Baseball book reviewers roundtable

February 3, 2015

http://booktothefuture.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/PilesOfBooks.jpgIt’s been my pleasure over the years to correspond with a bunch of like-minded lovers of baseball literature. The gentlemen you will meet here also write baseball reviews for various outlets, some print, some on-line, some both. I thought it would be fun to have a “discussion” about the hows and whys of what we do, so I sent them a list of question about their process.

This is an interesting mix. We have those who do this for a living and those who do this as a hobby (and those who have recently stopped doling it).

The “panelists” include:

  • Dennis Anderson, executive editor of the Journal Star in Peoria, Ill., where he writes book reviews on his Editor’s Desk blog on pjstar.com.
  • James Bailey, who, before “retiring” to write novels, reviewed for Baseball America as well his own site, Bailey’s Baseball Book Reviews.
  • Paul Hagen, winner of the 2013 JG Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame and writer for MLB.com.
  • Tom Hoffarth, sports columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News and host of the Farther off the Wall blog, where he writes an annual “30-baseball-books-in-30 days” feature.
  • Greg Kersey, who does his reviewing at Greg’s Baseball Bookcase on the MLBlogs site.
  • And me, your humble host.
  • Sorry, but the blog isn’t letting caption tho photos, so you’ll have to hover over them to see who’s who (listed in alphabetical order, so there’s a hint. You’ve seen enough of me so I’m out.).

My thanks to all for taking the time to share their thoughts.

Dennis Anderson

Question: How many books do you figure you review in a given year?
Anderson: I review about 10 books, most of them sports related. They run on my blog associated with my newspaper, PJStar.com.
Bailey: Back when I was reviewing actively, 20-25, maybe more a couple of years. That was between both Bailey’s Baseball Book Reviews and Baseball America. Many reviews were posted on both.
Hagen: I think it was 8-10 last year. I think it’s important to say at the outset that this isn’t really part of my job description. I do the reviews when I have the time and inclination.
Hoffarth: I’ll probably start up the annual 30 baseball book reviews during the month of April — I should be reading something right now but don’t have my hands on anything yet — so that would knock out 30 right there for 2015. This would be the sixth year in row that I’ve attempted the “30-for-30” marathon, and somehow made it through the first five a little wiser on how to train better for them.
That’s just for the blog purpose, but from that I’ll also go more in-depth with a few books as a subject for my weekly media column in the LA Daily News. If I come across another baseball book after June — and I see more and more come out in October — then I’ll try to circle back to review some of them as well.
Kersey: This is my first year actually doing this, so if I keep up with the current pace I am working and can actually keep getting books at a decent price. Finished work between 125-175.
Kaplan: Between this blog and a few regular outlets (Bookreporter.com, ForeWord Magazine), I guess it works out to about 60 a year.

Question: Do you prefer to work from the finished copy, or are review copies good enough? As an extensional do your prefer had copy or electronic versions?
Anderson: I’m fine with a review copy. I have done electronic but prefer hard copy, which is easier for me to read.
James BaileyBailey: I prefer the finished copy, if only because you need it to quote accurately, though many times I read review copies. There weren’t often significant differences. I do prefer print copies for reviewing, especially for nonfiction. It’s just easier to tab back through to check previous references, etc.
Hagen: I probably prefer a finished copy but I’m certainly willing to work off a review copy. I strongly prefer print to electronic.
Hoffarth: I always prefer the finished product, but in trying to do as many reviews in a row as I have, I’ll take a short cut, if you will, and read an early review copy and not count too hard on typos or other things that will hopefully be corrected in later editions. I’ll almost always only do hard copy, although this year I see a couple of Kindle-only editions of some books that I may have to make that leap and stay with the times. I fight the battle of print over anything in most cases.
Kersey: Either finished product or review copies are fine, but I would prefer an actual hard copy of the book. It allows more flexibility for me to get reading done.
Kaplan: Usually the finished product, unless I’m really in a hurry and the final version isn’t available yet. I read one review copy that was so laden with typos, factual errors, and whole passages that were repeated that I contacted the publisher, which is usually taboo. And this was a major house, too. In the interest of speed, I might ask if the publisher has a Kindle version

