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What to do with review copies of books?
September 12, 2007 6:04 PM   Subscribe

What are the ethics and conventions surrounding review copies of books?

I have a cooking blog. A friend of a friend works for a PR firm that specializes in cookbooks. She asked if she could put me on the company's mailing list for press releases and review copies. I eagerly agreed, and yesterday I got my first cookbook in the mail. Today I got an email from the publicist in charge of the book telling me how great it is and asking whether I planned to review it.

So, is this truly a free cookbook? Am I under any obligations? Should I reply to the email? If I review it, or even just mention it, should I explain somewhere on my site that I get free copies of cookbooks? If I provide an honest, balanced review of a mediocre book, will I stop getting review copies? And what else should I consider?
posted by climalene to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
You need a submissions policy on your blog that clearly states what your policies are for items you accept for review on your blog. This is mine (disclaimer: self link), if it helps. Also, if it does help, and you can send some cookbooks my way ; )
posted by misha at 6:19 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


When I was a kid my dad got what seemed like a hundred books a week from publishers. He probably reviewed about one a year. No, he never gave them back. The publishers also did not apologize for imposing so many trips to the used book store on him.
posted by alms at 6:21 PM on September 12, 2007


I get review copies of books, some solicited, some not. I review books, but not on my big popular blog, so I think people get confused. They say "oh she's a librarian, we want her to read/buy/review our book" but I am not a book reviewer and my site is not about books. This might be different if it was. So, I have a little policy that is on my site that is linked to from my contact page.

The policy covers not just what to expect if you send me a book, but also an explanation of what I'd say about a book, where a review would appear, what the liklihood will be that I'll review a given book and what sort of book promotion I don't do on my site. I get about a book every month or so. I read maybe a little less than half of them. I get an email a week at least with a copy and pasted press release asking if I want review copies of other books. I delete 90% of them.

My feeling, from having been at this for about eight years, is that publicists tend to be a bit on the spammy side so unless they are a very small publisher or a friend or the book is very fancy/expensive/something, they are likely to not notice that they sent you a freebie copy of it. In the case of smaller presses, I'd try to make clear up front that you do/don't review every book you get, etc. The hardest time I had was with a friend who sent me a few review copies of his books and then hassled me for not having read them yet, even though I was fairly clear about the whole situation. My response was that I would happily send them back to him if he wanted.

So my advice to you is to reply to that publicist honestly and then make sure that you craft a review/freebie policy of some sort for your website that covers this sort of thing in the future. You are likely to get not just books but cooking stuff perhaps and it would be, ethically, a good idea for readers to know if the expensive widget you gave a glowing review to was something the manufacturers gve you for free.

As far as the book, it's yours to keep, give away or do whatever with. I have sometimes given them away on my website as gifts or passed them on to other librarians to put in their libraries. I have never found that giving anything a mediocre review mattered to anyone in the least.
posted by jessamyn at 6:22 PM on September 12, 2007


You could consider selling your review copy to the Strand Bookstore in NYC ... not that ANYONE would EVER do such a thing.... especially prior to the release date.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:23 PM on September 12, 2007


So, is this truly a free cookbook?

Yes.

Am I under any obligations?

They'd like you to review it. If not, you'll be less likely to get more opportunities like this in the future.

Should I reply to the email?

Yes. If you plan on doing more of this, developing a good working relationship with the PR firm is a good idea.

If I review it, or even just mention it, should I explain somewhere on my site that I get free copies of cookbooks?

You should mark the review as what it is -- an unbiased review. It's also a good idea to write up a "review policy" that explains to readers how you go about your reviews and what things you consider when doing so.

If I provide an honest, balanced review of a mediocre book, will I stop getting review copies?

Possibly. The PR firm is under no obligation to provide you with free access. Roger Ebert slams movies all the time, but they keep giving him access, because he has a lot of readers.

And what else should I consider?

First off, relax. This kind of early access is provided to every reviewer of every product under the sun. After all, Roger Ebert doesn't buy his own movie tickets. You're accepting this early, unusual access in order to then provide a useful service to your readers, and that becomes significantly less useful without this kind of access. In that ethical regard, it's not really "free" if it's merely a tool to perform a service of journalism for someone else.

Don't sell the books, because then you're unduly profiting from your access. You can develop other policies as you see fit, such as not accepting other gifts from publishers other than those you need to perform your job or service. After all, Roger Ebert doesn't take bribes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:25 PM on September 12, 2007


Don't sell the books, because then you're unduly profiting from your access.

I think about ten million struggling writers, who supplement their subsistence income by selling review copies they receive, would take vigorous exception to this precept.
posted by jayder at 6:35 PM on September 12, 2007


Have you ever seen a "books received" section in a literary magazine or critical journal?

I have never been sure of the purpose of the "books received" section, but my supposition has been this: it's a responsible way of acknowledging books you have received for free, but which you do not have the space or time to review. Also, by listing the books, you're at least giving a modicum of publicity to the titles.

