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The Book Lover's Haven interviewed Jim Cox about the Midwest Book Review in general, and his thoughts on book reviewing in particular.
TBLH: How did Midwest Book Review get started and how long have you been reviewing books?
I began reviewing books quite by accident back in 1976 when I was invited to appear as a guest on a newly launched radio show in Madison, Wisconsin, called "The Madison Review of Books." The host was John Ohliger, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and whose field of interest was "Life Long Learning."
John had launched this non-commercial half-hour program on WORT-FM about three weeks earlier. Back in those days, reviewing books was largely the profession of the New York elite. A kind of literary enclave that dominated book reviewing. John wanted to find out what would happen if ordinary people (cab drivers, housewives, students, janitors, teachers, and in my case, social workers, etc.) were given review copies of books and a forum from which to disseminate their reviews to the general public (such as a local community FM radio station).
I had been given a copy of "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue" by a friend on the condition that I would show up at this local Madison radio station the next Saturday morning and give my opinions about it for about three minutes.
This was an expensive book regarding a long-term exchange of correspondence between Arnold Toynbee (a famous British historian) and Desideu Ikeda (an equally famous Japanese philosopher) on the various issues of their day.
I did, and that morning was my first meeting with John Ohliger. He had a 30-minute show. I was the only guest. I was supposed to speak for three minutes, but I was really into my subject (Toynbee) and talked for the whole 30 minutes. Finally, John (who was across a small table from me as we spoke into microphones) had to reach over the table and tap my arm and said, "I'm afraid that's all the time we have."
While he was signing off I sat there feeling chagrined and saying to myself, "I'm going to have to apologize to this guy for monopolizing his whole show!" But before I could blurt out an apology, he took a stack of books that was by his elbow, shoved them across the table top to me, and asked me to look them over and come back the next week.
And that's how my career as a book reviewer began. Two months later I was hosting the show myself. A few months after that I talked the station manger into expanding it to one hour (30 minutes just wasn't enough time for a motor-mouth like me!). And a few months later still, to add a second show to WORT's schedule: "The Science Fiction & Fantasy Hour with James Andrew Cox," which was basically another book review show, but with a special focus on fantasy and science fiction.
In 1980, the old Madison Review of Books was renamed "The Midwest Book Review." And I became Editor-in-Chief, a position which I hold to this day. The reason for the name change was that we were drawing reviewers from volunteers throughout Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest, far from the boundaries of the city of Madison, and I felt the new name would more accurately reflect the growth and scope of our book review operation. Since then we have come to draw reviewers from all parts of the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, England, and even as far away as Australia -- thanks to the advent of the computer and e-mail.
TBLH: What makes Midwest Book Review different from other reviewers -- for example, what makes you different from The New York Times Book Review or a book review section in a metropolitan newspaper?
There are several differences:
The Midwest Book Review relies on volunteer reviewers only.
The Midwest Book Review gives preferential consideration to small presses, academic publishers, and self-published authors.
We publish only those reviews where the reviewer can recommend the book to its intended readership. If a book is flawed, substandard, or just plain bad, we don't feature it. This policy began when our only outlet was our library newsletters, which had space limitations as to how many books could be represented with reviews and the purpose of the newsletters was to be a reliable source for librarians in what they should acquire for their collections. Then we added television, and this time the restrictions was in terms of on-air time when faced with the enormous numbers of book submissions.
When we added our online magazines, space was no longer a limiting factor, but our policy and "style" continues to be one of featuring reviews only on those books that our reviewers feel are the "best of the breed" and of recommendable value to their targeted readerships.
TBLH: Have you ever written a book?
Yes. I'm a self-published author who in his junior year at Brigham Young University (for a bachelor's degree in sociology and psychology) wrote and published "The Social Contributions of Joseph Smith to Plural Marriage." I did a print run of 1,000 copies and sold out in a single semester. It kept me in pocket money for the remainder of the school year and taught me some valued lessons in publicity, promotion, and marketing that remain with me to this very day.
TBLH: How are you able to step into the mind of a book's author? Isn't it necessary to be able to do so to give a book a fair and honest review?
