Note: Yes, fellow blizzard friends and horrible, mean, dry, warm people elsewhere in the country, I am writing this from under about 30 inches of snow. So far the power and the heat have both stayed on, and the enforced solitude will be tons of fun right up until I have to get out the shovel.
A couple of days ago, I wrote about the cancellation of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and how my experience in the contest was too great a disappointment for me to mourn its passing. I wrote about the unsatisfactory results of the quarterfinal round, where I received my review from Publisher’s Weekly, and accused the powers-that-be of sloppiness, inattention, and general negligence when skimming through Dark the Night Descending on their way to tossing it in the trash bin.
I stand by pretty much everything I’ve said about the contest, but I was fortunate enough to receive an unsolicited email from a long-time ABNA judge and regular PW reviewer, Thriller Guy, who had a couple of salient points about what happens on the receiving end of the process.
Here is part of the very long letter, which I am reproducing here mostly just to put it on the record in the interest of fairness. I do encourage you to read the whole thing:
I’m always reading a book for review. I’ve done reviews for every genre, though I’m now primarily reviewing Thrillers. So it wasn’t me who reviewed your book last year! I always forget about the ABNA until PW asks if I’ll do it again, I say yes and forget about it again until the stack of books rolls in a few months later and I realize I’ve got to read them and review them on top of my regularly scheduled reviews. All this is to point out that I’m not exactly a bored PW intern.
I’ve never been entirely clear on what the books I’m judging have gone through before they get to me, mostly because I’ve never asked. There’s probably an intern involved somewhere, though I can assure you that by the time it gets to me — the quarter-finals, I guess — the reviewers are “professionals” who are pretty much donating their time, even though, as you say, they toss a couple of hundred dollars at us.
Since I deal with writers who are, many of them, just starting out, I can assure you that if I had to read every submission in its entirety from the earliest stages of the contest I would go insane. You’d be amazed how many folks out there can’t follow the simplest directions for submitting their books, and, I’m sorry to say, how many really, really terrible books do make it onto desks to be evaluated before being moved along or rejected. I mean terrible in that some of them look like they’ve been “written” by little children who are trying to operate in a grown-up arena.
So I consider the people who are on the front line of this book assault to be saintly in their patience at even undertaking the task. Maybe they’re interns, I don’t know, but I doubt they’re bored. Frustrated, driven mad, overworked, and unappreciated is probably more like it.
In addition to simply reading, when I write the review, PW has me note every character name in the book, reference every major plot development, quote (if used in the review), every major geographical location shift, and back up any negative impressions about the writing with references to pages. Then my saintly editor checks every one of those references to make sure I haven’t screwed up, and then his editor checks his rewrites (at which point they may ask questions to clarify what I’ve written, which I answer) and then the review goes into the magazine.
So when I write a review for the ABNA books, I have done all that same work. I don’t know who’s only reading four chapters, but it must be the folks who read the books before I get them, because I read every word of every book and make notes before I write my review.
I suppose there are others who do less, but there are always people who do less, though I think probably it makes little difference in the long run. It’s just not my ethic to not give every book the same due diligence, and I have a feeling I am the norm rather than the exception.
I can assure you that no book reviewer opens a book, or turns on a Kindle, looking for a bad book or a way to say that a book is bad. Every time the hope is, “OK, maybe I’ve got a prizewinner, this is going to be great, grab me by the neck and pull me into the pages.” If it doesn’t happen, the reviewer does his job and tries to explain what went wrong. And open the next book on the pile.
I had a nice discussion about all this with Thriller Guy, who seemed genuinely passionate about what he does and how he does it. While it was heartening to hear that at least some ABNA competitors probably received a thoughtful review, we both came to the conclusion that I, and pretty much everyone on this thread, probably just succumbed to the luck of the draw.
Thriller Guy seemed to think that PW was probably unaware of the vitriol sparked by the disproportionate number of inaccurate and hasty write-ups, and offered to pass it on our comments to someone in the office who might be interested to hear it. Since the contest is now kaput, there’s little to be done about it. But it’ll be nice to know that we’re being heard in some small way, regardless. I’m glad to give at least one of the judges the same courtesy.