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Saturday, 30 June 2012

Essay: On Publishers, Reviewers and Bloggers

This is a wonderful era for readers. Not only are more books being published than ever before, but online booksellers like Amazon have made them accessible to everyone with internet access at reasonable cost, and the ebook revolution has allowed aspiring authors to sidestep the stranglehold of the publishing industry altogether and sell directly to fans. Not everyone thinks this is such a great idea, but for readers there is now a vast amount of choice.

But that brings its own problems. No longer are genre fans limited by the shelf or two of big name authors at the local bookshop. Amazon.co.uk lists no fewer than 35,000 fantasy books in ebook format alone at the time of writing [June 2012]. How is it possible to sift through all those to find suitable books? Amazon, it has to be said, has a few tricks to help, such as lists of best-sellers, and links from one book to other similar books. It's fairly broad brush, but with enough time to hop around, a buyer can find some interesting prospects. But how to choose between them all? This is where reviews come in handy; online booksellers like Amazon allow readers to post reviews of books they've read.

There have always been book reviews, of course. It's a well-established arrangement; publishers send out advance copies of new books to newspapers and magazines, who assign someone to read those of most interest to their readers and print a review to coincide with the publication date. The posh Sunday newspapers will often recruit a famous author to write a review of a book in their own field. The reviewer is paid by the newspaper or magazine, not the publisher, so they are free to be as critical or downright rude as they like. Such reviews are often well-crafted pieces of writing in their own right, academic critiques with an air of authority and often not a little snobbery. It's a cosy arrangement; the publisher gets some publicity for their book at minimal cost, the newspaper or magazine fills its pages with interesting material and the reviewer gets a little money and a chance to exercise his/her wit. Even the occasional negative review isn't a problem for the publisher; it reassures Joe Public that the review wasn't bought, and a really vitriolic outburst will generate a buzz. Genre readers usually had to look to specialist magazines for similar provision, but it worked in the same way.

Online booksellers brought fresh air into this stuffy little cartel, by allowing any ordinary Joe to post a review. Needless to say, most of these amateur reviews were short, badly written and fairly useless. It also didn't take long for authors to realise that they could post glowing reviews of their own books under a pseudonym, and get all their friends and relations to do so too. But amidst all the dross were a few people who posted long, thoughtful reviews. Some of them stayed with Amazon and became Amazon Vine members, receiving free products supplied by companies wanting a review. Some of them, realising the value in their reviews, set up their own websites and blogs to host them. Gradually more amateur reviewers joined the blogging bandwagon, until sometimes it seems as if every book reader in the world has their own review blog.

It didn't take the publishers long to latch onto the blogging world, as an extension of their existing program of sending out advanced copies of new books. Any blogger who built up a following could, if they chose, receive a deluge of free books, with no pressure to review them or even to read them. More recently, some publishers have started to cut back, with one, William Morrow, causing an uproar in the blogosphere by suggesting online reviewers who receive free books should agree to a contract - committing to a certain number of reviews, and publishing in a timely manner. Bloggers were outraged: we decide what we review, and when, and how, they stated.

It's easy to see what motivates the publishers. They are businesses whose purpose is to sell books. Sending advance copies to reviewers is part of their marketing budget; it's advertising, in other words. A blogger with a large audience is a useful tool, informing potential purchasers of a book's existence and giving an opinion on it. Bloggers who regularly produce positive reviews around the time of publication and who help to build up the buzz about a forthcoming book by showing book covers or hosting author interviews are extremely useful to publishers. As with newspaper reviews, the occasional negative review is acceptable to demonstrate the reviewer's independence from the publishers. And, just like newspaper reviews, the effects of a blogger can be quantified to some extent. Numbers of followers and unique visitors and page hits can all be tracked, and although no one knows how much of that translates into product shifted (ie books sold), it measures the audience in the same way as magazine circulation numbers, and it would be strange if publishers failed to take note of such things.

But what about bloggers? What motivates them? Undoubtedly they all start off as enthusiasts, who enjoy reading and are willing to take the time and trouble to express their thoughts for the benefit of others. It takes a lot of time to construct and polish the sort of detailed, thoughtful review that the best sites specialise in, and, unlike published authors, they don't get paid for their efforts. But blogs tend to grow. What starts out as a low-key affair ends up with thousands of visitors each day and becomes a different game altogether.

