Thursday, November 13, 2008

Are There Really Free Books?

Certainly, for many of us bloggers, the idea of getting 'free' books is nothing new. Library Thing's Early Review program, ARC's...advanced review copies of books from various sources, Amazon's Vine program, Harper Collins First Look, cold requests...there are a lot of sources of books out there if you seek them out.

But the question is, in what sense are they 'free'? Those who send us the books, at their expense, expect something in return. Usually, some sort of publicity, one would assume. They want us to read it and review it on our blog or elsewhere, where others will read what is this hopefully glowing review and want to buy it. And then they will read it too and tell their friends and fellow book lovers and next stop- NY Times bestsellers list! So, yes, we have entered a sort of contract. Send me a book and I will review it.

But are the issues at stake here more complicated than that? Some people think so. Recently, in The Guardian, there was an article by Edward Champion called There Is No Such Thing as a Free Book. That title might be a hint as to Mr. Champion's opinion on the matter. In the article, he discusses the program that the Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson has started recently, in which they promise to send a requested book to a blogger who agrees to post a 200 word review, "positive, negative, or somewhere in between." Mr. Champion does not seem to have a problem with that, but what Michael Hyatt, the head of Thomas Nelson Books did next has him rather upset.
“But Hyatt got greedy and honed his quid pro quo. Last week, Hyatt announced on his blog that he would tweak his "experiment." Not only would any blogger requesting a free book be required to post a 200-word review on his blog, they would also have to submit the review to "a consumer detail page" along the lines of Amazon.
In addition, to get their copy a blogger now also needed to enroll in the Book Reviewer Blogger programme, submitting his or her name, address, phone number, and categories of interest.”

Somewhere there, Mr. Champion feels that a line has been crossed. He feels that there are troubling questions in this for the blogsphere.
“Will Thomas Nelson stop sending books to those who write negative reviews? Will the publisher demand 400-word reviews a few months from now? Will other publishers begin setting more extraordinary terms for hotter titles? And, most importantly, will the blogosphere ever understand that surrendering to marketing forces simply isn't a substitute for journalistic integrity?”

It is an interesting question I think. A good review that people read and find reliable may sell more books, a few or a lot depending on the size of the audience. And that makes the publisher happy, as it should, because after all, that is what they are in the business to do, sell books. But what of a bad review? Is there someone at publishing houses, in their publicity departments, that is going to cut off books or 'punish' someone who writes a bad review for their product? I think it is pretty unlikely. Surely, they have more important things to do that track the countless bloggers out there, with a giant spreadsheet of positive and negative and in-between reviews. If they want to though, I guess that is their right.

But I do think that there are serious questions here for bloggers to answer for themselves. And it goes to the very heart of what you see as the point of your blog or any book blog.
Yes, we enter a sort of contact with the publisher. We bloggers do this, I assume, because we love books and we enjoy recommending ones that we think are good.
The publishers, on the other hand, are in business to sell books. Not just any books but their books. So to a degree, our aims are in conflict. If publisher ABC put out a book, they want to sell it. If I read that book and think it's not very good, I don't want you to spend your money to buy it. I don't really see my obligation being to the publisher or to the author, but to the reader. I am not part of the publicity department of any company, even if they are really nice to me. I love books and I want people to read and love good books too. I don't work for them and my only obligation is only to be honest about what I think and then the reader can choose to take my opinion to heart or not.

But a recent interaction was a little bit of a wake up. A publicist offered to send me a book that I had mentioned on my blog to offer in a giveaway. Seems that is a common practice. No mention of a need to read it, no need to review it, just offer a giveaway. OK...but, well, that sort of sounds like buying advertising space to me. Not trying to sound holier than thou here but that is not the point of my blog, and heck it's no fun at all for me. What do I write in the is a book, sorry I have no idea if it's good or bad, but here is a book, who wants it? Again, that might be a publisher's business, but it is not mine.
I replied that I would be happy to read it, and write a review and then offer it in a giveaway. Of course, it may say “This book is awful...OK, who would like the copy?”, but I am fine with that. They did send the book, but if they hadn't, well, that was their choice and fine with me. But it just raised a bit of a question with the whole giveaway thing and how publishers handle it.

