Fuzzy Thoughts on Promotion and Book Blogging

I’ll start with three quotations:

1. In an interesting post called “The Reviewer/Promoter Hat“, Mrs. Giggles wrote,

I found myself wondering why do reviewers in the online romance community sometimes feel the need to wear the promoter’s hat? … Reviews are meant for readers. I know authors have muddled this concept by telling each other that reviews play a part in the promotion of a book … Which brings me to my question: why do people who review also want to act as interviewer, promoter, and best friend to the people whose books they review? Why even review? Why not just write about the book in a casual manner without even using the word review, because at least that will defuse some of the criticisms leveled at those blogs?

2. At All About Romance’s blog, Blythe posted about promotion in blogging, putting AAR’s position this way:

We love to promote great new books, but that’s not our job…at least not exactly. … our job is really reviewing, not promotion.  Our goal in reviewing a book is to help the reader decide whether it’s worth buying…whether we liked it or not.  I’ve had people tell me they rushed right out and bought something that I’ve recommended.  I’ve also had them tell me they rushed out and bought something I hated, or not bought something I loved because they could tell they wouldn’t love it.  I’m fine with all those reactions.

3. At Romancing the Blog, Malle Vallik, Director of Digital Content & Interactivity for Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., offered some tips for authors on using blog commenting to promote your book, which include: “Comment on several blogs every day, if you can. ” and

The experts state that in order to be successful you need to be authentic and genuine; you have to think more about other’s needs than your own; you should be everywhere everyday BUT you need to be careful that you are not obviously or shamelessly self promoting.

What you want to accomplish is to come across as a smart, nice, genuine person who likes readers and books. You never know what might develop from such a reputation. Readers who read the review but then read your comment may decide they like you and want to try your book for themselves.

Reaction to the recent FTC guidelines from book bloggers was swift and severe. I agree with many of the criticisms — the most serious being that the guidelines are so broad that they may unconstitutionally restrict speech, the second most serious the unfairness of treating bloggers differently than print media. This post is not to defend the FTC, but to defend the legitimacy of a certain way of looking at what book bloggers do.

The FTC shined a light on something that makes us uncomfortable: our role as cogs in the publishing promotion machine. Book bloggers got annoyed at being lumped in with quick dry paint and dog food, as the AAR post makes clear. No, book bloggers insisted, we are having a conversation. What we do is different from what the natural headache remedy people are doing.

Book bloggers tend to see themselves as fellow consumers and have a hard time thinking of themselves in the ways the FTC does. They kept insisting on differences. For example, a natural headache remedy can seriously hurt you, what harm can a book review do? Others claimed that the FTC rules are an insult to readers, who can very well decide for themselves whether to buy a book, and hardly need Big Government protection on this matter. Still others said that if book buyers are dumb enough to be fooled by shill reviewers, then they get what they deserve. Many were outraged by the suggestion that free books are somehow payment for positive reviews, pointing out the many negative reviews book bloggers write.

For me, it all starts with a simple question: Why would an author or a publisher give me a book and not ask me to pay for it?

The answer is clear. They give “free” books as part of a campaign to promote the book. This is not about whether bloggers write honest reviews: some do, some don’t, and the honesty/dishonesty line doesn’t track the paid for/freebie line. There are too many reasons to be less than honest in a review to list, and getting free books is only one of them, and probably less common than some of the others, such as fear of angering someone, hope of making someone happy, friendship with the author, or hating the author. (I mean dishonesty here, as in, deliberately misleading readers as to one’s actual opinion about a book, not bias, although all of these things may contribute to bias.).

Being an honest blogger doesn’t make your book any less free. If you were a promoter (and by this I mean anyone whose job it is to get the word out about a book, whether an author, editor, marketer, etc.), and you had three choices: (1) no mention on a blog, (2) negative mention on a blog, or (3) positive mention on a blog, which would be the worst? I am thinking (1). Even a negative review gets word out about a product. It is better that people hear bad things about it than hear nothing at all, which is why promoters take a chance even with critical bloggers. (in this, I diverge from the FTC, which sees negative reviews as nonpromotional.).

Most of us bloggers are small potatoes. But isn’t it true that even a few thousand (hundred?) books can make the difference between getting and failing to get another contract? Wouldn’t you do everything you could to sell those extra few thousand books, even if it meant visiting 20 blogs and answering the same set of questions again and again? While I am sure there are lots of reasons you see greater numbers of aspiring, nearly published, and newly published authors in Romanceland than you see of bigshots, as Ms. Vallik’s series on RtB shows, their need for this kind of “small potatoes promotion” is surely one of them.

Mrs. Giggles’s point about the amount of free press bloggers give to authors is a good one. Many of us have noted the rise in contests, author interviews, and other posts that are a promoter’s dream, all being done unpaid, by book bloggers. In some ways, the wave of summer blogger manifestos reflected an attempt to come to terms with that recognition.

Some bloggers may write false positive reviews to get free books. Some blogs are nothing but promo after squeeing promo. Some are dishonest, some are not (some people really do squee over anything and everything). But with the rise of the web, more and more consumers are relying on comments from other consumers before buying anything. And the FTC is trying to find a way to alert those consumers to relationships between bloggers and industry which create an appearance of a conflict of interest, whether or not one actually exists. From the point of view of industry, and from my personal point of view as well, there really is no difference between kinds of romance bloggers (honest or dishonest), or between book bloggers and dog food bloggers.

Sure, when we write a book review, we are not claiming to know how this product will work for you. But, at least some of the time, we are saying something about a product to potential consumers, who may use what we say as part of their deliberations in purchasing this or similar products. And it is at least in part because book promoters see us this way that they give us “free” books, and visit our blogs, and follow us on twitter.

Social media experts are very blunt about the need to make the most of these relationships. Think of Ms. Vallik’s language above. It’s not enough to pretend. You have to be “authentic”, to use one of the buzzwords:

The Tools – the Technology. They only do one thing. They enable conversation. And conversations help build relationships between people. And Social Media is about relationships. People want to do business with people they trust. And people don’t trust strangers. So once again Relationships Matter. People Matter. -Erica O’Grady, Feb 18, 2008

I’m not sure whether authors are supposed to cultivate trusting relationships in order to mine them for promotional support, or cultivate promotional relationships they can then turn into trusting relationships, or whether, as seems most likely, it is all supposed to happen simultaneously. (If you are detecting some skepticism here, you are detecting aright. I won’t turn this into a rant against “social media gurus”, though, because others have done this much effectively and humorously than I possibly could).

The FTC guidelines clearly suck in achieving their purpose, but the whole discussion raises the question of overlapping relationships between bloggers and industry, which is a good one to ask.

I don’t mean for this to come off as anti-author. For one thing, many, if not most, authors just want to write, and want to sell their books so they can keep writing, and all of this promotion is not exactly a happy addition to their job description. For another, most authors would be online talking about romance novels whether or not they ever wrote one, because they’re fans too.

And for their part, bloggers are not always just “pure fans” blogging “for the love of the genre”. They often get other things from this deal, too, such as:

–increased web traffic, especially good if their blog is a means to grow their own career, in journalism, marketing, or social media guruship, for example.
–increased status in their fandom
–contact with published authors and editors for aspiring author bloggers

So … am I saying we are all just using each other? No, of course not. Many of our real life social interactions are often overdetermined in just this way — ever dated a coworker? Gone golfing with your doctor? Had a student wait on you at a restaurant?. In Romland, the promotional stuff can, and often does, coexist with non-instrumental interaction, i.e. genuinely liking and enjoying each other, valuing each other, respecting each other, and wanting each other to do well.

And even if mutual use is all it is, that wouldn’t be a problem as long as we are consenting to it, and respecting each other at the same time. As a wise homo interruptus once wrote:

To use is necessary and if you can’t be used, then you are useless.
-Kanye West, Thank You and You’re Welcome

Being a part of the promotional machine is not something only weak, bad, or dishonest book bloggers do. We all do it. Sure, from my point of view, I am merely talking about the books I read with other readers. But from industry’s point of view (and sometimes also from my own), the strength of my speech can be harnessed to achieve other effects. The fact that we don’t intend all the consequences of our actions doesn’t necessarily make us less responsible for them. If the social media experts are being totally upfront about using informal web 2.0 relationships to sell books, then I don’t see why we can’t also be honest about this aspect of book blogging, talk about it, and try to maximize benefits and minimize harms that may result from it.

This is why I like it when questions are asked about ethics in reviewing, or about whether sidebar ads constitute an endorsement of the product by the blogger. These kinds of questions reveal a recognition of the fact that “free” books are not free. Book bloggers are not mere consumers but are also participating, in their small way, in the promotional aspect of the industry. As such, we may have some responsibilities that someone who buys her copy of a book and reads it in her living room does not. One of those may be looking out for conflicts of interest, whether in reality or appearance. Another may be thinking more critically about the relationship between blogger and promoter that the giving of the physical book represents. Another may be thinking hard about it and deciding these potatoes really are too small to get worked up about. I honestly don’t know, but if nothing else comes out of the FTC mess, I hope even more discussion of the complex overlapping relationships that constitute — for worse and for better — Romanceland ensues.

58 responses

  1. Sooooooo (I’m going slowly to keep the top of my head glued on), how do you think your analysis applies to academic publishers distributing review copies to scholars?

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  2. See, romanceland is not the only world with there is fandom. I have seen a great deal of it lately in the YA world on the YA blogs also. The YA blogs have gone crazy with reviewing YA books from publishers like Little Brown and Company and Scholastic who see how great book review blogs are with reading a book, reviewing it and giving PR to authors.

    From my point of view, I read books that I receive from pubs and authors as well as the ones I buy and take out from the library. If a book has an impression on me, whether it is a great book or one that sucks big time, regardless of how I got it, I will post my opinions about it. And whether I have been given a book or get it from somewhere else, I will try to be as honest as I can why I enjoyed reading it or didn’t.

    Why can’t someone’s book review blogs be like review sites such as AAR, Romance Junkies or even the Romantic Times? Why are these sites so excluded from XYZ blog who also reviews and receives book from whatever source these other sites do?

    I blog and review to help with my writing skills because I am trying to become a published author. For some reason there are those out there who think this is wrong. Well, if you don’t like it, don’t visit my blog. And hello, if I can go far with my blog and make something out of it, I am going to.

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  3. A lot to wade in on here – so I’ll just keep it brief.

    For me, it’s about objectivity. I don’t really give a flying fig where a reviewer gets the book in question, I care about if that reviewer can be objective. Because I’ll be honest. When I see bloggers playing kissie-suck-up face with authors online (Twitter, on blogs, whereever) and then said reviewer gives that author a SQUEEEEEEEE! BEST BOOK EVER! review, I’m skeptical.

    Sorry, just am.

    Maybe it is the best book ever. Maybe the reviewer is objective. But I see the kissie-suck-up face going on, and I’m not likely to take any of it seriously.

    Sorry. I’m just not.

    Will the FTC guidelines change any of this? I’m not sure how they can. I mean, I’m still confused on how the hell they expect to enforce them. That’s where I keep getting hung up.

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  4. I don’t see the problem with bloggers reviewing books that they have received for free. Movie reviewers don’t pay to see the movies they review – they go to free screenings. Theatre reviewers get the best seats in the house for free and it doesn’t seem to have an impact on the reviewer’s opinion. So why are book bloggers held to a different standard?

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  5. I’ve noticed that people have been sticking in this extra info lately – some sort of as an anti-FTC statement, (like, look what I’m forced to do!) but actually, I’ve been enjoying knowing it when I read posts (I got this book for free, this person is my CP, other things.) It adds a certain dimension to reviews.

    I’m not sure whether authors are supposed to cultivate trusting relationships in order to mine them for promotional support, or cultivate promotional relationships they can then turn into trusting relationships, or whether, as seems most likely, it is all supposed to happen simultaneously.

    I sort of stress out about this, actually, as a blogger & soon-to-be-author. I feel uncomfortable with the idea of trading on relationships, but that’s the space I appear to be rumbling into–surrounded by book bloggers with a book coming out. In both RL and the blogosphere, if knowing me makes people want to read my book, I don’t have a problem with that, even if it’s out of morbid curiosity. But I’d hate for people to feel compelled to give false positive reviews. I’ve toyed with the idea of sending out an email about it, like, feel free to recuse yourself or say if you hate it. Lord knows it’s not for everyone. But then, is that even effective? Will it seem like just another layer of bullshit? wink wink, nudge nudge, it’s okay if you’re meh or hate it.

