Editors on Reviews

Jane Ciabattari
From the July/August 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

For the most part, editors leave the judgments about books up to their reviewers—but what if they don't agree? "When I send a book out, I'm never looking for a verdict one way or another," says McGrath. "If I've read the book, half the time I will not agree with the reviewer. That doesn't trouble me, as long as the discussion is lively and fair. I have published raves of books I consider mediocre at best. Reviewing is not a science. All you are asking for is an opinion, fair and honest."

Some editors are more interested in informing their audience about books they judge as worthy. While Weaver of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution doesn't believe all reviews should be laudatory, she says, "There are too many good books out there to waste time or space on lousy ones. We've all read reviews by critics who have become so jaded by the process that you have to wonder if they'll ever deem another book worth reading. That kind of attitude is deadening." Both McGrath and Weaver are among those editors who don't see the point of panning first novels.

Still, editors agree that book reviews should not function to promote books. "We're working for the readers, not the publishers or the authors," says Weaver. "The purpose of the review is certainly not to sell books," says Kirkus's Larsen. "We have nothing to sell but the integrity of the review. Our mission is to be as honest and consistent, as informed and independent in our judgment as possible. We don't aim to please; we do aim to offer clear, straightforward bottom-line assessments of the books we select for review."

In order to publish reviews that are honestly and fairly written, editors must make sure that the reviewers they work with have no agendas behind what they're writing. "I'm pretty much of a prude," says Taylor of the Chicago Tribune. "I would like it if the reviewer and the author didn't know each other. I think a nodding acquaintance might be possible, but I think it's really important for the reviewer to receive the book as a reader would receive a book, without a filter."

Some publications handle the matter more formally. The Washington Post includes in its contracts a firm clause: "If you have had any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author of this book, if you have been asked by the publisher to write a blurb for the book, or if there is any possibility of any appearance of a conflict of interest in the assignment of this review to you, please let Book World know immediately." The New York Times interviews its reviewers along the same lines.

"We will not knowingly publish reviews when the reviewer has a reason outside the book to praise or bash it," says Henry of Verse. But that doesn't mean Verse won't publish a review by someone who knows or studied with the author. "With a community as small as the poetry world, it's impossible to assign books only to reviewers who do not know the author at all; and trying to do so would require a lot of policing, which doesn't interest us," he says.

For the record, book reviewers can't be said to be in it for the money, which starts at zero (the Constant Critic) or close to it (Verse pays two copies of the issue, valued at $16 to $20, and a one-year subscription valued at $18). Fees for full-length reviews in newspaper book review sections can reach the high hundreds; most typically fall into the $300 to $400 range.

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