Now there are many review blogs out there which stay focused on the original objective of reviewing books the blogger likes to read, and are not much concerned beyond that. But for many established bloggers, and nowadays for many startup bloggers too, the reviews become subsumed into the greater enterprise of maintaining and growing the blog. With a little advertising, paid-for content or tie-in marketing, it can even pay for itself and enable the blogger to give up the day job. Then the emphasis switches to aggressively selling the blog by linking to it from as many places as possible, guest blogging on other blogs, actively touting for author interviews and the like, or even deliberately provoking controversy to get a buzz going.

This is an extreme instance, of course, and there is a whole spectrum of variation in the blog world. Bloggers get started in a variety of ways, and there are innumerable different paths each one can take. There's no right or wrong way to run a book review blog, after all, and most never make money from it. But one thing they all have in common: they are all part of the book publishing industry to a greater or lesser extent. Every time I post a review of a book, whether on Goodreads or Amazon or on my blog, I am in practice encouraging people to buy that book. Even a negative review can have that effect: 'I hated this book, it's full of gross-out violence, endless battles and boringly detailed world-building' is going to have some people saying, 'Wait, that sounds right up my alley'. Of course, everyone reading reviews of fantasy books on Goodreads or a blog dedicated to them is already a committed purchaser, but then a review encourages them to buy one book rather than another. It may not be a deliberate choice, but every book reviewer is part of the publishing industry.

Now many review bloggers don't see things that way at all. Their relationship with publishers, they seem to think, consists solely of receiving material from them (free books, author interviews and so forth) and doing whatever they like with them. No obligations, no responsibilities. When publisher William Morrow said of free copies of books: 'Your job is simply to review the book within a month of receiving it and post your thoughts on your blog or site', bloggers were outraged. Here's what blogger Justin [1] had to say recently: 'It bothers me that those in the business of selling books would think of me that way. I consider myself to be an arbiter of taste. My role, as I see it, is to help readers make informed choices about how they spend their money. If I sell some books as a result, that's fine, but not my ultimate goal.'

No, but it's definitely the ultimate goal of the publishers, and every book reviewer is a tool, intentionally or not, of the industry. But it's an uneasy relationship. Publishers are prepared to dish out free books (and interviews and other stuff), and they don't want reviewers to be seen to be in their pockets, so keeping a certain distance is part of the game. Reviewers, on the other hand, want the free stuff, sure, they want the big-name authors, they want to be the first with the hot new book, because that's what their readers want, but they also value their independence, and don't want to be poodles for the industry. Or at least, some of them value their independence. Here's what Justin, the blogger quoted above, went on to say:

'Either way, the answer isn't creating some cockamamie bureaucracy to hold bloggers accountable, or codify some quid pro quo that will only serve to taint blogger integrity. The answer is increasing the publishers access to the community and the community's access to them. It doesn't mean spending more money, just spending it smarter. Rather than casting out wasted review copies that never get read, invest in getting to know reviewers and what they like. Give them exclusive coverage. Be pro-active. Don't expect free books to be a tool by which they can be controlled. In short, treat them like journalists.'

I'm not sure that journalism is quite the analogy he wants here; journalists are paid directly by their industry, do what they're told and write to precise order. But I take his point about more targeted material. The whole book world has grown and fragmented so fast that it's hard to keep up. The fantasy genre has exploded into scores of sub-genres, and a fan of paranormal romance isn't going to read dense epic fantasy, while the steampunk aficionado probably isn't interested in werewolves. But more precise targeting of advance copies will save publishers money and lead to a better ratio of reviews produced, so they'll work that out for themselves eventually.

But it is interesting that, while on the one hand backing away from a close relationship with publishers, he also wants more access to them. Getting the balance right is very difficult, and every blogger has to decide for themselves just how cosy they want to get with the industry. Every blogger is an individual, after all, and, to repeat, there's no right or wrong here. If bloggers want to take the free books, and have the publishers pay for a large part of their hobby, good for them. But they should also be aware of the consequences of that decision.

