Thinking Through Type | The Great PR Machine and our place in it

An odd thing has started happening recently. I’ve started having a lot of newish bloggers and reviewers contact me for advice. How should they promote their websites? How should they write reviews? How much promotion is too much? How do they get an audience? I don’t know why they ask me these questions, but it is flattering to think that someone out there actually thinks I know what I’m talking about. I’m less than certain most of the time.

The fact is, this post has been gestating for a few months now as a direct result of the questions people ask me. These questions got me thinking about the importance of reviewers, and our actual role in the author/publishing universe. I’ve been interviewing numerous people, and throwing questions into the ether to get responses from numerous and diverse parties. I’ve been hoarding all of these answers and trying to decide just how I would explore this topic with all the information I have gathered.

This is a tricky subject, and what I’ve learned is that everyone has a different perspective of how to effectively promote and what the role of the reviewer is. So I’m going to break this post into three sections. I will focus on the reviewer, the author, and the publisher, respectively and try to explore this topic, while asking questions that this research has made me think of, along the way.

The Question of Reviewer Publicity

I seem to approach the issue of publicity different than pretty much anyone else I’ve talked to so far. I almost never look at website stats. I also only visit other blogs once a week. Why? Because if I focus too heavily on stats, I turn reviewing into some sort of a competition, which sucks all the fun out of it for me. I only read other blogs once a week, because often they are reviewing something I’m reading, or about to read, and I don’t want their reviews to affect mine.

The questions reviewers often ask me is, “How do I adequately advertise my reviews? How do I know if I’m pushing it too much, or not enough?” The question I want to ask them is, should our focus even be on how to advertise our reviews, or should we focus more on the quality and quantity of what we write, and trust the audience to follow in its own course?

The truth is, I don’t have an answer for you. I’m probably the laziest publicity person on the planet. I approach my website, and life in general, the same way. You either like what I’m saying and come back, or you don’t. No sweat off my back either way. For me, this all goes back to why I very rarely, if ever, look at website stats. I review for fun. I run Bookworm Blues for the sheer joy of sharing my genre excitement with whoever chooses to stop by. If I turn this into a contest (IE: I wish I was as popular as (insert website name here). I wonder how they do it. Maybe I should change my content.) then I feel like I lose some of my unique voice because I try too hard to become something I’m not by following what works for others.

Most bloggers I’ve talked to, however, have the opposite point of view. Most bloggers pay close attention to their stats, and they keep mental notes on what posts bring in how many hits so they know what works and what doesn’t work. Typically they get hits by tweeting links, or posting them on various social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Google +. This gets the word out, and retweets, reposts, and etc. spread it around. It’s a good way for bloggers to get views, and track what way the genre wind is blowing. Then, if they are smart about it, they tap into that wind, and ride the wave. Most bloggers do this really well.

New bloggers need to focus on publicity more than established bloggers. The more established blogs have the ability to rely on an already dedicated audience who often does the PR legwork for the blogger (For example, I don’t consider myself popular by any stretch of the word, but I tweet my links once, and then I retweet whatever people say about my posts. In that respect, the audience does the PR work for me.). The new blogs are the ones who seem to focus more on tweeting/sharing links throughout the day, and hoping someone out there grabs a link and shares it. One share can go a long way toward establishing an audience for a new blog. Commenting on other blogs is also an important way to spread the word about your own website and get readers. The more you comment, the more people will notice that you are an active, interested, intelligent individual, and attention will eventually come your way.

So now you are saying, “Sarah, this is stupid. Everyone knows this, so why are you saying it again?”

There’s another angle to all of this that doesn’t often get addressed. Publicity is great, and it serves the important function of making sure you aren’t just talking to yourself publically. However, as I touched on above, if we focus too much on publicity and getting hits, we could easily lose our unique voices. I read the blogs I read because I enjoy the diverse views and styles of the people who run them. Tailoring your posts to attract more hits is logical on one level, but if we run our websites because we love the genre, and we are fueled with a passion to express our love, as many of us claim to be, then why do stats matter?

Reviewer Relationship to Authors

In theory, reviewers are a useful tool for authors to use to spread the word about their books, get more sales, and attract attention. So when I asked a bunch of authors how they view the importance of blogs, I was rather surprised with their answers.

