Reviews: A Service for Authors?

All right. Today Twitter was achirp with the story of a newish book blogger who wanted more authors to promote and ‘like’ her reviews. Said blogger even said lots of other bloggers agreed with her. Of course, a lot don’t and many popped up to state that. Blog posts were written. Here’s Harry Connolly, as an example. Since then the blogger has admitted maybe she needs to reconsider, it’s all blowing over, blah blah.

But.

It shines a light on something I want to comment on. Like authors, book bloggers vary in prominence. Some are popular, with many readers who rely on their taste. They usually write incisive or entertaining reviews. They’re not afraid to be negative when they have negative opinions.

Others are small. Some of these are also insightful, detailed reviews. Other times, they mostly write glowing reviews that don’t discuss the book very much. I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s practically possible to search and replace certain key terms and then magically one review becomes another.  I think it’s probably a rookie tendency, writing reviews like that. And writing reviews is a skill, it’s hard work, it probably requires study and practice just like writing fiction dose. So, you know, that’s fine. Everybody starts somewhere, right? You practice and get feedback and grow.

But here’s the thing: There are a LOT of authors out there now. A LOT. More than ever before. Lots and lots and lots of indie and small press authors. An unrelenting swarm of them, and they descend upon book bloggers like locusts. I’ve been one of the locusts. I know. Any book blogger who is willing to review indie books and who promotes that fact is overwhelmed. Bookie-Monster, the jumping off point of this discussion, focuses on zombie fiction and she’s recruiting extra staff to deal with the load, apparently.

You know who follows little start-up book bloggers who review indie fiction?

Authors who want reviews. (Remember, I’ve been one of them, too.)

My suspicion is that there aren’t really a lot of pure readers following these blogs. But hey, authors are readers too, right? And recruiting authors as your readers is a pretty quick way to rack up the follower numbers, which can only lead to  bigger and better things, right?

On the author side, well, indie authors are intent on making sales, and reviews are commonly believed to be linked to sales, especially good reviews. When you’re an indie author without much of a budget, reviews might be the only publicity you can get– they might actually be the primary source of your minuscule sales. Authors who have a following built from being distributed through bookstores or via a publisher with a dedicated marketing team really can’t compare sales numbers in that regard.

So the indie author believes they need those reviews. And yet the bloggers are so overwhelmed that they so rarely even respond to you banging their doors down! Once you submit, you have to keep an eye on them, in case they do review your book. Maybe sometimes you even comment, so you can establish a friendly relationship and the flattered reviewer will then review your book. (I was never able to go this far but I considered it.)

Meanwhile, the reviewer with their neophyte reviews is getting praise and validation from the authors trying to get noticed, which isn’t exactly conductive to growing their skills.

So this ecosystem forms, of small-audience reviewers who have trouble otherwise getting free books to review, writing reviews, which are skimmed, promoted and praised by people who are trying to get their books reviewed (or, in a variation, their own book blogs visited). View counts go up! Sometimes occasional sales are even made! People feel short validation hits! They’re helping people after all. And being nice. And books! Meaning! Contribution! Service! Brand growth!?

This has been going on for a while. Years, I suspect! And it’s not particularly hidden, although I haven’t seen many people talking about it, this ecosystem of indie book bloggers and indie authors. And there’s even theoretical exit points for the ambitious; I know that sometimes when publishers send around books for review, they usually want the blogger to have a certain minimum number of followers before they consider the blogger a worthwhile candidate. That’s sort of a validation/brand growth level up, I guess– a measurable goal to shoot for, and certainly something easier than learning how to write the kind of skilled reviews people love to read.

So when somebody sets out to start their own review blog, after reading through lots of other small indie-focused review blogs, they’re going to absorb the idea that what they’re doing by reviewing is providing a service to authors. After all, authors are their primary source of readers. Authors are who they get the most email from. And it’s a valuable service, with the opportunity to really feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. And you’re not getting free books to read in any other way. Bookie-Monster is presenting, I believe, an accurate representation of the state of things in her corner of the internet; she’s just too new to realize (or too ambitious to care) that nobody talks about Fight Club.

And you writers who don’t consider yourself ‘indie’? Who don’t prowl blogs looking for mailboxes to fling your books into? You probably don’t need to worry about this. The kind of bloggers who review your books are part of a different ecosystem, an ecosystem that (I suspect) started with baby reviewers who bought or borrowed their books, then wrote reviews because they loved to talk in detail about stories. Who still buy or borrow the books they want to read and review if they can’t get them any other way. It’s an ecosystem based in love rather than service.

(Do you want to start a book blog but stay out of this ecosystem? A shortcut for you: don’t accept unsolicited free books. And write reviews for the love of reviewing, so that when nobody reads them, you don’t mind so much.)

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