Date Rape

The leading category in the blog readers’ poll (scroll down to the bottom right hand corner), at the time of writing, is requesting “Ecology / Science”, which nicely coincides with this last post to finish the series on reviews (thus far comprising “Insult to Human Intelligence” and “Reviewing the Situation”), and specifically reviews of scientific publications, although this point, in particular, appears to apply equally to other non-fiction and in fact, most fiction too.
The issue involves publication dates.
A publisher sets a publication date for several reasons, including, establishing their own schedule for the development, production and printing (often done “out of house” and therefore requiring an estimated “time of delivery” to the press), formalising the agreement laid down in the author’s contract whereby they commit to producing the book, but also as a prerequisite of catalogues and online vendors, most universally Amazon.
But with all these roles to play, how is a publication date set?
Googling “publication date” turns up some interesting views, for example:
The choice of publication date is arbitrary. There are a number of reasons for not publishing as soon as your book is printed include:
  • Allowing time for reviewers to incorporate your book into their schedule – many magazines go to print months before their cover date. Even papers will need several weeks
  • It gives time for orders to be placed so the books are in the bookshops when publication date arrives.
  • You might want to time the publication date to tie in with some relevant date.
  • It takes time for the data about your book to filter through to the bookstores through the ‘bookdata’ system.
Publication Dates. Writers Services.
The official release date is today. This doesn’t feel like much of anything, since the book’s been shipping for several weeks now, and as a first-time author I was surprised to learn that these release dates are something of a fantasy.
A Book’s Publication Date: One Author’s Perspective. University of California.
Note the mention above of how reviews are timed to coincide with a book’s publication date.
So, what’s the issue? The system works, it has done so for some time.
The issue is that if, for whatever reason, a book is not sent to a reviewer (usually in it’s proof version), well in advance of the publication date, then it is nigh on impossible to get the book reviewed, and reviews tell readers about books. Or, at least, that is what they are supposed to do, (but also see the previous posts in this series).
So, why not just get a copy to the reviewer early enough? One reason is because, smaller publishers do not have the financial leverage to afford a preliminary/draft print run, but also for the main point that in the modern age, it is unnecessary to do so. Especially damaging, as by doing so, the position of power enjoyed by the media over the reader is maintained.
By way of explanation, and in the similar vein of getting your work publicised, there is a practice of the higher profile science journals charging authors to publish their papers, a cost other journals cover solely through subscription fees. The rationale is that those authors will be prepared to pay printing charges (several hundreds of dollars, and often out of a public-funded research grant), in order to get their paper seen by the most readers, in journals with the highest circulation.
The measure of a journal’s reputation is given by its Impact Factor. Nature, Science, PNAS and The Lancet, etc, are usually in the Top 10 ranked by various aspects, but, aside from the criticisms levied at the system in general, and assuming that the peer-review system ensures a high quality of work accepted for publication, then there is a source of a more fundamental contradiction that undermines, if not nullifies, the need by authors to target high profile journals.
The internet.
The internet has exposed information for our use; citation indices and e-journals have revolutionised and facilitated scientific research. Thanks to Google alone, not even Google Scholar, and just by knowing minimal information, the authors surnames, year of publication, etc. (although additional search terms do help when honing in on a specific paper), it is now possible to immediately access abstracts and, given sufficient access rights (usually bought with a membership fee paid by an institute or university), a PDF copy of any paper, from the last few decades and often beyond, regardless of the journal in which it appeared.

For example, Googling just “Watson Crick 1952” throws up the Nature DNA archive with their seminal papers in the journal Nature.
Or,
the first link when Googling “Williams 1957 Evolution” is his classic on “Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence” in Evolution.
For more contemporary material, in Google Scholar “Fisher Frank Leggett 2010” returns their recent “Breaking Bergmann’s rule: truncation of Northwest Atlantic marine fish body sizes” in Ecology.
All of the above journals are considered high impact. Yet, in equally quick time, Googling “Derry Dougill” provides the abstract and, one click further, the entire PDF of “Water location, piospheres and a review of evolution in African ruminants” that appeared in the comparatively low-impact journal African Journal of Range and Forage Science.
And so on.
The point being, other than snobbery, there is no point in targeting high impact journals for the sake of exposure, (serious researchers will properly explore the literature), and there is certainly no sense in paying for papers to appear therein.
So, what has this to do with book reviews?
Everything.
In the same way that the internet has normalised academic journals, so it has also exploded the book market such that it is now possible to track down a copy of the rarest tome, regardless of publication date.
Before online shopping, the availbility of a book was determined by the stock currently on sale in your local bookshop. Before Waterstones and the hyper-bookshop, that meant quite a limited number of titles. If you wanted a book that was not in stock, then the bookseller could offer to search their system for it, but that was also limited to their distribution network, and the networks of their stock providers.
But the internet is decontructing all that because it is now possible to find books for yourself, from the smallest outlet, anywhere in the world. This is a wonderfully welcome consequence of the transparency and global extent of the information superhighway.
To persist in a small-minded, blinkered notion that a publication date, an arbitrary construct at best, is important for any reason except for the reviews section in a newspaper or such appearing topical, is yet another way that the media are playing at being cultural gatekeepers, filtering out what is presented to the public at large, and through the machinations of the industry, inevitably concentrating on major publishing houses, at the expense of smaller operators, and the diversity of literature.
It is tantamount to the wanton spoiling of cultural potential by limiting what is presented to the reading public.
Once again, the reviewers, and the media that they work for, need to remember for whom and for whose purpose they are reviewing books. I would like to think for the reader, but the way they are going about it, I doubt that more and more.

