Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bloggers and Commercialism

MotherReader posted a very informative article on her blog last week on the subject of new regulations that may be coming down the pike from the FTC that would obligate bloggers and other word-of-mouth advertisers to disclose their commercial relationships, i.e. when they are given books for review by publishers/publicists/authors, and what kinds of other commercial relationships they may have related to their blog, for example if the blogger is an Amazon affiliate or will profit from selling something.

First of all, I am an IndieBound affiliate; every review I post has a link to my IndieBound account and theoretically if enough books were sold through it, I would make a percentage. I say theoretically because I don't believe that I ever will! I'm sure I would make more money if I linked to Amazon, but I would rather support independent bookstores, which I believe are the heart and soul of the book business.

I don't always disclose when I'm reading a book that I received in exchange for a review. I do make a habit of acknowledging LibraryThing for Early Reviewer books, and Barnes and Noble for books I receive as part of their First Look program; I also acknowledge Lisa Roe for the books I receive from her Online Publicist business. Otherwise I don't always disclose what I've received gratis versus what I've paid for, and honestly I don't really have a good reason for this decision- it's just a habit I've fallen into.

As a librarian I have access to galleys every now and then, and those are usually not books I'm obligated to review per se, so if I do review them I don't feel compelled to say where I got them. And I would say in those cases, it's nobody's business where I got them. I receive relatively few review offers and accept a small percentage of them, and I rarely request books directly from authors or publishers apart from the above-mentioned commercial sources, so there really isn't much to disclose.

MotherReader asks the question "are we serving less as reviewers and more as an unpaid marketing machine?" I think the answer is "both," with the balance shifting depending on the situation. Book marketers are smart enough to know that they can get some good publicity by working with bloggers, enthusiastic readers who are happy to give of themselves to promote books they love. That's great, but there's something a little out of balance about it too.

Take blog tours. I don't do them anymore because it felt too much like advertising and too little like honest reviewing. I know the blog tour operators and publishing representatives say they want objectivity but when I did blog tours I felt pressured to, at a minimum, provide unrestricted space for the author to promote his or her book, and, at a maximum, take an active role in shilling for the work. I also felt that the work involved for me was more than could be compensated for by a free book. How about a more monetary form of compensation for my work? My time is valuable, and operators get paid to line up authors and organizetours while a small army of bloggers diligently reads, posts, links, interviews, comments and promotes the book- in return for a "free" book. If they're lucky, they might even get the opportunity to do even more work for the operator by running contests or giveaways. There's something wrong with that equation.

Compensation is a thorny issue for bloggers in general, whether it be books or cash, due to the way it may impact objectivity. I can tell you that it doesn't take a check to make someone feel obligated or pressured to deliver a positive review- all it really takes is a flattering offer and a personable, persistant author or publicist. When I started blogging, I wrote a couple of positive-leaning reviews for books I wasn't really crazy about, because I felt like someone was standing over my shoulder. Nowadays when I'm working with someone and I'm not crazy about a book, I'll email them in advance of posting to let them know what to expect, but I don't let myself get intimidated anymore. And that's why, at bottom, I don't feel the need to disclose- because I'm confident about my objectivity and honesty. But if it helps my readers to have more confidence in my reviews, disclosure is a small change I'd be happy to make.


Blodeuedd said...

Not that I would mind saying which books I get from authors, which from the library and which are my own. But will my readers even care?
I didn't even know about ARCs and reviewing books for others when I started

Ana S. said...

Excellent post, Marie, with lots to think about. I think that feeling of someone standing over our shoulder is something a lot of bloggers experience at first. As we grow more confident, it's easier not to let ourselves feel pressured or intimidated. This is also something that older bloggers can help newer ones with, by letting them know that they're not alone in their anxieties and that it's okay not to like a review book. Your post does exactly that, so thank you :)

Bibliolatrist said...

I couldn't agree more, especially re: your thoughts on tours, which is why I've pretty much stopped doing them. Most of the books I found to be mediocre at best, and yet I felt pressured to praise the good and ignore the bad. Too much pressure for a "free" (and not that great) book.

bermudaonion said...

This is a great post. I know a lot of book bloggers have been upset by the proposed FTC regulations, but I don't really think they're after people who are getting a free book. I've read that people are receiving cash, trips, laptops, etc for their blogging efforts. Makes me wonder what I'm doing wrong.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Mari. I love getting books from publishers, but like Kathy said, it's hardly monetary value enough to sway my opinion one way or the other. $15-$30 just does not equate selling my integrity. Of course, a laptop, well, that's a different story. Although, that's highly unlikely as I refuse to evolve even to Kindle ownership. :)
I do, though, mention my source which, I think can be ironic relative to the subject as it's pointing more publicity in their direction as opposed to a silent nondisclosure policy that it may appear to be at first to not mention a source. I'll definitely be watching this for other responses.

Bibliolatrist said...

Bloggers are getting free WHAT?!?!?


Jem said...

