Free books and credibility

In between bouts of panic regarding the biggest football game of my life on Saturday, I have been traveling for work and as a result have been away from the computer for most of the last few days. In trying to catch up with some of my reading, I came across (via Ed) this Reading Matters post from Monday on book bloggers and free books. With all due respect to Kim, I have to agree with Ed that this is all a bit silly.

If you could care less about book bloggers, free books, and credibility feel free to skip this post. If this inside baseball stuff interests you, click below.

Let me first say that I understand where Kim is coming from in many ways. Free books do tend to cause guilty feelings in all but the most stoical people. And all of this is often a matter of degree as well. Those book bloggers who only rarely get offered free books probably feel more pressure than those who receive dozens. It is natural to feel a certain pressure or guilt surrounding free review copies. Anyone who is passionate about books wishes they could read more books and do more to help their favorite books and authors succeed. If you get a book and you don’t care for it most polite people wonder whether they should rip a book they got for free. These are questions book reviews have been dealing with since time began (well, maybe not but you know what I mean). Time and energy are limited, however, so we soon learn to come to some sort of agreement on how we are going to handle things. Time and experience generally help.

Where Kim got off track, IMHO, was in implying that there is something inherently troublesome about free books. There is no quid pro quo involved and she had never adequately explained why she thinks there is. Publicists don’t expect you to write only glowing reviews of their books nor do they expect you to write about each and every book they publish or send your way. They send out the books because they believe in them and want to reach as wide an audience as possible. If you enjoy the book and note it in your blog, great, if you didn’t, fine better luck next time.

All of the publishers I have worked with have made this clear and have been nothing but understanding about the limits and differing tastes involved. They are grateful when I cover their books, even in a critical manner, and understanding when I simply don’t have time. There isn’t any manipulation or deception involved nor is their any buying of my opinions. And Kim should understand that her post insinuated just such a thing whether she meant to or not. If you imply that someone needs a code of conduct, or needs to provide more information than they are currently, that implies an ethical lapse.

Despite the truck load of pixels spent on this issue Kim has never really explained how getting a free book changes the experience of a review. What does it matter how I came to read a book? If I buy it, check it out of the library, get it from a publisher, or find it left in a bar does it change whether I like the book or not? If my mom buys me a book I generally feel a compulsion to read it and may even feel guilty if I don’t like it. But that doesn’t change my reaction. I either enjoy it or I don’t. I approach the books I review here the same way. I simply make choices about which books to read and then share my ideas and opinions with readers. If people like it, they click here, if they don’t they don’t come back. Those surfing in from Google do the same thing. They make their own choices about whether to take what I say seriously or not based on their own criteria and opinions.

What I found so ironic about the post was its utter lack of clarity regarding what blogs are about. I find the whole idea of a code of conduct for blogs preposterous. In case you haven’t noticed, blogs are “alternative media.” One of the fundamental reasons they exist and flourish is because people have things to say and mainstream journalism doesn’t provide this outlet. Whether this is because of the bloggers choice or lack of talent, dedication, or whatever doesn’t really matter. Blogs are places where you post what you want, when you want, however you want. Kim seems to want to start placing the protocols and obligations of journalism on bloggers. Misses the whole point it seems to me.

So for you ethical Draconians out there, I get free books. Sometimes I review them, sometimes I don’t. I also buy my fair share of books. Sometimes I review them, sometimes I don’t. I offer my ideas and opinions here free of charge. I leave it up to you to decide whether it is worth your time and trust.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Excellent. I’ve been catching up on the various posts and comments on this issue, and yours was a very thoughtful addition to it. Plus your comment touches on a subject that concerns/interests me but that I don’t see lit bloggers writing about. When I get review copies out of the blue, that I have neither requested nor agreed to read, then I feel no obligation to them whatever. But if I have requested or agreed to receive them, then I do feel some obligation to get around to reading and reviewing them–not to write a positive review, of course, but to get to them. But time constraints and the slowness of reading and the number of books conspire against me. You suggest above that you don’t feel the weight of this kind of obligation. Do others? What are your thoughts?

  2. Debra,

    I try to review books I have requested. Often I can get to them rather quickly, other times it takes longer. Sometimes I just never get to them. I do feel bad about this, but it is part of life.

    I think tow things are worth noting: 1) I try hard to restrain myself for requesting more books than I can handle. Again, I don’t always succeed but I try to limit myself. 2) I think publishers understand. They are very busy people too. If you write thoughtful reviews and work in good faith I think people will give you some leeway.

    Lastly, guilt is just part of the process. There are more good books than any one person can get to. There is really no way to make everybody happy (including yourself). I think you just have to find a process or attitude that works for you.

    Here are a couple of links that migh help flush out where I am coming from:

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