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How to Spot a Phony Book Reviewer

I've been a practicing book reviewer and a keenly interested observer of the publishing industry since the fall of 1976. My more than 20 years as a reviewer, monthly book review newsletter editor, radio and television producer of weekly book review programs, and Editor-in-Chief of the Midwest Book Review supervising the work of 37 volunteer book reviewers across the United States and Canada has taught me a great deal as both a creator of book reviews, an editor of the reviews of others, and the needs and problems of the independent small press publisher with respect to being reviewed.

For the publisher, the primary purpose of the book review is to extract from it publicity and promotion values which will, in turn, result in an increase of sales for the reviewed book. The principal hazard facing the publisher with respect to reviews is getting panned by an honest book reviewer or scammed by a phony book reviewer.

With respect to an unfavorable review by a legitimate reviewer, I can offer the publisher nothing but my sympathy. But with respect to getting taken by the dishonest scam artist posing as a reviewer of books, I can offer some very practical advice on how to avoid getting "taken" by alerting the publisher as to what to look for, what to ask, and how to verify.

This is important money-saving information for every tight budget, every-penny-counts, small press publisher. This is because not only is there the loss of the book (and the shipping and handling costs to send the book), but there is also the absence of the hoped-for publicity and promotion boost for the published book in a very competitive retail marketplace.

Plus, there is the lost opportunity to send that same book (and expend those same limited postage monies) to a legitimate reviewer and thereby reaping the marketplace benefits of a legitimate review set before a prospective audience of potential buyers.

Book Reviewers can be categorized much the same as the books they are sent for review: there are the good, the bad, and the mediocre.

The hallmarks of any good book reviewer begin with feedback to the publisher. This is ultimately expressed with the reviewer furnishing the publisher a copy of the review. Typically this is in the form of a tear sheet from their publication or a script from their radio or television program. This tear sheet or review script is usually accompanied by a cover letter giving any additional details such as the date of publication or the time of broadcast.

There is new phenomena in book reviewing having to do with the Internet and the World Wide Web. When reviews are posted on the Internet, the reviewer's publisher notification letter will include the text of the review post, and indicate what Web sites, newsgroups, online bookstores, or e-mail lists (Internet discussion groups) were posted to so that the publisher can verify the postings accordingly.

A bad reviewer isn't the one who pans your book with an honest (albeit negative) judgement, it's the one who solicits a review copy of a publisher's book under false pretenses. Someone who wants a free copy of your book with no intention of fulfilling their side of the marketplace bargain to furnish an opinion for the publisher with regard to publicity and promotional needs, or for use of the potential book buyer in determining what is recommended for their reading pleasures or purposes.

In short, a bad reviewer is someone out to get something for nothing, a scam artist, a thief.

The mediocre reviewer is simply someone of good intentions but poor performance. Never underestimate the ability of a given book reviewer to be basically inept and a failure at the trade and craft of reviewing, just as there are those well-intentioned authors who couldn't write their way out of a paper bag, or those well-meaning publishers who can't seem to proof a text, or design a saleable cover, or balance a publishing budget.

The focus of this article is to provide a list of "tips, tricks & techniques" for daily use by independent, small press publishers in spotting a "bad reviewer," or at the very least, the "mediocre reviewer."

  1. Review copy solicitation by telephone.

    Never accept a request for a review copy of your book by a telephone call from someone you do not know, or the representative of a review organization that you have never heard of. When receiving such a telephone solicitation for a review copy, require the caller to submit a request to you in writing. No legitimate reviewer would ever argue with or refuse such a requirement.

  2. Review copy solicitation by e-mail.

    As the use of the Internet spreads throughout our society, and as more and more publishers come "online," we are gradually seeing the phenomena of e-mail (electronic mail) communications in much the same fashion as the telephone for the soliciting of review copies. The same rule applies to an e-mail review copy solicitation as to the telephone version. Require the e-mail sender to submit a request to you in a standard letter of request sent via the post office. There is a modicum of protection offered by U.S. Postal Service laws against using the mails for fraudulent purposes that may deter the phony book reviewer.

  3. Review copy solicitation by mail.

    When a review copy solicitation letter arrives in your mailbox, be certain that it is written on letterhead stationery that includes the reviewer's address and a phone number. These two items often give you (and the U.S. Post Master General) the information necessary to verify the legitimacy of the reviewer.

