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The ethics of book reviewing

The results of a National Book Critics Circle survey in which I participated are in. And evidently I am largely in step with contemporaries when it comes to issues in the “ethics” of book reviewing.

You can look at the full survey results but here’s a few highlights:

  • More than three-quarters of those surveyed (76.5%) said it was never ethical to review a book without reading the entire book. What surprises me is that some eight percent see nothing wrong with it.
  • A nearly identical percentage (76.3%) agree that “commissioned” book reviews should be identified as such. Less than five percent said they need not be identified.
  • A slightly smaller number (64.9%) believe someone who’s written an unpaid blurb for a book should not be allowed to write a fuller review of the book. I had already decided this concept will apply to a forthcoming book for which I recently provided a blurb.
  • Surprisingly, while more than 80 percent think “literary journals” and magazines should follow the same ethical rules as newspaper book sections, little more than half (54.6%) believe “literary blogs” (whatever they may be) should.
  • Forty percent thought a reviewer should not read other reviews of a book before reviewing it while only 18% approved of doing so. Perhaps reflecting there are a variety of factors that might impact this in any particular situation, 33.5% gave “other” as a response.
  • More than half (54%) say it is never acceptable for a reviewer not to say what they really think about a book. Saying it’s acceptable or “other” roughly split another 38 % of the vote. I agree with the majority but note that one need not use razors in expressing what you really think.
  • The yes and no votes were equally split on a related issue. Thirty-four percent fell on either side of whether it is ethical for a reviewer to decline to review a book they already accepted for review because they didn’t like it and didn’t want to say negative things in print.
  • Barely half (51.6%) see no problem with the practice (followed here) of a review containing a link to Amazon or other site where the book can be purchased. I, of course, fall in that half but the practice is disclosed in my Reader Pledge.
  • Finally, fully 60 percent say it is acceptable for a newspaper book section or magazine to “ignore” self-published books submitted to it.

Even if there were established rules of ethics for book reviewers, compliance would be voluntary.  Still, I think it’s interesting to see the views in this area, particularly in terms of honesty and disclosure.  I should also notethat GalleyCat has some pertinent observations on the survey in light of the blogger v. mainstream reviewer debate that’s been going on for some time now.


I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.

Sydney Smith, quoted in Bon-mots of Sydney Smith and R. Brinsley Sheridan (1893)

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3 comments to The ethics of book reviewing

  • Very interesting statistics, but nothing surprising.

    Because I don’t consider myself a “book reviewer,” I have no qualms about linking people to the books I talk about. I, however, don’t feel that Amazon needs any more business than they already have, so in support of independent bookstores everywhere I link to Powells.com instead.

    I’ve also been offered books for review, but I nearly always turn them down. I feel horrible having a company send me books that I may never read and will probably not review to their standards. The exception is when I have books sent to me with no mention of a review – I keep these, and respond with a note thanking the publisher and informing them that I feel no obligation to review the books.

  • Book are a passion of mine and when I do find a book which is just brilliant I feel compelled to give a link to Amazon – just to make sure that others get to read it!