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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

Presque vu IX

Book Blogging credibility is put under scrutiny in an article from Metaxu Cafe:

Personally, I think it’s time that book bloggers came clean. It might sound ridiculous, but I honestly think we need a code of conduct. We need to tell our readers when we are reviewing free books or when we are taking part in marketing exercises, because if we don’t we run the risk of just becoming yet another cog in the public relations industry. And surely the reason we all started blogging about books was because we were sick of the mainstream media’s treatment of books. If we don’t clean up our act now, we might as well forget any notion of reading unbiased, reliable and truthful reviews online, because how will we ever be able to tell the difference between a genuine review and one written on obligation? I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that our credibility as book bloggers is at stake.

The post is from Kimbofo at Reading Matters and raises important points for Book Bloggers everywhere.

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And it’s not just books. I received this email a couple of days ago:

Hello,
We are a Music Software developer selling music and audio editing software. Since your site is some what related to our programs, ie., it is based on learning music centre. we can offer you free licenses to any two of our programs. In return we request you to review our products and place a short write up about our products in your blog page. http://www.johnbakersblog.co.uk/
If you have no time, I kindly request add our link on your page. because your websites is complementary to us.We can offer free license code of anything your choice. If you find free time, you can review.
Title: (Brand name) Wave Editor
URL: sorry, guys, I’ve deleted it.
Description: Audio Editor to Create, record, edit, draw, add effects & play mp3/audio files.
I am awaiting for your quick reply.
Regards,
Ms.Gayathiri

Sorry, Ms.Gayathiri, this is the quickest and only reply you’re going to get.

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Sterne reports on the Australian version of the scam in which a classic author is repackaged as a new writer and submitted for the approval of modern publishers. And the result of this experiment (repackaging Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm)? Wholesale rejection.

The publishers who did not simply return the typescript without comment invariably made no suggestions for its improvement. The novel’s “author”, however:

was variously dismissed as “clever” but lacking ideas, referred to David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction for “its lessons about exposition, dialogue, point of view, voice and characterisation”, and advised to attend writing classes for further “critical analysis”.

8 Responses to “Presque vu IX”

  1. Georg says:

    Just to add a follow-up to Sterne’s post for those outside Oz, the book bloggers of Australia, prompted by Laura at Sarsaparilla, went ahead with a group reading of Patrick White’s The Vivisector in response to the scam. It was quite a successful exercise and there is another White book reading planned for early next year.

    jb says: Thanks, Georg. Good to hear of your activities over there.

  2. I thought kimbofo made some excellent points in her post and it’s a shame she came in for such personal attacks for the post, on both Metaxucafe and her own blog (and elsewhere). Many may have been writing online reviews for a long time on their blogs/other sites and are confident in their standards, but what Kim was suggesting was merely giving blog readers a clue as to the standard applied, i.e. allowing readers’ perceptions to move closer to reality.

    She made me think about my own site and its presentation and I’m still pondering. I’ve read more books than I’ve posted about in the last year, but if I absolutely hated something or found something unreadable, I didn’t post about it. (And yes, there were two books to fill exactly those categories for me.) I see no point in being terribly negative when others with different taste may actually like the novel.

    Kim’s post and ensuing debate also took place alongside another regarding John Sutherland’s comments on literary reviewing from the establishment vs bloggers and Amazon posters, with the potential for a “degradation of literary taste”.

    In the days where we’ve been gifted with another James Bond movie, I suspect there’s a generation that has taken some of the Bond mantra too far. A little less of the “live and let die” and more of the “live and let live” might be in order.

    jb says: Are free books really free? If you have to think about the answer to the question you are already on the advertiser’s hook and being reeled in. The publisher who gives you the book is hoping that you’ll sell more copies for him. You accept the book, then you accept the expectation and the obligation as well.
    Sorry folks, I know it’s hard. But that’s life.

  3. Joel says:

    I find this accent on “free books” a little naive. A “review copy” is by nature gratis, and implies no obligation. Since when has a newspaper or magazine ever paid for a book it reviews? If anyone online feels any obligation to a publisher on receiving a “free book”, then that just points out the difference between a professional reviewer and an amateur one. “Review copies” should not be conflated with “product placement”.

