The OF Blog: Alms for the poor! Alms for the ex-leper! Alms for the online reviewer!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Alms for the poor! Alms for the ex-leper! Alms for the online reviewer!

So the issue of the sustainability of online reviewing has reared its fugly head again. Doesn't surprise me much, actually, since it is a matter near and dear to many online reviewers' hearts - themselves. Kidding...mostly. But there are a few things I suppose could be discussed from these links, particularly the ones to posts by Gabe Chouinard and Pat.

Yes, anything that involves time and effort is going to feel like work, because it is work. It can be spending dozens of hours crafting a beautiful bookcase after watching the New Yankee Workshop on PBS or it can be agreeing to be a Cub Scoutmaster for your son's troop. If you put the time and effort in, there are going to be times that you feel exhausted, tired, and perhaps ready to give it up, depending of course on your level of enthusiasm. Throw in a full-time paying job and chances are you'll feel exhausted even sooner, especially when there's that thought deep down inside you that says, "You're not really being paid for any of this, you know. Why not skip it for a few days and rest?" Very insidious, that voice; been listening to it for the past month and a half, actually.

When it comes to online reviewing, it depends on why the person is doing it in the first place and what he/she has to contribute. While face-to-face, I'm a friendly, pleasant person to be around, I also happen to have a very coldhearted attitude toward the online review issue. As both Gabe and Pat have noted, there have been a proliferation of online review blogs in the past couple of years. Perhaps these people have been driven by the lure of "publicity" that others get or by the promotional copies, perhaps not. There has been a huge increase, although not really in the number of books being discussed at length. After a while, I've come to feel that sometimes it isn't as much of a lively chatter about books, but rather a droning HUUUMMM sound. Rather annoying at times; some of the same ones engaging in it seem to have noticed this as well, based on their self-conscious admissions here and there in the past few months.

Being "original" or having "a good, strong voice" is part of the equation here, something that I think could have been addressed in the linked posts above. Being "original" doesn't mean just discussing things off the beaten path. I could open the door and point out a few dozen people who think they are "off the beaten path" by getting their tramp stamps, piercings, and day-glo hair dyes, for example. No, the hardest part of being "original" (and this dovetails into having the "good, strong voice") is being brutally honest with yourself and forcing yourself to admit that you have weaknesses and "blind spots" when it comes to reviewing and then working on it. For myself, those weaknesses would involve an unevenness in considering how a text might be perceived by others, not really being interested in reading paranormal romances, and perhaps being too forgiving of authors whose wordplay is much stronger than the other components of their stories.

But doing this takes a lot of effort, perhaps too much. So many have started to fall rather silent, I guess. Perhaps it is due, as Gabe postulates, to readers feeling a pressure to review each and every book that they receive from publishers. After all, even though I read much faster than the average person, if I tried to write reviews of each and every one of the 250-300 books I've received/bought this year, I'd be about as brain-damaged in my reviews as Harriet Klausner! Publishers just hope for word of mouth and I'm being equal opportunity by just photographing the weekly book arrivals (and purchases and gifts) and posting those pictures here. No pressure on me, since I don't view this blog as being beholden to any but myself and perhaps to the four mostly-quiet co-authors of this blog (no, they're all still alive...I think).

Having spent the past few paragraphs talking about effort and the damage done, I guess some are expecting me to spend even more time talking about the issue of payment, since that's what Gabe and Pat devoted much of their posts to. Nope. I don't have a really strong opinion on it. From the time I began back in late May 2007 to revive this blog and make near-daily posts on it, I've always conceived of it as a place to practice and to develop my critiques. Right now, I'm getting exactly what I wanted back then, which is lively conversations here, reaction/tangental threads being developed by others elsewheres, all leading into an interesting conversation rather than just the dull roar of I AM YOUR BLOGGER GOD! LISTEN TO MY 90210 COMMANDMENTS! (although I'll admit such a voice can be cool on occasion). As a result, I've been asked a handful of times this year to write freelance, paid reviews elsewhere. It was an honor, although the money really didn't mean much to me (in part because I'm satisfied with the money I get paid for teaching). It was the being asked to contribute something that meant more to me.

So the talk about monetizing blogs or getting genre-specific ads really doesn't mean much to me. Right now, the most important thing about blogging to me is my continued improvement as a critic and the continuation of the greater conversation. Money comes as a result of that, it doesn't generate it.