About JFDerry

Writer. Darwin, science & more. 4 books: Piospheres, Darwin in Scotland, Serial Killers. Current project is THE DISSENT OF MAN. Born near London, raised near Primrose Hill and in Lincolnshire, and studied at the Universities of Bangor, York and Edinburgh for degrees in Biochemistry, Bioelectronics and Biological Computation, and a PhD in African Ecology. Mainly working in British and African universities, but also in Spain, Brussels, Mongolia and Australia, to date, publication history is mostly in academic journals, on aspects of computational biology, pastoralism and on Charles Darwin and evolution. However, also written for several national newspapers, various governments, several major record labels and independent book publishers. Fiction has appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and poetry is at the Human Genre Project. Lives in Edinburgh, with partner and their two daughters.
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10 Responses to Date Rape

  1. Martyn says:

    The reason I suspect the practise will continue is that the author and publisher are keen on seeing a feeding frenzy out there amongst the public, and frenzies are created by media exposure. Note I say feeding frenzy. It would be nice if it was a reading frenzy but I wonder how many authors and publishers really care about that? What is really base is the magazines and papers who won’t review books a month or two after publication.

  2. Sinead says:

    You’ve copied the post twice, lol it took me five minutes to realise half way in I was reading the same thing over again.

  3. JFDerry says:

    Hmm, fixed, but that’s the last time I use the WordPress iPhone app! Thanks for pointing it out.

  4. JFDerry says:

    “What is really base is the magazines and papers who won’t review books a month or two after publication.”

    That’s certainly an important motivation for writing the post.

  5. Smoo says:

    It can be equally frustrating for the reviewer who’s in the hands of the Royal Mail’s delivery service to get them a book on time, and for the publicist who’s in the hands of warehousemen in some Godforsaken part of little England sending them out as swiftly as requested.

    Lit Eds are often equally frustrated by the parameters outlined to them by their own senior Eds… [I was lucky enough to write a column for a while entitled 'book of the moment' in which i was able to look at any book, if i could tie it to (here's the pitfall) a 'moment' considered sufficiently - er - momentous (birth, death dates of author, social events, etc). It lasted 18 months and while fun at first, soon wore me to a frazzle trying to look ahead for ways to link books and dates...]

    Anyway – my point is that to point the finger at reviewers is pointless :-) – the big publishing machine creates artificial deadlines, which – as you’ve probably already said above – means bookshops can eject anything that doesn’t sell by three months or so after the pub date. [This situation reminds me of the music world's chart-topping system, which no longer regulates how music is enjoyed or bought. Unfortunately, however brilliant, books and stories don't have the same 'lifestyle accessory' creds as a song...] High calibre material will go on being celebrated long after this silly system crashes.

  6. JFDerry says:

    Hi and thanks for leaving your comment, good points, all. I agree that, over the course of the 3-parts (“Insult to Human Intelligence”, “Reviewing the Situation” and “Date Rape”), that I do implicate more than just the reviewers and literary editors in creating artificial deadlines. But, when a review says essentially, “Don’t attempt to read this, it’s too difficult for you”, then perhaps it can only be the reviewer who is to blame.

  7. Smoo says:

    or the blasted sub-editor many of whom are too quick to append ‘what we think you meant to say’ fudges to pieces by their reviewers, without asking first. Bah.

  8. JFDerry says:

    ah, now that is worrying. Hadn’t occurred to me how random this whole process can be. Shame when so much is riding on getting a review at all.

  9. Geoff says:

    HI Julian

    Presume you saw this tweet recently

    Princeton bans academics from handing all copyright to journal publishers: Princeton University hopes its new Op… http://t.co/oXejlBIc

    Geoff

  10. JFDerry says:

    no I hadn’t. thanks Geoff.

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