Integrity in the Community: Do we REALLY like things, or are we praising because we want free stuff?

Posted May 28, 2019 by Amber in Bookish Things / 11 Comments

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A few weeks ago, I did a post highlighting some of my favorite book bloggers.  One of these ladies – NovelKnight – also keeps a bookstagram feed I watch religiously.  Recently, she spoke a little about ARCs, repping, and honest opinions.

Sign me up for this discussion, guys, because it’s a good one.

As bloggers, bookstagrammers, and general influencers in the bookish community, we have a responsibility to give a genuine, honest review of the novels we read and the items we purchase. With items we’re buying on our own, this is easy!  I know people squirm about giving negative reviews, but as a reader I value negative (detailed) reviews over positive ones and never shirk away from giving them myself.  It’s all about why you’re rating something a certain way, not the number of stars involved.  But it seems like for some folks, it’s easier to compromise your real feelings and play it nice.

I’m not saying this to call out anyone.  If you’re giving a shiny review on a book you didn’t like, I probably wouldn’t know.  I do want to talk about the pressure to give a good review, though, and why we as influencers need to band together and maintain our integrity.

Here’s the thing.

There are little to no material perks to being a book blogger.  Many of us pay for the books we read, our hosting, domain, and want to keep our blogs ad-free if we can.  And that’s just base level stuff.  What about bookstagrammers and booktubers, who have sets and props?  All this is out of pocket.  Why do we do it?  Well, for the love of books, naturally, but also the slim hope that we’ll be granted an ARC or win a rep search.  How do we do it?  We do it with the help of our followers, commenters, and friends here in the community.  When it comes to free bookish stuff, it’s all about personality and numbers.

So, as a blogger, you’ve worked hard.  You’ve made a lot of connections, you get great interactions on your platforms, and you love what you do.  You win a rep search!  How exciting is that!?  Then when the items come… you’re not in love with them.

Awkward.

There’s a couple paths a professional can take here.  The first is the bright and shiny approach.

Anyone who has worked in retail knows how this works:  it’s your job to smile, say nice things about a product you really don’t recommend, and remember that the customer/corporate/manufacturer is always right.  You put your feelings aside and do what you know is hoped for, so you can continue to receive free products and maintain a good relationship with the publisher or business.

I call this the Retail approach.  For anyone out there who has worked in retail, you know the mantra: “The Customer is Always Right”.  You can’t disagree, can’t argue, can’t point out obvious things.  You bow to the customer, and you also bow to the companies whose products you sell.  If you are the salesperson and Corporate tells you to push a printer that vomits ink all over the place, it’s your job and you do it, end of story.  Or you don’t have a job.  The Retail approach means that you have been contracted to be bright and shiny and that’s the end of the story.  You smile on the outside and weep on the inside.

The Retail approach is a bit concerning for me, as a reader and as an influencer.  On the one hand, I totally get that it’s important to be tactful and maintain good relationships.  I want that too.  But I’m not comfortable achieving a good relationship at the potential cost of my own integrity.

Guys, if I love a book, I will shout about it to high heavens.  Tess of the Road?  I received an ARC of that book and more than a year after reading it, it’s still one of my top recommendations to people (seriously I loved this book – go read it).  We are all volunteers out here in the community and there is no contract binding us to a favorable review.  When I receive an ARC copy from LibraryThing, not only does it not say to please only post positive reviews (which would be complete BS – can you imagine is anyone actually said that?!) but it even says I’m not required to review at all… although it is appreciated.

Rep searches are a little different.  There are outlines set in advance.  They say they will send you X amount of products for free, and in return, you are required to feature said products X amount of times.  Failure to adhere to these guideline on either part nullifies the informal agreement.  If anyone has repped for a company that requested positive reviews on the down-low, I’d love to know about it… but I can’t imagine.

Here’s the thing about rep searches, reviews, and honesty… beyond your own integrity:  false information can be more damaging than hard truths.  Let’s say I rep for Candle Company and they send me a candle that says vanilla and cinnamon but smells like horse manure baking in the July heat.  If I lie about it – either directly or through omission – and then YOU buy that candle… you’re gonna be pretty mad.  Not just at me, but at the vendor!

Then maybe you turn around and talk about how bad the product is and how you bought it on my recommendation.  And all your followers hear about it.  Not only is my reputation as an honest influencer shot, but Candle Company still got a bad review.  It’s much kinder to be honest:  “The colors and packaging were great, but the scent was way off – I think I’d try a different aroma in the future.”

That’s how we can be honest without being mean.

This is the Unpopular Opinion approach.

The Unpopular Opinion approach is really difficult.  You may experience all sorts of criticism for saying you didn’t like something, and that can be unnerving.  It can feel like a bunch of people are mad at you – some people probably are.  The Unpopular Opinion approach is more difficult, but it’s the truest and best way to go.  I can’t speak for the rest of the community, but for as much as I am both a consumer and an influencer, I will trust you more for it.

The best thing to do when you take the Unpopular Opinion approach is to understand that you have stuck to your own truths and anyone who stands against you does so for their own reasons, and that’s none of your concern.  You don’t have to bicker with people.  You don’t need to apologize.

What you do need to do – positive review or negative – is say why.  The “why” of things is so important.  Even if you don’t like something, giving an honest review is important so other consumers have realistic expectations.  But you must be kind.  Taking a negative review is difficult… it’s best to be nice about it.  Saying something “is not for you, but may suit others” or giving sandwich feedback is good to creative a positive critical environment.  Remember at all times to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Do you want to hear bad news yourself?  No, of course not.  But are you better able to handle a conversational discussion of pros and cons rather than a flat out attack?  Of course!

