Weblog Book Reviewing


There are times when I read things on the net or in newspapers and I just know, straight away, that I had better not post anything about it for a few days.  You know the line "Never drive when angry"?  The same thing applies to writing for the internet.  Once written and posted it never disappears.  Far better to walk away and let it lie. 

And sometimes a piece just sets up a slow burn that doesn't seem to fade. 

In her "Overflow" column in "The Australian" over this past weekend, Rosemary Sorenson made a number of points regarding book reviewing and the blogging world, none of them complimentary. 

Sorenson's main point is the following: "It turns out many publishers solicit reviews from bloggers by sending them free books, who then write effusive reviews about them. 'Viral marketing', the kind some bloggers help along so willingly, is not so innocent after all."  This note has, I presume, arisen because some authorities in the US have decided that there appears to be a sort of "cash-for-comment" (or in this case "book-for-comment") situation with some US-based literary weblogs. The contention being that publishers will send books to weblogs with the expectation that a favourable review will be written.  The implication is that this is a form of "viral marketing" that weblogs have been party to, but which they haven't divulged until now.  Just think of the Sydney radio jocks, in the early part of this decade, making favourable comments about certain financial and telecommuncations companies that they had previously criticised, adversely.

The point might be made that Sorenson is only talking about US weblogs and has made no implication about Australian versions.  You can argue that all you like, but I don't think the writer's intention was to be country-specific.

The trouble with this sort of argument is that it's almost impossible to dispute.  Whatever I say will be taken as an attempt by me to portray myself in a favourable light and therefore suspect: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks".  Well, "old fart", anyway.

So, herewith a summary of some relevant points I have made on this weblog in the past, and which I think are worth repeating:

1. Publishers send books to weblogs such as this for publicity purposes - just as they do with any media outlet: newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, etc, etc.  The idea behind this, I guess, is that any mention, anywhere, is a good thing.  They request a copy of the review, which seems only fair.  I've never had a note from a publisher implying that anything will follow from a favourable or a non-favourable review.  

2. Weblogs provide an additional review source for these publishers.  Not a replacement, not better, just an alternative.

3. Have I been approached to "publicise" a book for a publisher on this weblog?  Yes.  Has the expectation been that I only say favourable things about it?  Probably, but as I refused the invitation I don't really know.

4. Do I accept advertising?  No.  I've been asked a number of times, but I'm not interested.  This is a hobby not a commercial proposition.  Some webloggers feel the need to ensure their venture is profitable, or at least revenue-neutral. That's up to them. 

5. Has anyone attempted to "buy" this weblog?  Well, I'm not sure about "buy", as no mention of money or anything else was mentioned. I declined the offer before it got any further than the initial approach.  This is a hobby - see note 4 above. 

6. If I write an effusive review of a book it's because I really liked it.  I don't write hatchet jobs.  It costs a lot to get a book published, in time, money, effort and emotion. If a group of people consider that a book has enough going for it to ensure it gets in front of readers then I'm not going to dismiss all of that work as meaningless.  It's the job of a reviewer to find the worth in a book as well as to warn against the shortcomings.

There is probably more, but that's enough.  Readers have to read book reviews with a critical eye, the same way they should read the books themselves.  I identify whether or not the book under review is a "review copy", and has therefore been supplied by a publisher, or is a "private purchase".  After that it's up to you.


It is very difficult to take anything said in "The Australian" about blogging or the internet seriously. There is a clear commercial agenda operating. As you have pointed out, we readers are quite capable of reading a review and making a decision based on our knowledge of the reviewer, the quality of the writing in the review and so on.

Perry, I agree it was wise to let that piece of Rosemary's brew a bit. I think she might be looking for a bite back from blogs, and personally I don't think her rather snide note is worth the trouble. She clearly is not being paid enough to investigate the matter thoroughly, and has contented herself with a cheap shot at those whom she unfortunately may consider to be her competition.

The line between pro-blogging and cultural blogging is rather poorly understood by some people. The notion that getting free books is somehow suspect was pretty much dealt with in the US and UK quite some time ago, and the FTC's recommendations on disclosure of free samples (including books) have caused considerable surprise - they are being quite vigorously contested by all kinds of online reviewers , some considering the proposed actions to be discrimination against all forms of online media where writing about products is practised, not just against book bloggers as a group.

