Thursday, May 13, 2021

Dear O'Abby - Can my publisher drop me for writing reviews?

 Dear O'Abby,

I was inspired to write in when I saw that you and the team were doing book reviews throughout the A to Z.  You see, I have a question about writing reviews.  Or maybe not a question so much as a problem...

My first book is due to come out this year with a small press.  Wanting to be supportive of my fellow authors, I bought a few books published by this press that looked like they'd be up my alley and read them with the intention of leaving reviews on as many platforms as possible.

The first book I read was okay.  Not great, but okay.  I gave it a three-star review and pointed out the book's strengths and weaknesses in my review.

The next day I got an email from my publisher asking me to remove the review or to rewrite it to be more positive - at least four-stars.  It wasn't a really threatening email, but it irked me.  I gave my honest opinion of the book and was generous in giving it three stars.  It was NOT a four-star read for me.

So I wrote back and told the publisher that the review was my honest opinion and that I was uncomfortable with the idea of changing or removing my review.  I have written book reviews for years and nobody has ever asked me to change one before.  I review pretty much every book I read on Goodreads, and when I remember, I post to other platforms too.

About an hour later I got another email from the publisher saying it was not company policy to leave reviews for fellow authors that were below four stars.

This was not something I remembered reading - if I had, it would have been a big red flag for me -  so I went back to look at the publishing contract and other documents I'd received when I signed my book to this press.  Nowhere did it say anything about writing reviews or that there was any policy regarding writing reviews.  So I wrote back and pointed this out to the publisher.

I heard nothing more, so I figured the matter was settled.  I read a bunch more books, not from this publisher (and reviewed them honestly), leaving the other ones I'd bought unread on my Kindle.  A month or so later I was away on a business trip and ran out of reading material, so opened up another one of the books from my publisher I'd bought.

It was terrible!  I could not believe that anything so badly written could possibly have been through an editor.  The tense changed constantly for no reason, characters names changed from chapter to chapter, and there were some massive punctuation errors that made it almost impossible to read.  And don't get me started on the actual story!

I finished the book and wrote an honest review in which I pointed out the inconsistencies and editing errors.  I hesitated before publishing it for a moment, but then went ahead because the book was so bad, I didn't want anyone else to make the mistake of paying good money for it.

The next day I got an email from my publisher saying they were sorry, but an editor working on my book, which was due to release the following month, had found some problematic material in it, and that they felt that without substantial editing, it was not suitable for their imprint.

Now I'd been through edits with an editor from this press and she'd mentioned nothing about problematic material.  I couldn't even imagine what could possibly be construed as problematic in my book.  Certainly none of my beta readers or critique partners had found anything problematic, and my crit group is extraordinarily diverse.  I asked what the issue was, and got no concrete answer.  Shortly afterward I received notification that my publishing contract had been terminated and the rights to my book returned to me.

Now, I admit I probably made a mistake in publishing that bad review, especially after being warned, but this feels very much like censorship.  And I'm angry because I don't believe a publisher has the right to do something like this.  I love writing book reviews and I like to think my reviews help people make informed decisions about what they might like to read.  And I'm angry because pulling the book less than a month before release is a shitty thing to do.  Especially since this small press does very little marketing and promotion and I'd done a ton of work in that area.

Sorry... This has ended up being a stupidly long letter. What I'm wondering, is if there is anything I can do now?



Dear Censored,

I'm so sorry to hear that this has happened to you! What a horrible experience.

Frankly, while I know it's disappointing, I feel like you may have dodged a bullet with this one.  You got your rights back without a protracted legal battle, and you're not bound in any way to a publisher who is not only wholly unethical, but obviously doesn't take a lot of pride and care with the books they publish.

I have never experienced something like this, but I have heard rumours of it happening at at least one small press (which could be the one we're talking about here, or may be another one) and just reading about it left a bad taste in my mouth.  Like you, I write a lot of book reviews and rate everything I read on Goodreads even if I don't write a full review.    And I don't always write good reviews.

I don't know if you're the kind of person who likes to make waves, but it might be worth reaching out to other authors published by this publisher to find out if any of them have had similar experiences.  I would also suggest getting in touch with Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware and flagging this with her.  She may already be aware of problems with this publisher, but if she isn't, it would be worth getting this on her radar so she can keep an eye on them in case there are other unethical things they might be doing.

I don't know where in the world you are, or where the publisher is, but there may be a legal case to be had too, given how close to publication your book was.  I'd be cautious in taking this route though, because legal battles are costly, and even if you are in the right, it might not go in your favour.

It's probably cold comfort, but if you managed to get a book accepted once, you can do it again.  Or if you're feeling gun shy  (and you have every right to be after this experience), you can self-publish and keep control in your own hands.  

And whatever you do, don't stop writing reviews.  You're entitled to your opinion of what you read as much as anyone else and I reject the idea that writers shouldn't write reviews (even bad ones) because they might upset publishers or agents who might be considering your project. Reviews - good or bad - are part of the business, and not every person is going to love every book.  It's just something you deal with in publishing.  

And writing honest, constructive reviews is very different to the Goodreads pile-ons I sometimes see where people rush to condemn something they haven't read just because someone else says it's problematic.  That's just as bad as what your publisher did.

I hope this helped, and I wish you all the best in finding a new (and better) home for your book and any future books.

Do keep in touch to let us know what happens.

X O'Abby

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