Why Isn’t Just Reading Enough Anymore?

by Kim on June 12, 2014 · 29 comments

This post originally appeared on Book Riot, where it got a lot of great feedback. Since it was published on Tuesday, Kate Rados with the Crown Publishing Group reached out on Twitter to ask for feedback on Blogging for Books, a program targeted at bloggers that is mentioned in this piece. I sent an e-mail with many of my concerns (and the concerns voiced by other bloggers) to her and plan to do an update post next week. For now, though, I think this post/rant stands on it’s own. 

book riot

When did there get to be so many expectations for readers?

Simply reading books – and, maybe, if we liked them, telling our friends about them – just doesn’t seem to be enough any more. Now it looks like publishers may have taken readers’ jokey offers to “work for books” literally, and that’s just what they’re asking us to do.

In the last month or so (as far as I can tell) the Crown Publishing Group has been pushing a new review program for book bloggers called Blogging for Books (that is the most tone deaf program name). Book blogger Michele at A Reader’s Respite wrote a wonderful post about the initial problems with the program and, after conversing with the folks at Crown, posted an update to how the company may be addressing some of the most egregious aspects of the program. Even with some tweaks, I still think it’s a terrible program for book bloggers, but that’s not the point of this post.

Blogging for Books is very explicit about what it expects reviewers to do after they’ve received a book for review, if they want to continue to participate in the program. Reviewers were required (now just encouraged) to post their thoughts online in a review, on a book retailer website, and share via their social media. The “penalty” for not following through with these steps is being cut off from the program. As far as I can tell from the Frequently Asked Questions, there’s no option to just choose not to finish or not review a book.

Under Blogging for Books, the vision of an ideal reader is one who reads everything, writes about it, then shares those thoughts across the web to create “buzz” about titles. It’s not enough to read a book and tell a friend – your feelings have to be made public (preferably on a retail site).

This vision of the enthusiastic, verbal, retail-oriented reader is not exclusive to book bloggers or book reviewers, either – it’s becoming part of the way The Publishing Industry thinks it is going to save itself.

When I was at Book Expo America at the end of May, I attended a session with Patrick Brown, director of author marketing at Goodreads, called Goodreads 201: Advanced Tips for Driving Book Discovery. In the session, Brown focused on ways that authors and publishers can use tools on the site — giveaways, advertising, and the new “Ask the Author” feature, among others — to convert individuals from readers to fans to evangelicals for a particular author.

Brown argued that authors build loyalty with readers by giving something back to them – readers want to feel a connection to the person who wrote a book they love. Features like Ask the Author, which rolled out to a group of 54 authors in beta last month, give authors the chance to have focused interactions with individuals readers while building out “genuine and interesting” content connected to their work.

Ask the Author and the other strategies Brown presented made sense and, alone, aren’t a problem. But they do point to broader pressures being slowly applied to readers that risk making reading work rather than fun.

According to The Publishing Industry, it’s not enough for readers to just read books anymore. The point of it all is to take readers, convert them to fans, then push them to become evangelists for a book or author. Real readers have to become evangelicals for books because evangelism is, apparently, the only way to drive sales. Like the prophet John Green, readers have been tasked with saving The Publishing Industry… And I call shenanigans on that.

It’s frustrating that it’s not enough to just read. Readers now have to share everything they read with followers across a variety of platforms with hashtags and @ replies to interested parties. It’s not even enough to write reviews of books you love. Those reviews need to be on retail sites and pushed out through social media too. Being a good reader means being a good “word of mouth” marketer without any of the perks that come with having that job.

Now, I’m not saying that enthusiasm is a bad thing. I love to gush about books that blew my brain or were just a ton of fun to read. It’s fine to love independent bookstores and advocate for readers to buy local. And it’s even okay to express support to one side in a business dispute if you disagree with the business tactics of a particular conglomerate.

Readers can evangelize, but we should only do it for the books that truly deserve it. If readers enthuse over every book, it makes that enthusiasm dishonest – a problem for readers, publishers and authors. You can’t be a sincere evangelist for what you don’t really believe in. And if you don’t really believe in it, no one should ask you to evangelize for it.

Enthusiasm shouldn’t be required or even expected of readers. Readers should not be pressured or cajoled or guilted or tricked or passively forced into being enthused or publicly sharing that enthusiasm on behalf of The Publishing Industry.

It should be enough to just read a damn book.

Special thanks Florinda (The 3R’s Blog) for being a beta reader for this post, helping to clarify my thoughts on these issues, and even contributing a few sentences. And a major shout out to Michele (A Reader’s Respite) for her initial posts on Blogging for Books. She helped inspire me to find my voice on what is, I think, a very serious issue for bloggers and readers. 

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny @ Reading the End June 12, 2014 at 2:36 pm

PREACH. I can see why Crown set up their program the way they did, but the difficulty is that you can’t force evangelism. Readers will become evangelists for books they love because they love those books, not because they got them through a program or talked to the author or anything else that’s within the publisher’s control.

