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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Independent Thinking, Part 2: Indie Authors & the Indie Reviewer


My participation in Creative Alliance '12 prompted much consideration of my approach to my online life. As a book blogger, that life clearly includes books and authors...but it hasn’t included many from the swelling ranks of the “non-traditionally published.” This is the last of this month's posts on "indie authors." All opinions expressed here are my own, although some may be supported with links to related posts elsewhere.

Yesterday's thoughts pondered why more authors are publishing independently. Today's are about how that affects me as a reader and book blogger--a book blogger who has not eagerly embraced the self-published. I'd love to know your thoughts on both sides of the story.

My impression is that many book bloggers who avoid indie authors do so  ecause of negative experiences--sometimes their own, sometimes those they’ve heard about from others. They’ve been deluged with e-mails and press releases. They’ve been asked to review books that turn out to be poorly written, barely edited, and/or badly packaged. And in a few extreme cases, they’ve been publicly attacked for giving the honest opinions the authors requested.

I appreciate a writer’s investment in his or her work, and realize that the indie author may be even further invested as the book’s editor, designer, publisher, marketer, and sales manager--investments of creativity, time, and money (it takes money to make money). I also understand that so much investment can make it harder to see possible weaknesses in the work, or to accept constructively-intended feedback. On the other hand, indie authors should understand that most indie book bloggers do this as a hobby. While we do our best not to behave “unprofessionally,” we’re not “professional” reviewers, and because this isn’t our job, there are certain obligations we don’t have. Tolerating personal attacks on our opinions is pretty high on that list.

I realize it’s not terribly fair to shut out a large and widely varied category of authors based on bad experiences with a small fraction of them, but I think that sometimes bloggers feel it’s the only way we can manage it. Another obligation we don’t have is sorting through what traditional publishers call the “slush pile”--and as hobbyists, we don’t have time for it either. One reason many book bloggers prefer traditionally-published books is that, to an extent, they’ve already been “vetted,” and most of the time, we can trust the product that comes through that vetting process. Approaching the self-published book can feel more inherently risky. In announcing their recent decision to stop accepting and reviewing indie books, the group blog Insatiable Booksluts addressed that risk::
"I really hope you guys don’t hate me for this, but um . . . I’ve decided that IB will no longer accept pitches for self-published work. I’m not making a judgment about all self-published work here; no, this is about the fact that, energy-wise, it’s really draining for me to sift through pitches because I don’t have a touchstone for self-published work (emphasis added). Is this or that book going to be good? I dunno. I have to put a lot of research into books to see if it’s worth it to try to read it, and most of them don’t make the cut, so that work is for naught. The energy sap makes me less good at blogging; in the mutually-beneficial blogger/book producer relationship, I want to be able to hold up my end for people that I choose to work with...Sorry, self-published authors. We might still review self-published work here, if we come across something we want to read, but please, do not send us any pitches."
I think that lack of a "touchstone" to evaluate a book's quality is a perfectly valid reason for not reviewing it, and applicable whether the book is in a genre the blogger doesn't read or from an author who's going DIY (and maybe doubly valid if it's both, which is why I'm highly unlikely to review self-published paranormal erotic thrillers).

Without touchstones or vetting systems, we look for other ways to sort through it all, and in the online word, personal connections are one of the most important. Book blogging can be an odd hybrid of critical consideration and personal recommendation. If I’m not personally familiar with a book or author, I’m more apt to take a chance if people whose opinions I know and trust can make reassurances, and that’s likely to matter even more with books that are non-traditionally published. That said, many of my most-trusted sources keep the same distance from indie authors that I have, so we really can’t give each other much reassurance.

And with that said, I’ve found that I’ll be more likely to take the chance with indie authors if I already know them, through personal or online interaction, before I encounter their work. (And “interaction” is key here--if we’re not, at the very least, reciprocal Twitter followers, there probably isn't interaction. There are authors following me on Twitter whom I don’t follow back and who write in genres I don’t enjoy reading; we don’t interact, and I don’t consider those to be “online relationships.”)  

"Thoughts From My Reading" theme icon www.3rsblog.comIn all honesty, I usually ignore the review pitch e-mail that’s the equivalent of a “cold call” (regardless of source), and if I have no acquaintance with the sender, that goes double. I expect that I will remain non-responsive to out-of-the-blue “please review my book” e-mails...and I’m trying to resist the impulse to apologize for that. But if I know you and/or your writing and you’re putting out a book, there’s a high probability I’ll want to support your efforts. I might not blog about your book the same way I would if it came through more traditional, detached channels, and I’d acknowledge our relationship in anything I posted about it. Self-publishing has lost many of its negative associations during the last decade, but I realize that I still retain some snobbery toward it. I suspect that seeing writers I have a personal connection with succeed at it--and maybe even contributing just a bit toward their success--could take a good chunk out of that attitude of mine.