PR: What Not to Do: Review Copies and Guilt Trips

As frequent readers know, I get a lot of review copies of comics and graphic novels, and I am perpetually behind. As a result, I’m not able to review everything I’ve been sent… and with the greater variety of terrific books available these days, I’m not inclined to, either. Why spend time talking about something I hated (especially if it’s because of a mismatch between the work and my tastes) or worse yet, something that left me apathetic, when I can talk about something that I found wonderful or a deserving book that hasn’t gotten enough attention?

I also have more comics in my house than I’m ever going to be able to read, and shelf space is at a premium. As a result, I’m not likely to keep things around that I don’t expect to return to. Books that I’m discarding may be donated to the library, I may trade them for things I do want to own, or I may sell them, if there’s a market for them. The funds contribute to maintaining this website and keeping me interested in writing.

I mention all this as background to a letter I got yesterday from a creator. I’m keeping him anonymous because, while I disagree with everything he says and tries to make me feel, I don’t want to beat on him. Instead, I want to make a couple of points about the reviewing business.

I know you’ve never been a fan of my work…but despite that…I took my marketing guy’s advice and added you to our review copy list. I just wanted to say that I was quite disappointed when I saw not even a week later that you had both [books] up for sale on Amazon.

I waited weeks to see if you would do the right thing and either write a review (good or bad) or at least contact me to let me know that you received them. All you had to do was say “thank you but no thank you” and I would have paid to ship them back.

I’m sure you understand that all of this is done out of pocket and I wasn’t sending you $40 worth of books because I had nothing better to do. I just don’t understand how someone who deals with creators on a daily basis could be so thoughtless. It takes a lot of effort, time, and hard-earned money to put these books together.

I’m very disappointed in you Johanna. You should have known better.

Nice attempt at a guilt trip at the end, hunh? Sadly for him, I’m shameless. I’ve never before seen anyone argue against the idea that review copies become the property of the reviewer to do with what they will.

If you’re worried about cost, send PDFs (after querying, please, because large unexpected email attachments are bad) or links to hidden websites. Of course, then critics get accused of fueling piracy, even though I would never pass along a file given to me in such circumstances. I’ve had another creator request that, if I didn’t want to keep the books, to please donate them to a school or library, which I thought was a nice touch.

If you want the reviewer to see how the work looks in print (which is a big help if you’re doing anything unusual with printing or presentation), then send items marked “Advance Review Copy/Not for Resale”, which will cut down on the secondary market options.

Let’s look at his letter in more detail. Here’s the first problem: if I’ve never been a fan of your work, then why do you expect that I’ll suddenly have a change of heart when you’re sending me more of the same? It’s not like you were trying a different approach or subject matter or had a radical breakthrough or change in art style.

This is why I ask people to query me before sending me books for review. These days, I am just as likely to say “no, thank you” as I am to accept. I try to do that politely, although I suppose “I don’t want to see your comic” is always going to sting. In my case, it’s a valuable filter to weed out projects I’m not going to like. (Zombie and horror comics, superhero books with nothing unusual or new about them, that kind of thing.) It saves creators time and money, although I doubt they’re thinking about the benefits at the time.

This leads to a reminder: research the site you’re planning to submit to. If you’re publishing, for example, comics about a mostly-naked female hero who gets drenched in blood every other issue, I am not a good choice for potential review. If you’ve got a well-drawn new series about high school girls, on the other hand, I’d love to see that. If I’ve not liked your books in the past and you think I might be more receptive now or you’re trying something different, ask first. Emails with website links to description pages with samples are best, so I can do some research.

I also try to make it clear that anything sent to me is a submission for “possible review”, because I don’t and can’t promise to cover everything. When I receive an unsolicited package that I’m not interested in, I don’t have time to contact the sender, say “I don’t want these”, and try to arrange for postage reimbursement. (I can only imagine how well THAT email would be taken.) I’ve tried sending polite “I got the books, thank you, but I’m not planning to cover them” emails in the past, and the responses are either rude (“you’re stupid for not seeing my genius”), pathetic (“why not? please?”), or silent. I don’t blame them. It’s a tough situation to be in, on both sides.

I know that many writers would love to have this problem, and I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. If I’m harsh, it’s because I do envision a creator, working hard and following his dream, every time I open a cover. I’ve adopted this attitude in part to prevent myself from being overtaken by guilt. I need to be able to allow myself to do other things on evenings and weekends than review comics the whole time.

I really do appreciate being exposed to the wide variety of titles out there at little cost to myself. I do contact submitters when I have posted a review of their work, and if someone emails me after a reasonable period of time to say “do you have plans to cover my book?”, I will update them.

As for lessons others can take away: make your promotional budget sensibly. Figure out which outlets are likely to give you the response you want, and allot the number of books you need and can afford. If you worry about how much mailings cost, look at other options — although they may not be as well-received as the books themselves. Ask ahead of time about policies if you have concerns.

I also welcome feedback from other reviewers who agree or disagree with my take on things.

61 Responses to “PR: What Not to Do: Review Copies and Guilt Trips”

  1. J. Teeple Says:

    I’m really grateful you posted that. If I ever make it far enough to be sending review copies, I’ll remember all your points. I mean, some of it is fairly obvious (Who pursues people that don’t like them? Sounds like a bad date…); but it’s great insight into how these things work for people who don’t know. ^^

  2. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    Hmm…that’s a tricky one. I can understand the creator being a little ticked off at seeing their unreviewed review copies put up for sale (an option I haven’t chosen simply because I’m lazy, but need to reconsider as my bookshelves are starting to rival my longboxes!), but at the same time, it’s better that than a scathing review and having it tossed in the garbage.

