If there's one thing that unites book bloggers it's the ability to share online our love of books. So when someone offers you a FREE book you'd be silly not to take it, right?
We've all heard of the saying 'there's no such thing as a free lunch'. Well, I'm sorry to tell you, there's no such thing as a free book either, especially if it comes to you direct from an author, publisher or marketing department.
When I received my first solicitation to review a book via this blog back in June 2005 I was ecstactic -- someone wanted to give me a free book and all I had to do was post a review. At the time I was naive enough to think I was the only book blogger being approached in this way, but then my journalistic training came into play and I figured that even if I was the only blogger being asked to review a free book, didn't I have a duty to tell my readers that the book had been given to me for nothing on this basis?
After all, when you read a newspaper's book review section you pretty much know that every book that's being reviewed has been submitted by the publisher for review. For the mainstream media, there's no need to state that the books being reviewed are freebies, because, we, the readers, know that. (Or at least I hope we're all media savvy enough to know that book review editors don't go out and buy books for review, they wait for new books to come to them.)
With book blogs, however, it's a different story. As far as I'm aware most people review books from their personal collection -- ie. they spent money to buy the books -- or from public collections -- ie. the library.
So, when a blogger posts a review of a book that they received for free from a publisher, I personally feel that the blogger should make their readers aware of it. Of the 185 reviews currently listed on this site, just six of those reviews are based on books I received for free from publishers. And each of those reviews is marked as such in the hope that my readers can make up their own mind as to whether I'm being impartial or whether I might be peddling something to keep a publisher happy.
Which brings me onto something that's being bugging me for a long time: the industry's deliberate manipulation of bloggers to promote books that might otherwise not receive the same level of attention from the mainstream media, and the apparent willingness of many book bloggers to be used in such a manner.
Here's an example, sent to me on September 7, from Simon & Schuster's marketing department in the USA. The subject line is "The Thirteenth Tale Blogger Contest" and the body of the email is as follows:
Because you’ve done such a great job reviewing and promoting Simon & Schuster and Atria’s books in the past, I’d like to offer you an exciting and unique opportunity. Simply promote The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield in your blog, and you could be eligible to win a $100 American Express Gift Check and a library of Atria Books titles.
Any reader who visits www.thethirteenthtale.com before November 30, 2006, can enter to win a signed, leather-bound, limited-edition copy of The Thirteenth Tale.
Tell YOUR readers about the sweepstakes, so they can have a chance to win. They just need to give us the name of your blog when they enter, and the blogger who drives the most entries will win. All YOU have to do is mention “The Thirteenth Tale Special Leather-Bound Edition Sweepstakes” on your blog, and link to www.thethirteenthtale.com to be eligible to win the books and gift check.
This is followed by a small spiel about the book, which I've deleted, because, quite frankly, I'm not in the least bit interested in promoting it. It also provides a deadline for those wishing to participate in the contest or who would like to receive a free copy of the book.
Needless to say, I did not take part in this little "contest" and up until today I have completely shied away from mentioning this book. There's nothing like feeling I'm being manipulated by marketing people to bring out my stubborn streak.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like too many of my fellow bloggers shared my disgust at this kind of promotion, because not long after I received this email every second book blog seemed to be banging on about this book. Before I knew it, it had hit the best seller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, seemingly overnight, which only goes to prove that the marketers knew what they were doing when it came to enlisting bloggers to promote this book. Without a doubt this exercise demonstrated that book bloggers wield enormous power and word of mouth (or word of blog) is much more effective than traditional advertising campaigns. What's more, it costs the publishers next to nothing.
Now, I realise that many of you may have mentioned this book on your blog completely oblivious to the marketing campaign operating in the background. Some of you may have legitimately gone out and bought the book yourself and not even received the Simon & Schuster mailing.
And this is what makes me mad.
Because some have fallen for the contest and peddled the book on their blog for the sake of getting a freebie copy or having the chance to win some not-very-enticing prize, the reputations of those bloggers who have a legitimate interest in the book are being tarnished.
I know that whenever I have seen this book mentioned on blogs I've wondered about the blogger's motivations and I've chosen not to read the post. In some cases, I've stopped reading the blog altogether.
Before you jump up and down and say I'm denying bloggers the opportunity to receive free books, let me make it clear that I don't have a problem with people receiving free books or taking part in promotions like this. But I do have a problem with bloggers who are not being honest with their readers. How many bloggers who have taken part in this whole Thirteenth Tale exercise have stated that they are doing so on their blog? How many have put up their hands and said, look, S&S emailed me about this contest, so I'm taking part? How many have made it clear that the book they are reviewing is a FREE copy?
This is just the tip of the iceberg really, because the success of this campaign will only usher in more of them as other publishers realise the benefits of using bloggers in this way.
Personally, I think it's time that book bloggers came clean. It might sound ridiculous, but I honestly think we need a code of conduct. We need to tell our readers when we are reviewing free books or when we are taking part in marketing exercises, because if we don't we run the risk of just becoming yet another cog in the public relations industry. And surely the reason we all started blogging about books was because we were sick of the mainstream media's treatment of books. If we don't clean up our act now, we might as well forget any notion of reading unbiased, reliable and truthful reviews online, because how will we ever be able to tell the difference between a genuine review and one written on obligation? I don't think it is any exaggeration to say that our credibility as book bloggers is at stake.
I'm sure there are others out there who feel the same way. I'd love to hear your views -- for and against -- because if we sweep it under the mat we might as well call it quits right now. And I really, really don't want to do that.