Thursday, October 18, 2007

Can We Unclog Reviewers'Filters?

What if by some miracle, reviewers take notice of my October 4 posting on this blog and say to themselves, "She's right. We'll start accepting all the books that come in and judge each book on its own as to whether it is worth our review."? Will that eliminate all bias against self-published books? Not likely.

As long as reviewers are aware of a book's publisher, self-published books and those published by small independent publishers will be at a disadvantage. Even when quality is high, it's easy for bias to creep in.

Malcolm Gladwell gives an interesting example in his book Blink. A female professional trombone player, Abbi Conant, auditioned for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in 1980, in an unusual—for the time—"blind" audition with candidates unidentified to the committee and playing behind a screen. When the judges heard Conant play, they were so impressed that they immediately said, "That's the musician we want." But when Conant came out from behind the screen, showing herself to be a woman, the judges reverted to old beliefs that the trombone is a masculine instrument that can't be played well by a female and said they couldn't hire her. After several more auditions, she was hired but—despite outstanding performance—fought for many years to be allowed the solo performances and level of pay that would have been easily hers if she had been male.

Why do prejudices prevail even when contradicted by evidence? It's partly because our filters are clogged with old stuff.—ways of looking at things, beliefs about what is good or bad or about what people should or shouldn’t do. Clearing out that stuff, choosing to look at things differently is not easy.

So how can we keep preconceived ideas about an author or publisher from influencing reviews? Probably the best way is to keep the identifying information from the reviewers. Gladwell points out that over the past 30 years as it has become standard practice for musicians to audition behind screens, the number of women in U.S, orchestras has increased fivefold. Similarly, many academic journals today select papers to publish using blind peer review which means that experts (usually 2 or 3 for each article) review manuscripts for publication without knowing who wrote them.

Sometimes a self-published author is fortunate enough that a reviewer gets involved in her/his book before learning it is self-published. This happened to my daughter, Laurel Osterkamp, when she sent out press releases to local media in Minnesota announcing her novel, Following My Toes. Because our publishing company is located in Colorado, at least one reporter did not see her book as self-published and requested a copy to review. She liked the book, interviewed Laurel and wrote a full-page favorable article. But she did admit that had she known Following My Toes was self-published (which she didn't find out until the interview), she never would have requested a copy.Clearly the challenge is to find a way to have this sort of blind review of all books. Any ideas as to how we could operationalize this?

1 comment:

  1. This is a common problem, which some folks are trying to solve. I have started Xavier House Reviews to specialize in dealing with self-published and small publisher works. Unlike some of the review services who cater to these books Xavier House Reviews does not charge for reviews.