Friday, August 01, 2008

Blog Book Reviewers: Asking the Wrong Questions

I didn't get the memo but apparently, this week's "topic of the week" for various book review blogs was the question of whether blog book reviewers should get paid for their efforts (Larry has some links and thoughts on the matter: 1, 2). Many good points were raised as well as some not-so-good ones. To me, it's not really a question of whether one should get paid or not. Book reviewing isn't any more special than what's happening out there on the Internet, whether it's writing, illustrating, composing music, etc. Some of those content creators don't earn a single cent. Others do. And there's nothing inherently right or wrong with either scenario. The right question isn't whether blog book reviewers should get paid or not, but whether your website was intended and set up to generate income.

First off, for aspiring and existing book reviewers, what was your original intention when setting up your blog or website? Was it to simply inform a certain audience or to eventually quit your day job and have it financially support you? Now this isn't an either-or proposition. One could intend to do both. But if you are intending the latter, what steps have you taken to accomplish such a feat or to put it simply, what's your plan? One of my favorite and perhaps underrated literary site is Rick Kleffel's The Agony Column (both Jeff Vandermeer and I have interviews with Rick). Now Rick's site has been up for several years now and he continues to deliver daily content. Is he earning from the site? No, not really (although some of the material he covers does end up in other media). But that's also how he designed his site so there are no complaints coming from his end. Fantasybookspot, on the other hand, has advertising rates and a donation/merchandise page. That's not to say Fantasybookspot is guaranteed to earn money, but it has mechanisms in place to support that model.

Book reviewers for traditional print media earn income from their efforts not just because they one day said to themselves "hey, I'll start writing book reviews!" but rather by doing more: they had to pitch their book reviews to an editor/publisher or perhaps apply for a staff position in a magazine or newspaper. An aspiring book reviewer doesn't suddenly just earn income just because they start churning out material. They have to get their material read and convince someone that it's worth paying for. Of course in the case of a magazine or newspaper, figuring out how to get paid is typically a problem that's being handled by the publisher. If I were a freelance book reviewer for example, all I need to do is convince my editor to pick up and publish my book review. How they come up with the money to pay me is their problem (this is accomplished through a combination of subscription sales, ads, or simply having a rich publisher who doesn't care how much the entire endeavor is costing them).

What many bloggers don't realize is that by blogging, they've become their own publishers. Sure, one doesn't need to learn how to use Adobe InDesign or pay for printing costs in order to become a publisher (the bar to entry in Internet publishing is significantly lower), but everything else falls on your shoulders. Who comes up with the content, who designs the layout, how does one promote the blog? Not many (especially those who simply blog for fun or to promote themselves) ask the question how do I earn money from my blog?

Of course if you want to write book reviews for a living--and on the Internet--one doesn't need to self-publish. There are some sites that pay, such as Strange Horizons. Having said that, there's no guarantee that Strange Horizons will accept your book review for their publication. And they have requirements that may or may not coincide with your own writing standards. The biggest benefit of writing for other online publications is that if they do pay, it's not your problem (although it is in your best interests to find out and support them however you can) on how they recoup their expenses or where they find the money to pay you.

Going back to the self-publishing model that we call blogging, if we do intend to push through with self-publishing, how do we earn a profit from it? There are no simply answers for that one. There's a lot of paying online publications that proved to be unsustainable. The following however are some methods of generating income. The first is to survive through donations (typically via PayPal). It worked for Strange Horizons but then again, the trick is convincing people to donate money for your reviews (oh, and if you find out the secret, be sure to tell me). The second is to find a patron and I use that word in the loosest sense. Typically, a "patron" means ads or becoming part of a network (if you do become part of a network that pays you for each blog entry, the question you should be wondering is how they're profiting from your blogging). Third, you can attempt to gain revenue by selling merchandise from your site, whether this is merchandise you personally create or simply acting as a referral (your personalized Amazon store is an example of a referral).

