Cyndy Aleo

Four Little Bees Writing & Editing

author, freelance writing, editing, and a little bit of web development, helping clients with content development, book editing, and blog set-up and customization

Reviewing is a privilege...

Funny, I usually start that sentence out with the word "Spandex" and not "reviewing," but coming out on the other side of it, I have a really different perspective of what it means to be a reviewer of things.

When I first quit my programming job to stay home with my first child, I was absolutely at a loss. I'd been working since I was 14 years old, and while I wanted to be with my kid more than anything, I felt absolutely useless not bringing money in.

And the first thing I did when I decided to start writing was join a site called Epinions.

Most of you probably have never heard of it, but if it wasn't for Epinions, you wouldn't have all those nifty product reviews on web sites like Amazon. Epinions was bought out by -- and subsequently sunk massively -- by eBay, but in 1999? It was cutting-edge. And we made decent money.

I made friends there that I still have now all this time later, but the best thing about it was that there was a community, and every single person there wanted you to be better at reviewing. We reviewed everything that wasn't nailed down (and some things that were), but we did it with the mindset that we were providing a valuable service. When I was pregnant in 1999, I had no idea which car seat was better than any other one, and there weren't a lot of places to find out.

By the time the site closed, I had written over 1200 reviews; my reviews had seen well over a million hits; and I was ranked in the top 50 or top 100 reviewers of all-time on the site. During my time reviewing, I received a ton of free stuff, ranging from small cleaning items to a multi-function printer and car seats.

I never got rich doing it, but I made a decent amount of money over the years, and it led me to the three years I spent reviewing for RT Book Reviews.

Here's what I learned, however, and whether you're starting out with a review blog or contributing to a site where you bought your product, they're helpful to keep in mind:

1. You aren't reviewing for you. You are reviewing for other people.

That's a big one. There have been times when the product absolutely wasn't right for me, but I could see how other people would like it. And the opposite can also be true: I might love something, but other people might be put off by it. There are very few things in this world that are all good or all bad, and part of being a great reviewer is being able to see more than just your perspective.

2. No one owes you anything. Ever.

I don't care how famous you are, or how many hits your blog gets, or what your review ranking is on Vine. No one owes you a thing. Yes, a great review can help a product sell better, but in the end, you are one person, and there is a line behind you of people who want free stuff. Everyone wants something for free. You may get a bump in line because you are performing a service, but that doesn't mean it's what you deserve.

The worst example I ever saw of this was while at Epinions. One year instead of holiday bonuses, we got high-end items to review. A printer -- that at the time retailed for $250 -- showed up at my door unexpectedly. There were a lot of people who complained about what they got, but I GOT A FREE $250 PRINTER. How do you complain about that? Problem was, the complainers were louder, and that was the only year that happened.

Moral: Don't be that person and ruin it for everyone. You learned to say thank you even if you didn't like something back in kindergarten. Make your mama proud.

3. Reviewing is a mutually beneficial relationship. Remember that.

There seems to be a mentality that reviewing is a one-way street, but it isn't. Sure, the company whose product you are reviewing gets free publicity, but you are also getting free stuff AND ADDING TO YOUR OWN VISIBILITY. Think about it: the book blogs that have the most traffic are the ones that get the biggest authors, right?

To get those big books, those bloggers had to start somewhere. To get better products, reviewers like Vine reviewers had to start somewhere as well. And as reviewing has gotten bigger, the pool of reviewers has gotten bigger as well. If a company handed out a free item to every single person who asked, guess what? There'd be nothing to sell, and they'd go out of business.

Reviewers have always been chosen based on how much they can help the company. That's all there is to it. What kind of platform do you have? How many followers do you have? How many people are reading your reviews? How valuable is your review?

And remember: no one owes anyone anything. I have multiple friends who are NYT bestselling authors. I buy their books like anyone else off the street. They don't owe me free books or ARCs just because we are friends. Why would they? This is a business, like any other, and they have to make a living. And if friends don't owe friends books, why on earth would they owe them to anyone with a hand out?

If I happen to get an ARC or a signed copy? I am immensely grateful. And it's a pleasant surprise, not something I would ever expect. (And 9 times out of 10, I buy the book anyway. And I bought a copy of every book I loved so much I want to read again. Because authors need money, too.)

4. Assess your platform

Your reviews have to provide value, or there's no point in doing them. If you 5-star everything? Potential customers aren't going to trust that you know what they'll like. There's a reason that big-deal publications are the ones that get their reviews on the covers of books or on the product packaging: Customers have learned that they can be trusted. Those places have established that they're unbiased, critical, and, as a result, have built a large audience.

5. BE. POLITE.

A few years ago, it was a newsworthy event to see someone go off the rails. Now, it's an occurrence I see multiple times a day. The internet these days seems to be a rage-involved culture, and people seem to react with knee-jerk reactions.

And I get it! I really do. It SUCKS getting denied when you apply to review something. Even a publication like RT -- which has been around for years and has established itself as an industry leader -- has some titles they can't get their hands on as ARCs. It could be that the budget for a publisher wasn't large enough to hit all the outlets. It could be that the release schedule was running behind and galleys weren't going to be available in time for print. It could be that there's a fear that reviews won't be good, and any pre-publicity will hurt sales. Or it could just be that so many people were clamoring for a title that they reached their allotment.

It happens to everyone. And it can feel like a personal rejection. I got spoiled getting ARCs for so long, and I hate waiting for release day to read books I'm anticipating. Shoot, even when I WAS reviewing, I couldn't get my hands on ARCs all the time. (Case in point, Erika Swyler's THE BOOK OF SPECULATION, which is magnificent). Guess what I did?

Nothing. I didn't bitch out a publicist for rejecting me. I didn't have a tantrum. I didn't take to social media to shout "HOW DARE YOU IGNORE ME! DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY BOOKS MY PULL QUOTES ARE ON THE COVERS OF?"

I waited until the book came out, and I bought a copy, and I read it just like everyone else. And then I posted a review on Goodreads, and keep telling people about it.

See, the thing is, I think a lot of times people lose sight of the entire purpose of reviewing, which is to help other people. You want to tell them when something is so amazing they should go right ahead and spend their hard-earned money on it. And you want to tell them to save their money when something is terrible.

Reviewing isn't about the reviewer and the reviewer's ego. It's about everyone else but the reviewer. And any good reviewer will keep that in mind. Always.