The OF Blog: Addendum on the ARC/Reviewer discussions

Friday, August 01, 2008

Addendum on the ARC/Reviewer discussions

So the ever-circular discussions on online reviewing and the "worth" of said blog reviewers is still going on. Andrew Wheeler's post on the subject is a sobering and worthwhile read for many, as it grounds the discussion more in the day-to-day realities of the publishing industry and why the concept of publishers paying online reviewers is a rather laughable concept. But I want to take this a step further, to address the ancillary discussion of ARCs/bound galleys and this presumed "guilt" that many online reviewers have expressed in their posts over the past week.

I said here (way back at the beginning of this particular round) that I felt no "guilt" at all about not reviewing books that I receive from publishers. What I should have elaborated upon is the history behind this, since I think my professional background might have left me with a more pragmatic (if not cynical) view of this.

Both as a history grad student in the 1990s and now as a teacher of six years' experience, I have been exposed many times to promotional materials from book publishers. Sure, these are academic publishers, with a different target list and goals, but with much more in the way of goodies than virtually any mass-scale fiction publisher is ever going to provide. Although I missed out on my current county's textbook adoptions for social studies (since I wasn't hired until June, when they had already placed their orders), I have seen the process many times (or had my mother, also a teacher, detail them to me) to know the general gist of things:

A county announces their decision to buy new sets of books for the next 3-7 years for particular subjects/grade levels in that school district. With books costing $40-100 each, this is a huge event and various academic publishers (Houghton Mifflin, McGraw Hill, etc.) compete to land a very lucrative contract. They throw "sample parties" for school representatives, showing off their wares as well as providing food and entertainment. Sundry "freebies" are provided, from sample texts (with the corners cut to distinguish it as a promotional copy) to kits for utilizing texts. All "free of charge" to the teachers, for them to keep as they wish.

Now since there are usually 2-6 publishers competing and with each giving out their free samples, you better bet that there are those whose efforts were in vain...this time and for a particular district. What about the samples? They are sometimes stored in closets, or occasionally photocopied and used as supplemental texts. It's a business, you know, and sometimes the best layout and presentation wins, regardless of the quality of the texts. In most cases, the "losing" publishers don't mind that their sample copies are being used in such a fashion, because they know if there's favorable feedback, come next round in a few years, they'll be back in the running for those lucrative contracts.

So what does this have to do with ARCs/bound galleys being sent my way? I'm pretty much in the same role as any teacher is with textbook adoptions. I evaluate the text, comment on it, perhaps others will adopt it then and now, or perhaps not. If I'm not the one evaluating/commenting on it, another one is. Word gets out, regardless of messenger. Just as teachers are not "paid" by publishers to evaluate texts for their districts (the school districts do this, with online/print 'zines being the rough analogue to the school districts, I suppose), nor am I ever "paid" by a publisher, because I'm not a publicist hired to promote the company's bottom line. I evaluate texts on the side; I'm never compensated with money by second parties.

Finally, on another peripherial discussion of this issue, that of "professional reviewers," I'll just state here what I stated before in various places: Being "professional" means having a serious, dedicated approach to doing something, perhaps viewing it as a craft in which one can always improve. Money follows that; it never leads to "professionalism." While there are no national code of ethics for reviewers (online or print, outside of standard journalistic practices), it never hurts to adopt the attitude of "ya know, my commentaries can be better and made virtually air-tight if I work at how I construct my arguments and rationales, not to mention my writing." It is something I strive to accomplish, even if I fail at it from time to time. Just another thing I've learned over the years at my day job, I suppose. I do believe that if one aims to be as "professional" in all aspects as possible, most, if not all, of the points of contention made lately would fade into the insignificance that such things deserve.

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