    I would also advise that a street address be required, rather than merely a post office box. This is because "fly-by-night" scams are often easier to perpetrate through the use of post office boxes, than through the use of street addresses. This advice is controversial amongst some, feeling as they do that it unnecessarily casts suspicion over legitimate businesses that use post office boxes honestly. My response is that these good folk are usually selling something, where the unknown book reviewer is asking to receive something -- for free. While it is possible to run a scam from a street address, it is far more commonplace among con artist operations to use the mobility of the post office box to run their game until they get found out, then pull up stakes, change their name, and get another post office box.

  4. Confirming book reviewer credentials.

    There are several excellent techniques at the disposal of the publisher to confirm the legitimacy of a prospective book reviewer who has made a request for a review copy.

    Ask for a sample copy of their publication. If a radio or television program, request a copy of their show. If a free lance reviewer, ask for copies of reviews that they have done and a list of the media outlets or book review publications that have featured their work.

    Ask for professional references. Are there other publishers who have used them in the past? Are there independent publicists, newsletter or newspaper editors, radio or television show producers to whom they've successfully provided reviews? If there are then call those references and check them out. If there is not, ignore the request.

    Join publisher groups like SPAN (Small Publishers Association of North America) and IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association), and Internet discussion groups like PubForum, Publish-L, and SPAN. Then, as a participant in these groups, ask your professional colleagues if they have ever heard of, or had dealings with, this or that reviewer or book review organization.

  5. Be cautious, it's your first time together.

    If you have now checked out the prospective reviewer according to the above advice and things seem kosher, send out just one book for review consideration the first time around. This is not a problem with the very small publisher who only has the one book, but for a larger publisher with a multi-title list, or a lengthy, active back list, this limits the damage if the reviewer turns out to be a scam artist so clever that they got past your initial screening. When the reviewer proves legitimate and provides a review, more books can confidently be sent for review consideration later on.

  6. Having sent your book for review.

    Now that you've taken the chance and sent a review copy to the prospective book reviewer there is still one more thing to be done in order to insure that you are working with a "good reviewer," and not a scam artist masquerading as a reviewer -- FOLLOW UP.

    Some publishers use self-addressed postcards shipped with the review book, requesting that the reviewer pop them in the mail so that you will know that they received the book and possibly even be able to indicate a review date. These don't often work well as a feedback tool, even with legitimate book reviewers. There is another, better way to follow up on your review copy and at the same time enhance the chances of actually getting reviewed.

    Seven to 10 days after popping your review copy in the mail, make a phone call to the reviewer and ask these three questions (and in the order I'm going to lay them out for you):

    1. This is [your name here]. With the mails being as uncertain as they are, I'm calling to confirm that you received [your book title here].
    2. Can you tell me the current status of [your book title here] with respect to your review schedule?
    3. Is there any further information or assistance I can provide you?

    No legitimate reviewer will object to these three questions as I have stated them. Reviewers are well aware that sometimes things go astray in the mails or that books get damaged in transit. Reviewers also understand that publishers are very interested in whether or not their book will "make the cut" and get reviewed. There is also the occasional need for additional information -- an ISBN number, more author bio details, an 800 number, the availability of an e-mail address or the presence of a Web site, etc.

    If, despite all your precautions (and my good advice), you have indeed been taken in by a phony book reviewer, then do one last thing before chalking it up to experience. Write to your publisher association's newsletter and/or make a post to your publisher Internet discussion group and denounce the person who masqueraded as a legitimate reviewer so that other independent, small press publishers can be forewarned and benefit from your experience. We are all our brother's keepers in the sense that we have an obligation to help one another keep from harm's way.

  7. And finally, I've been reviewing books and advising publishers on "Tips, Tricks & Techniques for Getting Reviewed" for more than 20 years now. It is my firm belief that most people asking for review copies are very well-meaning and honest in their intention. The scam artists are few in number and not at all difficult to spot if you know what to ask, what to require, and what to look for. While there will inevitably be a few bad apples in any apple barrel, the overwhelming majority of the apples will still make good eating. And even a bad apple can be turned into satisfying fertilizer with a little cooperative effort!

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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