September 9, 2009

Personal essay: Where do litbloggers find their books?

Litblogger types -- a comic
Comic originally found at the Young Adult litblog Finding Wonderland.

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Last week in a postscript for a review I wrote regarding Ian McDonald's River of Gods, I mentioned offhandedly some of the problems that come with litbloggers trying to finagle advance review copies (or ARCs) of books from publishing companies; and that prompted the following comment from a reader named Michael:

I have often thought about opening a sort-of literary website, which would have book reviews as well as other frivolity. I suppose I could just go out and buy copies of every book I would like to review but, from various other comments which you have made over the year, it seems as if occasionally the book publishers actually pursue you to read their latest. I guess my question is -- How do you go about establishing a relationship with publishing companies? How do you go about interesting them in your reviews so they'll send you other material to review? Are there big publishing houses one shouldn't even bother? Is there a character type you find to be typical among people in the publishing business?

Which of course is a whole lot of material to cover in a single comment, which is why I decided to write a whole little essay on the subject instead, for others besides Michael who might be curious about these questions as well. Because the fact is that, just like all other aspects of the arts, there are no hard and fast rules regarding issues like these, and in fact all kinds of ways exist for litbloggers to obtain more and more books to review at their blogs, some of which work better for some people and some of which work better for others. I'm happy to detail my own experiences and advice, but of course it should be kept in mind that that is all it is, subjective advice from one person only, and that what works for me may not for others and vice-versa.

But of course, there's one first rule we can start with that I feel confident in saying is going to apply to almost everyone, which is: If you're a litblogger unaffiliated with a larger publication, you better make plans now for providing the majority of the books you review yourself, or at least the majority of the big mainstream books that make the bestseller lists and are displayed on the front table at Borders and the like. And that's because the publishing industry is an old-fashioned industry, easily the most old-fashioned out of the entire arts in general, and is filled with old-fashioned people who think in old-fashioned ways -- after all, half these people still won't officially acknowledge even the existence of electronic books, and it's also these people who claim that the emergence of Creative Commons means the death of culture as we know it. And for better or for worse, these people have a very specific way in their heads that they think of the entire publishing process, a set of steps that to them will never change until the day they die -- that they are the academically trained cultural gatekeepers of our society, the ones who wade through the muck of the teeming masses to find the gems worthy of public attention, at which point such gems are shipped off to their academically trained counterparts at all the major newspapers and literary journals, to hopefully agree with them that these books and only these are the ones that the mouthbreathing public should be consuming.

In these people's eyes, the opinions of independent litbloggers are worth nothing, because if they were then they'd obviously have a job at one of the major newspapers or literary journals (and never mind that these newspapers and literary journals are rapidly going out of business these days too fast to even count); and in fact many of these people consider the opinions of litbloggers to be worth even less than nothing, in that we are the ones bastardizing the process that they grew up with and still passionately believe in, the attitude that says that only people with the right credentials and training should be allowed to critique artistic projects in the first place. These people are simply never, ever going to send you books, no matter how much you plead or how much the world changes around them; and that's why my first big piece of advice to aspiring litbloggers is to not even try to change these people's minds, but to simply make plans to bypass these people altogether. For example, I myself procure the vast majority of the mainstream books I review through the excellent Chicago Public Library system, the largest system in the US and possibly even the world (or at least, the city's downtown Harold Washington branch is officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the single largest public library on the planet, a facility I've toured before as part of the CCLaP Podcast); and in fact, given that the vast majority of us can only get through an absolute maximum of three or four books a week while still having time to write critical reviews of them all, a combination of your own local library plus personal purchases should be enough to keep just about any aspiring litblogger out there quite busy indeed. (And of course, don't forget the fantastic free online service, which is what I personally use to track all the new purchases my library makes each week, and which comes highly recommended.)

And then my second piece of advice is closely related to all this: that your chances of obtaining contemporary books gets profoundly higher, the more willing you are to embrace such things as electronic books, basement presses and self-publishers. And that's because this situation works in the opposite direction too, and that it's not just independent critics who are getting the short end of the stick these days; as I've learned the hard way with CCLaP Publishing's original books, the vast majority of traditional literary journals refuse to accept electronic books for review whatsoever, and in fact many of these places don't even consider a book "real" unless there's a physical copy they can hold in their hands. And this of course is a ridiculous notion to people like me, who believe that the true power of storytelling lies not in the paper pages holding the tale but rather the ideas that tale is getting across; but like I said, this is simply the truth of the publishing industry as it exists in 2009, and if you're the kind of person who is driven crazy quickly from old-fashioned attitudes, you need to change your focus to something like the videogame industry instead, and change it fast. By choosing to be a litblogger, you are already choosing to embrace things like the technology-aided democratization of the entire artistic process; so you owe it not only to yourself but to all those hardworking budget-challenged artists out there to embrace this attitude as much as possible, and to either get yourself a good e-ink device or simply get used to reading full-length books on your computer screen or iPhone.

