There’s an article called “Has book blogging hit the wall? William Morrow’s blogger notice” posted online in the LA Times Books section. Apparently it’s causing a stir, though I admit to not having read a single reactionary comment yet. My apologies, then, if the following smacks of ignorance.
The gist of the article, though I recommend you read the entire piece if you haven’t already, is that William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, sent out an email to book bloggers stating that they are streamlining their review copies process. Review books now have to be requested by filling out a form, with a max number of three books per form, and if said books are not reviewed with two weeks to a month of the book’s release, the blogger will no longer receive offers. (This last statement was later altered to assure bloggers that they would not be suspended from the publisher’s send list.)
Think this is harsh? Feel indignant at all? Many do. “‘It’s not enough that it is “your job” to review their books within a one month span before or after its release date,’” wrote Larry at The OF Blog, “‘but they couch in sweet talk the threat to pull review copies because you don’t want to play their game.’” Many feel as though “their hobby [i]s being treated like an obligation.”
I have to say right off the bat here: What?
While I do understand that reviewing WM’s books in their time-frame will likely be stressful if you get books from other publishers as well, perhaps the answer then is not accepting so many books. Or not accepting books from WM, since they’re not playing “the game” the way you want them to. Truthfully, the indignation strikes me as not only exceedingly, embarrassingly whiny but also odd, since we as recreational bloggers are not “obligated” to even take copies from a publisher. I understand that it could mean a loss for you if you can’t get their books reviewed when they ask, but there is the—gasp!—option of paying for WM’s books if you want them that badly. If you’re not a paid reviewer, it doesn’t have to be your job to review anyone’s books. It’s your blog, you decide. On the flip side, they’re the publisher’s books; they too get to decide what to do with them and how.
In my view, William Morrow’s email sounds less like raining on our parade than like a publisher realizing they’ve been perhaps too generous in their distribution of ARCs and published copies for review. They’re realizing just how expensive this venture is, and they’re wondering if book bloggers generate enough sales to make it worth it. We’re also not the only ones to whom they send galleys or finished copies, and we certainly can’t be pretentious enough to imagine our opinions are, while valuable, the be all and end all of book talk or sales. As far as I know, whether or not bloggers are effectively boosting sales isn’t something that can be accurately measured, but it’s a fair question, especially for a business. If a publisher’s goal is to sell more books, and the way they do this most effectively is by promotion of said books in a timely manner, doesn’t it make sense that they’d ask us, to whom they send such books free of charge, to please review in such and such a time, and then offer only the number of books we can do in that time? And doesn’t it make sense, then, that if we don’t, we’re not as effective to their cause and are also thus costing them money?
But these questions were also asked:
But if the role of bloggers is different [other than "creating buzz for publishers' projects"], to expand the conversation around books, things are a little more complicated. Does the number of readers a blogger has matter? Can and should there be room for disliking a book? Can and should book bloggers be book buyers, and are they? If some bloggers reject publishers’ freebies in order to establish their own freedom, should those that accept them somehow make that relationship clear? Should publishers make any demands on bloggers at all — and if so, are free books an even trade?
Here’s what I think, if you’re interested:
Helping create book buzz and expanding conversation around books aren’t mutually exclusive, and I’m not even sure there’s much of a difference between the two in the end, but if publishers are sending you books, they’re ultimately more concerned about sales than anything else. Even though there are publicists who delight in making book lovers happy by sending them books, in the end they still want to see your review. This is still all part of their job.
I can’t say there’s any one role of a book blogger—since book bloggers start up for different reasons and decide their own roles (if they even decide to adopt a role)—unless that book blogger is getting copies for review. Then I’d say those review copies makes a blogger’s role reviewer, and with that comes responsibility, even if the reviews are not for money. More on this further down.
The number of readers a blogger has is relevant to an extent, but there is also potential for sharing over social media platforms, which will typically reach many more people. And who those readers are also makes a difference.
Most certainly there should be room for disliking a book; I find it difficult to understand why such a question would be asked. That’s what reviews are about, after all, but if publishers are looking for only positive reviews or nothing at all, that should be made clear to the blogger—and what also should be clear, then, is that only those books that cater to the blogger’s likes are to be sent.
