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Several controversies brewed around the lit blogosphere this past week and I started to see a larger connection that bugged me a lot. Let me know what you think.

First, Betsy had an indepth post yesterday on the Amazon VINE program. Essentially, Amazon receives ARCs from publishers and makes them available to a group of select reviewers, all of whom belong to the VINE program. They request the books they want to review from a prepared list and then are required to post reviews about them at Amazon (positive, negative, whatever but they have to review). The VINE reviews receive precedence on the page - they appear front and center while regular customer reviews will show up on the sidebar or behind the "read more" cut. Betsy raised some concerns about the whole program and process but the comments quickly devolved into "you're just jealous", and "I'm as good a reviewer as anyone else" and the ever popular "I'm just a mom and not a professional reviewer but busy parents can't read a professional review so mine is a good option".

Pause for brief rant:

Pretty much every ARC has a paper inside (or even a message printed on the book itself) which is addressed "Dear Reviewer". It is not sent to "Dear Stay-at-home-mom" or "Dear College Student" or "Dear Person who reads a lot". It is PR copy from the publisher and sent to a REVIEWER. If you receive an ARC from a publisher - whether sent to you direct or via Amazon - for the express purpose of reviewing said book THEN YOU ARE A REVIEWER. And if you are willing to accept the responsibility of writing an honest review of a book in a public place with the express purpose of swaying public opinion (i.e. letting folks know that you did or did not like it) then you should be doing this in the most professional manner possible. Suck it up and stop saying you just have a hobby. This isn't calling your mom and telling her you liked a book it is purposely writing something for thousands of people to see. Even if you aren't paid in cash, you are a professional reviewer, period.

End brief rant.

It should be noted that publishers send multiple copies of these books to Amazon for inclusion in the VINE program. (I can't help but think that money must change hands here - similar to funds paid to chain bookstores to get on the front tables.) Amazon then compiles the list for the VINE recipients to consider and review for Amazon's web site. Several commenters at Betsy's noted there were more than 250 books on the list - which I think is supposed to make everyone feel better but on the grand scale of books published each year it's a drop in the bucket. For a lot more on this though you need to read the comments to Betsy's post (50+ as I write this) and see how strongly folks feel about participating in it.

Moving on, the Walmart/Amazon book pricing war expanded to include Target last week as all three went after maximum sales and negative profit for ten big books over the holiday season. (Sears also jumped in offering store credit if you bought the books there.) Walmart started it, Amazon matched it and then a big tit for tat ensued with all three going lower and lower until we are looking at online presale figures of $8.99 for Sarah Palin's memoir, among others. Independents immediately saw this as a threat and possibly price fixing to boot and have asked the DOJ to look into it. For me what's problematic is that suddenly there are ten books - just ten - that everyone can get mighty cheap this year. These aren't books by unknowns either - it's Palin and Crichton and Grisham, etc. Big names. None of these sellers chose more obscure possibly breakout titles to push. They went with ones that were going to sell like gangbusters anyway trying to suck those customers in their direction plus other customers who might have thought twice about $25 for Palin. And just like that we get ten big BIG books for Christmas. And we lose the walk-in sales for brick and mortar stores who might have done incidental shopping like "maybe I'll get this for cousin Sally or Uncle Joe". Everyone's getting the big ten this year and that's it. Which is going to mean pubs will try really really really hard to court Walmart and co. in the future so they can get their book on the final ten for the next promo go-round. And to hell with hand selling the smart funny quirky book that maybe 1 million readers won't want but 25,000 would be quite happy with. We'll never even see that book because the dollars are all going into attracting one surefire blaze rather than a dozen literary slow fires.

And now controversy number three.

We all remember Scholastic Book Fairs from our childhoods. Personally I've never understood why Scholastic has a monopoly on the sell in the schools business and often wondered why local bookstores weren't just invited to come in once a year with a selection of all kinds of books, but whatever. Scholastic has done this forever. So they decided to include Lauren Myracle's tween title Luv Ya Bunches from Amulet and sent her editor a list of words to change in the text and this truly killer request:

The company sent a letter to Myracle's editor asking the author to omit certain words such as "geez," "crap," "sucks," and "God" (as in, "oh my God") and to alter its plotline to include a heterosexual couple. Myracle agreed to get rid of the offensive language "with the goal—as always—of making the book as available to as many readers as possible," but the deal breaker was changing Milla's two moms.

Scholastic defended what seems to be a mighty discriminatory request with this lovely bit of corporate double speak:

"Authors are often given the opportunity to make changes in the books to meet the norms of the various communities that host the fairs," adds Kyle Good, a Scholastic spokeswoman, explaining that the title will, however, be available in the Scholastic Book Club catalog.

Yes, Kyle - blame the unnamed "communities" who might be upset. Don't go out on a limb and say it's your company making the call in the first place.

