Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Business of Publishing and Blogs

Yes, I wish this blog made money (beyond the token amount via Amazon Affiliates, see sidebar). But do I want checks coming in from publishers and publicists?

While I know some people prefer to believe that artists (including writers) live on air and that the acceptable way of doing business is the hobby model (i.e., having a full time non-writing/art/music job to pay bills OR being married/ supported by someone who pays the bills), I do not. But how does that fit in with something that IS a hobby to begin with, like blogging?

I think it's perfectly fine, if not downright admirable, for the writer to think of things like hard numbers (see, for example, John Green's musings on the advance/royalty structures). At the same time, I understand that not everyone is a self-promoter or marketer, either from temperament, interest, or time (see Lara Zeises's recent comments about this business end of writing). When I say, "think business," I don't mean, "ignore quality." I wonder about book reviews in mainstream media and professional journals; and when I see the thriving online book reader community, I wonder why the media hasn't done more to tap into that.

Anyway, that's quite the wordy introduction to this interesting post I read at KidzBookBuzz (via the Kidlitosphere Carnival at Melissa Wiley's blog) which links to hard numbers. And which ultimately asks, "Why should PW be allowed to sell advertising space to publishers while bloggers are looked down upon for doing the same thing? Why should bloggers be accused of lying in their reviews if they sell advertising to publishers?"

Before I get to the real question, something that needs to be remembered is that when it comes to numbers, they can be manipulated. Also, a lot of book readers don't read blogs. I just spent a lovely day with various family members who are readers and the only blog readers amongst them? Yours truly. So yes, some people do; but a lot of people don't. It's the rare "real life" person I meet who is a blog reader.

Would I love to get paid for blogging? Hell yes. Should that money be paid by an author, publisher or publicist? Hell no.

Argue amongst yourselves in my comments about how if you accepted a check from a publicist or publisher your individual review would still be objective and critical; I do not believe that basically becoming an employee/independent contractor of a publisher/publicist (let's be realistic, authors don't have that kind of money) would ultimately allow for a website/blog, in its entirely, to remain objective, critical, and uninfluenced by the publisher. Now, if a publisher sought to add paid bloggers to its own in-house blog? In a way, like SLJ has? Now, that is a different story. But for right now, let's keep the discussion at the local, self-owned blog, not an industry blog. (And for the record: if you are an industry blog, please be transparent about it. Flux, Scholastic, are all crystal clear that they are industry blogs.)

Have my readers pay? Sure! (Not sure what would be a good model for that). But it would be like magazine subscriptions. Ah ha, you say! What about magazine advertisers! They pay for advertising, why can't a blog have a publisher pay for a banner ad?

Because that magazine has separate divisions handling those different areas. The person with the "selling ad space" hat does not wear the "what books get reviewed" hat. So, if I turned my blog into an online magazine (with appropriate start up investors to cover all the costs, email me if you're interested!), and I had enough staff to have those separate divisions, then I could do it. But *I* wouldn't be doing it; Tea Cozy Inc. would be. Or, if we're doing a start up, to attract more investors, it would probably be more than one blogger involved in this online book magazine. We can discuss the actual name later. And that difference IS important; is critical; is, and I know some bloggers hate this word -- ethical.

And before you say, "I wouldn't lie just because a publisher paid for a banner ad".

Really? Neither would I.

So let's not talk giving a great review for a book the blogger hated. Let's take "lie" off the table completely.

Ask instead, how would that ad impact how many of that publisher's books are reviewed or mentioned at all, since any exposure is good? Would that publisher now be disproportionately represented on the blog? What is the business model for ensuring that doesn't happen? How often would that publisher's authors be highlighted, as opposed to others? Again, what is the model for making sure that the blog doesn't just happen to mention the banner payer's authors more than other authors? Let's take books that are only "liked". As an independent blogger, the blogger may or may not blog these reviews based on a number of factors. Did one of those factors to push to post that liked-it review just become the banner ad?

And when you're used to that paycheck coming in, and the publisher decides not to buy the ad anymore, because they've decided it's not a good business decision, what then? We're all so quick to judge (yours truly included!) when there are rumors about publishers and who they send ARCS to and why. Now ARCS (which have no real independent value) are off the table. Instead it's money. In the business world, publishers pull ads all the time because they don't like the content of a TV show. Just as an advertiser can rightly cut his advertising on a show they don't like because of the sexual content (Swingtown), a publisher with ads could base their decision not to do more on, well, just about anything. And the blogger is left to then either say, "don't give me the money" or to change their blog to preserve their cash flow. And again -- this isn't about what is said in a review. It's about the entire philosophy and mission of the blog.

