The OF Blog: Follow-up on yesterday's rant

Friday, December 02, 2011

Follow-up on yesterday's rant

Yesterday's rant on the William Morrow letter to online reviewers has stirred the pot, I suppose, as even the LA Times' Jacket Copy blog has linked to my previous post and to others tweeting/blogging about that situation.  A lot of interesting points were brought up in the comments to my post, in a couple of forums where I linked to the letter, and on other blogs reacting to either those forum posts or to my original post here.  Some agreed with what I said, some had reservations, and a few disagreed completely, seeing little to nothing wrong with the situation.

I had planned on elaborating on a few of my concerns in the near future, but thought it might be best to strike while the iron is hot, so this sequel post will be more of an apologia than anything else.  What I'd like to cover here is a few points related to the receiving of review copies, perceived expectations, and the dangers associated with certain relationships.  Some will agree with what I have to say, others will disagree, and a few will likely shrug before going off to do something of a productive nature.  C'est la vie.

One common preconception about review copies is that the reception of them ought to imply a quid pro quo situation in which both the reviewer and the product producer have certain obligations.  To some small extent, this is true.  A reviewer should be expected to write reviews of something at some indeterminate date lest s/he be a fraud, but there is a fallacy here.  Some seem to think that there is an understood contract in which services are provided in exchange for material supply (reviews for books), but that is not how traditional reviewing has taken place.  I come from an academic background, having written critiques of fellow grad student papers and having mine critiqued as well.  It was there where I learned how to write reviews and where I derive my review ethics.  Scholars receive materials to consider for review; they often decline to review a work or if they accept it, it is not with the expectation that the review is payment for services rendered by the initial reception of materials (i.e. books).

As a fairly successful online reviewer (with hundreds of thousands, if not over a million – depending on the stat device used –, of page views over seven years), I was one of the earliest people to receive books from genre publishers, way back in 2004 (although that was because I headed wotmania's Other Fantasy section then).  For years now, I've received hundreds of books from a wide variety of publishers, from large conglomerates down to smaller "indie" presses.  I did a few contacts at first to have my name put on mailing lists, but I never considered myself a reviewer for hire by any press.  Instead, I viewed it akin to how a professor or school may solicit samples from several publishing firms in order to do textbook selections (something which I've helped in a minor role in my main career as a teacher).  They might receive dozens of materials and select only 1-3 out of those.  Only difference being there is no feasible way of returning the promotional ARC materials, this is how I've always viewed the process.  I am a potential user/reviewer, the publishers are vendors advertising their wares in hopes that I select one for consideration and then possible favorable recommendation to others.

Others do not see it this way.  They see it as an unspoken obligation between the two parties.  Some in the comments I've read on this issue get hung up on the "well, they requested the copies" quip.  People request information or, in this case, materials for a variety of reasons.  They may want to investigate further to see if the material warrants a full read/review (and in many cases, the story is unappealing to the reviewer and they would rather not finish the book than to write a negative review).  Some may view it as an obligation or paid-in-kind job that they must complete in order to be "paid."  Regardless of the rationale, there is that common belief that obligations exist for reviewers.  Here, it seems the main obligation is to read/review a book because the publisher expects that of reviewers and that to refuse to do so is somehow dishonest.  I think this is a misleading expectation, in large part because for some of the more well-known online reviewers (those at my modest level to those who receive tens of thousands of page views daily), we receive a lot of unsolicited materials in hopes that we will choose 1-5 a month that will gain enough visibility that they might start a daisy chain of other reviewers hunting down those books, posting reviews, and perhaps increasing potential sales by 10% or more.  Is it cost-effective for publishers?  Depends on the firm and their market strategy.  It may not be as lucrative as some thought, viz. the William Morrow marketing letter, which hints at a restriction on these unsolicited copies due to the gross inefficiencies of this scatter-shot approach toward distributing review copies.  It does make sense for those bearing the cost of review distribution to reassess and refine distribution.  That is not a problem for me and never was, as my perceived part in this is someone who sifts through what is sent unsolicited.

As I've said in the past, I no longer solicit copies and I seldom respond to direct publicist requests because I do not want to get into the game of promising tit for tat.  This is an important distinction to make here, as it also implies that I do not care one way or the other if a publisher feels these terms of engagement are not conducive to good marketing for them.  I would have no qualms about dropping publishing firms who demand that I cover X number of books by Y date, nor should they have any hesitation in dropping me from their mailing lists if I won't play by their rules.  Some commentators have made disparaging comments regarding "blogger entitlement," as if the reviewers somehow expect they should receive "free books" without obligation.  That's not the issue here:  reviewers ought not to be viewed as a (mostly) unpaid extension of a publisher's marketing branch.  I may read a book, say Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, and praise it, but I'm not going to be a taint weasel and praise every single thing that Coffee House Books has done in hopes of receiving more copies (I should note that I bought the book and have never had any dealings with Coffee House Books other than buying a few books that I later thought were excellent).  To do so would compromise my ethical position when it comes to reviewing books.  Others might disagree, arguing that people such as myself cannot hold themselves distant from the fray and look down upon those who are trying to find good books and to promote those to their readers.