I can see a useful case to be made for bloggers to be clear that a book was provided for review, if the blogger in question usually reviews from a mixture of sources, only because in general conversation when it has come up, sometimes the common reader will be concerned that a blogger will only say nice things if they have received the book for free. It is also good, as you've done, to let readers know that you don't review negatively if that's the case, and why that is - most understand when it's explained as you've done, in my case I would submit that I am not being paid to say bad things, so I will not review books I don't like. And plenty of bloggers overseas have regular giveaways of said books if there's enough to warrant it.

However I think too that bloggers need to let people know that a free book is nowhere near enough recompense for three or four hours of your time which you will never get back, which you have volunteered in order to create an informative recommendation. Axel Bruns has written a very useful post on the whole bizzo, here and it's posted on his Gatewatching blog as well. He makes some good points about trust towards the end, which I heartily concur with.

And there's a very good summary of the issues, along with some great points about trust again, at Estelle's blog,
3000 Books:

Agreed on all points, Perry. It's ridiculous to suggest that free books (or - review copies) are incentive enough for a blogger to spend the time reading and falsely puffing a book. (As Genevieve points out.) For most bloggers, it's a hobby. If they're being paid, it's either because their blog is an offshoot of the traditional media, or is - in a very few cases - successful enough to be a media enterprise in its own right. In these cases, I don't see how it is significantly different to newspapers (for example) getting review copies.

And if a few bloggers really are flattered enough to take the time and effort to write a falsely positive review of a book because they got a free copy, I'd be amazed if any of them have a wide enough readership for it to make much of an impact beyond what would happen if you gave a uni student a free book and asked them to tell their friends it's good, even if it's not. (Actually, I'd be amazed if any blogger who would be that impressionable would have sufficient readership to come to the attention of a publisher's publicity department.) For a blog to have an impact that reaches wider than their friends, it has to be taken seriously enough by the writer that others will want to read it. And if you take it the least bit seriously (even just seriously as in honestly reflecting you and your opinions), you're not going to use it to write opinions that aren't yours.

I think that's a good point that many bloggers don't often publish bad reviews because their blogs are passion projects - thus, they write about what has aroused their passion, not about books they don't care about.

Sorry for the very long comment ...

Paul, the problem some commentaters have with blogs is similar to another conversation I had earlier this year. I was talking to a couple of professional convention organisers who couldn't believe I was helping to organise a sizeable literary convention on a volunteer basis in my spare time. It just didn't make any sense to them. Some get it, some don't. Same thing applies to some people who write for a living about books and publishing: they can't understand why anyone would do it for nothing. There must be something more to it.

Genevieve, I guess this weekend will tell if she was looking for a bite back. I made every effort to keep the personal side of things out of my piece. Not sure I succeeded, but I tried. Sorenson's remarks had a sort of tone to them that rankled. As it was probably supposed to.

Ariel, I don't mind long comments. I think readers are quite sophisticated and will stay away from obvious promotional rants. I couldn't do it with a straight face.

I think Ariel's comment is perfect, and of a perfect length. And of course, Perry, your response is most reasonable - just really suggesting my own reasons for saying zilch on my own space, I saw it on Saturday and had trouble getting it out of my head too.
The approach is lazy, too - it is hardly surprising when journalists do not have a complete picture of what is going on online, as they tend to swoop in and out very quickly.

It was remiss of me to not acknowledge the other Australian litbloggers who had run with story prior to me putting my nose into it. I was fairly certain they were out there but didn't check closely enough. My apologies.

As Genevieve points out, Estelle Tang's notes are especially interesting.

When this whole World SF Convention stuff is over at this time next year I must write up all the "good" comments we get from the mainstream media. 'Cos as we know, sf is only STAR TREK and STAR WARS. Or, as Margaret Atwood would have it, talking squids in outer space. [See the note from Ursula LeGuin here: http://news.ansible.co.uk/a267.html ]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on November 4, 2009 3:46 PM.

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