I have always looked at a successful book review system as a three-legged stool. The first leg is the publisher who has to be willing to send us its books. The second leg is the academic community from which the reviewers must come. And the third leg is the customer – specifically in Doody’s case, the medical library – which must value the review enough to pay to subscribe to the review service. To secure the first leg of the stool, we had to convince medical publishers to send us their newly-published health sciences titles.
The original five-year business plan spelled out in great detail what was wrong with the present book review “system” (that is, the problem that the Doody’s Review Service set out to solve) and how we would build a book review system that would solve all the deficiencies of the current system and be sustainable.
Medical publishers in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s railed against the lack of a system of objective book reviews. Most medical journals had a book review section, and most specialties in the health sciences featured several journals with book review sections. If a publisher had a new title in cardiology, for example, they had to send it to several cardiology journals and, of course, to the standard-setting medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Society and Annals of Internal Medicine), meaning just about every book had to be sent to 5-10 different journals. What’s more, the journals were not uniformly responsible about announcing the exact address to send the books to be reviewed, with the result that some books never reached their intended destination. Even if they did reach the proper destination, publishers were not notified. Some books were chosen for review, some were not, and publishers were never informed. Reviews did not follow any particular format; every reviewer had free rein to decide how to evaluate the book and write the review. While some journal publishers would send book publishers an alert to let them know one of their titles was going to be reviewed and even provided an offprint of the review, most did not. Publishers had to monitor new issues of journals to see if any of their books had been reviewed. Finally, the publishing cycle for the book review in the journal was antagonistic to the objectives of the publisher of the book. Most books were 18-24 months old by the time the review was published, which was long after the peak of the sales cycle for the book.
In response, we designed Doody’s Review Service to provide the following guarantees to publishers who sent us their books:
- At least 50% of a publishers’ books that they sent to Doody’s would be reviewed;
- We would systematically communicate with the publisher about the status of its books in our book review system;
- Reviewers would be obligated to provide both a qualitative (narrative) and quantitative (a weighted numerical score) review;
- Because we created a template for both the narrative and a questionnaire that would yield the weighted numerical score as well as detailed instructions on how to review a book, we gave reviewers a 30-day deadline to submit their reviews, enabling us to publish reviews when books were, on average, just 10 weeks old;
- We would work tirelessly to provide as wide exposure to the published reviews as possible.
For the last 26 years, those are the guarantees we have been presenting to publishers to convince them to send us their books. We recognize this requires a tremendous gesture of goodwill and faith on their part, a faith our handling of their books and our performance can never betray. And, because the person who is responsible for sending out the review copies from a publisher is often an entry-level person in the marketing department, we have had to continually promote Doody’s Review Service to publishers as this position turns over frequently. The value proposition has had substance, as publishers have sent us 68,876 new titles over the last 25 years, more than 2,900 per year on average.
We had no illusion that Doody’s would make journals’ book review sections irrelevant or unnecessary; we were just committed to making sure Doody’s reviews were relevant, if not indispensable, for the libraries, publishers and others who would be interested in and affected by our reviews.