Tuesday 29 July 2008

Comment: The sustainability of online book reviews

Jonathan McCalmont has raised an interesting question about whether bloggers that review genre books online are perhaps being a little short-changed by publishers. He suggests that given the amount of time and effort that are involved in maintaining an active blog, publishers should perhaps be offering bloggers more than just ARCs. Gabe has also posted a thought-provoking article about the idea. I thought I'd add my own views to the mix...

Firstly, I feel we need some perspective here.

As much as bloggers may not like to admit it, we ultimately reach a very small percentage of genre readers. Probably less than 10% of fantasy fans actually read online blogs, and so the blogs don't really have any influence on books sales. Even a popular blog like Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, which attracts over 1000 visits a day, probably doesn't affect book sales much. If Pat gives a book a bad review, it certainly doesn't mean that 1000 people are now not going to buy that book. Using David Bilsborough as an example once again, his book got slated almost universally online but that doesn't appear to have really affected its sales that much.

So, why should publishers have to offer more than ARCs when in reality genre blogs don't really help their sales that much? I'm actually surprised that some publishers are happy to send out ARCs to blogs that only receive 15 hits a day (no offense intended here - we all have to start somewhere). Is the potential audience really worth the cost to the publisher? Personally I regard a free book as more than adequate reward for my time and effort. I've already saved a considerable amount of money by receiving ARCs rather than having to buy the books. Plus I often get the book months before it is published - for a genre fan like myself, that's another bonus.

Gabe has suggested that by posting reviews and interviews, we're performing a service for publishers. I'm not sure I agree. I run this blog because I love the genre and I enjoy writing reviews and features. Perhaps I am by default providing a service for the publishers, but I certainly don't think of it like that and it's not the reason I do it. I doubt the publishers seriously view it like that either.

I think one of the reasons why compensation beyond ARCs has been mooted is because many bloggers receive unrequested books from publishers, and thus feel pressured into reading books they don't want to read simply because they've been sent a copy. In these cases, I understand why the free book may not feel like suitable compensation for the time invested.

I think the solution here for bloggers is simple: don't read the books that you don't want to read. If you've not requested a book that has been sent to you, then you have no obligation to read it. I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like, so I'm very careful about which books I read. I turn down must books that are offered to me because I want to avoid exactly the sort of situation I've mentioned above.

Overall, I personally feel that the time and effort I have so far invested in this blog has been more than compensated by the free books I've received (not that I care much about compensation - I started this blog just for fun and it always will be just for fun).

The bottom line, I feel, is that perhaps bloggers who feel they should receive more from publishers in return for their efforts are forgetting why they started blogging in the first place, and are making unrealistic demands that don't tally with the actual influence they really wield.

As always, feel free to give your own views.


Todd Newton said...

It's not out of the realm of possibility that people are truly being greedy but blogging can certainly feel like "work" from time to time, especially with the type of situation you mentioned. I only started posting book reviews after you did and, even then, it's mostly just for my own edification. I don't really expect that many people read them - there are plenty on Amazon for all of the books I post about.

No, the thing to really remember is that blogging has always been a personal thing. People who blog for money should call it something else. Just because a person's blog is topical doesn't mean they all of a sudden deserve some kind of special reward. That's what I think, anyway.

Mark Newton said...

Some very interesting points there.

Being a publisher, who sends out plenty of books to bloggers and reviewers, it is always good simply to get people talking about books. It's a community, after all, so a little word of mouth is wonderful, of course. But it's certainly no exact science. There are books that get very little review coverage that sell very well. And books that get tons of blogosphere exposure, and struggle to sell. But what we do find especially useful, is when we can use a review quote from a prominent blog to go on a future book jacket, and that might help sales a little. Whilst I love the online community, in retail terms its important to realise that it's a minority influence on the total book-buying public.

The most important thing on top of having a good book is getting a good cover, and getting your books into retailers where the majority are bought.

As for publishers offering bloggers more? For fun, take that to the logical conclusion, and only the largest publishers - who offered the most what, money, jewels, fast cars? - would get their books reviewed, surely? Which skews things totally, and effectively the blog would be nothing more than an advert, responding only to certain publishers who coughed up.

I can see that many bloggers put huge amounts of effort into things, and superb that they do. Thing is, there's always another blog (or national newspaper) that will review for free, for the love of it. Put some simple free market economics into the machine, and I can't see this getting off the ground.

I feel there's some issue to be had, I just don't think that's a valid solution. Worth bringing it to attention.

Mihai A. said...

Dear James,
I have the same answer as I expressed on asoiaf forum and on Gabe's blog. I hope you don't mind.

Getting payed for reviews sounds interesting, but ...

Well, I think the majority of the reviewers start their blogs out of passion rather than interest. So it starts as a hobby. I know that the amount of work to run a blog can be pretty demanding, I've seen it after I started my blog. And the time for reading it descreased farther after I've started. But I feel rewarded when I get review copies and never thought of getting paid (even though I cut from my free time too, I like it because reading is my passion).

Also, I think that all the reviewers have a proportion of positive reviews that beats from far that of the negative ones. And that is because I choose what to read. In the majority of time I get review copies for books I'm already interested on and if I get others it can take a time until I read it. And when I write a review I try to say something nice about that work, not because I get it for free but in respect for the work made by the author. But I'm not under preasure to write a positive one, if I don't find any positive aspects I don't write any. So I get to the part of the article with the preasure. I don't feel it, I don't get deadlines. I think that the publishers know that this is a hobby and don't preasure the reviewers about the books that receive. It can feel like preasure, but like I said I didn't feel it so far.

But if the reviewer gets paid for his reviews this situations can change I think. I believe that in that case the publishers can put a deadline for a review, so here comes preasure, and I think that then they can demand a positive review. So the positive reviews won't come from the choices made by reviewers, but it will be posibile to come from the demand of the publishers. So I believe that a payment coming from the publishers for reviews can be tricky and difficult. It can change the situation of a reviewer totally.

The idea of a network, sponsored by publishers, but one that can make her own money, with ads, donations and other such stuffs, can be interesting. I believe that such a network can gather the top of the reviews, pay the reviewers and keep the honesty on the opinions.

Actually, I realized I have something more. It is good to see Mark's opinions because he represents the other part involved in this article, the editors. And I liked his opinions and they I find them always welcomed.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Great points. I agree on all accounts and could tally up some more :)...but you got the gist of it: we review for fun and it should stay that way; any kind of attention we receive from publishers is a bonus (and lets be fair here - nobody actually demands a positive review).

Anonymous said...

James, I would disagreed with a few things in Gabe's argument, though particularly that you are providing a service for publishers. That would only be true if all reviews are positive - what publisher wants a negative review? And if all reviews are positive, what is the point in a review blog? You might as well just print cover and blurb...

Which feeds into the second area of disagreement: payment. If you accept payment, you are beholden to the one who pays. That compromises independence and damages integrity. Even if bloggers would argue that the cash doesn't affect their view, few would believe them - that's why there are stringent rules for MPs on payments.

Review blogs like yours, Gabe's, FBC and The Book Swede among many others I read are valuable because your integrity is trusted and your views respected. Respect doesn't pay the bills, I know, but it does help you sleep better.

James said...

TD: Completely agree. Blogging can be a bit of a grind at times, but ultimately we blog because of personal choic, of a love for the genre.

Mark: Thanks for your input, very interesting to hear the argument from the other side of the fence as it were. And I agree that if publishers started paying bloggers, it would just skew everything.

Dark Wolf + Thrinidir: Couldn't have said it better myself. ;)

Mark: Thanks for your own input. Totally agree on the 'service' front and also that payment would just completely compromise integrity.