Thursday, July 31, 2008

Blog Reviewers Are Being Whiny Again

The current topic of debate in the part of the blog world made up of SF-book-reviewing-folks (and that's a small piece, of course) is whether or not "someone" should be paying us. I'm coming to this a few days late, so forgive the link-dump as I get up to speed:

It pretty much started with Jonathan McCalmont asking "Is Online Book Reviewing Sustainable?", where he suggested that publishers should pay for reviews. (In gauging the possibility that this plan would ever happen, remember the reaction when Kirkus Reviews, one of the oldest and most-respected review outlets in the US, attempted to sell reviews to publishers. Then think about who we're talking about here: individual bloggers. Then laugh.) This is a silly idea on its face, but, if transmuted into advertising -- assuming anyone would want to advertise on book-review blogs, which is not necessarily so -- could provide a small stream of revenue to book-bloggers.

McCalmont also seems utterly innocent of the ways of Publicity. Bound galleys are more expensive than "real" books, but not that expensive, and the point is to spread them around, like manure, in hopes something will grow somewhere. Individuals can feel as guilty as they want about whatever they want -- I certainly do -- but no one has an obligation to write glowingly about every last thing that shows up in his mailbox. (Also, there's a divide between people who say "ARC," which is what is printed on the objects, and those who say "bound galleys," which is what they are.)

McCalmont is confused and wrong-headed, but he just wants to be financially compensated for his hobby. (And wouldn't we all like that?) But there's no reason that the people with the money would want to compensate him for it, though -- not unless he's going to provide a more consistently positive product, and preferably for a consumer good whose purveyors actually have some money to throw around. (He also reviews movies; he'd have better luck shaking those folks down for money -- but, again, he'd have to give them something other than the fact that he's reviewing a movie to justify paying him.)

The general point here: he who pays the piper calls the tune. If you want publishers to pay you, you'll have to expect publishers to tell you what to say. People who actually do "provide publicity" don't write whatever they want -- they do what the client asks.

Gabe Chouinard thinks that the problem is that readers aren't clicking enough links and making the advertising work. He also thinks that we should make up our own ad network, and that having such a network would make unspecified people magically throw money at us for our audiences of twelve people and two cats. But he's facing the wrong way entirely, thinking of himself as providing a service to publishers rather than serving readers. The point of blook-blogging is not to "give publicity" to paying customers -- there are professional publicists who are much, much better at that -- it's to write about books and authors that interest you, in a way that makes them interesting to others.

Also, book publishers have tiny budgets for advertising and promotion (compared to other consumer products); mailing out galleys uses up a big piece of it. If you're a book-blogger and you got a galley, you already have your share of the money the publisher is spending on that book. That's it. Do with it what you will.

And if Gabe thinks he's giving a "free ride" to publishers, and that his skills at publicity are so in-demand, the best way to get paid for that is to get a job as a publicist.

Then there's Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, who I have to admit I disagree with most of the time. (We have quite different tastes in books, among other things. And his Terry Brooks-meets-Thor vocabulary has been known to set my teeth on edge.) He has a long, long, long, long post on the subject, and it tires me just to think about it. He also notes that book-blogging is a time-consuming hobby -- as is any kind of serious blogging, which no one seems to be remembering -- and that it seriously impacts his girl-chasing time. And he thinks that publishers have vast pots of money which they could shower on bloggers if only they chose to do so.

Pat has also noticed that people are often polite to him in direct discourse, but that the things they say they love and will "absolutely" do don't always work out (such as ads on his blog). I thus suspect he has never spent any time in an office environment or even read Dilbert.

His view of "quality" blogs also seems to contain no hint of reader metrics or anything else that could be expressed in actual numbers. In general, he thinks he should be paid because he says nice things about books -- if he's serious, he could attempt to develop that attitude into a full-blown protection scheme. ("Nice book you got there. It'd be a shame if something were to happen to it. Shame if it got a bad review.")

And then there's Larry of the OF Blog of the Fallen, who points out that a lot of things in this world feel like work, and many of the ones most worth doing are unpaid. As usual, I agree the most with him.

OK, so those are the terms of discussion: blogging is Really, Really Hard; that it's like Having a Real Job; and that Somebody Should Be Paying Me For This. Yes, I'm being sarcastic and dismissive, but the topic deserves it.

Here's the deal: if you're doing something for yourself, and you're not enjoying it, it's time to stop. Period. If you are enjoying it, but it's getting to be too much, then you need to find a way to cut back. The thing to remember is that you're doing this for yourself, as a hobby. (And it applies not only to personal blogging, but to gardening, classic-car restoring, fishing, scrapbooking, knitting, or what have you.)

