One of my main tasks as books editor is to wade through the deluge of review copies that wash up on my desk every day. Although some titles are too elementary or too specialist for my purposes (and some publicists seem not to have worked out that a magazine called Times Higher Education tends to cover books related to higher education), the generosity of publishers means that I am generally spoiled for choice and inevitably can’t cover in my pages many excellent books.
Reviewers often have far less happy experiences. One recently reported to me that many publishers simply refuse to send hard copies to him overseas. So he has to make do with PDFs or just online access. It hardly needs to be said that few people enjoy reading full-length monographs on the screens of computers, tablets or phones, which invariably takes longer and strains the eyes of all except the very youthful.
One would hope that requests for review copies sent direct from a publication that is a major player in international higher education would be treated differently. But it turns out not always to be so.
I could just about understand why a publisher was reluctant to send me a hard copy of a large and expensive reference book, although I was delighted when they decided they did have “a few copies available for select publications”. I was much more surprised by the response of an American publisher.
When one of my regular reviewers expressed an interest in David Lurhssen’s The Vietnam War on Film, I asked ABC-CLIO for a review copy and was sent a link to the e-book. I forwarded this to the reviewer, but he requested a hard copy as well, saying that he “usually decline[s] to review e-copies simply because I find them so hard to read online”. The publisher told me that “we do not send hard copies outside of the United States”, the reviewer therefore decided to back out of the assignment. It is the first time I have come across this problem – and I hope it doesn’t become more common.
Any individual reviewer, of course, will have his or her own assumptions, perspectives and blind spots. Yet I genuinely believe that those I (and many other publications) use do their best to offer an honest and informed opinion about the books they are sent. When they are enthusiastic, publishers are happy to quote them in their marketing material. A really good review can no doubt make a significant impact on sales and encourage other reviews elsewhere. To that extent, reviewers can be seen as doing publishers’ publicity for them. In return for this, they have traditionally received a hard copy for their files over and above a fairly small fee. Is it really unreasonable for them to expect this or to want to read a long book in the format that is most time-efficient and least likely to strain their eyes?
Print headline: Miscellanea and marginalia: why make hard copies so hard to come by?