    I think the basic problem is not “free copies”, but inexperienced online reviewers who are somewhat awed by the idea of getting a book for nothing. Review copies are just the norm in the print world and are supplied in the knowledge they will be reviewed according to their merit. What is really being spoken about here is the amateurisation of journalism on the web.

    jb says: Hi Joel. I’m sure that most people on both sides of this debate will recognise your description of the situation as it exists in the real world as accurate. Publishers publish books and send review copies out to the literary editors of commercial organizations for the favour of a review.
    But with the advent of blogging and in particular litblogging, publishers are now sending out review copies to non-commercial organizations, recognizing that these new bloggers have gained kudos and respect from certain sections of the reading public.
    This is a new situation, and the bloggers are debating how they should behave, recognizing, in turn, their responsibilities to their readers.
    This is quite right, it is a process that has to be gone through, and the debate should continue. But to talk about the difference between professional and amateur (where amateur is recognized as a slur) is not, I think, entirely helpful.

  4. Joel says:

    I don’t see the word “amateur” as a slur. It could only be regarded as a slur by someone who supposed they were professional, but as a statement of fact I don’t believe it needs to have a negative connotation. However, there is nothing wrong with an amateur adopting a professional outlook to the supply of review copies by publishers. Or are you saying that publishers are deliberately taking advantage of popular literary weblogs to impose a sense of obligation precisely because they regard them as amateurs who are more likely to provide a good review in exchange for a supply of free books? If so, it is up to literary bloggers to be more professional about it.

    I must admit that I didn’t realise there actually were any litbloggers who felt under an obligation to provide a good review on being supplied with a review copy. If there are, then they are working very cheaply is all I can say.

    jb says: No, Joel, I’m not saying any of those things. I’m saying that I’m glad that there is a debate going on. I think we need a debate at this point. I think all views should be aired, including yours. But at this stage it is important to remember that that is all it is, a view, an opinion.

  5. Maxine says:

    I get upwards of 100 of these a day in my work inbox and 10 or so a day in my home email. Plus lots of other similar things (my work email address is very old — and it is related to a publication. Our IT department says that the older the email address the more of these kinds of things you get). It is a pain, but gmail is pretty accurate at sticking them all in the spam inbox without you having to open them, just scan the subject line and delete.

    On the Kimbofo saga, I’ve commented variously that I don’t think bloggers or any other reviewers need to declare an “interest” if they are promoting a competition or other because they’ve been sent a free book — but full disclosure can’t do any harm if you feel the need to do it (as a reviewer).

    “Mainstream” publications such as the one I work for are sent hundreds of free books every week, some with inducements, and if we want to review one that we haven’t been sent, we ask the publisher for a gratis copy. It is all part of the game these days I think.

    For my part, I like Kim’s reviews of books (I am a regular at her blog) and I am happy to trust that she’s expressing her own views however she came by the book.

    On the “anti-blogs” articles and controversy, I think there is a nob of a point to it, when you read some of the hurtful and reflex things that some people feel free to write in comments to posts. But the vast majority of the time, I find the standard of writing on the literary/book blogs I frequent to be stimulating and to improve my overall knowledge. If I don’t find that, I drop the blog from my bloglines subscription. There is more to read than there is time to read, so one can be selective!

    jb says: Thanks Maxine, I very much appreciate the attitude in your last paragraph. I do exactly the same.

  6. bloglily says:

    In many professional contexts, when you are faced with a conflict of interest in your work, you have a couple of choices. Some conflicts are presumed to be insurmountable and when they crop up, you’re ethically obligated to step aside. Some conflicts — generally those that involve the perception of a conflict and so can be overcome — don’t keep you from acting. Still, you’re obliged to disclose the potential conflict to people who’d look to you to act in their interest. That kind of disclosure does a couple of helpful things: it lets your client make a choice about whether to put their trust in you, it lets them know you’re on the look-out for places you might be conflicted, and it warns you to be careful in your actions.

    I’d think that writing a blog review of a book you’ve been given for free does create the appearance of a conflict. Bloggers generally write for free. A book is worth something, as is a relationship with a publisher. Once you start getting free stuff from a publisher, you begin to look a little like you’re in their employ — as a sort of publicist. And an employee does have an obligation to please an employer. So there you have it: the appearance of a conflict.

    Now that doesn’t mean the conflict is insurmountable. In fact, most of us would agree that a book blogger can keep her head when given a new, free book — no matter how beautiful the cover. And so the situation is really one that calls for some transparency, so your readers can make a decision about whether to trust your reviews to be free from conflict. I’d think a blogger’s “about” tab — or some other easy to locate place on their site — might have a little policy description about that kind of conflict. (“Sometimes I get free books. When I do, I’ll tell you that. It doesn’t influence what I have to say.” Or: “I only talk about books I like. Sometimes I get free books. If I like them, I’ll write about them. If I don’t, you’ll never hear about them.”)