No. It is not necessary to step into the mind of an author to assess the readability factors of a book (if fiction), or the additional factors of accuracy and "reader friendly" layout (if nonfiction).
For example, if it's a mystery -- did it engage your interest? Did it "play fair" with the reader in terms of plot? Are the characters believable? Did you feel that your leisure time was well spent reading it? Would you recommend it to others who enjoy a good mystery?
If it's a basic book on plumbing intended for the novice who has never before put wrench to pipe -- could such a reader successfully end up fixing a leak in the kitchen sink?
TBLH: How many books do you receive a month with a request for a review?
We receive, on average, 1500 titles a month being submitted for review consideration. That's about 50 books a day, Monday through Saturday. All genres of fiction, all categories of nonfiction, adult and children's titles, paperback and hardcover.
We deal with approximately 1200 publishers. They range from single-title self-publishers to the New York big guys like Simon & Schuster or Random House who produce an inundating torrent of titles through their various imprints in a year's time.
In addition to books, we also receive (and review) audiobooks, music CDs, computer software, CD-ROMs, games, and videos. Basically, all the kinds of products that might be encountered in a bookstore.
TBLH: What are the benefits of good book reviews to readers?
A good book can have entertainment value (e.g. fiction), instructional value (e.g. how-to manuals), educational value (e.g. art books), motivational value (e.g. self-help), hobby interest (e.g. the kind of thing that interests collectors), economic enhancement value (e.g. business management), etc.
The very best of benefits are when a single book can offer two or more of these values to the same reader (a good motivational book that is also entertaining, or a great fiction novel that also teaches something about the background culture of the protagonists).
TBLH: How can readers find good book reviews? Do they look for reviews by certain reviewers, certain review titles like Midwest Book Review, The Women's Review of Books, etc.?
There are many ways readers can find good book reviews:
Ask your local librarian what their hot new titles are in your areas of interest.
Read reviews by reviewers whose track record you like based on your past experience with their judgments and recommendations. You'll find reviewers and their reviews in your local newspaper, on certain morning television shows, on specialty programs like C-SPAN 2's weekend book programming, in trade magazines reflecting your areas of interest, in book review magazines (Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, etc.), online bookstores such as Amazon.com, Borders.com, and BarnesAndNoble.com, online at book review sites like that of the Midwest Book Review or Buzzy's -- incidently you'll find numerous links to such sites on our MBR Web site at www.execpc.com/~mbr/bookwatch/booklove
And never underestimate great word of mouth from friends and colleagues about what they's discovered in their own reading.
TBLH: When should writers send you their book to review? How should the book be packaged?
Writers, self-published authors, and small press publishers should submit finished copies of their books when they are published and available to the reading public (no galleys, uncorrected proofs, or prepublication manuscripts).
The book should be accompanied by a publicity release which should include:
TBLH: What are the top five ways writers can use reviews to promote their books?
And here's one more:
TBLH: What impact do book reviews have on the media? Do media personnel ever contact you to get a review on certain books when they are doing a feature story on an author?
I don't know of any direct link between a published print review and getting on a radio or television show. Usually the link is the book's content or the "good programming" attributes of the author in the eye of a show's producer. I have had newspaper and magazine people contact me in trying to locate an author. But it's very infrequent.
The key to attracting editors and producers seems to lie in a book's content, or the "buzz" developed regarding the book and/or its author. I would suppose that reviews do play a part in the development of "buzz" or making the public aware of content and author. But there are a great many other factors that can range from a sudden social crisis to a presidential scandal -- and the writer having the right book on the right subject in the right place at the right time.
TBLH: Briefly describe the book review process. What steps are involved from the time you receive a book until the review is printed?
A book arrives in some kind of package.
That package is opened and the book placed in our "new arrival" stacks by the mailroom folks.
As editor-in-chief I go through the "new arrival" stacks each day and do a kind of literary triage: I separate the books into three stacks -- A. "must" review; B. instant discard, and C. books that have a potential for review selection if the right reviewer can be persuaded to accept the assignment.
A book goes into the "must" pile if it is a publisher who has put a decent cover on their book and the subject is one that fits in with a column or a show that I'm currently in the process of writing or producing.
