Smugglers Ponderings

Smugglers’ Ponderings: Maintaining Independence and Integrity

This post is part of An Unconventional Blog Tour – as the title suggests, this is not your typical blog tour. The purpose of this week is to tackle some of the more sensitive and difficult issues that arise when blogging. For the duration of this week (May 28 – June 1), ten bloggers will write about these different topics, providing their own insights and opinions – together, these posts will (hopefully!) serve as a helpful resource for book bloggers, both new and old. Subjects included on the tour range from Giving Credit Where Credit’s Due: Citing Your Sources, to Objectivity vs. Transparency. Follow this link to read more about the week’s objectives and to check all the posts (links will be added to this master post as each stop is published).

When we were approached by Kelly at Stacked in the initial stages of organization for the week, we were thrilled at the opportunity to join in the week’s roster of discussions. And, of the many possible topics for discussion, there is one that is particularly close to our Smuggler hearts. This topic, which we will be discussing today, is Independence and Integrity as a Blogger. Today, we’ll examine how one might maintain both independence and integrity whilst still developing a relationship with publishers and publicists and growing one’s blog.

Blog With Integrity

Bloggers blog for myriad different reasons. Some bloggers just want to have fun talking about books with friends. Others simply love to write reviews and share their opinions. There are those bloggers who blog as a hobby, and those who see blogging as a step toward a career in publishing (as a writer, as an editor, etc). There are those who take part on blog tours, organizing interviews and guest posts; there are those who avoid organized tours and events like the plague. The bottom line is that there is no right or wrong way to blog – and all of the above (and the many other rationales we have not mentioned) are completely worthy reasons for blogging.

We don’t believe on setting rules for book blogging. We abhor posts that instruct bloggers on what they can and can’t do, because each blogger should be able to decide how they wish to run their own blogs! This said, there is one aspect of blogging that we do believe to be a – not as universally acknowledged as we hoped – truth: the moment a blogger solicits and accepts a review copy (be that copy an early an galley, e-ARC, final copy, or otherwise), said blogger has officially become a part of the publishing industry. Publishing contacts – publicists, marketers, authors, etc – will now have the blogger’s address, they will be paying attention to that bloggers’s blog, and they most certainly will be hoping for a review of that book. This is the give and take relationship between blogger and a publisher (or author) on the most basic level.

Many of us, though, will go further than accepting review copies. Some book bloggers, like ourselves, will attend events hosted by the publishers, and attend conferences such as Book Expo America. We also take part in publicity initiatives such as blog tours, interviews, and giveaways, and we’ll establish and cultivate relationships with publishers and authors alike.

With all of these factors under consideration, the question arises:

Is it possible to maintain independence and integrity while still creating and cultivating relationships with publishers and authors?

Our answer is yes. Yes it most certainly is. And the key to maintaining blogger independence and integrity is very simple, really. It starts with self-awareness and honesty, which in turn allows a blogger to maintain their voice and opinion, which translates to professionalism.

The first step toward maintaining independence and integrity is self-awareness. The reality is that for all that we say we blog for ourselves, the moment someone starts a blog and makes it public, choosing to share their thoughts with others, that person is no longer blogging solely for themselves. This blogger has readers – readers who rely on them for discussion, for opinion, and for reviews. A rapport is established between every blogger and her readers. This relationship, between blogger and reader, is sacrosanct and should take priority over all others (including relationships between a blogger and a publisher or author).

Another important self-awareness step is to realise that bloggers do not OWE anything to anyone, except those readers. Bloggers are not indebted to publishers or authors over when they provide bloggers with a review copy; bloggers are not “lucky” for receiving “free” books; bloggers do not work for bloggers or authors and as such bloggers do not owe them a “positive review” (or even a review at all – though if you start requesting books, you should make some effort to review them). Review copies are part of each publisher’s budget – these are integral part of a publisher’s marketing and publicity arsenal, and would be created and distributed (we only mention this because there seems to be a popular fallacy circulating that states that publishers are somehow losing money by printing and shipping ARCs. Let’s make this clear: ARCs are an established part of a publisher’s budget and would be sent out regardless – so please, let’s quash this monetary/indebted argument before it rears its ugly head). This is what marketing budgets are for. Publishers send review copies to any number of organizations, to booksellers, to media in order to spread early buzz about a title. Bloggers are now a part of this ecosystem and a valuable outlet to which publishers reach out with news, queries, and review copies.