I have seen blogs that don't really review but rather just sort of describe a book. I have read bloggers who say, happily, that never write a bad review. I don't 'get' that and it's not my cuppa tea, but if that's what floats your boat, grand.

But I want to be a salesman for books. Good books, exciting books, moving books, books that will change people, or make them scared or make them cry or make them laugh, books that they will remember for years and want others to read. That is my pleasure in a blog.
So does Mr. Champion have reason be be concerned or are we just taking it all a little too seriously? Feel free to say yes! Is it the more books out there and the more people blogging about them and the more discussion about books the better ..or is there more at stake than that? No, there are no totally free books. In fact, nothing in life is free: you just have to decide what you are willing to pay.

Well, I have a really good book that I have to finish reading....but I really would love to hear your opinion.


  1. This is a tough issue that is being discussed a lot these days. I have to say that I agree with you - my obligation is to my readers.

  2. If a blogger gets too 'cozy' with a publicist or a publisher can they still be objective? Can I trust their reviews as a reader?

  3. I'm going to be honest in my reviews, but I also try to look at the big picture. Some books really are awful; others either come at the wrong time or just aren't right for me. In some ways I look at books like I look at restaurants--there are the ones that are filthy and serve food cold, undercooked etc and should be shut down by the health department. Most of these can be judged by their cover or publicity blurb, and, just like the filthy restaurant, I just pass. Others are like McDonalds--good at what they do, but obviously no comparison to a fine dining establishment. Just as it would miss the point to say that McDonalds doesn't offer table service, tableclothes, a menu that changes with the season and original dishes, it misses the point to say that romance novella doesn't have an original plot line. Just as it misses the point to say that the local five star restaurant doesn't have kids meals, costs too much to eat there regularly and takes more than five minutes to get you your meal, it misses the point to say that certain novels are too long or complex.
    In short, I try to determine the audience for the book and the reason for which it was written and evaluate it within that context. I try to find something nice to say about the book, and someone to whom to recommend the book while pointing out what I didn't like, because IMO it is better for the publishers/authors to sell the book to people who like it than to sell it to people who think they will, and then hate it.

  4. Yes, I agree. I recently read a negative review of a book that I liked a lot. It seems clear that it is really not that blogger's preferred genre. I don't really consider that a 'bad' review.

    It's like movie reviews. If you read them, you find, over time, reviewers that you often agree with. That are looking for the same thing, like the same things.
    Some people like vanilla, and some like chocolate...and then some like butter pecan.

    But bad is still bad. I think that there are objective standards.

  5. Nice post. I have been thinking that very thing over recently as well and your piece pushed me to finally record my thoughts. Thanks for that push!

  6. I have a problem with being asked to host a giveaway without reading/reviewing the book first. I recently participated in a big publisher giveaway and told the publisher that I would require a review copy for me in order to do this. They said ok, and then later told me the review copy wouldn't reach me for a month.

    I went ahead and offered the giveaway, but my heart wasn't in it and I will never do that again. I felt uncomfortable with it. I don't mind promoting a book I think is wonderful (I love that, as a matter of fact). But it just didn't feel right promoting a book that for all I know, sucks.

    So I'm pretty much done with the publisher giveaways. I got to thinking about it and I figure the big reason bloggers do that is to drive traffic. So I've officially stopped caring about traffic. I took my counter off my blog and am done!

    I'm very happy with the handful of loyal commenters (who I now consider my friends and LOVE them all). If they get a good recommendation from me, that's wonderful and my job is done. But strangers just showing up and commenting to get a free book and then never returning? That I could without.

  7. I tend to agree michele. sure, I would love more people to read my blog and enjoy my blog. but if they just drop in to try and snag a giveaway and then I never see them again, what is the point? I assume the hope is they will be so won over by the look of your blog and what little they might read there that they will return. Which I am not at all sure is true.

