Of ARCs and Bribes
By Cheryl Morgan
Those of you who follow the blog regularly will have noticed something of a controversy a few weeks back in which various people claimed that certain books were only given good reviews because reviewers had been "bribed" to tell "lies" about them. This later got toned down to reviewers being subconsciously influenced to praise bad books by hype and gifts handed out by publishers, but the message remained the same: apparently you canít trust reviewersí opinions, because they are not honestly formed. Hal Duncanís Vellum was one book that was held up as an example of where people supposedly only praised it because of the high quality ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) that they were sent for free.
Most of you will, I hope, know that this is plain daft, but some pretty high profile people were making these accusations, including Niall Harrison (editor of Strange Horizonsí review column and co-editor of Vector) and Graham Sleight (editor-in-waiting at Foundation). These are people who supposedly know the business well, and whose accusations of bribery might therefore be taken very seriously. I therefore thought it might be useful to talk a bit about the process of obtaining review copies from publishers so that people have a better understanding of what actually goes on.
Of course the industry doesnít really work on the basis of bribes. As Colleen Lindsay (a former PR executive at Del Rey) pointed out, what little money SF publishers have to spend on buttering people up generally goes to booksellers (or more likely to the buyers at major chains), not to reviewers. Many books donít even get ARCs these days: reviewers either have to wait for the real thing, or work from a PDF. In the case of one of the books Iíve reviewed this issue the author asked the publisher to send me an ARC and the publisher refused. Apparently ARCs were in short supply and Emerald City wasnít important enough to warrant a copy. I eventually got one from a friend at another online review site who had been sent two copies. I am inclined to put this down to lack of organization on the part of the publisher rather than to any serious research as to which web sites are most important.
As for gifts, very occasionally something turns up, generally where high-profile authors are concerned. Neil Gaimanís publishersí once sent me an American Gods t-shirt, which (amazingly) was my size and which I do actually wear. But I donít think that influenced my review of the book at all. Apart from that, all I remember getting in the way of material gifts were a ballpoint pen and a fluffy halitosis germ from Jeff VanderMeer when he was promoting the UK edition of the Lambshead Guide. Luckily for Jeff I had written my review some time before that. Halitosis indeed. One of these days Iíll have words with Jeffís Evil Monkey about that.
And talking of jokes, the whole idea that reviewers could be influenced by this sort of gift, or by free beer, is frankly laughable, especially to me. In my day job I occasionally work on projects concerning the sale of power stations. The sums involved run to hundreds of millions of dollars. If you want to see people who take offering inducements seriously, work with investment bankers. So yes, I very much enjoyed my box seat at the Australian Open to see games featuring Arantxa Sanchez and Andre Agassi, not to mention the expensive meals and bottles of wine. But as a professional economist I couldnít let such things cloud my judgment or affect my analysis. The idea that, after dealing with that sort of thing, my judgment would be swayed by the gift of a fluffy halitosis germ is just plain silly.
The other lesson from more high-powered businesses is that you donít bribe everyone. Those people who are important and influential you offer inducements to. Other people you bully. It is cheaper. So buyers at chain stores are worth courting. Locus might be worth courting, but a publicist would have to be young and naïve to try it. Charles is a wise old chap who has been at this job a very long time. Heís not easily bamboozled. As for outlets like Emerald City, most publishers donít think Iím important enough to worry about.
If I do get pressure it is not to produce favorable reviews, but to produce reviews. I get sent far more books than we can cover, I get desperate pleas from young authors, and I get increasingly bizarre promotional emails from self-published writers. Although I donít think anyone means to harass me, the sheer volume of requests is hard to deal with. There is a constant worry that publishers and authors will think Iím being unfair by choosing to review one book and not another.
As Malcolm McLaren understood so well, all publicity is good publicity. In some cases negative publicity can be better than something favorable. The more some people complained about the Sex Pistols, the more other people bought their records. The vast majority of authors to whom I have given bad reviews have not complained about it. Quite a few have said something along the lines of, "thanks for reviewing the book even though you didnít like it."
Given the way the Internet works, probably the best way for a publisher to get attention for a book is to create a blog storm. The publicity that Janine Cross got for Touched by Venom could not have been bought. It may well have done a lot for sales, even though most people trashed the book. A better bet for an ambitious publicist would be to arrange for a negative review of a book and to have the author and reviewer engage in a public row. That would get plenty of attention and a lot of sympathy for the poor author whose book has been "trashed". Not that any reputable reviewer would partake in such schemes, but Iím sure people will try it on.
