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Defacing Review Copies

"People who review books love books. This is fact. If you try to take away a book's value before sending it out to reviewers, you will show reviewers a book without value. And a book without value is certainly not worthy of review." --Linda Richards

I've been in the book review game for 23+ years now, seeing on average 1500+ titles a month from 1200+ publishers (big, medium, small, and miniscule). I have supervised what must be hundreds of aspiring reviewers over the last couple of decades and I can tell you that for the vast majority of them, Linda has given an accurate description to their motives -- they love books and wanted a platform upon which they could declaim their views and opinions about what they were reading.

Concern for the scam artist posing as a reviewer and ripping off review copies for sale to used bookstores and the like is very real and quite justified. That's why so many publishers end up stamping, clipping, or otherwise marking their review books in an effort to ensure that a review copy doesn't compete with their sales efforts, or that distributors and bookstores don't return them to the publisher for an undeserved credit.

Some scam artists are notorious, others (especially in large book review organizations like the New York Times Book Review) have recurring problems with mail room clerks that do their annual Christmas shopping out of the incoming book boxes and parcels.

And still other reviewers simply clear their overburdened shelves from time to time in order to make room for still more incoming review book mail. It's no secret -- review copies are a form of revenue for some legitimate book review organizations in general and for a lot of legitimate book reviewers in particular.

Prepublished review organizations dealing only with galleys, uncorrected proofs, and prepublication manuscripts don't tend to run into this controversy -- although it has been known to happen. It's the post-published review organizations for which it is a matter of perennial concern.

Every publisher has a perfect right to mark their proffered review book in any manner they wish. And every reviewer has a perfect right to ignore such stamped and stapled books in preference to a book that is pristine and flawless.

Given human nature as I have experienced and observed it, in myself and numerous others, the inclination is to pass over the flawed and marked and stamped in favor of the flawless, the unmarked, and the unstamped -- because my time is limited and the competition for my time allottable to reviewing books is similarly constricted and I have a decided sense of the aesthetic that plays into my review book selection process.

I do not automatically boycott stamped books; indeed, when they've been accompanied by letters identifying the publisher as a fellow PMA folk, I've gone considerably out of my way to persuade my reviewers (and myself) to take them on for "the good of the cause of small press publishing).

You see, my reviewers are all volunteers and the only compensation they receive is that they get to keep what they review and to see their review in print with their names attached.

In my opinion, it therefore comes down to a marketing decision on the part of the publisher. You know you are in a fierce competition with the other titles in those towering stacks of books awaiting review consideration or assignment, so what do you want to risk in order to enhance the chances that it will be your book winning out over all those others?

For publishers with those very real and quite justified fears about being abused by the reviewing industry, and yet not wanting to lose out to their competition in the reviewing process, I would recommend the following:

  1. Do your marketing research about what reviewers and/or review organizations are truly worth your investing the cost of a review copy. There are ways to identify the scam artists (see my article on "How to Spot a Phony Book Reviewer" originally published in the Small Press Magazine for March/April 1997 and now available as one of the "Advice for Publishers" pieces) and avoid those people altogether. The better you hone your reviewer list, the less capital you will waste in having review copies fail being reviewed and/or being wasted effort and unfairly sold off.

  2. If you must mark your book, do so on the inside cover or the bottom of the title page. A stamp saying "Review Copy Only - Not For Sale" should suffice. This is because:

    • Any book that has its cover disfigured is automatically ineligible for inclusion into a weekly television show like the Midwest Book Review's "Bookwatch" or a network show like Oprah because we use the books themselves as additional graphics for our television cameras.

    • Most (if not all) of my volunteer reviewers are book lovers for whom books are not mere merchandise but objects of art and beauty in their own right and that figures into their selection decision -- and quite often into their review commentary as well.

    • With respect to those publishers who feel that it's the content, not the appearance that should count most, I can only say that in the real world it's the cover that sells the book first -- content often depends on that first impression given by the physical appearance of the book that contains it. It is a truth in marketing to the book-buying public and a truth in competing for reviewer attention as well.

  3. Consider that review copy a capital investment in your overall publicity/promotion campaign. While you are going to find review copies popping up in bookstores -- there is always the possible serendipity of that particular review copy creating a demand for more purchases of your book because someone, somewhere, stumbled upon it and became a key word-of-mouth promoter that they would not otherwise have been. We've had such stories posted to this list in the past -- and I believe them.

  4. So basically, remember whom you are dealing with when it comes to reviewers: The good, the bad, and the mediocre.

    • The good ones are the ones who will give you an honest consideration -- don't begrudge them whatever perk they can get when you remember that part of the review copy bargain is that they get to keep what they are offered for review and because it became their property, they can do what they will with it.

    • The mediocre ones are simply those whose aspirations simply don't measure up to their performance (as judged by you the publisher). Your ability to redress this situation consists of simply not offering them any more titles for review in the future.

    • The bad ones are the scam artists, the thieves masquerading as book reviewers. So do your homework and follow the points laid out in my article and which I recited at last year's PMA-U, when I was on the book review workshop panel, and avoid such people in the first place.

At the very least, if someone you don't know approaches you for a review copy, ask the folk on the Pub-Forum and Publisher-L listservs if they know anything about them.

For example, Schiffer Books just got a brand new publicity director who has never heard of me or the Midwest Book Review (even though I had been doing business with her predecessor for years). Indeed, Rebecca Helmeczi did exactly the right thing -- she asked me to provide her with information about myself and the Midwest Book Review. No legitimate reviewer or review organization would ever hesitate to provide their credentials or take umbrage at such a request from a publisher.

I want to personally thank Linda for her post. And to thank all those publishers who put their viewpoints into the discussion as well. It's discussion threads like Pub-Forum and Publish-L that make my time with small press publishers feel so productive and worthwhile.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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