Bloggers and book hauls: 12 case studies

Things have been a little quiet on the blog, while I’m working on a new series focusing on #bookbigotry. But in the middle of preparing those posts, I got a little bit sidetracked – looking into the phenomenon of book hauls.

Kelly’s post on Stacked Books close to a decade ago seems to have been one of the first to draw attention to ‘book haul’ videos wherein some bloggers brag about the sheer volume of books they’ve picked up at conferences.

Now, I can hardly blame anyone for being excited about getting books! I love collecting books as much as the next person. But what appears to upset many in the industry – authors, publishers and publicists, not to mention other reviewers and librarians who ultimately miss out when all the copies are scooped up by a select few – is that some people are apparently walking away with great swags of books without any interest in evaluating or promoting the books received – and maybe not even reading them.

Now, as I’ll detail in an upcoming post, I do not believe anyone should feel obligated to review a book, full stop. Even if they have promised to do so. Some books simply aren’t a good fit for some people, and that’s okay.

But all this got me thinking – how many books is too many? To accept for review, or to take from a conference, I mean. (I’m certainly not proposing a limit on the number of books in your own personal collection!) And, have things changed in recent years? So, I put on my researcher’s cap, and did some digging.

Now, some of you may know that before I left my job to write novels and travel the world, I worked as a linguist – that is, a researcher of language – specialising in online communication. Since becoming interested in indie publishing, I’ve shared a couple of analyses on this blog – case studies of a dozen bestselling authors’ social media use, and case studies of a dozen indie authors’ social media use.

A decade of book hauls

In the years since Kelly’s post, despite some conferences putting into place measures like charging bloggers to attend or restricting the attendance of non-industry professionals to a single day, things don’t appear to have changed significantly.

A search on YouTube for the name of the conference Kelly attended plus ‘book haul’ offers up videos with titles such as ‘ALA Book Haul 50+ books’ or ‘ALA Book Haul (80+ books)’ or even ‘ALA ARC Haul 100+ books’.

I even saw one video ‘featuring’ 120+ books. That’s ten times more books than most American adults will read in a year.

On the first page of YouTube results, there were twelve videos. So, just like in my previous posts focusing on publishing and social media, I decided to see what these dozen case studies could tell us about book hauls and book blogging (or vlogging/booktubing) in 2020.

Big on numbers

The vast majority of videos (9/12) mentioned the number of books in their haul in the title or description. Nothing about the type, eg. genre, target audience, etc. Just the volume.

As Kelly characterised the video she watched back in 2012, for a book hauler, often, it doesn’t seem to matter what the book is, ‘just that it’s a book and it’s there and it’s free’.

Yet, of those nine videos that mentioned a number, only one of them was exact. The rest were ‘50+’ or ‘100+’ or even ‘120+’ – suggesting that even the video makers weren’t exactly sure how many books they’d nabbed!

Of the three videos that didn’t mention a number, two of them nonetheless used words to describe the magnitude of their hauls – ‘huge’ and ‘so many’!

Short on time

With so many books to go through, how much time did these vloggers have to devote to each?

In most cases, under a minute. Only one – the vlogger who had actually counted how many books they’d gathered – devoted just over a minute to each book (61 seconds to be precise – and that’s of course assuming that there was no introduction or closing, no coughs or ums and ahs, no interruptions or off-topic comments).

A few – three – spent around half a minute on each book, ranging from 32 to 37 seconds.

But more than half spent 30 seconds or less on each book they picked up – the shortest being less than 25 seconds per book (unsurprisingly, the video with 120+ books).

But here’s the surprise twist:

I cynically assumed that the more books in a haul, the more views it would receive.

Nope. Number of books in a video didn’t seem to be correlated with how many views it got at all.

Numbers don’t matter

The video featuring the most books was only the third-most viewed, with around a fifth as many views as the most popular.

The video featuring the second highest number of books was actually the least viewed of the lot. And the three videos that didn’t mention how many books they got were scattered throughout the rankings, coming in at 4th, 10th, and 11th places respectively.

