><p>The reason why so many books from Faber and Picador get good notices is not just because of their list. They send out bound proofs in small jiffy bags that you can open painlessly.</p><p>The joy of bound proofs</p><p>Which brings me to the books themselves. Unless it's a paperback original, I only review hardbacks. Dear publishers, I can do absolutely nothing for a paperback. Send them to literary editors, not regular reviewers. What I love getting are bound proofs. Yes, I know they're expensive and often riddled with errors. But bound proofs weigh nothing; I can take them on holiday; I can read them in the bath; I can slip them in a handbag. If you send a bound proof, it's almost bound to get read. Sample chapters, of course, I just bin, like everyone else.</p><p>The finished copy, sent in the week of publication, is wholly insane. Am I going to read it? Of course not, because by then it will have been reviewed elsewhere. Don't be afraid of sending a proof copy early to a critic you think will like the book. A critic who gets hold of a book before the literary editor can ask to review it. Yes, you might risk breaking an embargo and killing a book dead before it's in the shops. But you're far more likely to annoy if, like Madonna, you insist on reviewers signing ridiculous confidentiality clauses. </p><p>The one publisher that unfailingly gets it right on timing is Doubleday--which may be why authors and critics alike tend to be happy with the publisher. It sends proofs not once, but twice, and often a finished copy too. You can't miss a Doubleday superlead. Picador is also good, and so is my own publisher Little, Brown (which is one of the reasons I went there). Good publicists, such as Rosalie McFarlane at Time Warner, have huge experience and know which book is likely to interest which reviewer. </p><p>It isn't rocket science. We actually fill in forms for the Publishers Publicity Circle, and a good publicist should be scanning the review pages to build up an impression of each critic's taste. So, why was I sent Jane Dunne's Elizabeth and Mary by HarperCollins? My field is fiction, adult and children's, which I review for a number of national papers including the Times. There are a few other books, including biographies, with news value that might work (I also write features for the Sunday Times News Review section) but this was one of many that made me scream. I'm sure it's an excellent book, but it was wasted on me. </p><p>Even novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize are not automatically sent out to the 100 or so critics who count. For instance, I was asked to write a leader for the Times about this year's Booker shortlist. I had to refuse because I had only been sent two of them--Monica Ali and Zoe Heller. Well done Doubleday and Viking. I had to ask Bloomsbury for the Atwood, despite having reviewed her last novel in several places. </p><p>Of course, it must be hell trying to customise a mailing list. Sometimes one appreciates being asked first by a publicist. However, a telephone call is the least attractive way of doing this, because like all reviewers I am insanely busy writing my own novels and doing the kind of journalism that, unlike reviewing, pays some bills. E-mail exists as an alternative.</p><p>Thank you, thank you publicists like Adele Minchin at Puffin or Rosalie McFarlane who use e-mails, and who attach press releases with them. But this, too, can be abused. It doesn't help to get a round robin saying how excited the publicist is about one of her/his books. If you want to draw attention to a new author, it helps to send a letter through the post.</p><p>However, it doesn't help to have invitations pressed on one to attend this launch or that lunch. I don't have time, and I'd rather see the money spent on getting the book advertised in the press--the more you spend on advertising in literary pages, the more reviewers might get paid. It does not help being sent a mug or a desk diary or a mini bottle of champagne. It doesn't help being sent a Christmas card signed by the entire publicity department, presumably dragooned into this annual torment. </p><p>What I want are the books: the right books, sent on time, in bound proof and with a useful press release.</p><p>Inspiring releases</p><p>Oh, the press release. This drives me mad faster than anything. Don't just repeat the information about the book or the author that's planned for the dustjacket. Help reviewers by saying something new. This concept seems to have passed by Faber, and much of Random House. Take a look at the questions US publishers ask authors about the inspiration for their books. Sceptre has recently sent me a release on Jill Dawson's Wild Boy that is a model of helpfulness, because the author explains the ideas and inspiration behind her novel. </p><p>A conscientious critic tries to read as a reader does, but under severe time constraints and with far more responsibility. Even the best can miss things. Give an accurate pr&eacute;cis of the plot, not a folly of exuberant adjectives on glossy paper. Also, please post the pr&eacute;cis up alongside the book on Amazon. Every literary editor I know uses Amazon as a reference source. Good publishers appear to expend huge energies selling books in to Amazon, then leave them to flounder. Post up the reviews, make the author do a foreword, and get a website as good as Random House's.</p><p>Some critics are determined to hate everything they review, or see it as a blood sport. But the rest of us do it because, like you, we have a consuming passion for good books; and like you, we want to find the ones that could bring pleasure to readers and book buyers. We just don't want to be driven any crazier than we already are. </p><p>Amanda Craig is children's books editor for the TIMES, and reviews widely for the national press. She is Amazon.co.uk's no 9 reader's reviewer. Her latest novel is Love in Idleness (Little, Brown, &#163;12.99). Her website address is www.amandacraig.com. </p>