Another Argument Against Review Copies

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, 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.

He then goes on to argue for never accepting review copies.

I’m sorry he feels I’m often ungrateful (and, by implication, unprofessional). I try to avoid talking about these kinds of mechanics very often to avoid that kind of perception. I only remember one previous time I brought it up, and that was to say “sorry” to people whose books I wasn’t going to be able to cover, but perhaps I’ve mentioned it more than I recall.

I do appreciate many of the wonderful titles I’ve been exposed to, but it can be difficult to say so without creating more bad feelings. If I post “cool, I got these great free books”, it looks like bragging. If I say “hey, this book is terrific, and I’m really happy I got it for free”, then people don’t believe that it’s really a good read. Strangely, “this sucks even though I read it for free” doesn’t work the same way; that’s seen as a more valid review.

For more transparency, I have begun adding a brief line at the end of a review if the comic was complimentary, and I would hope that a glowing review of a free book would indicate how happy I was to have the chance to read it. In the bigger picture, I do want to get better at expressing excitement of all kinds. It’s easier for me to analyze problems and talk about alternatives than it is for me to express unrestrained enjoyment, and that’s something I’ve been working on.

To address another of his points, I’m sure creators are dismayed to hear a critic talking about not being likely to cover their work for whatever reason. I sympathize. If I didn’t want to upset creators, though, I couldn’t have done this for as long as I have. If someone’s put off by my bluntness, then I’m probably not the right site to review their book anyway.

I’ve toyed with trying his approach of taking nothing for free, but I’m afraid that would limit me too much, by only locking me into talking about things I’ve already decided to buy. I do appreciate the variety and diversity review copies offer… and with more book publishers moving into graphic novels, there’s a much more established system of review copies in place, with better understanding of the process on both sides.

22 Responses to “Another Argument Against Review Copies”

  1. Don MacPherson Says:

    I find it interesting that this argument about not paying for review material and the potential to compromise the review’s opinion seems to apply ONLY to comics critics. Film critics, TV critics, book reviewers… this never comes into play for them.

    I’ve received emails from comics readers looking to jump into the world of reviews, and it’s clear from their letters that the main selling point for them is free comics. Wrong motivation.

  2. Chris Mautner Says:

    If I had unlimited time and budget, then sure, I could purchase everything I review. But I don’t. There’s absolutely no way I could review the breadth of material that I get to now if I didn’t get comp copies.

    To give a concrete example, today I received a galley copy of Aline Crumb’s new book. Now that’s $30 in stores. $30 is a big chunk of change out of my monthly comics budget, and would limit my ability to check out other books that come out this month.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with receiving press copies. It’s part and parcel of the whole critic deal.

  3. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with accepting comped material, as long as one sets the expectation that doing so does not guarantee a review. I also don’t have a problem with those who choose not to accept comps, though I agree with Johanna that it does put an undesirable limitation on what they review as they’re less likely to experiment beyond the things they know they’ll enjoy.

    Neilalien’s contention that Johanna’s not exhibiting a sense of joy about the free comics she gets is unprofessional seems a bit off to me, though. I’d argue the opposite; that it’s the “fan” reviewer who comes off as unprofessional, sounding more like a cheerleader for their favorite supplier publisher who loads them up with freebies with the implicit understanding that rave reviews are the payoff.

    If anything, my experience has shown that a positive review from Johanna is a lot more credible than one from some other similarly prominent reviewers, especially when it comes to certain publishers.

  4. Colleen Says:

    I find it interesting that this argument about not paying for review material and the potential to compromise the review’s opinion seems to apply ONLY to comics critics. Film critics, TV critics, book reviewers… this never comes into play for them.

    A fairly big discussion went on in the lit blogosphere late last year (and then spilled over to the kid lit bloggers) over review copies and whether or not reviewers/blogger were required to tell readers where the books came from. The insinuation was that if you received free books and gave positive reviews of said books then perhaps you were doing those reviews only to keep getting free books – and weren’t being sincere about your opinon.

    Well, you can imagine how a lot of folks responded to that.

