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Reviewers mostly draw the line at self-published submissions

Sunday, November 16, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Since my image demands that I keep a book under my arm at all times, I feel embarrassed about bringing up a TV show, but I think this old "Twilight Zone" episode captures what's going on in publishing right now.

Burgess Meredith plays an antisocial bookworm who, thanks to one of those nuclear attacks that were so popular in 1950s dramas, finds himself alone in the New York Public Library with all of its books to himself.

Of course, there comes the cruel "twist of fate" so typical of that show: Meredith shatters his glasses. He sobs in desperation.

Today, even after we outfit Burgess with a new pair of lenses in a designer frame, his bookish character would still be frustrated, but for another reason: There are so many books these days, where do you dig in?

Production is clearly up. Five years ago, the annual output was 50,000 titles; this year, it's estimated that nearly 80,000 individual books will be available.

The increase is showing at the Post-Gazette book closet, which is stuffed full almost as soon as I empty it.

Recently I was talking to Russell Kierzkowski, legendary buyer for the University of Pittsburgh Book Center. Kierz-kowski was shaking his head about the seemingly endless choices he confronts in stocking his store shelves.

After some counting and consultation, we arrived at the figure of 4.5 million titles now in print.

What's adding to the total is the emergence of the "print-on-demand" publisher. Operating on the Internet, these companies offer anyone with a book the opportunity to be published for a modest fee.

It usually works like this: You send them your book in a digital format and they offer it for sale in several forms from a computer download to a conventional bound book.

The beauty of this form of vanity authorship is that the book is printed only after someone buys it, usually online.

But the authors, understandably proud of their accomplishment, order a modest press run and get them into bookstores and on reviewers' desks. Unlike traditional publishers, however, this approach has several drawbacks for stores, Kierzkowski points out.

There's either no discount or it's lower than the traditionalists offer stores (books are usually discounted 30 percent to 40 percent to stores), and the on-demand publishers don't take back the unsold books (called returns).

"It's not a sound way" for a bookstore to do business, he believes.

For reviewers, these on-demand books pose the same challenges that self-published titles do: They have not passed muster by professional editors and marketers or been found good enough to carry a company's brand.

Like most publications, the Post-Gazette does not review self-published books. Here's why, detailed in a little publication I call:


Not all books are created equally. Some are bought by commercial publishers who believe that the work is good enough to be appreciated by readers, to carry the publisher's name and to earn both the writer and publisher money.

To ensure the book's quality, publishers subject it to professional editing and fact-checking, which includes plagiarism and legal issues.

Experienced editors also work with writers to polish their work, frequently demanding rewriting and occasionally recasting of characters and plot.

By the time a trade book is ready for publication, it is a finished product backed by publishers who have staked their reputation on that book.

Other writers chose to pay a printing operation to produce copies of their work, a process that has grown more sophisticated thanks to the print-on-demand services of Internet-based companies.

Because these books do not go through the rigorous examination, editing and guarantees of a trade publisher, the Post-Gazette chooses not to review them. Without that initial work and backing, self-published books hold the possibility of exposing the newspaper to libel and plagiarism charges.

Due to the large amount of books sent to the newspaper yearly, the policy on self-published books also works to narrow the candidates for review.


So, there it is. Clip it out and stick it on the fridge.

Now that I've got that off my chest, let's return to poor Burgess wandering among the piles and piles of books in the episode "Time Enough at Last." He needs a guide, and that's where people like me come in -- in theory.

But reviewing editors are just as overwhelmed as our bespectacled bookworm. Adding to their frustration in the newspaper business are slashed budgets and space in these tight economic times. Newspaper book sections have been sliced or eliminated around the country.

And still the new books pour in.

I have to look at it this way: With so many titles around, there's bound to be enough good ones to keep me and you interested in the year ahead. That affirmation's got to be worth a few sobs now and then.

Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

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