Monday, March 29, 2010

Conversation with Jim Cox: On Book Review Ethics

INTRODUCTION:


Below you will find a string of e-mails reprinted, in part, from "The Jim Cox Report."  The first is copied directly from Cox’s newsletter and it includes the copy of an e-mail sent to him and a response from Jim to that e-mail. Then you will see that Jim and I started a conversation on the all-important subject of book reviews. Jim gave me permission to reprint the thread and am doing so because I feel there is so much misunderstanding going around about reviews, even among seasoned writers. And, of course, I reprinting because Jim is not only an expert on the subject, but is also one of the few reputable review journals/sites that is fully open to review books regardless of how they are published. I hope you will take the time to follow the thread, maybe even print it out to read at your leisure. It wouldn’t be in this letter if I didn’t think was worth your time.


FROM THE JIM COX REPORT
Publisher Folk, Friends & Family:


When you are in the business of working with people--and most especially self-published authors--it is inevitable that from time to time you have to engage with disappointment, disaffection, disillusion, and even outrage. The key to success in such dealings is to remain calm, compassionate, realistic, and informational.
I received a letter of complaint, accusation, demand, and threat from a Mr. Ken Jarman, a self-published author (Barefoot Through The Goathead Patch) whose review copy submissions to the Midwest Book Review did not result in a review.
Professional book reviewers and book review publications all too often turn down self-published authors from consideration simply because every now and then they have to deal with the naiveté, emotional involvement, ignorance, unrealistic expectations from a few self-published authors ultimately resulting in threats and hard feelings against the reviewer, and/or the editorial staff of the book review organization.
I'm going to share my response to just such a contact with just such a self-published author. The reason why I put up with belligerent authors is that they are few and far between, plus I've always seen as part of my responsibility as the editor-in-chief of the Midwest Book Review to be that of an educator. So I want to share with other self-published authors information that will prove useful to them should they ever find themselves in Mr. Jarman's position.
Indeed, once the aggrieved self-published author learns the rules of the road with respect to book review guidelines and standards, often their tempers cool and they become more discriminating in their book review submission decisions. In other words, they become more professional and less emotional.
Here's my e-mail to that author:

Dear Mr. Jarman:

Your certified letter of November 9th has been received.

Your books arrived safely and passed my initial screening. Unfortunately they ultimately failed to achieve a review assignment. This is no reflection on the quality of your work because it made a quite favorable impression on me. Simply the unfortunate consequence of having only 76 reviewers to cope with the more than 2,300 titles a month arriving here for review consideration.
With respect to your concerns upon finding a review copy title for sale on the Internet there are some basic publishing industry standards that I would like to bring to your attention because as a self-published author your are apparently not aware of them.
All review copies submitted for review become the property of that reviewer and/or review publication to do with as they please, whether or not a review is generated, and whether or not a generated review is positive or negative with respect to the book in question
There are several instructional articles with respect to book reviewing, the book review process, what to do with reviews, and avoiding scam artists posing as reviewers.
I would direct your attention to the following articles and strongly suggest you read them:

1. Rules Regarding Review Copies
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/rules.htm

2. How To Spot A Phony Book Reviewer
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/phony.htm

3. Amazon Book Review Guidelines
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/amazguide.htm

4. Amazon Review Copy Policy
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/arcp.htm

5. A Conversation About Getting Your Book Reviewed
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/conversa.htm

6. Defacing Review Copies
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/deface.htm

7. Getting Reviews For Self Published Books
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/revself.htm

8. How The Book Review System Works
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/system.htm

9. On Book Reviews & Reviewers
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/bookrev.htm

10. On The Use Of Press Releases In Book Reviews
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/pressrel.htm

11. Publication & Book Review Timing
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/revcopy.htm

12. Publicity Released-Based Reviews
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/prbr.htm

13. Regarding Review Copies
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/regardin.htm

14. Reviewers, Accessibility, And Book Stamping
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/stamping.htm


One more general comment I'd like to make and its with regard to the overall tone of your letter. It's quite combative in nature, demanding that you be paid the full cover price for your review copies or dire consequences will result. I quote from your letter:
"Failing your immediate action, I will feel compelled to alert the authors of the two Self-Publishing manuals of my findings and alert the management of Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA, of which I am a member to warn members of potential unethical actions by some in your company. I will also alert other Publishing/Author organizations of which I am associated with on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter."
This attitude is precisely why most book review operations will not deal with self-published authors.
You might be interested to note that the Midwest Book Review was founded in 1976 and that I personally have become something of an elder statesman with respect to the publishing industry--simply through longevity in the business which includes a well-earned reputation as being an advocate of small-press publishing and self-published authors whenever possible.

