Most of the reviewers I know, myself included, are very much a part of the literary world. We go to writer's conferences, we sit at bars and schmooze with authors, we attend readings and book launches. On top of being reviewers, many of us are aspiring authors as well. This is where things get a little sticky.
Although I receive most of my review books from the editors, I do get quite a few mailed to me directly, most including a note, "It was great to meet you at (insert conference/bar/reading/launch here) and I wanted to make sure you got an advance copy of my book, etc." One of the main reasons I started writing reviews is because I wanted to help launch the newbies. I wanted to discover a great debut novelist, or a little known restaurant or some Indy Colombian film that no one had ever heard of and give them some press. I try and read everything that is sent to me, but I do admit that when books are sent to me personally, somehow they find their way to the top of the stack.
But what if the book is not good? What if I do not like the book written by the author that I sat at a bar with who took the time to think of me and send me their ARC? Do I write an honest review and just hide when I see them at writer's conferences? Do I not review the book at all and just make up some BS about why it didn't make the cut?
I feel that there is still no consensus among authors and publishers as to whether it is better to have a bad review than no review at all. If it was up to me, I prefer writing no review at all. Why would I want to finish a bad book?
However, books that are assigned to me by editors get a review no matter what. A good example is a book I reviewed for Time Out. I really didn't enjoy the book and, if it had been sent to me privately, I would have put it down. But since I was assigned it, I plowed through and wrote a brutally honest review. In the moment just before I saved and sent it, I did envision the author, running to the news stand to check out her review and feeling crushed by my words. After all, I'm an author myself. I know how it feels to have someone dog your hard work. But in the end, the author did come away with something, managing to take the one line of praise and use it as a blurb.
My advice for authors is this: think about what you really want when you, or your publicist, send out ARCs. If it comes to me first, it will either get a good review or no review at all. The upside to it is if I REALLY like a book, I'll be its biggest advocate, pitching it around to different publications, trying to get some feature articles. But if I don't like it, I'm putting it down and there won't be any bad press for you. If you send books to an editor, two things could happen. If it's a big publication, it could get lost in the stacks and not get reviewed anyway. Or, it could get assigned to a freelance reviewer, like myself, and definitely get a review, but you take your chances whether it will be positive or negative.
I think I speak for most (good) reviewers when I say that we got into this business for our love of reading and nothing makes us happier than praising a book. We don't want to hate the books we're assigned, we don't want to write scathing reviews. But, just like the authors I try and promote, I am trying to make a name for myself as a credible critic, and I can't do that if I'm positive about everything that comes across my desk.