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What book blogging means to me

September 12, 2012

Today’s BBAW topic (“What does book blogging mean to you?”) reminds me of an old SF favorite entitled What Entropy Means To Me by George Alec Effinger. Some things, it’s just silly to suggest that they can mean different things to different people. I suppose that we all have different reasons for blogging about books, but in the end, book blogging is going to mean what it means to the world, and we will have all contributed our bit.

Thinking about what it means to me in terms of where it should be going implies a degree of control that I don’t feel I have. But I do have a suggestion, and to both get to it and tell you what it means to me, I must tell you about the congruence of several recent events: I got a copy of Michael Chabon’s new novel from HarperCollins, I did not get a copy of Lish McBride’s sequel to Hold Me Closer, Necromancer from her current publisher, I wrote a post (which is scheduled to appear tomorrow) about how much I love Nick Harkaway’s novels The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, and I read one of the essays in the copy of Neal Stephenson’s new collection of essays, Some Remarks, that Ron brought home this weekend.

Stephenson talks, in his “Gresham College Lecture,” about how intelligent people in the modern world no longer try to know everything (like Heinlein heroes) but “geek out” in increasingly fragmented ways. Readers here know that I regularly geek out over novels by Michael Chabon and Nick Harkaway, fiction that has to do with necromancy, and science fiction in general.

Publishers do not necessarily know this. Although publishers want to enlist the help of book bloggers in spreading the word about their new titles, they don’t have the staff to read through many of the book blogs out there. And many long-time book bloggers like me do not go to great lengths trying to track down advance copies of all the books we might want to discuss.

I do, however, answer the monthly questionnaire I get from HarperCollins asking me which of their new titles I might want to review; in July I said “yes” to Michael Chabon’s new novel. And then I went to Washington and Iowa and had a new orientation to run and urgent work projects overdue, and the upshot of that is that I felt increasingly obliged to read more of the Chabon as the date my advance copy identifies as its publication date–September 12–drew near.

And I’ve failed in that endeavor (which is not to say that you’re not going to hear all about the new Chabon novel, Telegraph Avenue, soon).  The point is that HarperCollins is doing it some of it right. They have a mechanism for creating symbiosis between a book blogger who will “geek out” over specific novels in their group of forthcoming books, and their own interest in tapping such deep veins of  boundless enthusiasm.

But HarperCollins is not doing all of it right. They did not include Some Remarks in the list of books they were offering to send me. I found out about it by reading the reactions of another blogger who is not the typical audience for this kind of book but was chosen for a hit-or-miss advance copy mailing. Why risk such a miss when you’re mailing out books, and why make it my job to know that there might be a collection of essays in one of their many specific imprint groups–this one called, unrevealingly, William Morrow–that I might one day want to discuss here?

Macmillan: Henry Holt is doing some of it wrong, too. According to Lish McBride, the extremely obliging author of Necromancing the Stone, they’re her publisher for the sequel, but they obviously didn’t look at book blogs to see who reviewed her first one and might give them the best publicity in return for an advance copy of the second one. Instead, they sent a few copies out to book bloggers who identify themselves as YA, which is how I discovered that the new one is coming out soon. They also ran a contest for “advanced” reader copies, which is one indication that they don’t think much of their potential audience. (“Yes, I’m an advanced reader; I went all the way in school.”)

Some of the biggest publishers–Nick Harkaway’s publisher KnopfDoubleday, for instance–are completely failing if they’re making any attempt to make use of the enthusiasm of book bloggers like me. The particular kindness of an internet-savvy author is no substitute for the broader marketing expertise that should be the responsibility of the publisher.

So my suggestion? Simple. Why don’t more publishers make a page for their web sites that identifies a mechanism whereby they advertise advance copies available to book bloggers? If you’re a publisher who thinks that sending out advance copies indiscriminately, like some stores send out enormous catalogs that go right into the recycling bin, I think you should consider targeting your audience better, for less waste. Shouldn’t publishers and book bloggers be walking down the same path for a long way, in terms of what book blogging can mean to their respective audiences, book readers and book buyers?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2012 6:58 am

    I agree with your points here. I know that there are some publishers that are more discerning, but I have to say that most of those are smaller indie publishers who take greater care in marketing and promotion! Larger publishers have sent me so many books unsolicited and that I would have told them not to bother sending…they are not a good fit. Some Remarks was just one of those books. While I did see that he’s a good writer, his writing is not something I enjoy. (As I suspected, I did not read the essay you mention here)

    When sending Some Remarks to me randomly, what they got was a blogger who read the intro, found out which essays were newest and which pieces were fiction, and I read those! I don’t have the time to read an entire book that is not a good fit, but I did read what I thought would interest me and some of it was good, but mostly it was a miss.

    As a poetry reviewer, I wish there was a funnel for collections! I would welcome that so much, but poetry is often given more of a short shrift with marketing departments than fiction. Thanks for this post. I think more publishers need to consider this.

    • September 13, 2012 8:29 am

      I’m glad you agree. The “Mailbox Monday” photos make me think there are bloggers who like the scatter shot approach.

      • September 14, 2012 7:39 am

        I participate in Mailbox Monday, but I really don’t like the unsolicited books….though there are a few that hit the mark, but most are so far away from what I read, I end up giving them away to friends or the library

  2. September 12, 2012 8:14 am

    I appreciate the publishers who send a list and ask us to mark what we want to be sent. I don’t have time anymore to review many books, but there are some I would jump at the chance to read/review.