    In that sense, I’m glad for the FTC thing in that it seems to want to promote integrity because it encourages a larger picture. I love this book, but she’s my BFF buddy! I even love her shopping lists! I’m sort of with Phedre from Kushiel’s Dart – what was it she always said? something like, All knowledge is worth having.

    I do have problems with those rules though. Like how they don’t apply to the biggies. As a freelancer who has been assigned to write magazine articles as part of how I make my living, I promise, advertising sways content surprisingly often–what things are covered, how things are covered, where there is silence. I wish the rules would make newspapers and magazines cite related advertising dollar figures at the end of every story.

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  6. @Carolyn Crane: “I sort of stress out about this, actually, as a blogger & soon-to-be-author. I feel uncomfortable with the idea of trading on relationships, but that’s the space I appear to be rumbling into–surrounded by book bloggers with a book coming out.”

    I’ve been living in that space for about 5 years now, and I still don’t know how to feel about it. When the first book came out, I saw comments like, “People are just saying they like her book because people like her blog.” So you wonder: does that mean I should stop blogging so that the reviews seem more legitimate? But if I stop blogging and no one knows who I am, or has a reason — however personal — to pick up that first book, does that mean I’m going to kill my career? And, what if I really LIKE these people in this community, and are friends with them? Should I cut off those personal connections? Because for every person that I twitter with online because I like them, there’s going to be someone else seeing that interaction as kissy-suck-up.

    But, yeah — sending out an e-mail that says, “It’s okay if you hate my book,” seems really questionable, too. Hey, I’m giving you permission to dislike my book! Sigh.

    So I also appreciate that the FTC blowup has led to more discussions of transparency (even if I don’t love everything about the ruling.) More so even than whether a book is free or not, I think that relationships probably influence reviewers (which can be troubling even if it works in my favor). Not that they are dishonest, as Jessica stated above, but that bias probably does enter into it. Someone might *want* to like a book by an online acquaintance, and look for more to like in it. That doesn’t mean they’ll lie if they don’t find it.

    So transparency helps a lot. “I’m twitter with author X….” Readers can determine on their own how to take that.

    “I honestly don’t know, but if nothing else comes out of the FTC mess, I hope even more discussion of the complex overlapping relationships that constitute — for worse and for better — Romanceland ensues.”

    Or, this just sums it up for me, too. If nothing else, I like that these discussions are taking place (even if I end up feeling really, really uncomfortable after them.)

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  7. I am writing a long-ass post on this, but the short version amounts to this: the FTC guidelines are BAD because, at the very least, they claim a whole realm of non-commercial speech and magically convert it to commercial speech so the FTC can regulate it. Commercial speech is MUCH more weakly protected than non-commercial speech, and an enormous swath of stuff the FTC has swept up into its regs is or is very close to *core protected* speech — that is, speech that gets the highest level of constitutional protection. So it’s an inversion trick — what should be MOST protected is being autocratically redesignated as speech that should be governmentally regulated.

    That more people aren’t enraged, afraid, horrified, up in arms, etc. about this astounds and amazes me. IMO it’s comparable to the FTC saying they can come into your house and search your bookshelves for free books, just to make sure you’re honestly disclosing. Even if you think bloggers should disclose free books, the implications of what the FTC is trying to do here are MONUMENTAL in Constitutional law terms. Monumentally bad and dangerous, that is. IMO it’s not even constitutionally sound, but the very fact that they’re *trying* to do it really frustrates me. So all these assurances about how it’s not really book bloggers they’re going to pursue does not comfort me one little bit. They should not be able to claim power they do not have in the first place, and we should not support their attempts to do so.

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    • Robin,

      The FTC is a red herring. I shouldn’t even have mentioned them, because I don’t agree with their guidelines, and thought I said so in the post.

      I guess it boils down to two questions:

      1. Do you acknowledge that there is a difference between and buying a book from a bookstore on the one hand, and having a publisher send you a book to review on your blog, on the other, and, if yes, how do you cash it out? Is it merely a distinction without a difference?

      2. Do you acknowledge that bloggers can have conflicts of interest as a result of relations with industry? If so, is there anything anyone can do to help protect consumers, and what should that be? I sincerely doubt federally required disclosure is the answer, but, unlike professional journalists, bloggers don’t have a professional community to enforce norms, a board to censure members, or even a code of ethics to sign up for (not really). And yeah, I do think most people know the NYTimes editors get free books and movie tickets, while most people do not realize Suzie Blogger gets her book for free. I certainly didn’t, and Jane’s semi-recent post on how to get free books features dozens of commenters with blogs who did not even realize this was common practice. I also had no idea how close relations were between book bloggers and authors and editors. Clearly we have a ways to go on self-enforced disclosure.

      Lil — I didn’t say that bloggers should not receive free books. I said we should think about our role in promotion, which is symbolized most concretely and tangibly by these free books, but which comes in many different forms.

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  8. Way too much to absorb … I need to think this through but Thank You for taking the bull by the horns. One tiny little RL example though from me: I was given a free copy of the latest book by Claudia Dain (I had entered a give a quote/be eligible for a freebie contest) and quite enjoyed reading it. A few weeks later though, I was participating in a thread about events in books that take you out of a story and that book came to mind (because historicals, to me, altho of course they’re FICTION, still have to follow some rules). Long story short, I really couched my comments in a way I might not of had I not received it for free. Totally my problem, in my head, I know, but it really made me understand some of these incipient problems … and frankly problems that have always been there (go look at the Mrs. Giggles comment thread) and just don’t seem to go away.

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    • Lynne — er, yes, that is what the RtB column suggests and what many social media folks suggest. I wasn’t sure how to take your reply. Are you being sarcastic, as in “no shit”, or critical, as in “that doesn’t work”?

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  9. To me, there’s no such thing as complete objectivity and lack of bias on part of anybody reviewing/commenting on anything. Whether or not, the reviewer was given a freebie or paid money for it, the bias can come in infinite different ways from reviewer’s background having nothing to do with product under review. So how to judge what was core reason behind review as worded?

    Also, everything works on relationships. People thrive on relationships. And of course, they work in favor of people/events/object we like.

    What ultimately matters here is INTEGRITY of reviewer and track record of reviewing. Whether reviewer is objective or not can be judged from his/her history of rereviewing, rather than a single instance or about a single person/event.

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  10. “Comment on several blogs every day, if you can. ”

    I can, but I just don’t have that much to say. (And sometimes no patience to formulate what I might have said in a way I want it said.)

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  11. 2. Do you acknowledge that bloggers can have conflicts of interest as a result of relations with industry? If so, is there anything anyone can do to help protect consumers, and what should that be?

    Yes. Absolutely yes. I declined to review a novel that was written by the owner/editor of the small press who asked for my manuscript. To me, that was a clear conflict of interest, no matter how much that person would have liked having the press, even if it was a tiny blog like mine. Is there a way to protect the consumers? Well, I could talk about integrity for all I’d like but I’d just be repeating a lot of what’s already been said. Personally, I decline to review anything where there is a personal connection of any variety between me and the author. (There was one exception before I set that standard for myself.) Otherwise I’ve always been in the practice of disclosing when I receive books for review. To me, that’s my integrity and that’s the alpha and omega of the appropriate disclosure.

    Your post was a bit of an eye opener. Although I haven’t been ignorant that reviewing copies from publishers makes me a part of their promotional machine, I don’t think I’d ever thought of it in terms so concrete. It’s my opinion that I provide critique and commentary – reviews, otherwise – and that my site is not for promotional purposes, especially since about 90% of what I review are books I seek out for myself – purchases, library, borrowed, and et cedera – and I don’t do author interviews. It makes me feel a lot dirtier to realize that I’m perceived as a part of a marketing scheme.

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  12. Jessica: I guess I’m just surprised that you, coming from an academic background, would be so comfortable talking about books as almost pure commercial products. I don’t know if there’s a more incestuous environment than ours in academia, and beyond the fact that scholars who retain close relationships are often commenting on each other’s work, there are the books we get from publishers — free books — accompanied by the hope that we will use them in our classrooms or our own work, or that we will review them positively.

    So why does blogging in the realm of commercial fiction seem to change the landscape so drastically? Why are people so comfortable focusing on the *product* aspect of books in this sense (although some of the same folks will insist on the artistic value and integrity of these same books in other contexts)?

    I just don’t think that a reader/blogger who waxes rhapsodic about a book they may have received gratis from a publisher (and interestingly, the publisher does not even categorize ARCs as books) is equivalent to a person who has received a one month supply of dog food in the hope that they will review it positively. Although let me also say that I’m not sure even in that second case that the food should be considered payment unless it was part of an explicit agreement between the company and the individual for a positive review.

    I also view with frustrated amusement the idea (and I’m not talking about anyone specific here, just airing responses to many different conversations and posts and comments) that a publication like the New York Times or PW or RT is more legitimate because their reviewers are paid. Does anyone remember how Laurie Gold’s review of that Jennifer Armintrout book was changed *substantially* without Gold’s permission — converted into an overt recommendation, in fact. And the world of lit fic is *almost* as incestuous as academia, with authors reviewing friends and acquaintances all the time. So why the veneer of legitimacy there but not in genre fiction? Is it a reflection that even genre readers do not value the books as ‘good enough’ somehow? Or is it a strange form of elitism, in which we do not trust the voice of the “masses” as independent and legitimate? It seems these discussions used to be focused on Amazon reviews, and now they’ve shifted to the new vox populi, the blog.

    If someone told me they got a coupon for a local restaurant and went because it was a good deal, only to discover they really loved the restaurant, should I doubt their endorsement because of the coupon? My answer is no, and it’s the same with free books. I have no problem disclosing that I received an ARC gratis, but where I get really really really frustrated is with the idea that such disclosure authenticates my review in some way. Because I can tell you that venues that do not disclose are not necessarily more independent or legitimate than my reviews, even though they may give the overt or incidental appearance of independence.

    Ultimately I think we reviewers live or die by the reputations we build *through our reviews* and those reputations are made, as with all reviews, by people who read them. I don’t want book blogging to be defined by the ‘lowest common denominator’ whatever that may be, and I don’t think we should be so eager to embrace the idea that there needs to be some sort of authenticity policing, unless we extend it to every coupon, rebate, free item, promo swag, and the like that each of us receive for anything we might say we like. Because here’s the thing: almost everyone does promo for virtually every endeavor of which they are a part or for something they like, whether that be a blog or a book or charity fundraising.

    Publishers send ARCs pretty indiscriminately; it is, in fact, more anomalous that someone will receive one book in isolation from a publisher, unless they have signed up for some publisher preview program. But in either case the norm is that publishers send out ARCs hoping that they will get publicity for them. That book reviews may be viewed by publishers as part of that publicity does not impugn their general independence any more than a book offered to an academic in the hopes that the book will be used in a class impugns the scholar’s integrity and independence, IMO. I believe that you’ve got two systems that work on parallel tracks, even if they sometimes seem to work together. And I know for myself that I review a greater diversity of books than I would otherwise if I don’t have to purchase them all — that, in fact, I am MORE objective in that regard.

    If someone feels they are influenced by a free book, then maybe they shouldn’t write a review, or perhaps they just want to make that comment. BUT even if they don’t, I would prefer losing 5.99 on a book purchase than to endorse a purely commercial view of books and book reviewing, especially one where the so-called gold standard (NYTBR) is probably the LEAST distanced in terms of relationships between authors and “reviewers.”

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  13. I guess it boils down to two questions:

    1. Do you acknowledge that there is a difference between and buying a book from a bookstore on the one hand, and having a publisher send you a book to review on your blog, on the other, and, if yes, how do you cash it out? Is it merely a distinction without a difference?

    2. Do you acknowledge that bloggers can have conflicts of interest as a result of relations with industry? If so, is there anything anyone can do to help protect consumers, and what should that be?