Spending time talking about books does

Which videos attracted the most views, then? The clear winner was the one which specified the number of books they’d received (56). In second place was a video with ‘50+’ books. In other words, two of the videos with the fewest books got the most views.

These two videos spent significantly longer than average discussing each book. While the average video devoted just 33 seconds to each book, the top two videos spent 61 seconds and 37 seconds per book respectively.

Even more encouragingly, the most liked videos were also those which devoted more time to each book.

And the least liked? The video with over 100 books received just 30 likes compared to the 745 likes of the video with half as many books, and had the lowest ratio of likes to dislikes (a still admirable 96% approval rating though).

The same is true of viewer engagement, as measured by comments. The video with the most books received 37 comments, while the most popular video received more than double (75 comments at time of writing). And these videos didn’t just differ quantitatively in terms of their engagement, but qualitatively, too.

Comments on the video with the most books tended to focus on gleeful guessing about how many books the vlogger would get, questions about how she’d managed to carry them all, and comments on her appearance.

Comments on the most popular video emphasised what a great synopsis the vlogger gave of the event. Readers commented on books they’d already read and thought she would most enjoy from the haul. They shared quotes, talked about their favourite characters from the series featured, and mentioned which books they’d added to their TBR lists after watching the video.

In conclusion: randomly accepting books isn’t just annoying for those who miss out. Surprisingly, it doesn’t appear to actually help reviewers appeal to their audiences, either.

So, to return to our original question, how much is too much? How many books can someone take from a conference, or accept from authors or publishers, before we draw a line and say ‘now, that’s just greedy!’?

I don’t think there is a specific number.

As I noted above, when we see ‘book hauls’ of 120+ books, in a context in which the average American adult will read only 12 books in a year, it’s easy to say ‘well, that’s too much’.

But the fact is, some people do read that many books. Last year, my own Goodreads Challenge was 100 books, and I’m sure there were some I forgot to add to that total.

In fact, the only reason the average sits around 12 is because some people read many times this amount. Hundreds of books.

The crucial concept here is good faith.

When authors and publishers offer free books – electronic or hardcopy, they’re doing so in the hopes that those who accept them will be interested in them, and may decide to review them. Whizzing around conferences, picking up any book without regard for its cover, title, blurb, or author, and making videos that focus on the sheer volume of your ‘haul’ doesn’t really jibe with the spirit in which those books were offered. The same is true of collecting vast swathes of unread ARCs from indie authors.

There is nothing inherently wrong with ‘book haul’ videos. While I haven’t made one myself (in large part because I’ve never had the opportunity to attend such a conference!) I have made an unboxing video which, in many respects, is another spin on this genre.

Book haul and unboxing videos can help build anticipation for upcoming features or reviews. They’re also much quicker and more visually interesting to make than in-depth reviews, which take a lot of behind-the-scenes time, and a lot of ingenuity to make attractive. (Having been involved in various blogs and book review sites for close to a decade now, I absolutely admire those book bloggers, bookstagrammers, and booktubers who manage to keep up with the unrealistic expectations of, if not their audiences, the algorithms that determine our fates. After all, it’s nigh on impossible to produce a new, quality book review every day.)

But in the thick of it all, we can focus too much on acquisition, and not enough on the actual activity we’re supposedly all in this for: reading. The content of the books. When we focus on buying and collecting and grabbing and acquiring, everyone suffers.

This analysis of haul videos is quite limited, and there may well be bigger patterns that I’m missing here which we’d see if I took the time to analyse a bigger data set. But what we can say is that more books does not necessarily = more views. Not by a long shot. In fact, focusing on fewer books, and doing so well, appears likely to result in better reception (more views and more satisfied viewers) and better engagement (more and more relevant comments).

This is a hugely important message for everyone who loves books – book reviewers of all stripes, in both traditional and new media, readers and writers, and publishers, too. Quality discussions about books do make a difference.

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