    I try to go out of my way to review every OGN/TPB I’m sent, eventually, simply because of the costs involved on the publisher’s part, but at the same time, review copies should be factored into the marketing budget, with the understanding that not every single one is going to result in a review, much less a favorable one, so the guilt trip is pretty weak. Yet another point to add the marketing discussion, I think!

  3. Johanna Says:

    J, that’s why I do this, so that hopefully, one person’s experience becomes of use to more people out there. These days, there are so many outlets and so many options that a publisher has to make some difficult decisions… and forewarned is forearmed.

    Guy, yeah, I understand it from his perspective as well. Books aren’t cheap. I do wish I could cover more of what’s out there, but at a conservative estimate, I think I have around 200 books waiting for review. And once you consider the stuff I bought myself and the free copies of things I was thrilled to receive, things that make me go “oh, him again” are way down the list.

    That reminds me of another story: I got review submissions from someone who wasn’t thinking when they sent me their books. (They were little more than an excuse to draw scantily clad women.) I thought of that person as a friendly online acquaintance, so instead of reviewing them, I mentioned them at the site in kind of a “not for me, ha ha, here’s a link to their promo site.” I thought that was a nice compromise, but they later scathingly slammed me on an email list, because they wanted praise and anything else was seen as a betrayal of our “friendship”. That kind of experience teaches me better not to say anything in some cases.

  4. J. Teeple Says:

    Psh. Very VERY few people you meet on the net are real friends; the net friends I have I consider people that I like to discuss things with and, at best, meet on occassion somewhere public.

    That said, friends don’t give friends good reviews out of loyalty. Friends give friends truth out of loyalty. Last time I said “Ronnie, does my comic suck?” she said “Yeah.” *That’s* a good friend, and that person should be grateful for what you did.

  5. Johanna Says:

    You’re my kind of creator, J. :)

  6. James Schee Says:

    “And once you consider the stuff I bought myself and the free copies of things I was thrilled to receive, things that make me go “oh, him again” are way down the list.”

    And don’t forget those things sent by friends in trade, as a “I think you might like this!” either. I’m still waiting for you to cover Death Note lol! :)

    Anyway while I’m sure there are probably people out there thinking “She’s complaining about getting free comics? Is she insane?”

    After being on the DC comp list for a time and then taking a brief stint as a reviewer (where I couldn’t even keep up with the handful of review copies I got) I learned that free comics aren’t the be all. And most importantly it taught me that not everything deserves time and attention. (especially came to light when I read a month’s worth of Our Worlds At War years back and got an intense headache)

  7. caleb Says:

    I’ve been a professional reviewer in a couple of different media for…God, eight years now?…and I’ve never, ever, ever heard of someone saying they’d like you to ship review copies back or that they’d pay to have the review copies shipped back.

    On the other hand, they have a point about being miffed seeing you sell ‘em on Amazon.

    Generally, review materials are yours to do with what you please once you get them (as long as you’re not talking about DVDs and maybe CDs, where there’s this big piracy fear), so I don’t think you’re in the wrong with not returning them or whatever. I guess you’d want to be careful about how you get rid of ‘em though, the less public a way the better.

    I worked at a newspaper as a film critic for five years, and I amassed a ton of promotional swag, but I waited until after I had left the position to ebay it all (you can only personally wear so many t shirts with movie logos to movies you hate emblazoned on ‘em, after all), for fear of seeming tacky.

    Regarding the “do the right thing” comment about responding, unless you specifically requested the review copies, then there’s no reason to get in touch and say you got them. An unsolicited graphic novel or unsoliticted comic book is essentially junk mail, right?

    Any creators worried about this sort of thing though, yeah, just make PDFs. They’re super cheap, easy to send around, easy for critics to read and impossible for critics to re-sell.

  8. Paul O'Brien Says:

    “I can understand the creator being a little ticked off at seeing their unreviewed review copies put up for sale…”

    Sure, so can I, insofar as it shows how little interest the reviewer had in the book. But it’s unreasonable to send out unsolicited review copies and then protest that the reviewer has somehow come under a moral obligation to read and review a book that they didn’t ask for in the first place.

  9. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    Paul: Definitely! I hope I didn’t give the impression that I thought Johanna was in the wrong here. Just looking at both sides of the question.

  10. Rivkah Says:

    I have to admit, as a creator, I’m much more appreciative of a non-review than a bad review! I assume that if somebody didn’t write a review, then that meant that didn’t like what I created, and I’m fine with them keeping quiet about that! I get enough input from close peers, artists, and writers to know where the faults and flaws are in my creations. :)

    As a former publisher, I’ve always assumed that the people I send review copies to are going to sell them. It feels like practically a given, because it’s either payment for taking the time to write a review or payoff for NOT reviewing if the book wasn’t quite to the reviewer’s taste. Just about every reviewer I know sells the bulk of their review copies! I don’t see any reason why not to.

    Instead of attempting to send review copies themselves–therefore taking on both the cost of the book and shipping–creators should contact their publisher to send out review copies, instead.

