A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
After a recent piece on her blog declaring all blog reviews should be positive, we approached Susan Hill to see if she would comment for our upcoming feature “Fox in the City”. Her question-and-answer interview was so interesting we decided to publish it in its entirety.
Susan Hill is a well-known author of novels such as “I’m the King of the Castle”, “The Woman in Black” and the Simon Serrailler series, as well as children’s books such as her recent “The Battle for Gullywith”. She runs the publisher Long Barn Books, and writes a very popular blog.
Why do you run a blog? What’s the main motivation and what is its main focus?
It began as a sidekick to my website. I get hundreds of e-mails, especially from students doing my books for GCSE and A level and I decided to have a central place to answer and do posts about these. It is really an adjunct of my author publicity and marketing. These days authors should not – cannot – expect their publishers to do everything and indeed if they do they will be disappointed. I tell the people who read me round the world about my books and writing and keep them up to date. But it also went sideways into some book talk as these are things the readers ask too.
How do you see the role of the bookblogger versus the role of the newspaper reviewer. Is there is a difference? Do you see them as having different responsibilities?
I was a professional book reviewer weekly with not many breaks for 35 years. I reviewed for just about every national newspaper and many magazines and journals. It was my bread and butter income. Hard work. I stopped because I`d had enough. But I wanted to write more about books – NOT just newly published ones. I had a monthly column called The World of Books for ten years in the Daily Telegraph and the pleasure of writing about any books I loved was something I wanted to continue to have.
It is very different. Some bloggers see themselves as the same as book reviewers in the papers but they are not. You are unedited. You are uncut. You write about what you want not what they ask you to; you are writing in a more relaxed way. You do not stick to publication dates etc. or only new books. The main thing is that you are unedited and many book bloggers have never BEEN so they have no discipline. Many ramble on for yards relating the plot which any good sub would excise; others just tell you books are ‘simply wonderful’ and they ‘adore’ them. Which is sloppy. You can say and do what you like on your blog but you should not expect to be taken as seriously as if you were writing in a national newspaper. The standard is lower. But the enthusiasm is greater and the word of mouth power is enormous.
Do you think blogging can (or should?) be more personal and subjective than newspaper reviewing.
It just IS. It is not so much whether a book blog should be personal and subjective as that a professional review in a newspaper should definitely NOT be. Though of course in the end all reviews other than the purely academic are subjective to an extent.
You said recently that bloggers should only publish positive reviews. Could you explain why?
This is something I do feel strongly about. You do not have a remit from anyone to be negative. If you are paid for a paper review you have to be honest. But on a blog you are not being paid and it is far far better to say nothing . It comes down, again, to being unedited. If you say something nasty or unpleasant in a paper your sub will tone it down – or they should. No one will do that on your blog and there is enough negativity and nastiness around the internet. Also, by being invited by a literary editor and to do a review in a newspaper you are being given a certain credibility – it is assumed you have an authority to write what you are writing or you would not be asked. Your blog has no such given authority – you give it to yourself, so you have to be even more careful. People have spent many weeks and months writing books and if you do not like what you read that is fine – but you do not have any authority to say so publicly and sometimes hurtfully. So better stay schtumm. In the middle of an enthusiastic and positive review you can say ‘though perhaps the descriptions are rather long and slow down the narrative’ say….
Gush is no good to anyone and there is a lot of undisciplined gush around the book blogging world. The main problem is length though.. again, no editing so everyone goes on for far too long.
Is good criticism (whether positive or negative) not an important thing to promote as well as books, in order to have more debate and conversation and engagement? Is there not a danger that if all blogs are positive they become viewed as promoting sites rather than reviewing sites?
I’ve answered this really. I think they should be promoting sites .. as in ‘word of mouth recommendation’.
Related to that: Do you think the role of the blogger in terms of promoting books is an important one?
Yes. Though HOW important none of us will ever know. I think it is rather overestimated actually. It`s a useful extra.
With circulations of newspapers going down, do you think that bloggers have changed the role of the newspaper reviewer? And if the newspapers take to blogging (which some of them have) do you think there is/should be a big difference in terms of how they approach blogging?
A newspaper blog is not a real blog because the writers are paid for it. Simply that. It is not independent and the one thing about a blog is that it is and should be independent. No, bloggers haven`t changed the way newspapers review.
Should bloggers receive review copies from publishers and in which case does this alter the blogger’s responsibility?
No reason why not. I get dozens of free books a week and have for years from publishers wanting quotes, wanting me to read and recommend.. this has been the way for many years, long long before I blogged. Now, I sometimes write about a few of them if I like them, more often I do not as my blog is not primarily a new-book-comment one.
There is no reason not to get books from publishers. It`s just a free sample. It doesn`t mean you have to do anything with it or feel under any obligation whatsoever. But if you read it and like it and think others would, why not ? All the publishers are trying to do is get the author some attention.. what`s wrong with that ?
As a publisher yourself, what is your expectation from bookbloggers? How are they viewed by the publishing world in general?
I send out very very few of our books to bloggers and I select them carefully. In general publishers feel bloggers have some small extra importance – or rather, a few do. But they don`t overrate it. They ignore it at their peril though. A very few book bloggers worldwide are quite influential.. Bluestalking Reader in Chicago for example. I often buy books on her say-so.
Do you think that bloggers should have policies towards small or independent publishers? Should blogs be championing books that don’t get highlighted for example?
No, There is no ‘should’ in the blogging world and if a publisher is professional they should not expect special favours just because they are small. Or indeed big.
As a publisher, do you find it hard to get reviews in newspapers (as some smaller and independent publishers have complained about the difficulty of getting this coverage).
No, we get a fair share. It is never easy for any publisher to get reviews for first time and unknown authors.
Do you think newspapers should have policies towards small or independent publishers in terms of reviews? What would you like to see?
I think there should be no reverse discrimination… but I do think there should be a level playing field. There has been the sense that some lit eds have assumed if it comes from a small publisher it can`t be much good because it must have been rejected by big publishers first. That is simply not true and a few lit eds make a major effort to look at books from small and big publishers with no difference between them. As they should. But they are the conscientious and hard working lit eds. They care more about the books and their readers than their own reputations and how they are perceived by the big publishers. As a small publisher I want the best for my authors… which means to be considered for review on the same terms as every other book sent in.
I don`t see myself primarily as a book blogger. I am an author who has a blog which is sometimes about new books but more often about the whole huge subject of books and reading. And the blog is a bit of a service to my readers too… as well as a good way of answering hundreds of letters and e-mails by killing many of the same birds with one stone.
Many thanks to Susan Hill for taking the time to speak to us about blogging and reviewing. We hope to open up discussion on this subject. Look out for the feature “Fox in the City” on blogging and print reviewing later today.
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We'll be back on Sunday 12 April with the details of our latest investigation, on alternative publishing: how to do it, who does it, how it works, and what it's really like. Till then, we invite you to read books about eggs, chocolates, the return of life to a hopeful world, and the wonder of seasons changing.