By Light Unseen Media
BLU~Media Blog

March 7, 2011

Reviewing the Situation

In the past three years, it has become a lot harder for By Light Unseen Media’s books to get reviewed–so much harder, in fact, that I’m starting to wonder whether the time and money I invest in trying to get reviews of finished books could be more fruitfully spent.

In 2007, when Mortal Touch was released, I researched reviewers carefully and only queried or sent copies to those who reviewed that genre of book. I was hopeful but realistic. By Light Unseen Media had no other titles in print at that time, and Mortal Touch got no pre-publication reviews. I queried 26 reviewers, sent out 17 review copies and wound up with 8 reviews, including one that was syndicated and appeared in the Boston Globe’s book blogs and the Midwest Book Review.

By 2010, I had refined my techniques considerably. I’d built a long list of book review and genre blogs, with various preferences and specializations, and I carefully matched titles to reviewers. I only queried blogs that were active and current and obviously taking new books. For each query I sent out, I read the review submission guidelines and followed them exactly. By now, By Light Unseen Media had released half a dozen titles by several different authors. We were getting pre-publication reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. I sent books with a simple review packet that included information about the book, the author and the publisher, including distribution information. Since I reviewed books for Blogcritics, I saw publicist queries and review packets from the biggest publishers. I thought By Light Unseen Media’s review queries and packets were up to professional standards, certainly for a company of our size.

Our last title, Blood Justice, received a pre-publication review from Publishers Weekly. I queried a total of 45 bloggers and reviewers, most of them carefully selected from my long database (the author discovered several himself). In a few cases, the submission guidelines specified to just send a book, or I had sent books to the blogger previously. Most of them, however, asked for a query by email or webform. Of the 45, 6 replied saying they weren’t interested or were too backlogged with books. I sent out 10 review copies. 4 bloggers reviewed the book. The remaining 29 bloggers never responded to me at all, not even an auto-reply.

But that’s much better than my own second book did. The Longer the Fall got a pre-publication review from Publishers Weekly. I sent out 46 queries to book bloggers and reviewers. 5 of them replied saying they weren’t interested. I sent out 8 review copies. I got one review, from Harriet Klausner. From the remaining 33 reviewers I queried, I heard not a single word, not so much as a cricket chirping. Several bloggers who wrote favorably about Mortal Touch either ignored the query for The Longer the Fall or accepted a review copy and have never reviewed the book.

Our third 2010 release, Krymsin Nocturnes, fared similarly, after getting pre-publication reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. To date, I’ve queried 54 reviewers and book bloggers, received 8 refusals, sent out 9 copies, and Krymsin Nocturnes has gotten one review, from Harriet Klausner. (I’m in her debt. Seriously.) I admit that the San Francisco Chronicle was a long shot. It’s the author’s local newspaper and I figured it couldn’t hurt to see if they would be interested in a hometown author (I guess not). I sent The Longer the Fall to the Boston Globe in the same quixotic spirit. But 34 reviewers never responded to me in any way whatsoever, not even to say “buzz off” (although by now, I’m kind of getting the hint).

A couple of the bloggers who reviewed Blood Justice didn’t notify me they had done so, and I only found the reviews as I was checking on the copies I’d sent out. One of them was a joint write-up with a similar book that left me rather puzzled. The reviewer wrote, “Both of these trade paperbacks are by imprints I’ve never heard of and I suspect they’re both print on demand that you’d probably find most easily by ordering them through Amazon. For all I know, they’re self published although if so I’ve read professionally published work that wasn’t as well written.” Now, I’m delighted that Blood Justice got a mention, especially one that says it’s well written! But I’m not sure why the reviewer said “By Light Unseen,” as he called us, is an imprint he’d never heard of. I’d sent him books before. Blood Justice had a review packet accompanying it, and the copyright page has complete details including our Mission Statement. But most of all, I know this gentleman! We’re in the same regional writers’ group and I’ve met him!

Clearly, I didn’t make much of an impression on him.

I spend a lot of time looking at book review blogs. What I’m seeing now is that book bloggers–apparently–only want to review books from the big publishing companies. They’re all reviewing exactly the same few big release books–and nothing else. In a given week or month, I’ll see ten, twenty, fifty reviews of the exact same titles. When the blogger runs out of mainstream books, he or she blogs about random topics, or picks a favorite old classic published decades ago and does a fondly nostalgic write-up on that. Retrospective articles about old books are becoming more and more common on book blogs.

The implicit message from the book bloggers seems to be, “Don’t call us–we’ll call you.” The only way to get reviewed these days, it seems, is to make your book conspicuous and important enough that it attracts the blogger’s attention and he or she wants to read it, and asks you for a copy (or buys one, as some do). I found a post from a young blogger explaining the right way to approach a publisher and request a complimentary review copy. It was a good post and sound advice, but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of irony when I read it.