    Of course, in a slightly different vein, there are some places I wish my publisher wouldn’t send review copies to, like gaming sites and magazines. I hardly feel that books about young, female, coming-of-age stories are in the same fare as World of Warcraft and whatever else kids are playing these days.

    Though I have to admit . . . I’ve gotten some positive reviews in some fairly odd places I wouldn’t have expected. Sometimes you don’t know and just cross your fingers, hoping for the best. And if nothing gets said, then don’t bitch about it and move on.

  11. Augie De Blieck Jr. Says:

    Recently, I’ve been getting more books in the mail with labels on the envelope/box that say “Review Copies/Not For Resale.” That’s fine by me, since eBay is such a gigantic pain in the butt. But there’s a lot of stuff that comes my way that I wouldn’t even give to the local library. Why pollute their comic pool like that? And since I can’t store it all on shelves or even in my storage unit, a lot of stuff winds up in the dumpster. (A friend at work has kids who are into Star Wars. They are particularly fond of Dark Horse’s freebies.) I used to give stuff away through the column, but that became a minor pain to do, as well.

    There’s no winning.

    Thankfully, more and more people have PDFs they’re willing to send. It’s not the best way to read the work, but it allows for advance reviews and less clutter. (My hard drive is a mess, but I can always search through that easily enough.)

    And I agree with you completely on one point — always make it clear that you’ll accept books for “possible review.” I promise to look at every book that crosses my desk, but I can’t promise a review. I write one column a week in my ever-shrinking spare time. I don’t want to make comics too much like work. This is all supposed to be fun.

    Getting “free” comics seems like an awfully cool thing at the time, but it only pays off about 33% of the time, really.

  12. Jason Rodriguez Says:

    Yeah, this is a tough one. We talked to several people who bought promotional copies of Elk’s Run #1 that we sent out to comic shops (the only copy they’d have on the shelf), a month or so before the book came out. That stung a bit, at first, but these people were buying the book, enjoying it, writing us, and buying the follow-on issues.

    A sale is a sale and a customer is a customer – if you sell a copy of someone’s book that would normally waste away in your closet, you’re doing some good, at least, for the book. Even if my book isn’t reviewed I’d like to know you passed it on instead of trashing it.

    I’m at the point where I get a good amount of free books at cons – I also get some mailed to me. I’ll try to read most of them, try to give feedback where I can – but eventually most of the books, whether I read them or not, go to someone on Freecycle. I’d try to sell them but I honestly don’t think people would pay enough for them to make the extra work worth it.

  13. Rob Staeger Says:

    I used to work in a bookstore, and on occasion a Philly-area movie critic would stop in to “return” a book — the one I remember was a hardcover bio of Charlton Heston. Of course, he wasn’t really returning it, since he’d never bought it in the first place. He was just looking to make a little extra cash, and we couldn’t really refuse him, even though it was clear he was scamming us. (My friend at the video store across the street said he was there almost every week, dumping unwanted stuff as returns.)

    Of course, this is entirely different than what you’re doing (which is, IMO, fine — you’re getting the material into the hands of someone who wants it and chooses to buy it). But it brought the story to mind, anyway.

    When I was a reviewer, I got a ton of CDs — the ones I didn’t care for I sold to a used CD/DVD store.

  14. John Says:

    Johanna –

    The person who complained to you seems to not understand the concept of review copies. I am an arts and entertainment editor at a daily newspaper and I get sent all sorts of things – I have also been on the other end of the deal back when I did comics in the 90s and with a book I wrote. There is no guarantee that just because you send someone a freebie they will write about it – that is never part of the understanding anymore than if you buy an ad, everyone who views that ad will purchase your product. The idea is that you are sending things out in order to make your work known. It is publicity, which is the professional side of advertising.

    Now, we certainly could have a system where everytime some sends something you have to write about, but that’s not very ethical nor desired. How can trust a writer or reviewer or blogger or publicaton that has no discrimination in what they cover?

    Furthermore, I’m unsure what you are supposed to do with these freebies that show up if you don’t sell them, trade them, or give them away. Are you just supposed to recycle them? Send them back?

    As an editor, I have a simple policy. If someone is pushy, rude or demanding, their chances of being covered by my newspaper is very diminished and the bar for how interesting the work is becomes suddenly raised. The idea is that the most helpful of the talented are the ones who get coverage because they understand that any given publication/blog/whatever only has so much time and so many resources to give coverage and creators are literally competing for those. It’s very easy to tune out the rude when you have people also trying to be covered who seem to understand the concept of professional courtesy.

    Leastwise, when I was in the position, I would NEVER send out rude or smarmy notes if the place didn’t cover us. I just continued to send things out and send nice notes and more often than not, coverage would follow. If it didn’t, I understood that either our comic wasn’t appropriate for the publication or no one there took a liking to it enough to write about it or the hook of our story wasn’t terribly interesting. That’s the way this all works.

    Keep sticking to your guns about these things. You are totally in the right here – and while you should be gracious and courteous to these creators, you should never feel guilty for doing the good job you do.

  15. Johnny Bacardi Says:

    Usually by the time I get around to moving piled-up review comics (the ones I don’t add to my collection, that is), they’ve been out for months so the risk of having them out in the marketplace early is non-existent. I tend to give them away to friends, since trying to sell anything on eBay gives me migraines and there’s not much of a market in south central Kentucky for most of the comics I have that I don’t want.