There was an eruption in the blogosphere over this one incorporating the GBLTQ and literary communities. (See two good posts at Lee Wind's and Little Willow's.) In just a couple of days an on-line petition was heating up and Scholastic suddenly had something more to say:

In an interview with School Library Journal, Scholastic stated that we are currently carrying Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle in our school book clubs. We also said we were still reviewing the book for possible inclusion in our book fairs. Having completed our review of Luv Ya Bunches, Scholastic Book Fairs will carry the title in our spring fairs for middle school.

Notice how they don't mention requesting Lauren to change her book in the first place? Nice attempt Scholastic but this is the internet century and the whole "we planned to do this all along" defense just doesn't work anymore. But good try, don't you think?

So, to recap: Amazon is highlighting certain books at publisher request, the biggest retailers in the country are pushing a small number of selected titles at exaggerated low prices and Scholastic - the only publisher to conduct book fairs in the schools - attempted to alienate the children of GBLTQ parents by pressuring an author into changing her book in exchange for the widened exposure she would receive through their fairs.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

Cheap books won't do a thing to lure more readers if it's only ten generally accepted cheap books. And all the cries of "the more reviews the better" won't persuade me to embrace a program that highlights only certain titles as preselected by the publishers and bookseller in joint discussion. And as for Scholastic - well that's just so wrong I don't even know where to begin but I will point out that this likely is not the first time they have done something like this and one can only wonder what authors did change their text to get into the fairs in the past.

I wanted to point this all out to emphasize the many small ways in which book choice is constantly under attack. It's not just banning that is a problem, in some ways that is the least of our problems because at least it is obvious. We know who to fight and when. The removal of choice in places big and small is insidious however and it's easy to lose sight of but we need to be thinking about it and doing what we can to combat it all the time. That's what we have to watch out for. As an example, next month I have a column coming out on war around the world and it has eight books including fiction and non, a graphic novel and a picture book. They are set in multiple countries with protagonists of all ages and one is an anthology from a university press. In December's winter reading column I have seven books so far with two from Coach House Books, one from Unbridled, a memoir by an African American writer and director and Laurel Snyder's sweet middle grade adventure story as well. Both were months in the making and about as diverse as it gets character-wise. Diversity is key when reviewing I think - even if you are reviewing only one type of book (say Christian fiction) you can still be very diverse within that genre.

Diversity is key in reviewing and its key in book selling and its key in publishing. That's what we need to be thinking about, those of us who love books, and that is why these controversies matter a lot more than you might think. If we are all going to embrace the notion of "independent reviewing" then we have to step back and be independent. That means publishers do not choose, retailers do not choose and book fairs are not permitted to alter text to fit their vision of choice. It means we work harder at what we do so readers can choose from the largest possible selection of books.

No one chooses for me - and I hope that rule is the same for everybody else.


comments

Yes! I mean isn't that what everyone loves about book blogging, that we all get to have our own say on whatever books we choose? But I feel like I'm always hearing retailers enforce the idea that 'too many choices confuses people and then they don't buy anything'. I don't get this, gives me 75 flavours of ice cream and I will eat one and come back for more, I won't dash off to find somewhere that only selles plain vanilla.

There are local companies that do bookfairs and do them well, but they're local, so unless you're in that area, you probably won't hear about them. I'm overseas now, so I use Scholastic book orders and have an Usborne book fair twice a year, but when I was in Fairfax County, I used a combination of Bookworm Central (http://www.bookwormcentral.com) and Scholastic (they would do subject specific, like science which was great).

I read a rather ironic thing about these price wars -- it seems some indies are now buying from Amazon... Publishing in America is fast approaching "Insane" and has now left "Ridiculous" behind.

I read Lauren Myracle's issues with Scholastic with dismay, and I'm really thinking it's about time Scholastic's reign with schools was over. It unnerves me that as an author we're so isolated and so unwilling to rock the boat. We all just want to get our work through all of those publisher-made hoops and get it to sell. How many people have made changes they didn't want for the sake of a sure sale? How many people didn't know better than to just think, "this is the way it is, I have to deal?" I very much appreciate Lauren speaking out... censorship and I dunno, MIND CONTROL? is insidious, wherever you find it and Scholastic is kind of freaking me out. They should know better. In my childhood, weren't they the purveyors of books about kids who stood up for themselves against bullies???

The Pricing War is crazy. This whole, how long can you go, makes bookselling that much harder. Customers start to get angry and don't understand why bookstores can't sell these books for that price.

I really wish I could tell customers, we don't sell flat screen T.V.'s, so we actually need to make a profit selling a book. We want to eat too.


"If we are all going to embrace the notion of "independent reviewing" then we have to step back and be independent." - love that, Colleen

I think part of being independent means giving space to not so well known authors and titles, not just bestsellers and so called hot titles.

One up note in all of this is that the "Love YA Bunches" example, like the "Liar" cover example, does show how important the voices of the independent bloggers is. I mean, ten years ago Scholastic pressures Lauren ... who does she have to tell? No way a huge petition can be raised in a couple of days.

