Started in 1976, The Midwest Book Review is an online monthly publication aimed at librarians, booksellers, as well as the general reading public. Its mission is to promote literacy, library usage, and small press publishing, which is why this publication is so popular among small publishers, self-published authors, and academic presses. In this fascinating interview, Editor-in-Chief James A. Cox talks about the history and policies of the Midwest Book Review, and he also answers some important questions about the craft and ethics of book reviewing.
Thanks for being here today, Jim. How long have you been reviewing?
I began reviewing books in September, 1976. That means I've been doing this for the past 32 years. During that time the forums utilized by the Midwest Book Review have included AM radio, shortwave radio, television, library newsletters, Amazon.com, Internet databases, and the Midwest Book Review website.
Please tell us about Midwest Book Review. How and when did it get started?
My daughter Bethany went off to college and got her degree in Computer Science. She came back home and dug me out onto something called the Internet in the early 1980s. With her help the Midwest Book Review website was created. Bethany is the Midwest Book Review's managing editor and webmaster.
What makes Midwest Book Review stand out among so many other online review sites?
The Midwest Book Review began with the mission of promoting literacy, library usage, and small press publishing. As an educational organization we developed our web site at Midwest Book Review as a multi-purpose resource with the goal of helping writers to write better, publishers to publish more successfully, booksellers and librarians to stock their shelves more effectively, and readers to read with greater satisfaction. By making our web site as content heavy as possible, constantly updating and expanding it monthly, and enlisting the support of our volunteers, staff, and web site visitors, the Midwest Book Review web site has become the invaluable and comprehensive resource to authors, publishers, librarians, booksellers, and readers that it is today.
What is the most challenging aspect of running a review site?
Properly organizing the steadily increasing numbers of information and resource links, as well as 'how to' articles that comprise the contents of our web site. As the web site gets larger and larger with more and more content, the struggle is to keep it as 'user friendly' as possible.
How many books do you review a month?
I personally review between 30 and 40 books a month. I'm also responsible as the editor-in-chief for supervising the more than 600 reviews a month contributed by staff, volunteer, and freelance reviewers.
How many staff reviewers do you have?
We have nine staff members. They include a managing editor (who doubles as our webmaster), a West Coast editor, a literary editor, four assistant editors, and the mail room worker.
Are you currently recruiting more reviewers? If so, what are your guidelines?
How should an author contact you about a review request? Do you review e-books as well?
Authors and freelance publicists can submit books for review. Some of our volunteer reviewers (but not many) do review e-books. When e-book review requests come in I route them to those particular reviewers and leave it up to them as to whether they will accept or reject the request.
How do you select the books you review? How do you determine which reviews to post on your site?
Every morning the mailroom worker piles up all the incoming books on my desk. I then sort them into three stacks:
- Instant Acceptance: The book(s) arrive with the proper accompanying paperwork (a cover letter and some form of publicity release), look good, and I have a reviewer who has requested books in that particular genre, category or subject area.
- Instant Rejection: The book(s) arrive without the proper paperwork; are galleys, uncorrected proofs, pre-publication manuscripts, or Advanced Reading Copies instead of finished copies; have substandard covers, defaced, or some other physical defect.
- Provisional Acceptance: The book(s) have the proper accompanying paperwork, look good, and if I can recruit a reviewer for it/them within a 14 to 16 week time frame. This is by far the largest of the three stacks at the conclusion of the screening process.
Every book that achieves a review will run in one or more of our nine monthly book review publications as long as that review meets the criteria laid out in our "Reviewer Guidelines". When the review is run, the reviewer automatically receives an email notification accordingly.
Do you think there’s a lot of ‘facile praise’ among many online review sites? What is your policy when it comes to negative reviews?
Whether praise or pan, the key is how well the reviewer justifies their opinion. My own rule of thumb is that if a book is too flawed to be able to recommend it to its intended readership, then it should be rejected for review and another book selected to take its place. But I don't interfere with any reviewer who wishes to give a negative review if that reviewer has given an articulate and justified rationale for that negative review.
There was a lot of controversy last year between print publication reviewers and online bloggers. In your opinion, what defines a ‘legitimate’ reviewer?
A legitimate reviewer is someone who has read the book they are expressing an opinion on — and expressed that opinion rationally with adequate examples or documentation. The legitimacy of a reviewer does not arise from what medium they are using to express their opinion, nor whether they are salaried, freelance, or unpaid volunteers. It is how well, how persuasively, and how fairly they can express their recommendation on what they've read, whatever that opinion might be.
