Critical Mass

Ethics in Book Reviewing Survey: The Results


Dear NBCC Members and “Critical Mass” Readers:

68.5 percent of book reviewers think anyone mentioned in a book’s acknowledgements should be barred from reviewing it.

64.9 percent think anyone who has written an unpaid blurb for a book should also be banned from writing a fuller review.

76.5 percent think it’s never ethical to review a book without reading the whole thing.

And 52 percent think it’s not okay for a book-review editor, in assigning books for review, to favor books by writers who also review regularly for that editor’s book section.

Yes, it’s time again for “The Ethics of Book Reviewing,” an old NBCC favorite. From the numbers above, book reviewers sound like quite an ethical bunch, no? Yet not everything seems clear to them.

40.1 percent think a reviewer shouldn’t read other reviews of a book before writing his or her own, but 17.9 per cent think that’s perfectly okay, and 33.5 per cent feel it’s complicated enough to require commentary rather than a firm answer.

73.4 percent answer “Not Sure” when asked, “Are the ethics of book reviewing in the United States and England significantly different?”

And 60.5 percent think it’s okay for a newspaper book section or magazine to ignore self-published books that authors submit to them, e.g., iUniverse type books.

Now come on, is that fair? Not even a peek?

Twenty years ago, I conducted a survey for the NBCC on “The Ethics of Book Reviewing.” It contained 26 questions, drew 126 responses and more than 3600 comments. We published it in the January, 1988 edition of the NBCC Journal.

As many of you know, I conducted a follow-up survey this year, with the advice and help of my NBCC Board colleagues. Administered through the up-to-date cyberservices of, it contained 33 questions, drew 364 respondents, and 1,938 comments. Thirteen of the questions were the same as on the 1987 survey, to permit comparison and evaluation of whether “The more things change…” applies.

Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, the NBCC is now making both the entire 2007 survey (including comments) and the 1988 survey, available to all NBCC members, the media, and any outsiders who may be interested. The 2007 survey results can be accessed here.* The 1987 survey, available in a PDF file, can be downloaded here (opens file).

We hope NBCC members, literary journalists and troublemakers of all sorts will mine the results in creative, thought-provoking ways. As conductor of the earlier survey, I offered an evaluation of those results that can be read in the PDF file. I’d like to briefly offer some thoughts here as well.

First, I alert everyone, as in 1987, that I’m not a statistician or social scientist—just a run-of-the-mill humanist who occasionally likes some numbers with his daily data. Survey purists, be forewarned: In the drafting of the final 2007 survey form, after discussion among Board members, it was decided to add “Other” as a fourth possible answer, even though the 1987 survey permitted only “Yes,” “No,” and “Not Sure.” (Both surveys invited comments in addition to a chosen answer, and many of the comments are hilarious, wise, or both—don’t miss them.)

As a result, comparisons between 1987 responses and 2007 responses, in the case of repeat questions to which many of the 2007 respondents answered “Other,” are rather tricky, while comparisons between responses to repeat questions where the “Other” response in 2007 was negligible, seem more straightforward. In effect, the 2007 survey allowed respondents who felt the issue raised by a question too nuanced to permit a blunt answer to bypass such an answer and simply comment.

Second, while responses to most of the questions repeated from 1987 to 2007 indicate ethical judgments have remained consistent—e.g., 84.2 percent in 2007 think a book-review editor should not assign a book to a friend of the author, and 82.5 percent felt that way 20 years ago—some ethical judgments appear to have shifted.

In 1987, 75.4 percent thought it unethical for a reviewer to back out of reviewing a book already accepted for review, on the ground that the reviewer didn’t like the book and didn’t want to say negative things in print.

In 2007, only 34.4 thought that—the exact same percentage as those who thought it ethical. One explanation may be that the 2007 survey drew a far larger number of reviewers who are freelance writers rather than on-staff journalists—it may be that the staff journalist’s sense of commitment to an assignment and required reportage no longer holds sway. In a similar departure from the 1987 results, 38.1 percent of the 2007 respondents, when asked, “Should a writer be allowed to review the book of someone who shares the same literary agent?”, answered “Yes.” Nearly the same percentage—37.8—answered “No.”

Yet in 1987, 70.7 percent answered “Yes.”

Are reviewers noticing more backscratching reviews by folks who share the agent of the author under review, and perhaps getting tired of the practice?

Third, I believe a conclusion in my comment on the 1987 survey remains valid—book reviewers are largely divided between those who believe in something you might call the “objective” book review, and those who don’t—attitudes toward specific practices in the field follow almost syllogistically from one premise or the other.

Fourth, and finally, new Net-based aspects of our literary life appear not to have settled in enough to create clear-cut ethical judgments. One example is the split that resulted from Question 17: “Should a literary blogger review the book of another literary blogger to whose blog she or he links?”

33.4 said “Yes.”
23.4 said “No.”
22.5 percent were “Not Sure.”
20.7 percent retreated to “Other.”

Time for a panel?

The 2007 survey, like its predecessor, addresses many other issues: the appropriateness of selling one’s review copies, favoritism by reviewers toward particular publishing houses, how honest a reviewer must be in what she or he writes, the propriety of review organs linking up with book sellers, and much else. We hope it will stir lots of debate, and no fistfights.

Carlin Romano
Literary Critic
The Philadelphia Inquirer

* To browse through individual responses to each question, click the “view” icon on the lower left of each question summary.