    I have had one giveaway, just past. I loved the book and would love more people to read it and was happy to have the chance for more people to read about it. so hopefully those that entered read my review and might have gained some interest in it.
    But as a regular thing....and of a book I have not read.
    I think they should pay me for that. and I am certainly not doing this for

  8. Posting a negative review to me is not only about my readers it's about the book community at large. A publisher needs to know why a book isn't selling or is less than expected. Michael Hyatt (Thomas Nelson) said as much...they welcome negative reviews because they want to know why the book isn't meeting consumer expectations. So I see it as a commitment not to just myself (integrity) and my readers but to everyone. There are no sides here.

    Secondly, I do "promote" books I haven't read, but usually I have a copy of the book. I won't enter into contracts like "if you post this, we'll send you the book", but I will accept guest posts. The reason for this is that I do want to promote reading and books and I simply don't have time to read everything. Furthermore, my readers have many different tastes. So yes, I guess I'm letting them find out a book exists before I have a chance to read it, but I don't have a conflict with that. Once again, I do want to serve the book community at large, which includes maybe showing a cover and blurb about a book before I have time to review it especially for a debut author when early sales are so important.
    I'm not sure I ever offered a giveaway for a book I didn't have a review copy of, but I would be willing to do it,to help my readers get free books. I don't know I guess I don't have a major conflict with that. (for example, I didn't get review copies of all the books (only got one actually) I gave away during BBAW)

  9. I agree that promoting books and authors is a great thing. And truly, not everyone shares my taste in books, which is one reason that there are many blogs.

    But I do still think that there are certain objective standards that any 'good' book can be held to and that should be the emphasis of any review.
    There is nothing better to promote the book industry that great books. I am just not comfortable with promotion for promotion's sake.

  10. I see and respect your viewpoint Caite. After all, our blogs are ours...a tiny little scrap of space we have in this crazy cyber world.

    I agree that great books are a good way to promote books in general, but my great book might not be your great book. (Twilight anyone?)

    and I do have a soft spot for authors.

  11. Who didn't like Twilight?? I'll break their kneecaps. Ha!

  12. sorry....never read

    Amy, you are totally right. There are lots of blogs and we can all make our blogs the sort of place we like.

    And I have said it before. I love authors, I admire them; they are my rock stars, my movie idols. Their creations have given me countless hours of pleasure.

    But there are a lot of authors and a lot of books out there every years. No one can read them all. We all need some guidance in choosing between them all.

  13. This is a fantastic post, Caite, and something I've been thinking about too. My policy is to write honest reviews of just about every book I read (I skip some every now and then, just because I don't want to review every book I read). I certainly write reviews of every book I've receive from a publisher, publicist or author for review purposes, whether I liked the book or not. I try to be fair, to point out positive aspects of the books I haven't liked and I usually post links to others' reviews, so my readers can check out other opinions. I'm certainly aware that just because I didn't like a book doesn't mean the book is no good or wouldn't be right up someone else's alley. (I loved your restaurant analogy, Rann!) I've definitely not liked books that others have loved. I also think that bad reviews are not necessarily bad news for publishers or authors; a couple of the bad reviews I've written have elicited positive responses from my readers who said they were still interested in reading the books.

    I totally agree with Michele, I wouldn't feel comfortable giving away a book I hadn't read and enjoyed; on the other hand, I see Amy's point of view too. I think to a certain extent it depends on the point of your blog. Certainly with something like BBAW, it makes sense to me that you (Amy) would be giving away books you haven't read! After all, BBAW is catering to a wide variety of bloggers/readers, not all of whom will share your particular tastes.

    Finally, I do worry sometimes about publishers' reactions to my reviews: if I pan the book they sent me, will they stop sending me books? The truth is that there are so many free books available that I can't imagine this would really be a problem. And I think Caite's right, most publishing houses have better things to do that keep track of who's writing bad reviews.

    One final thought: I do think that book giveaways can be a good way to introduce people to your blog, especially initially. My first giveaway certainly made a difference in my traffic. I'm not super concerned about traffic either (I rarely check it and I'm not entirely sure I understand all the stats anyway), but it is nice to have a regular handful of readers. And conversely giveaways have introduced me to a whole bunch of great blogs!

