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OREGON OBSERVER ARTICLE (July 6, 2021)
Reading for Pleasure: Oregon-based Midwest Book Review Turns 45 in September
Originally published by The Oregon Observer
One of Oregon's oldest home-based businesses will reach 45 years come this September, but it's possible only area bookworms would know that.
The Midwest Book Review is run by editor-in-chief Jim Cox out of his duplex on Orchard Drive. Cox, who is 78 this year, established the Midwest Book Review in 1976 to help promote literacy, library usage and small press publishing.
Today, the business exists entirely online, in the form of monthly book review magazines such as "California Bookwatch," "Children's Bookwatch," "Small Press Bookwatch" and "Wisconsin Bookwatch." The magazines are curated by Cox's team of around 80 volunteer book reviewers across the country.
He got the idea to start Midwest Book Review when he noticed in the 1970s that established book reviewers such as The New York Times tended to ignore books from small publishers, new authors and academics, he said. But, just like any authors, those writers needed reviews for their publicity and marketing campaigns, so Cox decided he'd focus on them and filled that niche.
Upon first launching Midwest Book Review, it was in the format of a television show and a printed newsletter. But now it's online-only.
On the first Saturday of every month from 1978 to 2003, Cox would set up a camera at Frugal Muse Books in Madison and record a show talking about books. The show aired on Madison Community Access.
And when his business' first publication launched, "Bookwatch" was a 12-page printed newsletter mailed out to over 900 libraries, he said.
But after a few years, his daughter, who assists Cox with the business and was a computer science major, dragged him "kicking and screaming onto this thing called the internet and made (him) have something called a website."
His daughter is now the managing editor. She is responsible for uploading all nine monthly Bookwatch review publications online, and forwarding them to a national company in Michigan called Gale. Gale then puts the reviews by Midwest Book Review into a book review index subscribed to by tens of thousands of people throughout Canada and the United States, including academic institutions, public libraries and school educators.
"She takes care of the nuts and bolts, day to day, I continue as a kind of figurehead," Cox said.
Cox works a couple hours a day in his office – answering the telephone, sending emails, and conducting what he called a "triage" of incoming books. On average, from Monday to Saturday he receives around 30 books a day at his home.
He sorts books into three stacks during triage – automatic rejection, immediate acceptance, and provisional acceptance.
An automatic rejection typically happens when Cox receives an uncorrected advanced proof or a draft manuscript. He requires a book to be finished and to arrive ready to appear at a library or bookstore.
Automatic acceptance occurs when one of Cox's approximately 80 reviewers has asked that any titles on a particular subject be automatically sent their way. And provisional acceptance is when a book qualifies for review, but who should review it is not immediately obvious, so Cox spends 10-14 weeks trying to recruit a reviewer from his team.
These reviews often end up going on the backs of the books. Among bibliophiles, Midwest Book Review has brand recognition, and there's an audience interested in the opinions of his reviewers, Cox said.
And there's no shortage of enough books to review.
While the rise of the desktop computer made it easier for him to disseminate reviews, it has also helped struggling authors bypass traditional publishing structures, which has led to a swell of new books.
And because the percentage of people who read for pleasure has been decreasing in favor of video games and social media, there are more books being published than books being read, he said.
Cox and his cadre of reviewers do not charge for their service when all the submission guidelines are met.
His primary source of income for years was selling the books after they were reviewed, as all books sent to him for review he gets to keep.
While he still sells review copies, today he gets more money through donations than book sale revenues. He said lots of people have supported him over the years by donating, which he calls "really remarkable and gratifying."
"The only sure way to make money as a book reviewer is to marry rich – basically that's been it," he said. "We haven't had a life of lavish luxury, I was unable to skip off to the Bahamas, but it's been a good life of reading anything I wanted anytime and anywhere I wanted."
And while he said he's not a speed reader, he said he comes "awfully close," and is able to read a page almost as fast as the average person turns a page.
For him, a 300-page novel will take approximately 50 to 60 minutes to finish, and then a review takes around five minutes to write.
"I've done it so often, I could write reviews in my sleep," he said.
He tends to read five or six books a day for review, plus others for pleasure reading, though he slows down for the latter, he said.
And as he said he's "allergic to hard labor," he created this book review business model that has kept him working inside from a comfy chair for nearly half a century, where he's most happy, he said.
If he feels he can't recommend a book, rather than write a negative review, he lets the author know his issues with the text to offer them a chance to make changes.
He said he's received letters of appreciation from novice or beginner writers, thanking him that he paid attention to their work when almost no one else was willing. That has been its own reward, he said.
"When I started, my compensation was strictly the books I reviewed, but then I realized I met a need in the publishing industry not being met."
TRENDS AND TRIALS
Over the decades, Cox has picked up on what makes a good book, he said, and for the past 20 years, one part of his business is a monthly column called the Jim Cox Report, which offers tips, tricks and techniques for writing, editing and publishing.
The column is based on trends he has observed over four and a half decades of reading. He offers advice on marketing, publicity and promotion such as how to spot a phony book reviewer.
But, despite decades of insight, like so many businesses over the past year, he was still not immune to the shifts in norms when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Publishers from the United States, England and Japan all shut down, and the average number of books Midwest Book Review received went from 30 a day down to around 5 a day. That was due in large part to libraries shutting down and not buying as many books, which hit publishers hard, he said.
Cox saw an 80% drop in income and had to lay off one of his only two paid staff members, who had been with the business for two decades.
But that employee still continued as a volunteer, doing what he had always been doing for minimum wage, only now for free.
While Cox was able to put that individual back on payroll three months ago, he said it demonstrates that book reviewing is a labor of love.
"It gives you a sense of the kind of loyalty people have," he said. "Everyone who works for us are hardcore bibliophiles."
Article written by Neal Patten, Unified Newspaper Group
Reproduced with permission
James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
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