Reviewers Can’t Win

I know, reviewing’s not that hard. You read or watch something, and then you say what you thought, being careful to include the basics — the premise, the creators, any special features that set it apart, the context of its place in genre or history if relevant — as well as explaining your points with enough clarity and examples that someone can figure out A) whether or not they share your tastes and B) whether or not they’d like it regardless of what you thought.

Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about. Here’s the dilemma I face:

If you accept complimentary copies, some people call you unethical and greedy. (“You’re only in it for the freebies!”) If you don’t, your reviews are limited and repetitive (especially when it comes to comics).

If you tell people you accept comps, some people call you amateurish (because apparently, professionals get everything for free so there’s no need to mention it, which means there are no professional comic reviewers). If you don’t, then some people call you unethical and biased for “hiding” the key fact that you didn’t pay for what you’re talking about.

That last is why I run standard comp lines at the end of reviews to which they apply. Just as “real” magazines reveal conflicts of interest (such as when Entertainment Weekly writes an article about a Warner Bros. decision and says they’re part of the same parent company), I thought it was relevant to readers who’ve said they wanted the information to help judge how fair my opinion was.

I understand why some would feel it’s not necessary, but I don’t understand why some are arguing you shouldn’t say it. What’s the point in hiding it? Making publicists feel better? They may dislike the disclaimer because in some people’s eyes, it adds a caveat. (See comments at the link above, where an artist refused to submit copies of a book he worked on if the reviewer was going to say the book was given for free. He thought that would “taint the process.” I think he wanted people to think that the comic was more popular than it was, and he wanted it to seem like the reviewer thought the book was worth paying for.)

I also got tired of answering the question, “If you didn’t like it, why did you write about it?” Revealing that something was submitted to me helps the reader understand one of the factors (not the only one) that determines coverage. Picking something to talk about, given the quantity of material available, can serve as a kind of endorsement, saying that the item, whether good or bad, was worth the time and space to cover it. Readers also like to know whether price factored into that decision.

By the way, it’s fascinating to see what some commenters are inferring from the simple statement of fact “The publisher gave me a free copy to write about.” Some accuse the reviewer of trying to stake out some mythical “ethical high ground”. (Says something about the low point when that’s considered high ground, doesn’t it?) Others jump to some conclusion about how “they’re bragging about getting free books.” (That one stinks of envy.) Someone thinks it’s a way of saying, “I’m better than you.” (Sounds like a self-esteem issue to me.) Another thinks it’s a way of asking for more stuff for free. (No, thanks, I’ve got plenty.) Probably lowest is accusing those who are clear about their sourcing that they’re saying they can be bought. That one’s easily shown to be false by looking at how many reviews with that line are negative. In short, this debate is a litmus test, showing as much about those responding as it does about the reviewers being judged.

Comparing net standards to the way they do things in print may be informative, but it may also be pointless. Print outlets have a bureaucracy to insulate the reviewer from the publicists. (Which leads to costs, which is why those outlets are suffering so badly and going under.) Out here, I’m on my own, without an editor to serve as go-between, and I’d rather be honest about sourcing, whether or not someone deems it “professional”. That should be judged, in my opinion, on the content of the reviews, not the format add-ons. (Maybe print reviews would be improved as well if the reviewer had to say that they got a free invite to a cushy theater down the street instead of having to hunt down the one place within 50 miles that’s showing the latest art picture?)

The fact is, no one can determine whether or not you’re a professional, especially since there’s not even an agreed-upon definition for it. Hold to your own standards (if you want some guidance, here’s some of mine), and remember, if someone really wants to change someone’s behavior, creating a blog post calling them names is the least effective way to do it, because it only gets their back up.

So, I leave it to my readers. Whattya think? Should I change my disclaimer to “The publisher sent this copy, and I wouldn’t have read it otherwise.”? How about “Now you know why you’re seeing coverage of this book on 17 different websites this week.”? Seriously, if someone here wants to make a reasonable case why noting a comp copy is a bad idea, I’d love to hear it. (Note: “Because print does it that way” isn’t relevant. I don’t want to follow their lead into bankruptcy, thanks.)

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34 comments

  • David Wynne

    I have to say, I was a bit surprised when I read that piece at PW. I generally enjoy reading Ms MacDonald’s coverage, and usually at least partly agree with what she has to say. This time, though, I don’t get it at all.

    It seems pretty clear that a lot of people reading comics reviews — or reviews of any kind, for that matter — like to know if the reviewer paid for the item or was sent it for free or whatever. Providing that information, therefore, seems like professionalism to me, not amateaurish at all.