    The main difference I saw in that discussion (and it spread from metaxucafe where everyone weighed in to Ed Rants where Ed really wasted a bunch of people and on and on) was between reviewers who receive hundreds (or in the case of you comics reviewers probably thousands) of review copies a year vs bloggers who get maybe a dozen free titles annually. The motivations for the guys who get only a few are anyone’s guess, although I can’t imagine reading a bad book and giving it a positive review in the hopes of receiving more bad books. (And I said as much at the time.)

    For me, between Bookslut and Booklist (and two other smaller sites I write for) I received over 500 books last year. The Booklist titles come to me from the ALA and I am bound to review them or refuse to review and explain why. For Bookslut, the game is wide open though. If I request the book then I will read it (or read enough to know I hate it) – I try to be very careful about books I request though so I usually only hate about a dozen a year. If it arrives unrequested then I do give it a look (sometimes only a minute is enough if it’s totally not in my areas of interest) and I might very well review it (this just happened recently with two books that will run in my April column). Otherwise, the books go to family, friends or the local thrift shop run by some very nice church ladies. And maybe once a reader finds one of those books they get turned on to the author and go buy more titles of the author’s work – who knows. I have to keep moving them out the door though or I would be buried and that is just how it is.

    I find these questions about reviewing books – and what a reviewer is morally bound to do – and accepting review copies to be very naive. I am sure it is frustrating for creators to know their books (or comics) are being sent out there and then not hear anything from reviewers, but it is just one more step in the long frustrating game of publication. Honestly, I think writers should be glad that there are so many more venues for their books to be reviewed now then in the past – at least with the web you can get your work reviewed by literally hundreds of places, rather than relying on a very few the way it was twenty years ago. At least you have a decent shot to get some publicity.

    And as far as being grateful for these review copies, well if the book is one I like then I show my gratitude for reading it with a thoughtful and positive review that will hopefully bring the author new fans. And if that is not enough, then I am sorry – it is, after all, the only thing I am bound to do.

  5. John Says:

    I think it’s silly that someone is even making you think about this. It’s a professional relationship, not an emotional one. If you want your work covered, you should be willing to send it out whether the person who receives it appreciates it or not. If the person doesn’t get down on her knees and thank you for the courtesy copy, get over it. I have to admit that I find this kind of small town attitude to be what has harmed a portion of the comic book industry business-wise. It all becomes too personal. I deal with screeners from studios, books from publishers and major museums and none of them get like this. As near as I can tell from what I’ve read of your blog, you, Johanna, are acting like a professional and that comment was rather silly and manipulative. My apologies for bringing such direct and bad vibes in this comment, but geez! I just don’t think you are doing anything wrong!

  6. Monk Says:

    Everybody’s a critic. Even of the critic.

  7. Justin Says:

    I understand where you are coming from with how purchasing everything you review would be limiting. My blog became an absolute bore for that reason alone. I was excited about my books, but I was just gushing about them month in and month out with few variances.

    And while hardly anyone read it, it still got to me. I think you provide an excellent service. Which is to have a great deal of interesting things to say. My friend and I often discuss how prolific your entries are. And I, for one, appreciate it.

    There is something for everyone… to like and to dislike.

  8. Joshua Macy Says:

    Gratitude is something you should experience for gifts; unsolicited comp copies are advertising. If it’s really going to put a dent in some publisher’s promotional budget to part with a copy for a reviewer, they shouldn’t send it to you blind. That’s just common sense.

  9. Ray Cornwall Says:

    The books aren’t free, I’m sorry. “Free” implies no ties, no promise of something down the road. That isn’t the case here. The publishers/creators are sending you the books as a calculated risk that you’ll review them (hopefully positively) and that the publicity generated from the review equals more sales.

    To earn the right for these comics, Johanna has to put the labor of reviewing these comics and the costs of hosting this site. Johanna’s obviously happy to do it, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no cost to her.

    I think you’ve been quite thoughtful in how you’ve handled this, Johanna. I like that you’re disclosing whether the book is given to you as a comp, but I’m not sure if that’s a necessary step, or if that will lead you to getting less comp copies. I’d hate for that to happen, because I like seeing your reviews. You’ve steered me to a few books I wouldn’t have otherwise tried (like Iron Wok Jan).

  10. Rivkah Says:

    I’ve toyed with trying his approach of taking nothing for free, but I’m afraid that would limit me too much, by only locking me into talking about things I’ve already decided to buy.