Liviu said...

There are several issues conflated here and let me try and list several such and my thoughts:

Usefulness of sff (or more generally book) review blogs and forums - unquestionable;

I found so many books from several sites I follow and quite a few of those were books I would and actually did ignore in several cases, until someone whose taste I trusted recommended them

Emerald City has the record for books found from when it was active, then this blog and Robert's blog - I write occasionally reviews for Robert but that's exactly how that started by me commenting on his blog - and of course sffworld.

Other sites I found useful books from are Torque Control and Strange Horizon.

- Should bloggers be paid or otherwise get perks and favors? -

I have nothing against as long as full disclosure is made. When I write a review I always try to mention if the book is bought or received as an arc - though I also buy arcs on eBay.

- Should bloggers review only books they like and more generally what about negative reviews ?

Here my opinion is that reviewing books one feels he/she will hate or not appreciate just because one has to is pointless, but if there was a book one had high expectations and it disappointed then sure review it and point out why.

Putting me to review Tolkien, Susannah Clarke, Gaiman, Ericson, Sanderson, Butcher, Jordan would be a train wreck, but I am not shy to say why Saturn's Children was so disappointing as was Singularity's Ring, Black Man/Thirteen or to a lesser extent The Prefect...

A rule of thumb would be that for new authors for you, maybe that writer is just not for you so review negatively only someone you read and liked before

I saw enough reviews from clueless reviewers or from those that hated that specific type of book to realize that trashing someone just because, is pointless...

Are there too many review blogs?

Hard to say, but my rule against is to find several I like and follow them, while occasionally trying others. Competition is much better than few choices and usually a review blog filling a need will stand out in time

Lsrry said...

Agreed about the sites you mentioned. As for mentioning things, I rarely do mention how I received a book because I tend to view it the same way that a reviewer for the NY Times would - it was sent for consideration, not as a form of payment or bribe. Not any different than me going through social studies textbooks and deciding which one would best suit the district, I suppose.

Reviewing books one is predisposed to dislike - I agree it'd be a trainwreck, although on occasions, it has forced me to be more aware of what it might be about that book that would appeal to others (if not to me).

And as for too many review blogs, I think there isn't a single set number, only a shifting range that depends on if one doesn't stand out or not. If one doesn't stand out, I won't visit that blog and thus it's dead to me :P

SQT said...

Good lord. I hope I'm not dead to you.

I get the whole want-to-be-paid thing, but I doubt we'll see it happen. There will always be newbies willing to fill in the gaps for free and take all the review books. I can't tell you how many times I've had people ask me how I get my books and how to get them in touch with the publishers.

I've changed a lot in how I do things though. I don't feel as beholden to the publishers as I used to. Now I pick and choose my review books based on what I want to do rather than the order in which they came. I can't possibly do them all.

And like you said, writing a decent review takes time. I just wrote up one for Neuropath and that was a tough one to write. Took me longer than I'd like to admit.

Lsrry said...

If you're on my blogroll, you're not dead to me. If you're not, still doesn't mean you're dead to me, as I sometimes forget to add a few of the blogs that I read on occasion via links. :P

I just see my blog reviews here as practice, more than anything else. By keeping myself (self)centered like that, it does cut down on the "guilt" and on the worries about matters.

Graeme Flory said...

It's a tough one. I'd love to get paid for something I really enjoy doing (instead of what I do for a living) but I think one of the reasons I enjoy it so much is because it's my thing and no-one elses. I started my blog just to see if I could, now I'm trying to improve on what I'm saying. I think I like it just the way it is right now :o)

I used to be one those people who tried to read everything I was sent but it turns out there just isn't enough hours in the day. You know what though? The publishers really don't care if you don't review every single thing they send so I'm not going to kill myself over it. A little bit of what I know I'll enjoy and some things I'd never try normally seems to make for a good mix. I know what you mean with the paranormal romance thing. I'd never pick it up normally and reading it confirmed my own suspicions. Having said that though, reading what I read was a good exercise in stepping outside my own comfort zone and trying to write reviews that were objective (not sure how well I did but there's always next the next book!)

Just stopped writing, to do something else, and I've lost track of whatever I was saying. Time to get something to eat...


Anonymous said...