  • That was part of what I was trying to get at by comparing old and new media. Here on the internet, we have amazing abilities to know what our readers want, and I just can’t see not responding to that because “they don’t do it that way over there” or “we never did it that way before”. I know that some print people have trouble adjusting to that, though (although I don’t put Heidi in that group).

  • I’m a nobody but at least 95% of what I review was given to me for free. I don’t have any opinion on whether it is right or wrong but I never mention how I got a book unless there is an interesting story to it. I thought it was a given. I’m just guessing here but the only difference I can see that it makes at all is that comics fans that buy their books each week and then post reviews or buy a movie ticket and post a review are thought of as just fans but critics that get comp copies or tickets are thought of as professionals? I don’t know what the difference between amateur and pro is online though. The pros get paid? Well, the way things are looking, no one will be getting paid before long so I guess either we’ll all be amateurs or only the amateurs that can still afford to buy books will post reviews.

  • Heidi M.

    “Print person?” I’ve been making a living on the internet for seven years and preaching it for 13 or 14. I don’t see this as a “print” vs “paper” debate so much as a…”Who is the trusted source?” debate.

    I guess my question is simple, and David, Johanna and Ed, I invite you all to answer it, because I really don’t understand: What difference does it make on your opinion of a book on whether you bought it, got it for free or stole it from under a hobo’s bindle?

  • David Wynne

    I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I read Marc’s comment as being about the reader’s percieved reason for a particular item being covered by that reviewer- did they pick the book up because they’re a fan of the creator/s involved, or had heard good things… or did they just recieve a copy in the post? It’s not a *huge* concern, but it’s something that some people want to know.

    Why *not* tell them? Why is it unprofessional to do that, in your opinion? Seriously, I don’t understand your position on this. And as I said in my first comment, you’re someone I normally agree with, or at the very least get where you’re coming from, and have a great deal of respect for. This whole thing has me scratching my head.

  • Ed Sizemore

    Heidi,

    I know your being factious, but if you acquire an item illegally then you negate any claim to make comments on the item. So if you downloaded Hancock, then you aren’t permitted to review it.

    That being said, it makes no difference if I get the book from the library, borrow it from a friend, buy the book, or am given a free copy from the publisher. I engage each book based on its own merits and not the method of acquisition. My reviews are not affected/influenced by the fact that the book is a comp copy.

    I don’t see why this disclaimer so ruffles your feathers. Yes, I free admit that by ANY standard of measurement, I’m most assuredly an amateur. What I hear you telling an amateur like me is, “Don’t discuss trade secrets.”

    My day job has nothing to do with publishing. I bet if I said to my co-workers, “Did you know that the reviewers at the New York Times are given free copies of the books they review?” They all would respond, “I didn’t realize that, but it makes sense. Movie critics see movies for free.” Movie critics and Hollywood aren’t shy to talk about free screenings. Yet, book critics and publishers seem to shy away from the topic. It’s like book reviewers secretly fee dirty for having received comp copies. Why not be as open as movie reviewers about the mechanics of the craft?

    I’m not persuaded by any argument I’ve read by you, or the others at your blog, to discontinue my use of openly admitting I get comp copies. If you makes you feel uncomfortable, then so be it. If it makes me look like a clueless amateur, well confession is good for the soul. There’s no sense for me to dress above my station.

  • If you want my opinion, it doesn’t matter at all if you say it or don’t say it. There’s nothing bad about having it, and there’s nothing good about having it. It’s totally neutral, and basically comes down to how the critic/reviewer/blogger wants to present reviews and/or respond to their audience.

    I don’t include anything like that in my reviews, but I don’t think that maks those who do look like rank amateurs or anything.

  • I always look at the review copy disclaimers as simple honesty, and most importantly to me anyway, it says something about the reviewer themselves when you can see what they’re personally collecting versus what they’ve been sent.

    I like to think that someone getting review copies doesn’t taint their judging process, nor a reader’s opinion when they check out a review (though I suppose some presumed butt-kissing in exchange for free books isn’t a totally out there hunch). Goodness knows I’ve written my fair share of negative reviews for complimentary copies. When the book hits my hands, it doesn’t matter where I got it, it only matters that I’m reading it.

  • David Wynne

    Heidi-

    It doesn’t make much difference to me personally at all. The point is that the reason many online reviewers have started doing it, so far as I can tell, is because they were asked to by their readers. I won’t profess to have a particularly good handle on the logic behind that request, but I think that since it’s such an easy thing to do, I don’t see what’s wrong with a writer providing their audience with the information they’ve asked for.

