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Jim Cox Report: June 2001

Dear Publisher Folk, Friends & Family:

What a month it's been! The big new announcement is the completion and implementation of a completely reorganized Midwest Book Review website.

It all began with professional web design specialist Sandra Williams emailing me her impressions of our website and noting several ways it could be made more effective for our web visitors. She volunteered to revamp the website, and sent me a sample of what she had in mind.

I was profoundly impressed with the inclusion of such things as a site map and a dedicated search engine for our website -- which is a rather massive place!

Then my computer science major daughter Bethany finally graduated with her Bachelor of Arts degree in May, and joined the Midwest Book Review as our first "Managing Editor". She has now assumed responsibility for doing most of the computer and website work generated here, including maintaining the website; posting reviews at Amazon, Borders & BarnesAndNoble; posting reviews to thematically appropriate internet discussion groups; sending out our book review magazines to our subscribers (subscription to "Children's Bookwatch" and "Internet Bookwatch" are free -- just send in your email address and ask to be signed up); and generally troubleshooting our computers whenever I make them crash.

Bethany has spent the last three days tweaking the new website and preparing the June issues of CBW & IBW for the website. Last night she uploaded the new and improved Midwest Book Review.

The Midwest Book Review home page address from which all good things flow (albeit radically reorganized with all kinds of new bells and whistles) is still the same:

But all the other webpage address have changed. I haven't learned them by heart yet, so the easiest (and it is very, very easy) way to find what you want is to go to the home page and just click on it!!

I've got a big backlog of writing/publishing book reviews, and a couple of hundred new links to add to our website. That will keep Bethany busy for the rest of the week!

I invite you all to come and see our rebuilt and renovated website, which is easy to use and is more writing/publishing/book lover oriented than ever before!

Now on to other stuff that's been happening -- boy has it been a busy month!

John Kremer's "Book Marketing" newsletter for April 15, 2001 (Issue #156) has a nice little write-up on page 5 about how the Midwest Book Review reaches community and academic library systems.

I've accepted a speaking engagement with the Florida Publishers Association conference in Orlando on October 6th.

The Midwest Independent Publishers Association up in Minneapolis/St. Paul has asked me to speak to them on October 10th.

I was able to start accepting these out-of-state invitations because, with Bethany as Managing Editor, I can actually leave this place for a weekend and not have to worry about all the work piling up in my absence. Such a feeling of scheduling flexibility!

If anybody else would like me to pontificate about things publishing in general, and book reviewing in particular, then you should know that I do not charge a speaker's fee. I'm free. But your group does have to cover the costs of flying me to where you want me, putting me up while I'm there, and feeding me while I'm around.

Now we come to the part where I share with you some of the tips, tricks, techniques, and what sometimes passes for wisdom, when it comes to questions about publishing, promoting, publicizing, and reviewing:

Let's start off with some pertinent questions from Charles Halliman:

> I have some questions concerning reviews:
> Is it appropriate for a publisher to ask a reviewer about the status of
> a review AFTER the reviewer has said that they would most likely do a
>review? I'm trying to get my hands on as many reviews that might exist,
> now, or in the future.
> Thanks,
> Charles

It is always appropriate for a publisher to follow-up on the sending out of a review copy in order to determine the safe arrival and review status of their title. A lot of reviewers are not keen on the practice, but it is still quite appropriate when done properly. The best method is to call or email the following three questions (10 working days after sending the book out) because they are succinct and will not needlessly tie up the time of the reviewer or put them into any kind of inquisitorial defense mode:

1. Hello. This is (your name here) from (your publishing house here). I'm calling to confirm that (the title of your book here) sent to you on (the date shipped here) for review consideration arrived safely.

(All reviewers are very familiar with the notorious problems associated with the Post Office and other delivery companies when it comes to shipping books.)

2. What is the current status of the book with respect to your review process?

(Never ask "Are you going to review my book." There are too many variables, including how many other titles are arriving on the reviewer's desk, the whims of the reviewer's editor -- or if its the editor you are speaking with, the whims of their reviewers. But the question is legitimate and will elicit some notion of whether or not your book is in consideration or has been dismissed. Quite often I'm able to confirm that the book is either pending review assignment, or has been assigned out for review.)

