On Book Bigotry – Part 1

Format

I first came across the concept of #bookbigotry in the writings of author and publishing guru Carolyn Howard-Johnson. She describes how people sometimes make snap judgements about a book on the basis that it is independently published – without reading the book’s description, or the author’s bio, or even looking at the cover.

Indie authors can encounter book bigotry early on in the publishing process, as soon as they start shopping their novels around for reviews. Many reviewers explicitly state that they will not consider independently published works.

Given the vast number of requests they are inundated with, it’s understandable reviewers want to narrow down the herd. A ‘no indies’ requirement appears to be a simple and effective hurdle for reviewers to put in place in order to stem the flow of requests. A way of using traditional publishers as gatekeepers.

But of course, not all traditionally published books are high quality and well-produced, and not all independently published books are error-riddled dross. I’ve written before about how traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers they once (supposedly) were.

Judging a book by how it is produced rather than on the basis of its actual content results in some excellent books going unnoticed, and some poorly written and edited ones receiving far more attention.

What is book bigotry?

Broadly defined, book bigotry is the act of judging a book based not on its own merits, but on its form of publication. The most obvious distinction is the one Howard-Johnson writes about: the line between independently published and so-called ‘professionally’ published books.

But the publication of my own debut novel Number Eight Crispy Chicken has opened my eyes to a number of other, often more subtle, shades of prejudice in publishing.

Readers, reviewers, publishing professionals, and fellow writers also show prejudices – consciously or unconsciously, for or against books – depending on:

  • Format (e.g. physical vs. ebooks)
  • Platform (e.g. Amazon vs. ‘the rest’)
  • Location (e.g. US vs. ‘international’)

These factors are interrelated, but let’s take a look at these one-by-one, starting with Format.

Blogging has become an immensely visual activity, fueled in part by platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram, and book blogging is no exception. Many of the most successful ‘bookstagram’ accounts focus more on celebrating the beauty of books than on their contents. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Who doesn’t enjoy gawking at pretty books every now and then?!

But sometimes, our obsession with the visual can leave indie authors at a disadvantage.

When your book is published by a big publisher, review copies come at zero cost to the author. The publisher takes care of these expenses for you.

In my previous job as an academic, when I published books with academic and university presses, big or small, I merely had to provide the names and addresses of some potential reviewers. My wonderful publishers ensured a copy made its way to them in the mail. Often times, they even did this research for me.

Indie authors, however, must pay both for the books, and for the shipping.

And that cost can add up. Big time.

Especially if you’re located outside of the US.

This may be pretty surprising for book reviewers. After all, books are cheap! Especially author copies or ARCs (since Amazon kindly doesn’t take its usual cut). Authors can simply purchase a number of copies, then distribute them to book bloggers. Right?

… Well, not so much.

Take Number Eight Crispy Chicken as an example. Its printed edition has 230 pages, and comes in at a cost of $3.63 to print – before Amazon takes its cut, and without me making a single cent.

That’s not so bad.

To launch with say, ten reviews of a book like that, you could just send out ten copies, at a cost of $36.30. Not exactly cheap, but certainly within reach of most writers.

… Except, it doesn’t quite work like that.

Life gets in the way. People agree to review books, and then forget or get busy. Books get buried in a seemingly never-ending to-read list, or they get lost in the mail.

On average, my research suggests, authors can expect one-third of those who agree to review their books to actually do so.

Which means that, in order to get ten reviews, it would be necessary to send out not $36.30 worth of books, but three times that amount – $108.90.

And that’s before we factor in shipping.

For me to get my own author copy delivered to Australia cost almost $50.

The book was $3.63, shipping cost $29.99, which is $33.62 USD, or converted to AUD, worked out to $48.86.

And it’s worse now that the recent Coronavirus-related economic upheaval has resulted in many currencies around the globe, including the Australian dollar, plunging, while the US dollar inexplicably remains high. $33.62 USD would, at time of writing, cost me $56.07 in AUD.

Even worse, Australians, on average, earn less and have lower purchasing power than do most US citizens. Which means that $56 feels more like $66.

For a single book.

To buy a bunch of books in bulk (to make the postage worthwhile) and then have to ship them out to reviewers would be prohibitively expensive.

As much as I would love to do so, I simply cannot afford it. And I suspect most indies – especially so-called ‘international’ indies who don’t live in the US – can’t either.

There are many reasons reviewers might prefer physical copies. Some don’t have ereaders, and find reading on a phone or computer screen uncomfortable, or eye-strain inducing. Some may find their engagement is significantly less without a pretty picture of the book to share. And some may just like collecting books!