Some of the blog book reviewers have valid complaints when it comes to ads (specifically, ads from publishers whose books they review). Are they, so to speak, "selling out" or compromising their integrity by doing so? The answer is not necessarily. The first challenge is settling an agreement between you and your sponsor. It's perfectly possible to set up an agreement (and a contract) that states that the sponsor will not interfere with the content of your blog. If that's not a settlement both of you can agree on, then you have one of two choices: compromise or find a different sponsor (and one will probably have to bear this in mind even if you convince your sponsor to agree on your terms: they might renege on the agreement and threaten to withdraw support for the site should they find something displeasing--a written contract aids in enforcing whatever it is both of you agreed upon). The second trick is convincing your audience that your site is bias-free (or at least bias-free as far as sponsors are concerned) despite the ads. This may or may not be an issue depending on how the ads are presented and how you were providing content before. For example, Pulp Gamer, a gaming podcast network, used to have a regular segment where they reviewed games and gave them ratings. Recently, they were sponsored by Mayfair Games and ended up discussing Mayfair's games. Rather than place it in the reviews segment, they made an entirely new show (with a different name and "brand") and dropped the ratings. This I think is a compromise for both Mayfair Games and Pulp Gamer's audience. Their audience knows that that particular segment of the show IS sponsored by Mayfair Games and that they're only discussing Mayfair's games. Similarly, Pulp Gamer dropped the ratings because they know that even if they are honest with their ratings, it might sound insincere to their audience.

Another thing touched upon in the discussion of book blog reviewers is the obligation to do book reviews and whether publishers should send ARCs to blog book reviewers. First, let's talk about the obligation to actually review the books. This topic actually has two sub-categories. The first is whether one should review each and every book one receives. One point made by Mysterious Outposts is that ARCs are calculated expenses on the publisher's part and one shouldn't necessarily review each and every book one receives. To a certain extent, that's true but also bear in mind that while publishers do have ARCs for review, it's not an infinite resource. It is actually costing them money to send you ARCs. And while sending review copies to say, a broadsheet, doesn't obligate the said broadsheet from reviewing the book, it's honestly a case by case scenario. For example, I'm not a book review blog veteran. Publishers don't randomly send me books that they happen to publish. The modus operandi of authors, publicists and publishers when it comes to me is that they email me personally and ask me if I want to review their books (sometimes the process is the opposite: they post on their blog an opportunity to read ARCs in exchange for you blogging or reviewing the book and I email them that I'm interested). The important clarification here is that that they ask me and there's an agreement that they will actually send me copies if I actually review them. So in my case, I am obligated to review the said books: because those were the terms (either implicit or explicit). Now if a book happened to land on my doorstep and there was no prior communication from either the author or the publisher, then it's fair game as to whether I'll actually review it or not (of course that's not really possible in my case because my mailing address is not public knowledge). The important thing here is to pay close attention to what was agreed upon by both parties.

The other sub-category, raised by SF Diplomat, is feeling guilty for panning a book we received for free. I can sympathize with this: here's someone who's giving you a free book yet at the end of the day, all you're going to do is write something horrible about it. My take on this is that, well, reviewing anything isn't for the faint of heart. I work for a music magazine and our reviewers all have stories of how the bands they review get angry at them whenever they give them low ratings. There's the phone calls, the murmurs during gigs, and sometimes even ruined friendships. If you don't want to say something negative about someone, you might want to re-consider doing book reviews. Having said that, here are some rationalizations you might want to take into consideration. The first is your integrity. As book reviewers, integrity is important. It might not be your only currency with your audience or the publishers who send you books, but it is a vital resource. And for some people, especially those who don't get paid to write book reviews, the biggest reward is being able to give their honest opinion. The second rationalization you can tell yourself is that bad publicity is still publicity. You can pan a book and actually boost it sales, or at least drive interest towards it (maybe inviting your readers to read the book for themselves and find out if it's actually that bad). My only caveat with panning a book is that a) you judge a book by what it was intending to do rather than what you wanted it to do, b) you explain your reasons for disliking the book and c) your review is well-written. The third rationalization is that you're the one in charge of the reviews, you have options. For example, if the review you're writing is very very bad, you can opt not to publish the actual review, or at least inform the publisher ahead of time this is the content of the review. This isn't a choice I'd make but it's an option that's there. The other option is to still write truthfully in the review, but focus on the good parts. The Dragon Page for example works on that principle--don't bash the book but rather focus on what makes the book appealing for you. Again, it's not a choice I'd personally make but it's an "out" for the faint of heart.

