Saturday, July 7, 2012


When I posted my “Open Letter to Book Bloggers” I had no idea it would make the splash that it did. And for the first couple days it simply laid dormant, getting the same 30 or so hits I get on most posts. Then yesterday, I logged into Blogger and notice that my hit count had spiked precipitously with nearly a thousand hits on the post. By this morning, my hit count had increased over 10% from the all-time total of a blog that’s coming up on its 5th anniversary.

I quickly realized the post had gone viral across Twitter and the blogosphere. At first, it was pretty exciting, kind of like the first time I made the front page of Etsy back in the day. I enjoyed getting into the debate and having the conversation I wanted to have. Many commenters indicated that there are valid points on both sides, and we are facing a dilemma for which there may be no correct answer. And I agree!

But I guess I wasn’t prepared for some of the backlash I got, such as here and here. I wasn’t prepared to see conversations about me instead of to me happening on Twitter and in blog comments. I wasn’t prepared to see comments on a public forum that said basically, “lol, I’m never reviewing her.”

That was tough, and I wondered if I made a mistake. I mean, I am already blacklisted at sites that don’t review indie published books. But I honestly didn't count on actually making people angry.

I want to take this opportunity to address some of the points that have come up again and again in the comments and reactions I’ve received to the letter. There are some definite themes, and rather than repeating myself by responding on an individual basis, I will cover them here.

1. The words “duplicitous” and “condescending.” Okay, I will take my lumps for this one. Those were really shitty word choices, and for a writer, I was being awfully imprecise and ignoring the effect of connotation. I regret those words and apologize to those whom I offended.

What I should have said is that I feel like I am being held to a double-standard by people who are naturally in a position of power. There are some really beautiful book blogs out there, and there are some really, really horrible ones—riddled with typos and “creative” grammar choices, terrible formatting, flashing ads, etc. But I don’t judge all book blogs based on the bad ones. I judge each one on its merit and policies, and I go through each one: Do they review my type of book, do they accept indie authors, do they want print or e-books, how many followers do they have, how well-written are their posts, have they updated recently, and on and on.

I see a parallel there between what bloggers do and what authors/publishers/publicists do—trying to judge quality and fit. Yes, it’s time consuming. Do I wish there was an easier way to narrow down the search? Only sort of, because I am mistrustful of a selection curated by others; I want to see and judge quality and fit for myself, and I don’t want to miss any diamonds in the rough.

That is, apparently, where I differ from my detractors. We will have to agree to disagree.

2. Book bloggers are not self-publishers because they don’t get paid. I heard this from multiple parties. Some people treated the label of “self-publisher” like it was some sort of insult instead of something to be celebrated. That told me right off that the stigma of self-publishing goes far deeper than I had known. I was especially dismayed to learn about some of the bad behavior exhibited by some of my indie peers. This was news to me, and I began to form a better idea of why self-published authors are so pilloried—beyond the obvious quality issues. I can’t change that all on my own, but I think we indie authors have a responsibility to cultivate our community as a much more professional one, because we have everything to lose if we don’t.

By calling bloggers “self-publishers,” I wasn’t trying to bring people “down to my level.” I was trying to show what we have in common. One blogger said I was making “a whole crapload of assumptions.” I guess I was, but I thought I was being rather flattering. If you prefer not be considered “entrepreneurial and multifaceted,” then I take it back. Another blogger called me out on this with, “I don’t buy this ‘sisterhood,’ thing, sorry.” Fair enough, you don’t have to. But I think a “we’re all in this together” mentality is much more effective for everyone than the contentious “power/peon” mentality (see #6).

But to get back to the main point of #2: the people who said this are wrong. Book bloggers (by and large) are self-publishers, or independent publishers, or whatever your preferred term. I’m not harping on this to upset you; I’m saying it because it is correct.