    Jessica, I think #2 is of significance, but I’m honestly not sure about #1. I mean, my first response to the FTC’s new policy was to suggest to my co-bloggers that we go back to buying our own books, as we did on Dear Author before we started receiving free ARCs (I was there in them thar days) . My problem is not with disclosing at the time of the review on Dear Author, but rather, that I now feel much more constrained from chiming in with my positive opinion about a book I liked on message board threads and comment threads at other blogs.

    I really do think my approach to reviewing has not changed as a result of getting free ARCs (It may help that I have Jane as a go between). Take for example my recent DNF review of Megan Hart’s No Greater Pleasure. We received a free ARC of the book, but that didn’t stop me from posting that I didn’t finish reading it and sharing the reasons why.

    OTOH, I do agree about conflicts of interest. This is the reason why I do disclose my relationships with my critique partners when I feel it is relevant to a post or discussion.

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  14. I have to agree with Robin on this, completely. I see your train of thought here, Jessica, but anyone who expects there to be no relationship between creators and reviewers in the arts is not only being completely unrealistic, but has no sense of history. Do you suppose Baudelaire pondered his place in the cogs of promotional machinery when he wrote about Manet? Let’s get real here: there has always been a close relationship between artists and the people who write about their work, probably because the reviewers are often artists themselves. To me, it seems only natural. What kind of squicks me out, personally, is when the businesses and corporations who make money from distributing the art try to sway reviewers with things like free trips and other swag in addition to an copy of the movie/book/whatever for review (something that I know has happened to big movie review sights like Rotten Tomatoes–of course, they’re not bound by these new FTC regs). That is definitely an example of someone trying to buy someone off for the case of a positive review. But it doesn’t sound like any of the book publishers have been doing this with book bloggers.

    In any case, I don’t care about the relationship with book bloggers and authors/publishers. I don’t think it’s bad; and furthermore, I honestly don’t think it matters if it screws up one’s “objectivity.” You might have noticed that I used the term art in the previous paragraph instead of product–that’s because books aren’t reviewed as products, they’re reviewed as art, which is completely UNobjective. A review of a book is, by definition an opinion. When you “review” something like a couch, you have a list of things you think a couch should do/provide, and these things can pretty much be objectively rated. You definitely don’t talk about the deeper meaning of the couch and how the couch made you cry at the end because it was so meaningful. So I have to disagree vehemently with your statement that reviewing books is the same as reviewing dog food–it ain’t. And the assumption that it is, is probably what started this whole misguided regulation by the FTC in the first place–unless you’re of the school that believes book bloggers are being targeted by the FTC to see if they can regulate web 2.0 publishing.

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  15. My thoughts on this are much fuzzier than Jessica’s, but boil down to one main point:

    I do care about the relationship between publishers/authors/promotion and bloggers. Do I think that a blogger receiving a free book invalidates a review? Not automatically, or even usually, but it is certainly information that I appreciate having since it allows me to form my own opinion on the objectivity of the blogger’s opinion. And as someone who views herself as essentially an outsider who drops in and out of the whole book blogging universe, my observations over the last few years is that book-blogging-dom is a very great deal more incestuous than most individuals would care to admit. So yes, I appreciate the disclosure of relationships, freebies, etc. I have no particular opinion on the merits of the FTC’s action, although it does seem a bit like overkill, but it has been interesting to see how many review sites I visit to get book recommendations do routinely get those freebies.

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  16. You trigger a lot of thoughts here Jessica and I can’t articulate or explore them without heading into draft, revision, polish mode. Not what you’re looking for. I will however, ask another question….

    Is there really a question about whether or not blog readers can discern promotion from opinion?

    The answer could be a resounding yes, but I’d be hard pressed to swallow it.

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  17. Excellent post!

    I think a lot of promotion from publishers can be pretty scattershot, and publicists come and go. For example, I STILL receive free books from a couple of publishers, and I have not been a reviewer for any publication for at least 3-4 years. I even emailed the publishers and let them know I wasn’t reviewing any more. But I keep getting the occasional book. I think it’s less trouble for them to send out another book, even if they don’t think it will be reviewed, than to bother removing me from their doubtless huge reviewer list. For that reason, I doubt reviewers will be hunted down if they don’t review when they received a book. So I don’t think of a book as “payment” for a review.

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  18. Coming from both an academic and artistic background, my opinion inclines towards Robin’s and heidenkind’s. As Robin says, in academia, readers/writers/editors/reviewers are largely the same group of people, because they are the only ones interested in the specialized knowledge such books contain. And academic presses send out LOTS of review copies, in the hope that the book will get reviewed and thus brought to the attention of many more potential buyers. I’m used to that, I suppose, so it doesn’t bother me. It also seems to work pretty well. Plus I agree that fiction has different rules anyway; it’s art, as much as it is commodity.

    I don’t think book reviews can possibly be “objective,” because they are about taste and preference, which are inherently subjective. We all know that a book works for some readers and not others, which is why many of us who read reviews pay more attention to the description of the book and less to the opinion, unless it’s a reviewer whose opinion we’ve learned to “trust” (because it matches our own, not because that reviewer is more honest, more fair, or whatever).

    I’m more concerned about the awkward position that authors are being put in, with the pressure to promote themselves using social networking tools like blogs, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter — tools that many of us just use for socializing. I can understand where Meljean is coming from, because it must get uncomfortable. There are several authors whose blogs I read and comment on, and whose Twitter feeds I follow and respond to, and I’m sure that when I praise one of their books, there’s probably someone else who sees that as kissy-face fan girl squee. I don’t see much of a way around that, given the conflation of the promotional and the personal that new media creates — there’s always been some of that in the arts, as heidenkind says, but the new networking tools make it possible for many more readers/audience members to get involved.

    This conversation are important to have, IMO. I could wish it hadn’t been started by the FTC regulations, but thinking and talking about these issues may be one way to bring something positive out of what I believe was a poorly thought-out decision. Wait, did I just say that a government agency made a poor decision? Does that surprise, well, anyone?

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  19. Robin wrote:

    Jessica: I guess I’m just surprised that you, coming from an academic background, would be so comfortable talking about books as almost pure commercial products.

    I don’t see them as merely or only commercial products, but, in some sense, that are that. I don’t see how the artistic nature of books somehow takes them out of the commercial realm altogether.

    Is it not possible to see book as both a product to be bought and sold, something people produce to earn money, and also as art?

    I don’t know if there’s a more incestuous environment than ours in academia, and beyond the fact that scholars who retain close relationships are often commenting on each other’s work, there are the books we get from publishers — free books — accompanied by the hope that we will use them in our classrooms or our own work, or that we will review them positively.

    I think academics should disclose not only gratis books but also significant relationships with commercial sponsors of research. So, your claim that my views are drastically different when it comes to academia is not correct.

    In fact, the reason the issue is a hot button one for me is precisely the corrupting effects and outright fraud in medical research, teaching, and clinical practice enabled by commercial relationships in my main field, bioethics.

    I’ll say again, as I did in my post, that the disclosure requirements should not be ridiculously broad, impossible to implement, and impossible to enforce. I expect we will see FTC clarification on that.

    I just don’t think that a reader/blogger who waxes rhapsodic about a book they may have received gratis from a publisher (and interestingly, the publisher does not even categorize ARCs as books) is equivalent to a person who has received a one month supply of dog food in the hope that they will review it positively.

    Really? Because I see it as exactly the same. The dog food maker and book publisher are both using word of mouth marketing. I did not see publishers offering me free books before I had a blog.

    I also view with frustrated amusement the idea (and I’m not talking about anyone specific here, just airing responses to many different conversations and posts and comments) that a publication like the New York Times or PW or RT is more legitimate because their reviewers are paid. Does anyone remember how Laurie Gold’s review of that Jennifer Armintrout book was changed *substantially* without Gold’s permission — converted into an overt recommendation, in fact. And the world of lit fic is *almost* as incestuous as academia, with authors reviewing friends and acquaintances all the time. So why the veneer of legitimacy there but not in genre fiction? Is it a reflection that even genre readers do not value the books as ‘good enough’ somehow? Or is it a strange form of elitism, in which we do not trust the voice of the “masses” as independent and legitimate? It seems these discussions used to be focused on Amazon reviews, and now they’ve shifted to the new vox populi, the blog.

    I agree the distinction is unfair and I said so in my post.
    (and let me add, that the discovery of the Armintrout switcheroo is the one and only story I ever broke on this blog)

    But… again, we have to put our consumer hats on. A consumer reading the NYT knows that the reviewer did not pay for what she reviewed. She knows Roger Ebert did not pay for his movie ticket.

    Does someone who hops over to a romance blog know that? No, I certainly had no idea until I started my own blog, and I am a very savvy web surfer. I would guess it is not so much the legitimacy of the traditional outlets as much as the common knowledge that is missing when it comes to blogs. Again, I am not defending the FTC, but trying to understand why intelligent people would even want to draw these distinctions.

    This is the way I work — instead of saying “you are a fucking idiot. No.” I find it is better to try to see where someone is coming from, even if they are ultimately misguided or wrong. This is not particularly fiery or inspiring, but it suits my temperament.

    I have no problem disclosing that I received an ARC gratis, but where I get really really really frustrated is with the idea that such disclosure authenticates my review in some way. Because I can tell you that venues that do not disclose are not necessarily more independent or legitimate than my reviews, even though they may give the overt or incidental appearance of independence.

    Well, as I said above, I don’t think the issue is so much that the NYT book review has more independence or integrity than bloggers, as that it’s common knowledge they get their books for free. But I am not here to defend that distinction. I agree with you that bloggers should not have been targeted while print media was exempted. Everyone should disclose or no one should.

    I think many people do not understand the way commercial interests have blurred the line between consumers and promoters and have used viral campaigns and word of mouth marketing to exploit trust for their own ends. It is because bloggers are trusted that they are so valuable to marketers.

    I understand the First Amendment worries, and I agree the FTC guidelines are deeply problematic, and I hope they are either interpreted more sanely or tossed out when the FTC gets sued, but I am also kind of surprised to see many bloggers whom I consider fellow liberals totally unconcerned about the mockery which commercial interests are trying to making of the idea that the internet is a democratic public space.

    But either way, we agree on transparency. And if I may point out … it wasn’t until this FTC thing that I saw any disclaimers on blogs about how they got their books. Now everyone has one. I see this as a good thing.

    Because here’s the thing: almost everyone does promo for virtually every endeavor of which they are a part or for something they like, whether that be a blog or a book or charity fundraising.

    Yes, and what I am asking is whether my promoting book a that I received for free, and your promoting book b which you bought at Borders are any different.

    I guess what I am hearing from you is that no, they aren’t. So why exactly are you “all for transparency”? What purpose does transparency serve to you? What harm does it prevent or minimize?

    That book reviews may be viewed by publishers as part of that publicity does not impugn their general independence any more than a book offered to an academic in the hopes that the book will be used in a class impugns the scholar’s integrity and independence, IMO.

    I guess what I am asking you to think about is whether some bloggers’ relations to the book they review are different from regular readers? And is there anything a blogger needs to disclose to a regular reader given those differences?

    I guess you are saying no. And again I will ask, then why should the blogger bother being transparent about those differences if they don’t matter?

    I am not saying in this post that free books make people write good reviews. none of the many blogs I frequent could possibly be accused of that.

    I do think, though, that there are people who write good reviews in order to get free books and be chummy with book publishers. I am aware of several romance websites that do this. And recently we had a scandal in which a reviewer was “fired” from a romance review blog for not writing a positive enough review.

    Personally, I think we should let the consumer/reader decide whether the different relation which a blogger may have to industry impacts what she writes in her blog, because it varies from blogger to blogger. And also because which aspects of the relation matter to the reader will be different from reader to reader. For example, I actually don’t care if a reviewer is friends with an author, her review still has value for me, but I am grateful to know of the relstionship, because I can put the review in context.

    But for a consumer to do that, she needs disclosure.

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  20. And recently we had a scandal in which a reviewer was “fired” from a romance review blog for not writing a positive enough review.

    Whoa. Where did this happen? Which blog?

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  22. Whoa. Where did this happen? Which blog?

    I didn’t hear about that either, so I’m very curious to know which blog it is too.