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Kim June 17, 2014 at 9:21 pm

Yeah… I get some of the idea behind the program, but I think the execution is flawed — you can’t force people to write reviews if you want them to be effective.

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Christina June 12, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Wow, I hadn’t heard anything about this program until now and after reading through your post, Kim, and those you linked to by Michele, I’m in shock. This idea of “evangelizing” readers is completely off-base to me because, to use your example of John Green, I think it bleeds into everything books are not — movie adaptions, comic books, social media followings (tumblr, twitter, etc.). Technically, yes, I’m reading when I follow John Green (which I don’t), but that’s certainly not the case when it comes to watching The Vlog Brothers or the film adaption of his books.

I drastically scaled back the online presence of my blog at the end of last year deleting my twitter and rarely cross-posting my reviews on GoodReads. I doubt I’d even qualify for a good Klout score, which is fine because I gave up the ARCs when I realized I couldn’t review in a timely manner (or handle the guilt for not doing so) along with the riggers of grad school. Certainly won’t be signing up for Crowne Publishing’s group. (And I agree — Blogging for Books is a horrible name!)

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Kim June 17, 2014 at 9:22 pm

The name just sets up the problems of the relationship, doesn’t it?

The whole push to make readers evangelicals about books strikes me as so strange. That just cannot happen for every book… expecting (or finding ways to try and make it happen) that seems silly.

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Anita June 12, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Well said Kim. I sometimes worry that a casual reader of my blog might think I love everything I read, what I don’t usually shout about is the books I don’t finish or don’t really care for. I may let the publisher know via Edelweiss or an email, but do I really want to write out a full review, no. Must I be uber strict with books I accept or choose to read, heck no, I need to and want to try new genres, authors etc.
What is my role in promoting reading, that’s not strictly defined, but since it’s a hobby and I love reading, it’s kind of my choice.

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Kim June 17, 2014 at 9:23 pm

All bloggers make choices about what we read and what we decide to write about. I see value in critical reviews, but I don’t write many because to write one I feel like I’d have to read the full book… and I don’t want to waste my time.

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Priscilla June 13, 2014 at 8:22 am

The thing is, for beauty, fashion, and fitness bloggers, this sort of thing has been going on for a long time. I’ve dropped many a blog over the years because they started doing almost nothing but sponsored posts. More than getting people to read, this is a way for businesses to keep costs down, by asking readers to do their marketing for “free.” This isn’t a practice I like personally, and while I would rather have 30 followers and read and write about what I want, I realize there are many bloggers who want to drive traffic and be a part of the bigger picture. While those bloggers may love reading, they may be prioritizing something else–attention, free books, connections in the publishing industry–over creating a real connection with readers of their blogs.

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Kim June 17, 2014 at 9:26 pm

Sponsored posts is a different animal, to me, since it involves a direct monetary payment to a blogger in exchange for something. To make them effective, you have to maintain your voice and credibility.

ARCs, by their very nature, have no value, so sending them to bloggers is not a payment of any sort. And even finished books sent for review consideration is not a payment. It’s a cost (and risk) in the marketing of a book.

You’re totally right that there are bloggers who value things other than writing about what they want. But I do honestly believe that eventually those bloggers burn out because the “perks” of book blogging are just not worth it.

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Jeanne June 13, 2014 at 8:29 am

Even for books I evangelize over the most (Nick Harkaway’s), the publisher often doesn’t notice or care. When Angelmaker came out, the author gave his publisher a list of people to send advance copies to and told me I was on it, but they didn’t care. I don’t care that much, either, aside from having to wait a little longer.
I mentioned to an author friend that despite having reviewed the first volume of a biography (Heinlein’s) and getting thanks from the publisher, who is a friend of hers, he still didn’t think to send me the second volume for review. She said it’s hard for him to keep track of things. I said there probably should be follow-up lists.

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Kim June 17, 2014 at 9:27 pm

That’s such a strange story, Jeanne! You’d think you’d be a natural fit for that author — a perfect opportunity. Blogging for Books is, in many ways, a publisher’s answer to the “problem” of tracking things.

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Teresa June 14, 2014 at 7:16 am

I have sympathy for publishers because it is challenging to cut through all the noise and get the word out about their books. But pressuring readers to do the work of generating buzz and requiring reviews are not good ways to deal with the challenge. It seems beneficial for all concerned to make it easy for reviewers to share reviews on various platforms (Netgalley does this), but requiring it takes away the genuine joy behind good buzz, the kind of buzz publishers *should* want.