Meanwhile, back with bribes, unfortunately there are aspects of the SF industry that make such accusations seem more plausible. One such consideration is the fact that the industry is a very small community in which everyone knows everyone else. Graham Sleight talked about reviewers having a "cozy relationship" with publishers. It is true, we do. We have cozy relationships with authors too, because we know so many of them, and see them so often. When Iím in London I may have lunch with an editor, having lunch being a great tradition in the publishing business. When Iím at a convention thereís a good chance that youíll find me in the bar talking to editors and authors. At ICFA this year I spent one morning by the pool talking to Kathryn Cramer and helping keep an eye on the Hartwell children. Goodness knows how many authors and editors have stayed at John Cluteís house in London. Many of them contributed to the festschrift book, Polder, to say how much they appreciated the generosity of the Clutes. Charles Brown is similarly hospitable to people visiting the Bay Area. All of these things can be seen as evidence of a "cozy relationship" by someone with a suspicious enough mind.
The more insidious effects, however, are a result of the fact that different people like different books. The SF world is full of talented editors, but they donít all buy the same sort of book, and reviewers donít all like the same sort of book. If David Hartwell recommended a new discovery to me I would be very likely to read it. Peter Lavery, of Pan Macmillan, also happens to like many of the same sorts of books as me. Not only did he sign Hal Duncan, he also brought us the first books by China Miéville and Justina Robson, and he was the first major editor to sign up Jeff VanderMeer. So if Peter recommends a new author to me, just as with Hartwell, I sit up and take notice.
The same is not true of all editors. Jane Johnson of Voyager, for example, is very highly respected, but her taste runs more to fantasy trilogies than to the sort of books I read. She could well be the person who discovered Naomi Novik, for which event I am eternally grateful, but more generally Iím less likely to take a recommendation from Johnson than from Lavery or Hartwell. Toni Weiskoff at Baen has hardly ever had a book reviewed here, but sheís still a hugely respected editor and Iím sure there are reviewers who love everything she puts out.
So there you have your smoking gun. Cheryl goes to London and has lunch with Peter Lavery. Soon after she writes an enthusiastic review of a new book that Pan Macmillan is promoting heavily. You look back through Emerald City and see that Cheryl often gives rave reviews to books that Pan Macmillan are pushing. Is that clear evidence of a conspiracy? Hopefully, having read all that has gone before, you will say, "No." But if you just had those facts placed before you on someoneís blog, out of the context of this article, I wouldnít blame you at all for saying, "Yes." The innuendo is way too easy to create.
The problem for me is that I have to work with editors from all major publishing houses. I canít just have a cozy relationship with Peter Lavery. I need one with many other editors as well. If editors believed that I was biased against their authors Iíd be in trouble. Then they might actually try to bully me (not bribe, Iím not important enough, remember).
One of the ways around this is to have a stable of reviewers. It is unlikely that I would have enjoyed many of the books that Juliet has reviewed favorably. Iím on record as not being very fond of Adam Robertsí novels, but Joe loves them and Iím happy to let him explain why. As long as you readers understand that the other reviewers are stating their own opinions, and not mine, then there should be no problem. I make sure that names are on all the reviews, and that people review fairly regularly, so you can learn their tastes as well as mine.
But there it is. Yes, I have a cozy relationship with Pan Macmillan. And yes, there is a review of one of their books that they are pushing hard in this issue. They were so keen to influence me to write a good review that they forgot to send me a copy of the book and I had to email them and remind them.
I guess if people choose to believe that my review has been "influenced" thereís nothing I can do about it. All I can do is try to be as honest as I can and hope you trust me. I did try to write "disclosure" sections for each review so that you knew exactly how I stood vis-a-vis the writer and the publisher, but Iím afraid I couldnít take it seriously. I kept wanting to write things like, "The ARC was printed in gold leaf on the tanned skins of teenage Egyptian virgins who had been bathed in nothing but asses milk all their lives". Or in the case of the Charlie Stross book that Fluff Cthulhu offered not to eat my brains for a whole extra year if I was nice about it. I wouldnít care, except that people do believe this bribery nonsense when it crops up, and the whole practice of reviewing is damaged because of it.