To publish means to issue reproduced textual or graphicmaterial for distribution to the public. So, you’re a publisher. If you’re not going through an established publication, not having your work reviewed by an editor, formatting and posting your own entries, etc. you’re doing it yourself. There are some book blogs that have staffs and run much more like e-magazines, and the term is admittedly a misnomer for them. However, the issue of money has nothing to do with whether you can be considered a self-publisher. Which brings me to this point:

3. Bloggers are not in this for the money; authors are. Tangential to #2, but different. I got several comments that suggested authors are in a different boat because we’re trying to get paid, and that bloggers do it for love. This is sensitive, so I’ll caveat this by saying that I am only speaking about myself here: I am not doing this for the money. Writing novels for money is not a good gig. I would have to sell 8 e-books or 2 paperbacks per hour, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, just to make minimum wage. And we don’t get paid to write. We only get paid when people buy our books; that’s very different. If I got paid minimum wage for the time it took me to write the book, I might actually not end up in a cardboard box eating catfood.  

I write novels because I love it. But unlike other endeavors, not only am I not making money, I am losing money. Because I am my own publisher, the upfront investment was on me. I’m still working back my debt to myself. I sent 4 spec books to bookstores yesterday, and 2 to reviewers. The whole shebang cost me over $50 (though I do admit I used the fancy paperclips for my media kit). Hopefully it’s an investment and not a gamble.

I understand now that many bloggers are receiving far more books than you could ever hope to review. It’s difficult to see the drops in the flood. I just want you to know that from the end of individual authors, we have a lot riding on each and every paperback and ARC we send out. Even NetGalley costs $399 to join; I could send out 40 paperbacks for that amount. Most of us don’t go about this willy-nilly because we can’t afford to. So while it seems like you are being indiscriminately strafed by indie authors, that's not the case for a lot of us.

4. Self-publishing is a genre, just like fantasy or hard-boiled crime. I heard this again and again: Bloggers get to choose what they review, and they don’t have to review what they don’t like. If they don’t want to review science fiction, they have a right to say so in their policies, and science fiction writers don’t have a right to rise up against them. One blogger said, “I’ve yet to receive a letter (open or otherwise) from anyone disappointed in my blanket refusal of their chosen genre.”

I agree that bloggers have every right to review whatever the hell they want and to reject whatever the hell they want. But to compare indie-published books to a genre is false logic. You might as well say that you don’t review books with red covers. Is that taking the argument to its absurd conclusion? Yes, but here’s the thing: if you know you don’t like science fiction, it’s easy to figure out fairly quickly that a book is science fiction and you can skip it. If you don’t like badly edited books (and who does?), it’s not so easy to tell. I understand that rejecting indie-published books outright is one way of skipping badly edited books. 

But you can’t say you don’t like indie-published books, period—because that isn’t logical. The only consistently common thread is the lack of official publisher backing. There are other trends and patterns, yes. However, not all books fit this imagined mold of having ugly covers and typos and bloated second acts. I was only asking to be judged by myself and not by my peers. I do not think that is unreasonable, and I will stand by that assertion to whatever ends.

5. I’m being disrespectful of bloggers’ rights to make their own policies. The issue of respect is extremely sensitive, so here I will try to tread with caution. It was never my intent to be disrespectful. My intent was to question the status quo and to propose a reconsideration. The reaction I wanted to elicit was, “Huh, I never thought about it that way.” I did not expect that so many people’s reaction would be, essentially, to want to put me back in my place. Several detractors made it very clear that I was shitting where I eat, and several promised not to review my work. I question now whether I will receive retaliatory reviews. I hope not.

The people who were most adamant about me being disrespectful also treated me with the most disrespect, including accusing me of trying to cause a stir just so I could get some publicity for my book. Funnily enough, I was also chastised for not making my contact information readily available so that bloggers could request my book. So apparently I'm a self-serving button-pusher and also bad at it.

Let me be clear: I fully support a person’s right to read and review whatever the hell they want. I can’t and don’t want to take that right away. I have not and will not pitch reviews to bloggers who state that they do not review self-published or independently published work. I have pitched guest posts, Q&As, and giveaways to them, but I will likely stop that as well. I have not written personally to any single blogger to confront them about their policies.

