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 goalâ€”as alwaysâ€”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.