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Judging books by covers: They deserve better, but --

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You can judge a book by its cover. I know. I just finished a job in which I did it all the time. As assistant to The Sun's book editor for the last 10 months, I've handled 10,000 to 15,000 volumes. Most of them have ended up in dusty, white canvas bins destined for the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the city's library that is part of the Maryland State Library Resource Center.

My right-handed over-the-shoulder book fling has become a move of incredible grace and amazing accuracy. I am very, very proud. I am also very popular. I believe -- though nobody tells me -- that I am even more widely detested.

I have tossed books with semi-naked Fabio look-alikes on the cover, fat romance novels that any number of women -- including my mom -- would gladly fork over $6.95 for. The reason: Mass-market paperbacks are not reviewed on The Sun's books pages.

I have tossed books with such titles as "The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work" and "Get a Grip on Your Dream." The reason: We don't review self-help books.

I have tossed hardcovers and paperbacks. I have tossed books about babies and boxers, books ostensibly written by Britney Spears and Bill Bryson, books whose only fault is that they are too big, too basic, too boring, too much like a book we just reviewed, too fast, too slow, too serious, not serious enough.

The reason: we can't review them all. There are some 50,000 new books published annually in the United States. The Sunday Sun's two book pages have space to review about 625 books -- half of those only briefly. So, for every book we review, 80 others are ignored.

Galley proofs -- unbound, unpolished copies of books often sent months in advance of a book's publication date -- arrive from publishers daily. So do finished hardcover books and paperbacks. They come with strings. Publicists send little handwritten notes. They call frequently to ask if we are going to review the books they've sent.

"Oh, you mean that book I just chucked in the trash?" I want to say. "I don't think so."

Instead, I murmur something soothingly noncommittal and try to get off the phone as fast as I can.

A girl I knew in college but hadn't spoken to in a decade called me at work a few months ago. Thirty seconds into the conversation I learned why she called. She works at a publishing house and wanted the skinny on how we choose books for review. I gave her the standard response: that we review books on or near publication date and only by assignment. I told her there was no secret formula. We just try to pick good, interesting, consequential books that we believe have appeal to a reasonably broad slice of The Sun's readership.

She hasn't called since.

Authors are the worst. They call. They whine. They plead. They're the ones I suspect spend long, ugly evenings shoving needles into voodoo dolls of me.

Books are important. All culture comes in or through books. But what are book reviews for exactly? In 10 months, I think I've learned a bit about that.

People who publish books believe reviews help sell books. People who publish book reviews believe reviews please readers and that helps sell copies of their newspapers or magazines. For readers, the answer is more mysterious. Maybe reviews help readers determine if they want to read a book. Or maybe, just maybe, reading a thoughtful well-written book review means certain readers don't even have to read the book. They can just say they did -- and get away with it.

I wasn't always so heartless. Ten months can harden you.

I came to this job after six years as a reporter at a small daily newspaper in Vermont and two years reporting for a news service in Arlington, Va. I read books there. I have always read lots and lots of books: novels and true crime, short stories and essays, memoirs and biographies. Right now, I'm reading three.

The Good Sisters at Mount Alvernia taught me that merely making marks on the pages of a book with pencil is a mortal sin. I am obviously going to go to hell for throwing them away. It will be a special kind of hell, filled with publicists and authors I've slighted, breathing fire, stinking of brimstone, droning on through eternity about -- guess what?

Disposing of someone's life work is no lark.

The first time I threw away a galley, the guilt kept me awake most of the night. I don't remember what the book was. I don't remember the author, either. All I know is that for months, years probably, the author had hunched over his or her desk hunting and pecking, creating a life's work. And I flipped that palpable hunk of a human soul into the garbage, along with half a cup of cold Starbucks coffee.

I only throw away galleys. Unfinished books are not donated to libraries -- only finished, ready-for-market editions, both hardcovers and paperbacks.

Before we look at a single galley, the book editor and I go through 200 to 300 publisher's catalogs a year and request books that look promising. We also use forecast reviews in two major industry publications, Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus Reviews to give us clues to what we want to review. We pay close attention to recommendations, both solicited and spontaneous.

Then come the actual books. We don't toss at random. We don't read every single page before we decide if a book gets reviewed either. Instead, we do something the book editor calls "unreading." A book gets picked up and flipped over. What is it about? Who wrote it? Are they serious? (I put high stakes in whether the photo at the back makes the author look attractive and intelligent.) For novels, we often read the first page, the last page and a page in the middle of the book. If the book excites or interests, it gets saved for another more extensive screening.

The others go.

After we determine the books we want to review, we assign them to writers.

We have a roster of a couple of hundred writers whose work we know. We get a dozen or more -- sometimes many more -- new inquires a month from people who want to review for us.

Just as with books, we don't choose reviewers at random. These aren't just people who read books. We seek fine writing -- but there also must be credentialed authority in the area the book is about.

For each reviewer, we append a detailed biography to the review -- data like advanced degrees, books they've written, countries they've led and wars they've won. These "shirtails" are intended to establish why their opinions are consequential. I find them both informative and depressing. They lead me to doubt whether I'll ever have the nerve to write a book.

God knows, I don't think I could bear having some snot-nosed book assistant flinging my galley in the garbage. So instead, I'm going back to daily newspaper reporting in The Sun's Carroll County bureau.

But I have written book reviews, helped edit them, laid them out on pages. Doing this job hasn't changed the way I buy books. I still go to the bookstore and wander around, searching for titles friends have recommended, or perusing displays. I still pick up books with attractive covers and read the backs to see what reviewers have said. Usually I ignore them.

Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover.

Maria Blackburn, a Sun reporter and former assistant to The Sun's book editor, was a reporter at the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press for six years. She has worked as a camp counselor, pharmacist's assistant and Bloomingdale's salesperson, a popcorn vendor at a college football stadium and a nanny for unruly children summering on Nantucket who didn't think "Because I said so" was persuasive. Her face once graced the cover of the supermarket tabloid the Weekly World News. Her bad bartending, mediocre waitressing and passable catering management did not fatally injure the patrons of several dining establishments where she toiled before she took up writing for a living.

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