Oh, Volunteers

I’m sitting in a conference session the other day, and Kathy Dempsey asks, what is a libraries argument for why it cannot be run and staffed by volunteers?

And someone shouts out, because they don’t have to show up.

In other words: volunteers are volunteers. They are not your employees, where you have control over work hours and productivity etc.

To bring this back to The Letter. Using the term “volunteers” is not accurate for book bloggers who do think of themselves as part of the marketing of a book; because even with a volunteer, they are volunteering for an entity. But this is not really about how bloggers see themselves — it is about publishers. And it’s about how much control, if any, someone can exert over someone else.

Look, I get that it’s hard for publishers. I want publishers to exist, and make money, because honestly? Better books come from publishers. (No, really, that’s my reading experience.)

Let’s back up a little. Traditionally, pre-blogs, there were traditional ways to market and promote a book. I’m no expert, so I won’t get into details, but overall it was this; publishers employed people just to market and promote their books, either as employees or independent contractors or consultants, etc. Advertising was paid for, in newspapers and magazines, radio and TV. Traditional visiting bookstore tours were sponsored.

Budgets were slashed. Jobs were cut. Authors were being told more and more they were responsible for promoting their books.

At the same time, here are book bloggers, readers conversing about books. Discussing, debating, having giveaways, doing tons of book related things. All because they love books and reading.

Naturally, publishers and authors realized that it was a good thing this was happening; that it was a great thing when one of their books happened to be the subject of a post, a tweet, a review, a giveaway. So, naturally, they began supplying review copies and giveaway copies and promotional items, hoping to be part of the great good thing of book blogging, with some of that promotional material being widgets and interviews and sample chapters. Best of all, it was all “free” in that there were no salaries or advertising bills to pay!

Then here comes The Letter. Which talks of “your job.” And which also says, we send you something, you must blog about it. And which also mentions, TWICE, how nice it is that free shipping happens.

Did you see what happened here?

Somewhere, someone said, “these things cost money and we’re not getting our moneys worth.”

And no one countered, “but even with the blogs that make the decision not to review, etc., what we’re doing is still cheaper than an ad in the New York Times or a magazine.”

Because, really, if what publishers or author or publicists want is control over what coverage appears when, the way to obtain that is by purchasing an ad. Providing review copies — well, to refer back to my earlier post, providing review copies no more guarantees coverage than if copies are supplied to a newspaper or magazine. And if it’s “buzz” that is desired, well, buzz just happens. It can’t be manipulated or bought. Yes, it can be helped along, by providing those review copies and providing promotional materials in the hopes that it will be something that bloggers will like. But that is a hope — that is a desired outcome — it is not something that can be bought or dictated. Perhaps what you’re really wanting is old-fashioned advertising, which, well, will cost more than a free copy of a book.

5 thoughts on “Oh, Volunteers

  1. A lot of the blame for this (though not all) belongs to the publishers. They should do their research and being smarter with who they send this arcs to, and go for more of a quality over quantity approach. There’s no controlling when a blogger will post a review but what publishers can do is notice which bloggers keep accepting arcs but never review anything.

    I recieve a mass email about available arc’s from HarperCollins, its only sent about every few months. I wonder before its sent if anyone has gone through and removed all the inactive blogs.


  2. Doret, there were many things about the letter that was troubling; one is what you mention. Publishers have to do their research. I moved this summer, I notified everyone, and I’m still getting packages forwarded because the publishers have no central person/database for address changes. And if a blog is dead/dormant, the publisher can stop sending copies.


  3. Excellent points Liz and Doret. I do understand that it requires a full time dedicated person to focus on blog outreach. It’s a constantly evolving animal that has grown (and continues to grow) quickly. But I think when you factor in salary vs. shipping, production cost, influence on sales and other elements you would find (and I could be wrong) it would be worth the effort of doing so. Not only doing so but centralizing it. Have a person per imprint so they can really focus on those outlets that are consistent, visible, and participatory as opposed to the what appears to be the spaghetti model right now of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks.


  4. Something I’ve been thinking long about volunteers is how it takes advantage of our love of books, reading, and literacy. The idea that volunteers should be used to staff libraries makes it somehow… an unnecessary service. People, particularly women, should do it because it’s a Good Thing. Well, safe driving is an good thing, but where are all the suggestions that we need more volunteers for the DMV? In terms of book blogging, it gets some of the same thing. Of course we’ll buy the books, borrow from the library, and contribute our time in promoting books because it’s a Good Thing.

    And damnit, it works in that I do these things in blogging and I still volunteer at the library that cut my job. But at the library, I draw the line at working the front desk – the job I used to be paid for. In blogging, I draw the line in being told what to do by the publisher.


  5. Michelle, I agree that it would be worth the effort.

    Pam, volunteers, over relying on volunteers, does take advantage. You’re exactly right.


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