Monday, May 15, 2006

Link-Mad Monday Special Edition: Bloggers and Publicists

I noticed a single issue was getting a lot of play in the world of litblogs this week: publicists and authors who solicit bloggers to read/review/promote books, and the right and wrong way to do it. Here's a rundown on who's been talking about this, followed by my own two cents on the issue:

Dan Wickett of Emerging Writers Network opens the can of worms with a post entitled "Please Read The Freaking Blog First". His very reasonable, if frustrated, contention is that if you're going to send a blogger a book or email them asking if they're interested, it makes sense to read the blog first to find out what kind of books they are generally interested in. He even gives a couple of examples of literary bloggers and their interests. In the comments on his post, someone left this hilarious mock solicitation:

Dear Sir:
I have a self-published chapbook that won a special "Certificate of Participation" at a recent Bay Area literary festival. I am convinced that this chapbook will be as seminal as the second coming of Jesus and I urge you, [insert blogger's name], to spend the next six months talking about.
Very truly yours,
Virginia K. LunaticFoot in Mouth Press

All too possible...

M.J. Rose of Buzz, Balls and Hype weighs in with a post called "Don't Do This!" (scroll down to the May 10 post). Her rules are very simple:

Don't write to bloggers without knowing our names. Don't send us blanket emails. Don't treat us like fools. Don't market to us. Don't try to hype us.
Handpick the blog.Get to know the host. Fit your book to the blog. Write a personal letter. I know it takes time. Anything valuable does.

Edward Champion of Return of the Reluctant fires back at publicist form letters with a form letter of his own: "An Open Letter To Demanding Publicists I Don't Know". His is the wittiest and delightfully snarkiest of all the ripostes to publicists I've read, and his demand that publicists seduce him with specific information about the book (since he has about 1,489 others that also need to be read) is also a good one.

Max Magee at The Millions calls his post "Preach It: Tips For Publicists" (scroll down to May 10 again). Like Dan, Ed, and MJ, he expresses gratitude for publicists who have sucessfully tipped him off to books he found interesting, but laments the tendency to send mass emails, "cold call" without reading the blog, or trying to buy the blogger's attention with the promise of a free book. He also links to a bunch of the other posts on the subject.

Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading (which I should totally read more often -- it's great) calls his running feature the Friday column "Friday Column: Publicists". He wisely points out that "it's a sign of the place litblogs are coming to hold in the great literary media ecosystem that we have our first instances of public pushback against pushy publicists." Scott's major problem with publicists or promoting authors is the implication by some of the less experienced that sending a blogger a book is a "reward" for a promise to favorably review it -- a strategy that they certainly wouldn't attempt with any other media outlet. The comment conversation on here is great too.

Bookdwarf sounds off on the issue with "Hot Topic: The Literary Version of the Cold Call" (scroll down to May 11). Her plea, that we bloggers sometimes have to just ignore the irrelevant books that are sent to us in the interest of our own sanity, is one that publicists would do well to consider.

In a slightly different twist, Maud Newton on her well-respected eponymous declares that she is "Not For Sale". Apparently her blog was listed in the Fall 2006 Crown catalog as an "online promotion venue" -- for a book she'd never heard of, much less promised to review or promote. Maud is incensed and feels exploited, and rightly so -- this is the worst form of presumption that a blogger will of course be flattered to be included in the media push for a book. The implication that the blog is promoting a book for a fee is an even more outrageous one to her, since she makes clear she never reviews books on her blog in exchange for money.

Finally (though I'm sure there are some more out there that I've missed), George Murray at Bookninja rounds things off with "Pitching Yourself To Blogs". He starts with Maud Newton's complaint, and goes on to talk about good and bad publicist behavior. His list of do's and don't's for those seeking to promote books through blogs is even more extensive than most. In the comments war that follows, a publicist defends herself for the catalog incident and Maud fires back.

To me the most interesting and all-encompassing statement of the whole discussion is a comment from George:

Need blogs conduct their business like mainstream outlets in order to earn the respect of the reader and (legitimate) advertiser? Or does a medium which purports to value the individual voice/style/design necessarily require a more personalized approach to rules as well? Maybe that’s the new rule: develop individual relationships. No time? Go back to the NYT and pay through the nose for a 1/16th of a page.


I suspect there are two kinds of senders of inappropriate, spammy, or unskillful emails to bloggers. One is the inexperienced author, who thinks their book is great and has no sense of the number or kind of books our there, the reading demands placed on those who review books regularly, or the proper manners to use when asking someone to devote ten hours or so to reading one's own work. Some of these may be a little crazy, others just overenthusiastic and ill-informed. The other kind is the professional publicist for whom the blog is just one in a massive list of potential "promotional venues", who treats a guy or girl writing reviews online for free, for more or less their own satisfaction, in the same way they would treat a major for-profit media outlet. Maybe there's not a lot we can do about the amateurish authors, except try to educate them a little about the industry. But the actions of the publicists suggest a misunderstanding within the industry about what blogs are good for.

The major difference between blogs and other media outlets was pointed out in this article in ForeWord about bloggers and independent presses (which also quotes George from BookNinja). If it's not too pretentious to quote myself, "Bloggers like me have no obligation to read anything other than what we like." We're not in the business of writing reviews for money (for the most part) or to boost our circulation, nor of promoting books based on a marketing campaign. The only way we're going to review something positively is if we read it and like it. And the only way we're going to read it is if it's brought to our attention. And the best way to bring a book we're going to like to our attention is to know what kind of book we tend to like.

So it comes down to the personal relationship thing, and this is where I think blogging overlaps with independent bookselling. As booksellers we don't have any obligation to read particular books either, except to tell customers about books we think are worth reading (and buying). If you as a publicist or an author want us to read your book, you have to bring us a book that we want to read, and you have to treat us like human beings, not like retail schlubs or cogs in a corporate machine. The advice I gave to potential authors on MJ's blog applies to publicists too: building relationships is the best way to motivate someone to take a look at what you have to offer. You don't have to become the blogger's (or bookseller's) best pal, but you do have to approach them on a person-to-person basis, and have respect for what they do in their field. This is the stuff that can make bookselling, and blogging, so rewarding for everyone it touches.

I think this widespread conversation about how bloggers can and should fit in to the life of a book is a great one, as it's helping to push the boundaries of how we think about publishing, reviewing, the Internet's place in print media, individual and corporate approaches, and even things like the Long Tail. I'm so excited to be a part of this new world, and I hope the comments of these literary bloggers will increase the understanding of the great potential of blogs for books, for readers, and for literary culture in the 21st century. Blogs are as individual as the people who write them, and getting to know an individual takes time. But is there anything that's more worth the time you spend?

I would love to read comments on my thoughts here, or on any of the perspectives expressed by these bloggers. What do you think about these issues?