What is your stand on paid reviews?
I feel there is an inherent conflict of interest issue of paid reviews. That is why the Midwest Book Review does not accept paid advertising, accept payment for reviews, or allow authors, publishers, or publicists to contribute financially to the Midwest Book Review. The only form of support or appreciation for what the Midwest Book Review tries to accomplish in behalf of the small press community is to permit the donation of postage stamps (which we use in sending out tear sheets and notification letters to authors, publishers, and publicists).
Do you think it’s okay for reviewers to resell the books they review? What about ARCs?
Reviewers and review publications own the books they are provided with from authors and publishers in the hope of getting them reviewed. They are therefore the property of the reviewer or review publication to dispose of as they deem best — including selling them — whether or not the book in question made the cut and got reviewed, and whether the review was positive or negative. This is a publishing industry standard and applies to ARCs as well.
Some authors and publishers fear that the sale of a review copy or an ARC will somehow remove or replace an opportunity for the sale of a non-review copy. I feel that this issue should be viewed as an advertising/marketing expense. Reviewers spend time and expertise on reviewing a book and in the case of volunteers, the sale of that book is their only compensation for their efforts.
The key is for authors and publishers to insure that their review copies (for which they have incurred a capital expenditure to publish and mail out) are sent out to thematically appropriate and legitimate reviewers and review publications — and that the submission meets all the requirements of that particular reviewer or review publication.
What are the most common mistakes amateur reviewers make?
Merely summarizing a book and not providing any articulated or detailed analysis as to whether or not the book is to be recommended to its intended readership.
The second most common mistake is to not include all the publisher's contact information in the 'info block' that should be a part of every review. This 'info block' is important because if the review inspires the reader of that review to want to acquire the book it gives them the information necessary to acquire a copy from a bookstore, a library, or directly from the publisher.
With so many major newspapers getting rid of their book review sections, how do you see the future of online review sites?
The drastic cutbacks in newspaper and magazine space for reviews has redounded to the benefit of the Midwest Book Review and other online review sites. These displaced reviewers have turned to us as an outlet for their reviews previously published in print sources. Over the past few years we have gained at least ten reviewers this way.
Do you keep the author’s feelings in mind when you review?
I do. It is possible, preferable, and more effective to correct an author's flaws as a writer through civil, reasoned discourse than through mere name calling or ridicule. This is in keeping with our mission statement of helping writers to write better, to improve their craft, to gain a wider readership for their work.
Have you received aggressive responses from authors or publishers because of a negative review? If yes, how do you handle it?
I have indeed. If their criticism is justified on the basis of fact I will remove the flawed review from our website. If the criticism is merely a matter of ego or a difference of opinion, then I will invite the author (or publisher if that is who is making the objection) to submit another copy of their book which I will try to assign to a different reviewer. As to the emotional content of an objection (which can be quite hostile to begin with) I've found that a soft, reasoned, non-confrontational response will usually work to calm the conversation down and to replace heated argument with reasonable discourse.
What does your site offer readers?
An archive of tens of thousands of reviews; a 'Book Lover Resources' database of Internet resources of special interest to people who read books for pleasure or for a purpose; contact information for thousands of publishers — including antiquarian booksellers; web site search engines; and basic information on the processes of writing and publishing.
What promotional opportunities, if any, does your site offer authors?
An archive called 'Advice for Writers & Publishers' containing 'how to' articles on every aspect of writing, publishing, and book marketing; an archive called 'The Writer's Bookshelf' containing reviews on hundreds of 'how-to' books covering every aspect of writing; contact information on both traditional, POD, and self-publishing resources; and 'Other Reviewers' which is a database of freelance reviewers, book review magazines and publications, book review websites, etc.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being a reviewer? the most challenging?
The most rewarding aspect of being a reviewer is having an genuine impact and influence on writers, publishers, and the reading public. The most challenging aspect of being a reviewer is trying to earn and maintain that impact and influence.
Is there anything else you would like to say about you or the Midwest Book Review?
I've been the editor-in-chief of the Midwest Book Review since its founding and have yet to have a day when I didn't look forward with considerable enthusiasm to going to work. For a dedicated bookworm like me it has got to be one of the best jobs on earth!
Thanks for such an insightful and informative interview, Jim! It was an honour to have you here at Blogcritics today.