This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

7 January 2001 — Maybe you've wondered why some books get reviewed in the newspaper and others don't.

That's easy: Publicity. Publishers send out loads of it to people like me, attempting to draw attention to their books. For example, the art book publisher Taschen has been sending me reams of promotional material about their new book, ''Cacas.'' Yes, they mean that kind of cacas, of which the book includes 135 photos. Thus, tons of slick and expensive promotional material has drawn my attention to the fact that Taschen is staffed by a bunch of childish hustlers who wouldn't know what art was if they, er, stepped in it.

Which is an improvement on what I thought of them after the reams of material they sent me about their

photo–biography ''Leni Riefenstahl.'' Riefenstahl was the official filmmaker of the Third Reich during the Holocaust, a period Taschen refers to as ''controversial.'' ''Regardless of one's feelings about her politics,'' one Taschen communique said, ''one has to admire'' such a ''remarkable woman.''

Ergo, publicity has prompted me to tell you that Taschen is a profoundly cynical and dishonest company — that is, when they're not being stupid — whose products you should avoid assiduously.

See how it works? Publicity helps get you written about in the newspaper. But while most publishers don't treat reviewers like gullible ignorami the way Taschen does — most send a brief release and the book, basically letting it speak for itself — more and more of the promotional material inundating book reviewers isn't coming from publishers.

''I hear more from self–published authors than anyone else,'' Ed Gray, book editor of Little Rock's Arkansas Democrat–Gazette, told me.

For Nancy Pate, book editor of the Orlando Sentinel, direct solicitations by authors are ''on the increase,'' mostly due to one thing: ''The national pastime is no longer baseball but writing an e–book.''

When I asked David Kipen, book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, if e–books had affected the number of authors he heard from, he said, ''Would doubling count as affecting?''

''Now,'' said Milwaukee Journal–Sentinel book editor Geeta Jensen, ''every Joe around here who has $300 to spare and can pay to get online calls me.''

That might get worse with last week's announcement that Barnes & Noble is entering the e–publishing business with discount fees — for $99, B & N ''guarantees your book will be in every major distribution database.'' It's up to authors to get the word out, however — B & N's deal, like most, doesn't include any advertising or promotion.

Newspaper reviews don't appear to be forthcoming, either. ''One problem is that there's no filter,'' explained Nancy Pate. ''Most e–books have not been edited in any professional manner — formatting on the Internet is not editing. It's actually quite sad that these people have no concept that self–publishing is not the same thing as having a trade publisher.''

A problem for Ed Gray is that most of the self–published books sent to him are poetry or memoirs in which ''the only people who would be interested are the author's family, if then. So I have to ask myself, Is a review solely for the writer's ego? Usually the answer is yes.''

''I will only begin reviewing e–books if the quality of writing improves, if that's the only way I can get a book, and if e–books have become so widespread that I would be doing a disservice to my readers by ignoring them,'' said Geeta Jensen. ''And that future, it seems, is a long way off.''

Meanwhile, authors appear to be getting desperate. ''One guy yelled at me that he was better than John Grisham and I was going to be very sorry that I didn't discover him,'' Pate recalled.

Gray is still shaking his head over a man who asked him to review ''a thinly–disguised revenge book directed at his former boss who fired him. He told me in a follow–up telephone call that he had a terminal illness and wanted to see the book reviewed before he died. I didn't review it, so he took an ad out in the paper saying 'Read the book that the Democrat–Gazette refuses to review'.''

Pressure's been high on David Kipen, too. ''Somebody sent me a five–dollar bill once,'' he said, ''and we still have what's left of a six–pack from somebody else.''

How does he withstand the strain? ''Our policy is always to enjoy the graft so thoroughly that we forget who sent it,'' he said.


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Dennis Loy Johnson.