I’m guessing that the bloggers have been so overwhelmed by “self-published” (i.e. published by the vanity/subsidy companies like AuthorHouse, XLibris and so on) authors that they’re refusing to look at anything that isn’t a recognizable big name imprint. So much of the “self-published” stuff is desperately, horribly bad–unreadable bilge–and the authors, spurred on by the companies and all the marketing gurus, are unprofessional, persistent and entitled. “Self-published” authors flood the Amazon forums with constant self-promotion and pester Barnes & Noble continuously (which is why Barnes & Noble was so incredibly rude to me). I’m sure they’re aggressively hounding all the book bloggers all of the time, and consequently the book bloggers, like oldtime speakeasies, only open their doors to celebrities and personal friends. I’m having to remove more and more bloggers from my list because their guidelines now say, not only “no self-published books” but “no POD books.” A lot of the “self-publishing companies” let their customers use an “imprint” name, so the bloggers can’t tell whether an unfamiliar imprint is a small press or a camouflaged book from PublishAmerica.

In the last few months, there have been several online uproars sparked by authors who took public exception to comments made in reviews, and either sniped at the reviewer or complained on their own blogs. There have even been rumors of an alleged “YA Mafia” of authors supposedly intimidating book bloggers to only give them glowing reviews, or be cut off from receiving future review copies. You can bet that I have less than no sympathy for these prima donna authors. They don’t know how lucky they are to be getting reviewed at all. They’re taking their privilege for granted and then complaining about it. Right now, I follow some twenty book bloggers and genre review websites on Twitter. Not one of them will review By Light Unseen Media’s books. A number of them have submission criteria that ban me from even sending a query.

Book bloggers have the absolute and unqualified right, of course, to review–or not review–whatever they choose. It’s their time and their blogs. I’m not trying to criticize them. After all, book bloggers do this for the love, no one pays them a dime for all their hard work, right?

Well…

That might be about to change. There’s a whole new review game in town and some of the biggest names in the industry are already on board.

“Self-published” authors (usually flattered with the label, “indie”) are now being aggressively solicited to pay for the privilege of being considered for a review. They’re not paying for the review, of course–that would be unethical! The descriptions of these services all very carefully explain that the author isn’t paying for a review. The fee is simply for submitting the book, and “to cover costs.”

Kirkus, one of the big pre-publication reviewers, has been running such a program for a number of years. It used to be “Kirkus Discoveries” and now is called “Kirkus Indie,” and costs $425 per title–$575 for “express service” (which I guess means the review comes out before the copyright expires). Irene Watson’s Reader Views has also been running for a while. With Reader Views, the review is “free” but the accompanying “publicity package” costs from $95 to $495. There are a few smaller pay-to-submit review websites. About a year ago, The Jenkins Group launched The Critics’ Bookshelf, in which “indie” authors can list their book, for $179 per title, in a sort of catalog that is mass-mailed to reviewers, media outlets and so on. The Critics’ Bookshelf is premised on the imaginative notion that book reviewers are desperately searching for more books to review.

Now two more of the big pre-publication reviewers have realized that there’s money to be made from all these hungry “self-published” authors. ForeWord has initiated ForeWord Digital Reviews: web-only reviews for which you can be considered, for a submission fee of $99 per title. Meanwhile, the granddaddy of them all, Publishers Weekly, offers PW Select, a special quarterly supplement for “self-published” books. Authors can submit their books for $149 per title. Subscribers get the fee waived, but how many “self-published” authors subscribe to Publishers Weekly? (You get a partial subscription with your book listing, which may be another motive for PW: to boost circulation.)

The catch to these fee-for-service programs by Kirkus, ForeWord and Publishers Weekly, of course, is that they firmly segregate all the “self-published” books into their own isolated and well-labeled section, rather than evaluating them in fair comparison with the mainstream books that get reviewed for free. I can guarantee you that the only people who will ever read these reviews will be other “indie” authors looking for their own review. No one else will waste their time. That big red “S” pasted on every book reviewed in these special sections doesn’t stand for “self-published,” and everyone knows it.

I can’t help wondering how long it will be before the book bloggers catch on to this gold mine. After all, a “self-published” author who’s already spent anywhere from $500 to $15,000 for a “publishing package” can hardly balk at a “submission fee” of $49 or $99 to have his or her book reviewed on a high-traffic blog alongside big-name bestsellers, right? Why shouldn’t successful book bloggers get some compensation for their considerable time and trouble? A fee would help select out the serious authors (or at least the well-funded ones) from the mere dilettantes. It’s a no-brainer! Some book blogs already take paid advertizing. Submission fees for “self-published” and other unsolicited titles is a logical next step.

