Caveat censor

technical review

December 2, 2014

Over eight years ago, Richard WM Jones wrote a great but disheartening article about his experience serving as a technical reviewer for an infamous book about OCaml. The post made quite an impression on me at the time and I’ve often recalled it over the years whenever opportunities to do prepress reviews have landed in my inbox. Briefly, Jones was asked to use terrible tools (Microsoft Word) to deal with stilted, error-ridden prose surrounding unidiomatic and broken code. For his trouble, he got an hourly wage that would have represented a slight raise over what I made mowing my neighbors’ lawns in high school.

Recently, I was invited to review a book under even more outrageous terms. The project in question was the second edition of a book on a subject I understand pretty well.1 I didn’t respond to their first invitation to review because:

Now, there are always tradeoffs involved in choosing contract work: one can weigh compensation against loving one’s work, having pride in products, having a prestigious position, or enjoying a low-stress work environment. But I’m pretty sure I know what the skill set that would enable someone to be a competent reviewer of a book like this one is worth, and the people who have it aren’t likely to be motivated to volunteer for a for-profit corporation in exchange for credit and free ebooks. Personally, a demand on my spare time that depends on my professional expertise (and takes away from time I might spend with my family, bicycling, catching up on sleep, or learning something new) but offers no compensation is not particularly compelling, and it becomes far less compelling when it seems like an opportunity to be involved with a product that I’m not likely to believe in and that I probably wouldn’t be proud to put my name on. So when the publisher sent me a rather snippy message following up, I wrote back, gently indicating that I would not be able to do the review and that they’d likely have trouble finding a qualified reviewer who was willing to work for free.

One wonders what publishers expect to accomplish with prepress technical reviews. In Jones’s case, he provided a lot of feedback and suggested that Apress not proceed with publishing Practical OCaml without major revisions; they ignored his objections but used his name in the final text. (At least he was paid something, I guess.) Not every publisher works this way, but the ones that do seem more interested in shifting the blame for bogus content to an external contractor than in releasing a thoroughly vetted product.

Requests to do specialized work for free are almost always insulting. However, the apparent value that some publishers ascribe to prepress review is even more insulting if you consider it from the perspective of the technical-book consumer!


  1. In fact, this publisher had invited me to write a book for them on this topic earlier this year, apparently before deciding to revise their existing offering instead.↩︎