A majority of authors told me that, no matter how many reviews get posted on sites, regardless of their popularity, their sales never change (“That was even true when I got PW and Library Journal reviews. My sales never changed,” one author told me.). The one website that seems the most important for authors with regards to boosting their sales Amazon, a website that many reviewers doggedly avoid using for numerous reasons (“I don’t like putting reviews on Amazon. They edit reviews. I don’t like my reviews edited,” one reviewer said.).  A few authors went as far as to say that blogs are great for the enthusiastic, but the general book buying population has never heard of blogs and rarely visits them so they only serve to excite an already excited fanbase. This leads me to believe that, on the author’s part, blogs are wonderful and exciting, a great way to spread the word, and motivate them with their writing, but they otherwise lack effectiveness in advertising to the average book-buying masses where the numbers truly count.

Am I trying to dissuade bloggers from blogging, or make them feel any less important with their genre-love efforts? Of course not. I’m one of you. I love what I do. However, my discussions with numerous authors on this topic made me feel like there is a huge divide between authors and bloggers, and their interpretations as to the usefulness of reviewer’s websites. Then again, I don’t think the primary goal of most reviewers is to run a website so (insert author here) can get more sales. That would be a promotion site, not a reviewer website. We do this for the love of the genre, and an expanding readership just means that our excitement is adequately infective. That being said, I felt that many authors lamented the fact that blogs are a useful, but often misused tool on their part. If only bloggers could inject their passion and desire into the average Barnes and Noble customer. Maybe we do on some extent, but many seemed to think that we missed the average reader’s target.

Regardless of our effectiveness for authors to advertise their amazing books to the masses, one thing held true with every author I talked to. One person summed it up beautifully, “Reviewers really show us what gets readers excited, and what doesn’t work so well. That’s probably the best part of blogs. Authors can read them, and see exactly what went wrong, or right. The really good websites with thoughtful critical reviews are like a crash course in writing. They can be incredibly useful in that respect.”

When all of that is said and done, I can’t help but wonder at what exactly the role of bloggers is in the great PR machine. The successful bloggers are inundated with books, interviews, and the like, but if most authors feel that, in many advertising respects, we aren’t really sale-boosting useful, what do we do? Well, one author said, “Bloggers tell authors and publishers what is popular, and the really good blogger will spread their excitement and love throughout the genre.”

I tend to think that’s a good thing. Bloggers might not boost sales too much, but in truth, we are an avid and active fanbase. The opportunistic author will realize that bloggers often help spread excitement throughout the community. We might not raise the number in sales too much, but this genre-loving fanbase buys a lot of books and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have bought a ton of books based purely on how blogs I admire reviewed them. And to see evidence of this infectious excitement, and how fast and far it spreads, all you really have to do is look at the websites who post thoughtful articles about the Hugo Awards, sexism in SFF, and so much more. One website lights the fire, and plenty of others serve to spread the flame.

The Great Publisher PR Machine

Now, I’ve addressed publicity in regards to reviewers and authors, but what about publishers? After all, these are the people forking out their time and money to send us ARCs, and copious amounts of books. In order to get a better handle on this aspect of the discussion, I asked several PR gurus and several large publishing houses the same few questions. I will keep them all anonymous, and just paraphrase what they said. The interesting detail for this section of my article is the fact that every PR person I talked to agreed on all points. There was no deep or lasting difference of opinion. It’s interesting to think that, among bloggers and authors, the opinions and viewpoints might change depending on the person, but the publishers over us all seem to be fairly unanimous in their perspectives.

The blogger-publisher relationship is more ambiguous in many respects. Publishers send us books. We read them and talk about them. Bloggers tend to not look a gift horse in the mouth (I like to say “thank you” and not ask too many questions). Due to the fact that many of us don’t ask too many questions, we don’t often know how publishers choose whom to send books to, or why. What role do bloggers serve in their great PR Machine?

If you take the information I’ve given you so far, you’ll probably guess right away that our primary focus is to spread the word and excitement about the product the publisher is selling. Put another way, the author is the artist, the publisher is the factory where the art gets mass produced, and the blogger is where the publisher turns to get insight into the market, and also where a flame of excitement might be lit and (hopefully) will spread.

