Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Book Bloggers See Red, But What About Green?

17th December 2011


Musings and rants

Mastodon For SFF Fans
Where to go in the Fediverse to find the best speculative fiction and literary discussions.

Nine Political Books That Change The Conversation
Following news that Simon and Schuster plan to publish an inflammatory commentator, here are nine political books that deserve more attention.

Penguin Random House Withdraws Union Recognition
Penguin Random House have decided not to recognise Unite and the NUJ as a result of staff negotiations, leaving the publisher with a stain on its reputation as an employer.

Authors Support Stop Funding Hate
Some authors have had enough of divisive and xenophobic elements in the British press, and are willing to make an ethical stand.

Women In SFF: Indie Edition
A list of indie and self-published women writing in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative fiction genres.

Amazon Finally Makes KU Appealing For Novelists
The new per-page payout for the Kindle Unlimited subscription service makes it a much better deal for authors of longer novels.

Thoughts On The Sieghart Report On Libraries
The Sieghart report on libraries missed its mark by miles. Yet the real cause of the decline of the UK library network is depressingly obvious.

A Shout-Out For The Good Guys
When nastiness dominates online conversations about books it is time to appreciate the well-behaved authors.

Critique Circle: Shaping Fabulous Stories
The appeal of a certain writing critique website. Or, why I have neglected this blog.

Where Shall I Point This Pitchfork?
Some thoughts on Jonathan Ross, Loncon, and the twitchfork mob.

Reading Is Not A Race
Why I will be abandoning annual reading challenges in 2014.

What Book Discovery Is Missing
The current state of book discovery is narrowing our reading choices and squeezing out midlist writers. How can it be fixed?

An Explosion Of Discovery Tools
New book discovery engines are popping up all over the web. But which ones will come out on top?

Blog Tours From Both Sides
Blog tours are the lastest marketing fad. But what are the pros and cons of this kind of publicity?

It's Not Your Story Any More
When a book is published, authors lose control over how the story should be read. They should let go the reins and enjoy the ride.

Same Old, Same Old
Are current methods of book discovery pushing us further away from original literature?

Female Protagonists In Genre Fiction
A list of recommended SFF books for adults which feature a female as the main character.

Is This The End Of Sweeping Vistas?
Do recent trends in fantasy art styles and the constraints of online book discovery mark the decline of landscape cover art?

A Rising Tide Floats All Boats
Authors: stop thinking of other writers as your rivals. They're not the enemy.

Reviews Are Useless Without Context
With so many review blogs, quick ways of understanding their authors are more important than ever.

My TBR pile  

Some of my TBR pile

So the publisher William Morrow sent a letter to book bloggers that has ruffled a few feathers. Reaction seems to have ranged from squeals of indignation at the cheek of these publishers to irritation at the sense of entitlement of certain privileged bloggers who get piles of free books. My feeling is that it's the publisher's right to decide how they pitch to book bloggers, and if William Morrow's approach blows up in their face they'll eventually change it.

More interesting to me is the spotlight it puts on waste in the current system. It's a topic that's been on my mind lately, since the landfill tax in the UK is due to hit £64 per tonne in April 2012. Although unwanted books rarely end up in landfill a lot of the packaging they come in does. They're also heavy to transport, so sending lots of them around the country clearly isn't green.

The Extent Of The Problem

I don't know if I'm a typical book blogger, if such a beast exists, but this is my situation. I'll have read and reviewed about 80 or 90 books in 2011. Of these, only about 40 will be the current releases publishers love bloggers to cover, and the rest will be older works I just had to read. So far publishers have been pretty good about sending me on-topic books, and for my part I usually manage to review them within 3 months. But I have a backlog, of course.

The problem is, reading more doesn't actually clear this backlog, because I have this pesky habit of reviewing everything I read. And every time I post a new review it attracts more readers, and the more traffic this website gets the more publishers are inclined to send me stuff.

I'm no Harriet Klausner, I like to spend a certain amount of time thinking about each book, so I don't envision ever reading more than about 100 per year no matter what. At the moment I'm in the fortunate situation of getting only slightly more books than I can handle; but I would only have to get added to two or three more mailing lists for things to get out of hand.

