getwordout The idea of the street team isn’t brand new; it’s been around the music industry for a while now and it started crossing over into romance at least 5-6 years ago. However, as self-publishing has grown and as ebooks have opened up a whole new world for indie publishers, these seem to be popping up more and more. At RWA this past year, we heard “street teams” mentioned in every other workshop, it seemed. Authors discussed them, and publishers highlighted them as an important part of the marketing process. The idea of authors branding themselves was everywhere and street teams definitely constituted a significant portion of that.

It seemed like everyone wanted to get book bloggers on board with the idea of street teams and certainly the promise of exclusive info and fun freebies has its allure, but what exactly does it mean to join a street team?

How they work

Basically, members of a street team receive exclusive author access and often various freebies (ARCs, promotional items, etc…) in return for getting the word out about an author or authors and their latest releases. Author Donna Alward, for instance, refers to her street team as “my boots on the ground, so to speak.” On her own site, Nicola Marsh defines her street team as, “Grass roots publicity campaign at its best, with street team members telling friends, posting reviews, mentioning on blogs and generally spreading the word about my books! ”

Some street teams are created by publishers, as with the Avon Addicts or Penguin’s First to Read program. Others are set up by authors or in some cases, groups of authors, as with the Dangerous Darlings, which is run by a team of authors working together. In each case, the basic aim is the same. Authors and publishers want to get the word out about THEIR books. And they do this by having their street teams generate buzz about their books on Facebook,Twitter, Goodreads, blogging, you name it. Though not all do this, many street teams will have rewards for members who promote the author or authors being marketed. For instance, members of Susan Mallery’s street team can earn points and get prizes every time they talk about her books to other readers.

What are the pluses and minuses to this?

Well, the obvious plus to authors is that a street team can help get the word out about her books. After all, one person can only do so much, but a street team with hundreds of helpers? That can change the word of mouth recommendation game completely.

In addition, many authors, including Tracey Devlyn, have touted the community building aspect of street teams. After all, members of the team are working together toward a common goal, something which tends to bond a group anyway. Given that they share access to a certain author or authors whom they all like, this can set the stage for building online friendships. And based on what one sees on various street team sites, the members do seem to enjoy the camaraderie.

And then there’s the free stuff. The allure of getting free books and swag would certainly be appealing to more than a few readers. The promise of getting to read some books before they’re even released holds some appeal as well.

So, what are the minuses? Well, first of all, my mind goes back to that word of mouth phenomenon. When someone excitedly tells me how much she LOVED a book and how she thinks I might want to read it too, that excitement can be contagious. However, when you know that this person might not be spontaneously bursting with enthusiasm, but that she might be working for a street team, it changes your perception of that rave review, doesn’t it? Street teams may organize and even increase that word of mouth buzz out there online and in conversations but in the end they might take away from it as well. After all, it’s hard not to be a more cynical reader when you know that the person making recommendations might have been encouraged by the author or publisher to approach you.

With street teams promoting online as well as directly to friends/acquaintances offline, it complicates the issue of evaluating reviews on sites like Amazon or Goodreads. After all, unless someone discloses she is a member of this or that street team(which I have seen a number of the Avon Addicts doing on their blogs), how is a reader to know if a review comes from a street teamer or simply someone, unconnected to the author, who received an ARC or bought the book for review?

What about bloggers and reviewers?

First of all, I’ll say that I don’t think street teams are necessarily bad and I don’t think it’s bad for all bloggers to join them. I do think that one should think about their blog’s purpose before doing so, though. Not every romance blog out there is in the business of writing unbiased reviews. Some are more personal blogs of a reader’s experience and the writer may make it clear that she is a diehard fan of author X or Y. Other blogs are designed more to support and cheerlead for the romance genre rather than examine it with a critical eye.

However, for those who present themselves to the public as writers of honest reviews, joining a street team poses problems. There’s the appearance that arises from having that relationship where you basically work for an author. If I were employed as a member of author X’s street team and my marching orders were to promote her books, it would be hard for readers to take me seriously as a source of information about that author’s books at that point given the obvious conflict of interest.

As a writer of honest reviews where I try to lay out what works and what doesn’t in every book I read, my goal is to help readers decide how to spend their book dollars. Readers’ tastes may be different than mine, but I aim to write about books in such a way that someone reading my review can get a sense of whether he or she would want to read this book. And that’s what all of us here at AAR do. It would be near impossible to do that with a straight face if someone else were pushing the buttons, and that’s what joining a street team could do to independent reviewing. As a team member, I’d be more of a promoter and less of an unbiased reviewer.

The idea of increased access to authors and insider information has its appeal. I love talking to authors and publishing folks. I’ve met more than a few at conferences whom I genuinely enjoyed talking to, and I’m always up for learning more about books,writing and publishing because that world fascinates me. However, street teams and solid reviewing just don’t work together.

Like most things in life, I don’t think street teams are all bad or all good. However, joining a street team just does not seem to fit with the purpose of an unbiased review site such as this one. I can see street teams being fun for very dedicated fans of an author. However, if we as reviewers are to maintain credibility and write reviews that our readers know they can depend upon when deciding how to spend their book dollars, joining a street team undermines what we do. There are authors whose work amazes me and I might praise it to the skies when the occasion warrants, but I just can’t be their dedicated publicist and still write critical and honest reviews.

– Lynn Spencer