Virtual Sweatshop

While it’s very nice to see coverage of the book world online, the Village Voice does raise an interesting point about Kevin Smokler‘s Virtual Book Tour.

Smokler charges $1,500 for a one-day tour, allowing an author to make the rounds on several other blogs. (A three-day intensive will set you back about $3,000.) Smokler pockets the money from the publisher, and doesn’t distribute any of it among the blogs who essentially turn themselves into uncritical advertisers of an author. Instead, he offers a free copy of the book for each participating site, something that any legitimate litblog can obtain for free from a publisher (and from the publisher’s end, a comp book actually costs much less as a publicity item than the supplemental income that lands in Smokler’s lap).

“Paying them would open up an ethical hornet’s nest,” says Smokler, “since there’s no way we can expect bloggers to be impartial if we’re paying them.” (Emphasis added.)

I have to question the ethics of this. If you sublet an apartment to someone, you expect the tenant to pay. If you sell magazine space to an advertiser, you expect the advertiser to pay for the column inches. So if Smokler wants to turn blogs into a PR machine, why then should the bloggers who let their spaces not be entitled to collect?

Beyond the troubling notion that those who participate in the Virtual Book Tour are no different from the people who walk around the beach in a Nike T-shirt, because they are apparently precluded from commenting on the weaknesses of a particular book (partiality or impartiality, I’ve yet to see anything critical on the various VBTs), there’s the seedy notion that Smokler is running a small-time sweatshop. Surely, the bloggers who put in the time to read the book and who style content to a particular author are entitled to earn money for their labor. An advertisement is an advertisement is an advertisement, even if it’s for a book that happens to enjoyable.

That’s why I’m proud to be part of the Litblog Co-Op. You see, if certain members don’t enjoy a book, they won’t be nearly as hindered from voicing their thoughts and opinions. The LBC exists for the love, not the money.

And, no, you couldn’t pay this site any amount of money to shift our content to an advertiser. The coverage here remains independent and unsullied. And that includes not littering our posts with Amazon links and actually attributing the original bloggers who cover a story. Anything less than this strikes me as downright parasitical.

[UPDATE: Scott and Bud have more thoughts on how “parasitical” the litblogosphere can be. And I should point out that not a single contributor to Bookslut (including me) has received a cash payment for their work. Not that I mind, but if that isn’t being parasitical, I don’t know what is.]

[UPDATE 2: Jessa has emailed me to tell me that Bookslut does pay for features.]

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  1. Right on. I have to say I am extremely skeptical of VBT because couldn’t an author just arrange this for themselves with blogs they felt would attract readers that would match up with their work? It doesn’t seem like nearly that much cyber-legwork to me and even if the author picked up the tab for offering review copies to the blogs, it would still be far less than $3,000. The concept is solid, but I don’t really understand the need for a middleman.

  2. It is interesting though, as publishing companies are just really now getting into looking at the internet.

    In the past week, I’ve had four authors send me emails stating the publishers of their forthcoming books have asked them to compile a list of online bloggers that they think might be good fits for their work.

    I’ve also had two publicists ask if they thought they should sent the books they’re working onto LBC members.

    I tell everybody the same thing – read somebody’s LitBlog for about a week, maybe ten days if they don’t post as frequently, and you’ll know pretty well if you should contact them about sending a review copy.

    For now, they may be willing to pay for the middleman if they don’t have a realtionship with somebody online already.


  3. You and Scott and Bud all rock. I am linking to this soonest, as I don’t have much in the way of original content going up on my site, unless you count today, and the day before that, and the day before that, and…. THB

  4. Tis’ I, the minder the Virtual Sweatshop. Allow me to clarify…

    1) No site participates in the VBT against their will. All do so voluntarily.

    2) Every site is free to express any opinion about the touring book they like, even if they think it stinks. I don’t edit their content and warn the author of this ahead of time. Just because the sites haven’t been critical doesn’t mean I’ve demanded adulation of them.

    3) No site that I have approached about particpating in the VBT has ever asked to be paid. Only those whom I haven’t have raised questions about this policy.

    4) I would nothing more than for authors to start soliciting blogs and to leave me out of it. Yes, I like the money, yes I like the concept. But the entire point of the Virtual Book Tour was to get blogs recognized as a legitimate forum for book discussion. Since that has happened anyway, I suppose I can retire now.

  5. Kevin:

    1. The impression you’re creating is that this is a way to translate work across a new medium. But it’s not nearly as rosy as you’re making it out to be. Do you EXPLICITLY communicate to the participating sites that you’re making money off this? Do you even offer a stipend for potential bandwidth overage? My guess would be no.

    2. Because you’ve framed this in the context of a “book tour,” that essentially means PR, PR, PR. Or an uncritical nexus. The fact that you hand pick the sites yourself and avoid honest rabble-rousters (in much the same way that an aging music lover lies to himself that he’s down with indie pop, but listens to nothing edgier than the Tragically Hip) shows that you’re less interested in a truthful or critical depiction of a book and more interested in internecine braying and back-slapping. How is this independent? How is the VBT any different from cashing in on a John Grisham publicity budget windfall?

    3. They haven’t asked to be paid, because blogs are independent by nature and would unfurl their passion regardless of two-bit hucksters like you trying to cash in and corrupt the medium. Further, I don’t think they’re aware of how much you’re pocketing (and that includes the $75/hour overage fee you charge). Talk about a Trojan horse.

    4. Actually, Kevin, the entire point here is that you LIKE THE MONEY. And that you like the money so much as to not distribute it rightfully amongst the people who participate. My concerns about having a middleman set aside, I wouldn’t have so much a problem if you distributed even $1,000 of the $3,000 to the eleven sites participating on your next book tour (or about $90 per site for their work). That way, you get a nice kickback, the sites who participate are rewarded for turning over their blogs for VBT content, and ample compensation is provided for services rendered.

    You still haven’t commented upon the main quote: “There’s no way we can expect bloggers to be impartial if we’re paying them.” I get the distinct feeling that “impartial” means uncritical. So this really isn’t about blogs as a medium at all, is it? It’s about you collecting a small sum and ensuring flatline coverage, sans a spark of snark, in the process.

    As a wise man once said, that ain’t right.

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