A book is instantly discarded if the cover is substandard and flawed to the point of being non-commercially viable regardless of the quality of whatever the inside text might be.
A book is set aside for possible review assignment if its outward appearance, subject matter or genre appears reasonably attractive or interesting.
A book in this last category has about a 12- to 14-week "window of opportunity" for being assigned out for review. I've got 39 reviewers, some of whom would take only a few days, others take several weeks to turn in a review -- and then there are those who wouldn't recognize a deadline if it were to bite them on their ankle!
TBLH: How far in advance should authors send reviewers their books?
There are two kinds of review publications: prepublication and postpublication.
Prepublication reviewers (PW, LJ) want galleys only and they want them about 3 to 6 months prior to the book's announced publication date.
Postpublication reviewers (Midwest Book Review, trade magazines, TV shows) want the finished book only, and it doesn't matter when it arrives, so long as it is available to their readerships or audiences by the time their review appears.
Incidently, the Midwest Book Review is one of the very few reviewers that not only give preference to the small presses, but actively considers back-list books for review.
TBLH: Do you recommend that writers follow up with reviewers?
Writers or publishers should contact reviewers ten working days after sending out a review copy. They can make the contact by phone or by e-mail (e-mail preferred by me). And when they make that follow up contact they should ask these three specific questions -- phrasing them just as I give them to you:
Question One: Hello, this is (your name here) from (the publisher name here). I'm calling to confirm that you received a copy of (your book title here).
Note: Use the word "confirm." It's non-confrontational and all reviewers are well aware that some books get lost in postal black-holes, others arrive with some degree of damage. If the answer is they got your book then move on to ask:
Question Two: What is the current status of (your book title here) with respect to your review process?
Note: Never, never, never ask a reviewer "Are you going to review my book?" or, even worse, "When are you going to review my book?" Reviewers hate that. There are many factors at play, some of which are beyond the ability of the reviewer (or editor) to control. Some factors that play are: not knowing if your book is good or bad; not knowing if an even better book on the same subject will come in tomorrow and bump yours because of space/time considerations; for reviewers -- the whims of editors, for editors -- the whims of reviewers, etc., etc.
Question Three: Is there any further assistance or information I can provide you?
Note: Sometimes there will be a need for additional author information or some other elaboration. You'll never know unless you ask.
For the Midwest Book Review the probability is that if after four months, your book didn't make the cut and will not be reviewed, or that the review was flawed will not be featured. But I've had reviewers turn their reviews in five, six, even seven months later.
For prepublication reviewers (PW, LBJ) their whole review decision making process can take 6 to 8 months -- or longer.
TBLH: With e-books and the Internet, where do you see the history of books headed?
I think that e-books are in their virtual infancy but before another decade plays out they will be a significant portion of the American publishing industry and the American popular culture. I see them first taking hold with "gadget geeks" who simply like the new and cutting edge of anything electronic. Then the students and academia will get involved with being able to put 10 textbooks onto a single reader with wonderful benefits for portability and data bank research aspects.
Current writers and publishers should pretty much always make an e-book version of their print books available -- a small trickle of cash flow will result (and any trickle is a welcome trickle if it enhances the financial bottom line) and the costs of this new format are fairly negligible since most publishers have their book texts on computer already.
TBLH: Are there any tips or pointers you would like to leave with the readers subscribed to The Book Lover's Haven? The writers?
For the readers: Sample the reviews on those books that are within your areas of interest. Find reviewers whose commentary you find interesting and whose opinions/recommendations you find reliable according to your own tastes when reading books they recommend (or which they disdain).
For the writers: Spend at least 20 minutes a day reading "how to" books on writing, marketing, doing publicity, and the business of publishing. Every once in a while you'll come across some tip, trick or technique that will enhance your abilities to write, or some way you can bring your book to the attention of that portion of the reading public most likely to be interested in what you've written.
TBLH: Thank you, Jim!
Your very welcome. Participating in this interview falls under my Editor-in-Chief job description to help the Midwest Book Review carry out its mission statement of promoting literacy, library usage, and small press publishing.
James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive, Oregon, WI 53575
James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
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