We do not have an inflated sense of entitlement for believing or arguing this point, because it is fact.

The truth is that bloggers have become an intrinsic, important part of the publishing industry. Not as subordinates, or mere cogs in a publisher’s “promotional” machine – but as equal partners. To feel indebted for receiving review copies, for a blogger to buy into this bizarre notion that blogging is not a serious endeavor, is not only silly but a dangerous thing that circumvent the very idea maintaining independence.

Once a blogger is aware of this, and starts taking the idea of blogging seriously, it is easy to establish the next step toward maintaining independence and integrity: honesty. Knowing who you blog for (your readers), knowing that you are not indebted to publishers you work with (not for) makes it easier to be as honest as possible. This is why we believe critical reviews are so very important. We completely understand that there are some bloggers out there that choose not to post negative reviews, and understand that this is a matter of personal preference (as long as those bloggers are upfront about their review policy and vocalize their choice not to post negative reviews). That said, we think it is of the utmost importance in maintaining independence and integrity that we, as Book Smugglers on our own site and through our own policy, speak our minds when it comes to issues that are important to us (take whitewashing, for example). In order to maintain integrity, being vocal about key issues that matter to you as a blogger (and thus to your readers) is of paramount importance.

Of course, it’s one thing to be all lofty and to say that a blogger should maintain independence (via becoming self-aware) and integrity (by being vocal about the personal issues that matter) is one thing. To actually enact these principals, however, is an entirely different matter. Especially when a blogger becomes more entrenched in the publishing environment, gets to know or even befriends authors and publishers. We struggle with these issues increasingly, with the friends we make and the relationships we forge – it’s easy to want to please and smooth things over, to turn a blind eye, or make concessions.

To that end, the only piece of advice we can offer is our own Book Smugglerish process: sit back, evaluate the situation, and think through the consequences of any action. Always, always we keep in mind that our debt is to our readers first and foremost – and with that in mind, we can maintain our own integrity – and by doing so, our independence as bloggers.

Although we have largely focused on those blogs who do have a direct contact with publishing houses, it does not mean that those who don’t accept review copies and who have no contact whatsoever with authors and publishers are not a part of the industry. They are perhaps, a less formal, official yet equally important part. Book Blogging at this very point in time is incredibly important, because we bloggers have something that publishers don’t: a direct contact with readers.

Perhaps many bloggers (and readers) do not realize that readers are not publishers’ direct customers (rather, they sell to distributors, to retail accounts, to booksellers). As bookstores close and physical shelf space shrinks, publishers are now grappling with the alien concept that they need to way to engage with an audience directly instead of acting through intermediaries. They have not established these direct channels, and as such, their marketing/publicity campaigns are increasingly relying on non-traditional media (aka bloggers) to spread the word about books.

Book blogs are important. They are here to stay. And if we want to be taken seriously in this new, emerging, and increasingly important role in the publishing world, maintaining independence and integrity is of the utmost importance.


  • kara-karina
    May 29, 2012 at 2:54 am

    What an excellent, excellent topic! Thank you for raising it! I remember the moment when I shifted my blogging into my own blog and started taking it seriously. It’s mad and complex and feels like a second job, but I love the endless possibilities in it. I love the opportunity to interact with authors and other readers. Last week I finally ordered some business cards for the blog, a step I wanted to take for a long time, and I believe that really shows to people (who for the most part would think I am mad!) and to me that I am serious about the whole endeavor. 😆

  • KT Grant
    May 29, 2012 at 4:21 am

    Word to live by for bloggers. Thank you for this.

  • KMont
    May 29, 2012 at 4:49 am

    I think this post has so many valid points and is very timely, considering how murky the view overall on blogging and publisher relationships has become. I’ve had to pull back a lot in my own publisher-related blogging, and it’s in part because of all the negativity surrounding it. And also because one publisher was sending me everything and their kitchen sink collection it seemed like and I’m not an infinite storage facility, alas.