    Does someone who hops over to a romance blog know that? No, I certainly had no idea until I started my own blog, and I am a very savvy web surfer. I would guess it is not so much the legitimacy of the traditional outlets as much as the common knowledge that is missing when it comes to blogs.

    I think All About Romance, Dear Author, Smart Bitches have always made it quite clear that they do get copies of books for free from publishers and authors (though their reviewers sometimes review books they’ve bought themselves/taken out from the library). I probably wouldn’t have realised that smaller blogs were getting free review copies or ARCs, though.

    I don’t write reviews, so I’ve never been offered free books by a publisher. At Teach Me Tonight we did have someone from Harlequin pay us a visit on a blog tour, but we were discussing cover art, and didn’t receive anything or have a give-away. I’ve only ever received a very, very few free books directly from authors when I won a competition on their blogs/websites, and in none of those cases did the authors expect the winners of the competition to blog about or review their books. I’m not sure if that’s the kind of thing I would need to disclose, were I to write reviews. And what about if I got a book for free from a friend who’d got the book for free? And what about whether someone gets something from the library, buys it second hand or buys it new? Perhaps the amount of money one spends could also affect a review? And as mentioned there are the online friendships which can affect reviews but which aren’t covered by the FTC guidelines. Even a reviewer’s mood at the time she/he’s writing the review could affect the nature of a review. I suppose I just wonder where people think the transparency ought to start, and where it ought to stop. Is the direct commercial influence (free books!) necessarily stronger than, say, the more nebulous friendship ones?

    If the purpose is to inform consumers, then where and how would one draw the line? People might well have to disclose their entire life histories if one was truly going to reveal all the things that could potentially affect a review. I know I’ve seen some blog posts and academic essays in which people do try to do that, so they begin by writing a bit about their own age/race/class/sexuality/disability status etc.

    I think I’d be unhappy if everyone was obliged to reveal very personal things (and what’s personal to one person might be something another person would be happy to reveal, because different people have different boundaries).

    I think academics should disclose not only gratis books but also significant relationships with commercial sponsors of research.

    How direct do the links have to be? Is it OK if IASPR has the links, and the academic then has the links with IASPR? I think the first IASPR conference was also co-sponsored by a few publishers. I could be wrong about that, but that’s what I recall. And what about if an academic reviews books – does she/he need to reveal that on every piece of academic work, as well as on each review? Or just on academic work which mentions the books which were received for free as review copies? And then there’s the possibility that academics might use the personal contacts they make at conferences etc to meet publishers from academic presses. Should readers of those works be told a lot about the publisher’s relationship with the author, or is it enough for the reader to know that the publisher is a respected academic publisher which wouldn’t publish sub-standard work? What about an academic’s personal relationship with individual authors?

    I’m not being very helpful, I know. I just keep thinking of more and more questions, but no answers and no suggestions, about where to draw the line between what it might benefit consumers to know and what oversteps the author/reviewer’s right to privacy.

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  23. @Janine: Oh, since a few of you have been asking, I read about it at Katiebabs’s blog, here.

    But the plethora of sites which never give less than “5 hearts” or “5 puppies” or “five stars” to every book suggest it;s pretty common.

    Laura,

    Thanks for your comment. You are being helpful, actually. I raise things just to think about them, before even my own position is fully settled. And I do it so others can help me work through it, which you and everyone else has really been helping me with in this thread.

    You are right that the bigger blogs have disclosed. Robin also reminded of that, so thank you both.

    I think your question about where transparency ought to start and stop is really difficult. I don’t think the FTC did a good job of setting limits. My own tentative view is that one disclosure in the initial and most substantial discussion of the product from by the recipient of the freebie is sufficient. In the case under discussion, that would be the review itself. After that, tweets and forum posts are covered. And disclosure form future recipients of the product is not required (as in winning an ARC in a contest).

    The problem with this is that word of mouth marketing takes place via plants who join forums specifically for the purpose of marketing, under the guise of voluntary participation. You see this on TripAdvisor when managers of hotels write fake reviews as customers. What TA did was put a disclaimer on their site as to the possibility of this sort of plant behavior. So, if a blogger can have more impact on a forum than on her own blog, why is a disclaimer on the blog sufficient? I can’t answer that.

    Something I have found very surprising since I started reading Romanceland blogs and RRR is the close connections, fluid barriers between industry and customer. In some ways, I have celebrated this — for example, in the breaking down of rigid hierrachical distinctions between published and unpublished writers, and between “mere readers” and “potential authors”.

    But in other ways, I think it may be complex in problematic ways.

    I am asking in the post that we recognize our role as bloggers in romance novel publicity and marketing, a role that has only increased with the rise of epubs and of blogging itself. The free books are just one aspect of it.

    So, why single out the free books for disclosure, and not the “she’s my best friend”? I don’t really — Janine and Sarah F have both disclosed relationshisp in reviews at DA, and I support that.

    But I think the free books are part of another larger phenomenon that may merit special scrutiny and heightened disclosure requirements, as paltry a gift as they may seem.

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  24. I think that for me, the thing that’s missing from your post, Jessica, is the distinction between the amateur blogger/reviewer and the ‘professional’. I put that word in quotes because the traditional view of a professional post is that it is remunerated. However, I don’t really see the professional/amateur distinction in blogging/online reviewing as working in that way. It’s more a question of approach.

    Robin said:

    I also view with frustrated amusement the idea (and I’m not talking about anyone specific here, just airing responses to many different conversations and posts and comments) that a publication like the New York Times or PW or RT is more legitimate because their reviewers are paid

    I suppose the word that I question in there is ‘legitimate’. I do think there is a difference between those publications and others, but it’s more a case of being more professional rather than more legitimate.

    At the risk of over-simplifying, I think I would ask at the outset what it is the blogger/ reviewer/ commenter is seeking to do. If reviews are written for ‘the consumer’ that is one thing. But that is not what very many bloggers and online ‘reviewers’ are doing. I would say that Dear Author, AAR, Smart Bitches are certainly doing that. I don’t think (pardon my presumption) that you are. I am certainly not.

    You mentioned manifestos. You have a sort of manifesto at the top of your page, where you say you review romances especially from a feminist and ethical perspective. That is a very big part of what I take from your reviews. They have a particular and quite unique slant, one I happen to find extremely interesting. Carolyn Jean doesn’t give consumer reviews either. She concentrates on quite singular ‘magpie-like’ observations with a writer’s eye. Laura Vivanco doesn’t review at all, she comes at books from a wider academic perspective. Me? I see my blog as a sort of diary of a reader, entirely driven by my own reading inclinations. (Which is why I couldn’t accept ARCs – it would completely undermine why I blog).

    A secondary question is what the consumer/reader takes from what they read on these blogs. I speak as someone who is now familiar with the corner of the blogosphere I frequent and that undoubtedly informs my view. However, I do feel that there are myriad pointers on all the sites I’ve mentioned that demonstrate where the blog-author is coming from and I suspect that anyone who is inclined to go searching the wider web for book reviews is going to have the nonce to work that out for themselves. I think consumers are smart enough to sniff out blatantly biased reviews. Less blatantly biased reviews might be more problematic admittedly.

    For me, the distinction isn’t between paying for books and not paying for books, it’s between ‘for-consumer’ reviews and amateur blogging. Some disclosure rules might be appropriate for the former. I personally don’t think it’s generally necessary for the latter, though it might sometimes be desirable.

    The difficult question, of course, is where the distinction is to be drawn. We can all think of examples, I’m sure, of blogs that might fall on either side of that line.

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  25. I keep hearing the amateur blogger/reviewer. What makes one an amateur vs a professional? Keep in mind the SB and DA are bloggers also. What makes them more professional than say some of these excellent review blogs/sites out there like Book Smugglers, Mandi at Smexy Books, Love Romance Passion, My Friend Amy and others?

    Are we talking about the amount of traffic the community at large believes it to have?

    When does a book blog reviewer or a review site leave the ranks of being an amateur and rises into the world of a professional?

    AAR is just a review site much like Romance Junkies, Fresh Fiction and Bitten By Books. When I was on staff there, they made sure they were not considered a blog or in that realm because they felt after a decade and being one of the first online sources for romance reviews, they were better then being just a blog.

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  26. Something I have found very surprising since I started reading Romanceland blogs and RRR is the close connections, fluid barriers between industry and customer. In some ways, I have celebrated this — for example, in the breaking down of rigid hierrachical distinctions between published and unpublished writers, and between “mere readers” and “potential authors”.

    But in other ways, I think it may be complex in problematic ways.

    I know so far the FTC’s action’s have generally been considered as trying to protect consumers. Understandably so, because after all their job is to protect consumers. But it suddenly occurred to me (and maybe only someone naive and credulous who’d just finished reading a romance in which the hero’s bad reputation is shown to be undeserved could think this ;-) ) but is it possible that the FTC is also trying to protect bloggers from being manipulated by big companies into giving those companies cheap publicity? Because it sounds, from what some people are saying, that publishers try to build up relationships with bloggers and because they’re doing it via blogs, twitter, etc, some bloggers might think of those relationships as ones between friends, rather than as commercial relationships. So the publishers, by building those personal relationships, might make blogging-reviewers feel a kind of loyalty and friendship towards the employees of the publisher that the blogger/reviewer wouldn’t feel towards A Big Corporation. So is the FTC helping blogger/reviewers to take stock of things and work out if they’re being used for commercial gain?

    Looked at from that perspective, it makes sense that the FTC wouldn’t feel a need to protect the reviewers at newspapers etc. Those reviewers are probably very clear that they’re professionals, involved in professional/commercial relationships with the publishers.

    Laura Vivanco doesn’t review at all, she comes at books from a wider academic perspective. [...] For me, the distinction isn’t between paying for books and not paying for books, it’s between ‘for-consumer’ reviews and amateur blogging.

    So I’d be a non-amateur non-reviewer since all the non-reviewing I do is related to my unpaid job as an “independent scholar.”

    Academics are sometimes in a pretty odd relationship with publishers, because often we have to pay to get our work published (depends on the journal, but some expect you to join the professional association to which the journal is affiliated, and sometimes we have to try to find subsidies in order to get our books published). Sometimes we sign away pretty much all our rights to our work, and then copyright is owned by the journal that published it. And we may also be expected to edit or peer-review, for free, for academic journals. Some of the smaller academic presses don’t make much money, but some of the big ones almost certainly do.

    Admittedly I’m thinking about the arts. I can see how, as Jessica mentioned, there might be more money flowing towards the academic in other areas of research.

    Anyway, getting back to the question of disclosure, I think my attitude is affected primarily by two things. First of all, with regard to the consumers of the blog, I think of any readers of my work as colleagues, who may have more expertise than I do (e.g. they may have read far more romances than I do, or know more about certain sub-genres than I do, etc.) so I expect them to approach my work critically and correct me if they think I’ve got things wrong. So that makes the relationship between blogger and reader rather different than if I were recommending something to my readers.

    Secondly, with regard to the professional aspect, it occurs to me that if someone gave me a book and said that they were doing so because they thought it would be of interest to me for an academic reason (e.g. if they knew a theme in a particular novel might help support my argument in an essay I was writing), I’d want to acknowledge their input if I did write about that book because I’d see that as professional input. But I see the gift of a book to me from a friend, just because they think I’ll enjoy it, as non-professional, so I wouldn’t mention it. However, if a publisher presented me with lots of their books, I wouldn’t accept them, because I would think that could potentially compromise, or appear to compromise, my professional independence and the direction of my research.

    That’s all very me, me, me, but perhaps some of the things I’ve thought of in relation to my somewhat unusual position as a blogger might be of relevance to other people, at least by providing a counter-example, or a compare/contrast sort of situation with which to test any of the hypotheses people might come up with about blogging, reviewing, and professionalism.

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  27. Tumperkin — I don’t agree that Jessica’s reviews are any less professional than the ones at Dear Author. I certainly read them as a potential consumer. I am totally with katiebabs on that. I haven’t read all the blogs she’s mentioned but something like The Book Smugglers blog, for example, doesn’t seem any more or less professional than DA to me.