A related view, expressed in a comment to a post here, is that receiving review materials is a "privilege."  It is the different side of the obligation coin, where now the reviewer is somehow (unjustly?) exalted because s/he receives something that others do not and that therefore they better be sure to keep that in mind lest it be yanked away from them.  I disagree.  Reviewing is separate, or at least ought to be, from the means in which the reviewed materials are acquired.  I am no more or less of a reviewer because I bought my copy of Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox before receiving a commission to write a short review of it for the upcoming issue of Bull Spec magazine.  I review because I want to and because I worked hard enough at my craft that I occasionally agree to write columns, reviews, and conduct interviews for paying venues.  There is no coercion there; my reviews, columns, or interviews could have been rejected or I could have not accepted the commissions.  There is neither privilege nor entitlement involved in reviewing.  I could have every single publisher-sent review copy dropped tomorrow and it would not affect me as a reviewer because I would then just buy what interests me, explore a few curiosities, and only be a few hundred dollars poorer every year.

This admittedly cavalier attitude is not a universal one.  There are those who are caught up in how to receive the copies, on how best to cover them, and how not to upset the hand that "feeds" them.  These are the ones who will work hardest on "Maggie's Farm," as they want to work harder to win the prize at the end of the day.  These bloggers are so earnest that I cannot help but marvel at them while being dismayed at the sometimes servile tone they strike.  For several, reviewing is something done in order to continue to receive something that they hope they can share with friends and other like-minded individuals who want to know what "the buzz" is going to be and where.  For these reviewers, the relationship between reviewer-product supplier is not that of vendor model (my attitude) or employer/employee as much as it is a cozy connection in which the blogger becomes a willing participant in the book promotion game, sometimes crossing over and joining the publisher in a paid position (this is not condemning those who take such jobs, mind you).  Perhaps the better term for this type of reviewer-publisher relationship is that of the lobbyist or advocate, where the blogger sees their main role as advocating (or recommending) certain books and not attempting to be critical or to place distance between themselves and the publishers.

This is where I have the largest problems.  I didn't address it fully (or adequately) in the William Morrow piece I wrote yesterday, but beyond the annoying claims put forth in that letter was this sense that it was written in part to address those who may be receptive to being a book lobbyist sort of reviewer.  This galls me.  Not the WM letter as much as the growing sense I've had that too many erstwhile critics are becoming too close to their clients and that the relationship does not have the necessary "distance" that would benefit both the reviewer and the publisher who wants a firmer gauge on what stories appeal to which audiences.  Giveaways by themselves are harmless, but the perception that the review is the "hook" for the giveaway is an insidious one that hints at a possible internal decay of the review infrastructure.  Who can trust those who may have lost their critical eye?

These issues outlined above have troubled me long before the latest teapot tempest.  While I don't expect people to agree with even part of what I have said, hopefully there is some food for thought here.  Later this month, I plan on reviewing several titles.  Virtually all of them will be bought and not received, but a few might be review copies.  When those reviews appear will depend on my health (I am scheduled to have dental surgery on the 13th to remove an infected wisdom tooth) and my time (I will begin shortly writing biweekly columns for Weird Fiction Review).  What I do hope readers will do is read what I write, look and see if there are other reviews, and make up their own minds, as I don't write reviews for fame, review copies, or much of anything else other than a love to spout off on occasion.


lessthanpleased said...

I think this is a really consistent argument on your part, which puts you in a different position than several others who are rejecting the letter (and blogging about their rejection). I'm also an academic, and totally understand your position about reviewing from that angle.

That being said, what makes your position consistent to me is that you simply don't solicit books for review. If you were soliciting books for review from publishers, it would be reasonable for the publisher to request that you review them in a timely way; they accommodated you, so you accommodate them (even if the result might not be what they want in the form of a bad review). But you don't do that anymore and don't plan on doing that again, so there really isn't an issue here.

I was in a similar position when I was reviewing books for a magazine, and quickly reached the same conclusion after a few months, even without a letter like this: I simply wouldn't request books for review any more since I didn't always feel comfortable with the procedure or the sense of obligation it instilled in me.

RobB said...

Nice follow-up Larry. One thing that I haven't seen mentioned too much is that yeah all these books are sent free to the reviewers, but damn, those books pile up and after a few months can take over an entire room!

Pat mentioned receiving 600 books in a year. While i don't think I get quite that many, I certainly get quite a few for

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Ben Godby said...

This is precisely why I read and trust your reviews.

Amy said...

Really interesting and thorough article today. Fantastic points, I think. Personally I think my questioning why there is even drama comes down to not understanding why people rely so heavily on the review copies as something that they *need* in order to review. I mean... if you do want a review copy and are specifically asking for it but have zero intention to review the book... well...

But then, I get SO CRANKY when unsolicited copies show up in my mailbox, especially as the publishers never seem to try to even look at what I read and like? So I'd do anything for that to stop as I hate trying to figure out what to do with the books.

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