Should Reviewers Endorse Books?

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The Source of the term “blurb”. Public Domain-US via Wikimedia

I had never thought about this question until recently when asked by an aspiring author whose work I had agreed to review whether I would do a book endorsement (or blurb) instead. I had to think about that one. In the end, I decided not to do this. Here’s my thought process (along with some further reflections).

For one thing, an endorsement serves to give credibility to a book. People look at the back cover or the inside of the book to see if people they know and respect think this book worth buying. Honestly, part of my reason for saying “no” is that I am not a household name, despite having a decent following, Most people would just say “Bob who?”

Beyond this, book endorsements are always positive, and they imply that one approves the ideas of the author, and particularly the book in question. I can fully understand why that is important in promoting a book. An endorsement by a person known to the prospective reader is an encouragement to at least take a look, and think about buying this book.

And that brought me to my other reason for saying “no.” I have developed this blog around reviewing, and reviewing is different. It is not one to three sentences about what is so good about a book. It is a longer form, in which I try to summarize a book in a way that helps my readers decide whether or not to buy the book. If I’ve done my job well, someone who buys a book I review won’t think I misled them, even if they have a different “take” on the book. While I generally try to be gracious in my reviews because I have some sense of what goes into writing a book, I will not always agree with the book’s point of view or think that it was particularly well-written. Sometimes I will note issues it fails to address. Reviewing gives me the freedom to make negative as well as positive comments about a book.

Sometimes, an author or book publisher or publicist will excerpt a quote from a review I’ve written (often on Twitter) that looks like an endorsement. I have no problem with this as long as there is proper attribution and a link to my full review (note the copyright paragraph on this blog). For anyone who cares, they are able to consult the full review…and it provides traffic to my blog as well!

This points to the place of both reviewers and endorsers in the book industry. Both are important in “getting the word out” about a book and helping people decide whether to buy it. We both have in common an appreciation for the work that goes into a book, we both think reading good books is a valuable endeavor, and we both recognize that publishers, authors, and booksellers depend, at least in part, on our efforts in securing sales of a book. Also, in most cases for both of us, this is purely a labor of love, unless we work for a review publication like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Reviews. Otherwise, paid reviews or endorsements raise all kinds of ethical questions (especially online reviews at bookseller sites).

But the two roles are different. While some do both, in truth I’m uneasy about endorsements if I am to maintain my independence as a reviewer. At very least, I could not review the same or another work of an author for whom I had written an endorsement. [Similarly, I’ve done anonymous reader reviews of a couple of manuscripts that were later published. I did not write reviews on these books.] Maybe deep down, I worry that if I endorse books, people will think any positive reviews I write to simply be endorsements of the book.

So, for now, I won’t be appearing in any book blurbs…not that people are beating a path to my door! I’d be curious how others have thought of this.

Postscript: I do think the endorsement thing can be overdone. I wrote a while back about a book I reviewed with six pages of endorsements. The more endorsements, the more suspicious I get about the book, but that just may be me.

 

The Endorsement Game

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Wayne Grudem, By Wayne Grudem, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35265675

My Facebook feed has been filled with both defenses of and outrage toward the various evangelical leaders, including Wayne Grudem, who have endorsed the Republican candidate for the U.S. Presidency. Maybe the reason for this is that I have friends across the spectrum (yes there is one!) of evangelical belief who have lots of different takes on these endorsements, and on the fitness for office of the one being endorsed.

I will not engage in any of that discussion here–there is enough of this. More fundamentally, I want to ask the question “what business do these ‘evangelical leaders’ have endorsing any presidential candidate?” I ask this because these leaders enjoy a certain status of influence within a certain segment of the community they represent. Also, as ministers of the Christian gospel, they have a certain calling from God to fulfill.

I believe they betray their calling when they become publicly enmeshed in the partisan politics of any candidate. This was brought forcefully home to me several years ago when talking with a friend about a particular church, which would be considered “evangelical” in belief. This friend told us that joining that church would be out of the question because our friend was not a Republican. It hit me like a ton of bricks that for this person, the impression was that to be a Christian, one had to both believe in Jesus and the Republican Party. I think there are many out there like my friend–attracted to Jesus, but not so much to political parties of any stripe. It is partisan endorsements rather than tenets of the faith that are stumbling blocks to belief for these friends.