But a policy of accepting only physical copies means that even reviewers who are open to indie authors may end up inadvertently favouring those with traditional publishing contracts.

What can we do about this?

If you’re an indie author, respect submission guidelines, even if you don’t agree with them. If a reader or reviewer says they don’t accept indie books or ebooks, that is absolutely their prerogative. Reviewers are, generally speaking, kindhearted individuals who give up their free time to perform a valuable service for other readers. No author has the right to have their book reviewed, nor do any of us have the right to tell others what they should be doing with their free time.

If you’re a book reviewer, you might like to consider whether your guidelines are achieving what you intend them to. Instead of ruling out indie submissions, could you narrow down the pool of choices by being more specific about the type of books you’re interested in, for example? And if you’re still hesitant to review independently published books, perhaps you could start by opening up slowly – accepting submissions from indies who have already received favourable reviews on this or a previous book, for example.

Additionally, indie authors and book reviewers can work together to overcome the prohibitive costs of mailing out physical ARCs.

Lack of e-reader

Ebooks are certainly popular. Amazon Prime has more than 150 million members with access to Prime Reading, and its Kindle Unlimited subscription service is estimated to have another 3 million subscribers. Exact sales figures are a closely guarded secret, but Amazon’s Kindle dominates the market, accounting for around half or more of all e-reader device sales, and more recent reports suggest that the platform sells hundreds of millions of Kindle books each year. Although Pew reported over 5 years ago that half of American adults owned a tablet or e-reader, not everyone does.

For those reviewers without e-readers the best authors can do, short of mailing out physical copies, is to make our books available in multiple formats. I myself have an e-reader, but not an Amazon one (something I’ll address in an upcoming post in this series). Nor am I eligible to join many of the programs Amazon offers its US-based customers. This has led to me having to turn down some review requests from fellow authors who don’t provide other methods of accessing their work. Providing ARCs in multiple formats (including, for example, PDF) means that anyone can access them provided they have a computer or a phone.

Pretty pictures

I first entered the blogging world close to a decade ago, when it was perfectly possible to post a review of a book with nothing other than an image of the front cover. More visual mediums like YouTube and Pinterest have changed all that. The pressure on bloggers is immense. Now, it seems the ability to create a ‘pinnable’ image is just as – if not more – important than writing good content. And it’s not just book blogging. The same is true of baking, writing advice, household repairs, you name it. Instagram, too, privileges pretty pictures over wordy content, resulting in a number of wildly popular ‘bookstagram’ accounts posting an endless stream of pretty covers almost always captioned ‘I haven’t actually read this one yet…’

For those reviewers under pressure to produce pretty pictures, I have a simple idea: authors can help shoulder some of the burden. I’ve produced an archive of photographs of my book Number Eight Crispy Chicken in relevant locations which are free for book bloggers and bookstagrammers and reviewers to use as they wish. Several have happily taken me up on the offer. Only one reviewer rejected the offer, and that’s okay.

Naturally, there are many reasons legitimate book reviewers may prefer to supply their own photographs. But that particular bookstagrammer’s response to my review request made me realise they’re probably more interested in visuals or scoring a free book to stick on their shelves than they were in actually reviewing my book.

Collecting books

Finally, some ‘reviewers’ (perhaps like the one I mentioned above) just like collecting books. I can’t blame them! I love collecting books, too. But some book bloggers have been accused of collecting books offered up for review with no intention of reviewing them.

Of course, I don’t believe that any reviewer should feel obligated to read or review a book, even if they have agreed to.

This is particularly the case where books are misrepresented – where they have covers or blurbs that are deceptive, for example.

I recently declined to review a book I originally agreed to, on the basis that it was not only poorly written, but more importantly, contained unmitigated abusive, mysogynistic content that was in no way hinted at via the book’s cover, blurb, or the genre it was catalogued under. But even where these elements of the book do a good job of communicating what it’s about, we just don’t always ‘gel’ with certain books. I have one book out from the library right now in this category. The book absolutely does what it says on the tin – but the writing style just isn’t my cup of tea.

Personally, I wouldn’t want a reviewer who isn’t enjoying my book to feel obligated to continue reading. Firstly, I don’t want someone with whom my work doesn’t resonate to feel obliged to review it, and end up with a damaging review. But more importantly, I don’t want to waste reviewers’ time.

Life is too short for anyone – including book reviewers – to waste reading books they aren’t enjoying (I personally wish I hadn’t wasted my time and mental space on the book referred to above). A huge number of new books are published every year (as those book haulers can attest!) and none of us will ever have time to read every book we want to. Why should book reviewers feel obliged to slog through books they aren’t enjoying for whatever reason, just because they took them on?

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