3. Is there any further information or assistance I can provide?

(Sometimes there will be, such as an ISBN number, phone number, website address, author interview request, etc., etc. You'll never know unless you ask.)

4. Then, having completed the 3 Questions, say good bye. Don't try to "sell" the reviewer on choosing your book -- that's what your Publicity Release was for -- and a reviewer's time is a limited quantity and quite valuable, at least to them.

> I think I remember reading somewhere that published reviews could be used
> without permission. But is that true? I don't mean those excerpts that might be
> cover by the "fair use" rule. I mean excerpts that probably go beyond the
> "fair use" rule.

The industry standard is that publishers, in exchange for having provided a free copy of the book, have the right to utilize the book review (or any portion of it) in their own promotional, publicity, and marketing campaigns. No prior permission release form is required. Accurate attribution regarding the source of the review is required.

On the subject of copyrights and marketing (and as a continuance of the above subject matter), I'd like to share my responses to another set of related questions, this time from Fran:

In a message dated 01-04-12 20:40:25 EDT, Fran writes:

> (1) It is OK for periodicals to print a publisher's press release
> verbatim and even call it a book review (fine with me, I'm just
> curious about whether it's technically legal)

It is a very common industry practice. Many is the time when I'm up against deadlines for our four library newsletters and have to fill some space, that I reach for a small press PR and adapt it to my needs to fill that last couple of inches of column on a given page before going to press.

I've also been known to have a scheduled guest fail to show up for my television show tapings (weather, family emergency, car trouble, they just forget and sleep in). When this happens I grab a small box full of review books from off the shelf (along with their publicity releases) and do a "filler" show (I call them "Reviewer's Choice") in which I wave the book at the camera while using the PR (sometimes verbatim) as the basis for my commentary -- and I'm able to crank out a very presentable 28 minute episode that way!

> (2) It is OK for a publisher to photocopy entire published reviews and
> mail them to retailers, etc. they are trying to sell the book to (is
> this really legal?)

This is standard industry practice. Inherent in a reviewer's acceptance of a free review copy of a publisher's book is that the publisher has permission to utilize the review in any manner they wish to in the context of their marketing campaign for the book. No special permission releases are required.

Always attribute the review to the reviewer and/or periodical.

> (3) It is OK for a publisher to quote large portions of a printed
> review on the back cover of a future edition of a book, as marketing
> copy (is this really OK, copyright wise)?

Same answer as #2 and for the same reasons.

> (4) How about printing reader comments (they write to the author and
> say "this book changed my life" or whatever) on a cover or in a news
> release? Is it necessary to use their names or should you just say,
> "Readers have told us . . . " Though the names would seem to be a
> privacy concern as much as copyright.

If the reader comments are not based on a review copy, you would need to obtain the reader's written permission to use their commentary. Easily done with a standard consent form. Privacy is the issue here.

And privacy is not an issue with respect to professional reviewers (free lance or affiliated) who work off a review copy provided by the publisher for that purpose (including the accompanying publicity release and media kit info).

I have a number of articles on the review process that all novice publishers should read. You can find them (for free) on the Advice For Publishers section of the Writing/Publishing webpage on the Midwest Book Review website. The old webpage URL is now obsolete, so jut go to and click on "Advice For Publishers".

Incidently, I know that Ivan (a very, very credible copyright attorney) disagrees with me on relying on standard industry practice for my responses to questions 2 & 3, but never in my 25 years of book reviewing and industry watching have I ever come across any problems with authors, publishers, and reviewers regarding reviewers utilizing PR texts provided by the publishers, or publishers utilizing professional reviews generated by their review copy distribution. Never.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

Speaking of sending PRs to reviewers, here's another aspect of the process for which you can tell I harbor strong feeling!

In a message dated 01-05-03 16:24:40 EDT, Seedsofluck writes:

> Question: Is it acceptable to attach a file to a news release? Or should I
> invite the media to download it from my site, or have it mailed to them?

Never, never, never send the media an attachment to an uninvited email.

