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Has book blogging hit the wall? William Morrow's blogger notice

December 2, 2011 |  3:42 pm

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Has book blogging hit the wall? A marketing department email sent to bloggers on Thursday by William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, indicates some kind of horizon is in sight. What's on that horizon? The end of the flow of free books, which will soon be reduced to a trickle.

"Message is essentially: if you don't review enough of the books we send you, in the timeframe we want you to, you're out," Rebecca Joines Schinsky tweeted Thursday. Schinsky, who writes and edits The Book Lady's Blog, is one of the leaders of the latest generation of committed book bloggers.

"Can you imagine them sending this to Horn Book or The NYTimes?" added Pam Coughlin, who blogs at MotherReader.

Many publishers enthusiastically send books to bloggers, and today's book blogger may rake in free books like leaves after a windy fall day. But it wasn't always that way.

When blogging about first began, publishers, like many other long-established businesses, looked at the form with justifiable skepticism. If just anyone could start a blog, what role could bloggers have?

Eventually, that skepticism faded. People who like to read books, it turns out, were reading things on the Internet. Those things included blogs. They included book blogs. As time passed, many early book bloggers, many of whom focused on literary titles, moved on to other things -- book reviewing, publishing short stories, writing novels, even writing for newspapers.

Full disclosure: I am one of those bloggers. And yes, this is a blog.

As early literary bloggers began shifting into other roles, a new generation of book blogging enthusiasts swelled behind them. The scope of their conversations was broader than ever -- in addition to focusing on literary fiction, book blogs emerged where readers could discuss romance, horror, fantasy, and many other genres, some of which had struggled to find mainstream coverage. Book blogs were something publishers began to see as a way to expand the discussion of their books in new and exciting ways.

In 2010, the first-ever Book Blogger Convention was held in New York, right on the heels of publishing's biggest national conference, Book Expo America, in the very same place. Bloggers who came to New York for their own convention were welcome to attend Book Expo and browse the booths, interacting with publishers and publishing, as journalists had always done. Just like traditional media outlets, book bloggers were given books for free -- either finished copies or early review editions, called galleys and ARCs -- in the hopes that they'd write about them. Getting books into the hands of bloggers was something publishers were eager to do.

"They are a community of true readers and book lovers who maintain their sites for the sheer love of it," Miriam Parker of Mulholland Books told me. "So if they get behind a particular author or title, readers, Googlers, other bloggers will feel the genuine enthusiasm."

Eighteen months later, it appears that enthusiasm has been spread too thin. William Morrow's letter to bloggers Thursday seesawed between cheerleaderlike enthusiasm and a series of new demands: fewer books, requirements for timely reviews, new accountability and, in bold, "No more random books showing up on your doorstep!" In other words, we're now going to stop sending you free books, unless you specifically request them, and then only if you meet certain requirements.

To be clear, most of these bloggers are writing about the books for the love of them. While a few have found ways to make their blogging pay, many are blogging for free. Yet William Morrow's email unfortunately outlined what they saw as bloggers' responsibilities, in exchange for the free copies of books, as "your job":

Under the new system, you will no longer receive titles piece-meal.  Instead, you'll receive 1-3 emails during the month with all of our upcoming titles available for your review, one month ahead of the on-sale date.  You'll be directed to a Google form where you can request up to three of your choices.  Of course, we'll still happily pay the shipping.  Your job is simply to review the book within a month of receiving it and post your thoughts on your blog or site.  Ideally, we'd like for reviews to appear online within two weeks to a month after the on-sale date, so you might keep this in mind when selecting books.

When you've reviewed a book you've chosen and sent us an email with a link to the posted review, you will be eligible for a free giveaway copy.  Just let us know in the email that you'd like to host a giveaway.  We'll pay for the shipping to the winner within the US and Canada. Additionally, you'll no longer receive books that you didn't order.... 

If it isn't already clear, WE LOVE THAT YOU LOVE OUR BOOKS!  And to allow us to continue to offer free copies and free shipping to you committed book reviewers, we will be tracking how many reviews we receive from you.  If we notice that you request books but aren't posting your comments or sending us the link, we may suspend your ability to receive review offers from us.  We know you're busy bloggers -– if you don't think you'll be able to post a review within a month, please pass on that offer so we can continue to offer you free books in the future!

"It's not enough that it is 'your job' to review their books within a one month span before or after its release date," wrote Larry at The OF Blog, "but they couch in sweet talk the threat to pull review copies because you don't want to play their game."

That response was typical. Bloggers were frustrated that their hobby was being treated like an obligation. By Friday, William Morrow was compelled to send out a follow-up email promising, "Not posting a review within a time period will not earn anyone a suspension from the list."

But could William Morrow's move be grounded in some real return-on-investment analysis? Maybe sending out hundreds of free books to bloggers is not, in fact, paying off. Jacket Copy's requests for specifics from the publisher about its blogging program were deflected. And without knowing the numbers, it's hard to discern whether William Morrow's email outlining constraints on its blogging program is good business or poor communications.

What the publisher did say was this: "Bloggers are vitally important to us and play a very important role in getting the word out about our books.  We really do value the relationship, and this was never meant to ruffle anyone’s feathers, only to streamline the process for everyone involved."

Yet in Friday's follow-up email -- which, like Thursday's, was signed by "The William Morrow Marketing Team" -- the tone seemed a little off. "Each of you is vitally important to us and play an integral part in creating and sustaining the all-important 'buzz' factor when we publish a new book."

If that is really bloggers' role -- creating buzz for a publisher's products -- then it seems to me that publishers should be plying them with more goodies, if not paying them.

But if the role of bloggers is different, to expand the conversation around books, things are a little more complicated. Does the number of readers a blogger has matter? Can and should there be room for disliking a book? Can and should book bloggers be book buyers, and are they? If some bloggers reject publishers' freebies in order to establish their own freedom, should those that accept them somehow make that relationship clear? Should publishers make any demands on bloggers at all -- and if so, are free books an even trade?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Packages of books, Dec. 2. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

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