One of the ways in which I try to assist aspiring authors and novice publishers (this includes the self-published author) is to write a monthly column for the publishing industry called the "Jim Cox Report". This is a column of advice, commentary, "tips, tricks & techniques", and resources for the small-press community.

You will find my columns archived on the Midwest Book Review web site at:
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/jimcox.htm

Incidentally, all the information on the Midwest Book Review web site (including the "Jim Cox Report") are free of charge.

This e-mail to you in response to your certified letter of November 9, 2010 and will be included in the [next issue of ] "Jim Cox Report" to benefit other self-published authors who may be in need of educating themselves as to the book review process and publishing industry standards with respect to review copy submissions.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

Mr. Jarman then responded to the above email:

Dear Mr. Cox,
It is unfortunate that you believe my letter was primarily frustration or anger over my book not receiving a review. As such, you have missed the point. I thought you would want to know what was happening in your company but I'm astonished that you believe you are operating within normal trade procedures and are indeed defending the process as your right. I believe that while it may be legal, it is unethical for any review copy to appear for sale on Amazon within three weeks of being sent, in direct competition with the publishers own books. I appreciate the articles you sent and they explain a lot. It is obvious that some Reviewers feel it is their right to dispose of the review copies "as they see fit" (some seem to have even institutionalize the process) and must rejoice when they receive copies not marked as such, thereby increasing the value of them. You are right this is a good learning experience for me. I will never send out a Review copy again without "Review Copy" stamped on it.

Sincerely,
Ken Jarman


Another e-mail excerpt from Jim to Mr. Jarman:
Thank you for your response. Publishers have every right to mark their review copies as they deem fit.

I appreciate the civility of your latest email. In return perhaps I can provide one more service to you. On the Midwest Book Review there is a book review data base called "Other Reviewers". You will find it at:

http://www.midwestbookreview.com/links/othr_rev.htm


This is an extensive listing of freelance book reviewers, book review publications, book review web sites, etc. A few (like Forward Magazine) are "pay for play" in that they charge for their reviews, but most are free of charge. Some are specialized (e.g. children's books, poetry, science fiction, etc) while others are more general in nature. (Editor’s

[Note: You will find another list at www.howtodoitfrugally.com/reviewers_and_review_journals.htm]

The trick is to go down the list (and it's a long one), when you see one that sounds promising, click on it and you'll be zapped to their particular Web site. Read through the Web site and you will be able to determine if they are thematically appropriate for your particular book. And if they are--what their submission guidelines are.
I wish you well in your endeavors and will include this latest exchange along with the first one in the next issue of my "Jim Cox Report.” It has a subscription list of about 3,000 and I believe our two exchanges will be to the benefit of a great many folk who are also trying to understand the publishing industry standards and issues that involve the book review process.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review


Jim continues in his newsletter:

 
Something to remember is that whenever confrontation occurs it is often quite possible that offended persons may well be having stress in other parts of their lives--and you just happen to be standing in the direct line of fire at the time.


But to balance this particular experience--just in this same past month I also received a letter containing a postage stamp contribution to "support the cause.” What's unique is that the letter containing the postage stamp contribution came from a self-published author who asked in that same letter that the review of their title be removed from Amazon and from the Midwest Book Review web site because it was so badly flawed.

I investigated--and sure enough, a new reviewer for whom this was their first assignment had so badly botched the review that I was compelled to delete it and remove the reviewer from any further considerations for assignments.