All in all, I want to believe that that book blogging community, Book Twitter, and the bookstagram communities are honest about their reviews… but after seeing so many reviews on products I’ve tried and found mediocre… I’m hesitant.  These days, I do my best to make sure I fully trust the reviewer (consumer, influencer, or rep) before diving in.  And I’ve had some GREAT recommendations, too!  I discovered Illumicrate and Ink and Wonder and Alchemy and Ink and all sorts of other small bookish companies through community recommendations, and I am in love with these sellers.  So the rep system works!  But I think it’s our responsibility as a community to make sure it keeps working.

As for my own unboxings here on the blog and on Instagram, I hope I’m leading you guys right.  I try to give my honest opinion on how boxes and items work for me and I am much more careful these days about giving fair and accurate portrayals of each item I choose to share.

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Have you ever been lead wrong about a product?  Was it my fault?  If you didn’t like something I recommended, let me know! 🙂 And share your worst recommendation experiences in the comments!

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11 responses to “Integrity in the Community: Do we REALLY like things, or are we praising because we want free stuff?

  1. Apparently I’m doing something very wrong because whether I like something or not I don’t get anything free. I get arcs before the reviews and publishers always know that review can go either way and I dont believe (although i guess I wouldnt know) any publisher has refused a future arc based on a previous past review. Now even I knew of this free stuff that I’ve been unaware of… no I wouldnt throw a review for them. But apparently I’ve been way out of the loop and need some kind soul to catch me up beyond the information in this blog that left me going say what lol.

    • Amber

      Yeah, a lot of people – particularly booktubers and bookstagrammers – enter “rep searches” for book boxes, candle companies, etc. Typically rep spots go to large accounts (over 5k followers, at least on Instagram) and you have to feature and talk about their products for a set amount of time. Like a door-to-door salesman, except they get the product for free instead of getting paid. I personally am not a big enough influencer to qualify for rep searches. 🙂

  2. Leah

    I entered a few rep searches on IG, but my bookish account is a tiny speck compared to some of the big accounts. I kind of gave up on that and posting, but I will do so occasionally.

    One of my book clubs takes place in a bookstore and they let us picks ARCs out for upcoming books to borrow, which is how I get most of mine advance copies that I try to review on the blog. But most of my books are library loans or books I buy, it’s definitely labor of love. I just like reviewing and talking to other people who love stories and books as much as I do. 🙂

    • Amber

      That is so nice of the bookstore! I’m with you – I don’t mind because it’s so nice to be in a community of people who love what I love and want to talk about it. Physical perks aside. I think that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the whirlwind of blog tours and competitive searches that it’s easy to forget what we came here for in the first place. 🙂

  3. First of all I want to tell you that I love the new look of your blog, it looks FANTASTIC!
    Now that I have that out of the way, I agree with you. I personally love reading reviews that aren’t glowing because they tend to be more balanced in my opinion. And easier for me as a consumer to decide if a book might be for me: because no two people read the same book and every experience is different. I know it is uncomfortable to dislike a book that everyone else does, or even worse a book you received from a publisher! In my experience though pubs have been so understanding and gracious about it, so I don’t stress too much now sharing my experience.

    Interesting you bring up on the reps and unboxings though. I watch a few on Youtube each month and always think to myself id the person would actually say they didn’t like something because it was sent to them for free by the company. It is a fine line, but I do think in the bookish community we as a whole have a lot of integrity.

    Kaleena @ Reader Voracious Blog recently posted: Stranger Than Fiction: Sophia the Robot & AI Technology
    • Amber

      I’m so glad you get that general vibe from the community. 🙂 I like to believe that people are honest, too. The inspiration for this post came because the blogger/bookstagrammer I mentioned in the beginning, Austine @ NovelKnight, had posted a couple negative reviews for different boxes where she didn’t care for the items and didn’t think it was worth the price for her… and the reviews were informative and thoughtful and honest. But then she posted again that she was getting a lot of hate in her DMs… basically a “how dare you, they gave you this for FREE” and she was asking people to be respectful of her desire to be honest and I was just… flabbergasted. I’m grateful for those types of reviews and I try to emulate in my own unboxings… I hope that everyone in the community to get to this place of transparency and respect. 🙂

  4. amy

    Such an interesting post! Definitely something that I have been thinking about too. I have never received free products before, but I have received books from publishers. I am completely honest in my reviews, am I hesitant, perhaps a bit nervous, when I upload that not so shiny but always honest review? Yes, I am. But I do it anyway. I think one of the most important things about book blogging and blogging in general, is to always be honest! 🙂

    • Amber

      I absolutely agree – honesty is SO important. And it IS scary to give anything other than a glowing review… but honesty is more important. 🙂 If we all respect one another I think everyone will be okay. I hope! But there are always folks who take things personally.

  5. I loved this Amber!! I do tend to err on the side of upbeat haahaha. but honestly I do call out particular aspects of books that I don’t enjoy. I’ve gone back and forth about it with myself. Should I make it a huge part of my review or a small part? I do feel like one of the reasons I’m a book blogger is to talk about these elements I don’t enjoy but do I have to be all down on the book about it too? I think I’ve found a balance in my reviews and I hope its really helpful. ❤️

    • Amber

      I think it’s definitely possible to be both upbeat and honest! It’s really all about *how* things are said. I find that there are a LOT of instances where editors have failed authors when the books resign unreadable… I think as a blogger I’m getting better at separating out the elements, i.e. good plot, poor character choices. And so many books we don’t like have nothing fundamentally wrong with them – they just aren’t a good fit for us as readers. I think there’s a greater temptation to be overly gracious – even when it’s not true – in visual formats… like BookTube and Bookstagram. I’m actually in the bookstagram community and I can see how it’s so easy to just say “look at this, it’s lovely!” in quick-format reviews, especially because while we bloggers work with publishers, most bookstagrammers work with small businesses and are heavily competing for rep searches.