Monday, July 27, 2009

Bloggers and Commercialism, Part Two

First of all, I want to thank all of you who commented on my Bloggers and Commercialism post last week; I really appreciate hearing from all of you and it gave me a lot to think about. So one of the responses I got, from blogger King Rat of Rat's Reading, was particularly thought-provoking. He said that if we bloggers want to be sure we're blogging with integrity, we should stop accepting review copies and just review books that we buy (or, presumably, borrow or trade) ourselves, whether they be new or used, bargain-tabled or full price. But no more freebies- no more purely promotional work. What would that mean for our blogs? For our reading? Is the only reason we blog to receive free books?

Receiving free books is not the only reason I blog. I would be lying if I said that when I started my blog, it never occurred to me that I might snag a freebie or review copy here and there, but I started Boston Bibliophile mainly to improve my writing and to meet and talk to readers who like what I like. If I got on the galley train, great. If not, so be it.

Like many of you I've been fairly successful in parlaying my reviewing and blogging into some freebies now and then, although probably less so than some. Some star book bloggers seem to almost never buy their own books! As for me, to borrow a metaphor from comedian Kathy Griffin, I definitely consider myself to be a book-blogging D-lister. I don't do blog tours, I don't get a lot of glitzy interviews or do fancy multi-volume book giveaways, and there are still entire, major publishers from whom I have never had an offer or received a book.

The contact with authors, the chance to do interviews, and the ability to supplement my professional reading with current fiction and nonfiction has been wonderful. And I've read a lot of great books I would never have read otherwise. Much of this would disappear were I to stop accepting and requesting review copies.

And of course I enjoy it- interacting with authors and publishers, and those flattering emails saying how much they enjoy my blog- whether those emails are sent to me alone or to a thousand other bloggers at the same time. And I won't lie- I love the access I have to galleys.

So how much do I depend on freebies? It's hard to quantify exactly, but I'll take a somewhat random, totally non-representative sample to get started. I'll list the 20 most recent books I've read and tell you where they came from. It's not 100% representative but I hope it gives an idea:
So out of the last 20 books I've read, I received eight free for review- three from LibraryThing, which encourages reviews, three review copies that I requested and two that were offered to me, all of which I've promised to write about. I read two books that I took from the library, got three through professional channels, traded for one and bought the remaining six at a variety of bookstores.

With the exception of library books, books that I receive for free tend to be recent- upcoming releases or just-outs, which makes perfect sense. Most of the books I buy are paperbacks and backlist- among other things I am cheap, and I have to really want to read a book right now to pony up for a hardcover- and that does not happen often! I believe that I use the library often for graphic novels and speciality books- and this lists bears that out, too.

So my blog is profiting from free books- no doubt about it. But personal buying and borrowing still makes up a decent percentage of what I'm reading and writing about.

But what would happen to my blog- to my writing- if I stopped accepting review copies? First, since I still have a professional obligation to stay current on the literature in my field, I would continue to receive and read galleys. I just wouldn't review them here. So the quantity of reviews I post would lessen.

The books I would review would be things that I bought, and so would probably be older- paperback backlisters instead of brand-spanking-new-releases. Freed from the distractions of trendy "it" books (and the competition to get them) my reading would probably be more diverse in some ways (more idiosyncratic personal choices, less "everyone is else is reading it") and less diverse in others (more "Marie" books and less outside-the-box experimentation).

I might even be able to get back to my original reason for starting the blog- sharing the kinds of books I love with people who share my interests, instead of just reading the same books everyone else is reading. I'd miss being in this giant virtual book club and sharing opinions about the books we're all reading, but I wouldn't miss being part of the marketing machine.

This is sounding better all the time.

But in reality, it's not going to happen. I'm not going to stop asking for and accepting review opportunities- and neither should you. I do think that we owe it to ourselves to do some real thinking about ethics behind it all and make sure that it squares with our sense of fairness and honesty. I think we should think about how we're treating our readers- if we're being honest with them or acting as shills- as well as how we treat publishers and authors- if we're taking advantage of a trend or providing something valuable to them in return. And we should pay attention to how they're treating us. I think if we feel like someone is taking advantage of our time, or our good nature, or just being a nag, we should call them out on it and not worry that the gravy train is going to dry up. Because even if it does, I read books before I started blogging and I'll continue to read them when I stop. And I think most of you will, too.