On Book Blogging: An Authentic Opinion is Priceless

Today’s BBAW topic is a deceptively simple question: “What does book blogging mean to you?”

Short answer: Book blogging means thoughtful, honest, and often enthusiastic opinions and discussions about books, reading, and related topics from people who love talking about them, where such talk can lead to fun, fellowship, and friendships.

That leads into a much longer answer that begins with another question:

Have you ever wondered whether the opinions expressed in a traditional-media review of anything–book, movie, gadget, restaurant–might be less-than-honest ones, because the reviewer was paid to express them? I’m pretty sure I haven’t; I’ve assumed that the evaluation is made as fairly and objectively as possible, and that the opinions will be supported with analysis and examples as appropriate. That’s the basis of critique–and the traditional reviewer’s job description, I think (and may not be an approach a non-traditional, non-paid book blogger will choose to take).

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On the other hand, maybe the explosion in “user” reviews over the last decade–and I’d include blogger reviews in there, as well as the customer reviews on assorted e-commerce sites–is an indicator that the opinions of people who aren’t paid to be “critics” in that traditional sense are perceived as being more honest; or at any rate, more authentic. In that light, the various disclosure practices used by bloggers when they receive product and/or payment for reviews–disclosures not made or expected in traditional media, where the same things happen–seem a way of asserting that “This is still my honest, real-person opinion, and I really did like this.” (Or not, but somehow the issue of payment is far less likely to come up in connection with a negative opinion…)

Liz Gumbinner of Mom-101 recently asked “When is the last time you bought a product off Amazon because of a four-star review from someone paid to write that four-star review?” Maybe you just didn’t know the reviewer was paid. As we’ve recently learned via a report in the New York Times, “real-person” opinions can indeed be bought, and there’s a significant market for positive ones. For some products–self-published books, for example–they’re essential marketing tools:

“Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online…In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique. But not just any kind of review will do. They have to be somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic.”

Jeff O’Neal at Book Riot dissected the NYT piece in a close-read, and notes that “(t)he only reason reviews matter at all is because of the implicit ‘unbiased third party’ understanding of reviews.” In that light, it’s certainly hard to see a purchased, positive review as “unbiased”–and understandably upsetting to discover that reviews you thought came from real, presumably unbiased fellow readers really might not be that after all. It’s an object lesson: disclosure matters because perceptions do, and so, even if we sometimes are annoyed and resentful that we’re expected to make those disclosures, we need to do it anyway.

Perceptions are based on what we see, and ideally, what we see is based on something genuine; integrity and credibility are hard to fake, but easy to shake. As one of Shelf Awareness’ paid reviewers, I appreciated editor Marilyn Dahl’s recent response to questions about honesty in positive reviewing (Shelf Awareness for Readers, September 4, 2012):

“We review good books, books we like, books we have discovered. Each week we publish 25 reviews of the best books just out, since we want to highlight books people will want to read. We aren’t into lambasting and snark (although it can be tempting).. 

We get galleys or ARCs, which are pre-publication editions of books. We send them to our reviewers well in advance of publication, according to the reviewers’ subject preferences. The reviewers then decide which books they will cover, based on the quality of the book (or the phases of the moon–it’s not an exact science). Sometimes I will suggest a book based on my personal inclination or on information they might not have yet, but that’s it. They are also told to be critical when warranted, as long the bottom line tips toward the positive. We sometimes have a back-and-forth about decisions, usually ending with ‘Life’s too short, move on to something else.’”

Personally, I haven’t had trouble with the “positive bottom line” in reviewing for SA, as I try not to choose books I don’t think I’ll like (and even if I misjudge that, it doesn’t mean no one else will like it). But I found it interesting that a story about paying for positive book reviews popped up in the midst of an online conversation of whether book reviews in general are overly positive, period…but that’s a topic I’ll save for tomorrow, as this post is already flirting with tl;dr territory.

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