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OpEd: Objectivity in Reviewing

How important is the objectivity of a reviewer? It’s a simple sentence, but boy does it have a lot of controversy behind it.

For example, reviewers here at SFSignal often get the books they review free from the publishers. The publishers send out review copies in the hopes that we’ll write something good about it – making us a part of their viral marketing efforts. I don’t remember seeing any review here (mine included) mention this during the review. Are we as objective about a free book as we would be for one we plunked our hard-earned cashed down on?

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, trying to get my head wrapped around not only the topic but also the way I really feel about it.


Does it matter that we have our money on the line when reading and reviewing a book? I think it has to – if the book isn’t what I hoped, I’m not going to be near as upset about it if I got the book for free. But how does that jive against books we borrow (that happens a lot – lots of books get recycled around between friends) or books we get at the ubiquitous discount book store?

I’ll go ahead and say it – if I payed $25 for a new hardback book, I sure would be pissed if I didn’t like it. Oh wait, that happened – with Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver. It predated my reviewing here on the blog, but I paid my own money for a first edition signed copy (thanks to my friends who went to Austin!) and was thoroughly dissapointed by it, so much that I actively discouraged others from reading it. Would I have been that unhappy if I had gotten it free from the publisher? I doubt it.

I know of lot of contributors and friends of this blog get books for free too – and I also notice they don’t mention that fact on their blogs or sites. But, I’ve decided it matters. From now on reviews you see from me will state something about how I acquired it. It goes to the reading experience and frankly, just needs to be said.

14 Comments on OpEd: Objectivity in Reviewing

  1. In the interest of disclosure, I wholeheartedly agree, we should make it plain that we do receive books gratis from publishers. (Also in the interest of discourse, I should point out to our readers that, despite the Op-Ed in the post’s title, all of us who publish to SF Signal are equally editors. Scott has expressed his opinion, but it should not be taken as the mantra for all of us.)

    As to the question of whether the price paid for a book automatically affects its review: I would, with the same wholeheartedness, disagree.

    Scott, is it really difficult to separate the content of the book from what the publisher charges for it? How exactly does that affect your review? Does it mean that if you have an excellent reading experience, but the book cost you $26, you’d take it down a notch? Or conversely, if you read a mediocre used book that you picked up for a buck would you beef up its rating? Does a book get a higher rating if you read the cheaper mass-market paperback instead of the pricier hardcover?

    Speaking for myself, a book’s price has never entered into my reviews nor has it affected how I review [blatant plug #1 :)]. There are several things that affect my reading, but that is not one of them. I am reviewing and rating the book’s content, not how the publisher decided to price it.

    I agree that there is some level of personal integrity involved in reviewing a book one receives for free. There may be a desire to keep receiving the freebies. Or, there may be a tendency to feel beholden to the publisher. (Excuse me now as I slip into taking-this-personally mode, but since I do the larger majority of reviews here, I feel that the question raised is somewhat directed towards me.) Do I like receiving free books? You betcha! Do I want to keep the publishers happy? Frankly, that’s not my concern. There is no communication – coercive or otherwise – on how to write a review. We get a book and a press release

  2. I have used a price/value ratio in a couple of my own book reviews, such as the case of the “small hardbacks” that the Confluence Trilogy by Paul McAuley was published in. I found that the price point for those small hardbacks increased the worthwhileness of picking up those books in HC rather than waiting for paperback.

    I don’t receive free books, not even from my friend the published writer, but if I did, I certainly would put it as a disclaimer in my review.

  3. Having my money in something makes a difference to me. Isn’t that human nature? In fact, perhaps that makes me even less objective – I expect to get something in return for that investment. We always invest time when we read, but when it’s coupled with dollars it takes on even more meaning to me.

    The reason these authors write books is not out of some ‘need to create’ or an altruistic attempt to better mankind. They are in it to get paid, and that translates into what the publisher charges for the book. So yes, I would grade down a great book if the publisher charged $40 for it.

    I guess I don’t understand why ‘value for your money’ doesn’t apply to books. It certainly applies to nearly everything else we buy (TVs, cars, houses, etc.)

    Finally, this is about me – not anybody else. My statements are introspective in nature. I used the title OpEd to indicate that this is post is my opinion and editorial in nature. I’m not sure what else it might mean to you, but that’s all I intended.

  4. Well, I’ve only received a couple of AR SF books from publishers, and I tried to be objective in my reviews – but they were good books, so I said so.

    I routinely get free Christian books from publishers or authors via blogforbooks.com, and the person running that site has explicitly asked us to be brutally honest in our reviews, acutally write what we thought of the book and not just summarize it. I received on particular book from them that was really bad, and I said so my review of it. Even though I received the book free.

    When I read a review, I want a mix of both – summarize the plot for me – heck even spoil me – but also tell me if the book is worth my time.

    And if you got it free – tell me how I can get it (or other books like it) free!

    (because I’m all about free!)

  5. Personally, I get books for free from the library or my friends (although I sometimes think of John as a libary but without the late fees). I read a book for the enjoyment of the content but seldom think that I should get my money out of it. I have the same opinion when it comes to games – if the game is fun and tells a story then I got what I wanted out of it. I review (when I actually write one) based on my experience with the book or game – not how much the game cost.