When you consider how many books some of us get sent (two weeks ago I received over 30 books in a five-day period. No joke.) How do publishers decide which blogs to focus on, and which to pass over? The system seems to be the one area publishers differ. Most publishers check to see how many followers the blog has on Twitter, how active they are in commenting and starting/spreading SFF discussions. Most publishers want to make sure that bloggers are writing thoughtful reviews, and that they actually read a good chunk of the books they receive and review them in a timely manner. Some publishers send out questionnaires, and then check to verify the answers bloggers give them. A few try to predict which blogs will be “big” in the future, and try to jump on them while they are young and still developing. Regardless of their tactics, it’s quite impressive to see just how much publisher’s check into bloggers, and their activity in the community.

It’s quite interesting to step back and see just how much importance is heaped on how active the blogger is on their own blogs, other blogs, and the community in general. In fact, when we go back to the top of this article and look at my first section, you’ll notice I put an importance on how active bloggers are, too. So did the authors. In fact, every section so far has agreed on the fact that the blogger’s importance is, in part, based on how active they are in the community. Why? Because part what reviewers do regardless of if we mean to or not, is market excitement, and that excitement is an important yardstick publishers and authors use to gauge the market to which they cater to.

While most publishers seem to pay varying amounts of attention to how bloggers promote their blogs, what works and what doesn’t, they all notice when bloggers write something that gains the attention of the genre audience. A sort of “look at me” industry flag gets lifted, and the publishing community tries to jump on that bandwagon. If a review gets tweeted, and then retweeted, and retweeted, the publisher will, and does notice. It makes the reviewer attractive. They send us books, hoping that we’ll get tweeted, and retweeted, and retweeted. The more that happens, the more we tend to be in demand.

So why do publishers like us? We spread the excitement. We are a very vocal part of the genre community, and we are good at telling them how the market is blowing. We also spread the excitement about the books we read. We might not boost sales too much, but we are a very vocal, animated portion of the market that allows publishers to do valuable market research, for the price of a few books in the mail. In return, we get excited, and spread that excitement to the masses.

I’m sure it’s more complex than that, but that’s what it seemed to boil down to in my research.

This is an incredibly long post, which may or may not actually inform anyone of anything new. This whole thing basically boils down to my exploration into the role of the reviewer through the eyes of the reviewer, author, and publisher. Do I have all the answers? Of course not. I spent a few months asking a lot of people a lot of questions, and this is a short summary of everything I learned. It’s not what I expect.

I think bloggers often think of themselves as a marketing team, and in some ways we are, but I don’t think we market in the way most of us think we do. Bloggers talk about books, but our true, valuable importance, is laid on the enthusiasm and love for the genre (and it’s books) that we spread. Maybe that sounds a little demeaning to some, but think of it in this light. Reviewers serve as a sort of genre thermometer for authors and publishers. We play a vital role in telling them what the larger audience wants to read, and what they expect to see on the shelves of their local bookstore. Furthermore, think of how much our enthusiasm has impacted the community. We’ve successfully shined a light on sexism, issues regarding awards; we’ve impacted careers (Michael J. Sullivan, anyone?) and so much more. We expand the culture, and keep it alive and burning bright with passion. Authors and publishers tap into that passion.

Honestly, can you really put a price on honest-to-goodness, deep burning excitement? When you really think about it, bloggers might not play the role in the industry that we think we do, but we have a really fun, and very important job. So pat yourselves on the back. Reviewers are pretty damn cool.

10 Responses

  • Thanks, Sarah.

    I feel like I am in a weird place as a blogger–since I might be one of the most prolific book bloggers without a real home of my own. The Itinerant Book Blogger, with connections to several outlets.

    • Honestly, Paul, I think that makes you an even more powerful voice than most. The reason for that is BECAUSE you have a lot of outlets, where most bloggers, like myself, only have one. People get your reviews and insights a lot of different places, and all of them are well known (one of them even has Hugos under their belt). That’s impressive, and it makes you carry some real weight. I think you sell yourself short, my friend.

  • Caleb Hill

    AMAZING post! I wholeheartedly agree that reviewers shouldn’t promote, promote, promote. One tweet will go a long way, especially with all the retweets you can receive. Two or three retweets in itself is enough, as I’ve seen.

    I do admit that when I started out, I kept a firm eye on the stats. But now, I focus more on the quality of the review (which wasn’t too much when I first began) than if it works or not. Review for yourself. Have fun, and spread the enjoyment!

    • Thank you so much for the compliment!! I’m glad you liked this post. It took forever to write.

