Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Dunking Tank

The Dunking Tank:
an Epistemological Rumination
by Dr. Al Past

The phrase “dunking tank” comes from an email I sent to the worthy editor of this blog some months ago to characterize an author who seemed leery of having his book reviewed by an impartial reader. We all know what a dunking tank is: that staple of county fairs where a local celebrity will risk being dropped into cold water by a well-aimed softball, thrown by someone who has paid for a chance to do exactly that. I’ll come back to this analogy shortly.

Most self-published authors are well aware of the dozens (hundreds?) of websites that will review a book for a fee, and most are also aware that by far the great majority of the resulting reviews are favorable if not fawningly laudatory. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this should be: if a site consistently low-rates the books it reviews, fewer authors will submit theirs, and if the site is ultimately designed to make money, then being honest only reduces the take.

Let’s do some math: $50 to review a book is typical. Assume two submissions a day, surely a low estimate given the hundreds of thousands of titles self-published annually, and you have an annual take of over $18,000. Four submissions, or six, a day, and you have a nice living. You can even pass the books out to other people to review, for nothing more than the “fame” of having their names on the review. Or you can sell them on eBay! Even more income!

To be fair, the people behind these for-pay reviewing sites may have a clear conscience about what they do. Some offer reviews for nothing, if the author insists, though they may take their own sweet time about getting to them. The fee, they can claim, helps “expedite” things. The site owners can say with straight faces that they do not soft-pedal paid reviews, and it’s possible they may even believe that. But I stand by what I said: money makes the world go round. I have heard authors say they feel using the fee option will result in a faster and better review! To cite another example, physicians are honest, 99% of them, but studies show that they prescribe more tests for the equipment they own than for equipment owned by others. It’s just the way the world works.

PODBRAM is one of a small number of reviewing sites that take no money for doing reviews. (There are a few others, and PODBRAM has links to some.) We work much as reviewers for major magazines do: however we make our living, it is not affected in the least by the opinions we have of the books we review. This fact is apparent to anyone who studies the PODBRAM site. In that sense our reviews are completely impartial.

This impartiality has to make some authors uneasy. After all, they have an enormous investment in time, money, and emotion in their work, and exposing it to the world for all to see, naked, as it were, can be a traumatic experience. That’s the genesis of the dunking tank metaphor: the fear of being suddenly dropped into cold water and not being able to do a thing about it.

It’s worth noting, however, that the members of the PODBRAM reviewing team are all authors. We have all taken our turns in the dunking tank, and we know how it feels. While we are honest, we are also tactful. I have never seen any mean-spirited or snide comment in any review on this site.

Which is not to say that all our reviews are perfect, or will completely satisfy all potential readers. People are different; readers are different; tastes differ. A recent post on this site, by Dianne Salerni, discussed the debased currency of the all-too-common “five star” review, found at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. She makes an excellent point. Counting stars is a poor way to select one’s reading material.

For example, I am a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian’s twenty volume Aubrey/Maturin sea novels, which are world-class classics by any estimation. Yet if you look any one of them up at Amazon, you will see plenty of two- and three- (and some one-) star reviews. Maybe those readers do not like sea stories. Maybe they can’t get comfortable with such elegant, eighteenth century-style prose. Maybe they’re put off by the nautical terminology. Maybe they prefer space aliens or throbbing bosoms. Who knows? Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, but for my money those books are ten star reads. The bottom line is we all have different tastes, and a potential reader needs to actually read, and judge, the reviews, regardless of stars.

I have written a fair number of reviews for Amazon, and I have my own criteria for awarding stars. I base it on the system I used when I taught college English. If a student essay was competent, sensible, and readable, I gave it a B. That equates to four stars for a book at Amazon. If there were a major shortcoming with an essay, it would get a C (three stars). I reserved the A for those essays that had something extra: memorable ideas, articulate expression, novelty, entertainment value, or whatever. They stood above the rest and could hardly be improved, in my opinion. That is how I define my five star books. Still, I repeat: counting the average number of stars is a poor way to choose one’s reading.

We don’t use stars at PODBRAM. Nonetheless, the attentive reader will be able to tell not only the degree to which the reviewer enjoyed the book but also gain some insight into whether he or she might as well. In my own reviews, I try to allow for the possible tastes of others, whatever my opinion. I gave a rave review to one book but I mentioned features that others might find daunting. I gave a less-than-glowing review to another but pointed out that fans of the genre might enjoy it anyway. The entire PODBRAM team does the same, and it works. I myself am now reading and enjoying a novel well reviewed earlier right here. A good book is a better value than a good movie as far as I am concerned, but it is not free (unless you find it in a library). Knowing which reviews I can trust helps me even the odds.

PODBRAM has always tried to find and promulgate worthy but little-known books. It’s a noble goal, and money should have nothing to do with it. Authors of quality books need not worry about the cold water below. The informed reader should appreciate its cleansing qualities.

See Also: Dr. Past's Website
Interview with Dr. Past
Volunteer for the Tank Here
Marsha Ward's Interview with Dr. Past

1 comment:

DSalerni said...

Excellent post, Al!

You are correct. We don't try to be snarky here, and no author should feel dropped into icy water by our reviews. Still, a discerning reader should be able to go down the list of books reviewed and figure out which ones they would enjoy -- and it's not going to be the same for every reader!