Perhaps you could have a books received section on your cooking blog, listing those books you don't intend to review ... and then, with clear conscience, you can cart them off to the used bookstore.
posted by jayder at 6:39 PM on September 12, 2007


No obligation to use it or announce that you got a free copy -- that's SOP and what PR is about. Personally, I feel bloggers should disclose if they're PAID for a post (and affiliate fees for some product they're flogging) , but that's way beyond a free book.
posted by wordwhiz at 6:39 PM on September 12, 2007


If you feel that you will be biased and write a glowing review as a result of having received a free copy, you shouldn't review the book.

Or, you could start out with a disclaimer to the tune of, "so, I received such and such book from blahblah yesterday..." In fact, I do that anyway, though I am clear in letting suppliers know that my opinion will be unbiased, I don't take compensation for reviews, and my integrity is at stake, so if I don't like something, I will say so. I have never had anyone say, "Okay, I won't send it, then." EVERYONE thinks they have something you want.
posted by misha at 7:04 PM on September 12, 2007


You could consider selling your review copy to the Strand Bookstore in NYC ... not that ANYONE would EVER do such a thing.... especially prior to the release date.

Hah, that's where my Dad always sold his. I remember helping him box them up and bring them over...
posted by alms at 7:05 PM on September 12, 2007


I used to work in the same office building with a Well-Known Magazine, and they would save theirs up and put them all downstairs in a box in the lobby every few months with a big "free books" sign.
posted by mccxxiii at 7:11 PM on September 12, 2007


I review music on the side of my main job which is working for a food related web site. Unlike, say, restaurant reviews where taking the food free and non-anonymously is a big no-no for anybody with even the pretension of professionalism, reviewing products, books and music doesn't generally require that level of disclosure or anonymity. Unless they specifically say otherwise (I think Consumer Reports pays for the stuff they test, for example), you can pretty safely assume that no professional writer of reviews has paid for anything they've reviewed.

The difference is that your experience of your meal--the level of service, the care taken in plating, the portion size--could vary if the restaurant knows you're a reviewer. With product reviews, they're not going to change the product and give you a better version than the final press version. If anything, a review copy may be worse--many advance copies of CDs are completely without liner notes and artwork, for example. Review copies of books to be printed in hardcover are sometimes sent in softcover formats.

So, if you slag off on the book, you might get dropped from the list for future free books. Same as if you don't bother to mention the book at all. But this current copy is free and without obligation.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:41 PM on September 12, 2007


Following up to add: If you currently review cookbooks on your site and *do* buy them yourself (I know lots of non-professional reviewers do that), then yes, I would mention that you got this one from the publisher. But it's really not unusual, and nothing to be worried about ethically.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:44 PM on September 12, 2007


Oh, and I occasionally give items I review away in contests, with the approval of the company that sent me the product.
posted by misha at 8:00 PM on September 12, 2007


I (Mrs. derMax) also have a fairly popular food blog, and I've more or less come to the conclusion that receiving these free review books is not worth the trouble.

Initially I was excited at the prospect of free books, but...most of the books offered for review seem to be mediocre or not to my taste. I buy enough food books that I really want to give shelf space to...and I'd rather review books I have chosen to spend my money for and liked.

I also don't like feeling obligated to review anything, especially mediocre/crap stuff. So, I've been ignoring most of these PR requests for a while now, and hopefully I'll be blacklisted soon, if I haven't been already.

Then again I may just be blasé since the food blog has been going for more than 3 years.
posted by derMax at 9:55 PM on September 12, 2007



I particularly agree with CoolPapaBell's comment about book reviews. Your response should be reflective of how much you want to do in the future.

My only extra comment would be regarding what to do with the books themselves. There may be ethical implications regarding profiting from them - I'll leave it up to you to debate that in your own brain. However, you may want to consider BookCrossing
posted by dasfreak at 12:16 AM on September 13, 2007


I think it's entirely ethical to sell free books, but it does represent a conflict of interest if you profit from a book you actually get around to reviewing. It's not a major ethical violation, but I'd take a reviewer more seriously if they disclosed such profit and/or donated copies that they receive for review when done with them.

I've seen many, many, many galleys and "not for sale" books in used book stores over the years, so it's definitely the convention to sell them.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:25 AM on September 13, 2007


This was recently discussed in the forums over at The Chronicle of Higher Education website. If I recall correctly, the general concensus was that it was (somewhat) appropriate to resell a book that was sent to you unsolicited, but not one that you requested from the publisher for review.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:11 AM on September 13, 2007


I think it's entirely ethical to sell free books, but it does represent a conflict of interest if you profit from a book you actually get around to reviewing.

I'm not sure what you mean by this. What conflict of interest?

It is perfectly ethical not review a book a publisher sends you. In fact it is completely ethical to sell on a book a publisher has sent you without even cracking the cover. It is equally ethical to read and review the book and then sell it on. You are not beholden to the publisher in anyway.

You might find it useful to have a stated policy on receiving books somewhere on your site of the type various people have mentioned but it isn't neccessary.