    Scott, you said:

    “I guess I don’t understand why ‘value for your money’ doesn’t apply to books. It certainly applies to nearly everything else we buy (TVs, cars, houses, etc.)”

    I think it really comes down to quantity of money versus percieved value. Spending 20 bucks on a book that sucks is less stressful than spending 400 on a crappy TV.

  6. More for the till: One of the reasons I personally don’t include a book’s price in its rating is because the value of a dollar is highly subjective. (Isn’t the subjectivity of fictional entertinment enough?) While White Collar Guy earns the cost of a $26 hardback in minutes, Minimum Wage Guy needs to put in hours. As a reviewer, how am I supposed to normalize for that? I can’t.

    As a reader of reviews, I just want the reviewer to tell me about the book (without spoilers!) and I will asses if it’s worth my hard-earned cash.

  7. I review for SFFaudio, and am a contributing editor for same.

    This is a very interesting post. I’m a big fan of SFsignal, not least because you guys always very forthrightly say where you get your news (lots from SFFaudio I’m proud to say). 🙂

    I think stating disclaimers when there is serious possibility of conflict is probably a good way to show something like your biases might be. For instance I recently reviewed an audiobook that was narrated by one of our reviewers. I put a disclaimer to that effect on the review. I think it was a prudent move. I stand by my review, but I also see that it might be considered a conflict – hence the notation. And I totally agree that the source of an audiobook (which is what we review at SFFaudio.com) likely impacts a review.

    Putting meta-points into a review when they impact it in new or strange ways is also a very good idea. But disclaimers of the kind: “this audiobook came FREE from X company” at the begining or end of every review would be tedious and I think just continue to contribute to the dumbing down of society. Our responsibility as reviewers is to be forthright and open when it is appropriate. I think the very fact that there was an Op-Ed on this topic is enough. I’m one of those guys that when he sees th words “choking hazard” on a plastic bag I want to cry at the fact that this is deemed necessary.

    Now I think there’s an angle that’s been missed in the discussion so far.

    To me it is much more of an ethical issue that when you talk always be about a currently book. By talking only about what is current (which often also happens to be free) your doing a diservice to your readership. Most new stuff ain’t that great. And readers should be encouraged to read old stuff. One of my favorite phrases and an operating principle in my life is that the “obscure goodness” in life is almost always better than what’s hot now. Now I see “obscure goodness” as something that is either old and good or new and poorly distibuted.

    This is why when everybody is talking about Scott Sigler and EarthCore (the wildly popular podcast novel) I was doing reviews of two terrific podcast novels that wern’t as well know:

    Morevi: the Chronicles Of Rafe And Askana by Tee Morris and Lisa Lee

    and

    The Pocket And The Pendant by Mark Jeffrey

    Our natural bias is to do what is easy, what is current, what is hot. I think it important that we talk about old stuff, good stuff, hard to find stuff, books by unknown authors, books by new authors. Talking about literature shouldn’t be just talking about what’s hot this week but what is good. I make it my policy to do reviews lots of old stuff because that’s where a lot of the good stuff is.

    For instance I’d love to review The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks and the other 12 hot new authors but if I do that will I ever be able to squeeze in a review of a Robert E. Howard’s Conan – The Tower Of The Elephant & The Frost Giant’s Daughter an old LP from 1975?

    Jesse

  8. To me the problem is, the fact that blog authors (like me) get the product for free just is not well known. I bet there are readers of the SFSignal news feed out there right now who are surprised to learn about it. It is well known that reviewers for Locus or the New York Times get the books for free and we understand that. It is not so clear with blogs, where supposedly you’re getting my amateur opinions. But when you learn I’m partly a shill for the book companies, my credibility and objectivity has to be called into question as a result. Not my integrity I hope! I try to always be sincere and honest in my writing, but my credibility as an objective reviewer should be questioned.

    Let me give you an example. In popular gaming forums, you’ll frequently see a post that reads “Wow, I can’t believe how [great, innovative, l33t] this game is. I got it because [I tend to like these types of games, I like games by this developer, I liked the cover art] and can’t imagine how it could be better. It is a lot of fun! If you like gaming, you’re going to like this one!” It turns out, the gaming publishers have people who post these entries on forums. As a result, are these posts credible? No, they are not.

    I’m serious about the viral marketing comment too. Recently an XBOX360 TV ad circled the net that Microsoft (supposedly) decided not to use because it was too far over the line, but was accidentally released anyway by the ad agency on their web site. People then swarmed sites to find the ‘banned XBOX ad’ that was linked to by various blogs. Eventually the ad agency removed the ad under the pretense that it was a mistake. Was this in fact a mistake? Probably not – it was most likely a viral marketing effort. I even have to wonder if the first blog to post it was part of the effort as well.

    Why is it that Harriet Klausner has little credibility? Is it really that she rates everything as 4 or 5 star books, or is it that she’s working for the book publishers? It’s clearly the latter!