    Phew, I think this is my longest comment yet! Thanks again, Caite!

  14. Wow, OK, it wasn't until it was published on your blog that I realized quite how long that comment was!

  15. Oh and I have to put my hand up for the not-liking-Twilight camp. OK, shutting up now!

  16. feel free to make your comments as long a you like....but be careful with that Twilight comment. Michele mentioned something about broken kneecaps.

    Seriously, about Twilight. My niece loves Myers books. When she was younger, my niece was not a big reader, did not seem to like books that much. Something I found so very, very odd...and disturbing! So I am just happy that she has now found a pretty big group of authors who work she enjoys a great deal.

  17. I don't offer giveaways unless I've read the book. That said, I do have an upcoming book giveaway of a trilogy that I bought myself and got signed by the author that I will offer because it's a popular series, even though I won't have time to read it beforehand.

  18. I have realized that I have an amazing number of typos in my comments....oh well. :-)

  19. Hmmm, where to start. As I've said elsewhere, my only promise to the publisher is that they will get a review if they send me a book. I say that explicitly when I contact them, but that is the only promise I make. Some publishers do ask for a minimum review length, but it's 25 words or less (fishing for blurbs, I suspect) and I don't think that's too much to ask for a free book.

    I do believe in negative reviews as long as they are thoughtful and not ad hominem attacks. If I somehow manage to get my hands on a book that is not my genre, it's usually because the marketing led me to believe it would be a good fit so that's something the publisher needs to know. If it is my genre and it's a bad book, well I'd like to save others like me from plunking down hard-earned cash for it.

    I am very clear about a book not being my genre when I do a review and I can separate my dislike for a genre from my assessment of a book's technical merits (I have to edit all sorts of things I have no personal interest in). Bad writing is bad writing no matter what genre it is.

    As for giveaways, I'm somewhere in between caite and amy. My first giveaway was for a book I hadn't read and was not offered a review copy for, but it was a genre that I read a lot. I volunteered for that one as a way to get my blog known.

    Guess what? When the giveaway ended, some of the readers stayed. I started mentioning that a giveaway was an option when I contacted publishers about books (I only go after books that I'm really, really interested in so 9/10 the book is at least good enough to give away).

    Two of my giveaways this month, are for books that I have read (1 reviewed, the other will be reviewed Monday).

    The other two giveaways are for books I haven't read, though I have read the first chapters. It's really rare for me to get through a first chapter, still be excited about the book, and then find out that it's awful.

    I've asked for review copies, but the giveaways will be over before I get them, I'm sure (if I don't get the review copies then I won't be running giveaways for the publisher again).

    My readership has, at minimum, doubled this month. It will take a few months to see if people stick around. With so many book blogs, I think you need something to get people to at least check out your blog and stick around long enough to see if they are interested (that's why I give more entries for RSS subscribers/twitter followers).

    I won't give away just any book on my blog. It either has to be something I've read (or am reading), or something that I would read. It cannot be POD. I'll hold a giveaway, but I'm not paying to ship the book. I will not pay for someone's marketing campaign. I won't hold US-only giveaways.

    I will never, EVER, recommend a book that I have not read. In my giveaways, I'm very clear about whether or not I've read the book.

    Now I'm going to contradict myself and say that I am having a giveaway at the end of the month of books that I haven't read and ones that I wouldn't read. They are books specifically for Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. I don't celebrate any of those (well, Christmas in an atheist, what's-under-the-tree, pass-the-cookies kind of way. The reason I am doing this, is because it's the holiday season and I'd like to be Santa for my readers (without being out of pocket ... what can I say, I'm a cheap Santa).

    I think readers will enjoy them even if I wouldn't read them because I'm not of that culture/religion. I haven't started the giveaway yet, but I have that gut feeling that I should have thought more about it. I suspect I won't be doing this again, but I'll see what the response is.

    When it comes right down to it, there are lots of books out there. I will buy my own or go to the library before I do anything that compromises my freedom to tell readers my honest opinion.

    And NOW, I'm doing to stir the pot by mentioning those CBS press releases that some bloggers have posted, wholesale, on their blog. That I have a problem with (as in I wouldn't do it).

