Rethinking the Blogger-Publisher Relationship

If you’ve blogged history (and especially the Civil War) long enough than you should be familiar with the following email form:

I work for [Insert Publisher Here] and we recently published a book I think you might be interested in, [Insert Book Title Here] by [Insert Author Here], a fascinating narrative account about [Insert Civil War Subject Here].  Because of your passion for the Civil War, I thought that you and your readers might like to see this.  Also, if you were interested in seeing a copy of [Book Title] yourself, please send me your mailing address and I would be more than happy to send you a copy.

I get these emails on a regular basis and, for the most part, I don’t mind them.  They clearly reflect the prominence and popularity of the blogosphere and represent an attractive avenue of advertising for book publishers.  And best of all, who doesn’t mind the free books.  I’ve established a fairly rigid book review policy and it goes something like this: I am more than happy to review a book, but I make no promises that it will be mentioned on my site and the acceptance comes with the possibility that it may in fact receive a negative review.  In short, I want to be treated like the book review editor for an academic journal.  It seems to me that as long as the blogger maintains complete editorial control and is capable of evaluating the book along the lines that he/she deems acceptable than there should be no conflicts of interest or ethical questions.

On the other hand, I worry about cases where bloggers are treated as simple marketing outlets by publishers.  Publisher’s tactics are fairly uniform.  They offer all kinds of publicity materials that can be posted on blogs and will even offer you access to the authors for interviews.  In these cases the relationship is essentially a 1-way street where the blogsite is treated as a bulletin board.  In the case of a radio interview, the blogger may have had the opportunity to read the book and prepare a set of questions, but I suspect that more often than not the interview is an opportunity for the author to sell his/her book.  Clearly, this is one of the things that went wrong with the way Sally Jenkins, John Stauffer, and Doubleday handled publicity for The State of Jones.  Doubleday offered review copies of their book as well as interviews with their authors and a few bloggers took advantage of it.  Unfortunately, things did not go so well in the Civil War blogosphere once serious questions about their interpretation surfaced and the authors refused to shift the way in which they hoped to promote their book.

The problem with emails such as the one above is that they come across as the publisher doing the blogger a favor as opposed to one which establishes a type of business relationship.  In essence, what they are hoping to do is advertise their book on a blog.  They are not primarily interested in any type of review; rather, what they want ideally is for the blogger to post the information provided and perhaps even interview the author.  My question is why do bloggers not ask for payment in response, especially those who pay for a domain name and web hosting?  I assume that the Civil War magazines do not advertise books for free, so why would a blogger?  And keep in mind that the value of the book cannot even approach what I assume is charged by the Civil War magazines and other media outlets.  In the case of magazines advertisers must pay for each issue, but in the case of blogs once the post is up it can be accessed in an Online search at any time.

Again, I don’t think that there is a problem in situations where the blogger makes it clear that the content of the review will be dictated by his/her standards.  In my case, I will not accept any promotional materials beyond the book itself.  Still, I do think the publisher benefits to a certain extent.  I may end up writing a very critical review of the book, but I will still provide a link to the publisher’s website or Amazon and this ultimately gives the reader the final decision of whether to purchase it.

What do you think?

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14 thoughts on “Rethinking the Blogger-Publisher Relationship

  1. Andrew Duppstadt

    This is a topic that I’ve thought about from time to time and I’m glad to read your post about it. I generally agree with your take on it, but I come at it from a slightly different angle. I only accept books from publishers if I am genuinely interested in the topic of the book. I’ve probably turned down/ignored more of these emails than I’ve responded to favorably. In the cases that I do accept the book from the publisher, I make no promises whatsoever. The book may never be mentioned, for good or ill, on my blog. I’ve got a myriad of constraints on my time and I can’t read every book the publishers want to send me. Book reviews for publications take priority, and past that there are things that I want to read for my own edification without having the pressure of writing a review. However, I agree with the idea that as long as the blogger does not become a mouthpiece for the individual, the book, or the publisher, there’s no ethical problem here. The publisher is giving away free books in the hopes of receiving some kind of publicity; whether they get it or not is up to us. Can’t wait to hear what others think!

