Conflicts of Interest and Bias in Reviewing

managing-coiThe last few years of writing reviews on Goodreads and on this blog have been an interesting journey from writing reviews simply because I want to remember what the book was about and my “takeaways” to having a group of people following my reviews who are interested readers, and in some cases authors or publishers. I’ve gone from only reviewing books I’ve bought to getting review copies of books from publishers. Friends have asked me to review books they’ve written, and sometimes I’ve done so. I also review a fair number of books from InterVarsity Press, the publishing division of the organization for whom I work. Most of these books I purchase at a discount and some I receive on a complimentary basis, not for review, but for use in my work.

What this raises, which was called to my attention by a friend who forwarded this NY Times article, is the question of reviewer bias and conflict of interest. My first response as I think about this is that it is impossible to not be biased unless I am utterly ignorant of a subject, and even then, I have my own preferences about writing style and more. If I’m utterly ignorant of a subject, I may actually be an unhelpful reviewer, even if relatively unbiased.

On the matter of conflict of interest, it was interesting to discover what the New York Times Book Review considered to be conflicts of interest: writing a blurb for the book, having the same agent, or publishing under the same imprint, particularly if it is a small publishing house (none of which is an issue for me at present). They did not consider a personal relationship with the author to be a conflict of interest or strong feelings on the book’s subject to be a problem. Rather it may be an asset if it adds depth and insight to the review and is acknowledged.

So here are a few thoughts of how I am learning to deal with this that I hope will be helpful to those who read my reviews. I also would welcome the comments of other reviewers.

1. I do make a disclosure at the end of my reviews when a book I am reviewing was obtained on a complimentary basis for review. As I understand this, it may be an FTC requirement to do so and publishers actually request this. I have been critical of books I’ve received as review copies and try not to treat them any differently than other books I review. I send the reviews to the publishers as well as publish them on social media. So far no one has cut me off.

2. If I would consider the author a friend, as opposed to an acquaintance, I would disclose this and perhaps give a personal slant to the review where this is relevant. I consider someone a “friend” if we’ve had what I consider a significant and ongoing personal or professional relationship. If I end up considering the book really bad, I just won’t publish a review (I’ve never had this come up yet). I have raised questions or differences in reviewing the books of friends, as I have others.

3. Where I have strong feelings or a definite perspective that is similar to the author’s, I will often ask the question as I review of “what is missing?” or “what might I add?” to what they have written. In general, this would follow my summary of the basic content of their work, and appreciation for what they’ve written. I sometimes will mention books or authors with opposing views, as I’m aware of these.

4. Where I would hold a perspective differing from the author, I would first of all try to fairly represent what they’ve written and the merits of their work and only then, acknowledge questions, reservation, or critique of what they’ve written. I don’t always do this. If they’ve written well and presented their case well, I may simply try to situate their contribution within the context of the larger discussion and differing points of view. Sometimes, I may commend works giving differing perspectives that I’ve found helpful.

5. When would I acknowledge personal bias? I don’t like doing this all the time because I think the review should be about the book, not about me. I think if I come to the review with a strong bias against the book or author, I need to say so. Sometimes that will be true of me and I’ll be favorably surprised by some aspect of the book, or the book as a whole. I’ll say that as well.

6. So, what about those reviews I do of InterVarsity Press? I’ve acknowledged my connection to the publisher both here and previously. I don’t think I need to do this with each book. This is a private blog and not done for my organization. I try to approach reviews as I would for books from other publishers, trying to respect the author’s effort, give some idea of the content and value of the book, and critique where this is warranted. Actually some of my toughest criticism has been of a few of their books. That said, I do appreciate the high quality of books they’ve published over many years, and certainly am happy if people decide to buy one of their books because of a review I’ve written.

The truth is, I have a passion for seeing people buy and read good literature, no matter who publishes it, and even if I disagree with the perspective. I think what it comes down to for me is that in whatever I review, I want to be fair to the author and honestly represent the book to the prospective reader, whether people like what I write or not. If at some point, I fail at this, feel free to let me know. After all, that’s the social in social media.

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