If you have read my letter and done me the respect of thinking twice about why you have the ban in place, and you still believe it’s necessary for you, that’s all I can ask. I’ve made my points. Obviously ours is a relationship that is not meant to be.

As I have said over and over again, I was only asking for this reconsideration.  Some bloggers found this “insulting.” If you’re insulted by someone asking you to reconsider a belief, you’re going to be insulted by a lot, including probably everything in this post.

The unexamined belief is an oppression of the mind and soul. Through this conversation, I have re-examined my own notions and preconceptions, and have adjusted accordingly. I can only ask for the same.

6. Authors need bloggers, but bloggers do not need authors. This was the hardest to swallow. The point was stated by several people in different ways, but the basic assertion was that I was wrong when I drew this parallel: 
After all, if all the authors and publishers suddenly said, “I do not give my book to self-published book reviewers” where would you be?
The people who made these types of comments are probably right. In fact, I know they’re right. You guys have the power, and we authors are at your mercy. I pissed people off with my post, and now some of them are blacklisting me from being reviewed on their sites. And I can’t do anything about it except hope that I haven’t minimized the pool of potential reviewers to such a degree that I will never be successful as a novelist.

I need you, but you don’t need me. I live in that shadow every day. But I never thought that power would be used to say to me, in effect, “sit down and shut up.”

There’s so much more to say, and many individual points that are worth addressing, but this sums up the major points. This is a conversation worth having. I love a respectful, logic-based debate, and I love even more when I can learn and cultivate more nuanced opinions based on new insights. But I don’t abide blatant disrespect, unfounded ideological anger, or personal insults. Please plan accordingly.

In response to the comments about not leaving my contact information, here’s a bunch of it:

Personal email: ellyzupko at gmail dot com
Twitter: @EllyZupko
Free download of The War Master’s Daughter:
My book on Amazon:


Maryah said...

You've poked a bee's nest for sure, but that's the only way to get honey, right?

I enjoyed both posts, and found the comments on the original letter to be very interesting and informative! Keep it up, Elly!

Dan L-K said...

I'm not sure what effect a personal ban on your work is meant to have on a site that's already got a legacy-only policy; what, We Don't Review Self-Published Work, But Especially Not Yours? That's like saying your bar doesn't book tribute bands, and also not The Musical Box.

...Which is not to take too lightly the notion of bad press coming out of this kerfufflette, but I have to say the pettiness of such a reaction may be more obvious than not. The Internet has been around the block a few times, and is learning to recognize butthurt when it sees it.

Pauline M Ross said...

Elly, your posts struck a chord with me. I too recently got into trouble with book bloggers (see Justin's post here: I'm simply a reader who also writes reviews on Goodreads (and yes, I put them on my blog, but I've never thought of myself as a blogger), but like you I think that it's a shame that so many book bloggers won't review self-published works. I've taken some stick for that, but as a *reader*, I want to know about books I might like, however they're published. It makes it difficult when so many big-name bloggers refuse even to look at the majority of books available (yes, most books published nowadays are self-published).

But happily there's an upside to these little discussions (for both of us). Because of a comment on Justin's post, I found your website, looked up your book, sampled it and liked the look of it. So I bought it (and will post a review on Goodreads as soon as I've read it). I get some interesting new reading, you get a sale and a review. Win win, eh?

Elly Zupko said...

Maryah - Thanks for commenting, and I really appreciate your support and promotion of this conversation! I agree with your metaphor, and I think the "honey" in this situation (if we can get to it!) can be beneficial to both sides--not just one or the other.

Dan - LOL, that's an excellent point. I did rankle some who did not (previously) have such policies in place; I hope I didn't change their mind and ruin things for other authors. Ugh, what a thought. But I agree: seems this kerfufflette (my new favorite word) was a flash in the pan, but I hope it has at least made some people revisit their prejudices.

