Have Lawsuit, Will Travel

Posted on April 30, 2010

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Don’t like how your book has been reviewed? Make sure your lawyer is on your speed dial. Over the last few months a number of cases have cropped up in the news about authors taking a serious dislike to reviews on their books.

It used to be that getting reviewed was a stroke of luck. Who cared if the review was positive or negative? Given the fact that thousands and thousands of books get published every year without any review, publishers and authors might be glad for any type of coverage. The old adage: A bad review is better than no review.

But one law professor who wrote a book on international law took exception to a review of said book. Since the review was posted and published on the web, and is available globally, the author has filed suit in France, where the libel laws favor the plaintiff, against another law professor who published the review and who has refused to take the offending review down. The editor has an excellent summary of this saga here, and the review is still available here (if you want to determine for yourself how offensive it is). (However, there’s something patently satisfying about lawyers suing each other.)

Another author got perturbed at some of those “anonymous” reader comments on Amazon.com. (For more on this story, click here.) I know that if I read an overly negative review, especially of an author I’m familiar with, I will read the book to determine, for myself, whether that review was valid. A negative review to someone familiar (and of whom I have a favorable opinion) will steer me towards — not away from — the book. That might be a different case for an author I was not familiar with. In that case, I might seek out other reviews. If there was a consensus on the negative, I’d steer clear of the book. If not, my interest might be piqued.

Any time anyone makes something public — available to others to listen or read, etc. — one has to be prepared that there will be people who will like the work as well as others who do not like the work. Reviewing is subjective, very subjective. If an academic gets worked up about a critical review hurting one’s chances for tenure or promotion, they have far greater grounds for a lawsuit than a “defaming” review. A tenure or promotion committee is not doing its job if it relies solely on secondary sources (reviews) in making a recommendation. The committee members are charged to evaluate the work of the scholar and draw their own conclusions on its value; they are not charged to evaluate the reviewer’s work.

Once a work has been made public — published — it leaves the author’s and publisher’s hands. They cannot control what readers make of the work. They can only listen. If the work is lucky enough to be read and reviewed, it’s those critical comments (which can be positive and negative) that advance scholarship. No book, no person (whether author or publisher) is infallible. There are always mistakes (go ahead, find all the numerous ones in this post and lambaste me) and there are always things that could have been done better.

If you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen. And if you’re book is shivering in the cold, some heat might do it — and you — some good.

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