Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Blog Ethics and Mentoring

Aspiring author Adrian with me
(photo by Charlotte Agell)

Last week Kristi@Story Siren, asked “Are author/reviewer relationships a good thing or a bad thing?” Many Young Adult book blogger are teenagers, although there are adults like Kristi (and me.) Kristi noted some interactions like: “Oh! You want me to review your novel! Let’s be BFF’s!!” Connections happen on Twitter and on Facebook or through e-mail privately.

An interesting discussion between YA bloggers and authors ensued in the comments, which Kristi summarized. One YA author felt like she was back in high school with the “cool kids” being the bloggers and the authors the “wannabes.” There were also many good friendships stemming from a shared love of books.

Most bloggers thought author/reviewer relationships were good and would not affect their own reviews. Nonetheless, there was also concern about favoritism on other blogs.  Many admitted to being "star struck" by authors, but the reviewers were striving for professionalism. Having read through the string, I found a code of book blogger ethics emerging, although there was a range of opinion on these issues:

1. Bloggers owe it to their readers to be honest and unbiased.
2. Criticism should be constructive and grounded in explanations.
3. Negative reviews should ideally include some positive feedback.
4. Transparency about personal relationships with authors is key 
(my comment.)
5. Reveal your review policy: what are your selection criteria?

It’s encouraging to see young adults thinking about ethical issues and striving for professionalism. With power to shape the market, comes responsibility. The maturity of the discussion impressed me since many participants were teens. Isn’t it fascinating that this initial discussion on review ethics is happening on YA book blogs instead of on adult book blogs?

These posts made me think about my book review policy as I'm reading an ARC of Dune Road (Girl Friday, UK) by my author friend, Jane Green. I'd characterize our relationship as more professional than personal. We teamed up last fall to be writing partners to offer emotional support on our next novels. I'm still working on mine. I have always been upfront about personal connections although I do try to retain objectivity in my reviews.

I straddle the author/reviewer divide because I’m both a writer and a book blogger. I read mostly adult and some young adult fiction. My reading time is limited so I only review books I like. I’d also find it hard to post a negative review of another novelist. I do value blogs that review all books and rate them, but that isn’t what my blog is about. My aim is to share the novels I’ve enjoyed and to learn by analyzing them critically. I’ve always held that the best writing teacher is a well-written book.

Adrian being mentored by YA author Charlotte Agell

Last week I was asked to share my experience of book blogging and writing with a high school sophomore. Adrian aspires to being an author or an artist. Through the mentoring program at her school, Adrian connected with YA author and teacher, Charlotte Agell. Charlotte is both a good friend and a writing colleague of mine. We give each other feedback on our manuscripts. The three of us went for a dog walk and shared our experiences at getting started.

The first step to becoming an author these days is finding a literary agent. When Charlotte first started writing and illustrating children’s books years ago, she submitted directly to publishers. It was a lot of extra work. Most publishers these days won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. A good agent works on commission after the book sells to a publisher. Charlotte found her agent by getting on a bus to Maine. Just by chance, agent Edite Kroll sat beside her. I was lucky to connect with my agent, Jean Naggar, in New York City. It’s all about meeting the right person at the right time.

Adrian was very lucky to have Charlotte as a mentor for three days. It is so helpful for teenagers to connect with professionals, whether they make these connections through a mentoring program or through blogging. They are learning about how to follow their dreams and the hard work of making the dream a reality.

Blog Watch: for a really fine example of quality book blogging, visit dovegreyreader scribbles. The two best literary agent blogs are Miss Snark and Nathan Bransford. They’ll teach you everything you need to know about finding a reputable agent and getting started as a professional author.

Portland Harbor


A Cuban In London said...

'My reading time is limited so I only review books I like.'

This, to me, sums up the experience of blog-book-reviewing. Unlike newspapers critics you are under no obligation to review a particular novel, or essay. Unless, that is, someone is paying you. When I review for catchavibe I do it for free. When I used to write for 'Noticias', the monthly Latin American newspaper in GB I used to get paid peanuts, so monetary retribution was not paramount for me.

I always had that impression of your reviews, by the way. That you focused on works that appealed to you and may I be the first one to say, yes, well done. I think there's enough negativity in the mainstream media for bloggers to also take on that role. And there's another bonus with reviewers who focus on works they like. We get recommendations. So, for the past few months I have been writing down some of the titles you have mentioned and recommended and come my birthday and Christmas time, I will probably be buying some of those books.

Many thanks for such an honest, thorough and thought-provoking post.

Greetings from London.

tina said...

I can see where this would be a fine line to draw, however, it IS your blog and you are not paid to do it. You should write whatever you like regardless of your relationship to the authors you review. Transparency is key and so far I've seen every blogger be up front about why and what they are doing on all reviews of products and books. A good thing.

Cid said...

How wonderful for upcoming authors to find such support through bloggers and other authors, we can't all meet our agent on a bus. There is much to be gained by this and ultimately we all enjoy a more varied literary field as a result.

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, your comment made my day. Thank you! I’m not surprised that you have been a semi-professional reviewer; your reviews are so thoughtful and critical. You blog about interesting books that are new to me. The sharing of good books is one of the best by-products of our blog community.

Tina, it is a hard line to draw. That’s a good point that you, like ACIL, make about not getting paid gives the blogger ownership of content. It’s good to hear that other blogs are striving for transparency too.

Cid, I hope my blog can be the virtual bus for book lovers and writers. I love Charlotte’s story – it totally fits her personality and the whimsical quality of her books. We became friends through our writing before blogs. It’s only natural for writers to become friends with other writers or reviewers, especially since we work alone. That’s fine if transparency is part of the review.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Beautiful and direct commentary, Sarah. I love the idea of mentoring young adults through blogging and chatting. I think what you are doing here at your blog is incredible. <3

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, thank you! It is fun how blogs bring together people of all ages around common interests. If people learn from me, I learn from them too.

