Virtual blog tours and other pitfalls of book blogging

Beware Pitfalls sign
Daniel C. Griliopoulos (CC By-Nc-Sa 2.0)

I’ve been doing the Free Books roundups for about a month now. Doing so has crystallized my opinion regarding so-called virtual blog tours. For those who are quick with their web surfing fingers, the short version is I don’t like them so much.

To explain why, first I have to retell why I blog at Rat’s Reading. First and foremost this is an electronic substitute for a book reading journal. Over the years I’ve kept a journal of my reading, but invariably my journaling would falter when I would misplace the notebook or it wasn’t handy when I finished a book or I just didn’t feel like gripping a pen for an hour to write out my thoughts. When I started blogging in 2002 on LiveJournal, I began using that instead of paper for my book thoughts. That blog still exists and was more of a general purpose, LiveJournal-like (I know, shocking!), blog. Even then I sometimes failed to keep notes on my reading. I moved the book portion here in 2005 in the hopes that a dedicated blog would provide that last bit of impetus to make sure I kept it up as a regular thing. So far it has.

The biggest reason to blog my reading is that I read so much and my memory is not so good, so this helps me remember my reading. I can refer back to what I wrote. It’s searchable. The writing process also forces me to think about what I think. Kind of like teaching a subject helps to ensure that I know the subject for myself.

Secondarily, I view this as somewhat of a conversation among readers. Not that there are many comments here on the reviews. But the book blogosphere (I hate that term, but I can’t think of a better one) as a whole is a great complement to conversations among friends about books. I love talking about books. I love seeing what people on the bus or in coffee shops are reading. I take delight to engage people in book conversations. Readers talking about books is one of the things I live for. Seriously.

I’ve seen a lot of other reasons for people to blog about books. Here are some of the reasons pulled from blogs on my blog roll:

  • I’ve created this weblog to keep track of my reading in and thoughts about the world of speculative fiction. – Matt Cheney from The Mumpsimus.
  • For this blog I’m interested in thinking more (and more coherently) about reactions to genre trends inside and outside of SF readers/writers, which I think often parallels other discussions of interest to feminists. – Tycho Garen from Feminist SF.
  • Guys Lit Wire exists solely to bring literary news and reviews to the attention of teenage boys and the people who care about them.Guys Lit Wire.
  • I have this compulsion to review any book I read. – Gautami Tripathi from Reading Room.
  • John DeNardo from SFSignal.

    Why do you review science fiction? Mainly, it serves as a reminder of what I’ve read and my general impressions of the material. […] It also helps me remember what I did not like about a book.

    Why bother posting your science fiction reviews? Why not keep them to yourself? […] A review informs other readers with similar tastes about books they may or may not like. While this is seemingly altruistic, I would be lying to myself if I did not admit that there is some small chunk of vanity associated with “publishing” my very own words and having others read what I write. […]

    Are there any other reasons you review science fiction? Sure. There are unintentional side-effects of reviewing. A review of a book is a promotion of sorts; it gets the word out and makes science fiction more visible which I hope will drive up sales and keep writers in business. […]

  • So despite the quality of these books, most translations go virtually unnoticed and never find their audience. The idealistic hope of Three Percent is to help change that—at least a little bit. Chad Post from Three Percent.

Some of these reasons are more reader-oriented while some are, in the words of one of my detractors, mental masturbation. Some, such as bookstore, author, and publisher blogs are explicitly promotional.

The blogs I find most engaging are the reader-oriented and personal blogs. As Gautami writes: Most book bloggers give honest reviews as they don’t have financial constraints. And that is where I have a problem with virtual blog tours.

It’s not just money that has value. Particularly in the blogger world, eyeballs has currency. Most of us want attention to some degree, otherwise we’d put these blogs in places that no one would find them. This has pitfalls. In the continuous search for more pageviews and links, we can fall into thee traps.

Authors like us book bloggers more when we write laudatory reviews. They generally like the books they’ve written. And they almost always want to sell the books they’ve written. So when authors have blogs of their own (and quite a few do), they tend to link to the good reviews. I don’t blame them one bit. Bad reviews equals no links, less personal correspondence, and generally less love from author sites which generally have more readers than Joe Schmoes blogging.

If we have affiliate links on our blogs, even if we are merely trying to cover our costs, that’s another hidden patch of quicksand. Blog readers aren’t going to click through and buy books that we review poorly. I sure wouldn’t.

Virtual blog tours are about the most promotional thing I’ve seen on general book blogs. Not only are they promotional, they are designed to stretch out the hype period for a book. It’s much cheaper than a book signing tour at book stores, which is why authors and publishers do it. But that’s the thing; book blogs are generally not book stores. It turns personal opinion in to a hype machine. It brings the author publicity machine (feeble as it may be) to bear on behalf of the blogger. Links! Free stuff! Page views! Readers!

But I really do like this book a participant might respond! Too true. However, can you separate out whether you like the book because of its qualities separate from the attention it brings you? And can your readers? I doubt it. Even just the chance to communicate with a Published Author!! is enough to get our adrenaline flowing just a bit more. Add in all the other benefits and it’s hard to separate everything out.

I don’t think book bloggers should stop participating. I’d hate to return to the staid world of yesteryear, when the editors of newspaper and magazine book pages determines what was and what was not worthy of hype (such as it was at the time). I like the free-for-all. I like that everyone gets to contribute in whatever way they want. The book discussion these days is more vibrant than it ever has been. Ever. Since the dawn of the printing press.

But participating in this kind of marketing event takes a blog into a no-mans-land or perhaps even fully across the divide. At least right now, I’ve decided it’s something I don’t want for Rat’s Reading. At my two year anniversary of the blog, I considered starting to participate in some giveaways sponsored by publishers. I’m glad I didn’t start down that path. My one attempt at a book giveaway came from my own pocket/collection. For now, I’d rather not worry over whether what I write is overly influenced.

Then again, perhaps I’m misguided. I worry about whether just accepting a free review copy is too much. (Obviously, I do accept them from time to time, but I do worry.)

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