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Reviewers, Accessibility, and Book Stamping

I want to share my thoughts on the specific question of whether or not publishers should stamp their books "Review Copy: Not For Sale" or some variant on the review books they submit to reviewers and review organizations. But before doing so I'll share just two quick responses on reviewers who want money for their services and telephone accessibility:

Any reviewer that wants money from you for any purpose whatsoever is operating a scam, engaging in unethical behavior that is in violation of the publishing industry etiquette and norm.

Some publications and organizations try to build a "firewall" between their editorial staff (reviewers and review editors) and their business departments. But my historical observation of the publishing industry over the past 20+ years is that such firewalls inevitably erode.

I answer my own phone because I genuinely enjoy talking to people about books and about publishing -- and I have the discipline to cut the conversation short when I'm up against deadlines or scheduled meetings and don't have the time to chat.

Being able to answer my own phone is one of my most closely guarded personal perks. But I clearly recognize that other reviewers have their operations structured differently -- they may be part time reviewers on top of a full-time day job; they may not be comfortable conversing with others; they may have well thought out philosophies or policies of what constitutes a good approach to the task of review copy selection that differs from my own; they may not be as structured in their work habits or as compulsively self-disciplined as I am (compulsive self-discipline is very much a two-edged sword!) and therefor more distractibility respecting phone call interruptions.

So you can have reviewers of integrity who deliberately make themselves accessible by phone to publishers; others of equal integrity who prefer e-mail and snail-mail as the chief means of communication for reasons both personal and professional; and still others who are self-centered prima donnas with delusions of grandeur regarding their importance in the wonderful world of publishing and, like the late, great Greta Garbo -- just want to be left alone, especially by authors and publishers.

Now as to my promised advice regarding the question of whether or not to stamp your books "Review Copies: Not For Sale" or some variant:

Dan Poynter wrote: "If you do not stamp or otherwise mark review copies, many will get back into the book trade system and will be returned to you for a refund."

This is regrettable and quite true -- and one of the reasons I urge small press publishers operating on a shoe-string budget to market on a pre-paid, no return policy only when dealing with the Ingrams and Baker & Taylors of the publishing world.

Dan continues: "We do not mind if reviewers sell our book to a bookstore. They get a lot of books and have to dispose of them somehow. What we do not like is when the store returns the book to us and we have to pay for it."

Books submitted to a reviewer or a review organization become the property of that reviewer or that review organization to do with what they will. The key to minimizing unwanted results coming back upon the publisher is to be selective and targeted in distributing review copies.

Dan continues again: " So we stamp the book on the outside -- the edges of the pages. And we stamped them, not with REVIEW COPY, NOT FOR SALE, but with something we learned from Paul Joannides (The Guide to Getting It On). We stamped the sides of the book with 'WOW! A Review Copy!'"

This is quite clever and removes the onus of the "not for sale" stamping. But I would point out an additional factor -- and it's an important one:

Your book has arrived on the reviewer's desk in this morning's mail along with 49+ others. The reviewer (or the review editor) will be doing a kind of literary triage and separating those 50+ newly arrived books into three categories:

Immediate discards.
This is anything that at first glance is deemed thematically inappropriate; poorly packaged; a galley where the finished copy is required/a finished copy where a galley is required; from a small press when only major houses are considered; a missing or poorly written publicity release; the reviewer just did reviews on a title too similar to the one that is now presented to their attention; reviewer bias, prejudice, or just having a bad hair day.

Immediate assignments.
It's a terrific looking book; it's a high-profile author; it just happens to be a subject that the reviewer is currently writing his or her column on; the accompanying publicity release is a real "grabber" and compelling; (as an editor) I've got a specific reviewer in mind who would be thrilled to review this particular title because it's in their particular area of interest, hobby or profession.

A possible for later assignment.
It's thematically appropriate; the publicity release is okay; there may be a reviewer or a column coming up in the near future that it might fit; (and in the case of editors like myself doing the triage) I might be able to talk this or that one of my reviewers into accepting the assignment.

Now I've got those 50+ books stacked up on my desk at the beginning of this triage process. After the initial sorting I end up with 3 in the "must review" pile. Twelve titles are in the "possible" pile. Thirty-five are in the discard pile.

If your stamp is on the 3 set aside in the "must review" stack -- no problem, the rest of the criteria will carry the day. If your stamp is on the 35 in the discard pile -- no problem, they would not be considered further whether or not a stamping had been done.

It's the 12 titles in the "possible" stack. Those are the ones that reviewers will be considered for acceptance knowing that simply because of constraints of time and personnel not all 12 will make it. There is a simple human inclination to pass over those with stamps in favor of those pristine titles with no stamp to mar them in the eyes of the reviewer.

And that's what you need to consider on the stamp or no-stamp decision when sending out review copies. Given all the competing titles that will land on the reviewer's desk the morning that yours arrives -- what are the odds that a stamp will enhance or handicap it in the selection process?

Jeff Cohen wrote: Thanks so much as always for your valuable insight. But please answer your own question, in your opinion. What are the odds?

It depends on the reviewer and/or review organization. Each one is quite different in the practice and mission statement.

The Midwest Book Review receives an average of 1500 titles a month from a pool of about 1200 publishers. That represents an average of about 50 titles a day, Monday through Saturday.

In addition to my own reviews (I personally average one fiction and one non-fiction title per day) I currently oversee 43 volunteer reviewers scattered over the country, plus 1 in Toronto, another in Australia, one in New Zealand, and one in Egypt -- the Internet is a fabulous communication device for such things.

Each month the sum total of books reviewed in our four library newsletters, two online book review magazines, our weekly television program and our monthly shortwave radio broadcast averages between 470 and 490 titles. That's roughly about one-third of the number of books submitted to our attention in the hopes of making the cut and being reviewed. So the odds in general are one out of three. But there's an enhancement factor:

We give priority attention to small presses, academic houses, specialty and regional publishers. So I will bump a Random House title in favor of Pineapple Press out of Sarasota, Florida -- which I just did yesterday afternoon in passing over a Random House cookbook in favor of Pineapple Press' "Mastering the Art of Florida Seafood" by Lonnie T. Lynch for our April publication as part of "The Cookbooks Shelf" column. In this case the odds were weighted in favor of the small press and against the conglomerate publisher.

But I can assert with confidence that the Midwest Book Review is quite special in adhering to this policy of small press preferential consideration.

The New York Times Review of Books or the Publishers Weekly get three or four times the number of incoming titles that we do -- and their odds of selecting a small press title are more on the order of 40 to 1 against.

So the odds are fluid, flexible, inconsistent, and reviewer-specific.

Getting reviewed is the outcome of three factors acting in combination:

Therefore do everything you can, follow every "tip, trick & technique" respecting review copy submissions outlined for you in the Advice For Publishers section of the Midwest Book Review Web site, take as much time and effort on the creation of your publicity release and your reviewer resource file as you do on manuscript selection.

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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