I got what I’d politely call a very confrontational e-mail from an author last week. She writes for a smaller press (electronic and POD), and referred to herself as an “independent author.”  The gist of her e-mail was that AAR unfairly discriminates against “independent authors.”

Now, I’m not new to this job; I’ve been doing it for over a decade now. I learned long ago that there’s no way to please everyone. In fact, there are some days when I feel like I can’t please anyone (reviewers, readers, authors, publishers). But this particular e-mail made me realize that perhaps some clarification was in order.

1. We make decisions with readers in mind. Advertising and Amazon commissions pay the bills, but we review books for readers. It’s reader interest that I keep in mind when I make book assignments, and when I prioritize books for review. In that sense, it’s never going to be “fair.”  “Fair” would mean I lined books up in a row, without regard to author or publisher, and randomly jabbed them with a hatpin. Then assigned them on that basis. Which, as you can imagine, would make our site completely irrelevant. Fair or unfair, Lisa Kleypas and Nora Roberts are going to get preferential treatment over a self-published author you’ve never heard of.

2. We love to promote great new books, but that’s not our job…at least not exactly. Believe us, when we read a great book, we want to shout it from the rooftops. I remember when Anne Marble wrote that DIK review of Adele Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline.  At the time, the only print game in town had completely ignored it (and then later gave it a half-hearted review).  There’s no question in my mind that Anne helped put Adele on people’s radar. Because AAR has become something of an institution – and because there are plenty of honest bloggers out there offering opinions – I think it can be easy to forget that candid reviews used to be much harder to come by.  I’ve had plenty of my own promotional zeal at times.  But our job is really reviewing, not promotion.  Our goal in reviewing a book is to help the reader decide whether it’s worth buying…whether we liked it or not.  I’ve had people tell me they rushed right out and bought something that I’ve recommended.  I’ve also had them tell me they rushed out and bought something I hated, or not bought something I loved because they could tell they wouldn’t love it.  I’m fine with all those reactions.

So you may wonder, how do we prioritize?  First of all, reviewers choose their own books from a list of what’s available. So their interest has a lot to do with it.  But the list itself is prioritized (because, as I said, more people are going to want to know about Lisa Kleypas’s latest than the newest book by a self-published author they’ve never heard of).  Top priority is given to romances by major publishers.  Then, as time and interest allows, we review women’s fiction (or books with romantic elements that aren’t straight romances), romances published by smaller presses, chick lit, mysteries, etc.  When you see reviews for books that are not romances, it’s often because the reviewer read it on her own time and wrote up the review as a bit of a bonus – it’s not a zero sum game where reviewing a YA book means forgoing a mainstream romance.

And I’ll tell you something I told the “independent author” of the e-mail: Authors are published independently (meaning not by a major publisher) for two reasons. The first is that they have written a niche book that mainstream publishers do not deem marketable.  It may be brilliant, but it’s not something that has a wide appeal.  The second reason is that their work isn’t really ready for prime time.  Every independent author thinks her book belongs in the first category.  A few of them are right, but a lot of them aren’t.  It’s wonderful to find a gem out there, published by a smaller press.  Unfortunately, we’re never going to have the manpower to read them all.  What we can do, however, is keep our ear to the ground.  We try to find books that people are talking about, books the grab our interest – while making sure that we still review the Lisa Kleypases and Nora Robertses of the world.

We do this because we love it – and we also do it for free.  All of us have jobs, families, and other demands on our time. We review for AAR for the sheer love of it.  Free books are great, it’s true.  But there have been quite a few over the years that felt very much like work.  We read them so you won’t have to.  Because I’ve been at this a long time, I’ve seen people come and go.  I have a good idea of how much dedication it takes to do this year in and year out (a lot).  We do it because we love it, because it’s worth it, and because we think providing honest reviews is important (even if, as we so often say, it isn’t rocket science).

–Blythe Barnhill