    I try to review everything I’m sent, or at least have so far. Guess if I was an a-list comics blogger/reviewer, getting tons of free stuff from everybody, having more to review than I it would be a bigger problem than it is. So I can sympathize, even though I can’t really relate…

  16. Rich Johnston Says:

    I don’t even review books and I get tonnes. eBay for me over Amazon though.

    Occasionally something breaks through and I find reason to mention it. Getting the galley of Lost Girls for example, or the latest Andi Watson photocopies. But generally… I don’t review comics!

  17. Johnny Bacardi Says:

    Oh, but in regards to the subject at hand, I’ve been fortunate in not having too many creators go to the trouble of emailing me because of a pan, and the ones that have have at least been cool about it and have agreed to disagree.

    Must not be doing something right, I guess…

  18. Richard Marcej Says:

    I can’t really say it any better than most have said already.

    I’ll just add that when I sent Johanna a copy of my book late last year and didn’t see a review I just figured that:
    a) she didn’t have time/too many other things to read
    b) or didn’t care for it

    But that’s fine. I realize that a reviewer doesn’t have to review everything they read.

    Though what gets me from the person who complained was that they looked up what you were selling on Amazon! They were your property and like what’s been said before, whoever buys it will read it.

    And isn’t the reason why anyone writes a book or draws a comic is that so someone will read it? By this sale on Amazon, this creator could have themselves a new reader.

  19. Matthew High Says:

    Anecdotal story. Early in Antarctic Press’s history (before I worked there), they would send out review copies of all of their comics to the Comic Buyer’s Guide, with huge “NOT FOR SALE” slathered across the covers. Instead of getting a review for the comic book, the reviewer mostly commented on the big “NOT FOR SALE” notice.

  20. Lyle Says:

    Yeah, this is a tough one. We talked to several people who bought promotional copies of Elk’s Run #1 that we sent out to comic shops (the only copy they’d have on the shelf), a month or so before the book came out. That stung a bit, at first, but these people were buying the book, enjoying it, writing us, and buying the follow-on issues.

    That reminds me of one time when I purchased an issue of Electric Girl well in advance of when it was supposed to arrive in stores (#2, I think). Later, I realized that I purchased a review copy the store owner put on the shelf.

    In that case, it kinda worked out for the publisher since I ended up posting on rac.misc wondering how the comic ended up on my store’s shelf a couple months early and talking about how much I liked the title. I’m not sure if the review copy got the store owner to buy more shelf copies of Electric Girl, but I’d say the publisher got a worthwhile amount of publicity for the cost of printing and mailing a review copy.

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  22. Johanna Says:

    Wow, lots to respond to! Thanks for such great discussion.

    James, good point. It can be like making oneself sick with free reign at the candy store. (And the problem with manga series is that once you get behind, it’s ever harder to catch up.)

    Caleb, yeah, point taken about keeping it quiet. This is the first time I’ve mentioned Amazon selling on the blog for that reason.

    Rivkah, you have a rather different attitude from many creators I’ve seen, and I think it’s related to how different your path was from the more traditional small self-publisher. It’s refreshing.

    Jason, I like that hope, that at least the books are going to people to want them. And it’s worthwhile for me to sell only because we’re also cleaning out books we’ve purchased in the past, giving us a good amount of stock, and because KC is such an excellent packer.

    John and Rob, thank you for providing additional professional viewpoints.

    Matt, I can imagine that that caused comment! There’s communication, and then there’s the message getting in the way.

    Richard, you should have said that that was Action Figure.

    And I want to thank everyone for not telling me I’m being ungrateful and for engaging the topic in so many interesting ways.

  23. Nat Gertler Says:

    While there certainly are some unreasonable things about the note, I can certainly understand someone having problems with the review copies ending up on Amazon.
    For one thing, it puts that copy of the book in direct competition with the publishers copies that are for sale there. This isn’t the case of a copy that ends up on the shelf of a B&M second hand book store, where someone might find it as a discovery — it goes right where people are already looking for that specific book.
    The practice of selling review copies also puts publishers in the position of looking askance at requests for review copies – is this someone who really wants to review the books, or is this just someone looking for product for their online book sales?
    (And the production of books marked “advance review copy/not for sale” might limit access to some sales markets… but in other cases, it could be viewed as a collectible and thus worth more.)

  24. Don MacPherson Says:

    Instead of buying a house, I’m building one entirely out of review copies of comics.

    Sometimes, my mail makes me cry.

  25. J. Kevin Carrier Says:

    I’m always kind of amused/apalled when I see a creator trying to browbeat a reviewer into giving them (better) coverage. Who in their right mind expects that to work? “Ha, I sure told her off! Now she has no choice but to shower praise upon me!” Yikes.

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  27. Johanna Says:

    Don, so, worse than Augie’s 33% success rate, then?

    JKC, giggle. I suspect in this case the note was more of a write-off.

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  29. K. Thor Jensen Says:

    This is an entirely necessary and hilarious post. Yes, every book is somebody’s baby, but you’re not running an orphanage.

