December 6, 2011
What I Hate About Book Bloggers
It’s certainly not a secret that publishers send me books to review. I’m currently indulging in a Goose Lane binge because of a package that arrived on by doorstep last week. Most of the new releases I review have come my way via my mailbox. But I don’t make a note in each post of where my books came from, because I promise you that it really has no bearing on how that book gets reviewed. Also because professional book reviewers are not required to disclose that they were also sent the book for free, so why should I have to? I don’t regard the books I receive in the post as compensation– books don’t pay the rent, my friend. I’m not obliged to do anything with the books that come my way, to review positively, or even to review at all. Regardless of how these books found their way to me, I am beholden to nobody.
Which is not to say that this has always been the case. Of course, I’ve never received compensation for a review on my site– that’s so not my style, plus the very best books don’t have to pay people to like them. But when I started receiving books from publishers about 5 years ago, I found the whole process pretty overwhelming. I was flattered by the attention, and anxious to please, and though I was never dishonest in my early reviews, I was sometimes more generous in my assessments than I should have been. Though I also think I was a more generous reader then– 5 years of reading so many middling books does tend to make a reader rather crabby. But I’ve also found my footing as a reader, as a critic (though it’s still evolving; it has to be), I’ve read so much more, and learned so much more that I feel more comfortable to simply term a book a disaster, rather than trying to puzzle through the writer’s intentions as I might have done once upon a time. Though I don’t often declare a book a disaster here on my site, partly because it’s inconsistent with the tone here, and also because I don’t have enough free time to devote to writing reviews of books that are terrible.
During the past week, book bloggers have been getting some attention after many received a letter from William Morrow laying down the laws of book bloggerdom– reviews must be posted within a month of the book’s release, failure to adhere to these rules will result in getting bumped off their mailing list. To be honest, I didn’t find the letter or its tone too surprising– since the economy broke in 2008, I’ve noticed a similar reining in of bloggers by the big publishers I deal with. Gone are the days when they’d send me any/every book in the catalogue (and sometimes screw up the ordering so I’d end up receiving the same books twice, or three times). And obviously, I’m not exactly heartbroken about this, because the three-book thing never really seemed like an excellent business plan anyway. Also because there were so many books that I was often overwhelmed, and I ended up reading books I wasn’t even particularly interested in, which didn’t make me happy at all.
The problem with the reining in however, in letters like William Morrow’s and elsewhere, is not that publishers are asking more of bloggers or that bloggers are practicing book banditry, but rather that the publishers are treating the bloggers like kindergarteners. There is an abject disregard here by publishers of what bloggers do, no understanding of their function beyond that of unpaid publicists, and it’s clear that bloggers are not being taken seriously as the force they are. And when I look out at the book blogosphere these days and see such an abundance of unfortunate blogs (enacting many of the problems William Morrow notes in their letter), I’m not sure the bloggers themselves are entirely to blame. Sure, there seems to be a lack of responsibility on behalf of the bloggers, but the publishers are doing absolutely nothing to cultivate an alternative, which it will be very much in their purview to do.
The upside to beginning to receive free books on my blog, along with the overwhelmingness and dangerous sense of flattery, was the notion that someone was taking what I was doing seriously. It was a revelation! And the individuals I was dealing with at various publishing companies did take me seriously, working to create a genuine relationship, reading and engaging with my blog, suggesting books that they’d considered and thought that I would like. Many of these individuals were book bloggers themselves, rather than marketing types straight-up, and so they understood how it worked, that a book blogger requires the autonomy that any reviewer does.
Of course, the book blogosphere was smaller then, so such relationships were easier to foster, and I know that publishers’ resources have become unbelievably stretched in recent years. But I can’t help thinking that publishers themselves could have had more control over what has been the general decline of book blogs (or maybe what I mean is that they had more control than they imagined in the decline itself). Why, for example, do they send books to bloggers whose blogs are terrible? Does it still count as “buzz” if it’s generated by idiots (and it’s probably at this point that you clue in to the fact that I’m really not a marketer, no?)? Why send books to those bloggers who think a “review” is a 50 word assessment, and a pasting of the book’s marketing copy? Why do you send YA books about dragons to 35 year old men who like reading Malcolm Gladwell? The point of bloggers is to create buzz, yes, but that buzz is only going to buzz if it’s coming from a legitmate conversation. And publishers have missed their opportunity to heighten that converation’s tone.
Now I’m sounding like Jaron Lanier, I think, sitting back in my rocking chair wearing my enormous black t-shirt. Back in my day, I’ll tell you, things were different. I lament the decline of the individual voice in book blogs, I hate the standardization, the memeishness. I can’t stand the “In My Mailbox” meme, and I do wonder how anyone finds the times to read all those books, which are so often the very same books that other bloggers are receiving, so that the conversation is an echo chamber, and what is lost for that.
I do hope that the bloggers receiving so many free books continue to do their share as readers by actually buying books– I certainly did my bit with a $240 splurge at Book City last week (and hey everybody, guess what you’re getting for Christmas from me this year!). I want bloggers to keep exploring the fringes of the literary scene, whether it be with new books by independent presses or dusting off old books from the shelves. Blogs have always been interesting for being an alternative to what we might find in our newspaper’s dwindling review pages, and not simply a regurgitation. For the discoveries they yield that no mainstream medium would have been able to bring forth, and for the small, specialized communities they foster. For the genuine connections that happen.
And I don’t hate book bloggers at all, of course (though I am well-versed in writing an attention-grabbing title). I have as much hope for the what we can offer to books and literature in general as I ever did. But I just think that when publishers ask more of us, it should be about not simply towing their line, and that it’s most important that we never stop asking more of ourselves.