Here's the hard reality about blogging. It's a hobby. And like any hobby, whether its fanfiction or scrapbooking, it means putting in time without a paycheck.

Writing can be done to make money. And using your writing on a blog can be a basis to find ways to make money. There is the obvious, get a book published based on the blog, which Sophie and I did. Get your blog picked up by a site that pays for your blogging. Write articles for magazines.

But getting a check from a publicist or publisher? Sorry. Yes, I will judge how it impacts impartiality and independence.

Note: For right now, for the sake of argument, let's take paid blog tours off the table of conversation. While readers know I'm not entirely comfortable with this model, independent blog tour arrangers act like a buffer between the blogger and the author/publicist/publisher, so it removes some of that pressure, intentional or unintended, about what appears on the blog. Also, based on all I've seen, most bloggers are transparent about the tour, so the end reader is aware of why that author/book was selected by the blogger. And (again based solely on my reading) the participants don't promise glowing reviews; what they promise is a mention (with mention defined in various ways depending on the tour). So all of the above? Is NOT talking about the paid blog tour model. It IS talking about, "you wrote a review, here's a check" or "here's $$$$ for a banner ad." But I'm not talking about things like Google Ads, just because I don't quite understand them so cannot rant about them and, like the blog tour organizer is a "buffer" so the blogger isn't involved in direct business soliciations, so, too, is the Google Ad participant not directly soliciting adverstisements.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Melissa said...

Interesting thoughts, Liz. And I think you're spot-on: as much as we all would like to make money blogging, it's unethical to do so from publishers and publicists. The reader subscription idea is intriguing, though it probably wouldn't work in this economy.

Unknown said...

Great post, Liz, and it really gets to the heart of the problem: the lack of the "wall" between sales and editorial for bloggers. But I think it's important to recognize that not all bloggers are doing this as a hobby; there are some who treat it as a business. (And there are even bloggers making big money - but not in the children's book genre, as far as I know. Primarily business and tech bloggers.)

I think that things like Google ads and the other ad networks can help with the situation, because they do act as a buffer. The blogger doesn't deal directly with the advertiser, and isn't any more likely to be influenced by an ad than, say, a reviewer for SLJ would be influenced by ads in the magazine. Most book bloggers aren't going to make enough money from advertising, though, to make a living at it. You might get a nice dinner out each month if you're lucky.

Oh, and there is a way that bloggers can sell subscriptions. Any blogger can make your blog available on the Kindle by going to But I don't think that most bloggers are going to make much money doing that, either.

Liz B said...

Sheila, I'm not going to comment on the world beyond book blogging. And obviously, say, for an author, there may be a money reason for blogging (indirectly, increased exposure, for example). But if someone is looking at the big money maker blogs and thinking "me too" they should then think about blogging in areas where that money is.

I thought of another way to make money via book blogging which I didn't mention; doing workshops/ training/ consultant type stuff based on the blog, but not directly being paid for blog content.

Some of it really depends on the link between blog content and what the advertisers do; my post is, as I said, thinking in terms of the publishers paying the blogger or a publicist paying a blogger to write a review. A bit different if you're, say, a gossip blogger where you post gossip and the ad from clothing store (just an example) has nothing to do with the real content. Or if you're a blog that when you pull up their "about" section they list a series of staff members, so do have that "wall."

MotherReader said...

"Because that magazine has separate divisions handling those different areas. The person with the "selling ad space" hat does not wear the "what books get reviewed" hat."

IMHO, this is the most important sentence in your whole post - the one I want to shout from the rooftops and/or Twitter daily. It is the heart of the whole problem, and people don't seem to get it.

I also agree with your premise that people can't look at blogs as a way to make money in this business sense. Being an Amazon Associate helps takes the sting off, but certainly doesn't pay for blogging as a job.

If you want it to make money, you focus on it getting picked up as a book, or getting picked up as a paid blogger for a professional site, or turning your practice and track record to apply for positions doing reviews for PW or such. You can think of it as a way to improve your writing, preparing you for other ventures. But direct advertising and certainly direct pay-per-post is not going to work.