In a recent thread on the topic of reviewing at the Westeros forum [2], I argued that every reviewer's judgment is affected to some degree by the relationship they have with publishers. Reviewers were very defensive about that, and I certainly don't question their integrity; undoubtedly they write their honest opinion of every book they review. But (and it's a significant but) if they don't enjoy a book, or don't finish it, they generally don't review it. When they give ratings, they tend to use a skewed scale such that even a relatively poor review merits 6 or 7 out of 10. They tend to chase big name or hot books. They tend not to review self-published works. Now, there's nothing wrong with any of this, and it goes without saying that not all reviewers follow all of these practices, but it does rather fall into the publishers' gameplan, because what they get is largely positive reviews of the books they are most actively marketing. And of course every time a reviewer picks up a book he or she has been sent for free and decides to give it a go, that too is playing the publishers' game, even if it's done entirely unconsciously.

My own decision was different. The first time I was offered a free book to review, I decided that I wasn't going to do that - not for a beginning self-publisher I'd met on Goodreads, and not for a big-name mainstream author either. Every book I've reviewed, I have bought in the regular way, from Amazon or some other bookseller. Some of them were free, of course, but they were free to everyone who bought that day. Even if an author asks me to review their book, I will only agree if I buy it myself, and it's something I would have bought anyway. Now, I don't for one second claim any moral superiority by doing this, and you could argue that I'm making a virtue of necessity, since my bijou blog is well below the radar of any self-respecting publisher. The big cheese blogs attract hundreds or even thousands of unique visitors per day, I managed just five at the last count. But it does mean that I can guarantee my independence.

Another thing I insist on is to review everything I read - or attempt to read. Even if I don't finish a book, I give it 1 star and explain just why I abandoned it. If I hated it, I say why, because I think it's just as important to say what I didn't like as what I did like. That way, if I give a book 5 stars, it's because I thought it was something quite special (only 4% or so of the books I've read this year, in fact). There are some reviewers who give 5 stars to 75% of all the books they review. That's not so much a rating system as a whitewash. Even if they are incredibly selective, or incredibly easy to please, it's hard to see any value in such a system. Equally, reviewers who only write about books they liked, or books they finished, or who have a rating system where 6 or 7 is as low as any review goes, are distorting their opinions. If I see a review with a rating of 8 out of 10, that sounds pretty good, right? But not if it actually means it was just middling. Of course, the rating always has to be taken in conjunction with the review itself, but it's an instant guide - did the reviewer like it a lot, a little or not at all? If it doesn't tell a reader that, it's useless.

Then there are a great many review bloggers who won't touch self-published works. They say: I can get all the reading I want from the mainstream publishing houses, I know their books have been properly edited, I know they'll be of a professional standard, I'll probably enjoy them and besides, I don't have the time to trawl through a mountain of self-published dross to find the few gems. That's fine, no problem with any of that, but it does totally play into the hands of the publishers. Of course they don't want their tame reviewers looking at self-published books, they want them advertising their own catalogue, naturally.

As for those who say that all self-published books are rubbish - wrong, wrong, wrong. I'm only a sample of one, but in my experience the self-published books I've read have been virtually indistinguishable from traditionally published works in terms of quality, and can be far more original. However, I concede that my definition of quality may differ from another reviewer's, I'm ruthlessly selective in what I choose to read and I may also be biased towards self-publishers. I also came late to the pleasures of reading large amounts of fantasy, so I missed out on many of the classic works of the genre, which makes me less critical of derivative storylines (although even I roll my eyes when farm boys have to find a magic sword to fulfill a prophecy).

The best self-published books are as good as anything put out by the traditional publishing houses, but then many such authors strive to achieve the same level of presentation, by paying for the professional services a publisher would provide - editing and proof-reading, formatting, cover art and so on. Unfortunately not all self-published books are treated to this kind of polishing, and it's true that many feature numerous typos, grammatical errors, plot holes and dodgy formatting. Although a lot of readers actually don't much care about that, and are surprisingly tolerant of cardboard characters, hackneyed plotlines and implausible contrivances, many are put off by obvious amateurism. This means a lot of work evaluating potential reading material to eliminate everything below your personal threshold of readability.

This is where the blogs are an essential component of the whole publishing industry, both traditional and self-published. Bloggers put out their own opinion of whether a book is worth reading or not, and this is particularly useful for unknown authors. But - crucially - while bloggers who review only traditionally published books, particularly new releases, are serving the needs of the publishing industry, those who review both are addressing the needs of the reader. Most readers, I would suggest, don't care where a book comes from. Those who buy online or read mainly using ebook readers, as increasing numbers do, may not even know who published a particular book. The price is probably the only indication (self-published ebooks are typically half the price of mainstream books). Obviously, bloggers don't have to review self-published books, but those who do are providing a useful service for readers. Just as publishers who ignore the growth of self-publishing will eventually be sidelined, so too will bloggers.