Include your URL as the place to go to access whatever information your attachment would contain.

You could also simply ask for permission in your first contact email to send them a second email with the attachment -- but if you do, be sure to specify what computer language formats and properties is would come in (ASCII, html, Word, etc.).

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

Every once in a while I am moved to comment on something from publishing expert and pundit Al Canton. Here's one generated by the recent and vigorous discussion about publishers paying to have their books reviewed, triggered by the announced policy changes at Foreword Magazine:

In a message dated 01-05-06 12:17:55 EDT, Al Canton writes:

> Maybe I'm overly optimistic about the human condition, but I don't think
> Jim Cox would review my Silver Pen book any differently for free than if
> I paid him $500 for it. And I hold that same opinion for many others
> that I've known for a long time in this business and who have a
> track-record of honesty and integrity.

I am enjoying this discussion immensely. I think Al is among the most interesting, knowledgeable and articulate folk we have on this list.

Some years back I actually reviewed "Silver Pen" and gave it a quite positive review as I recall.

My point about reviewers accepting money from an author or a publisher to consider and/or actually review a given book is not that the reviewer would be tempted to debase his or her standards of literary criticism (although that would be an ever present temptation), but that paying for reviews would transform a book review operation into just another ad agency activity.

Advertising copy writers are just exactly the folks who are hired to write good and persuasive stuff about a product -- including books.

How many editors would consider continuing to award book review assignments for which publishers were paying them to a reviewer who was both accepting their cut of the money and churning out reviews that panned that "for pay" publisher's tome?

> Let's assume that Jim Cox did NOT use volunteer reviewers, but instead
> paid them $50 per review. And lets say that he gives a reviewer three
> "writing shelf" books to do a 400 word blurb on and he tells the
> reviewer Silver Pen is "paid for" but the other how-to-write books are
> not. The reviewer is getting $50 per book and I don't for a minute think
> that she is going to give my Silver Pen book a better review because I'm
> paying for it. I simply know too many writers to believe that this would
> happen.

I also know many, many honorable people who would never sacrifice the integrity of their work for a pay check -- or a bribe.

But I also know of still other folks whose personal ethics are rather flexible and who would descend into simply "writing copy", giving unwarranted praise of a book for what money is being awarded them for doing so.

We all have had experience with actors who "phone it in for a paycheck"; artists who compromise their artistic preferences in order to do "commercial work" as a necessary evil to pay the rent and put food on the table; or the doctors who sell prescriptions to drug addicts (a punishable crime, but every year a few of them are caught doing it); burned out teachers that are still in the classroom because they can't get something more to their liking outside the school setting, or the government worker who is just hanging in there for a pension in a few years, etc, etc, etc.

These sad examples are a profound minority within their respective trades, but they do exist -- and if reviewers started getting paid by publishers, it would happen even in within my own rather elite occupational category.

It all boils down to an avoiding a potential conflict of interest.

If you pay the reviewer and get a good review -- how do you really know it is because the reviewer truly found merit with your work, or is just providing you with what you want to hear because you can afford it -- and they can't afford not to?

A good reviewer's commentary is not only of value for prospective readers, bookstore owners, librarians, and wholesalers -- it is also of value for the publisher and the author. The former to know if what they are putting out is worth the investment of their limited resources, the latter to know if what they are writing has flaws or is otherwise in need of improvement.

The inclusion of "money for hire" considerations will contaminate that value.

Al makes another cogent comment:

> Would professional book buyers (librarians, bookstore personnel) rather
> have Jim Cox and other review publications go tits up and have no
> reviews to base their buying decisions on, as opposed to a strong, and
> financially viable group of review publications, such as Midwest Book
> Review, that take paid-for reviews?

Once upon a time I actually helped two other folk start up book review organizations. One in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the other one in Austin, Texas.

The first one lasted about a year and then collapsed when the husband and wife team did. The problem there was that not enough attention was paid to maintaining strong communications (read: tearsheets) with the publishers, coupled with two folks who would rather read books than write reports.

