Archive for the 'Books' Category

The wrong way to write book reviews

January 10th, 2007

The basic concept behind reviewing books is fairly simple. You read the book, then you write the review. Not that complicated.

The details may vary, of course. How much of the plot should be included? What does the review focus on? How much of it should be subjective opinions, and how much objective descriptions and analysis? There are plenty of things that can change from reviewer to reviewer, and from review to review.

But the main and basic details, these never change:

  1. Read the book.
  2. Write the review.

Now, without the second part, there won’t be a review. So obviously you can’t write a book review without, well, writing the book review.

The first part isn’t quite a tautology as the second, though. But it sure seems to be required, no?

Well, no, apparently not for everyone.

A book reviewer on a Swedish newspaper has got himself into hot water for writing a review of a book that has not been written. To make matters worse, Kristian Lundberg claimed the book’s plot was “predictable” and said the characterisations were one-dimensional.

It was supposed to be a real book, by a real author. It was announced in the catalogue of the publisher. But it wasn’t actually written. Meaning that it wasn’t actually published. Meaning that nobody, including the reviewer, read it.

I do hope that this is an isolated case by an isolated jerk, and not a common phenomenon. Blah.

Harry Potter and the Half-Witted Court Order

July 20th, 2005

I was originally going to go with “Half-Witted Judge” for the title, but then realized it could be interpreted as libel. After all it’s possible that Justice Kristi Gill is normally very intelligent and was just on drugs at the time, or that someone bribed her with enough money to make this a rational decision on her part. Since I don’t know, I shouldn’t go around making those half-assed assessments.

What got me so riled up is this story, about a store in Canada accidentally selling some of the new Harry Potter books a few days before the official release time. What happened was that a Supreme Court judge has ordered the people who bought the book to return it. And in addition to returning it to the publisher until the release date, they were forbidden from talking about it or even reading it.

From what I understand, someone in the store made a mistake and put the books on the shelves, a few people who saw them decided to buy them, and the mistake wasn’t caught by the clerk when they made the purchase.

The store must have had a contract on the release date with the publisher, or their supplier, and so is probably guilty of a breach of contract. Had the publisher sued the store over it, I could have easily understood a ruling in favour of the publisher.

But the buyers? They bought a book, a book which was presented on the shelves of a store, like they buy any other book. They didn’t bribe the clerk, they didn’t try to trick anyone, they just made a simple, and legal, purchase.

Had the store’s mistake been criminal, I still may have understood. If someone legally buys stolen goods, there may be justification in returning it. But it was a contractual/business issue, not a criminal issue. The store sold the books. The buyers bought the books. The books are theirs, and are their property. I may be mistaken, could be that the Canadian law sees this differently, but I don’t think that’s very likely… Can anyone correct me on this? Please?

So what right did the judge had to order the books returned? In essence the court temporarily impounded private property. And why? Because the publisher, a commercial entity, decided they only want to sell the books later, and thought this may cost them money. That sounds like very poor justification to me. Courts should intervene on legal grounds, not just because a corporation doesn’t like something.

Personally, though that’s beside the point, I’m also against the whole official release date concept. Sell the book when you have printed copies. The standard excuse, as they also wrote in this article, is that “its debut has been highly orchestrated to enable everyone — readers, reviewers, even publishers — to crack it open all at once.” The key word, the incorrect word, being “enable”. It doesn’t enable people to do anything. It limits them to. It’s a perfectly legitimate business decision, but don’t tell me it’s for the benefit of the public. It’s not, it’s for the benefit of the publisher. Still, as I said, that’s entirely beside the point here.

Now, back on track, if the publisher really thinks having those people read the book will hurt, then the publisher should sue the store for the estimated losses. Not try and get the already sold books impounded.

The ruling, with agreement from the publisher I assume, did set some compensation. When they will take the books back, they will receive autographs by the author, Mrs. Rowling. Now, this may be very exciting for a die-hard Harry Potter fan, but it isn’t necessarily ample compensation. If it were, then why involve the court? I’m sure that the publisher could have made the same offer as a private deal. They didn’t, so maybe people didn’t consider an autograph by the writer to compensate having their property impounded, for being put under secrecy, or for being forced to wait reading a book they had bought. It’s also an indication that the judge knew they didn’t do anything really wrong, or else why give compensations in any case?

Personally, I’m a very avid reader. I have over 1,500 books in my library, and read plenty of loaned books from friends, and public library books. And yet I care about the books, not the writers. Even with writers and series I really like, the books interest me a lot more. A signed book by the author may some day has financial value, and it’s really nice to get a book personally dedicated, but it doesn’t matter all that much. It may very well be it’s the same for some of those people.

Again, they didn’t even have to be great Harry Potter fans. Just interested enough to buy the book when they saw it on display in a store.

Claims they should have known it was earlier than the release date are also so much hogwash. Yes, there were plenty of publications with the date. But unless you are one of the people who bother to pre-order, who pays attention? I check what books are available when I go to the book shops. If there are specific titles I want, or parts of series to complete, I especially look for them, and if I don’t find them I may collect a bunch and order on-line. But even for the ones I really want, I hardly ever bother to check exact release dates. Most people don’t. It’s enough to know the general season, or month, that a book will be out, and knowing that it would be possible to find it later. So a few days before the release date, most people would really not pay attention. And even if they do, the clerk on the store is the authority figure here. If the store sells it, then it is obviously being sold. It’s a no-brainer tautology. Besides maybe asking the clerk a single time if it’s really for sale, there’s nothing a person should be expected to do.

The gag order is also a very troubling aspects. Telling people they’re forbidden to talk about state secrets is something understandable. Telling people not to talk about a book, isn’t. Sure, they may make some money out of it. So what? Heck, the publisher may even lose a little money out of it, but again, so what? Obviously the publisher cares. But it’s not a legal issue, and nothing that the court can use to order people to remain silent. The only reason for not talking about the book is that the publisher is worried over losses. By that same logic people should be forbidden from talking about any sort of bad experience they had with any product. All consumer protection groups and organizations should also be permanently shut down. After all, they may hurt some corporation’s bottom line.

Unless, of course, the judge thought that the content of the books is real, and some Canadian wizards need a little more time to sort out their affairs so that the rest of the people will not follow hints in the book and find out about them. This could make sense. Except, of course, that the book is urban fantasy, and doesn’t contain any actual state secrets. If it did, the person ordered to be silent would have been the author, not the people buying it a few days early.

It might have also been different had these people been actual reviewers for the publisher. Someone who receives an early copy from the publisher under an agreement that they will not blab about it in public can indeed be legitimately, and legally, expected to keep silent. But these people didn’t have any sort of such agreement with the publisher whatsoever. No signed contract, and not even a mutual understanding, a handshake, or even a half-hearted wink. The people had no interaction with the publisher at all. They just bought a book. This does not give the publisher any rights to tell them what to do with what they bought, and it’s a shame that a Supreme Court judge thinks it does.

I had a conversation about this with a Canadian friend. I was surprised that instead of being outraged the friend was amused. The amusement was from basically the same source that troubled me, that a Supreme Court judge had made a stupid ruling, which is probably illegal, over something as trivial and petty as a reading book. When I inquired if it doesn’t raise big concerns about the court system, I got a reply that in any case their whole court system is absurd, does nonsense like that all the time, and not taken too seriously, so it doesn’t really matter…