Thanks for this very interesting post. I have only been blogging for free books for about two months and have been wondering about these same questions. I hate the feeling of merely being an unpaid publicist for some mediocre books. And what if I get a review copy book and then find it is too too boring to read. Can I just not review it or should I try to send it back? I am glad that you mentioned the work involved in blog tours. I have been wondering how they differed to normal reviewing. I am about to do my first one next month, but I may not go down that track much further.

I don't like to mention where I got the book simply because it seems like giving them a plug. I hadn't thought of it the other way - that my readers should know the connection. Hmmm, lots to think about...

Teresa said...

Great post, and I agree with you. Personally, I don't make a habit of disclosing where I got my books although I understand why some do.
I've have been hesitant to for a few reasons. As others have said, it feels a little too much like a plug. Also, some statements that express thanks look at first glance like an attempt to curry favor. And sometimes it looks a little like the blogger is saying "look how connected I am. I get free books." I know that none of these things are the reason for these statements, but to readers who haven't been privy to these conversations, that might be how they appear.

The most important reason I've hesitated is that the expectation that honest reviewing = disclosure of book sources seems to suggest that bloggers can be bought with a free book and professional reviewers who have been receiving ARCs for years cannot. I'm sure some bloggers (and some pros for that matter) won't give negative reviews because they don't want the stream of books to dry up, but regular readers of a blog will learn pretty quickly if they're dealing with a shill or an honest reviewer. To me, a habit of writing honest reviews is the way to build credibility.

Unknown said...

Great post! I haven't really given that legislation much thought because I can't see how it could possibly be enforceable on a level that would impact me or my book blogging friends. Maybe I'm being naive. I don't know. If it became a hassle, I would stop receiving review copies from any source and use the library or my own pocket book to read books for my blog.

My take on blog tours is a bit different than yours. There are very few authors who come to SW Virginia to promote their books or to give a reading. It does happen every once in a blue moon and, quite frankly, I'm usually not interested in the genre when they do. For me, blog tours offers me the opportunity to interact with authors that I don't otherwise have. I enjoy that.

Jennifer @ The Literate Housewife Review

Lenore Appelhans said...

I don't think anyone cares where I get my books. And I agree that the "free" part hardly makes up for the work put into the blog. I do it because I love to read and to dicuss what I read, and should that ever change, I'd stop doing it in a heartbeat.

I only do tours now of books I would read anyway. I did a couple early on of books I wasn't excited about just as a favor and regretted it mightily.

Anna said...

Most of the time I mention when I get a review copy, but sometimes I don't. Sometimes I don't think to include it because I'm not sure it really matters. It's my personal policy to be honest with every review I write. Even with tours. I did a tour earlier this year and I didn't really like the book (I was in the minority) but I said so, but in a polite way. If that bothers the author or the tour organizers, there's nothing I can do about that, but I'm not going to not mention the problems I had with the book.

I find that I'm pretty picky with the review copies and tours I accept anyway, and I'm a pretty good judge of what I'll like, so it's not a huge issue.

What an interesting topic for discussion!

Diary of an Eccentric

Unknown said...

Great post! I agree with your every word! I often feel that people accepting loads of ARCs seem to give glowing reviews for all the books they read and therefore the publishers love them and send even more books. I tend to avoid these blogs and only read the ones where I feel I can trust their opinion.

I don't reveal where my books come from, as I don't think it matters. I review all books I receive in the same way. In fact I feel more guilty about giving a bad review for a book a friend has lent me than I do to a free one from a publisher!

JaneGS said...

I think the legislation is absurd and is trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist. Providing review copies is a marketing expense, pure and simple, and whether those copies go to old school newspaper editors or to bricks-and mortar-bookstores to give to their employees to read so they can be credible when they recommend (or not) books or to bloggers who review books, it doesn't matter. We all know that Roger Ebert doesn't shell out $15 everytime he watches a movie that he reviews; he doesn't provide a disclaimer on favorable reviews saying that he didn't pay to watch the movie; why should you?

I've only received one review copy in the short time I've been blogging, but I felt no compulsion not to speak honestly about what I thought was an egregious book (The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet). I ended up donating it to the local library so they could sell it used at their fundraising book sale.

I have turned down offers of books on the grounds that I would never actually read the book (not the kind of book I'm interested in) and so would never actually write about it.

Kelly said...

I've never really thought about it, I guess I didn't think anyone would care where the books come from. I think sometimes, I'm too easy because I seem to like almost everything, but then I read a book I hated and realized, "hey, I'm not a pushover just because it was given to me!"

Darlene said...

Great post Marie. Lots to contemplate. I've always said where I got a book when I review it. I do blog tours but only for books I'm fairly certain I'm going to enjoy. The same goes for reviewing books at all. If I don't think I'm going to like it, then I don't accept it. Truthfully though, yes, that's what a blog tour is about, getting publicity for the author. I do think, blog tour or not, if you didn't like the book, say so but nicely. I guess, for me, I don't mind giving an author the advertising. They're trying to make a career for themselves any way they can. Not sure about these regulations though. How are you going to police the amount of bloggers that are out there? I don't know.