Part of what is so troubling with these endorsements is that given their positions, it appears, and the news media plays up, that these people are speaking for a constituency. And perhaps they are. But because of the fuzziness of the boundaries of that constituency, and in fact the spectrum of political views in that constituency (I have friends who are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, American Solidarity Party supporters and more who would all consider themselves ‘evangelical’ in conviction), no endorser can represent all of those the media or general populace think they represent.

The deal with the endorsement game is that the endorser hopes that lending their reputation and influence will be rewarded with further influence if the candidate is successful. You would think that over the last 30 years evangelicals would learn. Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist, and Ed Dobson, a former political operative wrote a sobering account, Blinded by Might, of the high expectations and dashed hopes that Religious Right operatives in the 80’s experienced in the Reagan and post-Reagan years.

I am not arguing that the figures who have endorsed candidates do not have the right to do so. Free speech, as I’ve written elsewhere, is a tremendous freedom. My question does not have to do with the right of these figures to do what they have done but rather the wisdom of these endorsements in light of their calling. Nor do I object to Christian involvement in politics, at any level, in any party. Rather it is the implicit or explicit idea that these people represent anyone other than themselves, and the use of the perception that they do that I believe is wrong.

I would also contend that the proper role of these leaders is to pray (I Timothy 2:2) for whoever is in leadership, to prophetically preach, calling on whoever is in leadership to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) and to pastor the flock that is under their care (1 Peter 5:2), including such political leaders they have influence with.

And for the rest of us? I wonder if it makes more sense to just stop paying attention to endorsements, to give appropriate attention to the candidates, vote our consciences, and get on with other equally and perhaps more important things, whether it is the educating of our children, building bridges of understanding across our differences, protecting the most vulnerable, caring for the good creation, and creating cultural goods.

 

Books Never Started

20160127_202819-1The books above are books on my shelves that I bought at some point in the distant past (each probably more than five years ago) thinking at the time they would be interesting books to read. And I never have. The question I ask myself as I get older is whether I will, and should I purge these from the shelves? So far they have escaped.

Turns out I am not alone. A study by Kobo (and this is in reference to e-books), cited by Andrew Rhomberg, found that only 60 percent of books purchased are ever opened! I do think e-books are a special case. When I first got my e-reader, I downloaded all sorts of books, especially those available for free. Then I found some sale sites that usually sold books $2.99 and under. I kind of wonder if the decline in e-book sales this past year (down 10 percent by some reports) reflects e-reader owners with e-readers full of books they haven’t read.

You wouldn’t think this a problem–a sale is a sale whether the book is read or not. What Rhomberg would say is that a sale is only a sale if the book is not read. If it is read and liked and talked about, it may lead to other sales. What is interesting is that through Advanced Reader Copy programs and digital tracking, publishers are learning about how far readers are getting into books, or whether they are reading them at all. And they are tailoring their marketing to what they learn.

One thing they found is that the more one paid for a book, the more likely they were to start it. Kind of makes sense, really. They also found that plot-driven books were completed far more than more “literary” works. Generally, if a reader made it half way through, they were pretty likely to finish.

One of the most interesting things to look at are the books that sell really well, and yet are finished by few. Often, a celebrity figure has endorsed it, perhaps without finishing the book. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century appears to be one of these (this is one I can say I actually finished and reviewed here). Bill Gates talked about this book, Piketty was featured on Charlie Rose, and many of us marched out and bought the book!

What about those books in the picture? I’ve always been interested in military history, especially British and American military history. I always thought Wellington would be an interesting figure to read about. Still do. Just might pull this one out. Sometime.

The book, Jesus and the Kingdom of God is still available in print on demand. As I recall, reading and teaching the Gospel of Mark intrigued me with this whole idea of the kingdom of God, kind of a foreign concept in our democracy where we don’t talk about kings and kingdoms. I think I found this at Eerdmans bookshop in Grand Rapids in their seconds shelves for a bargain. Since then, I’ve read other books on the topic and suspect I probably won’t read this one.

The True and Only Heaven was referenced in a talk that caught my attention. I picked it up for a bargain at Half Price Books back in 1992 for $2 according to the price sticker that is still on the book. The book is about the idea of progress and the opposition of anti-materialists to this idea. Sounded interesting at the time, probably not so much now, despite the very erudite tone of the book. Another for the purge pile.

I picked up the Time Reading Program version of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s fictional account of Stalinist Russia in the 1930’s. I have collected the Time Reading Program editions when I come across them and have come across many references to Koestler’s work. May try to read this sometime if I can do so without destroying the stiff binding that characterizes these books.

So that I don’t feel alone, name one book that you bought that you thought you’d really like to read that you’ve never opened.