Question: How do you choose which books to review? Do you solicit review copies? Do authors/publishers seek you out? For those of you who do not run your own blogs, are the books assigned to you?
Anderson: Most books I review are those I have an interest in. My time is limited so I want to read things I most likely will enjoy or about a topic I have interest in. I get about a dozen books per year that aren’t solicited. Most I review I have purchased on my own, but that can get expensive.
Bailey: I usually looked for books that seemed to offer something new. If something looked interesting I would often request a copy from the author or publisher. There were certain publishers that automatically sent me stuff, particularly University of Nebraska Press. Even for Baseball America, I had freedom to choose what I wanted to review.
Paul HagenHagen: It’s kind of random. I do not solicit review copies. If I see something that looks interesting, I just buy it. Yes, I’ve gotten e-mails from authors who have asked me to review their books. I usually pick what I want but last year I was asked to review two books that were written by MLB.com folks.
Hoffarth: I’m surprised more publishers haven’t “found” me out by now. University of Nebraska Press and Triumph books have been kind to me in recent years, but others, it’s not as easy. As a rule, I’ll get a book or two a week at the office for reviewing purposes — books on all kinds of things — but then try to establish a contact at the publishing company to keep an eye out for baseball-specific books as the first of the year comes. What’s also been nice is I’ll get pitched books from authors now who’ve seen the series and find it useful to contact me first. These are sometimes first-time authors who have a baseball-related novel, or maybe a self-published book.
Knowing my readership is mostly Southern California, I’ll hit anything Dodgers or Angels related, and Pacific Coast League, books that turn out to be good or not so good, because I want the readers to know if they see it not to immediately jump on it just because it has an eye-catching cover or tantalizing title.
I’ll also limit the books I handle from those published in the first four-to-five months of the year. I know this may pass over some that came out from June the previous year up until Christmas, but I can make exceptions for them if they’re worthy and have gotten some attention. I just started digging through Amazon to see what baseball titles are set to come out between January and May and I hope some of them are released earlier than later.
Kersey: I solicit review books from anyone who will listen. Publishers, authors, book collectors. I have a few authors and publishers come to me and submit books.
Kaplan: A bit of both. If it’s something I’m especially interested in, I’ll query the publisher. But by now, some of them routinely send their baseball titles. On the other hand, some publishers and authors will offer their books for review.