Most book bloggers, because they love books, still buy—at an impressive rate, actually. Why couldn’t or shouldn’t they be buyers? The next question is confusing and I can’t answer it since I fail to understand it. But yes, simply put, I believe publishers have every right to attach stipulations to the copies they send out.
As to whether or not the books are a fair trade, that’s for the individual to decide. If you asked me, I would tell you that while I choose to spend way too much time on writing reviews I’m not paid for, I am also a bibliophile and as such find the free books, most of them lovely finished copies, a good enough trade for me to do the reviews. The time I spend also pays off when publishers and authors express their satisfaction with what I’ve written, and that includes the constructive criticism I’ve offered in my reviews. And then, when I get hired by publishers to write stuff, there’s an even better payoff.
So while I suppose I could argue that I still sell a fair amount of backlist, or new books months after their release, at least as a bookseller, that’s probably besides the point. Whatever William Morrow’s reason for asking that books be reviewed within a month of release, I’m not crying about it. This makes good, smart sense to me on the part of publishers. After all, it’s not as though my tbr pile will ever be depleted; it’s not as though they’re saying I’ll never see a review copy from anyone again. They’re not asking us to sign a contract and make our fun blogging a job: they’re just asking us to pick the books we know we’ll be able to get to in a timely manner for promotional purposes. They’re just ensuring they’re not wasting money. Can you blame them?
But this backlash about the WM email doesn’t seem to me just a gripe about feeling our blogs are becoming jobs, what with “all these rules.” It’s also the suggestion that one will be penalized if one doesn’t review in a timely manner, or the prospect of publishers in general sending out fewer copies, that has people like Larry up in arms.
So if we’re also talking about being upset that we may not receive as many books as we used to, well. To start, I’ve received several books from certain publishers that don’t even fit within my reading preferences, as stated on my Statement on Book Reviews page, and I have no intention, then, of reading them. It’s a waste of money and time on the publisher’s part. My Statement page is there for a reason. (To be fair, the majority of publicists who send me books know me as Steph, not Bella [they've actually read my About page], and they know exactly what I like (they’ve also bothered to read a review or two) and otherwise ask if I might like a particular book. Many of said publicists have even become friends, and their books always arrive accompanied by personal notes. A few of these books have been purely gifts, but most are for review.)
But how many times have I read that a book blogger can’t keep up with all the free books she’s getting? I’m always mouth agape when I read about bloggers getting daily book dumps and establishing first-name relationships with their postman or postwoman. Unless you don’t work and all you do is read, it’s damn near impossible to properly (that is, according to the stipulations) read and review everything that comes, which was the main WM issue that ruffled people’s feathers in the first place.
I started out with one publisher sending me books and now I have at least 17, plus authors. I’m not complaining, because these are books I very much wish to read and will review, but I admit it didn’t take long before I felt overwhelmed by my sense of responsibility to those who send me packages and before I was sending apology emails and even turning down books. (I still happily accept some, depending on what they are.) And this guilt is without being a paid reviewer, in which case each review would be done when it was expected of me to produce it. I’m also acknowledging here, I add, that there is a difference between paid reviewer and book blogger—but this difference has nothing whatsoever to do with entitlement.
It’s a very cool thing to get books you really want, free in the mail. Sure, it’s saving me money, but mainly it’s giving me the chance to network and participate in book discussions and actually know what I’m talking about. It’s making me a much more effective bookseller, too. Truly, I feel downright privileged—I’m not entitled to receive books just because I’ve decided to write a book blog for fun, and this sense of entitlement that seems to emanate from the article perplexes me. I know this is costing publishers money and the idea is ultimately to help generate sales (we can’t forget these are businesses, these publishers), and they trust me to help them do this. So, yes, I’m wracked with guilt for not reviewing books, particularly ARCs, within the month I receive them.
The difference is, then, I’m feeling I owe the publishers something, which I don’t think is unfair, whereas it seems to me that those who feel upset about this article feel the opposite; that they’re owed something for being bloggers, an occupation, paid or not, they chose. The simple fact is Publisher = business; unpaid book blogger = hobby. Explain to me again why we are entitled to handouts without some restriction? These books, they’re simply the perks of your hobby.