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  28. Just thinking about this amateur/professional thing more. It’s probably churlish of me to say this, but the ongoing categorization of DA as “professional” (not just by you, Tumperkin, but by several others) irritates me.

    For me, my DA reviews were a natural outgrowth of my posts on a couple of private, closed yahoo groups, with a very small membership, where we used to do these posts which were basically reviews . We wrote them to entertain and inform each other — a much , much smaller audience than Jessica has on her blog. We wrote them because it was pleasurable to do so, not because we were seeking the limelight.

    Maybe I should view the word “professional” as a compliment, but it chafes because it doesn’t seem to concede the enthusiasm with which I write my reviews, the personal pleasure that they bring me, and also, my enjoyment of the company I keep at DA.

    “Professional” implies that if anyone had asked me to write for their equally well-written and popular blog I would have done so with just as much dedication but in fact I was excited to sign up in large part because it was Jane and Jayne who asked.

    This is totally a labor of love for me, is what I’m saying.

    (Oh, and I don’t see how Jessica’s having a specific slant makes her more amateur. If you read the reviews at DA with attention to the reviewer you will see that we all have our own slants, with different subgenre preferences, different degrees of irreverence, different lengths of reviews, different worldviews through which we filter our reading experiences. Robin’s reviews don’t read like mine, Jane’s are quite different from Jayne’s, etc. )

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  29. Janine – I think the word ‘professional’ is not actually that helpful here. My fault. The word tends to be used in a number of different ways, none of which is precisely the sense in which I am trying to use it here. ‘Professional’ might be used as a compliment to denote the quality of the thing it is being used to describe. Other times it is used to denote that the thing is being remunerated rather than done out of love. It is interesting that your comments seem to indicate that you have responded to it in both those ways. In your first comment you indicated that you did not find Jessica’s reviews to be ‘any less professional’ than the ones at DA. I may be picking you up wrongly, but I took this as a defense to what you perhaps thought was a pejorative comment on my part i.e. that they are of a lower quality? I can assure that is not the case – that was not the point I was trying to make at all. In your second comment, you express disquiet with the word ‘professional’ being used to describe DA because – and I am inferring this from your comment (please correct me if I am wrong) – that it seems to detract from the enthusiasm/love of the genre that the people at DA have.

    Firstly, I can understand why you would express both these concerns – the word ‘professional’ is a very loaded term and I wished I’d used a different one. Secondly, I did not intend to use the word in either of those senses.

    What I was trying to get at is that I perceive some blogs as consciously having a ‘consumer audience’. DA is – for me – such a blog. It reviews a large number of books across the whole genre and also provides info on the industry, news, opinion etc. It faces out to the consumer. I appreciate (and am mightily impressed by) the fact that the work that goes into that output is overwhelmingly a labour of love. Please don’t imagine I think otherwise. (Katiebabs – for the record, I would put you, Book Smugglers and various others into the same category but my list was not intended to be exhaustive – there are some borderline blogs that I find harder to identify one way or another.)

    The other aspect I alluded to was amateurism. Again, that term is sometimes viewed pejoratively. But Olympic athletes are amateurs. Amateurism has a long and very noble history. Again, it is not probably precisely the right word for what I was trying to express which is that certain blogs do not *feel* to me to be ‘consumer-facing’ but have a different slant/ intention/ audience.

    Taking Jessica (sorry Jessica!) as an example – she puts philosophy and gender issues at the heart of a lot (though by no means all) of her posts and – to this reader anyway – that gives this blog a sense of being less ‘consumer-facing’ than the likes of DA. I hope that clarifies where I was coming from. It is very difficult to find terms that are not loaded!

    Laura – your comments about the FTC perhaps having an issue with the use of bloggers by industry for commercial gain are very interesting. Being a fellow Brit, I have no sense of how the FTC works but I’ll be interested to see what others have to say about it. However, at the very least, their rules are making a conversation happen.

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  30. What I was trying to get at is that I perceive some blogs as consciously having a ‘consumer audience’. DA is – for me – such a blog.

    I don’t think anyone who blogs at DA perceives the blog as having anything other than a *reader* audience. That readers also purchase books, and are technically consumers, is, of course, accurate, but I think the way that consumer and reader are being differentiated in the course of this discussion is extremely problematic.

    I am actually constructing a long response to Jessica’s challenge re. disclosure, but haven’t decided where it’s going to post yet. One thing that’s become very clear to me, though, is that there are serious assumptions being made by all of us about the nature of commercial art and the nature of consuming and reading that radically affect the way each of us sees these issues.

    FWIW, the one thing I do tend to make note of in my own reading of reviews online is whether or not they’re polished. And I do think some reviews are just more polished than others — that the quality of prose, of analysis, of argument and linear discussion is higher in some than others. I don’t see this as a professional/amateur issue, or even in terms of mainstream media v. blogs, but it’s the most meaningful distinction *to me* in how I read reviews. And there are quite a few times I believe that my own reviews don’t measure very high on the scale, lol.

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  31. In your first comment you indicated that you did not find Jessica’s reviews to be ‘any less professional’ than the ones at DA. I may be picking you up wrongly, but I took this as a defense to what you perhaps thought was a pejorative comment on my part i.e. that they are of a lower quality? I can assure that is not the case – that was not the point I was trying to make at all.

    I didn’t think you were being pejorative so much as I wanted state that to my mind, Jessica’s reviews were just as… — since I agree “professional” is not a good word, I will use Robin’s “polished” and add “engaging” — as the ones at DA. I wouldn’t keep coming back here if they weren’t.

    What I was trying to get at is that I perceive some blogs as consciously having a ‘consumer audience’. DA is – for me – such a blog. It reviews a large number of books across the whole genre and also provides info on the industry, news, opinion etc. It faces out to the consumer.

    Hmm. I don’t think of DA’s audience as consumers. I think of them as our readers.

    While it is true (in my case, I don’t speak for the other reviews at DA) that I try to choose mostly, but not always, books that are current to review — books that know our readers would be interested in — I also review mostly what I want to read and would be interested in reading anyway. I don’t finish books I don’t enjoy. This is the reason my grades usually skew high, although I have done the occasional DNF review.

    I see the large number of reviews at DA and the variety of different types of posts as a result of the fact that we have at present, eight different contributors with different reading interests and also, of Jane’s innovative outlook in thinking of unusual features that she wants to do — ways to keep the blog interesting for herself, I would imagine, as much as for anyone else.

    If we face out to our readers it’s mostly a response to the readers who show up and express interest in what we have to say. I don’t think we think of them as consumers — I know I don’t. That word implies to me a kind of industry mentality that I don’t think any of us have.

    Taking Jessica (sorry Jessica!) as an example – she puts philosophy and gender issues at the heart of a lot (though by no means all) of her posts and – to this reader anyway – that gives this blog a sense of being less ‘consumer-facing’ than the likes of DA. I hope that clarifies where I was coming from. It is very difficult to find terms that are not loaded!

    Since I’m not completely sure what you mean by ‘consumer-facing’ I will not use that word, but I want to say that Jessica’s incorporating of her interests in philosophy and gender issues into the blog is a lot of what makes it distinctive and I suspect it’s one of the things that has added to its growing popularity, in the same way that Jane’s incorporation of interests in the copyright law and e-books (starting at a time when there were no romance bloggers tackling these subjects) as well as the letter-to-the-author format, made Dear Author distinctive and helped grow its popularity.

    So, I still don’t see how this makes RRR so different from DA.

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  32. Laura — I have a kind of ambiguous relationship to my own blog. In some ways my academic interests overlap significantly with it. In other ways, it is off duty fun, and I do not want anyone to have any expectations of me with regard to it. My own confusion and ambiguity is reflected in the post.

    Robin — I happen to know of a blog that specializes in longwinded logic chopping posts that would be happy to host a rebuttal. ;)

    Janine and Robin — I did a post on what makes a writer a professional and I have been meaning to do a post on what makes a reviewer a professional. This is a vexing question, as are most questions worth asking.

    I am not sure how to articulate this, and it may need to wait for the aforementioned post, but I think looking at DA from outside does look a little different than you see it from the inside. I would say the same of SBTB and AAR. I honestly do not know how to characterize this felt difference. It may be a difference in quality or degree and not kind.

    Thanks again everyone for your thoughtful and wonderfully articulated comments.

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  33. I am not sure how to articulate this, and it may need to wait for the aforementioned post, but I think looking at DA from outside does look a little different than you see it from the inside. I would say the same of SBTB and AAR. I honestly do not know how to characterize this felt difference. It may be a difference in quality or degree and not kind.

    I’ve been thinking about this as well. DA, SBTB, and AAR are all very different from each other, but they share the characteristic (for me) of being distinct from other non-author-driven individual and group blogs. For one thing, they are all very high profile and high traffic, and they provide quotes for stories in print journalism. For example, SBTB changed for me when their book became a high priority for the blog, and then again when SB Sarah became a go-to quote person for Romance. DA took a pro-active stance about Quartet Press, which to me is slightly different than their (reactive) negative posts about Ravenous Romance. And AAR is different still, but very influential in creating buzz in the romance world; maybe not as influential or central as before, but still important if only for pageview and traffic reasons. These characteristics don’t make the blogs less trustworthy to me, but I do think they mark changes. One of the ways to think about it is to use the analogy of political participation: excellent blogs like KristieJ’s and Wendy SL’s are like regular voters and people who do leafleting and persuade their neighbors to vote (the next level of participation above just voting). DA and SBTB and AAR are like political organizers; they can deliver blocs of votes and have the ability to change the direction and nature of the conversation. That may not be their intention, but itt’s not just about the bloggers’ intentions, it’s about their effects.

    Jessica, I agree with your take on why disclosure is important in book blogging and reviewing. FTC overkill aside, the relations among publishers and bloggers are deeper than most people who are neither realize, and while a lot of these relationships are irrelevant to what the bloggers write (I’d love to meet the marketer or author who *could* buy KristieJ or Wendy SL, but I’m not holding my breath), it’s still something that is better disclosed than not, if only to give the reader more information as she tries to distinguish the ethical from the not-so-ethical. Every social media form is coopted by commercial enterprises, and the clearer that cooptation is made, the better for the people who are trying to avoid it, on both sides of the reader-blogger divide.

    I also think the academic analogy is misguided, or at least overly broad. I know that the connections among litfic academics and non-academics overlap a lot, and the review/freebie questions may be pertinent there. But in the professional schools and the social sciences, those aren’t the big ones (well, freebies in med school is a problem, but that’s not about books). Professors who assign their own books as required course purchases are a far bigger ethical problem in my view than people who review the books of colleagues they’re friendly with or get desk copies to help decide on a syllabus. At a minimum, editors choose reviewers, not authors or the reviewers themselves, and every press I use offers desk copies, so no press is privileged over another. What’s more, a book I’m going to use for class has to meet a set of criteria that the press doesn’t have control over, so unless I want to skew what I’m teaching, I’m not going to care much about the press’s interests. The press is just hoping that their book matches my criteria. Similarly with research books, whether someone’s book is relevant is not really in my control or the press’s. If someone has written something that I need to address, then I have to procure the book. If it isn’t on point, it’s a waste of my time to read and incorporate something just because it’s “free.”

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  34. On the fly comments because I’ve really been puzzling over this one:

    1. If DA never published another review, I’d still go there every day for all that is there — today’s excellent article about reader digital rights is just one in a long list of what Jane gives her readers. Certainly like their reviews but that’s not why I go there. How about DA I and DA II — one site just for the excellent range of reviews by terrific reviewers and one for the other content.

    2. AAR — for me, comparing any other review site to them falls short — they have the depth, the breadth, the bandwidth, the history — use any cliche and for me, going there is the place where I get it all, when it comes to reviews. They don’t just review new, they go back in time and revisit. Just yesterday one of their reviewers re-reviewed Lord of Scoundrels (and gave it a B-). They have open comment forums, blogs, etc., but it’s the “If you like” and the groupings of books under tropes that brings me back.

    3. I think Sarah’s voice as a representative of RomLand is almost always spot on: just an example, calling Kate Duffy the Julia Child of our corner of the universe. The actual content isn’t clicking with me lately but that’s normal: one doesn’t always like every issue of a favourite magazine.

