Even passionate book reviewers can feel overwhelmed with books at times. When I go to the post office and see half a dozen book packages or boxes I get excited. (What book lover wouldn’t?) But opening them is a little different. Not all interest me. Sometimes none do.
Many, of course, go out to BiblioBuffet’s reviewers to await their turn in the reviewer’s spotlight. Right now, there are six books for review on my desk, the oldest of which has been there for, um, a while. Like cats, they are very good at instilling guilt—their equivalent of “I’m starving!” is “I haven’t been read!”.
Reviewing books is a matter of picking and choosing. It has to be. There are too many good books published and too few good reviewers to do enough of them justice. Even if BiblioBuffet had 100 reviewers writing weekly we couldn’t cover even a small fraction of what is published on an annual basis.
Not that we would try. There are a lot of good books in which no one at BiblioBuffet has an interest, or that are inappropriate either because they are in a genre we do not review or because they were self-published or vanity-published.
That still leaves a whopping number of worthy books. So when I am faced with that, what happens? First, I e-mail the reviewers to find out who wants what. Sometimes, if I know a book will be of interest to a particular reviewer, I contact that person first. But often the e-mail is a group one, and whoever gets back to me first gets the book, especially if more than one reviewer wants it.
What happens to the books that no one wants?
That was recently the focus of a week-long discussion on Book Balloon, the literary forum to which I belong. Its main question: Why shouldn’t reviewers sell the books they get for free? And why shouldn’t buyers save money by buying the ARCs (advanced reader copies) that other reviewers are selling on Amazon or eBay, or that they have sold to the Strand Bookstore?
Some members feel it is their right to cheaply priced or pre-publication copies, that is, unfinished, books. Managing Editor Nicki Leone and I are adamant that selling books we receive for review (whether they are reviewed or not) and don’t intend to keep are never to be sold or given to a person or entity who is going to sell them. In fact, one of the few rules we have for contributors is that this is not allowed. How do we enforce it? Well, we can’t. All we can do is be clear about our policy in our Writers’ Guidelines and rely on our contributors’ ethics.
The reason for our stand is two-fold. First, ARCs are unfinished books. They come with a warning that they are not to be quoted from as they are still in progress. They also have a large “Not for Sale” notice on them. These are not meant for the marketplace because the editing and rewriting is still going on. So if you read an ARC you are not seeing what the author and editor intend you to see, and if your opinion of an author’s work—especially if you talk about it on Library Thing, Amazon, in a book club, or elsewhere—is based on the unfinished version that may well do damage to the book, the author, and the publisher. It also cheats the reader of the true experience.
We feel strongly that it does not matter that the publisher prints ARCs specifically to be given away because the publisher does not, in our opinion, relinquish their rights to their disposition of it after it leaves their offices. The book is not designed to be sold in the normal manner of business, thereby benefiting the publisher and author.
Note that I am not talking about a re-sale but the initial sale. When you buy a book, part of the price you pay is returned to the publisher and then onto the author and her agent. A profitable return is what keeps everyone in business, keeps them writing and producing more books for readers to buy. But when the marketplace decides that its “right” to rip off the publisher and author is more important than supporting them it risks wounding, perhaps, over time, fatally, the business that produces the product it wants.
Aside from that, and even more important to Nicki and me, are the ethics involved. The books, finished or unfinished, are not given to us as free merchandise. To use them as such is unethical. There is no way around that, no justification that can override the wrong involved in using the books in a way that brings income to us but not to the publisher and author. Nicki stated it perfectly:
If you are a book reviewer and you benefit financially from anything besides the fee you receive for your writing, then you are being an unethical journalist. No gray area there.
It’s an issue of transparency and accountability. If we make money from something we are reviewing, our legitimacy is compromised. If we in any way financially benefit from something we are reviewing, besides our paychecks for writing the columns, our legitimacy is compromised.
The system in place is such that for all published books—and newly released films, issued DVDs, etc.—the creators of the product get a share of the first sale. It’s how they are paid for making the book. Anything that ends up on the market that bypasses that first sale cheats the author and publisher. It doesn’t matter if publishers “know” that review copies end up on eBay or at the Strand. It doesn’t matter if the book “given” out is an unpaginated advanced reviewer copy, an uncorrected proof, if it is stamped “not for sale” or if it is a finished copy and there is nothing to distinguish it from from one on the shelf at the bookstore. It was provided to reviewers or booksellers for a specific purpose and it is as unethical for them to turn around and sell it as it would be for a DVD store to play their movies and charge a ticket price.
As the founder of BiblioBuffet , it matters very much to me that my credibility as a literary website owner, and as a book reviewer, is spotless. It also matters that BiblioBuffet’s reviewers take their credibility as seriously as I do. It matters that our readers know that what we state about a book is our honest opinion, that no influence has come down, that we hold to standards of journalistic professionalism, and that we continue to hold to those standards after the review is done and finished.
BiblioBuffet takes pride in its commitment to integrity and honesty. We treat not only our writers with respect but you, our readers. Furthermore, we act with the highest regard for those who work with us to get you information on books: the publicists, editors, publishers, and authors. Because when it comes to ethical standards, there isn’t a slippery slope. You are either on one side of the line or you are on the other. BiblioBuffet stands proudly on the ethical side.