The OF Blog: I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More: William Morrow and Blogger Reviewers

Thursday, December 01, 2011

I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More: William Morrow and Blogger Reviewers

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:

"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."
Your job?  Uh, Hey-ull nah!  I ain't workin' for you!

"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!

"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."
Sounds super!  But what's the catch, dad?

"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.




16 comments:

Jdiddyesquire said...

Well written, Larry. You're absolutely right.

Larry said...

Not used to hearing "absolutely right" said about one of my opinion pieces, but thanks :D

Joe Sherry said...

That would be an automatic "ignore publisher" for me.

Larry said...

It'd be the same for me, except I do that most of the time anyway as a matter of course.

Bryce L. said...

Maybe it's the 13-year-old in me, but I will probably ignore them from now on. I have enough to read that I've bought let alone for review.

Then again, I also see it as their prerogative. If that's what they want they are welcome to it. They also run the risk of people seeing the sham for what it is and not trusting any review of their books. Bad form, just plain bad form.

Martin said...

I really don't see the issue here. Contrary to what you say above, it in no way threatens the neutral relationship between blogger and publisher. If such a thing existed in the first place, of course; complicity is an issue but it is a general one and the William Morrow email doesn't add any extra level to this.

In the olden days (say, ten years ago), publishers sent out copies of all their titles to the reviews editors of a small number of publications. Those editors then assigned them to reviewers and the outcome was timely, professionally edited reviews of a selection of titles. Everyone is a winner.

With the advent of the internet as a publishing platform, publishers realised that they had a way round the only limitation of the old system: a relatively small number of spaces for reviews to appear and hence a relatively small number of titles covered. So they applied the same model to bloggers and sent out large number of books to a large number of reviewers.

The problem then is that the publishers have considerably increased their costs without any guarantee of the broad, timely coverage they want. So I'm not surprised some publishers are re-evaluting the model to make it more focussed. What William Morrow are saying seems eminently sensible to me: "Can you review one of our books in the next month? Great, we'll send you a free copy." If you can't review a book within a month but really, really want to review it then you can buy your own copy and review it at your leisure. I don't see anything objectionable about any of that.

Access to free books is not a god given right for bloggers.

Amy said...

I so rarely read review copies for some of the reasons you state - I like having no ties, I like reading on my own schedule, and love the variety I can read when ignoring the new and shiny. That being said, I'm on the fence about this letter. It's a tad strong and that I don't agree with, but I do see that especially with so many blogs popping up and so many doing the same books, some type of rules isn't necessarily bad. i.e. if bloggers have rules, why not publishers? Seems they didn't go about it very well though. heh. But then, if we don't like it, we can just not accept copies from them, right?

RobB said...

I just saw this on Pat's blog and I'll reiterate/expand what I said there:

Harper, out of the big publishers, seems to think of the SFF genre as something of an afterthought at best. Granted, they publish a wide range of books as do Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan (Tor), Hachette (Orbit). However, this letter seems very much directed at the SFF genre blogosphere/web reviewers, and I could be wrong, more than anybody else.

Considering Tor, Orbit, and Random House (Del Rey / Spectra), and Simon & Schuster (who smarlty just let Baen handle their own Web publicity) have made outreach to genre bloggers/Web reviewers such a key element of their PR and marketing (and it seems to be working), this seems such a goddamned ass-backwards way of thinking. Just compare their Web presence to the others I've mentioned.

Granted, William Morrow does publish Neil Gaiman, but not under any genre imprint and he's pretty much his own marketing beast anyway.

RobB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RobB said...

Silly me, I forgot the fine folks of the Penguin imprints (Roc/DAW/Ace) and Pyr, all of whom do terrific outreach and promotion with the blogger/Web reviewers

Larry said...

Martin,

While I see and understand your position, what I am objecting to is not so much the reorganization of how review copies are distributed, but rather the shift from publishers shopping wares for potential reviewers to a "hey, you can request this, but you have to do this for me" deal. It's a shift from the reviewer having the decision to the corporation. It makes great sense for WM to adopt such a thing, but I think establishing the sort of relationship where reviewers first have to ask rather than having the publicists pitching it to them first (which is what I see implied behind this letter; having a press release sort of catalog standing in place of personal e-contact) is rather disconcerting.

I'm not the groveling sort of person. I don't have to agree to such terms and what I cover and how I cover it is not going to be appealing to several marketing departments. It may work for others who are willing to play ball with such terms, but I think it's unhealthy because it restricts the options available to some reviewers (choosing a book and then finding it to be utter shit and feeling obliged to review it lest the gig be pulled from you can lead to a softening of critiques in practice).

For everyone: There's been a good pro/con discussion at this forum between myself and someone who works in a Canadian F/X studio about the whys, hows, and implications of this sort of model. I elaborate a bit more there and don't quite have the rantish tone that this original post contains. In addition, I might write a companion piece this weekend or next week dealing with a broader issue connected to this.

i doser mp3 said...

Wonderful rhyming lines at the top of the post. But well, I can't find anything so profoundly focused in the post herein. A lovely post though... Like the style of your writing.

Martin said...

It is nice that you don't like grovelling but, as you said in your intro, you don't actually accept review copies so that is pretty irrelevant. You've opted out (as have I), this is about people who have opted in.

As for the claims you make, I think they are just false. It in no way shifts the decision from reviewer to the publisher, it merely changes when the reviewer makes the decision (before instead of after receiving the book). I don't see how circulating a catalogue is any less pushing than direct tailored contact (which I don't believe is the norm anyway) but regardless of that it is ludicrously overblown to describe such a change as disconcerting.

As for the idea that having to review shit books "can lead to a softening of critiques in practice", well, maybe but there are so many hypotheticals there that it is impossible to rebut. However, having to review shit books rather than just ignore them is, in fact, a positive thing. It restricts the options of the reviewer only in so much as it requires them to hold up their side of the bargain: that they actually review the book.

Larry said...

Martin,

I think if I had to distill it down and eliminate some of the digressions in this piece, I would have asked rhetorically, "Could you work under these conditions?" Having a matter of weeks to consider, read, and review 1-3 titles from a single publisher and feeling coerced to do it in such a short window I suspect would put a lot of pressure on those who fret enough as it is about keeping their semi-hobby, semi-job running. I know I wouldn't (which is part of the reason why I dropped out of that rat race), thus the post.

As for the hypotheticals, yes, they are quite a few, but it does bear raising them for consideration when I do believe that there are a host of related issues that may affect the quality of reviewing. I used to be less direct in my criticisms because I didn't care to be "that guy" that poo-pahs others' reviews, before I woke up to reality and decided that I'm the only one who really matters in the expression of my opinion. Reviews of crap books happen quite a bit, but when some feel that vague pressure not to call those festering leprous spots on a diseased mule but to instead polish that turd to a nice shine, then there are other issues that still tie into how reviewers see themselves vis-a-vis product suppliers.

Nick said...

Frankly, this is an absurd objection. Publishers have a right to expect that the promotional copies they send out for review are actually being sent out for review and not just so someone can say 'look how cool I am with my ARC'. The only terms I can see are that they ask you to do what you say you want to do when they send you free books. Don't like it? Don't ask for free books!

Larry said...

Nick,

I don't think you read my post very carefully. I don't request materials these days. Furthermore, your understanding of reviewing and what it entails is lacking. Review materials are akin to sample items sent by vendors to companies for their consideration; there is no obligation for either party. That one party is trying to make it so is the issue here.

 
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