    I feel like you gals have always maintained your integrity and I’ve admired how you always stand up for what you believe in. As you have expanded your blogging successes over the last few years, this place is definitely an example of You’re Doing It Right.

  • Midnyte Reader
    May 29, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your insights and opinions. The main point that I am taking away from this post is that I will remember who I’m blogging for (besides myself)…which is the readers, the people who I want to share my own opinions with.

  • MotherReader
    May 29, 2012 at 6:58 am

    Fantastic post that covers the issues of independence and integrity so well in making it about a continuing, ongoing self-evaluation. It’s too easy to get caught up in all of the books, mechanics, statistics, etc and forget to step back and look at what you’re doing with your blog and why.

    While I agree about review copies not being an obligation to the publisher, I want to mention an option that seems to not come up too often. Stop. Getting. Books. I was feeling overwhelmed with review copies coming from publishers, so I wrote to the publishers and removed myself from their automatic lists. I retained the relationships to ask for a few copies here and there, ones that I am more certain to review. I also make the trip to BEA because I feel less obligated to review what I pick up at signings, and I ask for very little at the booths. I get a lot of books from the library.

    Again, I’m not saying people shouldn’t get review copies. But if feeling obligated or overwhelmed is an issue, then it’s something to consider. It was a struggle to turn away books coming my way, but it leaves more for someone else who does have the time and inclination to review them. (Which connects to my Unconventional Blog Tour topic, Playing Nicely: )

  • Lark
    May 29, 2012 at 7:56 am

    Great post! Integrity, independence, and honesty are certainly things I’ve thought about as a new-ish book blogger; you rightly point out that I’ll need to keep them in mind as I go forward.

  • KMont
    May 29, 2012 at 8:28 am

    What Mother Reader said, though it can take a while sometimes to get them to even stop sending you the books! It’s taken me a while, I’ve emailed a few times and never gotten a response from the one publisher. The books seem to be coming in at a trickle now, but that’s happened before, too. Then the high tide of books started up again.

  • Sarah
    May 29, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Knowing who you blog for (your readers), knowing that you are not indebted to publishers you work with (not for) makes it easier to be as honest as possible. This is why we believe critical reviews are so very important.

    Yes, yes!

    But, while I nod my head in agreement, the critical reviews issue is one that we really struggle with on our blog. The three main contributors (myself included) are all really good at selecting what we like and we have an agreement with each other to not read something we know we’re going to dislike (ie, I am very unlikely to pick up a paranormal YA or adult horror novel, another one of our contributors is never going to read a romance and another avoids science fiction). And, when I DNF a book, it’s usually after just a few chapters, so I can’t really review it.

    Sure, we have critical reviews (I recently wrote an extremely critical review of an acclaimed novel), but sometimes I feel like because we don’t want the blogger role to interfere with our enjoyment of reading and as a result are selective about matching books to our individual tastes, we’re viewed as too positive (I’ve had this said to me). So, it’s a tough one.

    And I wholeheartedly agree with MotherReader above that stopping getting books is an option, and sometimes a very good one. There are some many other ways to acquire books (library, swaps, buy them yourself) that can limit any internal (and sometimes external) obligation you feel, if that’s an issue.

    Thank you for the thoughtful post!

  • Doret
    May 29, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Well said. Usually when I write a review I won’t say where I got a book for review. However I will when I think it is necessary. I always do a disclaimer when I review Zetta Elliott or Neesha Meminger, two authors I have gotten to know while blogging. For me it is important that I do this because it keeps the lines from getting blurred.

    Though ironically I write more well rounded reviews for these two authors because if I don’t I fear readers will think I am playing favorites.

    Just the thought of that makes me shiver like the hyenas in the Long King when they heard Mufasa’s name because blogger integrity is very important to me.

  • Emily's Reading Room
    May 29, 2012 at 10:28 am

    You are spot on that once you begin accepting and soliciting review copies from publishers, there should come a sense of self-awarness. I find myself often evaluating and re-evaluating what I publish on my blog and why. A couple years ago I decided not to publish reviews that are overly negative. Meaning, I had absolutely nothing good to say about the book. All of my reviews contain at least a little criticism. I do post my more negative reviews on Goodreads. But, the truth is that if I don’t like a book, I often don’t finish it. And I don’t feel good reviewing those books that I didn’t see through to the end.