Now you might think this is no big deal, a few books here and there, right? But consider that I'm just one book blogger amongst a tide of reviewers industry-wide, and I'm pretty strict in the first place about who I'll accept review copies from. NetGalley, a popular website for book bloggers to join and request review copies from publishers, had over 20000 users in March 2011. About half of these were reviewers (the rest are librarians, booksellers,people in the media, and teachers). I grant you, not all reviewers use NetGalley, and not everyone who signs up and calls themselves a reviewer is one. But even if these people wouldn't all necessarily qualify for the usual publishers' mailing lists, that number gives some idea of how many are involved in this activity.


Ebooks should be the perfect solution: no more expensive transport costs, no books lying around unread, and therefore no waste. The theory is sound, and I'd like to move all my reading to ebooks, but in practice I don't. Why not?

First and foremost, it's harder to ignore a physical book. Once it's in my house it has an urgency that ebooks don't because I'm obsessive about mess. If I don't deal with it at once my TBR pile will grow and grow like some mutant paper swamp-thing, sucking all the oxygen out of the room and leaving me with nowhere to shake my zumba wiggle. At least once I've read a book I can file it under "keep" or "Oxfam" as I see fit. That's why I tend to give physical review copies priority over electronic ones.

When it comes to ebooks NetGalley is the biggest and most varied source, but I don't use it all that often. Publishers pay a fee to use it, and they must also pay to have their books converted into ebooks if they're not already doing so, so it's not a no-cost option for them. It's a pretty slick system, on the whole: bloggers who sign up and create a profile can browse their catalogues by genre, publisher or imprint and then request books to download. Publishers have to approve these downloads, so if you're there to get free books without having a decent audience to read your reviews or a track record of writing them on time, you'll be out of luck. Then when you're done you post the results for publishers to read.

The reason I don't go to NetGalley often is the timed DRM. Most books come with a 60 day deadline, which can sometimes kick in well before the actual release date of the book. I can understand the reason for this: there are freeloaders, and publishers are not in the business of giving out free copies to people who won't write about the book in good time. But it means I have to plan my reading quite carefully, and I don't like feeling pressured, so I've been using this less and less.

One publisher who do advance copies of ebooks right is Angry Robot, with their Robot Army system. It's similar to NetGalley in that you have to be pre-approved to join, but once in there are no time limits on the books you download. This means I can go back and reference the books I've already read, which is useful when I want to review a series or compile a book quiz. When a book auto-destructs that's not possible.

So why aren't more publishers as progressive and switched-on as Angry Robot? I suppose it's because building and maintaining such a system costs money, and it may have disadvantages. There might still be some Luddite homespun-clad reviewers compiling their reviews with quill and ink on scrolls of parchment who still insist on physical copies, for instance. And as I said before, I tend to give physical copies priority and perhaps my approach is typical.


As long as sending out physical copies of books works publishers will keep doing it. And so long as it pays to send out unsolicited books on the off-chance they'll get a review somewhere important, or to send out piles of books on the off-chance a fraction of them will get detailed coverage, publishers will do this too. Successful imprints do what works or they don't stay successful. That's not to say they work perfectly all the time: there's lots of inefficiency as people move jobs and mailing lists circulate and get lost, so books can get accidentally mailed out twice or bloggers get mis-categorised.

Crucially, though, publishing works this way because we bloggers allow it to, and it's in our hands to insist on a less wasteful way forward. How? We can start by being stingy about giving out our mailing addresses. It's very tempting to accept lots of books, particularly for anyone starting out as a blogger because it's flattering to be offered. If that sounds like you, resist. Figure out how many books you read every month, and don't be greedy by accepting more than you know you'll get through.

But by far the greenest option is moving to ebooks rather than physical copies, because waste is inevitable and a few wasted downloads is never going to be a big deal. For my part I'll be making more of an effort to give ebooks and physical copies equal priority.

Ultimately reading should be about the appeal of the stories and not the format they're available in. That's all very well and good in a fantasy land where books thrive on their merit alone and we're not swayed by publishers with deep pockets and scattershot marketing plans, but it's not the real world. We need a better system for connecting books with book bloggers and therefore with readers, and we're not there yet.

© Ros Jackson