The OF Blog: Fallout from last week's posts on reviewing/William Morrow letter

Friday, December 09, 2011

Fallout from last week's posts on reviewing/William Morrow letter

It seems that something I said in my two posts regarding the much-ballyhooed (and somewhat maligned) William Morrow letter to some online reviewers has struck a nerve with several people.  Checking through Google's blog search function, I see one of the School Library Journal's blogs has linked to my post, using the second post (which it seems so many of the other commentators failed to read) to open up a discussion that I found to be well worth reading, not just because her position is similar to my own.

Then a couple of large newspapers joined the fray.  The UK paper The Guardian's online column had the eye-catching title of "Are Publishers Putting the Squeeze on Bloggers?"  The columnist, Alison Flood, looks at several sides of this now-apparently contentious issue.  She notes (and I agree with her) that William Morrow is well within their rights to try to reduce the number of unwanted copies.  What the publisher failed to consider, she muses:

The problem is their understanding of the relationship between blogger and publisher – the assumption, as The OF Blog put it, "that the blogger reviewers will act as paid-in-kind promoters for the publisher". They may not be asking for a positive review, but they are saying that the books they send out merit being reviewed, and that this should be done in a time frame which fits their plans for publicity. As soon as you set limits on which books are reviewed and when that's a loss of the impartiality which is what makes books blogs (the best of them) so refreshing. If William Morrow want employ people to promote their books, they should be paying them.

 This lies at the heart of my initial reaction.  I have been in the past too visible of a blogger for there to be only dripples of review copies arriving at my door (some days, back when I was still moderating wotmania's Other Fantasy section, I would receive over a dozen review copies in a single day), so the trend has been for publicists to send via mailing lists a lot of unsolicited copies.  When wotmania closed in September 2009 and I changed this blog's focus, the rush of copies became too much, so I said as much here back in late October 2010.  I did have (and hope to have again shortly) a very demanding day job of teaching adolescents who were placed in a residential treatment center.  Working 40-60 hour weeks (and a few unpaid weekends this past summer) does not leave much time for reviewing books that do not interest me as much, even those which initially caught my eye from the enclosed press kits.  I may read very fast, but there's no way that I'm going to read 50-100 genre works and review them in any given month even when I am not working.  If other publishers want to adopt the troublesome part of William Morrow's letter and track requests and posting dates, they are well within their rights to do so, just as I'm well within mine to not request anything (which I don't do anymore).

The LA Times' book blog, Jacket Copy, had an interesting post a week ago on this issue, "Has book blogging hit the wall?  William Morrow's blogger notice."  There is a lot of food for thought in Carolyn Kellogg's piece, particularly regarding the nature of the relationships being established between publishers and reviewers such as myself.  As I said in my second post, I have no objections to being "dropped" if publishers think my stance on reviewing (no promises anything will be reviewed, only considered if sent to me) is not to their liking.  I'll say it again:  reviewing is an old craft that ought not to be controlled by those whose products are being reviewed.  I do not write reviews to please publishers (if they happen to think a review I've written is great, then swell, but my audience is not those providing review copies), but rather because I like to think I have something to say about the literature that I read (yes, I said "literature," the other L word that some don't like to admit to reading/reviewing).  My reviewing, whether it be the content of a singular review or in my selection of books to review, should not be unduly influenced by marketing departments.  One would like to think this does not occur in reviewing, whether it be for print or online publications, but sadly this is not always the case.

Now it's understandable that some of my positions on this issue are going to be contended, maybe even misunderstood.  I had the time today to read a few sites that were discussing the issue and I think some might need to reconsider what I said in both prior posts.  For example, I see someone thinks that:

Getting adversarial is no way to conduct a relationship, Larry. Perhaps publishers who operated like William Morrow, with a buffet style, have to shoulder some of the blame for not figuring out a better strategy from the get-go. Though maybe they were just optimistic about human nature. Fools!