    Then there’s the fact that a lot of people have suggested, and continue to suggest, that reviewers recieving comp copies is some kind of confict of interest- and while this is obviously a pretty moronic accusation, stating loudly and clearly when/if a review is of a comp at least shoots that argument down before it has a chance to gather much steam.

  • Heidi, you likely disagree, but I think the arena where one starts can be very formative, especially in terms of creating one’s opinions of how things should be done or what’s usual behavior. That’s why I considered you a “print person”.

    I won’t say “how I got the book” has no influence on my opinion — consider the recent case of Aria 4, where I’m ticked I had to spend extra work finding a copy, so the work has a slightly higher hurdle to climb — but it’s minimal. However, readers want to know that information, just like they want to know who the artists and publisher are and what the price is and whether I’m a good friend of the creators. Why hide it from them? And why jump to conclusions about some “secret message” behind it?

    I admit, I myself really want to know which of the critics who covered Kramer’s Ergot 7 paid for it, and if so, how much.

  • Heidi,

    “What difference does it make on your opinion of a book on whether you bought it, got it for free or stole it from under a hobo’s bindle?”

    I think your question misses the point. There is no difference in opinion, and it generally doesn’t matter how you come upon a book you review.

    But it begins being an issue to me when the book is provided free of charge to me by someone with a commercial interest in seeing that particular book succeed – i.e., the creator or publisher.

    Because, by sending it to me, they inevitably increase the probability that I’m going to talk about it, which gives them an advantage against all those books that just sit on a shelf in a store somewhere.

    Disclosing this fact to my readers is my way of letting them know that whoever sent the book to me increased the odds of having me talk about it. No more, no less.

    I can see why the publishers or creators in question might not like that disclosure, but, surely, that’s not my concern. Like Johanna, I just don’t see what’s so offensive about the practice. It’s not like I’m condemning anybody who comes to the conclusion they DON’T need that kind of disclosure in their reviews.

  • Heidi M.

    M-O: So now we’re judging comics by whether their company has a good marketing staff or not? I’m even more confused than before.

    JDC: I don’t know of ANYONE who got a free copy of KE7. At PW we got a .pdf file and our reviewers looked through a make ready at SPX. Not ideal.

  • Isn’t the marking staff’s job to influence people’s opinion of the company’s publications? I think that’s the missing other side of this discussion — the unprofessional job done by the traditional comic industry publishers, where they don’t have budget for comps for their creators, let alone reasonable press coverage. But then, they seem to get plenty of the coverage they’re looking for without it. And I’m too tired to write that essay. (KE7: Yikes. Certainly not ideal.)

  • Perhaps to clarify:

    A “professional reviewer,” where I’m concerned, is somebody who makes a living by writing reviews for independent parties, no more than that.

    Are there any such people at all in comics?

  • Doug: “Are we to assume that you’re more fair to a book that you had to pay for than one that was provided to you?” No. For me, it makes no difference. But some readers think otherwise.

    And me, I’d think it’s the other way around. If you pay for something yourself, you come in with an expectation you’re doing to like it. Something provided, you may be more neutral towards to start, with fewer preconceptions. And even some things I get for free, I’ve reviewed under the light of “the cover price is too expensive.”

    It’s interesting to see how expectations in this area have changed, too. It used to be that the only comics sending out comps were those that really needed the press, so the general level of quality was lower than it is now, when the professional book publishers have gotten involved.

    Marc: Not that I know of. I know several who are paid to review, but none that make their living from it, not without doing other kinds of freelance writing as well.

  • jdh417

    Johanna, continue doing what you’re doing and don’t angsty over it. Review the stuff you have strong opinions about and say how you obtained the material as you wish.

    Listen to your readers if they say there’s a problem or bias with your reviews, not other bloggers (unless you consider them your main auidence).

  • One of the reasons I don’t like the disclaimer is that it creates a two-tiered system. You wrote, Johanna, that one of the reasons you post a comp line is that readers want to judge how fair your opinion is. Are we to assume that you’re more fair to a book that you had to pay for than one that was provided to you? I don’t actually think you review things on that basis, but just by raising the point, you’re suggesting that you might. Why not just avoid the question altogether? Let your reviews stand or fall on their own without the added baggage of your source for the copy.

  • As a reader, I could honestly care less whether the statement is there or not. What matters to me is a reviewer’s track record: how many reviews they’ve done, the quality of the review itself, and the depth of genre. If a reviewer gives nothing but war books good reviews and thinks everything else is cr*p, well I’m probably not going to agree with their YA fiction reviews, am I? Neither would I trust anybody who gave only good or only bad reviews either.