  30. Andrew Wickliffe Says:

    Only a couple of publishers have sent me review copies, the first one floppies and the second one trade-ish stuff…

    I think I told the second guy I’d be doing an honest review and he said something along the lines of “thank you” and it turned out to be all right, certainly not something I’d eBay…

    The floppies started good and went bad and I ended up getting dropped from the comp list for some unknown reason. I figured it was better just not to review something I got for free than a post about it being a bunch of crap. Interestingly, when the publisher started linking to reviews, they linked to all the reviews, good and bad, but then they stopped linking to any bad ones. I understand it from the marketing angle, but the change was awkward…

  31. Bill Sherman Says:

    I only sporadically get unsolicited review copies, so I tend to try to and say something about ‘em all – even if it’s just a two- or three-sentence capsule paragraph. That said, I don’t have any problem with how you handled the material: unsolicited mail – whether it’s an envelope from Publishers Clearning House or a review comic – is still unsolicited mail that we are free to respond to as we wish.

    As someone who’s also done regular music reviews, I’ve noticed a stamp that many music companies place on their CD booklets – or occasionally on the CD itself – which reads something like, “For promotional use only. Sale or other transfer is prohibited. Must be returned on demand of recording company,” though I’ve never had a company ask for a copy of their disc back after I’ve reviewed it. Go into any used CD store, though, and you’ll find a bunch of these promo discs, though. . .

  32. Chris Arrant Says:

    Although I don’t write comic revieIWhile in my case they bring attention to work that I might write an article about at a future date.

    But I too am at an empasse as to what to do with review copies when I’m done with them. Some I like enough to keep, others are in a box to be given out. I let my friends go through the box and take whatever they want. While selling the books isn’t illegal, it feels out-of-bounds — especially online on Ebay or amazon. At the most I’d just trade them in at a local shop taking used books.

  33. Andrew Wickliffe Says:


    Your comment just reminded me (well, it also reminded me I used to buy reviewer’s copies of CDs at a used music store and of The Strand’s basement of reviewer’s copies, but more on topic), I used to get sample print copies, which would be a little different from the eventual published copy.

    I’m not sure if it was artistic or some way to notate a reviewer’s copy, but my first instinct in noticing I had something rare was to think “eBay.”

  34. Johanna Says:

    K. Thor: brilliant phrasing!

    Andrew: That’s the kind of comment that makes me want to ask which publisher you’re talking about (because I know of at least two that have behaved that way).

    There are plenty of publishers out there who seem to think “comp list” means “freebies for those who already like us” instead of “distribution to relevant press outlets”. Sure, if someone seems to dislike everything you do, cut them off… but please don’t try to cast it in terms of reward or punishment.

    Chris, I think something glitched in your comment.

    Oh, and one more thing about ARCs — the ones that only include part of the book are useless for their intended purpose.

  35. Tom Stillwell Says:

    Wow, I’m kind of amazed that someone would behave in that fashion.

    I feel if someone reviews one of my comics they are really doing me a great kindness. It’s free press and if I’ve done my job as a creator, a review that will make people want to buy my comics.

    When did creators become entitled to a review?

  36. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    When did creators become entitled to a review?

    You didn’t get the memo? It’s not just reviews they’re entitled to, but GLOWING reviews. Anything less simply demonstrates that the reviewer is an idiot who just doesn’t get the brilliance of the creator in question and should writing about anything, anywhere, ever!

    But yeah, there’s one comp list I seem to have recently fallen off of, presumably because the majority of my reviews were either not favorable and/or had a tendency to point out their blatantly made-for-Hollywood concepts, frequently to the detriment of the comic itself. Too bad, because I genuinely liked some of their stuff and it was often a title I wouldn’t have picked up my own.

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  38. Andrew Wickliffe Says:


    I’m pretty sure you and I are talking about the same publisher… (everyone else can infer).

    I actually feel better now, knowing it wasn’t just me who got the boot.

  39. Mark Fossen Says:

    I remember back when I was just a wee lil’ blogger, ’bout knee-high to a grasshopper I posted here after Johanna had noticed a review and given some important encouragement.

    As some point in the comments thread , I mentioned that comps sounded like a nice perk.

    I was told “be careful what you wish for”. :)

    Now I understand that sage advice.

    I just look at it from my perspective as someone who has produced theatre. When I set up a comp for a critic, I don’t figure I’m buying anything with that ticket price. I hope for some press – all press is good press. If they dislike it or don’t review it, I’m disappointed … but I don’t feel abused or cheated.

  40. Neilalien Says:

    Hi Johanna,

    I don’t disagree with your post. Being sent an unsolicited review copy certainly does not obligate you to review it, or review it positively, or not sell it on Ebay, etc. The creator who was so disappointed in you will hopefully switch to emailing PDFs or secret websites, for their own mental and financial health.

    It’s a tough situation all around; that’s the real world. The proposed solution of trying to get creators “asking before sending” sounds like a good one for avoiding bigger ruffled feathers later on.

    That said, contrary to most other commenters and people I guess- there is something about this post that rubs me the wrong way. I have a lot of respect for you and what you’re trying to do on this website. But I think that you do sound a bit ungrateful here at times, Johanna. I’ve often thought so.

    Every comic is someone’s baby, and while review websites are not running orphanages, they have kinda offered to plug themselves into a “system” in “exchange” for free books, and there should be some level of a professional attitude/approach to it.

    It must suck for a creator to visit this website and read you complain that you’re really behind on your such-a-pain-in-the-ass huge pile of unread free comics, or that the books s/he sent to you are being sold, no publicized help to them, to financially support yourself.

    I can’t recall a time when you have ever expressed a joy at the free comics you’ve received. But I seem to be able to recall a sense that you have expressed what a chore it is to get them. (I’m sure, like everything in life, it’s a mixed bag.)