But of course, everything I've talked about so far has been just the worst-case scenarios; there are of course also lots of executives in the publishing industry who understand and support the efforts of litbloggers, although admittedly you find a lot more of them at smaller presses than the larger ones. So for example, for years now I've had a great relationship with such well-established places like Akashic, Soft Skull and Manic D Press (all the way back to when I was a novelist myself in the '90s, in fact), three places that have been embracing the underground for decades now and have been amply rewarded for it; and when it comes to places like these, it can often be worth simply contacting them out of the blue, in that these presses often have more resources than others for sending out review copies to obscure bloggers in the first place. And then often, surprisingly enough (and this really has come as a legitimate surprise to me since opening CCLaP), many times it will actually be the insistence of an author on a publisher's roster that will get your foot in the door there; the reason I'm now on the regular distribution list at science-fiction press Pyr, for example, was because of author David Louis Edelman liking my unsolicited review of his literary debut Infoquake, and wanting to make sure I got a copy of its sequel MultiReal as well (which I did), while the reason I now get regular releases from alt-horror outfit Raw Dog Screaming Press was because of making a fan of one of the higher-profile writers in their catalog, the exquisitely disgusting Jeremy Shipp.

And all this of course leads me to my third general piece of advice: that if you're an independent litblogger with not a lot of traditional resources at your disposal, it's of crucial importance to simply get your writing out to as big an audience as possible, however it is that you can find a way to do that. For example, I repost the entirety of every CCLaP book review I write over at three different literary social networks as well -- Shelfari, LibraryThing and Goodreads -- which far from sucking away audience members from the main CCLaP website (a common fear among litbloggers, which is why so few litbloggers do this), actually generates new visitors nearly every single day, people who click over out of curiosity and then stay for all the things not reprinted at these literary social networks (like CCLaP's photo of the day, movie reviews, etc). And doing such a thing has a side benefit as well, which is that all of these places (plus of course the 800-pound gorilla of user-generated book reviews, have partnered up with publishers to hand out hundreds and hundreds of free books to their members every single month, a process that I can assure you from personal experience is not that difficult at all, and is yet another fantastic way to get contemporary books in your hands that you might not otherwise ever come across on your own. And of course it never hurts to occasionally share your essays for free with other publications, and more often than not will in the long run work out in your favor; for example, once every few months I will donate one of my reviews to Daniel Casey's Gently Read Literature, a much more popular litblog than mine, which will produce a huge spike in new readers every time it happens. (In fact, I've got another one coming up later this winter, a reprint of my hackjob review of Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps.) Although I technically don't get paid for such reprints, the endeavor is highly worth it just for the amount of exposure to a new audience that such opportunities provide.

And all this is also related to another piece of advice I have, which is to try to make your reviews as unique as possible, or at the very least find some "hook" that makes your essays stand out from the thousands of other litbloggers who are now out there. My hook, for example, is to do extra-long and extra-analytical essays of all the books I review, which admittedly drives off some readers but makes the ones who stick around even bigger fans than normal; other litbloggers concentrate on certain types of books or certain genres, while others pair their reviews with actual interviews with those authors, while others make a concentrated effort to attend as many physical get-togethers as they can, things like book conventions and literary festivals. Like it or not, it's simply one of the things that comes with this new decentralized age of the arts we are rapidly moving into; that when you remove the idea of there being an elite number of official gatekeepers with an all-powerful control over the arts in general, you're left with a fractured, endless number of critics who all vaguely seem alike in the eyes of an overwhelmed public. The more you can do to differentiate yourself from all these other vaguely similar litbloggers, the more your reviews will stand out among authors and industry executives in the first place, and the easier it will be to obtain yet more books to keep the process going.

Anyway, I hope all this has been of some help to all you aspiring litbloggers out there; and of course, I and all of CCLaP's readers would love to hear of your own success stories and advice, which I highly encourage you to leave as a comment either here or at my Facebook account. In this age of ours where anyone who wants is allowed to become a critic, I encourage all of you with an interest to try your hand at it yourself; if nothing else, such an endeavor absolutely gives you a bigger and more profound respect for writing in general, and I guarantee will make you at least a better reader and a better fan.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:27 PM, September 9, 2009. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP news | Literature |