Pauline - Thanks for joining the conversation! I just added yours and Justin's blog posts to my Instapaper and am planning to go curl up on the couch and catch up. Coincidentally, I recently was talking with Justin about reviewing TWMD.

I am really glad you enjoyed the sample of TWMD, and I sincerely hope you enjoy the rest of it! I'm really interested in getting some feedback from reviewers who tend toward more "pure" fantasy, since TWMD is a bit genre-bending. Also glad to hear that as a reader you want what's good no matter where it came from. Whether an author or a blogger, that should be our shared goal: ultimately to serve the reader by connecting them with what will move their heart.

erlessard said...

Well, I'm a new to book blogging. I've only had my site since April. I just wanted to say that I can already understand why some people do not want to review indie books. There are so much CRAP books out there.

That said, my favorite read this year is actually from an indie author. I've found that indie writers are more keen to understanding what horror readers want from a book than any big-name publisher. Its a genre that needs more loving from the industry.

My biggest grip about indie authors is that the story inside the novel does NOT match the story on the cover.

That said, I do review indie books. And I do give low ratings. The indie book I'm reading right now (The Twenty by Claudia Carozza) will probably get a 2/5.

But thanks for this post and your original post. It has definitely sparked a lot of discussion and I think that's a good thing.

thereviewlady said...

As one of the bloggers you quote from I thought I might post a comment here.

I read many responses to your original open letter, and wrote one myself. At no point did I think anyone was trying to tell you to "sit down and shut up." I didn't read anybody argue that you did not have a right to your opinion, or a right to express it, they merely argued their own opinions in response.

I don't believe anyone who argued that they are not self-published was saying so because they found it insulting. Rather, (certainly in my own post), I got the impression it was being used to mean that their own book blogs are not intended to ever generate a profit. Money may not be the main, or only, motivation for writing, but self-published authors do charge for their books, and do hope some day to turn a profit. I don't charge for access to my blog, I don't charge to write reviews, I don't ever hope to see a single cent from my blog. Making a loss doesn't mean you're not engaged in a profit-making enterprise, it just means you haven't turned a profit yet.

"You can't say you don't like indie-published boks." Eh. Clearly bloggers can (I don't). Perhaps what you meant was that bloggers shouldn't, and you're entitled to your opinion, and I agree with you, which is why I review self-published books on my blog. However, giving out to bloggers for their blanket refusals is not going to change anything, and may in fact make things worse, so I don't see what you hoped to achieve with either of your posts.

Perhaps there are responses to your blog which I did not read, but certainly in the ones I did read, and in the one I wrote, it was not you asking bloggers to reconsider their position that I found offensive, it was the use of words like "duplicitous" and "condescending." You've since apologised for that, which is fine, but you hadn't at the time. People are perfectly entitled to be offended by someone who implies they are deceptive or dishonest.

Seeing as I'm the "one blogger" who said I don't buy the whole sisterhood thing, I find it interesting that in the same sentence, you go on to discuss a "power/peon" relationship, seemingly in relation to my comment, or post. I genuinely have absolutely no idea where you are coming from with that one. Book bloggers are power-hungry maniacs who enjoy holding book reviews over authors' heads. They are book-lovers who just share their thoughts on books with the internet. When the bloggers I've read said that they would be unaffected by a publisher's decision not to share books with them, they were clear in that they meant they bought most of the books they reviewed, and so would be able to carry on as normal. There was no "You better watch your step or I'll blacklist you" connotation in any of the posts I read, nor in the one I wrote. Any bloggers who did blacklist you (I offered to review your book) probably did so because of your astoundingly poor word choice in describing them as "duplicitous" and "condescending." They're entitled to do that.

thereviewlady said...

Clearly I meant in my last comment that book bloggers are not power-hungry.

Jes said...