    But, independence definitely can be achieved, and your blog is a great example of that.

  • Cecelia
    May 29, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Well said.

  • Kaitlyn in Bookland
    May 29, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Wow, this post was well thought out and so relevant! Thank you so much for this. Sometimes it is hard to remember that we’re blogging for our readers and that critical reviews could really help them make informed decisions. I always have a hard time with it, thinking I will hurt an author’s feelings, but then I remember that if I’m being critical (constructive criticism) instead of just attacking, it’s beneficial for everyone.

  • azteclady
    May 29, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Yes, to all this–and to what MotherReader said. When in doubt, refrain.

  • BarkLessWagmore
    May 29, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Fabulous post. I agree with MotherReader. It is so easy to get too many books and over-extend yourself and it can cause some major reader burnout. I only request what I can handle from NetGalley and the occasionally author request but only if it’s something that really appeals to me. I also want to make a dent in my tbr pile before I die 🙂

  • Kelly
    May 29, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    I just want to second every word of this. The thing that stood out to me most was the area you talked on first: self-awareness. I feel like this is the biggest part of blogging with integrity and independence, and it is something that sometimes takes a while to figure out. But working at understanding that pays off in buckets.

  • Pam
    May 29, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    This is so brilliant. I have struggled with how to explain to bloggers that they are not beholden to the publishing industry in any way for taking a free book. You can borrow a free book from the library, do you feel like you OWE the library anything for that? I hate the idea that because you are ‘in’ with publishers your whole outlook has to change and you need to get in on the YAmazing race of who gets what, when do they get it and can I get it too. I have absolutely seen some of my friends changing. They tell me secretly that they hated a book, then a week later I see a review singing the praises of the novel. There’s a big difference between only posting reviews of books you actually liked, or just lying about it. I worry about the integrity of the blogosphere a lot. Thanks for posting this.

  • Maria (BearMountainBooks)
    May 29, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Great post. Coming from the side of things of an author, my only comment is that this “no obligation” and keeping things honest is a two-way street. I think it’s great if the author thanks a blog for blogging about a book, however, that’s as far as it should go. In other words: the author is under no obligation to take out an ad on a blogger site, buy drinks or buy additional books to send to the blogger (as in buy a book from a wish list, and yes, I have been asked to do this) and any other “monetary” type compensation.

    I’ve been a reviewer. I know it’s work and I still review books myself. But to keep that independence, you can’t “charge” the author or publisher–in any way, shape or form. It’s GREAT and FINE and WELCOMED that any book blogger request a book for review! But above and beyond that–not so much. It’s also very important that book blogs make it clear when they are posting an “ad” versus a “review.” Because yes, I see a number of sites “feature” books. When I write to offer my book for review I sometimes find out “being featured” is a paid ad. Nothing wrong with that–except it’s missing the “paid ad” nomenclature, which is not so great.

    I know BookSmugglers knows all this and does not sell author’s ad space, etc. I think it’s important to mention because it’s one of the things that does set apart a book blog that is there for the readers of the blog.

  • rhapsodyinbooks
    May 29, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    While I totally agree with this post, I think that sometimes too much focus is on the blogging end of the situation, what with the perceived sense by bloggers of obligation, guilt, and being overwhelmed. While that certainly happens, I’ve noticed that behavior from the other direction is getting more and more objectionable. I.e., publishers seem to keep getting more pushy and demanding after sending you a book. I’ve had several insist that if I want a hard copy instead of an e-book I need to mail it back (using my own postage of course) when I’m done. I’ve had several publishers pretty much demand to know (in repeated emails) why I haven’t posted a review yet of a book recently sent to me. I’ve gotten hugely alienated from this. Yes of course the answer could be stop getting books. But I think another part of the answer has to be perhaps a concerted effort to inform publishers of exactly what you have said above: i.e., that we do this work for nothing; that we have no obligation, legally, morally, financially or otherwise to do this favor of free publicity for them; and that free books don’t guarantee positive reviews.