    Reply
  2. Kevin Levin Post author

    Andrew,

    Thanks for getting the ball rolling here. It looks like we pretty much have the same policy. I am thinking specifically of those who do not treat their own blogs as critical book review forums and are much more loose when it comes to accepting promotional materials.

    Reply
  3. Drew Wagenhoffer

    Kevin,
    Good post. I often ponder the same things. Somehow, that form email solicitation appears quite familiar…

    Since my own site is all about books, I have less of a problem with simply mentioning them. I’ve made a commitment to frequent posting, and it’s an easy filler when I don’t feel like writing. My review policy is similar to yours: I make no promises of a review of any kind (whether the book is solicited or unsolicited). Like the rest of you guys, I probably turn down as many requests as I accept. A personal policy I do keep myself quite strictly to is I won’t review a book that I haven’t read in its entirety; thus, one won’t find too many scathing reviews from me as I just toss the unfinished book and move on the to the next one. No one is paying me to do this, and life to too short to force myself to read bad books. Because of this, my reviews are mostly either positive or mixed.

    You said: “On the other hand, I worry about cases where bloggers are treated as simple marketing outlets by publishers. Publisher’s tactics are fairly uniform…The problem with emails such as the one above is that they come across as the publisher doing the blogger a favor as opposed to one which establishes a type of business relationship. In essence, what they are hoping to do is advertise their book on a blog.”

    I rather expect cheesy marketing tactics, but the tone is often objectionable for sure. I also get requests to post my reviews on other sites, as if I should be content to operate as an unpaid marketing intern for them. One of the strangest, and quite common, things that happens is, after I accept the offer, the publisher or author never sends me the book. Much of that can probably be attributed to laziness or inefficiency on their part, but the cynic in me does think some of them are just hoping I will mention the book anyway. Another point of yours — that “They are not primarily interested in any type of review” — has an element of truth to it as I see it. As a courtesy, I always email the publisher when a review is posted, but much of the time I get no response back. No big deal, but it reinforces the notion that the actual content is less important than the goal of getting the book merely mentioned online.

    Reply
  4. Kevin Levin Post author

    Drew,

    I was hoping to hear from you. Most of the books I receive are university press books and they tend not to be accompanied by the fancy publicity fanfare. That said, one academic publisher regularly sends me announcements in the mail as if that will be enough for me to mention it on the blog.

    I do part ways with you on the issue of negative reviews. I understand why you would want to avoid those, but sometimes I think it is important to inform my readers of books that have serious problems or shortcomings. It seems to me that if a publisher is going to solicit my time than they should be willing to deal with the consequences of what they’ve produced. That said, there have been a few times where the book was so bad that I did make the decision to put it aside rather than suffer through it.

    Reply
  5. Drew Wagenhoffer

    I don’t avoid writing negative reviews, I avoid bad books! It might seem like the same thing (or some kind of chicken and egg argument), but I think there’s a real difference. If I finish a bad book or if I’ve agreed to review it for a magazine, then I have no problem with writing negative reviews, and I have.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Drew,

      Thanks for calling me on that. That’s a distinction I should have caught. It’s been a long day of back-to-school meetings.

      Reply
  6. J. L. Bell

    As I see it, we’re talking about four types of book-related content:
    • press releases, contest announcements, tour announcements, and other content supplied directly by the publisher.
    • “guest blogs” of original material from authors themselves in connection with their book.
    • interviews with those authors done by the blogger.
    • book reviews by the blogger.

    Of course publishers would prefer the items at the top of the list since they guarantee that the press’s message gets out. It’s almost surprising how much a lot of us bloggers prefer the items on the bottom since they’re so much more work for us. But we keep more control, and get to put our own thoughts out there.

