The Joy and Burden of Free Books

The question of ethics and blogging has been around since the medium (no, not that Medium) took off and it comes up periodically.  Since I am not very active in the blog world these days (I am lucky to post my reviews on a semi-regular basis let alone read and comment on other blogs) I am not real plugged into the day-to-day debates and discussions.

But I did stumble on a post from Bookish Girl on Tumblr that I thought worth commenting on.  Annie jumps off a post at A Reader’s Respite, among others, to discuss why she reviews books or why she will continue to “Blog for Books.”

At issue are programs like the recently revamped Blogging for Books that offer review copies but have very specific rules and restrictions.

This discussion prompted a manifesto/review policy from Bookish and an outraged rant from Michele Jacobsen. You can read their posts and judge their reactions for yourself.

But allow me to give you my take. I get to some degree why these things can be prickly.  Most book bloggers take pride in their independence and the time and energy the put into reviews.  Jumping through a bunch of hoops in order to acquire review copies feels demeaning; like you have been co-opted into a company’s marketing campaign rather than being given the chance to offer your honest opinion.

And I get that. No one wants to feel like they are being manipulated or not taken seriously. Blogging is hard work and publicists asking you to post a review on a blog or review site but also to Amazon AND on social media AND have a certain Klout score feels like overkill. Again, less like a review program and more like a marketing campaign.

But to me this is all very easily solved by not joining such programs. I guess I don’t understand the level of outrage. I understand the frustration of some but not the affront and anger.

If you want free books no strings attached then you must have a platform that publishers want access to and are willing to supply free books in order to gain it. On the other hand, if you want to get free books from Blogging for Books you have to follow their rules and procedures. Seems simple to me.

For the record, I am a member of Blogging for Books (and I think they even run ads here) but haven’t been active for years for the very reason that I requested a few books that I haven’t read and reviewed.  Plus, I was less interested in the books they were offering at the time (pre-Crown publishing revamp).  Am I outraged about the fact they won’t send me more books? No, they set up the process and I follow them or don’t participate.

Does the Klout thing seem silly? Sure, but publishers are looking for some way to measure reach in today’s metrics driven world.  They have every right to seek out the best strategy for getting publicity, yes? You can argue that Klout is a deeply flawed way to do that but the idea is perfectly understandable.  Unique visits arguably wouldn’t be any easier to measure and interpret.

Likewise, you have every right to see your book blogging as something you do out of the love of literature or other pure motives.  It might seem like bringing online booksellers and social media requirements into it injects filthy lucre into the equation.  But publishers are trying to sell books, authors are trying to make a living, etc.  Money and sales comes into it. That is just reality.

So what is my policy about reviews? Some thoughts:

– I make no promises about books that are simply sent to me. If I happen to pick it up great, if I don’t get to it, fine.

– I try to only requests books I want to read. And when I request a book I feel an extra sense of duty to read and review it if I possibly can. This seems like common courtesy.

– Alas, sometimes I request a book and don’t end up reading or finishing it. It happens. Sometimes I over-estimate what and how much I can read. Sometimes my mood and/or interests shift and what seemed like the perfect read suddenly seems less interesting. Sometimes I read a few chapters and the book just fails to grab me.

– I don’t blame publishers who are leery of sending me books if in their minds I don’t review enough of the books they send to me, or if my traffic too low, or “reach” too limited. They must make their life choices just like me. Given it is their job and my hobby, I give them a decent amount of leeway.

– I track what I read on Goodreads and post reviews here. Both auto post to Twitter and Facebook. Whether that has a particular value to publishers I don’t know but, again, I can see why they might factor that in.

– As to reviews, I write what I think. I don’t spin or sugar coat anything for the sake of greater access to books or authors. I do try to get a sense of who might like the book and why; or what the author was attempting and what might have gone wrong; or even why it didn’t work for me but might for others.

In the end what I post here is just my opinion and reactions on the books I read. And yes, access to free books plays an important role. I love reading and frankly can’t afford to buy the number of books I read.

And the fact that I still get access to free books brings a smile to my face to this day.  And talking to authors is always cool. But it is a fact that the more books you review, the bigger the audience you have, and the more books you want access to the more book blogging can feel like a job.

Most publishers are not going to willy-nilly send out books to anyone no matter what the request, platform, audience, etc. You have to make choices about which books you are going to review, what audience you want to attract, and what publishers and authors are gong to be attracted to that model.

These choices have consequences. I have an interest in theology but rarely write about it here.  Does it sting when I get turned down on NetGalley for a theology book I would really like to read? Sure, but that is the publisher’s call. I can see why they might look at this blog and decline to give me access.

And access to a great many books bring pressure too. When it comes to the point where it feel like you have more books than you can possibly read, a certain amount of joy is lost in buying or getting books. There is a pressure, and a healthy one for the most part, that you really should make a dent in the books you have before you go out and get more.

This is part of life and growing up I am afraid.  Tradeoffs and priorities are not fun and sexy but they are a reality. We all have choices to make.

Speaking of choices, I think I should bring this rambling post to a close.  What do you think? Should book blogging be pure love of reading or corrupted by financial motives? Or is it maybe some place awkwardly in between?

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).

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