On Editorial Reviews

May 18, 2021

My sales and marketing experience taught me that the best form of advertising will always be word of mouth. For selling products in the digital age, this often comes down to product reviews. I rely on reviews as part of my decision-making process as a consumer, including books. As an author, I’ve used several sources to build a review base for my published and unpublished work thus far. One of those sources was commissioning editorial reviews from three different services.

An editorial review differs from a reader review, at least in this case, because I paid to have them written. I wasn’t buying marketing copy–although I’m welcome to use them for that purpose. I was paying for a reviewer’s time and effort. It’s not much different than sending out press packets in the hope that news outlets will pick up my book and publish a review. But, in my case, I’m the one paying the reviewer instead of the news outlet.

Commissioning an editorial review doesn’t guarantee that it will be favorable. If your book is poorly written, formatted, or edited, your review will probably indicate as much. So when I submitted my book, I was prepared to get negative reviews in return. But I wasn’t prepared to get reviews that are outright queer and transphobic. Silly me.

The first review I received was generally mediocre to negative. It surprised me because it was so much different than the reviews I’d received from readers who’d received Advanced Review Copies. But one passage brought the whole review into perspective:

Additionally, throughout the novel, the author attempts to show LGBTQ characters living and loving just like everyone else. But his use of the plural pronouns “they” and “their” for “he,” “she,” “his,” and “hers,” seems random rather than consistent and becomes confusing

That was frustrating to read. At best, it represented the reviewer’s lack of understanding around pronoun use. At worst, it demonstrated their queer and transphobia. Either way, it was poorly written and edited, and the reviewer was far too liberal in their use of scare quotes. Those last two sentences used singular they/them pronouns, by the way.

When I raised the issue to the service who provided the review, they admitted that perhaps they’d made the wrong choice of reviewer and agreed to submit it to a different reader for a new review.

Then I got my second review back:

There are occasional rhetorical oddities along the way that can be a bit distracting; for example, the narration inconsistently refers to singular characters by plural pronouns, which can be particularly confusing in group action sequences.

I started to sense a pattern.

You see, one editorial decision I made writing the work in question was to only identify characters with gendered pronouns when their gender was known by the narrator. Any other characters were referred to exclusively with they/them pronouns when pronouns were necessary. It was challenging to write this way since they can be used as both a singular and plural pronoun, forcing me to explicitly include context to help the reader decode any passages where I had multiple non-gendered characters. I frequently did this by adding context such as hair color/length, skin tone, style of dress, and profession. It will be challenging to some readers who are used to having the world defined explicitly in binary genders and assuming someone’s gender based solely on their appearance and presentation.

I made the same complaint to this other service, and they’ve indicated that they’ll look into it and get back to me. I published the review anyhow because, despite that passage, it’s a good review.

Then I got the final review back.

Still, an exchange between Cam and homophobic bullies in a bar feels included to force commentary, and some of the book’s nonbinary characters, who are not developed beyond those qualities, also feel out of place in the story.

There, the reviewer seems to refer to my use of they/them pronouns again. But they came at it sideways since I only included a single, named, nonbinary character in the story. The rest of the characters I referred to with they/them pronouns were not gender-specific. Also, that bit about using the bar fight to “force commentary” is a microaggression of the highest order and is just plain dumb. Get over it, straight person.

Some of the reviewers who picked up Advance Review Copies got it without prompting, so I know that it’s possible. But given the editorial reviews, I’m considering including a forward in the book explaining how I’ve used pronouns to help readers avoid confusion.

I don’t know if I’ll commission editorial reviews again, or if I’ll use the services that have forced me into a lot of emotional labor. It depends on how the outstanding issues get resolved. If I do, I’ll at least be better prepared to get queer and transphobic commentary.