Bee said...

Sarah - I read this post (and the one you cited) with great interest. I think that CIL has said most of what I was going to say . . . but in my own words, I always think of blogging as sharing between friends. I write about the books I've particularly enjoyed -- and I've been trying to highlight new authors or recently published books, mostly because I know that the publishing world could use any boost (even my tiny one). Coincidentally, I mentioned Amanda Craig's new book today -- which I read about in dovegreyreader scribbles. Craig has recently written a post about how important it is for readers to actually BUY books, so I suppose that bloggers can have some influence. However, in my mind, the authors will always be the "cool kids." The bloggers? The grateful audience.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, how funny: I clicked to publish a comment on your post and heard the blip of your comment on mine. We are also both thinking about books today.

Thumbs up from both you and Lynne makes me want to check out Craig. Thanks for the recommendation.

I like your take on blogging as sharing between friends. I feel that way too. Authors are definitely cool but so are bloggers like you. I don’t see it as a big divide – we all love words. If bloggers can help promote good new books, all the better.

Keri Mikulski said...

Nice post.

Mentoring is such a wonderful thing to do. I'm glad you're enjoying your experience with your friend and high school sophomore and sharing your amazing insight.

Sarah Laurence said...

Keri, you must get similar satisfaction from writing for teens. It is a fun age.

Charlotte Agell said...

How fun to have that sunny moment appear again on the blog!

Sarah Laurence said...

It was a perfect day.

Mary Ellen said...

Of late, I have come across a couple of book blogs that were unsatisfying, and I realize why, after reading this post. There was something naggingly unobjective about the reviews. The odd thing with one of them was that I actually had read the book, and liked it, and still felt uncomfortable about the review.

Your point about transparency regarding relationships is a good one, and I suspect the lack of it was at the root of the problem with those reviews.

As ever, you continue to raise interesting issues.

TBM said...

What a wonderful post, Sarah! I look forward to your excellent book reviews, so I really do appreciate this insight into your process. What a lovely thing for you and Charlotte to do for Adrian. I expect it will be something she will remember always.

Dave King said...

A superb blog, full of useful tips and info'. Thanks especially for the links.

Rose said...

How fortunate for Adrian to be able to be paired with a published author! Not many schools could give a student that kind of opportunity.

Your discussion of blog ethics for book reviewing is excellent, and a topic that is very timely. I remember teaching in the days before the internet (yes, I'm that old!). When we finally had internet access and students began doing more and more of their research there, it was important to teach them that not everything posted on the Web was accurate or reliable. In the same way, I think it's important for book bloggers to be honest about their relationships with authors and their opinions of the books.

I prefer to discuss only those books I like, too, which is partly why I won't have a post for the next Book Club meeting--I've been too busy out in the garden to read anything worthwhile!

Donna said...

I like that you aren't negative about books on your blog. Your feedback is very good and honest, and never disrespectful.
I've learned a lot about what it must be like to be an author as well as a book reviewer from reading your blog. Thank you for that!

Elizabeth said...

A most interesting post, Sarah.
I do totally agree that Blogland should be a positive place. I have found your reviews to be thoughtful, well balanced and insightful.
A friend who reviews restaurants for Newsday on Long Island has an excellent policy similar to yours: if she likes a restaurant, she will write about it on the assumption that the people reading her column might want to go out to eat. Your readers are looking for reading suggestions. A win-win situation.
Thank you for the suggestion of the dovegrayreader - she is new to me and sounds a real bookoholic.
I loved Bee's recent post about reading where she says she'd love to hear your favorite books....
I would too.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Interesting information. Like a cat with a new ball of yarn, I play around with the idea of writing sometimes.

David Cranmer said...

Excellent, informative post and well needed.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Thanks for putting into words so many of the points I've been trying to nail down. I'm also a book blogger who is a writer, and, as yours is, my blog is about other things as well. So I've been trying to formulate a book reviewing policy. Your post has me on my way. Also, great comments. Definitely agree about blogs as a sharing between friends.


Sarah Laurence said...

ME, thanks for your thoughtful comments on book reviews.

JAPRA, Charlotte is very generous to give so much of her time both in the classroom and as a mentor. Her involvement with kids helps her writing too.

Dave, good to hear that the links are helpful.

Rose, Charlotte teaches writing at that school but many other community members volunteer their time. The internet is both a blessing and a curse. Good teachers like you teach surfers to be skeptical. The garden is drawing me outside too.

Donna, thank you! Your comments are always a delight.

Elizabeth, I like that my blog in posts and in comments is a positive place. There is already enough negative stuff out there. You and dovegreyreader are a great match. I’m definitely thinking about a favorite books post. I enjoyed Bee’s one very much. I hope you do one too.

Pamela, I can see from your blog that you enjoy playing with words. Run with your ideas and have fun.

David, glad to hear this post was helpful.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, welcome to my blog! I enjoyed visiting your blog too.

Anil P said...

I think it is critical for authors to connect with YA book bloggers, and vice versa. It can only be for the good.

With YA book blogging taking off, coupled with the ease of Web 2.0 connectivity, it is now possible to 'interact' closely with the author, helping YA book bloggers gain valuable author perspectives, a context to frame the book review against.

The code of ethics is well done, should help any book blog gain credibility so long as it will not constrain the reviewer into checking oneself too much in expressing an instinctive take on the book.

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting it!
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of HOPE..
Ch. 1 is online!

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, I can’t take credit for the code of ethics entirely – it’s what I pieced together after reading YA book blogger comments and posts. Many reviews are gut reactions, others try to sound more professional. All are worth sharing.

Beth, welcome back! It’s good to get YA authors in on this too.