The old dictum that you can't please everybody holds true. But you can make disappointing them a teaching moment for themselves and for yourself.

Please remember that reviewers, like authors, come in three basic categories: The Good; The Bad; and The Mediocre. That's why dealing carefully and courteously with reviewers and with authors is always a good idea.

EXCERPT FROM MY NOTE TO JIM:

Oh, my gosh, Jim. Thank you for this issue. I too have had to deal with a couple frustrated authors after I worked hard trying to help market their books. Both times that happened around my now defunct Authors' Coalition and the book fair booths I put together on behalf of authors under its banner.
I took a different path. I did some hard thinking and decided that I'd rather be writing. Because I love to teach and help, I still only my books, my blogs [including this one] and my UCLA classes to authors--most of them newbies--now.
I'm so glad you didn't give up as easily as I. What you do for subsidy- and self-published authors is rare indeed. We need more patient educators, not fewer.
I definitely can see the temptation to charge for e-book reviews (or any kind) and know lots of people who charge and try very hard to maintain ethical standards as they do so. The trouble is, can they? The other issue is how are those reviews then perceived? Even Kirkus has lost some of its professional status with the "paid for" segment it started a couple years ago. And, to take it one step farther. Do we really think bookstore buyers and others put any credence in them? Witness how many have begun to distrust Amazon reviews. And how many have begun to misuse them.


Another thing. Do we really think that review begin to look like paid ads, that there is any point at all? That is what will happen eventually, no matter how careful some reviewers are to be impartial. Then we might as well just say we are selling paid advertising with a twist.
You have an amazing reputation and, unfortunately, the self- and subsidy-published books suffer from a poor one. Your acceptance of books based on quality--not the looks of its cover or the press it is printed on--is very nearly unique in the industry. I'd hate to see it compromised.
Just my two cents, as long as we're having this conversation and you mentioned it. (-: Guess it's the old journalist in me.

BTW, I think training in the field of publicity often helps with difficult situations we find ourselves, too. The question for me, is not whether I can handle it, it's whether I want to. Maybe a few years ago I would have felt it was worth it on the outside chance I could help, I'm beginning to understand that time is even more precious than I always thought it was.

I'm sure you know that the idea that reviewers should not resell their review copies has been going around the Web among writers for at least a decade. So many view it as unethical. Now we have the new tax laws that advise reviewers to include a disclaimer that they received a book "as payment." I find the idea laughable but more than that, I think it is misleading. The word "payment" suggests that the reviewer has been compensated for the review (and sufficiently!), which in turn removes a review from the ideal situation which is that they provide a completely unbiased opinion of the book because they haven't been paid. No wonder people are confused! Some of my old journalism professors would be turning over in their graves if they had lived long enough to see reviewers who consider a book adequate compensation for a review. Many don't mind doing it for the love of doing but this is hardly "pay." Those same professors would be scratching their heads trying to figure just how a reviewer might go about reviewing a book without a copy. Even e-copies have value. So how will reviewers figure the value of an e-copy to claim as income? It is all beyond belief. Journalism ethics dying on one hand and on the other ethics being carried to the edge of ludicrous.


Oh, by the way, I'm reprinting your article, too. You once gave me permission to do it (credited) at any time, and I take you at your word. In fact, I may include this whole discussion if that's OK.

Best,
Carolyn

ANSWER FROM JIM:

Dear Carolyn:

Thank you for your very kind words. They are greatly appreciated! My "Jim Cox Report" [on review] has certainly struck a chord with a lot of folk. I've had two requests for permission to reprint it.

I think it's my professional background as a social worker and counselor that has given me such a useful skill set in dealing with unhappy people.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

-----
Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and how to books for writers including, The Frugal Book Promoter: How To Do What Your Publisher Won't; The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success; and Great Little Last Minute Editing Tips for Writers . The Great First Impression Book Proposal is her newest booklet for writers. She has three FRUGAL books for retailers including A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. Some of her other blogs are TheNewBookReview.blogspot.com, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor . If your followers at Twitter would benefit from this blog post, please use the little Green widget to let them know about this blog:

Search This Blog

Best Selling Author TV Video