This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

May 21, 2001 — It's similar to the aphorism amongst attorneys that any lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client — most newspaper book–review editors believe that any writer who pays to publish his or her own book has a book unworthy of review.

The near–universal policy against reviewing "vanity press" books often gets book–section editors labeled as hard–hearted. But the fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of self–published books are amateurish and depressing things to read — badly written and edited, and so self–absorbed or obscure as to be unsuitable for any audience beyond the author's immediate family, if then.

But what do you call a publication that will write and publish a review of such a book — if the author pays them to?

You call them ForeWord Magazine. ForeWord is a trade publication that reviews forthcoming small press titles for librarians, bookstore buyers and other potential purchasers in much the same way that Publishers Weekly previews upcoming books by the big pubs.

But last week, ForeWord announced it would write reviews of any book, by anybody, for a fee. It doesn't even matter if the book came out years ago — in fact, it doesn't even have to be a book, it can be a short story or an essay — all you have to do is give ForeWord $295 and you'll get a "400-word critique" written by a "professional writer," with "lifetime archival [sic] of the review" at the magazine's website. Oh yes, and authors also get the "unlimited right to reproduce the review in ads, brochures, jacket copy, and other marketing efforts."

The company's press release, an accompanying FAQ ("frequently asked questions") sheet, and an "Editor's Note" from ForeWord's Mardi Link, all went to great lengths to describe the reviews as a desperately–needed service for authors and publishers — with the advent of e–books, they explained, there are significantly more books being published, at the same time that newspapers are cutting back on the space given to reviews. This, Link said, made ForeWord "a lifeboat in the rising flood."

(Link also seemed to cite, albeit unattributed, the same Los Angeles Times article about book-review cutbacks that I quoted in a recent column about the newspaper cutbacks, except — potential ForeWord reviewees take note — she seems to have misread the article; it did not say that the Boston Globe "may fold its Sunday book section altogether." Rather, it was reported not only by the Times but numerous others that the Globe might fold its book section as a stand–alone entity, but would then move those pages to another part of the newspaper, as it subsequently did.)

The ForeWord announcement anticipated the most obvious response to a pay–per–review offering, saying "we recognize that paying for editorial coverage has long been seen as compromising journalistic standards of objectivity and quality." However, they said, they would maintain those standards by paying reviewers "the same payment regardless of whether the review is positive, negative, or somewhere in between."

What's more, unlike other publications, ForeWord would "not ghettoize any book because of who published it or because of who paid for the review."

Er, except that ForeWord won't publish those reviews in the magazine. It will only publish them on the ghetto, er, web site — — it's setting up especially for the paid-for reviews. See, as the FAQ sheet explains, although "ForeWord Magazine and share the same parent company, their editorial process and literary missions are different."

Which is to say that if the magazine used reviews that had been purchased by the reviewees, it would lose its clout with librarians and book buyers — who already get all the paid advertising they need — and therefore lose its readership, and therefore lose its advertisers.

But that's only part of the hypocrisy and cynicism behind ForeWord's scheme.

It's also obvious that ForeWord won't get much business from the publishers it claims it means to serve. See, ForeWord reviews will be worthless unless they seem objective, and so they're going to have to be negative on occasion. Do you think publishers are going to pay for bad reviews? Big publishers don't need to, and small publisher don't have the money to waste.

Which leaves the most obvious remaining target for ForeWord's deception: self–published authors.

They're already widely exploited by a ruthless vanity press industry, now more than ever with the advent of e-books — in fact the vast majority of e–books being "published" (read: stored electronically someplace for a fee, like, say, at for $100) are vanity books.

But hope springs eternal in self–published authors. In for a penny, in for a pound, many will say, allowing ForeWord to further exploit their dreams of book jackets with glowing blurbs.

Here's to hoping those authors realize, before plunking down good money after bad, that those reviews will not only go unread, they will further stigmatize their books, as they have already stigmatized ForeWord magazine.

Last Week’s Column: THE RETURN OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SHORT STORY? Ever since the great short story renaissance of the 1980s, it's been hard times for short stories. Has that changed?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.