Ask Alex: The Blogger’s Dilemma

This month’s question came to me via email, and kept me thinking for a good long while. As always, I’m happy to take questions here in the comments, but you’re more than welcome to email me if you’d like to ask privately. I’ll always double-check to make sure it’s okay to post the question here.

From Kim:

A lot of book bloggers—myself included—hope to get the chance to be a published writer or end up working in the publishing industry in some other fashion someday. But I’ve always wondered, is this acceptable? I’m sure it’s fine when the reviews positive, but what if you don’t like a book? If you plan to join the publishing world someday, should you just not post about those?

This topic seems to pop up a few times every year and the discussion is always very interesting. I’m going to pro-con-pro this for you and try to come at it from a few different angles. Agree or disagree, I hope it gives you guys some food for thought—and I would love to hear your take!

To answer your first question, is it acceptable? Yes, of course. If you’re interested in working in publishing, the one key benefit I can see of keeping a book blog is that it shows you can read critically and form educated opinions. (Side note: this is somewhat harder to prove if 100% of your reviews are just GIF reactions.) Actually, one reason my first boss gave for hiring me was that I read widely in the kidlit realm and knew what the house was publishing in addition to competitive titles. Book bloggers: you have a serious leg up on the casual applicant because you know your books. You’re a target for promotions and advertising, so you can discuss the campaigns you’ve seen and absorbed. You’re networkers, and you help connect readers to books they may potentially like. That right there is 40% of my job.

Even if you choose not to mention it during the interviewing process, even if your real name isn’t attached to it, you should still eventually disclose the fact that you’re a blogger to your boss to make sure that you’re in line with corporate communications policies and standards. It becomes critical that you don’t appear to speak on behalf of your employer or fellow employees and that you don’t, even unintentionally, show favoritism, reveal company secrets, hold contests for company books without permission, or criticize the company/your boss/your authors. I know that’s a bit of a no-duh, but it’s always good to repeat it.

To play devil’s advocate, I’m going to give you a few potential drawbacks to consider about leaving negative posts up, many of which apply to blogging in general.

First things first: potential boss and maybe even the HR person will almost definitely visit the blog and will likely go through it. If not them, then your new coworkers. With both of my jobs, I had now-friends admit that they went through my author website and blog. Like, really, extensively went through the archives and sent each other messages to discuss it. It’s natural for people to be curious about new hires and pretty standard for employers to Google you before or after the interview. This is why you get so many warnings to be careful of what you’re putting out there. If you’re presenting yourself online in a way that isn’t actually how you are as a person, you run the risk of having people make assessments of you before you even start working there.

Further, you may, at one point or another, express an opinion that’s at odds with what your potential boss believes and he or she could feel strongly enough about it to factor it into their decision. Skills and experience are only one aspect of the hiring process—your supervisor has to feel like you click personality-wise, too. That’s really a risk you run with having any visible online presence, though.

You asked specifically about whether or not a negative review could potentially come back to bite you. One thing to understand is that people in publishing are well aware that not every reader will like every book. I don’t love-love-love-love every single book we publish, but I’m still responsible for taking care of them and championing them. By investing their time and energy, employees take ownership over what they’re editing, pitching, and marketing–I’m not going to lie, it stings to see a book you’ve put considerable effort into get dinged. Would it prevent you from getting a job, though?

One negative review of an in-house book (and by that, you know I mean a thoughtful, well-written review) probably isn’t going to be a red flag for a supervisor. Maybe they’ll even agree with you about it privately. But if that book is one of the big, huge titles the house is backing? If it’s multiple titles or multiple in-house authors? It could give him or her pause, if only because it might come across as your tastes not being in line with the company and therefore not  compatible with the personalities or books they plan to continue publishing. (To be fair, some people would see getting passed over for that reason as dodging the potential bullet of having to work on a million books they despise. But, honestly, it’s hard to get a job in publishing these days. You have to make yourself an attractive candidate to everyone.)