    I don't think it's a service to readers to post a press release. Your value to your readers is your opinion, your investigation, your analysis. If you get a chance to preview the show and then write about it, that's different. Otherwise, there's no objective analysis and it's just being a free part of the marketing campaign.

    I think that's enough for one day. :-)

  20. Again...I would like people to read my blog...and maybe giveaways draw an audience, some of whom will stay. everything, it comes at a price sometimes. I am starting to think like Michele, that I will just forget about traffic. If it effects what I write or how I run my blog...what is the point.

    Bottom line, I am not part of the publicity machine of any author or publisher....or TV channel. If I choose to really 'push' a book, it is because I love it and really want people to see what I think it offers. not just get people to come to my blog.

    I am ALL about being a spokesperson for books!! But the ones I think are good. So I draw the line at offering a book that I have not read. Does that mean less offers and maybe less traffic...yeah, maybe. Oh well...

    Certainly others might disagree and have good reasons for it. We all have to draw the line where we are comfortable. One is not necessarily right and the other wrong...I just really think it is something all bloggers have to think about.

  21. If you accept review copies, I think traffic is something that you have to think about. Not obsess over, not jump off of a cliff if it's not as high as you'd like it to be, but definitely think about.

    But I agree that there isn't a one size fits all...we can't impose what we want our blog to be on other blogs. I even think it's unfair to say that if someone chooses to only review books they like they can't be trusted.

    I remember reading a really scathing review (and cultural analysis) of Forever Knight(the movie) by a blogger that I probably couldn't adore more. It was SO bad that I felt compelled to go see the movie and see if he was right. I ended up really disagreeing with him. So I think the ultimate question of whether or not trust a blogger's opinion is on the books that you're both read and how opinions align.

  22. I can see the publisher/author thinking about traffic when they give me a book...
    I think it comes down to WHY you have a blog, what you want from it. To be the most popular is not something we can all achieve or even want to. I remember when I first started my blog, reading something to the effect that you had to find your voice, what you want to say and what sort of 'feel', if you will, that you want your blog to have...and then hopefully there will be people that enjoy that. True, you have to get them there the first time, but I don't think you should recreate yourself to try and 'please' some unknown readers.

    I agree that one size does not fit all. And yes, maybe we find reviewers that we tend to agree..or disagree with..and therefore trust their opinion. I would think that is what we all aim for, to be someone that can be trusted to be honest even when we disagree.

    Or I could just be full of donkey dust!! lol

  23. First of God knows we can't all the be the most popular. ;) And we should hold true to our own voice. And no you shouldn't recreate yourself to please some unknown readers. On the traffic issue, I guess for me it's a matter of conscience. Here's why:

    If I accept review copies, but do nothing to build the readership of my blog, why am I accepting a review copy? To get a free book? Why not just check it out from the library?

    I've definitely seen bloggers who accept review copies who do nothing to draw traffic to their blog. You can try to draw traffic to your blog without compromising yourself, and in good conscience that's what I try to do for the authors who send me books. I personally don't think I compromise. Maybe you or others think I do, but I recently wrote a post about the protected right to not vote and lost 25 subscribers. I was a little bummed, but I ultimately I had to tell myself--it's something I believe in..if they can't get on board with that....well I guess they cast their vote! :)

  24. btw, the movie was the Dark Knight!!! ha, that's been bugging me, I knew I put the wrong title

  25. All these issues are matters of subtle differences to some's certainly not all black and white. Like sure, we all want more traffic if we are honest and yes, I would like to give the books I review as big an audience as possible. But I put more work into what I write than into ideas for increasing traffic. Maybe, after some time that might change.

    Personally, I just think that these are intereting and important things to think about and talk about. I certainly don't want to suggest that someone that approaches these topics differently is 'wrong'. I can just say how I see it and what feels right for me.

    But then I feel that way about a lot of topics. Most of which would most likely drive away my humble group of readers if I discussed

    I must say Amy, that I find the idea that that post about voting would drive away readers...well, I find that surprising and sad. I am very sorry that happen...Their loss!


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