    Personally, I was a little taken aback by the PW article. It never seemed like an issue to begin with. BUT, I’m not a professional reviewer, either. Seeing all the comments on this, apparently it is.

  • James Schee

    I guess for me I just don’t see the big deal one way or another. If you want to put it in, thats your deal.

    If it helps some readers know that you got something as a comp (I wouldn’t say free, as if you get a comp you did something to earn it) or bought it with your own money then good gravy for them.

    If a reader doesn’t care if it just magically appeared on your desk, than it doesn’t matter what you put for how you got it.

    If Heidi doesn’t like it, well excuse my bluntness, who cares? She’s entitled to her opinion but in the end its just her opinion.

    I read your site, I don’t read hers, not anything personal (I’ve never met or even talked online with Heidi AFAIK) I just like your site, tastes and writing better.

    So just keep doing what you think is right for you Johanna. For myself unless the book really did just appear out of thin air on your desk, it doesn’t matter to me where you got it.

    I can see where worth can be judged on what it takes to get something. I loved the truck I got from my parents on my 18th b-day a lot. I appreciate the one I had to buy for myself at age 30 more.

    I can still say that my truck was a better overall vehicle than the car I bought myself.

    Yet hey that’s my opinion. Someone else wants to know differently, then cool for them if you choose to reveal it.

  • David Oakes

    Honesty, pure and simple. When someone like Dave Van Domelen comes out with a Wednesday night review of that week’s books, it’s a fair guess that those books were paid for out of pocket. But it is still nice to have him include caveats such “Not at this price” or “I am thinking of dropping it”. It is also nice that he mentions when he simply read the book in the store, as in the case of the “First Look” titles.

    Because while comps may be standard for movie and book reviews in other media, *there is no standard for the internet*. One of the great things about the internet is that anyone with an opinion can get an electronic soapbox through which to disseminate that opinion. But that also means that previous distinctions such as “Professional” and “Amateur” are horribly clouded. If someone is reviewing “Captain Wombat #125” because they love the book and want to share it with the world, that is one thing. If they are doing it because the publisher sent them a copy that is another. And if they are only doing it because their employer needs something to run in the Wednesday edition that is something else. Anyone who says that none of this would color a review is fooling themselves. (And anyone who thinks that any of the three is inherently superior to the other two is also fooling themselves. Love and Guilt are just as blind as Indifference.)

    Not to mention that a lot of this debate is not about comics or ethics or even reviewing, but about the semantics of the word “Professional”. (And maybe “is”.) A Professional Golfer earns money for hitting a ball into a cup, whereas an Amateur does not. Are comp copies sufficient compensation to elevate one out of the fanboy gutter and into the realm of the “real” reviewer? Is it a “professional” attitude, a serious work ethic that keeps you coming back week after week – without compensation! – and still be courteous in the face of criticism of your criticial skills and merits? Or maybe you can only be a “professional” reviewer if if it is your “Profession”. That you conform to the technical and ethical standards of your chosen field, as decided by the other insiders. (Distinctions made usually to keep outsiders out, something else the internet is horrible at doing.)

    I am glad that my doctor has been vetted by the AMA. I am even more glad that they have a license given to them only after a complete investigation by a regulatory body. But in the end a reviewer only has to accomplish one thing: When they say something is good, do I trust them? Trust them enough to listen to their advice, and try something I hadn’t tried before. Part of that trust, for me, is knowing who benefits. Why someone does something is as much a factor as what they do. And information is always better shared than hidden. I mean, Roger Ebert doesn’t say “I watched movie for free in the company of a half dozen other critics, none of which brought their crying babies of talked on their cell phones”, because “we” all “know” this is the case and filter his recomendations through that glass. But a restaurant critic not only doesn’t get comped meals (though an employer may foot the bill…), they will even go out of their way to hide their identity so that they don’t get anything better than any other patron. So which is the more “Professional” reviewer?

  • Heidi M.

    Just to be clear, I did label this a “pet peeve” not a “dangerous practice that must be stopped!” Everyone is free to continue to do as they wish. I personally have found the resulting conversation fascinating–if baffling–and just as those who find no convincing arguments on my side, I haven’t heard any on the other side other than “This is the internet, get used to it.”

  • Johanna: “Doug: “Are we to assume that you’re more fair to a book that you had to pay for than one that was provided to you?” No. For me, it makes no difference. But some readers think otherwise.”