Here’s something I never really considered until I was a year into my second job: authors, unless they are champions of self-restraint, do look at their bad reviews and they remember the really painful ones. Even if you don’t see a review as being particularly harsh, they’re viewing it through a different, potentially sensitive lens. If you make it known on your blog or twitter (or they somehow find out) that you’re working for their publisher—and therefore on their books—it’s likely to be uncomfortable for everyone involved, and you’ll have to work harder to maintain that professional relationship. You may think there’s a one in a million chance of that happening, but the children’s publishing industry is actually quite small and authors move around between the houses a lot more than they used to.  Believe it or not, I’ve had the inverse happen to me. One of our authors (who wasn’t our author at the time, but just a reviewer) left a terrible review of my first book on GoodReads—one that was hurtful enough that when I heard his/her name at list launch I actually felt that same flush of humiliation that hit me when I first read the review. I still feel a weird sense of embarrassment every time I have to talk with the author. They clearly don’t remember me, but I remember them and the way they made me feel. I imagine s/he’d feel similarly if our positions were reversed. Basically, it isn’t end of the world territory if this happens, but it is uncomfortable.

This isn’t really an issue of authors seeking to retaliate against reviewers who criticize their work, which I know is a fear some of you may have. I bring this up because when you do have a job in publishing, you’ll be constantly working with an eye toward what industry types call “Author Care.” Essentially, it boils down to each publishing house striving to make sure an author knows they value them, their work, and that they’ll take care of their needs and help them find success. Do you see how publicly criticizing one of your company’s books–even if you were reviewing it in The New York Times!–might be perceived as working against this?

Finally, in terms of whether or not it would affect your chances of being published, I almost see it as being more of an issue when it comes to navigating relationships with other authors1, rather than editors. Obviously a potential editor is not going to be super thrilled if you hate every other book they publish (if that is the case—are you sure they’re the right editor for you?), but blogs are still seen as great marketing tools.  A big following is like having a built-in audience to market to, which is always a plus when the editor brings the project into acquisitions.

What do you guys think? Agree? Disagree? Have you experienced any of this this firsthand?

  1. As I mentioned before, the industry is very small, and you will very likely, at one point or another, run into someone whose book you didn’t like. They may know this. It may be unbearably uncomfortable, even if you’re polite to one another. I have a feeling that this alone would complicate your feelings towards publicly posting negative reviews, but, obviously, I can’t speak from experience about this one.

19 Responses to Ask Alex: The Blogger’s Dilemma

  1. Anna J. Boll Jun 11 2013 at 9:24 am #

    If I am paid for a review by a reputable review group or if I’m blogging a book that came by way of a publicity firm, then I want to give a measured review that includes critical evaluations. However, I see my blog as a place to connect teachers, parents, and kids with great books. My posted review becomes a part of an author’s online platform so I try to stick to posting about books that I love.

    • Alex Jun 15 2013 at 1:22 pm #

      It sounds like you’re handling this exactly right!

  2. Linda Jun 11 2013 at 9:26 am #

    “They clearly don’t remember me, but I remember them and the way they made me feel.”

    A wise man once told me that we don’t always remember what people say to us, but we always remember how they made us feel. Good post.

    • Alex Jun 15 2013 at 1:22 pm #

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Jeff Tucker Jun 11 2013 at 10:00 am #

    I am 63 years old, a college freshman–don’t laugh, at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. I am in my fourth class now, this one on creative writing.
    I self-published “The Adventures of Pokey and Sparky” last fall, four adventures. I am not an accomplished author, and although I am on the President’s List at GCU, I don’t consider myself a great writer. However, when I read a post such as yours, I am overwhelmed at the knowledge of the subject, the skill in the writing and the thoughtful offering you gave Kim.
    What I read was probably more influential on not only my Pokey and Sparky work, but more importantly, as a student in college, at the ripe young age of, oh, now I forgot, no matter.
    Thanks for the enlightenment!
    Kindest Regards, Jeff Tucker

    • Alex Jun 15 2013 at 1:21 pm #

      Thank you! And good luck at GCU–I grew up in Arizona and am very familiar with it!

  4. Alexa Y. Jun 11 2013 at 10:22 am #

    It’s such a freaky cool coincidence that I was just thinking about this particular dilemma the other day on my way home. I’m generally a positive reviewer, even when I didn’t particularly care for a novel, but I was still thinking about how my reviews and posts could possibly affect my future aspiration of being a published author. It’s always an interesting subject to dwell on, because, as you’ve pointed out, there are certainly pros and cons. While I certainly would not give up the wonderful experience I’ve had blogging, I do think my habits might shift a little if I got involved in the publishing industry.