The problem isn't the activity; it's you. You need to set your limits and stick to them. Maybe you only have time to do one good review in a week -- so cut back to one a week. This is about your own time management; dreaming of someone else paying you for something that you're liking less and less is not going to lead to you liking it more.

(There's also the fannish/social aspect of the book-review blog world; we are part of a loose economy of gifts and esteem. But you can't let that overwhelm your time. If you're not blogging because what you write is important to you, you shouldn't be doing it at all.)

Oh, and one last point: don't give people like this guy more stones to throw at us. Sitting around complaining about how hard it is that people send you books for free and there are too many of them to read and life is just too much for you is just pure whininess. The people who work with books professionally -- many of whom are being laid off from newspapers right now, you self-indulgent babies -- will only worsen their opinion of all of us the more bloggers are seen as being obsessed about finding a way to get paid for doing something they supposedly love to do.

Suck it up or go home. If you want to be taken seriously, be serious. And watch what the real journalists do. Asking your subject to pay you is very much not what actual journalists do.


Neth said...

The most common reaction I've seen among bloggers is that they don't want to get paid. They didn't get into blogging to be paid and certainly don't expect - and the don't want it, at least direct from publishers for what I think are obvious reasons.

Now, those with ads would love more revenue from them and people with amazon associates link would be happy with more orders through the links. I think that is more an expression of the stereotypical American ambition for more stuff (be it money or credit).

It seems to me that those who do receive ARCs (or bound galleys if you prefer) and review copies are happy with that form of 'compensation' (if someone chooses to look at it that way).

As usual, I agree the most with him.

Is it his left foot that you disagree with? :)

RobB said...

Very keen observations from the "other" side of this debate. Good things to think about and in a sense, trivializes some of what we we've been saying. Rather, I like how you put things in perspective.

Something we (as in the SF Book/Review blogosphere & online community) is how small a percentage of the greater fan community we are. I suspect the percentage has grown over the past few years, though.

Jeff C said...

Nice post, and I agree with everything you said, and how you said it (not that my agreement means anything).

I didnt realize it until you pointed it out, but the topic does sound more than a bit whiny.

Jonathan M said...

Link's broken.

For some reason you link to me and talk about me while addressing a load of points that I didn't actually make.

My piece does two things, neither of which you actually address while Don Quixoteing the straw windmills that you think are my arguments.

Firstly, I point out that litbloggers burn out or get bored and that money (even a little bit) would help prevent this.

Secondly, I suggest that publishers should donate money to existing paying markets. Not individual people. That way the infrastructure of online fandom (not just criticism but short stories) would be improved and publishers would be more likely to get their works reviewed in quality venues as those venues would be able to pay for more content from people who would be less likely to burn out because they would be more regularly getting something back for what they put into the scene.

The question, for me, is whether publishers benefit from having their product reviewed by established critics in respected venues. If they do then they have a financial interest in maintaining that infrastructure.

So for me the issue is not whether or not one understands how PR works (I don't, nor do I claim to, I am not in the PR business) but whether one understands the economics of investing in common infrastructure.

The fact that you confuse these two issues suggests that while you may understand the first, you are unable to see past it to understand the second.

Larry Nolen said...

Needless to say, I agree with what you said, especially that last paragraph. I've been facetious about it before, mostly because I thought it went without saying, but I'm finding myself wanting to be a professional when it comes to my commentaries. First step, I have to act professional, meaning I have to study and learn from those who are professionals at what they do.

Too many people these days in all walks of life seem to think that money makes someone a professional. As I said in the post you linked to, it's the other way around - money follows after one has demonstrated him/herself to be a professional. Wasserman's points were good ones. I wonder how many will pay heed to them.

Paul D said...

I've kind of wondered what you thought of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist for a while. I visit both your sites daily (in fact, I normally read you just after him), but find myself further and further away from what he thinks, and closer to your opinions. I distinctly remembering thinking that I was curious to your reaction when George RR Martin said he should be nominated for a Hugo.

Paul D said...

Interesting, after I make that post, I went over to Pat's site, and notice that someone has commented anonymously that you 'think he's shit', which I don't think was your intention (not that I want to put words in your mouth though).

Unknown said...

Oh for God's sake. If your litblog is burning you out-take a break from it. Yes, it's time-consuming, occasionally boring and/or tiresome. So're most serious hobbies. Personally, the reason I write reviews are for the galley, as I like getting to read the book early. That's it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I know of at least one blog (not English language, though) with paid contracts for book reviews. The publishers don't have anything to say concerning the review itself - they just have to try sending good books.