The second topic is publishers sending ARCs to blog book reviewers. Post-Weird Thoughts for example has a complaint at how one publisher won't send review copies to "small personal blogs". Let's see the side of the publisher shall we? Again, I'd like to bring up the point that while ARCs are calculated expenses on the publisher's part, it's not a bottomless resource. There are finite copies to spread around and just like any limited resource, if I'm going to mail my books to other people, I'd want the biggest bang for my buck--which in this case means reaching out to as wide an audience as possible for minimal effort. For example, if I was selling software that could only be run on one Operating System, it'd be Windows because as much as Mac OS X might be superior or I feel more comfortable using that OS, the fact is, there are more Windows users than Mac users. It's simply a numbers game. However, that doesn't mean said publisher has a free "get out of jail" card. The problem with said publisher is that it didn't really define what "small personal blogs" are. Pat's Fantasy Hotlist for example gets more than a thousand unique visits every day (here's the link to his public tracker, which is at the bottom of Pat's site). Does that count as a "small personal blog" or not? A few thousand unique visitors every week is a site with lots of traffic. Second, while ARCs are finite resources, PDFs aren't (well, the PDFs per se are an infinite resource but the time spent distributing them isn't). I have a long essay on how PDFs affected me as a reviewer, and how publishers can leverage it to promote their books. On the part of Post-Weird Thoughts, I don't know what he said when he approached the aforementioned publisher, but one thing Post-Weird Thoughts could have done was to convey to the publisher how many readers the site has (whether this was actually done or not, I don't know). Looking at the tracker of Post-Weird Thoughts, based on his weekly numbers, the site has around less than a hundred unique visitors each day (I'd just like to mention that this is a minimum--I don't have the numbers for how many people are subscribed to the RSS Feeds of Post-Weird Thoughts, or if the site has a mirror in some other blog like Livejournal or Multiply or some other site) and the highest number of hits the site ever reached was 209. Now whether that's a high enough number for the publisher to consider sending out an actual ARC is best left for them to decide but being transparent in one's numbers probably goes a long way in convincing publishers to send you ARC copies (this fact is also helpful in acquiring sponsors). And if I were the publisher and I only had one ARC to give to a reviewer, I'd most likely go with Pat's Fantasy Hotlist over Post-Weird Thoughts simply because the former has ten times the numbers of the latter. Oh, and just in case anyone's wondering, here is the link to my tracker if anyone wants to know my demographics (unfortunately, I don't have 1,000 unique daily visitors).

One issue brought up is how book reviewing can become like a job. I'll side with Larry on this one: "Yes, anything that involves time and effort is going to feel like work, because it is work." Personally, I've adopted a professional blogging schedule (at least ever since the start of 2008). Why? Because it's best for my readers. If my readers don't know when to expect content from me, or if I don't consistently produce content, there's no guarantee they'll return to my blog. The key here is consistency. My blog is ambitious in the sense that there's a scheduled blog post every weekday but book reviewers don't have to follow that schedule. If you can only do a book review once every two weeks, so be it--as long as you stick with it. Having a consistent schedule not only draws in readers, but also gives you more credibility, either to prospective sponsors or publishers. It shows that a) you're serious about this endeavor and b) you can stick to a deadline and act professionally. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with the mentality of blogging and book reviewing just for fun. But if that's the case, don't expect your readership or publishers or prospective sponsors to treat you any differently.

So to recap, should book reviewers get paid? Only if they build and work with a model that's designed to make them earn money. There are a lot of good reasons to do book reviews that have nothing to do with money. Pat goes for other rewards. Larry wants to improve his skills. Others might simply want to have a voice in the industry. Those are all good reasons to do book reviews. Just be aware of them and have a plan that supports your goals. If you start writing book reviews in the hopes of one day it'll earn you money but have no plans on how to go about it, guess what, that's unlikely going to happen. Publishers and sponsors simply won't start giving you money just because you started blogging. Your readers won't give you donations unless you ask for it. People won't click on your Google ads unless you request it and give them incentives to do so. If you feel entitled to some income from the industry, ask yourself what service can you provide to them so that they'll happily part with their money. To me, this isn't an issue of whether book reviewers should get paid for their efforts or not. It can be a possible source of revenue. But based from what I'm seeing, most book review blogs either don't intend to get paid or don't have good, feasible plans to support this goal.

No comments: