Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Digression: Books I'm Not Reviewing—Freebies Sent from Media Relations, Or, "No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth."

   Though I don't drive and have in fact have never been the owner (proud or otherwise) of a driver's license, I'm moderately interested in car design. I read car reviews regularly, too, despite understanding that driving the model under assessment is little more than a pipe dream and that my knowledge of engine stats could fit inside a spark plug gap.

   One front-and-centre convention for publishers of new model reviews is the full disclosure. Here's one, for example, from Jalopnik

   (Full Disclosure: Ford wanted me to drive the new Fusion so bad they put me up in a delightful hotel room overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At dinner I ate pasta and was serenaded by a man with a guitar. I found it uncomfortable. Awkward. But at the same time strangely entertaining. Weird.)

   The idea for the declaration is self-evident: by revealing a potential cause for bias—in this instance being flown to the west coast and provided with luxe accommodations—the writer testifies to their lack of bias. The flight and hotel, while appreciated, in no way affect the outcome of the review.

   A few weeks ago a novel showed up at my office. Unsolicited, as all conglomerate and many independent publishers phrase it (as in: "We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts"). 

   No note accompanied the novel, but I guessed a minion from Media Relations had sent it to me because they were aware that I write reviews. I supposed their assumption, furthermore, was that I'd review the book, and, preferably, rather than simply writing a blog review, I'd contact a books section editor of a real newspaper and tell him or her, "I'd really like to review this book." Regardless of whether the review turned out to be laudatory or scathing (or somewhere in between), by choosing to write about it I'd be getting the word out about it in the most public of forums and basically performing a public relations service for the publisher and its author.
   By the way, the publisher of this book was esteemed, and also a subsidiary of a British multinational with over two billion dollars in revenue last year.
   The incentives to write, I presume, are the gift of a free book ($32.00; accepting 40% standard retail mark-up, that's $19.20 in wholesale costs to the publisher + shipping) and the pleasure I might receive from spending many hours reading it contents and then (hopefully) writing a review extolling its myriad virtues. 
   Perhaps as well there might be the 'vanity bonus' for me of seeing my name in print, or exerting some kind of enviable power—as in that old timey legend of inquisitorial theatre or restaurant critics who could singlehandedly make (or break) the reputation of a stage production or newly christened restaurant with a single column of glowing (or condemnatory) words.
   Including reading the novel and writing about it, the effort looked to be no less than twenty hours of labour. Hardly backbreaking and admittedly the kind of work I already perform, the (unasked for) contract being established by the Media Relations person began to sound like this:

   Dear Dr. Grubisic. Please accept this gift of a book from us. As a favour to us, we'd appreciate your writing a review of it. In doing so, you will greatly assist the author and, of course, the publisher. We took in over $2 billion last year, and for 2012, we'd like to beat that record! As a token of appreciation for your labour of love, this work you'll undertake, please enjoy your copy of the novel. We're certain you're likely to enjoy it. 
   We understand that reading the book and reviewing it takes up valuable time. While we'd like to fly you to a hotel in California where you could enjoy the view as you read, we cannot do that. Instead, here's the book, gratis, and delivered right to your door! 
   Although you may calculate that we're actually paying you about 96¢/hr (that is, if you make the effort to sell the book at a secondhand shop), we'd prefer you think of the contribution you are making to literary discourse. We're all in this for the love of literature, after all. Right?
All the best,

Media Relations

   The novel is currently sitting unread on a bookshelf in my office. I considered returning it, but then remembered the second half of the publisher's demand for no unsolicited manuscripts: "If you send an unsolicited manuscript it will be recyled unread."


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