      I think promotion is a tricky subject. On the one hand, it’s nice to know that people are visiting your site and think you’re interesting. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if avidly tracking stats causes reviewers to lose their own unique voices. That’s why I don’t view other websites too often. I’d start comparing myself, and I know that I’d see what someone else did that is “hardcore” and I’d try to duplicate it. That’s not me talking, that’s someone else talking through me. I don’t even know if that makes sense, but I wonder where the line blurs or if I’m just making it all up.

  • Thanks for writing this, Sarah. I’ve been questioning my own blog and my reviewing style. I don’t write a lot of industry commentary (or any yet I can think of) and have done a handful of giveaways, but it’s primarily reviews without rankings to help readers make an informed book buying decision. Many of the visits on my site come through internet searches of “BOOK TITLE review” and I have wondered if I should aspire to be more witty, controversial, etc., but then I come back to just wanting to help readers make a decision.

    I’m not as established nor do I have much time to do the reading I’d like to, which means I also don’t have publishers just sending me books with me requesting them. I do finally have a few publishers contacting me to ask if I’m interested.

    I think one of the big things is that I barely have the time to read and write the reviews, let alone market them, even though my day job is now in marketing! I’d like to at least be more engaged in conversations on Twitter, if only because I enjoy it. Most of us make zero money at this, with the books themselves being what we have to show for it, to my wife’s consternation.

    • It’s a hard line to tread, and I think its important for people to not lose their unique voices. I don’t follow the blogs I follow because they are popular or controversial. I follow them because I love their enthusiasm. I think its unfortunate that so much pressure is put on numbers and followers. This sort of pressure for followers can cause a lot of bloggers to lose the very things that make them so appealing to me, and to so many others. A lot of people think that being controversial will get them numbers, but in truth, I enjoy seeing why people love the books they read, or why they didn’t enjoy them so much. I tend to gloss over articles about (insert genre issue here). Not that those articles aren’t important, but they don’t interest me as much as books do.

      Anyway, thanks for reading this article. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Yes. THIS. this post! I will try not to blabber too much in my reply.

    I do look at my stats. More because I’m obsessed with numbers and stats in general, not because they are “my” stats. (I heart my inventory history reports at work. the numbers don’t mean anything, I just like them)

    I have to wonder if people questions about publicity have something to do with why they got into blogging in the first place. Is the person blogging because they want to talk about books they enjoy? is their blog a promotional platform for a business of some sort, be it their own books, or blog design services, or blog tour services, or small press, or whatever? are they blogging to get free books, get an “in” with publishers? how you do publicity, how much you care about publicity or a following depends on the answers to those questions.

    with the cost of shipping and printing, I’m shocked more publishers haven’t gone the 100% NetGalley route. Publishers know positive reviews get tweeted and retweeted and posted on the author’s website, so of course they are going to send out review copies to everyone they know. They figured out pretty quick that bloggers are their unpaid marketing team. I get a few ARCs a month, and keep telling the pubs to only send me the few books I specifically request, because there’s no guarantee I’ll get to something that I didn’t request.

    boils down to are you blogging to promote what you love, or are you blogging to promote what someone else wants you to promote. Fine line, isn’t it? Bloggers do have something in common with authors after all! write good content, the following will come on it’s own.

    personally, I try to avoid the ranty fire-storm subjects. let someone who can handle that kind of attention write those attention grabbing articles.

    • I don’t like really touching the firestorm topics much. A big reason for that is because I get pissed off when I write about controversial stuff, and I don’t want to be pissed off. I love the genre too much to be angry with it, so I leave that to someone else who is better suited for the job.

      And ditto about wondering why some people got into reviewing. When people focus so much on publicity and getting readers, I feel like I’m not reading a person’s contributions to the genre, but a PR machine’s.

      As for eARCs, yes, I agree. I don’t know why more publishers don’t go that route. I wonder how much money they spend on sending out ARCs. To be completely honest, I get so damn many books, there’s no way I could read them all in a lifetime. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading them, and I read as many as I can get to, but I’m probably about a year behind on all the ARCs I’ve received, and that gap just gets longer and longer each week.

  • Great post. It’s interesting to hear how differently in some cases bloggers, authors and publishers think of book reviewing. For me, the end result is that I enjoy it. When reviewing becomes too much like work it’ll be time to stop.

    • I’m in the same boat. When this starts feeling like a job, I’m done. It’ll lose its magic.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.