    Maybe it’s just that I don’t have the shamelessness or guts or comfort level for the review game, or it’s my stern Ditko-like vision of blogging. In my blogging history, I’ve been offered free review comics a million times from PR or at Cons, and rarely (just to cover my butt, I won’t say “never”, maybe I’m forgetting something) accepted a free/submitted comic for review, and have turned down all queries.

    I’m happy to pay for a book, and support the creator directly with the cash, and then I feel like I’ve bought the right to say whatever, positive negative or nothing, that I want to about it. If I got free books, then I would feel obligated to review them, and review them positively, and then (a) what I say on my blog would be compromised, (b) I’ve turned my fun blog into work, and (c) my small city apartment would get filled with piles of comics I never wanted.

    I hear that there are websites out there that refuse to review a book if they didn’t get it for free- but for me, every book that I’ve ever braindumped about on my website, I’ve bought.

    My method isn’t a paradise- I don’t get free books (jealous?), I probably end up not helping the good small-press books that could use more exposure half as much as I’d like to- and maybe it sucks all the same for a creator to read on my website that I don’t accept any submissions at all. But then, it helps me avoid writing ungrateful-sounding blog posts (or writing positive reviews because I got a book for free, which we all know happens, especially to new bloggers frozen in the headlights of the first free comics they’ve ever gotten).

    Just my two cents. Each of us is simply trying to handle a difficult situation the best we can in our own different way.

    Few people seem to agree with me, which is fine- and why should anyone agree with me, regardless of their comfort level with the reviewing process, when a wonderful avalanche of free books is the alternative?


  41. Chris Mautner Says:

    My own policy is that if I request a copy of your book (or whatever), I’m somewhat obligated to review it, though I’ve broken that rule more times than I care to count (mostly due to lack of time more than anything else).

    If it’s an unsolicited copy though, all bets are off. I will try to read your book and if I really like it and think it’s worthy of review, I’ll go the extra mile, but there’s no promises given. Your anonymous creator has a lot to learn about the way the world works.

    A BIG NO-NO, however, is reselling comp copies, either at stores on online. That kind of thing can get you fired at most newspapers real quick. Matter of fact, I believe a reporter at a big paper was pink slipped recently for ebaying a bunch of books and CDs.

    I give mine to either friends or the local library.

  42. Comics Worth Reading » Another Argument Against Review Copies Says:

    […] In a comment on my post on review copies, Neilalien provides a counter-opinion: I think that you do sound a bit ungrateful here at times, […]

  43. Alan Coil Says:

    Chris Mautner wrote:
    “A BIG NO-NO, however, is reselling comp copies, either at stores on online. That kind of thing can get you fired at most newspapers real quick. Matter of fact, I believe a reporter at a big paper was pink slipped recently for ebaying a bunch of books and CDs.”
    True, but this is not a newspaper. It is a personal site. If I were a reviewer and had tons of extra stuff hanging around, I’d certainly try to get money for it. If I worked for a newspaper or for a television or radio station, I’d act differently.

  44. David Oakes Says:

    It’s been a while since I worked at a paper, and I didn’t do reviews. But the “No Resale” rules come down to two things, both of them money:

    1) The paper needs to impresion of impartiality. If the reviewer is making money “on the side”, they lose that appearance. (Same reason food critics can’t announce who they are in a restaurant.)

    2) The objects for review were sent to the reviewer because they work for the paper, or sent to the paper itself. Hence they are the property of the paper. The paper already gives the reviewer just compensation for their work, and they are not entitled to more. (As on the recent “Dirt”, such objects – and even more direct bribes – are often given away as incentives to employees. Not that companies don’t get pissy about that, too, as witnessed by “Comp-gate” at DC.)

    Since most blog reviewers are self-employed (at best), both of these are impossible. Any “gift” will be of greatly more value than any money they are making for the review, calling it into question. Even if they throw the items out afterwards, it’s still more money than it costs them to maintain their site. And since they are both reviewer and publisher, there can be no “firewall” bewteen their commerce and their credibility.

    But in the end I think the point is completely moot. You only send out review copies in an attempt to get your name heard. It is part of your advertising budget, period. You send it out, you hope for the best, and you get what you get. (And if you don;t like what you got, you don;t have to do it next time.) Asking for anything more is like demanding that CBS refund the cost of your Super Bowl ad because you didn’t see an increase in sales for February.

  45. Blog@Newsarama » Matty told Hatty about a thing she saw. Had two big horns and a wooly jaw. Says:

    […] blog seems to the center of a lot of controversial subjects lately. Her first post in response to having too many free comics to review led to a response from NeilAlien in the comments. Then Johanna pulls the blog equivalent of […]

  46. Joshua Hale Fialkov » Blog Archive » Things to do with stuff you don’t want… Says:

    […] copy, it’s theirs to do with as they like.  The real interesting part for me is back in the original post the guy says: I know you’ve never been a fan of my work…but despite that…I took my marketing […]

  47. Wide-Ranging LinkBlogging » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] ever made. Remember last year when we had lots of discussion about whether or not I should sell review copies? One of the two books that emailing creator was understandably upset about has been listed since […]

  48. Joe Procopio Says:

    As others have pointed out, both the book and music industry use systems that involve sending out review copies in a way that prevents or discourages them from being sold. Book publishers often send out galley versions of books (sans covers, etc.), and music labels send CDs with the bar codes destroyed and often with the words “protional copy,” not for resale, or even in extreme cases, this copy remains the property of X. When a reviewer such as yourself places a copy of a book up on eBay/Amazon, you are actually stealing a potential sale from that publisher/creator. I would suggest that anyone sending you a copy of their book for review should consider defacing it in some way that would allow you to review the contents without being able to resell the book for your profit (and the publisher’s loss). Hiding behind the stance that this blog is your “hobby,” doesn’t really change the ethics of the transaction.

