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.