Interesting reaction.  It is, of course, one that presumes that being "adversarial" means that I'm being rude, obnoxious, or any of those other pejoratives of choice.  I disagree.  What I advocate for myself (and would like to think some would do it) is to kick the tires, sniff the perfume, and not think that anything sent for review consideration is going to be great.  If a publishing firm were to expect me to review works (likely of a positive nature) for them at their convenience, then sorry, I will not do that, for reasons noted above.  It is odd to see this turned about around issues of "relationships" and "fairness," which seems to imply that the person writing this piece envisions a presumably "personal" relationship (not possible in my case, as outlined above) where I guess reviewers are supposed to "work with" publishers in a "fair" setting.

To that I just shake my head.  Somehow I doubt Roger Ebert worries about being "fair" or about his "relationship" with the various film companies when he goes into a theater and writes a review of some of the movies he watches each week.  I suspect past reviewers, such as H.L. Mencken or Edmund Wilson, just to name two of the more famous 20th century American critics, would be aghast at the presumption that reviewers should be so involved with publishing firms. 

What some people don't seem to be willing to discuss is the cynical notion of reviewing as cheap advertising for firms.  Yes, it's inevitable that some promotion happens whenever a title is mentioned (*cough*Herbert Rosendorfer's The Architect of Ruins*cough), but when there are more and more questions about how reviews come into being and whether or not reviewers are worried about "their supply," then I suppose there might be indeed something rotten in the state of Denmark.  As I said before and will say now, at this point I couldn't care less if every publisher cancelled sending me anything.  It wouldn't hurt this blog, its mission, or its content.  But others depend upon those copies in order to maintain their blogs' relevancy, since their focus is on what I sometimes pejoratively call "the new shiny."  They are the ones, I suppose, who have to have the "relationships" in order to survive and perhaps they are the ones who depend upon this perception of publisher largess.  If so, it's a perception that I consider to be repugnant. 

Ideally, online reviewers are treated as their print brethren, whose profession is the consideration (and subsequent review) of titles.  In reality, this is far from the case, in part due to the unevenness of the review quality, the types of reviewers, and their aims.  I consider myself (others might disagree) as a more formal reviewer; my initial exposure was writing critiques in grad school.  Others aim to be "fan" reviewers and there is nothing wrong with that (even if I dislike those types of reviews quite frequently due to the shallowness of their discussions of a book's merits and deficiencies).  What there should be in common is a respect of boundaries.  I am skeptical of those who "follow" publishers on social media; it seems to violate necessary boundaries between the people producing materials and those weighing in on its merits.  Anything that weakens that requisite divide leads me to wonder if the involved parties are losing sight of what reviews traditionally have signified.  Maybe the new way is leading to closer "relationships" where "fairness" and not the sometimes brutally honest commentaries will be the norm.

If that is the case, then I'll just resist that depressing scenario as long as I can.


Panic said...

You were certainly portrayed as very rude and obnoxious. I've never seen your blog before, so all I knew of you was from that one piece.

Looking back at it, I think the fault lies a lot with the article and how it was written. I don't particularly agree with you or what you've written here (I think if you're dealing with the Free Stuff paradigm, "relationship" really is the right word), but I do regret addressing YOU, rather than the issues.

Lsrry said...

Eh, things often are colored by how they are presented. I wrote the follow-up piece last week because I thought some clarification of some very fine points had to be made, so it was interesting to see that those who supported some of my assertions linked to the second piece while those who disagreed with my stance tended to focus on the first piece, which was written in reaction after having just read the piece.

Lots of room for civil debate and I hope my quoting your comments wasn't taken as anything other than someone who disagreed with the issues as they understood them from a linked piece.

As for "Free Stuff," I've never conceived of it in those terms. I see review copies as a form of promotion where it's up to the reviewer to decide if it merits any response. My major problem with the WM letter was not with the streamlining of the requests process for those who do such (as I said, I don't solicit copies these days, nor do I plan on doing so again), but with the publisher placing time limits that had vague implications of consequences for those who don't act in accordance with their wishes. As someone who has received hundreds of review copies over the course of the year, such a policy, if adopted by others, would put a serious crimp in the abilities of reviewers to A) cover the materials sent and B) to do so without feeling pressured. That's really the main point of my opposition; the ancillary matters reference comments I've made at times in the past to my discomfort about the lack of appropriate boundaries between publishers and reviewers.

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