    DC sends me a box of books every few months from both their CMX and Vertigo lines, and while there’s a lot in the mix that ends up going to the back of the shelf, there’ve been several titles when on a rainy day, sitting bored at my desk with nothing better to do than procrastinate, I’ve read a few that have actually managed to get me hooked and looking forward to the rest.

    Honestly, the cover and the pitch of a book often don’t give it due justice, so it’s nice to find those unexpected surprises every now and then and to be able to share them with others. :)


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  12. Johanna Says:

    What great, thoughtful comments! Colleen, I appreciate you sharing your experience in a similar field. And Justin, thank you.

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  14. Neilalien Says:

    People seem to latching onto my “sense of joy” line as if it means gushingly positive reviews or “look at all my free comics” arrogance. To try to clarify, I meant it more as a kind of meta contrast to the complaining I perceive about the “burden” of getting comp comics.

    Great point, Colleen. The internet revolution should be exciting for creators, that they can get publicity and review in so many more places than they used to when TPTB and five big publications/editors controlled nearly all public discussion.

  15. John Says:

    Colleen’s comment is totally on the mark.

    I wanted to add that things I choose to review – and I can only imagine other people work like this, but have no hard proof – get chosen in regard to how interesting it will be to read a review about it, positive or negative. Reviewers aren’t producing catalogs, they are writers and, as with any writers, they want their piece to be good. Now, in some cases, people are assigned to write reviews for specific things and they make of it what they will, but if you have the autonomy to do so, you are likely to cover things that interest you, just as the creators sending the work write and draw what interests them. Maybe they need to stop looking at reviewers as fans or press agents and understand that they are writers and creative people, as well.

  16. Marc Says:

    Johanna has her opinion, right, wrong, positive, negative. I don’t think she could ever be accused of ‘lip service’ in her reviews, to be sure. As far as reviewing everything she’s sent, I’ve sent her two sets of books to ‘review’. Heck, if she never writes about them, so be it. I know I sent them, I knew what I had in mind when I created them, if she doesn’t deem them noteworthy enough to critique, I surely enjoy coming baclk almost daily to read her objective appraisal of all thing ‘comic’. If you are afraid of what a net critic will say about your book (negative), don’t put it out there. Also, I don’t think anyone could ever review all the books they get sent. Eating, sleeping, living come to play in there somewhere…
    Comics are all about the love, baby.

  17. Warren Says:

    I think that folks are missing an important point. This isn’t a solicited work, and it’s from someone whose work you’ve said you don’t enjoy. I think there was certainly a risk taken there.

    I write a lot of book reviews, and I’ve gotten my share of unsolicited review copies (not many, but more than I’d expected). They tend to get moved to the bottom of the reading stack, simply because I feel obligated to read and review things that I’ve asked about, or things people have actually asked me if I’d review. When I get the chance, I review unsolicited stuff.

    Review copies are promotional pieces, and should be factored into the cost of advertising. Nobody should feel obligated at all to read and review unsolicited material.

  18. Marc Says:

    I understand your stance, but then review becomes selective and not objective. Solicited, unsolicited, if you throw out to the general public that ‘you have an opinion’ and write about it, then expect people to seek it in the public forum. That’s why you (critics) post it on the net. If you are not receptive to unsolicited material that falls in your subjected genre, then share your opinion with your close friends and colleagues, as that is the circle you seem to cater to. (I hate the written word in reference to thoughts; I don’t mean for that to sound snyde or callous)

  19. Marc-Oliver Frisch Says:

    To avoid any potential conflicts of interest, the ideal solution would be to review only books (or records, films, etc.) you paid for yourself, of course.

    Since that clearly isn’t workable in a lot of cases, though, informing your audience where the material came from when you didn’t seems like a good compromise.

  20. Lyle Says:

    One thought I wanted to add… often in professional reviews I’ll find what I see as “useless” reviews where the reviewer clearly didn’t have anything to say about the material but had to write about it and just wrote a synopsis long enough to fill the space. I sometimes see this on review blogs, too, where it seems like the only purpose for the entry is to meet a posting quota for the day.

    I know that making people aware that your work exists is the first battle, but one of the things one might get if someone reviews your work just because a complimentary copy was received (and not because the complimentary copy inspired commentary) is a review that pretty much says “This comic exists.”

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