    As I said, thoughts on the fly …

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  35. I’ve been thinking about this as well. DA, SBTB, and AAR are all very different from each other, but they share the characteristic (for me) of being distinct from other non-author-driven individual and group blogs. For one thing, they are all very high profile and high traffic, and they provide quotes for stories in print journalism.

    That’s true, but if you look at the content of the DA blog itself, IMO it hasn’t changed that much since the days when our profile and our traffic were lower, and the New York Times or Wall Street Journal didn’t call Jane.

    I see it more as a difference made by the size of our readership than by anything else.

    How about DA I and DA II — one site just for the excellent range of reviews by terrific reviewers and one for the other content.

    Personally I like the mix as it is. But there are links at the top of the home page that allow you to read just reviews or just letters of opinion, etc.

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  36. And on further thought…

    It is hard not to feel insulted by the assumption that is being made here, that our opinion can be bought and paid for with a free book. $7.99 is a cheap price to put on our honesty and our personal integrity.

    Sunita, I really like you, but your list of reasons of why freebies for academics are different than freebies for bloggers seem to me to boil down to the fact that from the inside looking out, you know you are not doing anything unethical, and therefore you don’t feel you should have to disclose.

    Well, so do we.

    We could provide reasons why, too.

    And Jessica, I really like you too, but I think your interest in ethical issues has likely sharpened your focus on them, and in this case, I feel you are being overzealous, looking or a moral dilemma where there really is none.

    I do understand that from the outside looking in, you and everyone who agrees with you doesn’t have the same knowledge that we have, that we would never sell our integrity down the river for a free book, and the very idea that we might seems crazy to us.

    Still, the reluctance to trust us based on the content of our reviews is insulting.

    As for the difference between DA and other blogs, I still maintain it is little more than a difference in popularity and success. That popularity and success seems to have now brought us under greater scrutiny.

    Perhaps that is just the way of the world, but it gets tiring to be viewed with a jaundiced eye all the time. To paraphrase Robin, where we used to be viewed as Mean Girls, now we are viewed as industry mouthpieces. Both these views are distortions of reality IMO.

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    • Sunita and Janet, thanks for your comments.

      Janine, I am sorry the thread has upset you. That was certainly not my intention. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

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  37. my post was not about Dear Author, or any specific blog

    Yes, but Sunita’s comment which I was also responding to, did include comments specific to DA, including this one:

    DA took a pro-active stance about Quartet Press, which to me is slightly different than their (reactive) negative posts about Ravenous Romance.

    (To go on a tangent here, this was Jane’s stance, not the stance of everyone at DA. And I don’t believe the difference between Jane’s stance on Quartet Press and her stance on Ravenous Romance was due to DA’s success, which was what I thought Sunita was implying.)

    But the fact is, our blogs are viewed by the industry as a component of their strategy to sell books, and when we take free books and do other promotional things, we are agreeing to be viewed this way. This is is true regardless of how honest our reviews are.

    I am not sure I agree with that. I frankly think the industry views bloggers as marketing tools whether or not they accept ARCs (for example, advising authors to post a lot on reader blogs), and also, that the industry doesn’t give a damn whether or not bloggers agree to be view that way. And as for bloggers, even when we accept free ARCS, we don’t necessarily view ourselves as a component of someone else’s marketing strategy. Likewise, “other promotional things” can be any kind of post or review that mentions a book by title or an author by name. There are bloggers who don’t accept ARCs but who nonethelesss promote the books they love here there and everywhere in the hopes that those books will sell like crazy (and I don’t see anything wrong with that, BTW).

    So I don’t really see that the way a blogger is viewed by publishers or by themselves is necessarily altered by their acceptance of free ARCs. And if they are not necessarily viewed appreciably differently one way or another, then when you say that when we take free books and do other promotional things we agree to be viewed as components of publishers’ marketing strategy, you are talking about what seems to me like an abstract and theoretical concept.

    I mean, I certainly didn’t sign an agreement with any publisher stating that I agreed to be viewed differently or to review differently when I started receiving free ARCs.

    This one mystifies me. I do not see this anywhere in the comments on this thread. Does anyone else?

    I don’t know if I can articulate it well, but it seems to me that if someone thinks that the receiving of free ARCs should always be disclosed, and not just on the blog receiving them but everywhere the blogger posts positively about a book (Even if all they want to do is chime in with a “Me too!” at the bottom of someone else’s enthusiastic post), then it can only be because the acceptance of free ARCs makes the opinion of the blogger potentially suspect, in a way it wouldn’t be had that blogger not received the free ARC.

    disclosure is necessary to provide the part of the information a consumer or reader needs to be able to decide whether to trust

    Really? Disclosure that they got a free book? Why should it be necessary? At DA we have never hidden the fact that we get free books, but I’ve also never looked at it as something necessary to providing information that will help the consumer determine whether we are trustworthy.

    For me, the trustworthiness of a reviewer depends on the content of the reviews themselves — how good that reviewer is at pinpointing a book’s strengths and weaknesses, and communicating them to me, and how much my taste in books aligns with that of the reviewer.

    When I go to other blogs and read reviews, I never ask myself whether or not that blogger receives free ARCS because it seems completely irrelevant to me. I honestly don’t care. I can tell the difference between a site that posts honest opinions and one whose reviews never have anything negative to say. Where they got the books they review seems beside the point.

    I think we agree that disclosure is good. I guess I am not really sure what you think is good about it.

    No, I don’t think it is good, at least not as the FTC suggested we go about it . I understand they are now revising their guidelines, but as I understood those guidelines originally, they meant I could jot off a pithy note of agreement with a positive review on any site without adding “and in the way of disclosure, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher,” or “I bought this book on my own dime.”

    I have a major problem with that because (A) my time is limited and I just don’t want to waste it posting disclosures incessantly, (B) it is just a very ungainly, unwieldy statement to have to tack on to every book-positive post, and (C) most importantly, I think forcing everyone to tack on a disclosure could have led to an outing of identities for some people whose anonymity is very important to their freedom of speech.

    I guess I think disclosure should be voluntary, not required. I have nothing against it when I’m not required to post it in such ungainly, inconvenient, and sometimes even muzzling ways. Transparency is a worthwhile goal, but there is such a thing as going too far in pursuit of it, and I think that is what the blogosphere was reacting to.

    And Janine, if you meant to bum me out big time with this comment, you sure did

    No, I didn’t mean to bum you out. You know I like you a lot! I’m just frustrated, because reviewing for a blog as prominent as DA means being I or my fellow bloggers are under fire on a regular basis. We get accused of everything from being cruel to authors to favoring them too much, and it doesn’t let up much. So it is wearing and can make it easy to get defensive.

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    • Robin, I replied to Janine in haste and then in equal haste deleted my reply. Sorry !

      FWIW, I read Sunita’s comments about academia exactly the way Janine did. As I was reading them, I was thinking, ‘yeah, of course you feel this way; you’re in the system, you’re acting within the rules, you’re ethical.’

      We disagree. I see Sunita’s point here — we are in a system in academia, a system whose rules we “get”. It has nothing to do with trustworthiness or greater integrity on the part of academicians. Random web surfers are not in a system like that. So some things may need to be made more explicit. The point is not that academics are more trustworthy, but that we are all playing one game in which the rules are understood. The same can be said of some of us, here in Romanceland, but it cannot be said of random visitors to websites.

      And this is not to deny, by the way, that lots of noncommercial, wonderful artistic and cultural things are happening on our blogs, when we discuss, evaluate, share, converse. Lots of people read reviews they have no intention of buying, just to join in that discourse. It’s just that, oh, yeah, there’s also this commercial thing going on. When I review Start Me Up, it’s just not exactly the same as me writing about the Mona Lisa. Leonardo did not send me a drawing in advance. And I doubt Coetzee would be tweeting a link to my review of Disgrace a few minutes after it went up.

      And no, I do not think reviews in academia are commercial in this same exact way. Academic books are bought by university libraries and scholars. Our library buys everything OUP publishes. Period. It does not buy series from any press. Period. It has rules, many of which vex me, actually. The rules are set for academic libraries and are not influenced by world of mouth advertising. As an individual, reviews are not what alerts me to the existence of the book, but rather conferences and journals articles do that. Reviews in my field are published 2-5 years AFTER the publication of the book. Plus, I hardly need point out that academic monographs are not for profit, another difference from Harlequin, etc.. We just do not agree on this.

      But I reiterate that more disclosure in academia would be fine with me. I’m all for it.

      Why does the operating assumption have to be that the reviewer purchased a book? If the mainstream standard is that reviewers have access to review copies, why can’t the default assumption be that the book was received free. Would that *really* change readers’ perception of the reviews (and seriously, please think about this before you answer)?

      Erm, yes, because I have established a reputation for being so impulsive and thoughtless online. I will tell you, and Janine, this has been one hell of an eye opener as far as thinking my online persona is well understood!

      To answer your question, I honestly don’t know what the operating assumption is of everyone who surfs to RRR or DA or any other blog. I know from reading posts and threads, some of them on DA, and I know from my own experience, that many people are unaware that books are received free by bloggers. So, why not just disclose?

      Probably, things will change over time so that everyone understands that this is common practice in blogs, just as it is in the NYTimes. But while we are in a transitional period, my view is that disclosure is probably best, not just for DA — this was never about DA and I would really appreciate it LURKERS, if you could share your views, too! — but for all of us who accept ARCs. Other kinds of disclosure may be appropriate, as when Janine or Sarah disclose her relationships with authors in reviews.

      I guess I just find this odd … lacunae … in what I hear from you and Janine. Have you acknowledged my underlying point, that when we blog about books received free from publishers, or get close to industry in myriad other ways, one of the many things we are doing is helping the marketing department promote a book, regardless of how honest, dishonest, positive, or negative our review is?

      I am saying — and I did, after all, start a blog where I could do this sort of thing — “Hmmm. This is worth thinking about. What does it mean? Maybe we should be transparent about it? How would we do that?”

      I don’t think we’ll reach agreement on this one, at least for now, but it’s helpful to be exposed to articulate defenses of various viewpoints.

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  38. Why does the operating assumption have to be that the reviewer purchased a book? If the mainstream standard is that reviewers have access to review copies, why can’t the default assumption be that the book was received free. Would that *really* change readers’ perception of the reviews (and seriously, please think about this before you answer)?

    FWIW, I read Sunita’s comments about academia exactly the way Janine did. As I was reading them, I was thinking, ‘yeah, of course you feel this way; you’re in the system, you’re acting within the rules, you’re ethical.’ It’s exactly how I feel about receiving free review copies for book reviews. And unless Sunita’s purpose was to suggest that my integrity as a reviewer is less than hers as an academic (and as an academic, myself, I still find the analogy VERY compelling), I can’t see the examples as substantially or substantively divergent.

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  39. I’m still not sure I’ve gotten to the bottom of my own fuzzy thoughts but, conversing tonight with my mother (the retired librarian), we were both puzzled by the… resistance to accept that yes, whenever we engage in word of mouth–repeating an author’s name, the title of the novel, what is about; any and all of these–we are in effect promoting the author and the book.

    It doesn’t really matter whether that is our intention or not, nor does it matter whether we like for our actions to be seen in that light. They will be seen in that light–by publishers and by authors, at the very least; see Ms Mallik’s advice, for example.

    And the thing is, perception makes up most of reality, does it not?

    edited to add: I am aware that when I talk about an author whose work I like, it’s because I a) want to share my enjoyment with other people, particularly if I like them; and b) I like to make sure the author puts out more work for me to enjoy, so having her/him be successful and sell to more readers benefits *me* in the end–so yes, there’s a bit of “look, look, this is good, get it too!” going on.

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  40. @Robin: I was replying to a long post of Jessica’s that she edited while I was in the process of replying. I told Jessica in an email that she could delete my post since I had quoted from text she later deleted, but she said she would leave it up unless I want it gone. I was thinking of asking her to delete my last two posts, but it seems like it would just make a mess of the thread since these posts have now been replied to. So I think I’ll leave them up.

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  41. I guess I just find this odd … lacunae … in what I hear from you and Janine. Have you acknowledged my underlying point, that when we blog about books received free from publishers, or get close to industry in myriad other ways, one of the many things we are doing is helping the marketing department promote a book, regardless of how honest, dishonest, positive, or negative our review is?

