Why Isn’t Just Reading Enough Anymore?

Kim Ukura

Staff Writer

Kim Ukura is a book lover, recovering journalist, library advocate, cat mom, and lover of a good gin cocktail. In addition to co-hosting Book Riot’s nonfiction podcast, For Real, and co-editing Book Riot’s nonfiction newsletter, True Story, Kim spends her days working in communications at a county library system in the Twin Cities area. Kim has a BA in English and journalism from a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and a master’s in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. When not getting to bed before 10 p.m., Kim loves to read nonfiction, do needlework projects, drink tea, and watch the Great British Baking Show. Instagram: @kimthedork Twitter: @kimthedork

When did there get to be so many expectations for readers?

Simply reading books – and, maybe, if we liked them, telling our friends about them – just doesn’t seem to be enough any more. Now it looks like publishers may have taken readers’ jokey offers to “work for books” literally, and that’s just what they’re asking us to do.

In the last month or so (as far as I can tell) the Crown Publishing Group has been pushing a new review program for book bloggers called Blogging for Books (that is the most tone deaf program name). Book blogger Michele at A Reader’s Respite wrote a wonderful post about the initial problems with the program and, after conversing with the folks at Crown, posted an update to how the company may be addressing some of the most egregious aspects of the program. Even with some tweaks, I still think it’s a terrible program for book bloggers, but that’s not the point of this post.

Blogging for Books is very explicit about what it expects reviewers to do after they’ve received a book for review — if they want to continue to participate in the program. Reviewers were required (now just encouraged) to post their thoughts online in a review, on a book retailer website, and via their social media. The “penalty” for not following through with these steps is being cut off from the program. As far as I can tell from the Frequently Asked Questions, there’s no option to just choose not to finish or not review a book.

Under Blogging for Books, the vision of an ideal reader is one who reads everything, writes about it, then shares those thoughts across the web to create “buzz” about titles. It’s not enough to read a book and tell a friend – your feelings have to be made public (preferably on a retail site).

This vision of the enthusiastic, verbal, retail-oriented reader is not exclusive to book bloggers or book reviewers, either – it’s becoming part of the way The Publishing Industry thinks it is going to save itself.

When I was at Book Expo America at the end of May, I attended a session with Patrick Brown, director of author marketing at Goodreads, called Goodreads 201: Advanced Tips for Driving Book Discovery. In the session, Brown focused on ways that authors and publishers can use tools on the site — giveaways, advertising, and the new “Ask the Author” feature, among others — to convert individuals from readers to fans to evangelicals for a particular author.

Brown argued that authors build loyalty with readers by giving something back to them – readers want to feel a connection to the person who wrote a book they love. Features like Ask the Author, which rolled out to a group of 54 authors in beta last month, give authors the chance to have focused interactions with individuals readers while building out “genuine and interesting” content connected to their work.

Ask the Author and the other strategies Brown presented made sense and, alone, aren’t a problem. But they do point to broader pressures being slowly applied to readers that risk making reading work rather than fun.

According to The Publishing Industry, it’s not enough for readers to just read books anymore. The point of it all is to take readers, convert them to fans, then push them to become evangelists for a book or author. Real readers have to become evangelicals for books because evangelism is, apparently, the only way to drive sales. Like the prophet John Green, readers have been tasked with saving The Publishing Industry… And I call shenanigans on that.

It’s frustrating that it’s not enough to just read. Readers now have to share everything they read with followers across a variety of platforms with hashtags and @ replies to interested parties. It’s not even enough to write reviews of books you love. Those reviews need to be on retail sites and pushed out through social media too. Being a good reader means being a good “word of mouth” marketer without any of the perks that come with having that job.

Now, I’m not saying that enthusiasm is a bad thing. I love to gush about books that blew my brain or were just a ton of fun to read. It’s fine to love independent bookstores and advocate for readers to buy local. And it’s even okay to express support to one side in a business dispute if you disagree with the business tactics of a particular conglomerate.

Readers can evangelize, but we should only do it for the books that truly deserve it. If readers enthuse over every book, it makes that enthusiasm dishonest – a problem for readers, publishers and authors. You can’t be a sincere evangelist for what you don’t really believe in. And if you don’t really believe in it, no one should ask you to evangelize for it.

Enthusiasm shouldn’t be required or even expected of readers. Readers should not be pressured or cajoled or guilted or tricked or passively forced into being enthused or publicly sharing that enthusiasm on behalf of The Publishing Industry.

It should be enough to just read a damn book.

Special thanks to my blogging friend Florinda (The 3R’s Blog) for being a beta reader for this post and helping to clarify my thoughts on these issues.