I post a review when I can, which means sometimes I review lots of books for a while, but usually means I post a review every now and then. I'd like to write more often, and since taking the SFF Masterclass this past June, I hope I'll be writing more, but life does get in the way. I do it because I enjoy it, it stretches my writing muscles, and I like spreading the word about books I enjoyed. If I could get discussions going about the books I review, that would be even better; but for that, I need to review more. My ambitions tend to outpace the available time.

If I weren't always writing legal stuff, which tends to fulfill much of my need to write, this would be a lot easier! Just need to push myself, I guess. In the meantime, though, I invite you to read my latest review, posted yesterday; I think it's one of my better efforts, even if the book is mostly a mystery and only SF if you squint at it a bit.

Lsrry said...

Terry, I'll have a look in a little bit. As for your and Graeme's comments, to be honest, there's little need to justify why you do or don't do something at such-and-such time or in this-or-that fashion. I'm not ripping into anybody! :P

That being said, what one does with his/her blog is up to them, even if I reserve the right to comment on it as I please ;)

Anonymous said...

No, I understand that. Just explaining my own approach, and why my blog often lies fallow for a time -- and why book bloggers in general might seem to be falling off these days after initial spurts of activity. It IS a commitment, and if you're not doing it for fun or your own purposes, there's not much point.

It seems to me, though, that we really do need the bloggers. Newspapers are running fewer and fewer book review sections. I don't always find the book review columns in the SF/F/H magazines to be particularly useful. Locus is probably one of my top sources for lots of the more unusual things I read, but how many people read Locus? I've gotten great leads from you on books I'd never have thought to look at (your list of "Books That I Wish I Would See Others Mention Or Discuss More" is one of my "Favorites," and I refer to it when heading for the library or bookstore).

Sure, there's lots of crap out there, but that's Sturgeon's Law in action. I'd rather wade through it and find a book I'd otherwise have missed than be stuck without that one little masterpiece.

Lsrry said...

I understand, Terry, which is why I posted what I did :P Thanks for letting me know that my post on those overlooked books has been of help to you :D

Do agree about the decline in newspaper coverage. It was sobering to realize that this blog has as much effectual reach as say a 100K circulation newspaper, considering the low percentage of those newspaper readers who read the book reviews section for possible reads.

Graeme Flory said...

I did get a little carried away going on about what I do... (oops)


Anonymous said...

It is interesting how online reviewing has been conflated with blogging in these discussions. Of course online reviewing is sustainable, that doesn't mean blogging is.

I've written nine reviews this years. That is just over one a month and I think that is pretty much my limit, I don't think I could exceed this without detrimental impact on the reviews or on my life. None of those reviews appeared on my blog and I got paid for seven of them.

Similarly I don't receive any ARCs unless I specifically request them from either the publisher or one of my editors. If publishers did send me unsolicited ARCs the majority would go down the charity shop immediately. I'm astonished at the idea people might feel guilt at wasting a publisher's marketing budget. This is another instance where SF bloggers are so far away from the mainstream culture of reviewing. (See also the contstant fretting about full disclosure.)

The power to reduce the pressure of blogging is entirely within the hands of the bloggers themselves. I couldn't write an interesting blog post every day and I'm not interested in growing my blog brand in the way Jonathan describes. This means not very many people read my blog but I can write what I want, when I want.

As a final note, I'm surprised more people don't group blog.

Anonymous said...

Also, I demand a new poll.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gabe said...

Martin makes an interesting point, which I inadvertently echoed in a comment on my blog - what about multi-user blogs? I pointed to Fantasy Book Critic as an example. Certainly that sort of confederate lightens the work-load, and makes it easier to run ads without the accusations.

Me? I'm content blogging by myself. But for those experiencing burn-out, maybe that's the way forward.

And he raises another good point - You need a new poll!

Lsrry said...

Yeah, I was just thinking of that the other day, but I've been scatter-brained doing this and that, leading me to forget almost immediately afterward. I'll change the polls sometime later today, since it's been a month or more.

As for the group blog idea, that originally was my plan here, but the ones who agreed to help me with it all fell by the wayside by early 2007, just when I decided it needed to be more than a monthly update. I do like the idea quite a bit, but due to the original nature of this blog (being viewed as a forum mods' blog), don't know who'd fit in well with the current approach I've established here.

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