    I’m not sure if this is addressed to me as well as Robin, or to Robin alone, so I will reply.

    Yes, I acknowledge that “one of the many things we are doing is helping the marketing department promote a book” “when we blog about books received free from publishers.” But I also think it is one of the many things we are doing when we blog about a book we purchased ourselves.

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  42. For three days I have been composing and deleting comments to this blog post. Every time I started I found I was off on a path that didn’t express what I was trying to say, and this time I thought I had been successful. But I still didn’t communicate what I wanted to. So let me try and address the misconceptions.

    Before I do that, though: Janine and Robin, I clearly gave you the impression that somehow I think that what I do is ethical and what you do is not. I am so sorry for this. I do not *in any way* think that your reviews, your posts about the industry, or your participation in DA in general is open to ethical question. Clearly I was very unsuccessful in conveying this, and I apologize. Jessica is right that I was trying by example to show that in my context the choices I make are more clearly understood than the FTC response to blog posts, etc., imply that the actions of bloggers are. But I did a crappy job.

    Yes, but Sunita’s comment which I was also responding to, did include comments specific to DA, including this one:
    DA took a pro-active stance about Quartet Press, which to me is slightly different than their (reactive) negative posts about Ravenous Romance.
    (To go on a tangent here, this was Jane’s stance, not the stance of everyone at DA. And I don’t believe the difference between Jane’s stance on Quartet Press and her stance on Ravenous Romance was due to DA’s success, which was what I thought Sunita was implying.)

    What I meant by this example is that whereas many bloggers could take apart the crappy books by Ravenous Romance (e.g., Karen Scott does an awesome job on crappy books), the support of QP was something that was more *meaningful* to the community (not just the industry, but readers) not just because DA is respected, which it is, but because people who are part of it care about the industry. So the support of a new press is a signal to those who also care that this is a press to pay attention to in a positive way. Of course this is a judgement call, and it is no way DA’s responsibility, let alone fault, if it doesn’t work out. But when DA sticks its neck out, people pay attention precisely because we hold DA in high esteem. This means that DA’s words on the matter carry more weight. It’s not really fair to DA in a lot of ways, but it’s still a fact. But I never thought that DA was *trading* on its success, I meant that DA’s sincere opinion had a greater effect than if a less popular and well-regarded site had said the same thing.

    Really? Disclosure that they got a free book? Why should it be necessary? At DA we have never hidden the fact that we get free books, but I’ve also never looked at it as something necessary to providing information that will help the consumer determine whether we are trustworthy.

    I think this is where DA is having to do work that they don’t really need to in order to contribute to a higher bar for everyone (i.e, the rule is overinclusive in that it targets people who aren’t a problem in order to incorporate people who are). My opinion of DA’s trustworthiness is not changed by the disclosure, I have always found it trustworthy. But it has been an eye-opener to me that much smaller blogs get lots of ARCs. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel they are not trustworthy, which is why I gave the examples of KristieJ and Wendy. But it is a piece of information I would like to have. I really think this kind of info is for new readers and less popular blogs, not blogs like DA.

    I also got the impression that Jessica, who has not been blogging long and blogs from a fairly idiosyncratic perspective, found that she was soon offered lots of freebies. That tells me that the publicity machine is working very well and very quickly. That’s worth knowing, given how many blogs pop up every day.

    Why does the operating assumption have to be that the reviewer purchased a book? If the mainstream standard is that reviewers have access to review copies, why can’t the default assumption be that the book was received free. Would that *really* change readers’ perception of the reviews (and seriously, please think about this before you answer)?

    I think that if the assumption for all bloggers was that they receive free books (as it is for print journalism), then that would be fine, because everyone would be on the same page. But I really think that we’re *not* on the same page. Those of you who blog know how many free books you get, but those of us who don’t, don’t (sorry for the crappy sentence structure). Given how blogs started, basically as online diaries, and given how many blogs there are, I think that non-bloggers really have no idea how quickly commercial interests move in on bloggers. That *does not* mean that they are successful, but rather, that we need a better way to differentiate the coopted from the non-coopted. I do realize that the FTC rules go too far in the opposite direction, but we still need to find a way, for the sake of the good blogs.

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  43. FWIW, I read Sunita’s comments about academia exactly the way Janine did. As I was reading them, I was thinking, ‘yeah, of course you feel this way; you’re in the system, you’re acting within the rules, you’re ethical.’ It’s exactly how I feel about receiving free review copies for book reviews. And unless Sunita’s purpose was to suggest that my integrity as a reviewer is less than hers as an academic (and as an academic, myself, I still find the analogy VERY compelling), I can’t see the examples as substantially or substantively divergent.

    your list of reasons of why freebies for academics are different than freebies for bloggers seem to me to boil down to the fact that from the inside looking out, you know you are not doing anything unethical, and therefore you don’t feel you should have to disclose.

    It took Janine’s quote (the second one) for me to understand Robin’s reaction. FWIW, I don’t think that the reason I don’t have to disclose is because I *know* I’m not doing anything unethical. Obviously, I don’t think I am, but I’m fine with the idea that I should disclose to my students how I choose the books for their class . Frankly, I think it would help them understand the structure of the course if I did so. And if I think about how I choose books (i.e., things I’m sent, frantic searches at the last minute on Amazon, knowing what friends have written, knowing what enemies have written, etc.), I think that it would be a salutory exercise for me to have to account for it! But my bottom line is that if I skew my class to a publisher’s advantage, I have to be a kickass lecturer to overcome that distortion of the course, and I’m not willing to roll the dice on that.

    What I was trying to say with my inept examples is that the rewards I might get from skewing my syllabus and research choices are dwarfed by the incentives *not* to do that. My teaching and research efforts directly affect my income to a far greater extent than selling out to a publisher (or set of publishers) can. Scholarly books simply don’t sell enough, and I don’t write textbooks. My integrity or lack thereof has nothing to do with it; I would have to be all kinds of stupid to go down that path. For some bloggers, the incentives are different. That doesn’t mean that they are different for all bloggers, and it certainly doesn’t mean that all bloggers will respond to those incentives.

    I’m just frustrated, because reviewing for a blog as prominent as DA means being I or my fellow bloggers are under fire on a regular basis. We get accused of everything from being cruel to authors to favoring them too much, and it doesn’t let up much. So it is wearing and can make it easy to get defensive.

    I really am sorry that I contributed to this. I know DA gets a lot of crap from a lot of sources, and by using you as an example I added to this. I think the way that you (Janine in particular, not just DA in general although that’s true too) have dealt with your potential conflicts of interests is exemplary. And I would really like to be the fly on the wall when someone tries to buy Jane (or any of you) and has their ass handed to them in a basket.

    ETA: I forgot to respond to the last part of Robin’s quote. I certainly don’t think that integrity inheres in the occupation; it inheres in the person. No academic has more integrity by virtue of their profession than a reviewer. I’d *love* to give examples, but I’m still in my profession, and as Robin has noted before, it’s a pretty tight community. But do I trust, say, Anthony Lane’s opinion more than some of my professional colleagues? Oh yeah.

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  44. @Sunita:

    For three days I have been composing and deleting comments to this blog post. Every time I started I found I was off on a path that didn’t express what I was trying to say, and this time I thought I had been successful. But I still didn’t communicate what I wanted to.

    Sunita, I can tell my post made you feel badly and I am really sorry about that! Even though our opinions differ on some things I really appreciate your thoughtfulness. I enjoy your posts and would love to see more of them online, so I hope I haven’t discouraged you from posting.

    Thanks so much for clarifying your comment re. Quartet Press. I understand now what you were trying to say and I appreciate your taking the time to make it clear.

    Before I do that, though: Janine and Robin, I clearly gave you the impression that somehow I think that what I do is ethical and what you do is not. I am so sorry for this. I do not *in any way* think that your reviews, your posts about the industry, or your participation in DA in general is open to ethical question. Clearly I was very unsuccessful in conveying this, and I apologize.

    Apology accepted.

    Jessica is right that I was trying by example to show that in my context the choices I make are more clearly understood than the FTC response to blog posts, etc., imply that the actions of bloggers are. But I did a crappy job.

    It seems we are dealing with differing perceptions. I see posts all over the internet (not just on blogs but on the AAR boards — and I don’t mean just from reviewers but from also regular posters) from people who say that they just got a free ARC of this or that book, so it seems unlikely to me that any but the most casual surfer would not know that there were free ARCs floating around.

    But more than that, I also don’t see much of a distinction between a blog that receives free ARCs and one that doesn’t. I’m honestly still somewhat mystified by this and would love it if you or Jessica would explain to me why it should make a difference to readers whether or not a blogger has gotten their books free.

    I think this is where DA is having to do work that they don’t really need to in order to contribute to a higher bar for everyone (i.e, the rule is overinclusive in that it targets people who aren’t a problem in order to incorporate people who are). My opinion of DA’s trustworthiness is not changed by the disclosure, I have always found it trustworthy.

    But don’t you think that this is because the content of the reviews speaks for itself? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t that apply across the online community, that a site is either trustworthy, or untrustworthy, regardless of whether or not they disclose?

    And I would go even further, and say, regardless of whether or not that site accepts free ARCs. Isn’t anyone who posts about the book helping the marketing department of that book’s publisher? I don’t see how it’s the receiving of ARCs that makes a difference.

    But it has been an eye-opener to me that much smaller blogs get lots of ARCs. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel they are not trustworthy, which is why I gave the examples of KristieJ and Wendy. But it is a piece of information I would like to have.

    Do you feel that bloggers should be *required* to provide this information? Or that it should be given only voluntarily? I will tell you, I think there is a strong risk of chilling speech if bloggers are required to disclose.

    I really think this kind of info is for new readers and less popular blogs, not blogs like DA.

    Thinking back to when I was a new reader of romance reviews, about 20 years ago, the sources I came across were Romantic Times and Publishers Weekly. Neither disclosed a thing, but I still came to quickly trust the latter but not the former. RT, in those days, only gave glowing reviews. PW was more honest. That was how I determined who to trust — I used my judgment. And I think readers can still do that today.

    But it has been an eye-opener to me that much smaller blogs get lots of ARCs. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel they are not trustworthy, which is why I gave the examples of KristieJ and Wendy. But it is a piece of information I would like to have.

    Besides a sense of the publishing industry’s attempts to spread the word, what is it that you get out of having that information? What does it tell you about a given blog? I’m asking from sincere puzzlement.

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  45. I also don’t see much of a distinction between a blog that receives free ARCs and one that doesn’t. I’m honestly still somewhat mystified by this and would love it if you or Jessica would explain to me why it should make a difference to readers whether or not a blogger has gotten their books free.

    I’ve found that I do approach books with a different set of expectations when I’ve paid for them. If I’ve spent my money on them, and waited expectantly for a few days/weeks for them to arrive, I want to feel they were worth the money and the wait, and that can make me feel just a little bit more tense than if I got the book for free. That initial feeling wears off as I continue reading a good book, but it can perhaps make me more critical than I would otherwise be.

    On the other hand, if I haven’t paid for a book, I might start out with a less critical mind-set but also be more inclined to stop part-way through if I really wasn’t liking it, because I wouldn’t feel I was losing anything by doing so.

    Obviously I don’t assume that everyone has the same feelings towards free books as I do, but perhaps some people do. There might be other factors at work e.g. shyness might prevent people taking certain books out at the library, but they might be very happy to receive them unexpectedly as an ARC. Or receiving a free box of books might put the person in a good mood and they’d happily dive in to see what the box contained. That good mood might affect the reviews at least a little bit.

    I don’t think that any review can be totally objective. Of course one can be objective about some aspects of a book, but I do think that we’re affected in our reading by our own experiences, personality, mood etc. Or at very least, I know I am. Sometimes I know I’m just not in the right mood to appreciate a particular book, so I’d put it aside for a while. And this makes me think that perhaps if one’s mood is affected by receiving an ARC, then that might affect the review, at least a tiny bit.