I think that reinforces your whole point, though, Colleen. As independent reviewers, we do have the opportunity to make a difference. And it's fast reaching the point where that opportunity is becoming a responsibility. Kudos to Betsy for braving the flamers in her recent post, and raising some of these issues.

Emma Beth

I know she's your friend, but I don't see how you can say "Betsy's" post was 'in depth' when she didn't even bother to check Wikipedia to see if her impressions about the Vine Program were correct.

In any case, it's a shame conversation was cut off. I know no one person has the time to address every comment, but I think there were enough people on both sides that some sort of valid conversation could have followed.

Regards!

I've never been involved with the Vine program and I'm not in the US so we aren't getting those deep discounts here. But the last controversy I can comment on. I do like Scholastic because that might be the only way some kids buy books. But Scholastic seems to flip-flop on a lot of issues lately. They seem to not want to take a stance one way or the other on anything.

Anyway, I like to review more obscure books because I like to see a diversity in book blogging. 1000 reviews of The Lost Symbol is just boring. I just wish I'd get more commenters on those obscurer book reviews.

Emma - I don't think Betsy closed comments at her site and I know folks were still commenting. I'm sure she's reading them as they come in.

And sorry you didn't like her post - for folks unaware of VINE it was quite interesting.

And yes, Chris - do we really need more reviews of The Lost Symbol? And don't despair on the lack of comments - I know I read a lot of sites and don't have time to comment on all of them. But we do still read!!

I'd like to point out that there's nothing new about the Vine controversy. Decades ago Edna Ferber published Cimarron, another one of her big, multi-generation books. This one was set in Oklahoma.

As I remember the story, it got a nasty review in the NY Times. Ferber had never heard of the reviewer. She asked around to find out whom he was. The reviewer turned out to be a young man who worked in a midtown furniture store. His only qualification to review the book consisted of having been born in Oklahoma.

Ferber was indignant. She fired off a letter to the Times, stating that she did mind bad reviews. However, as an established writer, she felt she was entitled to a qualified reviewer, not someone off the street. The Times apologized. Ferber got a second review.

Plus ça change! Writers spend years of their lives working on books, only to see them handed off to someone's mom. I'm a professional writer. I deserve a professional viewer.

Colleen - Thanks for this one, rant and all. I agree that banning isn't the only problem, book choice is under attack in many ways. And the fact that Scholastic can request that an author change the language and content of a book just pisses me off.

All this reinforces the fact that we all need to support as many independent booksellers and presses as we can, and write reviews about books that we love. It does have an impact.

Colleen, I really appreciate your "bigger picture" look at this.

For the Amazon Vine one, I wasn't able to really get past the have my cake and eat it too responders at Fuse. Not all, but some, who want the perks of being a reviewer (ARCs, attention from publishers/authors/others, readers, etc) but who don't want any responsibility (the minute anyone mentions the "p" word, suddenly, its "i'm just an x and its just my opinion.") So, they are a "reviewer" for some stuff, but back away from it for others.

Unrelated question. Are you planning on doing another one shot where we read books on different countries in an area in the world, and blog about them on the same day?
Sorry I missed out on that last one.
Thanks.

Annie - yep, I'm sure we will although I wouldn't expect it until early next year. I'll be sure to post on it and let everyone know when its scheduled so you can join in.

Colleen -

I think you raise a good point regarding bloggers' responsibility to present a diversity of books and reviews to their readers - rather than posting yet another review about Dan Brown's recent bestseller. And I think part of the problem is that it's really hard work to find books outside of the mainstream. Personally, for me that's part of the fun. But it can be an effort to push past the books that are being shoved in our faces by the media to the shelves with the lesser known authors who should be heard as well.

So I see where the hobby bloggers come from. And I think that all those stay at home moms, etc., have a right to their blogs and their reviews. The relative ease of creating a blog is part of what is so wonderful about it and what helps to keep the blogs independent. Get rid of one, you get rid of the other. The problem as I see it is that there are so many more book review/blog hobbyists compared to those who take it seriously, so that the more "serious" bloggers (for lack of a better adjective) get lost in the haystack. I don't have a solution for that. I think places like Bookslut go a long way towards defining professionalism, but how many of those platforms exist?

Scholastic. *Sigh* I have their book fairs because they are easy, but between the fuzzy pens and poor selection of books, I may stop. Barnes and Noble will let me have a book fair-- at their store, and many of my students will never get out that far. There's no good answer to this one.

Steven

I've reviewed about 30 books for Vine, and not a single one of them has had one of those "Dear Reviewer" slips in it that you mentioned.

It's a letter that comes from the publisher, Steven, providing a summary of the book. It is sent out with most ARCs. I have no idea why Amazon Vine copies would not include them. My point, however, remains the same.

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