Well, thanks to Jane at Dear Author, I’m getting some traffic regarding my fairly rigid stance on compensation in book blogging. I’ve left comments on that linked post and a few other places where discussion is going on, but it seems appropriate to consolidate some of my thoughts here for reference.
First, review copies. I accept review copies even though I’m fairly vocal about their danger to independence. Why so hypocritical? Let me explain a bit of why I rail about their danger first.
Newspapers and magazines have been accepting review copies for years and few people criticize them for doing so. I personally don’t worry about the independence of these established media outlets when they accept these review copies. However, I note that Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, refuses all advertising and pays for all of the things they review in their magazine. They do it to make extra double plus sure they are independent. They are the gold standard in my view. I am 100% certain Consumer Reports isn’t beholden to auto companies when they review the latest year models. I am 99.9% sure the New York Times won’t change its coverage because of reception of review copies.
I’m way less certain about that when it’s a one person blog operation. Way less. Why? Because I followed the ARC Junkies forum on LibraryThing for a while. I saw a lot of hand-wringing from bloggers that indicated to me they could not be independent. A common question bloggers asked was if they could post a negative review without risking getting cut off from the ARC gravy train. Common answers from other bloggers were: try to write something positive, pass it on to another reviewer, just not write anything about the book at all, write the author and give them the option of doing a guest post instead of a review, etc. Only very rarely did I see anyone espouse the idea that they should give their unvarnished honest opinion. I see this same thing work out in the comment threads at various blogs when this topic comes up, though I do see
honesty is the best policy come up more often there.
It’s also complicated in my mind by the practices of running giveaways. Lots of times bloggers get multiple copies of their review copies: one to keep and additional books to give away on their blog. Posting free book giveaway roundups last year (since discontinued and deleted) opened my eyes to just how corrupting that practice is. Giveaways are popular. They bring in traffic. I think, more than money even, traffic is the opiate of bloggers. I pay attention to how popular this blog is (it boggles me that I get any readers, but that’s a whole ‘nother post). I am not in the minority on that, though how people judge their popularity differs. Most of those giveaway posts are structured so that people can enter by posting links and tweets and whatnot back to the giveaway. Not to mention that publicists and publishers will direct additional traffic to these blogs. There’s pressure not to risk that popularity.
Seeing these practices and the relentlessly promotional quality that quite a few of these blogs emit, and I draw a connection. Perhaps I am connecting the dots incorrectly. Perhaps the free ARCs do not cause the shilling nature. I’ve not done any study on the matter. But my anecdotal experience of reading blogs that seek out or accept a level of ARCs is that they do not appear to be giving their honest opinion.
A few review copies here and there don’t worry me. Also, if the site is popular enough, they’ll get their review copies whether or not they write positive stuff. When it’s a middle popularity site, then I wonder about independence.
Why do I accept them? Well, for one, I get so few that I’m not really worried about my own independence. Second, my reviews of books I did get ARCs for were generally negative, and sometimes harshly negative. I certainly didn’t hold back. Nevertheless, I semi-quietly changed my policy last month just to make sure. I’ll continue to accept review copies, but I now will donate the equivalent cost to charity (the A.L.S.A. to be specific). Now, if someone else doesn’t trust my book writings because I accept these ARCs, I totally understand.
As to taking money for reviews from publishers/authors/publicists, while Kirkus Reviews has the organizational gravitas and knowledge to insure that accepting a sponsored review doesn’t compromise its integrity, a blogger does not. I’m not sure I trust Kirkus for that matter. When an individual gets paid for a review, he/she is beholden to the editorial vision of the entity that paid. If it’s someone with a vested interest in seeing the book sell, I don’t trust the review to be honest. You don’t go into a bookstore and see books in the staff recs section that are anti-recs (well, not usually at least). Generally, a blogger who charges for their reviews won’t get business if they are writing bad things. Someone might pay for a BoingBoing review even knowing ahead of time it’s negative, cause that’ll push sales no matter what they say. But not Joe Schmo blogger.
Ads? I haven’t given them much thought. My quick off the cuff thing there is that ads are less an issue, depending on how they are sold. AdWords, for instance. You don’t get to pick and choose what ads appear. That functions much like the traditional newspaper separation between the editorial and advertising departments. The writers don’t sell ads. The ad salesmen don’t write editorial copy.
I know that I don’t ever worry about Amazon or Indiebound affiliate link ads. Maybe I would worry about bloggers writing about big ticket items like electronics. Books, not so much. I use Amazon and Powell’s affiliate links. I’ve never seen forums filled with book bloggers questioning if they can write something negative about a book when they have an Amazon affiliate link. My gut tells me what they write in that case will match what they tell their friends.
Lastly, it’s certainly not required that you agree with my views on these matters. I’m a cranky guy on the internet. I’m difficult, and I often hold contrary views. I’m used to being in the minority. I was a liberal in Idaho for 11 years! The only penalty for disagreeing in discussion with me is that I may respond with more cranky. If you disagree in practice, the penalty is that I won’t read your blog and may tell people about it. You are still welcome to come to Pie Night. Even people who publicly call me a drama-monger on the internets are welcome. In other words, I don’t hate you just because you disagree or even if you dislike me. I think disagreement is healthy and pie is good.