The book world is changing at dizzying speed. The biggest publishers are behemoths locked into antiquated practices, with timescales measured in years, unable to respond quickly to the evolving marketplace, like giant oil tankers trying to slow down. Meanwhile millions of individual readers are making daily incremental adjustments to the new world - ordering online, buying ebook readers, downloading books when they want them, reading books on phones and tablets, effortlessly keeping up with the changes. Reviews have adjusted as well; the slow pace of newspaper and magazine reviewing has given way to instant online feedback via Amazon or Goodreads, and bloggers have taken that a stage further.

But for the reader, blogs are not the final answer. Each one is written by an individual, each has its own quirks and prejudices, its own selection and rating processes, its own blend of reviews, interviews, competitions and off-topic meanderings. Blogs by their nature make it hard to find older posts, and not all bloggers are good at maintaining an up-to-date index of reviews. But the Amazon-style free-for-all doesn't work either; for every thoughtful, detailed review there may be scores of less useful ones - too short, too glowing, too false, too paid for. The reader ends up spending increasing amounts of time trawling the online booksellers, reader sites and blogs to get an overview of opinions on books of interest. For me, as a reader, the gold standard is a detailed, honest, thoughtful review, which tells me both good and bad about a book; and if a reviewer found a book unreadable, I'd like to know that too.

In an ideal world, reviewers and readers would get their heads together and produce some central source of information - a repository of the best unbiased reviews, a super-blog, if you will. To be truly useful, it would have to be independent of the professional publishing houses, and also not subject to 'gaming' by clever self-publishers. That means that participating bloggers would need to disentangle themselves from the embrace of the big publishers and become fully autonomous. I fully understand why many long-established bloggers are reluctant to do that, and there's no doubt that their current relationship with the industry has worked well for some years now.

I'm not trying to change what bloggers do, or the decisions they make on what to review, how they write their reviews, or whether they should employ a rating system. My only objective here is to point out what seems to me to be obvious: that the choices of individual bloggers, made with the best of intentions and with perfectly good reasons, mostly work to the benefit of the publishing industry, and limit their usefulness to potential readers. Fortunately, readers are an astute bunch, and they're perfectly capable of judging the quality of the information presented to them, of checking multiple sources, of downloading samples to judge books directly, of getting together with other readers to exchange information. They also have the ability now to connect directly with authors, and cut out traditional publishers altogether.

Book review bloggers still have connections with both publishers and readers, but at present they are mostly facing the publishers, acting as unpaid advertising for the industry, whether they realise it or not. But it's book buyers who have the power now, and bloggers who realise that and realign themselves to serve the needs of readers first will undoubtedly survive the years of change better than those who resist.

[1] Justin's blog post is here.

[2] Westeros thread on Reviewers vs Honesty is here.

[Update] Ros Jackson of WarpcoreSF has a post about review ratings and context here. Because of her comments, I've added a 'Review Policy' page to this blog, and put my own ratings statistics therein.

[Further update] Justin has published a response to this essay here, to which many bloggers have added comments.

[Yet another update] Independently, Elly Zupko posted an open letter to book bloggers requesting a more open approach to self-published authors on her website here with a number of comments, plus a follow-up post.

5 comments:

  1. An excellent post that sums up a lot of my thoughts on the subject of the blogger/reader/publisher relationship.

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    1. Thanks - nice to know I'm not alone!

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  2. I've been publishing my ratings percentages on my site for a long time now, and I'd like it to be standard, rather like it's standard to have a review policy. At the moment I'm at about 21% for 5-star reviews, which seems quite generous but I'm picky about what I'll read in the first place.

    An even spread of ratings isn't an absolute guarantee of honesty, but it's useful because it gives you an idea of where a reviewer is coming from. For a lot of smaller bloggers especially, readers will be looking at their opinions without much or any context to qualify them.

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    1. That sounds like an excellent idea, at least for those reviewers who assign ratings. I'm less generous than you - only 6% get 5 stars (I like to save that for books which completely blow me away, one way or another).

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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