    Another way in which the free/not free nature of a book might influence me is that because I’m limited to books I buy and books I can get from the library, I’ve only got access to a certain set of books for free and I’m only willing to purchase a limited number of books which I already expect to enjoy (unless I think they might be useful to me in my academic work, in which case I’m willing to buy a book I don’t think I’ll enjoy as a reader, but which might be interesting from an intellectual point of view). However, if a publisher sent me lots of free books, I might be more likely to branch out and take a risk by spending time reading something I wouldn’t particularly have thought of choosing for myself. It’s not a big risk, because all I’d have to lose would be a bit of time. Avon’s free online book-reading experiment, for example, encouraged me to read a lot of Avon novels I wouldn’t otherwise have read, and I did end up blogging about one of them. There’s no way I’d have even known that book existed if they hadn’t given it away for free to all readers online. So clearly in my case at least, free books can change reading patterns.

    Publishers have never tried offering me ARCs, by the way, probably because they’d rather not have their books dissected by me in my non-reviews which tend to be full of spoilers. I don’t think I’d feel comfortable getting ARCs anyway, so it’s just as well. If a friend gives me a book, I try harder to like it, and I suspect that I would (rather irrationally) feel either that the publisher was like a friend, or I’d feel under some kind of obligation to the publisher because they’d been kind enough to send me a present. My rational mind would know that the publisher was not being kind or friendly but I suspect that my emotional responses to a gift would default to those I’d have if I got a present from an individual.

    On the other hand, if a publisher kept sending me things I didn’t like, I might end up feeling the way I imagine the true love did at the end of the twelve days of Christmas after getting daily deliveries of partridges in pear trees, etc. I’d feel exasperated and unsure what to do with this abundance of unwanted items, and if I did read any of the books, I’d start off in a grumpy frame of mind which probably wouldn’t give any of them a fair chance.

    I suppose if I put myself into a “professional” frame of mind then I might think differently, but then I wouldn’t be reading for pleasure, so I would probably have a lot less fun.

    I do have fun doing academic analysis, which I’m doing “professionally”, but that’s rather different from writing a professional review. I’ve only written one two academic reviews (of academic books), and it wasn’t much fun. But then, I wouldn’t think of it as fun to write any kind of review, which is why I don’t. This may mean that all my thoughts about reading and how it’s affected by mood are non-applicable to people who do enjoy writing reviews. But as many of you say you’re not “professional” reviewers, maybe it’s still OK to extrapolate from some of my experiences as a reader.

    I see posts all over the internet (not just on blogs but on the AAR boards — and I don’t mean just from reviewers but from also regular posters) from people who say that they just got a free ARC of this or that book, so it seems unlikely to me that any but the most casual surfer would not know that there were free ARCs floating around.

    I haven’t seen many of those posts and I wasn’t aware that some of the smaller blogs got free ARCs from publishers. I did think some individuals occasionally got ARCs from authors, when they won a competition on those authors’ sites, or if they were particularly friendly with that author but until very recently I’d thought that only the bigger blogs/sites got them from publishers.

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  46. Janine and Sunita, thanks again for clarifying.

    Janine,

    Yes, I do think disclosure, like the sidebar language, is a good idea. It doesn’t seem too onerous to me to throw up something on the sidebar, and the benefits for this small nonspeech-chilling statement are perhaps, transparency to readers, and a reminder and greater awareness of a complexity in relations to books publishers which bloggers have. Think of it more as an exercise in self-reflection and a good faith gesture towards unwitting visitors.

    Already, your own blog owner, Jane Litte, has a voluntary policy of disclosing significant industry relationships, like affiliate links, Sony sponsorship, the other things Sunita mentioned, etc. And you yourself disclose relationships to authors whom you reviews. I am asking for disclosure of smaller things as well. Perhaps we just disagree on scope.

    We have focused on ARCs, but the thrust of my post was much broader, actually. Although I do not accept ARCs, I am also connected in ways I would not have expected, like posting on the Borders blog, for example. After blogging at Borders, whenever I wrote a review, I stopped to think, “Hmm, do I link to Borders? Amazon? B&N? nobody?”. Just blogging there posed a challenge for me. I stopped linking to any book seller after that, instead inking to authors websites. So, I include myself here. Perhaps the only blog I can think of that is nearly exempt from the kind of points I made in the post is Teach Me Tonight. Tumperkin’s blog comes pretty close as well.

    I agree that great authentic content, and a consistent voice, is the main determiner of trustworthiness of a blog. I also think there is absolutely no way to directly connect closeness to industry to untrustworthiness, as DA itself illustrates.

    “Besides a sense of the publishing industry’s attempts to spread the word, what is it that you get out of having that information? What does it tell you about a given blog? I’m asking from sincere puzzlement. ”

    I said above that one of the things disclosure does is serve as a reminder of overlapping relationships which may in some cases pose challenges, and so disclosure can be good for the discloser herself. It can also be good for a community to develop these kinds of practices voluntarily.

    Also, as a consumer (I am also other things, but am focusing on this aspect at the moment), I want this information. I did have a hard time navigating the review sites, and my very first post on this blog talked about that. I found some content bizarre — are these just really happy people who love everything? It took me a while to see that there may be a material interest, and an interest in having access to authors, that was driving some of these blogs. No, the free books alone did not make these blogs pieces of shit, but it was one piece in the puzzle, which I would have liked having.

    And finally, you are right, Janine, that I do see ethical issues everywhere. I don’t by any means think I am pure as the driven snow, but I do tend to turn issues into moral ones, and that’s not always a good thing. I’ve mentioned that I am a philosophy professor who specializes in ethics, but my other professional hat — outside the academy — is as clinical ethicist, where I work for hospitals and also serve as an expert witness for law firms which specialize in medical malpractice cases (both for plaintiffs’ attorneys and defense attorneys. I try to mix it up so I don’t become biased!). It is hard to take that hat off on my blog. Consider this a disclosure of a kind of bias on my part, and maybe also a warning, because I doubt I am going to change.

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  47. Laura, I can tell you that I feel about mood and reading the same way you do. I enjoy writing reviews–which I didn’t discover until I started doing it, by the way–but I won’t read a book unless I’m in the mood to.

    To force myself will result in a DNF and/or my being over critical of the story, whether it deserves it or not. It would be a disservice to the work and to readers who might have tried and enjoyed it but perhaps were swayed by my exaggerated (and at least partially undeserved) distaste.

    Jessica, one of the main reasons I enjoy your blog so much–whether I comment or not to a particular post–is the fact that you look at things from your very special perspective. I am glad to know you won’t aim to change that.

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  48. @Laura Vivanco:

    You’ve described a variety of reactions to receiving free books, and some of them are even contradictory, from viewing them with gratitude/obligation, to viewing them with exasperation/grumpiness. I am not denying that people have responses to everything, but these responses are so myriad and varied, and differ from person to person both in type and degree, so much, that I don’t see what a disclosure regarding fee ARCs indicates to readers about the reviews on that blog.

    It would be a mistake, I think, to assume that everyone reacts as you do or that everyone reacts in a uniform way. I for example, am pretty clear on the fact that ARCs are not a gift, and while some of my blogging partners have stated that ARCs have allowed them to branch out a lot in their reading, I think that is less the case with me.

    My point here is not that there is no reaction whatsoever to receiving an ARC, but simply that it is impossible to determine what that reaction might be on the basis of knowing that the blog receives free ARCs.

    Even with the ra-ra review sites that Jessica referred to, it would be a mistake, I think to assume that the reason all their reviews are glowing is because they want free ARCs. There could be and likely are, other reasons, like wanting an in with authors, looking up to them, or simply feeling that “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It is at least as likely as not, IMO, that if you took the free ARCs away, the reviewers at those sites would remain fannish cheerleaders.

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  49. @Jessica:

    I don’t have any problem with a sidebar disclosure (although I also don’t see it as vital to earning readers’ trust). I don’t mind in the least having one, and I think Jane was planning to leave it up anyway.

    But the notion of having to disclose everywhere I go, like Hansel dropping breadcrumbs, got my back up. Because I think it would be speech-chilling in the extreme.

    I am asking for disclosure of smaller things as well. Perhaps we just disagree on scope.

    Yes, I think that is the case.

    I also think there is absolutely no way to directly connect closeness to industry to untrustworthiness, as DA itself illustrates.

    Thanks. Maybe I’m being dense, but I still feel that there is, in the requiring of a disclosure, an implication that sites that choose not to receive ARCs are somehow more ethical than sites that do, and that is what I’ve been objecting to.

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  50. You’ve described a variety of reactions to receiving free books, and some of them are even contradictory, from viewing them with gratitude/obligation, to viewing them with exasperation/grumpiness.

    I don’t think they’re contradictory, so much as context-dependent.

    It would be a mistake, I think, to assume that everyone reacts as you do or that everyone reacts in a uniform way.

    Oh, of course, and I didn’t assume that everyone would react in the same ways I do. For example, I stated quite explicitly that “I don’t assume that everyone has the same feelings towards free books as I do.”

    My point here is not that there is no reaction whatsoever to receiving an ARC, but simply that it is impossible to determine what that reaction might be on the basis of knowing that the blog receives free ARCs.

    Getting back to a point I think I made a while ago on this thread, I’ve noticed that some academics, perhaps particularly feminist academics, introduce themselves into their work in order to contextualise what they have to say. In some ways this is rather similar to the little statements that appear under each review at Dear Author, where there’s a very short description of the reviewer’s background and reading preferences. I think it might be interesting (though perhaps not very practical) to have a little story at the beginning of each review which set it in context. It seems to me that each time a book is read, the response of that individual reader, at that particular moment in their lives, may create a unique experience.

    So, to give some hypothetical examples, perhaps a reviewer could reveal that she was in the mood for something relaxing and heart-warming, and this book, with its secret babies and reunited families really hit the spot at the time that the reviewer went picking through the box of novels she’d just received from Harlequin. Or another reviewer could say that she was in the mood for something emotionally challenging so she took out a copy of an old, out-of-print novel by Pat Gaffney she’d found at a second-hand sale and had been hoarding in her TBR pile for just the right moment but then, having started it, she was really frustrated each time she had to stop reading in order to pay attention to her family because it was such a wrench to be pulled out of a book with that kind of emotional depth. Or yet another reviewer could say that she happened to pull this one off the shelves at the library because she liked the cover, but was somewhat disappointed by the fact that the hero looked nothing like the guy on the cover, and in fact it was yet another wallpaper Regency even though it had looked from the cover as though it was going to be a fun, light-hearted contemporary.

    I think quite a few reviewers do say things like that, and comments like that are probably much more informative and interesting than someone simply stating the source of a book.

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  51. I don’t think they’re contradictory, so much as context-dependent.

    I can go along with that, but disclosure of the fact that the site gets free ARCs alone does not provide enough context IMO, for a reader to know what kind of effect, if any, this has had on the review.

    Oh, of course, and I didn’t assume that everyone would react in the same ways I do. For example, I stated quite explicitly that “I don’t assume that everyone has the same feelings towards free books as I do.”

    Yes, that’s true but I think there is an implicit (in the insistence on disclosures) assumption that disclosure of the fact that a blog has received free ARCs can be interpreted to mean something about the reviews themselves.

    I think it might be interesting (though perhaps not very practical) to have a little story at the beginning of each review which set it in context. It seems to me that each time a book is read, the response of that individual reader, at that particular moment in their lives, may create a unique experience.

    We do include this type of information in the body of the review from time to time, but I think it would be constraining to have to include it every time. I already feel constrained by the letter-to-the author format, so I don’t really want more rules imposed.

    In my opinion, a review is a literary form, just like a novel, an essay or a poem. It is possible to be creative within constraints (for example, writing sonnets, as Shakespeare proved), but constraints can also limit creativity. I know I like to try to vary the way I open my reviews — it makes it more interesting for me, and I assume for readers also. So this is another area in which I have no problem with voluntary disclosure, but I do with required disclosure.

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  52. Laura and Azteclady thank you for chiming in. I noticed that Sybil, on The Good, the Bad, and the Unread has also just done a post supporting disclosure, which those of you interested in this topic might want to check out.

    I’m personally going to have to move on to work on other posts. But thank you again, everyone, for the time and careful attention you have all paid to the questions I raise in the post. As always, you have given me a lot to think about.

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