But I suppose Romania and the States are much too different to really compare. The point was that yes, it is possible to be paid without "the man with the money" forcing you to write positive stuff.

As for the whiny stuff - I agree. I moderate a blogging forum and oh my God, it's like someone forced them to start the damn blog... Like Nadine so accurately put it: if you're burned out, take a break. Go out. Get drunk. See your girlfriend/boyfriend. You're not making money from the blog anyway (mostly), so it's not like every day away means you're losing $x.

Ray said...

"The question, for me, is whether publishers benefit from having their product reviewed by established critics in respected venues."

I have nothing constructive to say, I just wanted another laugh.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Paul D: I thought this post was, all in all, nastier to Jonathan than to Pat (and it looks like Jonathan thinks that way, too). But I'm pretty grumpy in general, so it can be difficult for others to calculate my precise levels of displeasure.

Pat is enthusiastic, he's younger than I am, and his vocabulary seems to be more strongly formed by epic fantasy than mine is. None of those things are bad, but they do tend to give us different views and different ways of expressing them. (I'm also an ex-editor and a current book marketer, so I have a possibly jaundiced view from inside the belly of the beast.)

I don't dislike him; I keep reading his blog, and I'm generally quite ruthless in culling things that aren't worth my time. I do think he's the epitome of a certain kind of reader, and expresses the concerns and loves of that kind of fan -- and there are a lot of them -- well enough for even someone like me to understand them.

So I think he's a very valuable guy to have reviewing books, even if I don't agree with him half the time. (Agreement is overrated; I used to have long-running argument/discussions with my then-boss, Ellen Asher, about books in the field we'd both read, and those were immeasurably useful in making me think critically about books and about my reactions to books.)

Andrew Wheeler said...

Neth: I'm not sure if I want to get paid -- I don't want any hassles, and I don't want to be beholden to anyone, but more cash is always good.

I don't think there's any way to get #3 without #s 2 and 1, which is why I haven't even bothered to put Google ads here. (Or to change my default template in nearly three years, for that matter.)

I do have the Amazon links, in part because it's a way to quickly point to other reviews (however good or bad they might be) and a way to let an interested reader get the book immediately. But, like everybody else, it doesn't bring in more than a trickle of pennies. (Which is exactly what I expected, and is perfectly OK.)

Larry's left foot can be contentious, but it's that right elbow you really need to look out for.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Jonathan: There are seven links in that post, and they all work for me. You might need to be more specific. (Or it might be a regional problem; one of those links might be blocked to non-Americans for some silly reason.)

I actually found your first point too trivial to address. Yes, people do get bored with their hobbies. So what? If it's more than a hobby, they'll continue it for the greater reasons, and if it's just a leisure-time activity that's no longer appealing, it should be dropped. I have no interest in keeping people doing non-work activities that they don't enjoy.

On your other point, you're trying to make it wider, but it really boils down to "publishers should give money to Strange Horizons." I disagree; there's an established mechanism by which publishers contribute to the financial health of secondary publications, and that's called advertising.

You write The question, for me, is whether publishers benefit from having their product reviewed by established critics in respected venues. If they do then they have a financial interest in maintaining that infrastructure.

But that's exactly the problem. The moment publishers have a "financial interest" in a critical outlet, that respect will evaporate. The Kirkus example I cited is only one example. Such reviews will be seen as bought and paid for -- by the publishers as much as by the readers -- and so will not have the effect you seek.

(If the payments are secret, that's even worse, because it will come out, eventually.)

Andrew Wheeler said...

Ray: The effect is, indeed, exceedingly small, which many people in the debate don't seem to realize.

A major glowing review in the biggest review outlet on the web -- let's say Strange Horizons -- might sell as many as ten additional copies of an extremely obscure book.

Joe said...

I do want to get paid for reviewing, though not necessarily be paid directly by a publisher to review their work. I wouldn't mind getting paid from a publication / market which publishes reviews (Strange Horizons, IROSF, etc)

David Moles said...

Hey, there's no need to take Strange Horizons' name in vain.

Gabe said...

It's hard to take your learned opinion seriously when you refer to Strange Horizons as the biggest review outlet on the web. They only run a few reviews each week, and I'm pretty sure places like SF Site, Science Fiction Weekly, Locus Online, SF Crowsnest, SF Revu, Zone-SF and probably Pat's own blog likely receive far more hits and exert far more influence over readers.

Anonymous said...

I think the reference to Strange Horizons as the "biggest review outlet" was tongue-in-cheek....

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you and am only irritated that I'm even aware that such a discussion even had legs.

- Jay Tomio

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