I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more
No, I aint gonna work on Maggie's farm no more
Well, I wake up in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin' me insane
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.– Bob Dylan, "Maggie's Farm"
A little over a year ago, I made the decision not to solicit review copies or advanced review copies (ARCs) any more due to certain constraints that I felt might compromise my ability to write honest, reflective reviews. I do not regret making that decision and even though I still receive a few unsolicited review copies, I do not promise to review any of the books I receive in case I find there is little to say about the book or because I do not care to read it at all. That decision has worked well for me and I have found that I have reviewed more diverse books over the past year than I had done previously. This may not be to the liking of those readers who want "the new shiny" when it comes to books and want to be able to compare reviews of particular "buzzworthy" books, but tough. This blog has been dedicated to reviewing an eclectic range of works and if you hadn't heard of Donald Ray Pollock before reading this blog and then discovered that he writes darker, more twisted (in a good way) stories than the average Joes (Abercrombie, Piscopo), then this blog has served its purpose.
Other online reviewers probably enjoyed (and maybe still enjoy) the interactions with publicists, authors, and editors more than I have. Maybe there's some fun in arranging contests, giveaways, and other promotional matters. That's never been of interest to me, even when I arranged them at wotmania as perfunctory matter. I preferred keeping my distance and viewing the review copies et al. as akin to textbook adoptions, where the districts (or in my case, the reviewer) consider what is offered but make no commitments, with none expected unless an arrangement is made. Others might not like that reduction of all this down to its business core, but that's how I've viewed it for a long time, which probably has enabled me to sleep better at night than others who have fretted and worried over their "review commitments."
But I would imagine that even those who have cozier relationships with publishers than I ever will might be upset to learn of a letter sent to several online reviewers by William Morrow, a branch of HarperCollins. I saw this posted today on Twitter and I was disgusted by what I read:
Your job? Uh, Hey-ull nah! I ain't workin' for you!
"Under the new system, you will no longer receive titles piece-meal. Instead, you'll receive 1-3 emails during the month with all of our upcoming titles available for your review, one month ahead of the on-sale date. You'll be directed to a Google form where you can request up to three of your choices. Of course, we'll still happily pay the shipping. Your job is simply to review the book within a month of receiving it and post your thoughts on your blog or site. Ideally, we'd like for reviews to appear online within two weeks to a month after the on-sale date, so you might keep this in mind when selecting books."
"When you've reviewed a book you've chosen and sent us an email with a link to the posted review, you will be eligible for a free giveaway copy. Just let us know in the email that you'd like to host a giveaway. We'll pay for the shipping to the winner within the US and Canada."How nice. Write us a review and we'll be oh-so-kind as to offer you a promotional copy to promote your blog and our product. Backs will be scratched, almost gratis!
Sounds super! But what's the catch, dad?
"Additionally, you'll no longer receive books that you didn't order. No more random books showing up on your doorstep! You'll only receive the titles that you want."
"If it isn't already clear, WE LOVE THAT YOU LOVE OUR BOOKS! And to allow us to continue to offer free copies and free shipping to you committed book reviewers, we will be tracking how many reviews we receive from you. If we notice that you request books but aren't posting your comments or sending us the link, we may suspend your ability to receive review offers from us. We know you're busy bloggers – if you don't think you'll be able to post a review within a month, please pass on that offer so we can continue to offer you free books in the future!"And now we see the stick lying behind that dangling ARC carrot. It's not enough that it is "your job" to review their books within a one month span before or after its release date, but they couch in sweet talk the threat to pull review copies because you don't want to play their game. In other words, it's not the neutral relationship between a critic and a publishing firm, but it is a quasi-working relationship where it is implied that the blogger reviewers will act as paid-in-kind promoters for the publisher and get a few (up to three a month!) books in a quid pro quo arrangement. No, I ain't gonna be working on Maggie's farm no more...and neither should any who actually received that letter from the William Morrow Marketing Team.
It's bad enough when some publishers imply such an arrangement is necessary for online reviewers to receive books, but to go so far as to baldly state it? It's just a perversion of what a literary critic/book reviewer should be doing and seeing such a missive sickens me. What's worse is that I know there are some out there who will readily grovel to receive such titles, even if it meant forfeiting any possibility of having a neutral, critical approach toward reviewing any titles received from William Morrow or any other publisher that might demand terms such as that.
Sadly, this letter is but a symptom of what I perceive to be an unbalanced and unhealthy relationship between those who produce objects and those who write about said objects. Too often we hear these days of those "reviewers" who have been bought and sold by the companies whose products they are supposed to be evaluating. I recently saw a link on Conversational Reading that dealt with "a crisis in literary criticism." It is worth reading, but what I noticed was an implied reference to reviewers who are "careful" about what they say about books. Let's be honest. A large reason why reviewers in print publications have to be "careful" is that too often the ad/marketing people call the shots. If the review pisses off a client, then money might be lost, so the reviewer is often reminded to tone it down. There really are few firebrands out there blasting both barrels at works that suck donkey dong. Whether it be online reviewers on their nascent blogs that receive a few score visitors a day or those who enjoy a regular readership in the hundreds of thousands, one doesn't want to lose their supply and/or money, so one just meekly parses their words to make scathing complaints into the mildest of rebukes while providing blurb-friendly comments to works that are disposable and easily forgotten after the sales cycle is complete.
What a sad state of affairs. Maggie and her brother seem to have the upper hand for now.