Question: Do you have a preference in what you review? Are there genres you would not review given the choice? For example, I do not like to review fiction.
Anderson: I review fiction and non-fiction. I focus on baseball, hockey, history and journalism. I have no interest in science fiction.
Bailey: I don’t care for cheesy biographies of current or recent players. Not every player to suit up needs a biography. Maybe I missed some interesting stories, but I bet I skipped a lot more boring ones. Team-specific books had to have a unique angle to interest me. And unlike you, I was always on the lookout for a good baseball novel, though they are sadly few and far between.
Hagen: My tastes are pretty wide-ranging.
Tom HoffarthHoffarth: The choice is always mine. History, either autobiographical or someone tackling a particular year of the game, seems to be what I’m drawn to most. But I prefer anything that takes a unique look at the game, especially those that focus on collecting, photography, or autobiographical journeys that are baseball-related.
I think what’s neat about the 30 books is I can get a wide range of angles to baseball covered. A woman’s point of view, a Brooklyn Dodgers fan’s point of view, a dad and his son viewpoint, an illustrator’s point of view. I always enjoy a baseball book from a religious viewpoint, too, for example Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, by John Sexton, and Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League, by Aaron Pribble are two favorites.
Since this review run comes in April, there always seems to be a new spin on Jackie Robinson around the April 15 date. In fact, I do like new books that I can pin to an historical anniversary.
I will purposely put in a kids’ book or two if I find them especially clever, because that’s what baseball is about: appealing to all kinds of demographics.
Fiction has to be included, because some of the greatest baseball books ever written are fiction and could become film projects someday. For example, I felt I had to read The Art of Fielding even if I ordinarily wouldn’t have wanted to tackle it because of all the publicity it got. I wasn’t happy in the end that I did read it, but I felt, for its popularity value, it had to be included.
Circling back, what I enjoy about modern history books is how you don’t know when they’ll be a great reference for something I’m writing about. For example, the Jonah Keri book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First was all about the Tampa Bay Rays’ front office in 2011. Now, it’s the Dodgers’ front office and we have some context.
The only books about baseball I generally avoid now are the updated versions of a Baseball America guide or those annual titles that update new-age numbers. I can get into those most times, but not year-after-year regurgitating.
Greg KerseyKersey: As long as its related to some form of baseball I will review anything except fiction.
Kaplan: I enjoy books that analyze and deconstruct the game, either from a strategic or historical point of view. I also like learning about people behind the scenes, such as writers (more so than broadcasters) who have covered the sport. Angell, Hano, people like that. Another genre I welcome are good coffee table books that blend the visual with good narrative. On the other hand, I normally don’t like to review fiction, partly because I don’t feel qualified on a purely literary level, and partly because I don’t want to write anything negative about stuff I think is pretty awful, knowing hard hard these men and women have worked on their projects. I also won’t do any books for younger readers. I know it’s important to catch future fans while they’re young, but there’s simply too much of it and I can’t think along those lines.

Question: Since the baseball literature world is relatively small, I’m sure we all know at least of a few of the authors. Would you not review a book because it was written by a friend or acquaintance? Do you think to do so represents any conflict of interest?
Anderson: I do not know most of the authors I’ve reviewed, but have become friendly with many after I reviewed their book because I often strike up a conversation with them on social media or by email. I have no issues reviewing books of friends and don’t see a major issue with it. If I were writing a news story that involved a friend, that’s a different story and I would not write that story. But in the case of a book review, that’s about the experience of reading, and I am true to myself and the reader about my impressions of the work.
Bailey: There can definitely be a conflict there. Face it, it’s not going to be easy to rip a book by a friend. More often, I got to know authors after reviewing their books, which would only make things tough for subsequent books. There were several factors in my decision to give up reviewing baseball books, and relationships with other authors was one of them. I found it very uncomfortable when another author would suggest we review each other’s books. That doesn’t work too well if one of us doesn’t like the other’s book. Don’t put me in the awkward position of having to turn down your request by making it in the first place.
Hagen: It probably is a conflict. If it was a friend, I would probably feel the need to throw in a disclaimer. In the case of the two MLB.com writers mentioned above, I thought the connection was pretty obvious.
Hoffarth: That’s a great point to make. I haven’t had to do a bad review of someone that I know, thankfully. Maybe because the authors I get to know and respect are ones whose work I’ve previously read and then get to know them better through interviewing them and keeping in contact. I’m glad I haven’t had to walk that tightrope yet, but knowing me, I’d find a way to still review the book but write around the annoying parts and highlight those that worked. I was thankful my friend Ed Sherman’s book on Babe Ruth’s Called Shot: The Myth And Mystery Of Baseball’s Greatest Home Run last year came out as well as it did, but again, it didn’t surprise me knowing his worth ethic on getting it done.
Kersey: I would review any book presented, as long as any friend realizes they would be getting an honest review and not a “favor” out of the deal.
Kaplan: Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate to “meet” many authors through the blog, or Facebook, or SABR. I’m flattered they want my opinion via a potential review, but I’m pretty up front about warning that I intend to be frank in my assessment and leave them the option of sending it or not.

