Monday, December 5, 2011

On book blogging

A few days ago, Rebecca Schinsky (an American book blogger and very activer Twitterer) tweeted about a letter she and other book bloggers received from HarperCollins U.S. imprint William Morrow that stated a change in their policy regarding review copies. Essentially, the letter (as discussed in the L.A. Times and The Guardian) laid down the law: no more unsolicited review copies; reviews are expected to be written and posted in a timely manner (within weeks of publication); and if bloggers won't play by these rules, no more review copies. But! William Morrow loves book bloggers, the letter assures recipients. So no worries.

Certainly, this letter may not have been worded to the greatest affect, and it seems William Morrow was taken aback by the angry response the missive received and has since tried to explain that the change in policy isn't meant to be punitive. Be that as it may, the wider response has been interesting. On the one side, bloggers are angry at being treated like free marketing labour – most don't get paid and look at free books as a way to help justify a sometimes very time-consuming endeavour; on the other side are those who see this letter and its response as further evidence of the entitlement of the blogosphere – hacks who think they're real journalists and should be treated accordingly. It's messy and ugly, and I'm not sure either side has it right, but rather than wade into the wider debate, I'll simply explain how it all works here.

When I started Books Under Skin two years ago I had no idea that the opportunity for review copies existed. I have always been an avid reader and I decided to write weekly about books I enjoy. Maybe nine months after I started blogging, Brick Books contacted me and offered to send me some books of poetry (I had recently reviewed one of their authors). The offer was specifically made without expectation of review; I took Brick Books up on it and, in the year following, ended up reviewing several of the titles. Maybe six months later, after I wrote about how much I loved Lisa Moore's February, House of Anansi Press got in touch with me to say thank you and offer to send me books. I am not inundated (I receive two or three, every four or five months) and because the books they've sent have always felt tailored to my blog and my tastes (their catalogue is wide), I tend to enjoy the books and then write about them. I work hard to ensure my reviews run around the time they books are being published because that seems like a completely reasonable courtesy to extend to a publisher kind enough to send me books. They have never asked me to do this, or to write anything specific about the books they send me, and if I didn't like a book (as stated in my About page), I wouldn't write about it. This goes for the books I now receive from RandomHouse Canada (and associated imprints), and will continue to apply.

Now, I'm not claiming to be naive to the marketing benefit booksellers and publishers see in providing books to bloggers. If people read something they like here and then go buy the book, that's wonderful, but I don't link to the publisher and I haven't monetized my blog specifically because I'm uncomfortable crossing the line from blogger/reviewer to active promoter. As it stands now, there's a pretty quid pro quo relationship: I benefit because receiving review copies helps me save some money; the publishers benefit from having their book reach a potentially different audience than it would in mainstream publications.

However, all that being said, I still buy a lot of books. I frequent the library, independent booksellers and used bookstores and frequently write about very old books. Trying to keep up with all the new releases can be stressful, and since I want to enjoy the time I spend reading, I like to step back and read books recommended to me by friends, or that I've picked up somewhere along the way. 

All of this is to say that I plan out my reviews according to my own schedule. When I can write about a book close to its publication date, I certainly do so (my day job at a newspaper has instilled a certain amount of timeliness in me), but if I can't, I don't worry about it. I appreciate all the review copies I receive, but they're the bonus that comes with blogging, not the material that pushes me to do it – I'd like to think that if that weren't the case, publishers wouldn't see any value in sending me books.


  1. I agree with you. Review copies are nice, but like me, if you started blogging about books to share what you were reading, the review copies are not something you were looking fact, it was most likely a pleasant surprise. I have been inundated with review copies, but I think the publishers have now dialed back, which I appreciate. I only read about 100 books per year, so the review space is limited...and I like to make a good chunk of those reviews poetry books because poets don't get enough attention.

  2. Totally reasonable all around. I'm basically like you: I read a lot of books and wanted to write about them (your output is amazing though).

    I don't know what the deal was with that LA Time article. Every blogger quoted sounds pretty horrible. Doesn't do much for the blogging community. :\

  3. I too started my book blog without knowing you could get review copies, until they were offered me. It was such a huge and wonderful surprise! And Anansi is definitely one of those publishers who knows what you like and makes it a point to send you only that. I love them for it. They get to know you.

    And I review the free books just as you do, and buy a ton of books, too. I can't keep up with everything, but I really don't think it's unreasonable for a publisher to ask me to review something close to its release. That's common sense, as you said, since that's the point of the review copies in the first place!

    Thanks for telling me you wrote this; I've never read your blog before, and I like it!

  4. Serena, 100 books a year. Wow. That's fantastic. I also try to write about poetry, but I admit I often only really get serious about it in April.

    Panic, yes! I also was baffled by the anger expressed by some bloggers in that article. Seriously, if you don't like the restrictions/conditions that come with receiving review copies, stop taking them. When I'm on my game (and my commute is regular) I average a book a week and plan out my tbr pile accordingly. I didn't realize that was uncommon.

    Steph, thank you, and welcome. I read your post on the matter and totally agree. I work full time and read when I can, which sometimes makes receiving a few review copies at once bit overwhelming. I'm getting better though, and I think part of that is getting to know the publishers and publicists, which has been wonderful.

  5. I probably read about the same amount you do, but you post a lot more often. I have trouble getting to the writing part.

  6. Ah, I know the feeling. I knew when I started that if I didn't announce a specific schedule I'd just put it off all the time. Sometimes I hate myself a little for adding a weekly review to my schedule, but I remain too stubborn to let it go (I was late this week though; ho hum).

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