    • Alex Jun 15 2013 at 1:23 pm #

      I feel like you have excellent judgment on this front 🙂

  5. Faye Jun 11 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    The problem here, and one bloggers never ask about, is the behaviour and conduct outside of the reviews. Flame wars with authors on Goodreads and Twitter are noted by the authors not involved. Every author in the chidlren’s industry is friends with another author, and so on and so forth. This is more likely to make things difficult for any aspiring writer who also happens to blog.

    Treating people like rubbish is a memorable trait, but probably not one that’s going to help an aspiring author’s career.

    • Alex Jun 15 2013 at 1:20 pm #

      When it comes to things like flame wars and twitter, the best thing a person can do is just ignore them outright and not give it a response, no matter how much they want to. I think people forget that the other people are seeing this person’s behavior and they don’t need to be told that person is rude or immature. Live and let live!

  6. stephanie garber Jun 11 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Great post, Alex! I don’t review books online, but whenever I read a really negative review, and then see that the reviewer is an aspiring writer, I’m always amazed. I don’t think a lot of people realize how small the writing community really is or, like you said, how hurtful a review can be, even if the reviewer doesn’t see it as particularly harsh. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful post.

    • Alex Jun 15 2013 at 1:14 pm #

      Yeah, you really have to live it to see just how small it is, unfortunately. You’re connected to other authors in a multitude of ways, whether you share a publicist, an editor, an agent, or an imprint. And chances are good that you will eventually run into the person you had less than kind things to say, since Fate tends to like to mess with us that way 🙂

  7. Meg Jun 11 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    Oooh what a tricky dilemma! I’m not a blogger, but I do work in a marketing department so I run into a similar sort ofissue sometimes with our products/services. While I like my job, my company and most of the stuff I’m required to promote, sometimes I’m not the hugest fan and/or don’t 100% agree with something we’re doing/offering (which I don’t think is entirely unreasonable when you’re working for someone else). When this happens, obviously I still do my job, but when it comes to my personal interactions with people, I tend to fall back on ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’
    That said, when it comes to book reviews, I would be terribly sad if some of the bloggers didn’t speak out when they don’t like a book. I have found a few people who seem to like and dislike the same stuff I do, so I really value when they say ‘this wasn’t for me’ (and why) on books they didn’t like, so I don’t waste my time if I think their reasoning would apply to me as well.

    • Alex Jun 15 2013 at 1:12 pm #

      I agree that it would be really sad if bloggers couldn’t give an honest opinion about a book they don’t like; I think the key here is to make sure that their negative reviews don’t stray into “mean” territory. I would also refrain from reviewing ALL titles from the publisher they work for unless they absolutely love it and must share.

  8. Kim Jun 11 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    Thank you for answering this question so thoroughly! I’ve been wondering about this for a while now. Generally, I’m a positive reviewer. I love reading and almost always like a book — or can at least find positives. Out of the last 50 books I’ve read, I’d say I’ve only disliked two or three of them. Even then, I can still find nice things to say, but I do point out the things I didn’t connect with. You make some really great points about the impact of negative reviews. Thanks again for answering this question 🙂

    • Alex Jun 15 2013 at 1:02 pm #

      Thank you for the great question!! It sounds like you have the right idea–I think the real issue is when people get super carried away in their dislike of a book and can’t look at it objectively at all.

  9. prettybooks Jun 16 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    Excellent post! I have personally decided not to write/post negative reviews. It was a hard decision to make, and I wish I could be 100% honest, but I’m not willing to gamble my career, which is what it feels like doing. So I just review books I enjoyed – 3 to 5 stars – and I do not review books I didn’t. I make it clear that I do not give positive reviews to books I didn’t enjoy though because I wouldn’t want to mislead readers. It’s tricky, but I do my best to balance both sides.

  10. Lilian Jun 24 2013 at 7:24 am #

    I was thinking about this yesterday! I am a picky reader and few books make it to my “favorites” list and it shows in my reviews. I often wonder if these negative reviews might come back and bite me later. But ultimately I see my blog as an outlet for myself to analyze books after I read them, and also to connect with other readers. And because I don’t follow blogs that only post favorable reviews. I understand why reviewers/blogger do so, but I feel I need a few negative reviews to gauge whether I can trust the reviewer to give me an objective review.

    I don’t have any publishing aspirations at the moment, but if and when I do…I just might have to write under a pseudonym and hire a doppelganger while I’m at it.

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