A number of people have written to ask how/why Kinesis, Metadot Corporation (which makes the Das Keyboard), and others send review keyboards or books. The short answer is that I asked, had a reasonable purpose in trying to review keyboards or books, and have a significant enough forum to make it worthwhile. To do the same, bloggers need a number of key features: credibility, good writing, some connection to the topic, and manners.
Don’t write to manufacturers two weeks after starting your blog when they can still see the “hello world” post. Anyone can register joeblow.wordpress.com and write a couple of posts, then start clamoring for “free stuff.” If you’re going to request review items, make sure your blog has enough history to make it plausible that you’re a) committed to writing and b) have enough readers. “Enough” is a bit slippery because a blog with the right 50 readers a day who come for a specialized subject might be more useful than a blog with 500 or even 5,000 readers—it’s probably easier to get 500 hits by posting pictures of scantily or unclad teenage girls than it is to get 50 writing about the art of the novel, but if you want to review fiction, the latter group is probably of greater interest to publishers.
Still, all things being equal, more popular blogs are often more popular because they’re better, which causes people to link to them, which causes more readers to find that blog, which causes more people to link, and so forth. You don’t need to be on the Technorati top 100 blogs, but make sure you’ve written enough for people to evaluate your writing skill and for some kind of audience to have found you. As a loose rule, I’d say that you should write at least one substantive post a week for about a year before you request review items.
Write a good review, not a positive review
In How to Get Free Books to Review on Your Blog, “Nick” says:
Note that I didn’t say [that you should write a] positive review. I said a good review. You should not feel inclined to write positive things about the book just because you received a free copy. If you write a fair, honest, and professional review, most publishers will respect your opinion.
He’s correct: you’ll lose credibility with readers if you’re nothing more than a shill, especially in an age when sophisticated readers have their bullshit detectors justifiably set on “maximum.” Bloggers are best when they’re honest, or as honest as they can be; that’s one reason why I include the disclaimer at the bottom of keyboard reviews if the keyboards come from the manufacturer, rather than bought by me: at least readers know the provenance of the items I’m looking at.
I don’t usually do this with books because it’s less important: the cost of a book, usually between $10 – $20, is lower, and publishers don’t expect or want review copies back. But when I write reviews, I make sure they’re meaty enough to justify my effort in producing them and the reader’s effort in reading them by citing as many specific characteristics as possible that justify whatever opinion I’m expressing or conclusion that I’m coming to.
Be (or become) a good writer
There’s nowhere to hide on the Internet and it’s easy to judge the quality of a blogger’s writing simply by reading their work. If the writer can’t explain what they like or dislike and why, they’re probably not a very good writer; many, many bloggers (and mainstream reviewers too) just write “this is awesome!” or “this sucks!” without much elaboration. That tendency towards shallowness is one reason I started writing in-depth keyboard reviews: because they didn’t exist or, if they did, they weren’t readily available. Some novelists have said they write novels that they would like to read but that no one else has written, which is how I often feel about my reviews (and much of my other work).
If you don’t know what good writing looks like, or dispute the very idea that there can be good writing (as some of my students do), you’re probably not a good writer. If you want to become one, there are many, many resources out there to help you, mostly in book form. A few that I like and that have helped me include William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, and the New York Times’ collections, Writers on Writing. In addition, one thing that separates good from bad writers is that good writers read a lot and write a lot.
One note: being a good writer doesn’t mean that your grammar has to be perfect or your blog typo-free, but your posts shouldn’t be riddled with typos and elementary grammar errors either. I’m sure many of my posts, especially the long ones, have typos, but they tend to be minor and easily overlooked; if readers send me notes or leave comments pointing out typos, I silently correct them.
If you’re writing a blog about, say, cats, and you request a hard drive review unit, you’re probably doing something wrong. If you write hard drive reviews and request a new kind of kitty litter, you’re also probably doing something wrong. Seek things that relate to your niche.
In my case, I started a blog about books and literature because I like to read and like to write; to me, most of the posts on this site are leisure, not work. The first time I got a free book (or “review copy” in industry jargon), a publicist contacted me regarding Lily Koppel’s The Red Leather Diary because I’d written a post about the New York Times article that led to the book. I was surprised: since when do publishers chase bloggers, rather than vice-versa?
I don’t know when the shift happened, but it did, which is why I now include my mailing address in the “About” section of The Story’s Story, and I take a look at everything that passes my desk even if I don’t always write about them. Sometimes I request books that pique my interest.
All this is to show that I have a) a narrowly focused blog and b) the things I request—books—fall into that narrow focus.