  3. September 12, 2012 9:22 am

    I agree that the random element seems to undercut what both reader and writer would see as an ideal outcome, and the points you’re raising here are very sensible and practical. Yet, I’ve seen small presses rely on the possibility of a good review in random distribution schemes and I’ve seen large press representatives specifically recommend a couple of titles that they think would be a good match for my site. Some of these problems must stem to company-wide policies and priorities, but maybe some of it is mitigated by good (and poor) staff members who really don’t factor in “enthusiasm” when it comes to seeking out publicity for their offerings, so that’s it harder to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

    • September 13, 2012 8:31 am

      Right. So why not take some of it out of the hands of the staffers, and put it in the hands of prospective reviewers?

  4. September 12, 2012 10:35 am

    I’ve been pitched random-ish books, and I accept the ones that sound interesting, but of course the difference there is that it’s a list in an email. The few books I’ve been sent without notice have been other books in a series I’d already started reading. I suppose you have to get to a certain level of blog traffic and fame in order to get books at random. It does seem counter-productive to send books out like that, especially as publishers are starting to say they have to put limits on the books. Your idea would help the review itself because often you need background context in order to “get” a book, and if you’re not really interested in the subject you won’t have that, besides what you mentioned.

    • September 13, 2012 8:36 am

      As blogs continue to age, I think the “traffic and fame” part is going to get harder to quantify.
      In the last year, I found out more about feed readers, and how they complicate the process of tracking who comes to a site.

  5. September 12, 2012 1:37 pm

    Fascinating points that show how naive I am about how books are pitched to bloggers (my blog is rarely considered for review books and I don’t go seeking them out). I always just assume that if I’m terribly interested in a book I’ll go buy it once it’s released. And then geek out.

    • September 13, 2012 8:38 am

      Yes, I’m also lucky enough to have no trouble buying or finding new books at the library. The advance part is sometimes important, though–for some books, I’d like to ride the wave of initial release.

  6. florinda3rs permalink
    September 12, 2012 3:14 pm

    I have the exact same peeve about “‘advanced’ reader copies” of books, and I also agree with your points about varying degrees of blogger-outreach proficiency among bloggers (and that it’s particularly curious to see it among several imprints of the same house–one would think they’d coordinate things a little better).

    I’m hoping to geek out over the new Chabon soon myself–snagging an ARC was my primary goal (accomplished!) at BEA!

    • September 13, 2012 8:40 am

      Glad you share the (spelling? typo?) peeve about the “advanced” reader. It’s almost like the old quarrel over “iced” tea becoming “ice tea” except that it makes even less sense.
      Looking forward to hearing you geek out over Chabon!

  7. September 12, 2012 3:50 pm

    I think McSweeney’s is the only publisher that sends me a list, and I love it. (I do have to resist claiming absolutely everything I want and sticking to what I can review.)

    But generally I assume publishers have some method to the madness, except when they keep sending me memoirs.

    • September 13, 2012 8:41 am

      I’m sure publishers have a method, but we’re not a bunch who really reward that, are we?

  8. September 12, 2012 6:46 pm

    Enjoyed your post! Love the idea of a list to ensure that a blogger only receives books they’re ready to geek out about! Most of the unsolicited books I receive are totally inappropriate for me.

    • September 13, 2012 8:42 am

      So what do you do with them? Library donations? Goodwill?

  9. September 12, 2012 7:09 pm

    I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for publishers to accurately pitch to book blogs. I mean, we’re always adding and dropping out, changing review policies, geeking out about new genres and authors… honestly, it must be a bit of a nightmare. I really enjoy when publishers send out a list of possible books to review, then you just fill out a form to get them back. I have been disappointed when I find books I’m curious about that weren’t part of a pitch letter like that, but I have sort of specific tastes that it might not make sense to publicize more widely (or, there are fewer copies of that book, so it doesn’t make sense to pitch to to a huge blogger list). Either way, I think many publishers are getting better, but there is still work to be done.

    • September 13, 2012 8:42 am

      They are definitely getting better. I might not have emphasized that enough.

  10. September 12, 2012 7:33 pm

    I have sometimes wondered how publishers choose who to pitch to and which books to pitch. It really does seem random to me, and it probably is to some degree in that they have a list (or lists) that may or may not be up-to-date and they throw pitches at it to see what sticks. I really do think Harper has the right idea by sending lists to choose from. And they do seem to offer top-notch choices, although I’ve wondered what they leave out. (Morrow does a list as well, which I thought I was on because I’m on the Harper list, but maybe not.)

    One of the reasons I really love Netgalley and Edelweiss is that they put bloggers a little more in control in that you don’t have to know who the publicist is or be on their mailing list to make a request. I’ve gotten turned down a few times at both sites, but mostly I’ve had good luck. But it’s only useful if you have an e-reader, and publishers don’t put all their books on either site. (Edelweiss does have publishers’ full catalogs for browsing.) What would be great is if they also had links to request hard copies if that’s what you prefer.

    I’ve been considering giving up review copies altogether, once I finish the ones I have. But I say that sometimes and never do, so the phase will surely pass.

    • September 13, 2012 8:44 am

      You’ve been turned down? Wow. I didn’t know that could happen. When I’ve contacted a publisher, they’ve always been responsive and gracious.

      • September 13, 2012 6:19 pm

        I think because publishers get so many requests on Netgalley and Edelweiss they limit how many requests they’ll approve or look for a certain amount of traffic. I’ve only gotten turned down a handful of times, and it doesn’t bother me when it happens. If I take the time to contact publishers more directly, they’ve always either been nice and responsive or (in a couple of cases) totally silent–and sometimes the complete silence still ends with a book on my doorstep.

        • September 14, 2012 7:58 am

          How nice! Publishers do like getting their books to people who want to read them.

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