We're seeing some of the fallout in the mommy bloggers and need to take heed.

Amy said...

As much as I'd like to think that I could make money on my blog, I suspect I will continue to pour money into it. :)

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

Okay, honestly, I'm probably in the minority here. I'm in the middle of revamping my layout so I can start selling paid banner/advertising spots. If a publisher/author wants to purchase advertising in my sidebar then great, I don't see what's wrong with it. Blogging is a hobby - an expensive, time consuming hobby - and I wouldn't mind gaining a little something in return. I don't see what's wrong with sidebar ads.

Lexie said...

Honestly I've never expected or even thought about being paid. sign me up!

joking joking

When I first started blogging someone told me that I wouldn't be paid. I said 'so what?' and they laughed.

Blogging to me is just like telling my RL friends about books. Do I expect the publishers to pay me every time I tell my friend Melissa--This book is FAB-OH pick it up now!-- hell no! If publishers paid out for that they'd be out of business before the end of a week.

On one of the bigger review sites I'm part of, I know that the webmistress sells ad space to the publishers. But our review pool is about a dozen different people and we don't get the money. The money goes straight into the 'keeping the website alive' fund or to ship us our review books or to ship out the contest prize books.

In that instance it works because its a whole group of people reviewing a boatload of different books by different publishers. Our reviews are based upon what we receive--if we receive more Dorchesters then Berkleys in a month, well we'll be posting more Dorchester reviews b/c we have more, not because they gave us dinero.

For an individual blogger (or for only a few), I think its too risky that someone will begin wondering if your integrity and honor as a reviewer has been compromised so its not worth the risk to me.

Susan said...

Interesting post. I am glad to get some perspective on this. We have considered Google ads or the like for the same reason mentioned here--that we are one step removed from what happens. I have seen people making money from the consulting/workshop angle, which is think is tied to another point you mention, that of exposure. I don't plan to make a living off my blog, but I do hope that it helps in other areas of my professional life...

PV Lundqvist said...

Ethical or not, shilling for someone's work you don't believe in will come through. In your words, or the disconnect your audience has with the book.

Integrity has no compensation except itself.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I am coming in terribly late on this because I'm behind on my blog reading. But I have to say that as a reader, I am sort of turned off by blog ads. And I know I shouldn't be, on the one hand, because I know the amount of time that goes into a good blog. But on the other hand, it raises all kinds of squicky issues, as mentioned, about the divide between editorial and sales. And reading for the love of books rather than a job. I read blogs alongside journals BECAUSE the blogs are unpaid, unaligned, unbiased sources that are more informal and owe no allegiance to anyone. They review the books they do because they love it. Ads just seem to make them . . . well, unless they are intensely professional, in which case I think of them as just another online journal. But for the most part? I'd rather not.

Cheryl Vanatti said...

I'm late too... with over 1,000 unread feeds! I got directed here from Jen Robinson's newsletter...

Anyway, I'm in the minority with Natasha @ Maw Books. I don't believe ads have to compromise the integrity of the review. I probably wouldn't (personally) take ads from specific publishers, but I might take ads for reading/educational programs, other reading websites, products of interest to parents or teachers ( my target readers), etc...

I did manage to do what Mother Reader said and get a paid gig on (National Reading Examiner), but that's not nearly as fun as my own little personalized spot.

Is this a topic for Kidlit Con? Sounds like a good one, if not.

Liz B said...

Part of the issue isn't about the content of the review of the book; i.e., the issue of whether someone would "tell the truth" about the book. Let's put that aside for now.

Instead, it can be about how many books by that publisher end up getting mentioned. With some believing that any mention of a book can add to the buzz (good, bad, or just a title with publisher content), the question does arise as to how many books of the advertising publisher gets these mentions versus non advertised publishers? How many get link love? Are there more contests of that publisher's books? There are issues beyond the actual content of the post about that book.

Perhaps a long time reader of a blog may be astute enough to notice that and judge and reach a decision, but what about the occasional reader?

And so I do think there is a difference in who is involved (ie a website with separate editorial and advertising functions) and what is being advertised. If a blog reviews books, there are advertising revenue sources that wouldn't impact the editorial choices of the content of the traditional one person no staff blog. For example, bookshelves. Stationary. Things a book lover may like.