Listen, it’s really not my intent to sound smug or righteous. I’m merely expressing how I feel about this and trying to offer perspective, even though my experience as a book blogger isn’t necessarily the same as another’s. I have two jobs. I work full time at a bookstore and I am also a freelance copyeditor and writer. These occupations take up the majority of my time. No matter what, I have to focus first on my paying jobs. This means that this blog, as much as I love it and want it to be more, can’t be updated daily or even weekly sometimes, and there’s very little chance I’ll read a book a week. Sometimes I can’t read a book in three weeks or even a month (I also run the book club at the store where I work).
So of course I’m okay with having the book-giving process streamlined. But I’m willing to bet that most book bloggers also have jobs, and even those who stay at home can’t always keep up with the books they’re getting. Most of us book lovers are in possession of far more books than we’ve read or could ever read. So why, again, does this WM email upset people? Now it’s striking me as not only being blown out of proportion but also smacking of greed.
Here’s the rub, and I know I’ve suggested as much already but it may bear repeating: as much as publishers love book bloggers and people who are passionate about books in general, they have a bottom line to think about. Unsurprisingly, they’re not out to stock my shelves with the books on my wishlist. Their mission is not to foster my or anyone’s book reviewing hobby. Instead, they’re hoping that when they send me a free book, I’ll repay them, so to speak, by giving the book some careful consideration and putting that consideration out there in a timely manner. I’m not saying that it has to be a positive review, but it should be something worth a reader’s time.
I believe we have a responsibility to treat a book with as much care as went into it. If I don’t deliver quality, as well as honesty and fairness, and thus give you something with which to make an informed purchase, then there’s no point to my book blogging. There’s also not much point to my receiving books, then, because what favours am I doing the publisher whose just done me a favour? Even if you’re a bookseller, you get ARCs because if you read them, you can promote them and sell them. It’s always a two-way street, and therein lies the responsibility of a person who receives books from publishers or authors. Those books don’t cost you money, but because getting them is a privilege and not a right, I’m thinking they should cost us a little something—even if we’re doing this for fun.
And I guess this cost is ultimately what has people up in arms. They don’t want their freeflow of books stopped; they certainly object to rules and regulations. They don’t want obligation. Many book bloggers make enough of their own rules, anyway, with challenges they have to stick to, times they swear not to buy new books, etc. But they fear that with publishers cracking down and asking that books be reviewed within the month, their book blogging is going to become work. It’s going to be English classes all over again.
I readily admit the timely manner issue has felt this is becoming work and has sometimes made this venture more stressful than fun. As I said, I have a fair number of people who send me books, and considering this is likely the case for many book bloggers, it’s not reasonable then, perhaps, to ask a reader to review a book within the month. It’s hard to write reviews as it is.
The fact is, though—and I apologize that it’s taken me this long to reach this point—that I have too many books to review is really my problem, even if some publishers have also perhaps been overly generous. It’s my responsibility (there’s that word again!) to let them know I can’t keep up. It’s not up to the publisher to make this fun for me. It’s not up to them to keep me enthused by “plying me with more goodies.” That’s ridiculous. I’m enthused already by my love of good books, by my excitement of seeing books I can’t wait to read on my shelves. I don’t want to be bribed to write great reviews. I want to write great reviews, whether they’re positive or negative, because I want to be someone people can depend on. But I also want to write thoughtful reviews because those people who have chosen to send me a book deserve to get something in return. I’ve noticed that certain publishers have stopped sending me books, and I understand why. In a way, I’m relieved. But I’ve also noticed that others don’t mind waiting for my reviews because when they do finally get them, they’re worth it. In the end, as usual, quality outweighs quantity.
That’s how I believe this should work. Publishers should be more discerning about who they send out copies to as well as how many, and book reviewers should remain mindful of the real reasons they’re receiving those books. Out of that should be born, yes, a sense of responsibility. This responsibility doesn’t have to be as heavy as Marley’s shackles if, one, we don’t receive as many books, but also, two, if we treat that responsibility as a chance to prove our worth, as something to be proud of.