    I’m not sure I agree with the comment that the dollar amounts are small and thus aren’t relevant. I’ve seen people put a good amount of research into buying a toaster or a blender. Why? Because they want to get the most value for their money – even when that isn’t very much money.

    John asks:

    “Scott, is it really difficult to separate the content of the book from what the publisher charges for it?”

    My answer is, yes, and as a matter of fact it’s impossible for me to do. To say otherwise would ultimately be disingenuous of me.

  9. Interesting thread.

    I think that cost might exaggerate feelings.

    I got The Brief History of The Dead (http://bigdumbobject.co.uk/archives/000963.html) for free and I loved it, which was so cool, because it was free! If I hated it I would have said.

    However if you’ve paid good money for a book and hate it, it annoys you more than if you got it for free.

  10. It could be I have just learned to separate cost from reading experience because, in the past, I usually read books much later than I’ve bought them. But I can understand if others feel cost is part of a book’s rating. That’s why it helps to know a reviewer’s criteria. I like James’ idea about the tack-on comment like “not worth the price of admission”.

    As to the Klausner thing: the thing that gets my goat is not so much her acquisition as it is a combination of (1) the amount that she purportedly reads, (2) Given the amount she reads, she loves everything, and (3) the shallowness of the review content. But don’t get me started…

  11. Scott makes a pretty valid point I think. I believe it should be mandatory to state if the reviewer has any bias of any sort (or possible perceived bias) towards ANY product that they are reviewing. If I received a free x-box game (as an example, I haven’t in reality) and reviewed it and gave it a mediocre response, as long as you KNOW that it was free it would be reasonable to assume that if you were to plunk down fifty clams, you might very well be disappointed. There does have to be SOME belief on the part of the writer that the reader can make some judgement calls based on the information given (where that lines is however is always somewhat gray to me). If, on the other hand, I publicly announce that I am a Microsoft paid employee (consultant, etc) and I give a Microsoft Products nothing but glowing HK-esque reviews, you would definately have to consider the fact that I am not really a reviewer anymore, but I am in fact not much more than a barker for the company (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But that disclosure should be in place so that a reader can make an informed decision. It may be tedious to write, or read, but it does provide a compass to the reader to judge whether or not the writer of the reviews words should be taken at face value or with a touch of salt.

    I commend Scott’s efforts and decisions..

    Doug

  12. Ultimately, I don’t think this whole situation applies to me, and I guess I don’t consider us as shills. We are not compensated for our reviews and we are not even expected to do one. I mean the publishers would like one, but I don’t see them getting all upset for us not doing them. Combine this with the simple fact that we are not “professional” reviewers and this whole thing just seems silly. I mean honestly I am not going to read something I am not at least partially interested in whether its free or not. I am not willing to say how I acquired the book/game since that will not affect my review.

    The issue Scott refers to is from a scandal about Nvidia paying folks to show up on message boards to give rousing reviews of thier hardware. We post here and here alone – we are not off advocating any book or publisher over another.

    Finally, I do see a major difference between buying any sort of home appliance (no matter how small) versus a book, game or CD. These, in my mind, dramatically different entities. If a book topic is interesting or looks good, I will probably get it or borrow it, and if it sucks – it doesn’t matter how much the item cost, I will be mad not for what I paid for it in the store. I will be mad because I cannot get the time I invested in it back which is worth far more…

  13. (apologies for the length. man I can blather)

    For the record, I’m one of the ones who didn’t realize you were given free copies of books. So I agree, in the benefit of full disclosure, you should probably note when you’ve been given a book. Not that I find your reviews less credible by any means. I think they’re great.

    I’d quibble with your use of the word “objectivity” in terms of reviewing tho. By their very nature, there’s no such thing as an objective review. All reviews are subjective matters of opinion. “Credibility” seems to be what your struggling with. To what extent should a reviewer explain possible biases and conflicts of interest in order to maintain trust with your readers.

    I think being more careful about it is good. Locus is an old institution that automatically bestows a certain amount of credibility on the reviewers who publish through them. you’re part of the new media, the young upstart that still has to earn more of the reader’s trust.

    on a slightly different note now…

    I can understand a cost/benefit analysis of a book, of whether it is worth buying at the price point at which it is currently being sold. But I can’t see a logical reason for the price actually affecting the literary quality of a book.

    For example, Frank Herbert’s Dune is a 5 star novel. It’s a five star novel when I find it for 99 cents in a used book store. It’s a five star novel when I see a new release hardback for 25 bucks. And it would be a 5 star novel if they released a solid gold version for 2000 bucks.

    I wouldn’t buy it, of course.* I’d say the publishers were bonkers.

    But it’s still a 5 star novel because I think the only thing that should effect the quality of the writing is, well, the quality of the writing.

    I think two things are being conflated. 1)Is a book worth reading? 2)Is a book worth buying? Literary quality versus market value.

    Should a review conflate or separate the two?

    ——

    * – I wouldn’t turn down a comp copy, tho. 🙂

  14. Every book I’ve reviewed, I’ve bought. I don’t get books for free. I live in obscurity, free of the book publishing magnates!

    😀

    (Now, of course, if any book publishers out there want to send me piles of free books…)

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