Really enjoyed both posts, Elly! I especially like your discussion of point #2 ... it's an interesting subject, and I can see where both sides are coming from - but as we move more and more to electronic publishing, I think that your definition will become more accepted. (Also, I for one have seen some publishing guidelines for short stories and the like that consider work that has already been made available online - via blog or whatever - as "previously published".)
As others have mentioned, the discussion in the comments section is also really interesting, and it's been great to see the variety of viewpoints!
Overall, I hope what everyone takes away is that quality work should be given a chance ... regardless of who publishes it!

Lauren said...

I haven't worked with book reviewers (I've just recently started researching for e-publishing) but I've seen some of the reviews posted for other books and I've seen some of the backlash when reviewers DON'T like a book. I've also seen reviews that were copy-and-pasted from somebody's sewer, and reviewers who obviously hadn't read the book. These so-called reviewers just create more problems.

Why is it that when people buy garbage in the bookstore they just sigh and try something else, but when it's self-published they freak?

My own blog this week was on e-publishing, and no it was not a response to your "virus."

Word choice problems aside, you're addressing something that needs to be considered.

Dan L-K said...

thereviewlady, I'm having a hard time not parsing your comment as a kind of tone argument: "I'd be on your side if only you were better behaved." Which I find doubly head-scratching in light of how much exception you take at the word condescending, but then use a phrase like "your astoundingly poor word choice" in the same thought - as if there's nothing at all condescending about saying such a thing, especially speaking as guest to host. As gently as I can put this, it may be worth considering if there is a mote-and-beam issue at play here.

Look, Elly is a writer; her natural state is wanting to be read. And she takes seriously the precept that if you make the choice to self-publish, you take on the responsibility of also being packager, marketing, and all the rest. In the course of this work, she ran into obstacles that look bizarre and arbitrary to her, and tried to make a not-entirely-dispassionate case for herself where some of her frustration wound up showing through. Was some of what she said less politic than it might have been? Sure, okay; she's willing to cop to that. And you're right that people are allowed to take offense anyway. But I can't help but feel that some of the reaction has been... disproportionate. And so I have to wonder what else is at stake for the detractors that it should be so. Or maybe I'm just woefully out of touch, and taking up torch and pitchfork and umbrage is a standard response to being called a bunch of meanies on the Internets. But, jeezy creezy, maybe it shouldn't ought to be.

(I am entirely in agreement with you, though, that she should not be quite so hasty to suggest she might be violating Yog's Law. If I am not exactly an impartial observer here, it's partly because I hope her writing brings great success and fortune, however much it may not be her motive in the first place.)

Jillian said...

Elly -

A person who reads about 50 books a year from age 15 to 85 -- will only read 3,500 books. That would be why people are choosy.

Why not continue what you tried to say here by practicing what you preach? You are obviously passionate about supporting self-published books. You have a public feed here. You should be buying, reading, accepting, and talking about great self-published works while you write your own work -- if you are honest in your message within this post.

Yes, I did slip "while you write" in there, because you (seem) to be viewing book bloggers as the enemy on the other side of some invisible wall? If one likes literature, it is very likely one likes to both write and read it. Book bloggers are often writers who take time to support their passion: Persophone books, classics books, translated works, self-published books. We do this in the middle of everything else we do -- because we love literature. And let me tell you, a person who loves literature will love it quite beyond the free review copy.

Book blogs are still a new thing. Until recently, people had to rely on reviews by professionals, and book clubs, to learn about what to read. Self-published books have always gotten a raw deal. YOU have the potential to help that with YOUR blog. Really, just as much as the bloggers you seem to be attempting to reach.

So why not start telling people -- not what they should do -- but what YOU have done to support the self-published.

As for me, I will continue to select my 3,500+ lifetime titles as I always have -- by my own barometer.

I wish you the very best of luck.

(I think Walt Whitman was self-published. I love what I've read of Leaves of Grass.)

Elly Zupko said...

Forgive me, all; I'm a bit behind on responding.

Lizzy - I have to start by saying I really like the tagline on your blog: "The first step to writing is reading." I think you and Jillian may have some things to talk about!