    (And I’m sorry about the dry, legal tone of that whole discussion I just wrote. Truth is, I’d rather chat about who DID publish Patrick White and how that publisher mananaged to see what was so good about his work when apparently so many could not. Oh — and I’d also love to know how many times he was rejected before that happened.)

    jb says: Thanks for the dry legal tone, Bloglily. It leaves no room for doubt about what you are saying. The appearance of a conflict shouldn’t be underestimated. But I’d also love to know more about the pre-publication history of Patrick White’s book. Maybe someone on here will know the answer?

  7. May I say this just once: I have a background as an auditor, both in the private and public sectors and that is why I have sat on the fence for some time and given this some thought. And I’m still doing so.

    My first port of call is this from the mouth of John Sutherland in this record (http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/stop-me-if-youve-heard-this-one/): “Well, it seems to me that we have a terrific book trade in this country, we also have a terrific book reviewing establishment. I mean, today’s Thursday, between Friday and Sunday there’ll be about thirty places where books are reviewed. Now, they’ll be very different opinions, but one thing we can rely on, that most of those reviews, in fact I would say 100% of them, are independent, they’re ethical, and they’re honest. The Times and the TLS will not review HarperCollins books well because in fact they’re both owned by Rupert Murdoch — in fact quite often they give books under that imprint a savage review, if they so think. Now we’ve spent a long time setting up that kind of reviewing establishment, and I would hate it to go the way of — you know, when you go into a DVD shop, a Blockbusters, and you look at the box and it says “greatest movie ever!””.

    Well it seems to me that Sutherland’s argument contradicts itself on the HarperCollins example. Authors non HC get a fair deal. Authors HC get a bum deal. Those “in the know” may know that; authors, agents etc. may know that – but do innocent book buyers and readers know that? I think not.

    His assertion of a 100% perfect world when it comes to the literati reviewing sector is a dream of utopia, ignoring his own example of HC.

    Let’s get real here. The formal review of books in the established press is NOT perfect. Neither is the review of books in the blogging sector perfect.

    So good on kimbofo for asking the questions and raising the issue for a debate. If litblogger reviews are to be taken seriously, then surely it’s all to be in the eye of the beholder? And that means some transparency.

    I have always assumed that the press review on ARCs. Bloggers are different. They may buy an enthuse on their purchases. They may enthuse on a freebie.

    For me it would be nice to know the difference.

    Bloggers make up a different world to the literati. The ability to make friends is the same, I think.

    Let’s be honest and open and not sycophants, please.

    jb says: Quite. The other thing brought to mind by your comments is that, although there may well be thirty or so outlets for reviews in the press, most of those reviews will be of the same books. Invariably the reviews will be of big names, perhaps one or two first novels. Books from independent or smaller publishers are almost never reviewed, except by bloggers.

  8. kimbofo says:

    John, thank you for hosting such a mature, considered debate here. As you know, in some quarters, the debate has descended into an unpleasant free-for all, so I’ve tended to withdraw and just watch the mud fly rather than try to clarify my position. Despite the insults that have been hurled in my direction (just check the technorati link on my website and you’ll see all those linking to my post and what they’ve said) and the ways in which my message was misunderstood, I’m still glad I stuck my neck out because it’s at least got people talking about an issue that needed to be explored.

    I have to say that bloglily’s comment very neatly sums up my position and I want to thank her for being so eloquent – I only wish my original post was as clear and to the point! My original post (written under the influence of heavy antibiotics, painkillers and a bad case of pneumonia, I might add!!) simply wished to point out some of the conflicts of interests that newbie book bloggers might come across – ie. free books and viral marketing schemes – and called for some transparency in how people review books online. Personally, I think it is up to individual bloggers to make up their own minds how they want to address these issues (if they want to address them at all), but I know as a reader of many book blogs it is important to me that I trust the reviewer and know that they have some kind of disclaimer (exactly as bloglily points out) on their blog clarifying their book review policy. Those kinds of disclaimers help to build trust – and this is, ultimately, what the debate is about.

    jb says: It’s good you called in. Talk about a storm in a teacup. I personally welcomed your remarks and have followed the debate with interest. It’s unfortunate that some people bluster first and think second. But we can’t do anything about that. Perhaps there is a fear that there will be less ARCs about if we draw attention to them?

    And I’m with you all the way. Let’s show people where we’re coming from so have a real choice about whether they take our comments seriously or not.