I think the only problem here is the fact you are dealing with a friend of a friend so you might feel some social pressure. Ignore it and treat it strictly as a professional relationship.
posted by ninebelow at 6:57 AM on September 13, 2007


Oh, and this:

If I provide an honest, balanced review of a mediocre book, will I stop getting review copies?

is probably the worst way a reviewer can think. Put this out of your head. When you review the book you are reviewing the book. If other considerations come into it - what does this mean for my relationship with the publisher? should I try and include a pull quote? - thenyou have stopped being a reviewer and become a PR flack.
posted by ninebelow at 6:59 AM on September 13, 2007


Don't sell the books, because then you're unduly profiting from your access.

That's ridiculous. Everybody sells review copies (for obvious non-universal meanings of "everybody").

Publishers hand out review copies like candy; they hope you'll review the book but don't expect it, and there's certainly no expectation that you'll write favorably about it. I get a fair number of review copies (and I've got a stack in front of me I keep meaning to get around to writing about), and I would have no hesitation about criticizing them as called for. Don't sweat it.

In other words, basically what Jessamyn said.
posted by languagehat at 8:07 AM on September 13, 2007


Please be explicit to your site readers about your review policy, not just to people who send you books. You need to explain whether you got the book for free, and whether you kept the book after receiving it, and whether you profited at all by receiving the book.

Many mainstream news organizations get freebies for review all the time, and the ones I have worked at have generally had "donate to charity" policies once the books were reviewed or rejected for review. This policy exists so that individual reviewers can't say that they were influenced by a gift. They only reviewed the item while it was temporarily in their possession, but if they choose to own it they have to buy it like everyone else. Some mainstream news organizations with strict ethics policies won't even accept the freebie in the first place, they'll go out and buy the item up for review.

I don't think you're under the same obligation as mainstream news organizations, but you should disclose that you are keeping or reselling any books you receive, and that you are reviewing books because they were sent to you by the publisher. This transparency allows readers to judge for themselves whether freebie book status colors your review judgment.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:10 AM on September 13, 2007


That's ridiculous. Everybody sells review copies (for obvious non-universal meanings of "everybody").

Oh, please. I'm sorry to hear that your version of "everyone" includes only those people willing to profit from their special access.

The several major newspapers I've worked for universally had strict policies that freebie copies of tangible goods provided with the intent of their being review copies were not to be re-sold. Most of them were donated to libraries, after they had served their usefulness as source material. The others were kept personally.

I'll give you a hypothetical. Imagine you're Roger Ebert, and you've been provided with a free ticket to the hottest upcoming film at the Cannes Film Festival. It's a big premiere, you'll be rubbing shoulders with other celebrities.

Clearly, you've received the offer solely because you're Roger Ebert and you influence film commentary. The PR efforts are geared toward providing early buzz on the film so it can be sold to distributors. Your comments have an actual dollar value, because of who you are. In other words, the PR group has essentially entered into a de facto contractual arrangement with you -- you get early access and a leg up on your competition for readers ("hey, I've got the exclusive review!"), and the PR group gets your (hopefully for you) unbiased opinion which they think they can use to help monetize their film.

Now imagine you decide to turn around and sell the ticket on Ebay to the highest bidder. "I'm selling a ticket to an exclusive release. Angelina Jolie will be there..."

Lame.

IMO, and the in the opinion of many other professionals I've met over the years, there's no reading of this action that constitutes ethical behavior toward the filmmakers. Moreover, if a PR group discovered this, they'd stop providing the access, because they'd rather focus their energies elsewhere in search of a better ROI.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:23 PM on September 13, 2007


I'll give you a hypothetical.

Translation: I can't make a sensible argument based on the actual situation, so I'll compare it to a completely different one.

Dude, I've known a lot of people who got review copies, and I've worked at a lot of bookstores, and I assure you my statement is true. Whether you like the situation or not, and whether or not Roger Ebert sells his free tickets, is not really my concern.
posted by languagehat at 1:10 PM on September 13, 2007


[just a friendly note to keep this on track and not turn into some sort of a back and forth snarkfest, thanks]
posted by jessamyn at 1:12 PM on September 13, 2007


The several major newspapers I've worked for universally had strict policies that freebie copies of tangible goods provided with the intent of their being review copies were not to be re-sold.

I would be interested to hear the names of these newspapers since I find it very hard to believe they actually exist. In fact I find it very hard to believe you have ever reviewed or come into any contact with the PR industry. Your hypothetical has literally nothing to do with the real world.

Sorry, jessaym, if this is delete-worthy but I can't help but view Cool Papa Bell as massively misleading the poster.
posted by ninebelow at 4:35 PM on September 13, 2007


I would be interested to hear the names of these newspapers

Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register. And that was years before I traded it in for other jobs in media and, yes, PR. Happy now, kid?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:17 PM on September 13, 2007


Sorry, Cool Papa Bell, I was drunk and rude last night. I should just have said your experience does not match mine and left it at that.
posted by ninebelow at 8:10 AM on September 14, 2007


This was a very helpful batch of answers -- thank you.

Some follow-up: I posted a very brief review policy and started a "Books Received" list on the About page of my blog (no self-link here, but the site is in my profile if you're curious).
posted by climalene at 4:38 PM on October 2, 2007


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