Question: What do you look for in a book? If non-fiction, would you be willing to overlook “serious” errors of fact (as opposed to the occasional typo) if the narrative is otherwise strong? Or would such mistake color your opinion? Where do you think responsibility for such problems lie: with the author or editor?
Anderson: I could not overlook serious errors of fact. When I come across them, I have to question the work and research that went into the book. A good narrative cannot trump sloppy reporting. In the case of a book, which is in essence the author’s baby, he or she is responsible for the final work.
Bailey: I want a good story, well told. Books that recap season after season (or one season, with painfully detailed accounts of the pennant races, by month) get old in a hurry. Accuracy definitely matters. When I find an error, I start looking for others. And when I find more than a couple, I start assuming someone didn’t do their homework. I blame the author. Publishers should catch that stuff, but they don’t, and an author shouldn’t be counting on them to.
Hagen: In a non-fiction work, serious factual errors would be a problem. I was taught in journalism school that even one small mistake calls the veracity of the rest of the story into question. Ultimately the fault is with the writer but nobody’s perfect, which is why the editing process is so important.
Hoffarth: I guess I realize mistakes happen a lot in my own writing, things I don’t catch no matter how many times I read it. We all have blind spots. If it’s more than a few, then I wonder how much time was put into proofreading by the publisher more than the author. I will, however, likely point out the error because I think the author would want to know in order to fix it for any revised edition. I appreciate that kind of feedback from readers.
Kersey: My interest in the books vary, so I look for almost anything. As long as the print isn’t to small I am happy. I am by far not the grammar police, but typos in a finished product drive me nuts. Also I just finished one that the sentence structure was all screwed up a few times in the book and that drives me nuts as well. I think it falls to the editor for items like that. It colors my opinion on the publisher on the grammar issues. As far as technical items being wrong and bad fact checking, that falls on the author.
Kaplan: Accuracy is very important. If an writer messes up on one thing, what else did s/he err on that I might have missed? One author attributed a quote at an event to a person who had been dead for more than a decade. A good copy editor is mandatory for punctuation and a certain sense of continuity, but given the state of the publishing industry these days, expecting fact-checking is unreasonable, so that onus lies with the author. If you’re writing on a topic that has been covered many times before, you’ve got to bring something new to the table, not just an extra 21 seconds added to an existing product.