I mentioned this on the BR post, but I’ll say it again here. I’d really love for all of us as bloggers to get away from using the language of exchange when we talk about review copies. It gives the impression that the review copy is “payment” for a review, which implies that a review is required upon receipt of a review copy. If a blogger wants to make that a personal policy, that’s fine, but because the exchange language is so widespread, I worry that it sets up unspoken assumptions and expectations. I try to be clear when dealing with publishers that all review copies are accepted for consideration only, which gives me an out when I get a book and can see after just a few chapters than I won’t have anything of value to say about it (positive or negative).

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Kim June 17, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Yes, the exchange language has to stop — books are not sent in exchange for anything and we all need to stop acting like they are.

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Aarti June 14, 2014 at 10:52 pm

I agree with Jenny above, as I often do. I am in marketing now, and getting advocates for your brand is really the dream. However, most companies pay advocates to do all this work for them! Somehow, book bloggers have been left out of that sort of agreement – or at least I have! I feel like if you have not been paid to write a review (and, in my opinion, getting an ARC is not payment enough), then you have no obligation to do anything.

This is why I think many established bloggers are turning away from review copies. I would rather read what I want and discuss it as I want than have all this pressure to do the above. I get enough pressure at work!

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Kim June 17, 2014 at 9:29 pm

And ARCs can’t be a payment because it has zero worth. I agree — if a blogger hasn’t been paid to write about a book, then there’s no obligation to do so even after getting a review copy.

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Teresa June 15, 2014 at 9:51 am

I just thought of another reason these kinds of efforts to get bloggers to promote books troubles me. It undercuts the idea that bloggers are critics whose role it is to provide unbiased impressions of books we read. It makes us look more like an unpaid marketing arm of publishers. I know some bloggers don’t see themselves as critics, but for those of us that do, the push toward more promotion is frustrating.

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Kim June 17, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Yes, exactly. Let’s start acting less like marketers and more like critics, please.

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Melinda @ The Book Musings June 17, 2014 at 4:52 am

LOVE this post!

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Kim June 17, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Thanks!

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Julie S. June 19, 2014 at 1:45 pm

YES! Wow, I didn’t know about this program, but being forced to rave about something that doesn’t deserve it is just wrong. At least with NG you can write a review saying whether you liked it or not, and don’t have to share all over the universe saying you read that book.

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Finley Jayne June 23, 2014 at 2:28 pm

I guess I’m a bit confused-I thought this was what ARCs were? I follow a lot of book blogs that do ARC programs and they all state that they received the book free, in exchange for an ‘honest review’. Free books are given, with the expectation that a review will be written in exchange, right? Otherwise why would ARC programs exist? I guess I don’t see what the difference is?

I’m neutral on if these programs are good or bad, since I don’t participate in any ARC programs, but I’m just confused as to what the difference is? Could someone clarify please (I’m a new blogger yet, so I may be missing something!)

Just found your blog and I’m now a new email subscriber :)

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Kim June 24, 2014 at 7:43 pm

That exchange language is part of the problems. ARCs aren’t sent “in exchange” for reviews, they’re sent for the potential to be reviewed.

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Jennifer June 24, 2014 at 9:34 pm

I’ve kind of backed off of the whole book blogging thing for a while because of this very issue. I found that I really only wanted to write about the books that really spoke to me on a deep level. I got frustrated with feeling like I needed to review all the books I read. Even more, when I did start accepting books for review, I discovered that I didn’t like a lot of them. I made it clear when accepting books for review that I will only write my sincere opinion but when I feel lukewarm at best about a book, it’s hard to write much of anything.

All in all, I find this post interesting because I can’t help but wonder if in some ways the internet is just breeding this sort of insincerity. People just have to constantly produce to be relevant on the internet. At times, I wonder if that production rate is ultimately what turns people to tactics like this. Exposure is key to being “successful” and exposure can frequently come from some shady tactics like this whole blogging for book campaign.

None of this really sits particularly well with me. But I wonder what can really be done to halt what is already happening around me so quickly?

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Kim June 26, 2014 at 7:51 pm

I think your point about pressure to produce contributing to these problems is a good one. If you feel like you need to write more about things that seem popular, it can be tempting to do things you’re not entirely proud of.

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Tabitha (Not Yet Read) June 26, 2014 at 4:56 pm

I noticed this ‘Blogging for Books’ popping up in frequent Shelf Awareness newsletters. I checked it out but honestly, I’d rather buy a book then feel that kind of pressure. Yes I receive books from publishers/publicists but its a personal relationship that I’ve then established so I never feel like I can’t write to them and say “this particular title didn’t work out for me so I’m not going to finish reading it”. Feeling that I can write that makes me more comfortable and I’m not scared I’m going to be cut off. I will only be a mouth for the books I really love expecting me to do all that work is ridiculous. Many of us spend as much time on our book blogs as we do at a normal 8-5 job. Ultimately do what you want, read what you want and share whatever you feel is honest and if that isn’t enough for them then go to the library and get the books or buy them. That is my take on it. I know I’m not going to let that pressure get to me. I love reading and if it did start to feel like work I’d love reading less and we can’t have that.

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