The keyboards are tangential to books but still related, and I stumbled into reviewing them by accident: I read about the famous IBM Model M keyboard on Slashdot, the geek tech site, and started doing some research into it and other quality keyboards, like the Apple Extended II. Most of the reviews and comments were not very helpful, especially for Mac users, but they pointed to Unicomp, which manufactures the Customizer Keyboard, and to Matias, which produces the Tactile Pro. I tried both and wrote extensively about my experience with them.
I’m interested in keyboards because I spend a lot of time writing professionally, both as a grad student in English literature and as a grant writer with Seliger + Associates. Writers and programmers are probably more likely to be interested in keyboards than most people because keyboards are a fundamental part of their toolset, and when you use a tool a lot, you want it to be right.
To understand literature, I think it helps at least somewhat to have an understanding of literary production: the publishing environment, the historical circumstances in which a work was/is produced, and so forth. Such factors can’t supersede the work itself, but they nonetheless matter. They also matter for practicing writers, and if a good keyboard means that a writer can or wants to go for an extra half hour or hour a day, that’s a tremendous difference over the course of a year, a decade, or a lifetime. Writing about the tools writers use, therefore, seems sufficiently related to writing and books that I think keyboard reviews are worth posting.
Use your real name
Penelope Trunk’s Guide to Blogging is useful, and one of her posts is on the subject of why you should blog under your real name, and ignore the harassment.
I agree. Your real name lends credibility and makes you seem like (slightly) more than another random Internet squawker; public relation or press people are more likely to want to send something to site run by Jake Seliger than they are to HoneyBunny or l33t48 or whatever. In looking through my RSS feed, I can see that most of the bloggers I read use their real names. Anonymity has its place in blogging, as it does in journalism, but if you’re going to review things you should have your name attached to that review. Some blogs demand anonymity, as Belle de Jour did until recently, but they should be the exception.
In the Internet age, we’re all supposedly turning into barbarians with the attention span of fruit flies. That’s the stereotype, anyway, and although it has some truth to it I think it largely wrong, at least among the better bloggers. Still, one way to catch people’s attention is to do the opposite of what bloggers represent in the popular imagination. I’ve already covered the importance of attention spans in the section about “good” versus “positive” reviews, but I’ll deal with the “barbarians” idea here.
When you make contact with a publisher or company, figure out how they want to be contacted. There’s usually a public relations, media, or press contact. You should write to that person with a short note that says, briefly, what you want, why, and who you are. Covering those shouldn’t take more than two or three paragraphs. Don’t include your life’s story and don’t be vague: the contact person will decide if they want to send a review model more based on your writing than based on your e-mail, and they’ll be used to dealing with people who are professionals or at least act like them.
In my case, that means sending keyboard makers a note saying that I’d like review their keyboard because I’ve reviewed a number of other keyboards, which causes people to write asking for comparisons, which causes me to seek review models. This bleeds into the “who am I” issue, where I state that I write The Story’s Story and contribute to Grant Writing Confidential, with links to both. From there, they can figure out as much or as little as they like.
If they send the keyboard, I say thanks, review it, and send it back, with another brief note that says “thanks, I appreciate you sending it.” I do that because it’s how I’d ideally like to be treated were our situations reversed, and also so that in the future, if I want to review a new model or whatever, they’ll be positively disposed towards me.
Don’t start a blog for free stuff
If I counted the number of hours I’d spent working on The Story’s Story versus the “pay” I’ve gotten in books or Amazon referral cash, I’m sure I’d be making well under a buck an hour. It’s probably closer to a cent an hour. If your purpose for starting a blog is to get free stuff, you’re doing something terribly wrong because you’re very unlikely to make real money as a blogger. Write because you want to, not because you expect direct monetary rewards. They definitely won’t come in the form of books or hardware; indeed, my bigger problem now is wading through and dealing with the books I don’t want, rather than cackling at the booty from the stuff I do want.
The very last sentence of this post really nails it. A friend of mine was a tech reporter during the dot-com boom, and his home was quickly flooded with junk. (The two dumbest things I remember him receiving were the CueCat–remember that?–and a plug-in device for storing individual CDs in slowly retractable trays; the whole thing took up more space than the whole stack of CDs in their jewel cases did.) Of course, every once in a while something neat came in the mail, but 90 percent of the freebies turned out to be crap he couldn’t give away.
As you rightly said, being honest about how you feel about a product you’re reviewing is the key to credibility. It can be tempting to automatically gush about something you’ve been given for free, BECAUSE they gave you it for free.
It took a bit of time to get over that for me.
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