Question: What is the “best” baseball book you ever read? Is that the same as the best baseball book you ever reviewed? What about the worst? Are you averse to writing negative reviews?
Anderson: The best baseball book I have read is Ball Four. Each time I pick it up I’m 15 again reading a paperback edition in high school study hall. A couple years ago I got the audio version read by Jim Bouton. It wasn’t the best performance, but hearing the author read it bringing in human and emotion I got a new appreciation for the work.
The best baseball book I have reviewed? I don’t think I’ve come across that book yet. The best in the past year was Dan Epstein’s Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.
I never got to the end of the worst baseball book I’ve ever read because I will have put it down before being able to write a review. Then again, I’m not assigned to review books, I do that on my own. If I were assigned to review the book, I would be true to the assignment, finish the book, and provide the reader and editor with a review that was true to my sentiments.
Bailey: It’s hard to top The Glory of Their Times, though that’s kind of in a special class, being an oral history. The best book I reviewed, maybe Jane Leavy’s Mantle bio, The Last Boy. She talked to a million sources and really fleshed him out.
I did write some negative reviews. Most of the time they were balanced against the positive, but there were a few I ripped pretty good. Mostly I turned the guns on books I felt readers should be warned away from. If it was a book people didn’t seem likely to find or buy anyway (small publisher or self-published), I usually just didn’t bother reviewing it (or finishing it). There were a few cases when I wrote back to the author with some feedback on why I wouldn’t review it. They generally didn’t seem to appreciate that.
Hagen: I’ve read so many baseball books that I love that I couldn’t possibly pick one. And, yes, I am averse to writing negative reviews, but honestly I think that’s a function of working for MLB.com. If I strongly disliked a book, I probably would choose to simply not review it as opposed to ripping it. I did a handful of reviews when I worked for newspapers and that was not the case. I would also point out that this is just a personal preference. I’ve never been told I can’t write a negative review for the site.
Hoffarth: I think I’d have a different answer to this each day I wake up. I’m partial to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, and recently to the series written by Dirk Hayhurst, because it reminded me so much of Bouton but also dealt with modern problems and issues. I think the Hayhurst books from 2010, 2012, and 2014 have, in part, kept me doing this series. There’s this completely corny autobiography called Five Straight Errors on Ladies’ Day, by Walter Nagle that came out in 1965 and has the author talking about his days playing for the LA Angels in 1908.
Someday, I’d like to do what that Kaplan guy did and put together my own Top 30 list during April, using that Kaplan guide to help me weed things out. I always enjoy these kinds of lists and this kind of list as well.
There are plenty of “worst” books that I’ve come across in the last few years in doing this project. I try to relist the 30 books at the end of the month in groups of what’s best and what wasn’t. If they were bad, I’ve usually donated them already and don’t have them around any longer.
Kersey: Best Read: Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, by Peter Golenbock. Best Reviewed: Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen. Worst reviewed: Rick Dempsey’s Caught Stealing: Unbelievable Stories From a Lifetime of Baseball. I try to take in to account the authors’ work. Is it their first time writing? Are they an acclaimed author that has produced crap? Those factors go into whether I am writing a review or not on it. The reviewers have a responsibility to the readers but I don’t want to be the one that destroys someone’s dreams. This is a hobby blog for me so I have nothing to gain or lose by what my review says. I just as soon stay away from a review that the book was crap.
Kaplan: Even though I created this thread, I have an aversion to the use of words like “best” and “greatest” in book titles. I think there’s way too much hyperbole these days, but it’s an understandable marketing tool. That said, the “best” book I’ve read — to date, and that keeps changing — was Tao of Baseball/Entertaining & Thought-Provoking Commentaries on the National Pastime, by “Go.” The worst — and again with all due respect to the hard-working writers — was a toss-up between 64 Intruder and The Big R: A Forensic Accounting Action Adventure, both of which, IMO, are the baseball fiction equivalents of Plan Nine from Outer Space.

Question: How has self-publishing affected your work? Will you accept requests for review from self-publishing authors?
Anderson: I would read and review a self-published book if I was interested in the topic. An author with something worthwhile should not be discounted because they don’t have a publisher.
Bailey: Having self-published both of my books, and planning on self-pubbing the next one, I was definitely open to self-published authors, though I turned down a fair number of them. It wasn’t that they were self-published, it was that they didn’t seem too promising, either based on story or writing style. Quality matters, and if I’m recommending a book to readers, I have to be honest about it. I turned down some traditionally published books as well for the same reasons. I do understand the skepticism, but the publishing world is changing and many authors, like myself, are choosing to self-publish because it allows more control, better royalties, and a quicker path to the market, among other benefits. I expect you will soon see, if you haven’t already, more self-published books by authors who have previously been published by traditional publishers, which will make it tough to apply a blanket policy of not reviewing self-published books.
Hagen: It’s not my preference, but I’ve made exceptions.
Hoffarth: I’m okay with self-published works, and don’t mind highlighting them in case it inspires someone to do their own. In today’s book publishing world, I think self-publishing is a way to keep the hard- or soft-bound book alive. With the series, of course, there are more than 30 for me to pick from, so if a self-published book doesn’t make the cut I’ll often include it in the “honorable mentions” to give the author credit for what he did (if it merits it) because often he’ll send me a review copy out of his own pocket.
Kersey: Self-publishing has not affected me at all. Well, self-published guys are more willing to give up a review copy to help their cause, so that is the only way it has affected me.
Kaplan: Unless I’m familiar with the writer, I usually dislike self-published because the majority lack any kind of real quality control when it comes to editing. Again, when someone asks me to take a look, I tell them straight out that I may or may not do a review. That way they can decided if it’s worth the time, trouble, and expense of sending a copy.

 

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