Following the coverage of last week’s Book Expo America Bloggers Conference left me a little frustrated with how the publishing industry views blogging. For the record, in all the time I’ve been blogging I’ve never been pressured by a publisher to do anything untoward. They’ve never asked me to write a review a certain way or threaten to take away future copies of books. In fact, the only request I’ve ever had from a publisher is to hold a review until a certain date. What gets my goat is the implication that bloggers exist to help sell books, an assertion that seems to have been echoed again and again at the Bloggers Conference.
I first became aware of this perspective via the infamous William Morrow letter which stated, “Your job is simply to review the book within a month of receiving it and post your thoughts on your blog or site.” A poor choice of words, but one that seems to be resonating among those in the book business as expressed on the Book Smuggler review of the Conference. I’ve never thought of myself that way. It bothers me that those in the business of selling books would think of me that way. I consider myself to be an arbiter of taste. My role, as I see it, is to help readers make informed choices about how they spend their money. If I sell some books as a result, that’s fine, but not my ultimate goal.
I could go on about how the blogger conference might have been better run, or what topics would have been more appropriate to discuss. I’m not sure what purpose that serves other than to be nuisance. Instead, I want to talk about the current relationship between blogger and publicist and how it could be improved. Based on a thread at the Westeros Forums, I suspect the public at large (and publishing professionals apparently) have some misconceptions.
The truth is every publisher does it differently. There’s “Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You”, “We’ll Send You Anything You Ask For”, “What The Hell Here’s Everything We Publish”, “You’re Not Begging Hard Enough”, “We’ll Send It If You Promise to Review It”, and everything in between. Most of the genre imprints fall into the category of “Ask and You Shall Receive Within Reason”. I’ve never been rejected by a publisher for a review copy even in the early days, although I have occasionally been met with defeaning silence.
That said, with dozens of books being released every week, how in the world can a blogger keep up with requesting the books he wants to review? Furthermore, how is a publisher doing their job marketing their authors if all they do is send books people ask for? The result would be every blog covering only the most popular authors. Therefore, it’s the publicists job to introduce less popular or new authors to the reading public. Blogs have become one of the primary outlets for that, especially in genre fiction.
This is accomplished by exposing reviewers to books they don’t know they want. The lazy ones just send books blind. Given enough time and consistency a blogger will soon begin receiving far more books than he can ever read. I’m starting to reach that critical mass now. I’ve received over a dozen review copies since June 1, many of which are sequels to first books I haven’t read and don’t even own. What a waste. I’ll end up running a giveaway for half of them where hopefully they’ll go to a loving home, be read, and recommended to others. For most bloggers they just end up getting donated to a local library. Somehow I don’t think that’s what the publicist had in mind when it was sent to me.
The better ones dialogue with bloggers. For example, Pyr e-mailed me a few days ago, “Please let me know if you would like a print or PDF ARC of The Skybound Sea – The Aeons’ Gate Book Three by Sam Sykes. A press release is below!”
Orbit sends a monthly e-mail of the next month’s releases, a link to an electronic galley, and a line that reads, “If you would like a printed copy of the book, please let me know!” Angry Robot does something similar.
Unfortunately, these are the exceptions, not the rule. Random House, for example, has never reached out to me as a blogger (although they’ve been perfectly nice when I reach out to them). Penguin and Macmillan are very pro-active, but along with Random House it’s almost impossible to figure out who’s the publicist for which title, leading to an occasional endless runaround.
The bad ones don’t do either. They just wait for someone to e-mail them, asking for a book to which they do or do not respond. For bloggers, these publishers can be trying.
Beginning with the William Morrow cluster fuck last year, and continuing to the BEA Blogger Conference, publishers have begun questioning this relationship. What’s the return on investment? How do the publishers, struggling with an ever shrinking profit margin, justify sending books into the ether hoping against hope that someone reviews them? William Morrow’s answer was to require reviews and use giveaway copies as carrots, intimating that bloggers work for publishers.
I wonder if Angry Robot’s policy will be the wave of the future. If they send a hard copy book, they expect a review. Failing to do so results in the discontinuation of the relationship. I’m sure this is a decision based solely on the cost of sending a book and getting nothing back for it. Angry Robot has one of the most robust eGalley systems and they attach no such strings to reviewers who download. It’s a pretty good model as far as such things go. For a small imprint it makes perfect sense. While I may not love the notion of requiring a review of a book I may not want to finish, I can respect their need to cut costs.
Unfortunately, there are still many authors who don’t get coverage. If no one’s reviewing it, no one is talking about it, and word of mouth is still the best way to sell books. This absence can be particularly noticeable in the echo chamber of the on-line reviewing community. The loudest and most obnoxious are typically the self-published authors feeling slighted by the reviewing community. In that cacophony, it’s easy to forget that there are many authors from major houses, lacking the undivided attention of their publisher who likewise fall through the reviewer cracks. Not every big-six author is John Scalzi or Charlaine Harris or Justin Cronin. For every one of them there fifteen Kelly McCulloughs.
When McCullough’s last last book came out, Broken Blade, I heard nothing about it prior to release. Nor do I know anyone who received a review copy, myself included. I would point out its sequel, Bared Blade, is due out on June 26 and again… I’ve heard nothing. Despite piquing my interest, it was never raised in my consciousness to the point where I would go out and buy it. I suspect this was true for a lot of people, bloggers and readers alike.
Strangely, Doug Hulick’s Among Thieves, and Myke Cole’s Control Point were published in mass market paperback from Ace/Roc just like McCullough’s novel. Both received broad coverage throughout the blogosphere while McCullough did not. Why was Broken Blade met with a resounding echo of a pin dropping? And whose fault is it?
I don’t know the answer. Some authors have gone so far to hire freelance publicists to supplement the work done by their publisher, especially when it comes to on-line outlets. I can’t say I blame them. Sometimes it isn’t a publicist at all who reaches out to me, but the author. Myke Cole e-mailed me out of the blue last year with a nice note, demonstrating he’d actually read my blog. He recognized that a publicity department isn’t always interested or equipped to reach out to bloggers personally so he took some of that burden on himself. It worked. It’s very rare that I get this kind of e-mail from a publicist, a fact that remains perplexing to me.
Last month, I downloaded an electronic galley of David Brin’s Existence. A few days ago, I received an unsolicited hard copy of the novel. My point is I don’t think publishers have any idea how to best interact with bloggers. I think they’re guessing. Wasting opportunities like the BEA Bloggers Conference is only further undermining their efforts. When they should be asking for blogger input, they choose instead to push swag. I’m not sure if they’re understaffed or just lacking the appropriate tools necessary to track books, reviewers’ tastes, and blogs’ niches. Either way, the answer isn’t creating some cockamamie bureaucracy to hold bloggers accountable, or codify some quid pro quo that will only serve to taint blogger integrity. The answer is increasing the publishers access to the community and the community’s access to them.
It doesn’t mean spending more money, just spending it smarter. Rather than casting out wasted review copies that never get read, invest in getting to know reviewers and what they like. Give them exclusive coverage. Be pro-active. Don’t expect free books to be a tool by which they can be controlled. In short, treat them like journalists. I’m not sure publishing has any desire to do so. To this point they’ve shown little interest in understanding electronic media at all. So I ask, how can an industry expect to sell something to a group of people they don’t understand? The answer…
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an event where bloggers and publishers could come together and discuss the industry? Wait a second…