There was a flurry of activity on the SHARP listserv recently about the iniquity of publishers’ trying to foist e-books onto reviewers. With very few exceptions these academics all condemned the trend. Many said that there was no way they’d write a review if the publisher diss-ed them by fobbing them off with an e-book. This attitude is of course understandable: academic journals do tend not to pay their reviewers, so a copy of the book ends up being the only reward for writing the review, beyond of course such value as comes from reading the material, and getting your name out there once again. Some conspiracy theoreticians even detected in all this a plot by publishers to kill off the printed book and subject all readers, willing and unwilling, to the inadequate substitute which they claim is the e-book.

I’m wondering if this protest was sparked by a letter to The Times Literary Supplement of 23 May 2014, from Hope Leman of Corvallis, Oregon (LinkedIn tells me she’s a Research Information Technologist there). She is all for e-books and on-line reviewing, counting this as a “new golden age where everybody is a potential book reviewer”. She tells us “University presses are quite courteous about providing review copies and prestigious ones like Oxford University Press and Yale University Press are making their books available to non-academic, non-professional reviewers like me on NetGalley because they know we will blog and tweet about their books, and that never hurts.” This seems to me to be all, more or less, that needs to be said — but clearly the established reviewers voicing their opinions in the SHARP discussion wouldn’t agree.

From the publisher’s point of view what’s to make of this? Well obviously we are not trying to kill off print. Quite the opposite: most publishers suffer from an almost debilitating love of the printed book. So why send out e-books for review? Money is the short answer. SHARP members are mostly academics, so we are dealing with academic books here. These do not print in large quantities. Reviews will be important in helping to sell the book, though probably not as important as our audience assumes. There’s no real way of tracking whether a sale results directly from a review. A couple of good reviews in prestigious journals will help establish a climate of opinion, affected also by the prestige of the author, and to some extent the publisher, so that a few extra libraries may be motivated to purchase. This may come about by a small number of academics requesting the book from their library, having just seen the review. Unfortunately reviews in academic journals tend take quite a while to appear: a rave review in a specialist journal two or three years after publication is nice, but not much of a sales booster.

So what proportion of the print run is the publisher to send out as review copies? The publisher will have a list of journals to which they will be sending a review copy because they believe that journal is likely to run a review. They will also get requests from journal review editors, and often individual scholars who would like to write a “freelance” review. You can’t send a book to everyone who asks: you certainly need to have books left on hand to sell! Sometimes the publisher’s publicity department will get a call from a journal requesting a review copy, even though they know one was mailed already. The journal editor may have initially decided against reviewing, and the first book has slipped into the second hand market, or the book may genuinely have been mislaid, or the first person to whom they sent the review copy may have declined after a few weeks, neglecting to return the book. The demand is pretty elastic: how to ration? The digital proof provides a ready answer — you could fill every request for a review copy from NetGalley.

One of the SHARP reviewers’ beefs was the difficulty of reading academic books in digital format. At first many digital versions were hard to navigate, but this is not I believe a consequence of the digital format, it’s a consequence of poor application of the digital format. Without any evidence, I assume this is improving all the time, as we gain experience and expertise. It ought in theory to be easier to check a note in a digital file than as an endnote in a printed book, though we do often have such difficulty getting back to the text call-out that after a few attempts we stop trying. Tables can be problematic, and tying artwork to text call-out can be a challenge. But we must be getting better at this sort of thing, mustn’t we?

Now bloggers (and there are lots and lots of them) have been added to the pile of review copy requests. In theory I could ask CUP for a review copy of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 1, c.400-1100 — after all a blog called “Making Book” could reasonably be expected to review such a thing. The fact that it costs $187.00 should make someone think twice before sending it to me, but if it was available through NetGalley why wouldn’t they send it to me (unfortunately it appears not to be): if I do review it, it can’t do any harm (though of course it wouldn’t I fear do much good); and if I don’t, ditto. So nowadays publishers can fill almost every request for a review copy by sending a digital file, the marginal cost of which is essentially zero after the cost of uploading it to NetGalley. The specialist reviewers complaining about this will just have to accept the situation — or stop writing reviews I fear. The economics of book publishing just make it impossible to send a review copy off to everyone who might review the book. Now it would seem possible to me to reach a sort of compromise — the e-book goes off, the review editor assesses whether or not to do a review, and in response to some sort of guarantee that the review will really happen, the publisher supplies a print book. Still, even that seems like it might cost too much in admin overhead to be a viable plan.

There is now a risk that publishers could easily end up giving a e-review copy to everyone who might be interested — i.e. saturating the market with freebies. Not a good sales model. So I expect, as more and more people cotton to NetGalley, publishers will become more restrictive on who they allow in by that route.

Returning to the academic’s point of view, we should acknowledge the power of prepublication reviewing. In return for a modest fee academics review unpublished manuscripts writing reports for publishers which often provide guidance to the author who can revise the manuscript as suggested. This peer-reviewing activity underpins the whole academic publishing enterprise: a university press simply cannot employ a specialist in every discipline, and without peer review the quality of the list would inevitably decline. So the same academics who complained in the SHARP exchange are the ones we rely on to pre-vet our lists. Alienating them doesn’t seem like a great idea.