Thanks for bringing your perspective into this. Agreed, there are a lot of crap books out there, but also some good ones--ones with potential to become beloved favorites. (And I purposely make this statement as-is, without differentiating indie from legacy.) I checked out the first few pages of The Twenty, and I have to say it turned me off after only a few sentences. The fact that it's indie doesn't mean anything to me, but, for instance, the good old "show don't tell" rule has been shattered into pieces. So I'd skip that one, not based on its publisher, but based on the 60 seconds I spent reading it.

Ciara - I don't want this discussion to be contentious, but I feel like we are not communicating well with one another.

I've read all the public responses to my posts that I've found, including all the comments, as well as numerous tweets at and about me. I am not imagining the animosity. It's not coming from everyone, but it's there. I don't want to get into details, or god forbid quote anything, because I'm trying to get beyond that. But these are not easy things to hear; they are even harder things to think about when trying to fall asleep at night. It may go without saying, but I posted a generalized, public letter--and all the rebuttals are aimed squarely at me personnally. I deserved a discussion, not attacks en masse.

I take issue with several of the logical leaps you're making in this comment, but I don't think we're ever going to see eye to eye in this type of forum. Perhaps someday fate will bring us together and we can hash it over coffee. ;)

Elly Zupko said...

Jes - Thanks! I'm glad you can see both sides; I can, too. That's a great point you bring up about what other publishers consider "previously published." I hadn't thought of that, but you're absolutely right!

Lauren - Can't wait to go check out your blog. I love the question you pose. There IS a ton of garbage out there, and some of it is on the bestseller list! But that hasn't tainted the whole of the publishing industry. We just take it for granted that some stuff is good, some is bad. Some is your taste, some isn't. In a time when self-published books are appearing at a faster rate than legacy published ones, it's time for the realization that people may no longer know for certain where to look to find the best of what's out there.

Dan - I'll just say that I think you said everthing that needs saying. :)

Jillian - Thanks for this intelligent and politely posed comment. (Also, I love math, so thanks for the stats.) You make a great point. I actually do buy and read self-published and small press work. I'll take this opportunity to praise my friend Gavin St. Ours' debut short story collection, Soothsayer in Aisle Five, which I really enjoyed. Gavin was part of the University of Baltimore M.A. in Publishing Arts program, wherein the graduate thesis is to self-publish a work of fiction, poetry, or memoir. It's AWESOME to see 30 writers on stage who brought their own work into existence in such a nurturing creative environment. My partner and I bought several books after the graduating class's reading.

I do review what I read on Goodreads (albeit with shameful irregularity), but I'll take your advice and post some reviews right here on this blog. You're absolutely right: there IS good work being independently published, and it'll be a stronger message to show it rather than just say it.

I don't think book bloggers are the "enemy." If anything, it was my initial intent to point out our similarities and the inherent synergies. However, my relationship with certain factions of the community has undoubtedly disintegrated over the past days and it's done a bit to harden my idealist notions of some new utopian publishing paradigm. But with the revolution we've seen over the past 5 years, who knows what the future holds?

Pam said...

A lot of us (that have reviewed for five years or more) do not review self published books SIMPLY just because we don't have the time to do so. I mean I have to vet the book, there's not press release to tell me what it is about, and I don't know if it has had any decent editing. I get 15 books a week in the mail. I can't read all of that. I have a website where I put a staff of book lovers on it and I send the extras to them. Even with a new staff I STILL don't have time to open up to self publish. So it is less about stigma and more about I just can't take on one more thing. So yeah both your letters offend me, because I would try to be supportive if I could, but I can't, and you telling me I should is ridiculous. I work, I have two kids, two dogs, and a handsome little guinea pig. It is perfectly fine that I don't have time for you. You shouldn't try to guilt people into having time for you. Kirkus will review your book if you pay them, but if you are just trying to use bloggers because the do it for free I have no sympathy for your book being turned down.