    Having worked as a book editor, I’d say that publishing marketers would be glad for any type of coverage. They aim for a critical mass of coverage around the publication date; after that, a book is basically on its own. Hence the promotional materials. But those marketers also recognize that a well-considered review from a respected writer carries more weight than a regurgitated press release.

    As for the State of Jones situation, I think we have to recognize that most writers still don’t understand blogs, that even blogging writers are still figuring out how this medium can work, and that around publication is the worst time to ask authors to learn new skills.

    Reply
  7. Kevin Levin Post author

    J.L.,

    I agree with pretty much everything here and your last point is a good one. Jenkins and Stauffer clearly did not understand what they were getting into when they approached at least a small section of the Civil War blogosphere. Part of the problem for bloggers is failing to understand what ought to go into a critical review rather than simply forwarding the information that a publisher provides. There is nothing necessarily wrong with taking the latter approach, but it seems to render the blogger as a mouthpiece or extension of the publisher.

    Reply
  8. Ken Noe

    Traditionally, authors fill out long forms for marketing departments that include suggestions of review venues. Those forms now often include spaces for blogs. One result is that prominent bloggers will receive more and more books in the future. Im not a blogger, but I was a journals book review editor. My advice is to put your review policy in writing now, being as specific as possible, and then link it in an obvious place, as Drew has done. And follow it. Threats of litigation over negative reviews happen, and standard academic practice isnt much help when neither blog, author, or publisher are part of that little world.

    Not necessarily off topic, by the way, I see (thanks to Dimitri) that Jenkins is now taking on her most negative Amazon reviewers in their comments sections.

    Reply
  9. Kevin Levin Post author

    Ken,

    Thanks for the update re: publisher marketing practices. I agree that the policy should be up front, whether it is included on the site or indicated in the correspondence with the publisher.

    I also noticed that Jenkins has engaged readers on the Amazon site. It shows how desperate she is to control the discourse. Actually, she is a loose cannon. What I still can’t figure out is where Stauffer is in all of this. Perhaps he is embarrassed about the whole affair.

    Reply
  10. Ken Noe

    I was particularly struck that in responding to David Williams’ one-star review, Jenkins tellingly didn’t seem to know who he was.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Ken,

      I also noticed that. Stauffer’s silence in all of this suggests to me that the two have very little connection with one another. That should tell us something about the quality of the book.

      Reply
  11. Zadik Shapiro

    I write a criminal law blog and I do not get as many invitations as civil war historians get. Also I have a full time law practice, which sadly keeps me from reading as many books as I like. But I’m always looking for good material. Its easy enough after a brief review of the item to delete it, put it in the circular file, or on the bookshelf. But as a blogger I maintain total control over my content and no decision is made until I read and fully investigate the subject. Too many people see us as writing off the tip of our tongue without the expected factual veracity of the print media.

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  12. Jim Miller

    I also take the same course, as many above have previously mentioned, in regard to book reviews. I don’t receive a great many solicitations for reviews, so I may not be as backlogged as some you you other bloggers, and maybe that’s just because of the nature of my blog. I have yet to turn down an offer from an author, publisher or distributer. I’ve never failed to review a book I’ve received, and make no promises at to the review. I have no problem writing unfavorable reviews, and yes, I have gotten some push back only from one author, who didn’t want to use fictionalized dialog for historical characters in his novel… to which I so badly wanted to say, “Then stop writing novels.”

    I don’t mind being used as a marketing tool. I’ve gotten to review some really good books along with a handful of stinkers. I look at it as a win/win scenario: I get a book and they get a mention on my blog.

    Coming from a customer service background (I work in a call center for a major telecommunications company), I do find it a bit annoying when I send the author or publisher a review, and not hear a word back from them, or nearly just as bad, a “Thanks of your review” comment on the posted review. I typically spend hours writing the reviews, and I try very hard to be fair and balanced. If you’re a publisher, I might suggest treating the reviewers with a little bit more respect. You don’t have to follow Emily Post’s rules of etiquette but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. If you establish good relationships with reviewers they maybe more apt to promote your books, and especially in this economy, that’s a good thing.

    Reply

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