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  • Flannery (The Readventurer)
    May 29, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Nicely put. I am so happy about the increased popularity of e-galley sites because the pressure (actual or perceived) feels much less burdensome. I find it so much easier, especially if I don’t like the ARC I’m reading, to just decline and move along with my life. It is hard for me to have printed galleys around without reading and reviewing them.

  • Flannery (The Readventurer)
    May 29, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Oh, and I meant to say that you are so spot on about blogs being a direct connection to readers and those who wish to be informed about books. I refer tons of people I meet in real life to Goodreads and blogs I enjoy and I get excited at how much random traffic we get from google and other search engines. People search for information on the internet for everything these days so the most content devoted to a certain book, the better, right? People are delusional if they don’t think blogs have an impact on readers. Every single random reader who stumbles across our sites and stays for more than a minute or so is an indication of that.

  • Susan Robinson
    May 29, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I always want to read a book that is at least as good as the last. Books like food and movies are different things to different people. There is no accounting for taste, when taste is not measurable. Social media is a powerhouse. We all need to stay friends and offer constructive support.

  • Charlie
    May 30, 2012 at 1:53 am

    I hadn’t thought of your last point, but it’s true that while there are people who say bloggers aren’t important, they are becoming so. There is a pressure that comes with accepting review copies, which is one of the reasons that I quickly stopped accepting every single book that was offered to me. Readers are the most important factor and while it’s easy to remember it can be easy to forget. When there is a relationship with a publishing house you have to put your readers first otherwise the blog will change in nature.

  • April Books & Wine
    May 30, 2012 at 3:55 am

    I just keep on nodding my head at EVERYTHING written here. If you don’t have your independence and integrity what have you got?

  • Nymeth
    May 30, 2012 at 4:14 am

    Excellent post, ladies, and a big yes to everything you said. You hear a lot about bloggers’ sense of entitlement, and while I don’t doubt that this happens and is a problem, I wish the equally problematic excessive sense of deference to publishers was discussed half as often.

    The one thing I’d like to add to the discussion in the comments is that I’m not entirely comfortable with the conflation of “critical” and “negative” when it comes to book reviews. You can write a mostly or even entirely positive review that still engages with the book critically and digs deep – in fact, the two of you do that pretty often. To me, critical awareness is more about close reading, realising how a story works and how it does what it sets out to do, and noticing how a book is in conversation with the real world than about finding problems, necessarily (although you’ll of course sometimes find them in the process). So I’d hesitate to judge how critical a blogger is by the amount of negative reviews they post.

    Anyway, this is a minor point and not really related to your excellent post; it’s just that I’m hyperware of how those two terms are used because I’ve seen people equate enthusiasm with lack of critical judgement in the past.

  • Edi
    May 30, 2012 at 5:06 am

    It all pretty much starts with that ‘about me’ page, doesn’t it? That’s where we state who we are and what we do. This is a well written reminder to remember who we are!

  • Howard Sherman
    May 30, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Well said. I could just say “ditto” but I’ll take it a step further and echo what I feel is the most important part of your post; Bloggers have a commitment to their readers and no one else.

    That commitment rightfully should trump all other considerations (e.g. publishers who ship us boxes of books, authors seeking book reviews and affiliates who seek to recruit book bloggers to join their affiliate system).

    The book blogging universe is a vibrant ecosystem. I’ve been blogging on different subjects and with different mediums for ten years or so and I’m still learning new things all the time.

    More wisdom, please!

  • VeganYANerds
    May 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    I just discovered your blog thanks to the blog tour and this is such an excellent post and something that we all need reminding of, every now and then. It’s easy to feel like we owe someone when the only people we owe are ourselves and our readers!

    Mands xox

  • elena
    May 30, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Thank you so much for this post! This has been a topic I have been struggling with lately and seeing it laid out so insightfully & thoughtfully like this made me really realise my priorities. Thank you again!

  • Shelver506
    June 2, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Great post. As a newbie blogger, I’m trying to figure this all out myself. I haven’t had to deal with the whole ARC in my mailbox situation yet, but I do have self-pubbed and indie authors asking for reviews. What I haven’t figured out yet is the ethics involved with being part of interviews/blog hops/giveaways for books I HAVEN’T read.

    On the one hand, they could be crap for all I know. On the other, it seems like most people don’t have a problem with it.


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