The second one lasted about 18 months and died quietly when the gal got a job offer from Macmillan Textbooks (she was a computer whiz) for about three times the money she was earning from her little book review. That, and she discovered that she didn't really like dealing with the necessities of publisher correspondence and the vagaries of volunteer reviewers -- she too would much rather sit quietly in a chair reading books and eloquently framing opinions about what she read.

The book reviews that start up here and there usually endure as long as the start-up money for postage and printing newsletters lasts. When that runs out, so does the enthusiasm.

Another big contributor to book review demise is when those eager folk discover how much grunt work is involved in keeping a review operational, including tracking down overdue reviewers, responding to publisher inquiries, sending out the correspondence, becoming swiftly inundated with the enormous volumes of book submissions (including guilt pangs for not being able to do more for the truly deserving).

The Midwest Book Review, operational since 1976, is now something of an historical oddity in that it has survived for so long and is still chugging along. That what began as a weekly half-hour local radio show evolved and mutated into a multi-media, world-wide operation that is still alive and kicking!

The credit for that lies with the outstanding caliber of our volunteer reviewers, and the fact that I actually enjoy tracking the publishing industry and "chatting" with authors, publishers, librarians, bookstore personnel -- and those members of the general reading public who find out about us and are curious enough to want to know more.

This whole "review for pay" discussion puts me in mind of one of my late grandfather's favorite assertions:

"I cannot be bought. I can be rented out from time to time. But I cannot be bought!"

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

This past month also saw a nice little discussion on the use of subtitles. Here's my opinion in response to a query from MyLinda:

> I am just finishing up my book cover with Jamon at Mythic Design Studios and
> it is wonderful. The Title of my book is "The World of Christmas" and my
> question is how important is a subtitle? My subtitle is supposed to be:
> Traditions, Stories, Activities and Food from around the world plus other
> winter holidays. Your thoughts and comments on this topic would be appreciated.

Subtitles serve two vital functions:

1. They further describe the content of the book.

2. They help librarians, book stores, reviewers, and the reading public to more easily and confidently discern between two or more (sometimes many more!) books with the same or similar main title.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

I'll close this month's Jim Cox Report with sharing still another of my responses to last month's publishing oriented discussions. I really enjoyed this thread on "What Do Readers Want From Reviews?":

In a message dated 01-05-09 15:32:11 EDT, Janet Hardy writes:

> A more serious question: What do people who read reviews really want
> to know? Do they want to know basically what a book is about and what
> kind of person might enjoy it? Or do they want the reviewer's
> opinion of the book's literary merit? I'd argue that the former is more
> likely. I use reviews to point me toward writers and topics who interest me;
> rarely is the reviewer's opinion a serious factor in whether or not I buy a
> book. Paid reviews would at least publicize a book's topic and approach for
> potential readers and buyers... and maybe that's all they need to do.

An excellent question. I occasionally get feedback from folk who encounter our Midwest Book Reviews -- especially on Amazon and on our MBR website. Our volunteers run a full gamut of reviewing styles, from the one-paragraph summaries to a couple of folks who basically write essays using a given book as a launching pad.

Most consumers of our reviews who contact me seem to prefer the simple summarizing, finished-off-with-a-recommendation style review. But I do note that some academics, professionals, and dedicated bibliophiles really like, enjoy and feel compelled to occasionally respond to our essayist style reviewers.

The summary-favored consumers like the summaries to be short, succinct, accurate -- and a "do you recommended it to me" definitive sentence.

The essay-favored consumers like erudite, comprehensive, challenging, thought-stimulating, document-your-opinion commentary -- and a lengthy word count is no object.

Summary-style reviews are quite utilitarian.
Essay-style reviews are quite intellectual.

Both have their value in the eyes of the folks who both write them and read them.

But I note that almost without exception, publishers and authors prefer the essayists to the summarizers -- there is more original material from which they can draw for marketing purposes.

And almost without exception, bookstore staff and librarians prefer the summarizer to the essayists -- they have to wade through much less verbiage to get a sense of what the book is about and whether they should acquire it.

Talk to you again next month about what goes on around here. And do visit our new and improved (very much improved!) Midwest Book Review website!!

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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