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.)