Who is getting laptops and such? OMG-like Kathy I must be doing something wrong. lol. I definitely wouldn't compromise myself for that kind of stuff but lucky them.

Anonymous said...

Good post and dicussion! I try to say if I was given the book by the author or publisher. For me it only seems right. But I don't say if I won the book in a contest or received it as a gift, so I'm not completely consistent!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Very interesting post, Marie, and what great comments. This is all very instructive to me. Since I'm pseudonymous, I can't receive free books (no address), and I have not given these issues much thought.

Although I've given the proposed legislation enough thought to agree with JaneGS: absurd.

wisteria said...

Thanks for this post Marie, I believe it is very relevant and important.

My thoughts:
I like you do not participate any longer in blog tours. They are overdone and boring. They are a super marketing extravaganza for the publishers and authors.

I won't say in most cases where I got a book, but like you as a media specialist, I receive many galleys.

I never promise a review and when I take the time to write about a book that I choose, it will usually be readable to phenomenal. I just won't waste my time writing a review on a book I consider below average of couldn't finish.

I think a lot like Nymeth. With more experience, blogging for truth is much easier. If you feel pressured to review favorably because you get a free book your opinion is being compromised and I know I wouldn't want to feel that way.

There are so many great books out there that when something doesn't suit me, I move on. My reviews take a lot of time and the publishers are reaping the rewards from all bloggers for a minimal cost to them.

Unknown said...

One of the reasons I stopped posting giveaway lists was, in addition to it taking up a lot of time, that 80% or more of them were the same pushed books.

I have a challenge for people who say that getting free books doesn't sway their opinion: go without the free books then. If you don't need em, why are you accepting them? It's not just the like/dislike that is part of your editorial judgment, it's the choice of books. Or if you really want to be getting books in advance of their publication date, donate out of your pocket the cost of the book (as listed in your favorite bookstore) to a charity.

Blog Tours? Don't get me started. The short version is I won't even read blogs that do them anymore. At a minimum, I know such blogs won't tell me negative things about books. They'll pass them on to another reviewer who will say good things, which is no effing better.


(You knew I had to comment on this one, right? I am the cranky guy on the internet.)

Zibilee said...

I feel a bit like you do regarding review copies. At times I feel that by taking them I am becoming nothing but a free promotions tool for the publishing company, and at times I worry about honestly disliking and giving a negative review for books I have not paid for. I am going to start changing this by requesting less of the review copies that are available, and finally getting around to reviewing the books I own. I think it will make me happier in the long run, and make my blog feel more like a creative extension of myself, instead of it being totally controlled by the marketers.

Bonnie said...

I've been hearing about the FTC regulations and wondering how this may effect us as bloggers. You've made me think a lot about this with this post Marie! I appreciate your honesty and candor. I can't imagine how they could enforce this with book bloggers compared to other review blogs who may be getting much more expensive big ticket items to review. With that said, it has made me think about my reviewing and my blog goals. I usually say where I get a book from if it is a book won from a publisher/author/blogger or sent as a review copy. I have mixed feelings on the blog tours. I've done them and I agree with you that it is a lot of work for basically free publicity and the tour companies are making the money and we are doing all of the work. I will only do tours now for books that I would normally choose to read or that interest me.

King Rat has an interesting challenge not to accept the free books. It would be interesting to see what our blog reviews would be like if we only review books that we have purchased ourselves. Very interesting thought.

Marie Cloutier said...

Bonnie- I agree with you about King Rat's challenge- I find it very intriguing and I'm writing a post about it for next week. I'd love to see others(i.e. you!) write about it too! :-)

Bonnie said...

Marie-I'll look forward to your post and I have to give this some thought as to the challenge. On one side, I do enjoy the contact with authors through the tours and from reviewing their books. I've found some new authors and books this way. Although, I am feeling overwhelmed with accepting so many books to review that I'm working on finding a balance.

Becca said...

I would love to be compensated for the free publicity by more than just a free book. Especially when I don't particularly like the book and feel obligated to finish it because I am reviewing it. I love free books, don't get me wrong, it is definitely a huge perk. But if I could make a living being a book reviewer and blogger, I definitely would love it.

BurtonReview said...

I see alot of comments here and althouhg I just scanned I hope I am not repeating anyone.. but on a whole OTHER topic..
I am sure this is not new to you, but what about the commercialism of the actual review 'companies/setups/sites' that are out there?? When I was new to this world, I simply wanted to be one of the cool bookbloggers out there and I tried to sign up for one of those setups. Lo and behold they asked for $75 from ME to review three books (that they picked) a month for THEM with many specific How-To's and HowNOTto's. Now THAT'S where it gets a bit CRAZY, ya think? Thank God I just laughed at my computer screen and did not give it a second thought, but my goodness I feel bad for those that get sucked into those situations, and that is definitely a shammy scam to me.

Serena said...

well said! I agree that as long as you are honest and objective in your reviews, you shouldn't have to disclose where the books come from.

I'm not sure readers care as long as your reviews are honest about the work.

I agree that the compensation for tours etc. is out of whack...significantly.