  49. Joe Procopio Says:

    David Oakes Said:
    February 11, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    “But in the end I think the point is completely moot. You only send out review copies in an attempt to get your name heard. It is part of your advertising budget, period. You send it out, you hope for the best, and you get what you get. (And if you don;t like what you got, you don;t have to do it next time.) Asking for anything more is like demanding that CBS refund the cost of your Super Bowl ad because you didn’t see an increase in sales for February.”

    You are mistaken, David. Review copies are not “comps” and they don’t get budgeted under advertising, but rather marketing (of which advertising is a subset). There are distinct ethical rules for the use of review copies. This is a symbiotic relationship between publisher and reviewer, and both get something out of the relationship (publsher/label gets new potential customers, blogger/writer/newspaper gets readers and thus revenue). Part of the bargain is not, and never has been, supplemental income for writers in the form of selling review copies.

    Ms. Carlson can do what she wants; she’s an adult and has to live with her own choices. But she can’t pretend that this is either accepted practice or ethically defensible.

  50. Johanna Says:

    “I would suggest that anyone sending you a copy of their book for review should consider defacing it in some way”

    I said the same thing in the original post, over a year ago. If the thought concerns those who submit review copies to me, they’re welcome to send galleys or mark books Not for Resale.

    But if you think it’s not an accepted practice, you’ve never seen how many ARCs are in stock at the Strand (a big NYC used book store).

  51. Joe Procopio Says:

    “But if you think it’s not an accepted practice, you’ve never seen how many ARCs are in stock at the Strand (a big NYC used book store).”

    After visiting Forbidden Planet, I actually spent three hours browsing in the Strand last Saturday afternoon and didn’t come across a single advance review copy. But that’s neither here nor there — I’m well aware that review copies get sold on the secondary market all of the time. That doesn’t make it “accepted practice,” but rather indicates that many reviewers have no compunction about rationalizing the choice to sell this material provided to them for review consideration. I’m sure no publisher/label would find it “acceptable.” The book/CD/whatever wasn’t sent to you as a “gift,” and for a writer to think otherwise suggests an unwarranted sense of entitlement.

  52. David Oakes Says:

    The book/CD/whatever was sent as a bribe: “Hey, look at us, we deserve your attention, tell the world”. Any publisher who thinks differently is simply trying to rationalize their own sense of entitlement.

    If the Critic didn’t already have a ready made audience for them to present to, they would be of no value to the Publisher. (Except perhaps as a singular focus group.) You talk about a symbiosis, but in the end no Publisher as ever made a Critic. And any Critic that thought they needed a Publisher would be too biased to be of any value.

    They may come from a different line item in the budget, but they *are* advertising. They are no different from a sample given to a shop owner in an attempt to get them to buy, or a sweepstakes prize given out to promote public awareness. If these efforts don’t generate future sales, then don’t repeat them. But don’t complain about what happens to your product once you give it away.

  53. Johanna Says:

    Just out of curiosity, what would be acceptable to do with these books, in your opinion? I can’t keep them all. Is it ok to give them to the library? That would prevent another sale, perhaps, which you find unacceptable. Should they just go into recycling? (Seems a waste to me, to treat books that way.)

  54. Joe Procopio Says:

    David Oakes said:

    “The book/CD/whatever was sent as a bribe…”

    No, David, review copies are not bribes. A bribe would be if they slipped a fifty dollar bill into the review copy. I think the missive Johanna quotes in her post makes it very clear that when review copies are sent out, they are not intended to be traded in for cash by the reviewer. If Johanna didn’t like the “guilt trip,” she shouldn’t have crossed that ethical line. No publisher/label ever includes a little note with the review copy saying, “Hey, please feel free to dump this on Amazon and undermine my potential sales.”

    “If the Critic didn’t already have a ready made audience for them to present to, they would be of no value to the Publisher.”

    No critic is born with a ready made audience. If Johanna was forced to only review the books she had to go out and spend her own money on, then I’m venturing that she’d review a lot fewer books, and thus have a lot less interesting blog (and thus a smaller audience).

    “And any Critic that thought they needed a Publisher would be too biased to be of any value.”

    It’s not that they need or are beholden to a particular publisher, it’s that they need or rely on a *system* in which publishers furnish — gratis — products for review (see my response to the above point).

    “…They are no different from a sample given to a shop owner in an attempt to get them to buy, or a sweepstakes prize given out to promote public awareness….don’t complain about what happens to your product once you give it away.”

    They aren’t “giving the product away” to potential customers when they send out review copies, they are furnishing critics with a copy of their product for review consideration. That is a difference that seems lost on you, so I really don’t know what else to say…

  55. Johanna Says:

    I find it very (unethically) amusing that you’re accusing me of “undermining sales” when we’re talking about a book that didn’t sell after being listed for over a year. I apparently wasn’t the only one who didn’t want it. :)

    And you’re assuming too much. Even with all the stuff I’m sent, I still spend more of my own money on buying comics than the value of what I’m given. So your snide comment about fewer reviews > lower audience isn’t true either. (Especially considering that non-review posts, like this one, get more response and more traffic.) I reviewed for years before I got on any comp lists, and if everyone stopped sending books tomorrow, I’d keep doing it.