Whether or not book bloggers will head down this road, I have no idea, but charging fees for services that once were free is certainly becoming universal, in all areas of life. More and more, it’s looking like the old standby of paid advertizing is the most effective marketing tool. At least it’s honest. Everyone knows what an advertizement is. But readers and consumers are already cynical and overwhelmed by “social networking” and “news articles” and “infomercials” that are nothing but marketing and promotional puffs in disguise. As fee-for-service reviews proliferate, readers will quickly stop trusting those, too. Even now, the two major reasons that readers will pick up a new book are familiarity with the author and recommendation from a personal (non-professional) friend. Publishers and authors can’t control those and they can’t buy them, and readers know that. It used to be that the impartial, professional book review almost qualified as a personal recommendation for readers, precisely because of the perception that a review was a gift, and not for sale. I’m very sorry to see that change.

Of course, I’ll continue to send out complimentary review copies of By Light Unseen Media’s books to any book blogger or reviewer who wants them, without hesitation. Paperbacks, ebooks and ARCs are all available and always will be. But the handwriting is on the wall, and it’s obvious that small press publishers have to find–or maybe invent–other creative ways of connecting their books and their potential readers.

1 Comment

  1. Just read my publisher’s latest BLU Media blog-post… I can see why she is a bit down in the dumps. PAY for book reviews? Really? And supposedly the review you paid for is still rendered by an “impartial” party — who just happens to want repeat business and for the publisher/author to spread positive word-of-mouth so that the reviewer can get more business…

    Naw, no conflict of interest there, no sir.

    Ms. Arthen’s extremely informative and well-written post also explained the difficulties in changing the mindsets of bookstores since they insist on identifying self-published/vanity books and POD Small Press books as one and the same. What the hell? I think it has much to do with resistance to the new technology because of their [traditional publishing's] outdated business model: “We didn’t think of it, so it can’t be good/legitimate”, “The Big Noo Yawk houses aren’t doing it, so why should we?”, and “Real Literary people do not ‘DO’ computers (ie., digital content, eReaders, ePublishing)”.

    It’s class warfare, I swear: the merchant class versus the artisan class with the audience caught between. More, it’s the inevitable implosion of an industry, a business, both afraid and reluctant to evolve.

    I have an online friend and colleague, a poet of some moderate renown, who has repeatedly asked me WHY I waste my time with genre fiction. She sees it as a dead end. Genre fiction is, by current industry definition, extremely limited in its marketable content and possibilities by both its literary traditions and its audience. It’s like comfort food to the readership — people want it, the content, the way its always been written: the same old storylines and tropes. Moreover, the authors who work inside those genres have become “brand names”, much like what people look for when they shop at the supermarket. Therefore, the publishers will only seek out/buy/provide work to that audience that matches that general criteria. After all, they want the book to sell and sell big. But genre-wise, nothing changes, nothing evolves. Oh, everyone pays a lot of lip-service to getting “new and different” ideas out there, to changing up the Urban Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal Romance, Dark Fantasy genres, but when something new appears on the horizon it had better be written by an already well-known industry name. And only the same old names seem to be able to achieve any degree of acceptance from an audience increasingly influenced by video games and “summer blockbuster” motion pictures (entertainment usually aimed at 14 – 18 year old suburban boys or, recently, Potter-heads and Twilight-heads). As a sub-genre, Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy books have a very large female audience, but, let’s face it, they’re pretty well indoctrinated by the influences I already mentioned. And as far as the somewhat incestuous and occasionally nepotistic relationship between the publishing industry and book reviewers?

    Hey, I understand. It’s a business. I get it.

    So here come the small publishers with new imprints trying to break in and make inroads into those established comfort-food markets… and they’re hawking books with newer ideas written by new authors, writers with new names. And they’re doing it using new technology…

    Damn. Triple-whammy. Someone hang up a garlic-wreath and go sharpen the stakes, something bad is trying to get indoors.

    Someone else has stepped up to compete for a piece of the pie. In the end, it’s a business, get it?

    And then they, the small presses and their products, want to be REVIEWED? If you’re reviewed than that means you’re taken seriously, right? Reviews can create sales. And if you’re taken seriously, then that could potentially upset the Status Quo. And if you upset the Status Quo, then that could potentially cost someone, meaning competitors vying for the same market, money. Because, after all, you’ve just proven that things — meaning the products the larger publishers sell, meaning genre-based books — DON’T have to all contain some minor variation of the same, repetitive story content. And the audience, meaning readers, just might LIKE something new.

    Cue the sound of ringing cash registers.

    Or not.

    I’m an author. And, small though it may be, I won’t pander to my audience. I work hard at what I do. And the dichotomy in Inanna’s blog-post is particularly draining to me.

    I wish I had an answer. I don’t. Except that maybe, just maybe, this industry needs to stop dumbing itself down in the pursuit of potential sales and grow up.

    Evolve.

    Armstead Out.

    Comment by Joseph Armstead — March 8, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

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