    If it makes no difference to you, why encourage the readers who think otherwise to believe they’re right? And readers of a trusted reviewer assume that even if the reviewer might have some preconceptions going in (because they can’t always be avoided), that reviewer is professional (sorry, that word again) enough to set aside those preconceptions and write an unbiased review.

    Thomas R. Hart: Part of what’s come up in this discussion (more at The Beat than here) is that some people consider review copies of comics to already be payola themselves. Reviewers noting that they’ve received these copies just seem to have allowed this belief to have spread.

  • Dane

    For what it’s worth, I appreciate it when Johanna mentions she received a comp copy.

    In the past I’ve seen a few bloggers give very positive reviews to work of friends and associates, and I’ve come to value transparency because of it. And hey, that friend’s work may be great and maybe I could be interested in it, but just be honest about the background of how that book got in your hands.

    I think another element in all of this is that the public generally assumes professional print sources such as PW always get comp copies and the reviewer will be professional in the review. On the internet, any schmo with an agenda can put up a blog and type their hearts out, so that credibility is not readily apparent. To not get caught up in that storm, transparency is the best step in my eyes.

  • Dane: The problem in your example isn’t how much the reviewer paid (or didn’t pay) for the book, it’s the pre-existing relationship between reviewer and creator. “This book is by my best friend from childhood” is always a worthwhile disclaimer. If your best friend made you pay for the book, then you might be annoyed, but that’s not the factor that makes it an unbiased review or not.

  • Heidi, you started this “discussion” by calling people amateurs, encouraging baseless speculation about their (illusory) lesser motives, and then allowing your commenters to call them assholes. You might understand why some people respond defensively — that’s the position you put them into from the start.

    I have yet to see your answer to the point that readers WANT this information and have asked for it, but if you’re tired of the conversation already, that’s understandable. No forcing anyone into anything here.

  • David Wynne

    Heidi-

    Here’s the thing: your own reasoning so far has simply been a list of reasons why it’s okay *not* to declare comps- reasons I have no problem with, I hasten to add- but not one single reason why it’s bad/unprofessional *to* declare them. You don’t like it, we get that. You don’t see why it’s necessary, we get that. But those are issues of taste, not professionalism, surely?

    So I’m asking again, and maybe you’ll answer this time: why do you consider it unprofessional/amateaurish?

  • […] the Beat (am I understanding this correctly?). But still, understandibly, Johanna presents the other side. And it certainly is a damned if you due […]

  • Hal Shipman

    Wow. That was hell of a long rant for something that was merely a “pet peeve.” Put me down in the column preferring disclosure and I agree with all of your points. In an environment where so many reviews are based on “what I bought,” by someone able to read all of them at the store they work at or by obvious flacks (Newsarama), it’s nice to know the context.

  • Mark S.

    Do what makes you comfortable. You’re the one who has to look herself in the mirror. If the disclaimer makes you feel better, no problem. I’ve gotten a couple of free books for review purposes and have used that same line at the bottom.

    Mainly because I wanted to be like a responsible reviewer. Like You.

  • Mike Chary

    Johanna: I don’t think it’s an issue of people wanting the information. It’s that the information is available readily as common knowledge. Not having the information approaches willful ignorance. The information that reviewers at publication do not generally pay for the thing they review is common knowledge. Pretending that this represents some sort of unusual practice such that it must be specifically mentioned bespeaks a generalized ignorance of the mechanics of professional criticism so profound it is as though someone said to a doctor, “So, do you have to pay for all these drug samples?”

    I am sure there are people out there who are not aware that doctors have sample after sample after sample thrown at them by pharm reps. But I am also certain those people haven’t been paying attention.

  • Mike,

    “The information that reviewers at publication do not generally pay for the thing they review is common knowledge.”

    In comics? Surely you jest.

  • Because I love this topic, here’s a recent NY Times piece
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/13/technology/internet/13blog.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

    “Marketing companies are keen to get their products into the hands of so-called influencers who have loyal online followings because the opinions of such consumers help products stand out amid the clutter, particularly in social media.

    Mr. Cleland said that the F.T.C. would most likely not spell out the disclosure requirements but instead would rely on Internet users to judge what constitutes fair disclosure, adding that a lengthy description written in legalese would probably be counterproductive.”

  • […] Reviewers Can’t Win by Johanna Draper Carlson: I always enjoy Johanna’s writing, but I have an unflattering confession to make. I tend to enjoy her writing most when she’s indignant about something. Now, I know I shouldn’t wish for life to fling irritations in anyone’s path, but I do love the results. […]

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