    Are you going to answer my question about what I should do with these books to meet your standards of ethical behavior? I am still curious.

  56. Joe Procopio Says:

    In response to Johanna July 11, 2008 at 7:02 am:

    That’s a good question, and I thank you for not reflexively being combative in your response.

    I think giving review copies away to a library is a common and acceptable way of disposing of the material. First, any revenue from the sale of the book goes to the public good. Second, anybody who picks up a graphic novel at a library sale for $3 probably was never going to buy the book under most other circumstances. Other options would be to give stuff to a local school or maybe even a battered women’s shelter. Hell, giving the stuff away to friends would be less questionable than selling it on Amazon and pocketing the money yourself.

    Ultimately, in the grand scheme of ethical dilemmas, I don’t want to pretend you’ve committed some mortal sin. But you did publicly take somebody to task when you yourself weren’t on very defensible ground…I also want to say that, as a reviewer myself at various times in my life, I understand the temptation, even the need sometimes, to find ways to increase our compensation. Writers/reviewers generally make squat. And that sucks.

  57. Joe Procopio Says:

    Hmmm…oh well, so much for the non-combative discourse.

  58. David Oakes Says:

    “No critic is born with a ready made audience. If Johanna was forced to only review the books she had to go out and spend her own money on, then I’m venturing that she’d review a lot fewer books, and thus have a lot less interesting blog (and thus a smaller audience).”

    If you think that the system exists to benefit the reviewer, I really don;t know what else to say…

    As Johanna points out, she did buy her own books, and still does. And it was only after she had built a reliable audience that was interested in what she had to say that people gave her freebies, *in an attempt to co-opt that audience to their product*. All semantics and ethical posturing aside, it is no different than buying ad time during “Friends”.

    Except that NBC is allowed to take the money. And reviewers are expected to “remain pure”, I guess, so as not to taint the sacred Creator/Critic bond with the taint of Capitalism. As bad as it is for Publishers to split hairs bewteen Advertising and Marketing, Critics would be delusional to think that they are somehow apart from the Marketing of the product as well.

    The “ethics” here seem to boil down to the reviwer getting something for nothing, making money off of a gift. But the Publisher is asking for free advertising. (And no, no matter how many times you invoke “symbiosis” or “the System”, the Publisher benefits more than the Critic ever could. No one ever became famous as a result of being allowed to review “Batman”.) And when the Publisher starts taking the Critic for granted, then yes, I think Johanna has a legitimate gripe.

  59. Johanna Says:

    I’m sorry my tone seemed combative; not intended, and I hoped the smiley would lighten it, but strong disagreement might read that way.

    You might also want to read the followup to this post, which addresses some of your complaints, or my much more recent post on the subject in response to reader questions.

  60. Joe Procopio Says:

    It’s obvious you don’t know what else to say…you keep saying the same things over and over again.

    I never said the system exists to benefit the reviewer. The practice exists because it is mutually beneficial to both publisher/label and critic.

    And you can’t dismiss the “semantics” of the debate when you fail to see the difference between a “gift,” a “bribe,” and a “review copy.” The person Johanna took to task OBVIOUSLY did not see it as a gift, and his view is not anomalous, as has been amply demonstrated by both my examples (from lots of experience on both sides of this exchange), and a handful of others in this thread (e.g., Nat Gertler’s post on Feb. 8, 2007). No publisher/label/whatever would ever call this a gift. Take, for example, industries that send out stereos or even cars for review. They ask and expect for those items to be returned. And the professional publications employing the critics also demand them to be returned to protect themselves from being accused of being shills. They don’t give the reviewer a $500 product and say, “hey keep it! And while you’re at it, feel free to sell it to your neighbor and pocket the money.” When it comes to a CD or book, the cost to have it returned might not be feasible to publishers (who already work with sliver-like profit margins), but that isn’t the same as tacit permission to sell it on

    That’s also why an organization like “Consumer Reports” exists. They completely insulate themselves from the ethical dilemma by *purchasing* all items they rate and review.

    Despite your insistence, selling of advertising space on a television network is not an equivalent analogy. Publishers aren’t buying advertising when they send review copies. TV networks, to use your frequent example, make a product, and then to make money off of that product, they sell air time to advertisers. Companies know they are buying a slot of time, not a guarantee of increased revenue. The business model for newspapers/blogs/magazines isn’t one that relies on revenue generated from selling discarded review copies on the secondary market. Your analogy is reductivist and simply doesn’t work.

    You can try to dismiss this as a semantics debate or “ethical posturing” (which I found personally insulting), but the practice of sending review copies is not the same as bribes, gifts, or “buying air time on ‘Friends.'”

  61. Joe Procopio Says:

    Johanna…thanks for the links to other posts on this subject. I’ll definitely check them out.

    I can see how the tone of my first couple of posts was strident enough to elicit some defensiveness. My apologies if I was too aggressive. And though I know Mr. Oakes is your friend, please don’t confuse the tone of my response to him as being intended for you.

    Thanks for the thoughtful exchange…




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