Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Do Reviewers Need Gatekeepers To Save Them From Bad Self-Published Books?

Reviewers are deluged with books begging for review. Many of these books are dreadful. And reviewers are too busy to sort out the books that deserve their attention from those that deserve the trash heap. So they set up criteria to narrow the field by keeping out entire categories of books based on who published them.

Is this a reasonable and necessary approach? No. Reviewers should be able to tell in the first few seconds after they pick up a book whether or not it’s one they want to review. And they don’t need to do that by looking to see who published it.

In his bestselling book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for the ability of our unconscious minds to make quick instinctive decisions that are as good as decisions made more slowly and with more background information. For example, he describes an experiment in which students rated the effectiveness of a teacher after watching a five-second sound-free video of that teacher. The students’ snap decisions about the effectiveness of those teachers were essentially the same as ratings of the same teachers made by students who had been in their classes for entire semester.

How can this be? Gladwell argues that a person’s unconscious has the ability to find patterns very quickly using only small bits of information, and then form surprisingly accurate judgements by focusing on the essentials. It’s like when you meet someone new and instinctively know you’ve found a new friend. Most of us can’t explain how we know these things—we just know.

Are these quick judgements always right? No. Can stereotypes lead to false decisions? Yes. Are we more likely to have positive attitudes toward people and ideas that are familiar to us? Yes.

But we can train ourselves to look beyond our stereotypes—such as a belief that all self-published books are junk. One good way to do this is to change our experiences to include positive examples of a group about which we have a negative bias. Following that logic, reviewers need to see some good self-published books. To do that, they need to let self-published books into their stack of potentially reviewable books.

Of course this takes us back to the reviewers’ problem of sorting through all the books. Following the Blink model, they can do this quickly using their ability to make an instinctive decision after reading a page—or even a paragraph—of a book. In fact, editors do this all the time when reading through stacks of submissions.

And I make these quick decisions when I select a book from a library or bookstore. Don’t you? I never look to see who published a book when I’m deciding whether or not to read it. Do you?

Here is my challenge to reviewers. Don’t use an “approved publisher list” as a gatekeeper for what books to review. Accept all the books that come in and then make your own quick judgements about whether or not to review a book by reading a small bit of it. You may be surprised at what you find.

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