When Online Reviewing Is No Longer Fun
Last week I wrote about some of the recent attempts to police reviews and control reviewers, culminating in Anne Rice’s Change.org petition aimed at having Amazon disallow pseudonymous reviews. When I first started participating in the online Romance community, there was a fair amount of backlash against critical reviewing from traditionally published authors. The book community was growing by leaps and bounds back then, though, and there seemed to be enough room for everyone to do their thing.
And it was fun. Sure, we complained about over-marketing and pressure by authors to “be nice.” Sure there were some alarming incidents in which authors went after readers or readers went after other readers on behalf of a favorite author. But book blogs were growing, readers were getting more opportunities to review books via NetGalley and other venues, and for the most part I think people felt like they could have honest, controversial discussions without fear of major reprisal.
Now, though, it feels like a lot of the fun around talking about and reviewing books has died. Although there has always been a large portion of the reader community hoping to get published themselves, there was, I think, a stronger sense of a reader community online. And we were united in our love of books. In fact, I think many of us looked forward with unabashed eagerness to the possibilities that self-publishing were going to bring to both authors and readers, because traditional publishing was not doing the best job of diversifying the genre fiction marketplace.
So there’s some sad irony in the fact that so much of the current reviewing woe is emerging from the self-publishing community. And although I would not define it as a self-publishing problem, per se, I find it even more frustrating that authors who know better than anyone how much being artificially limited can dull inspiration and creativity want to be so aggressively controlling over reader responses.
And yet, in the process of devising various strategies to give advantage to their books (what many call “gaming the system”), more than a few self-published authors are fueling the backlash against reviews that don’t fit a certain limited set of criteria (i.e. at least 4-star, only positive comments about the book, etc.). And to many of us, it’s become just another attempt to “game the system,” by manipulating the reader community into artificial, even coerced, cooperation. In other words, it has gone beyond the ‘good girls are nice’ rhetoric we’ve been fighting for so long in genre communities, and into a space where reviews are almost seen as author property, or at least as something owed authors.
For example, a commenter on my previous post shared her experience:
I’m on a lot of author email lists, simply because I like to read, and hey, authors give stuff away sometimes. Happy coincidence. :) Twice in the last month, I have received announcements from authors about recruiting for new “street teams” of reviewers. Both announcements were similarly worded, and asked that anyone who wanted to be on the street team be willing to either post a five-star review or email the author directly and say why they couldn’t do that. I found the requests offensive, and emailed both authors to say so, politely, of course. Both replied with carefully worded denials – that they were specifically talking about pre-pub ARCs and both stated emphatically that anything less than five stars would hurt them in the ratings. That left me wondering where exactly they thought the reviews would get posted. Amazon doesn’t allow reviews on books until the publication date.
On the author side, note this discussion regarding a book publicist who promises to place his clients books on various lists – for a substantial fee – and who is now under fire for being a “scam artist.” There is extensive discussion of this individual’s alleged credentials and the problems one author had with his service, but nowhere in the discussion is there any questioning of whether this is an ethical practice to begin with. It reminds me a lot of the justifications for paid-for-positive reviews – that they’re a normal part of publicity, similar to the quid pro quo that traditional publishers have relied on for years with author blurbs and recommendations. However, there is a broader question here about whether any of that is ethical, and how, when you have dozens, maybe hundreds, of authors attempting to advantageously position their own books, how any of these practices fare, and how far authors need to go (especially as time wears on and the marketplace becomes more crowded) to gain “success,” however that is to be defined.
In my last post I mentioned the possibility of long-term, systemic research on the way reviews affect a book’s success – and let’s note that success can be defined on a number of different registers, not just money earned. However, I’ve lately become less and less convinced that research would change the mind of authors like Rice and others who have participated in her position. In fact, I wonder how much this issues overlaps author views on piracy, because no matter how many studies demonstrate that piracy does not harm – and may, in fact, help – many authors, there is still a very entrenched belief that piracy is A Very Bad Thing and Must Be Eradicated At All Costs.
One commenter noted an almost “Pavlovian” character to the negative responses of authors toward readers, and we know that even an author’s fans can take up that charge, especially when the author urges them to it. However, if you read this post by author Ella Fox, in which she defends the right of readers to say whatever they want about a book without feeling harassed, you can see how many of the comments simply repeat the refrain of how awful it is for these readers to be mean to authors. It feels like a cycle that continues to become more urgent and more outrageous, with more authors pushing harder to control the entire market in which they release their books.
And it’s killing the fun that got a lot of us reading and reviewing online in the first place. Fun may seem like a simple, even trivial, motive, but it’s not; many of us engage online with books in our leisure time, and when this time ceases to be enjoyable, when it becomes a burden instead of a reprieve, where is the incentive to remain engaged?
As I argued in my last post, it is incredibly illogical for readers, who have the least economic interest in a book’s sales, to be on the front lines of author publicity and experience pressure to conform their views to a certain standard. I know many readers who have become unmotivated to review, or at least to write critical reviews of books when a) they don’t know of the author, or b) they know the author or his/her fans might come after them. For those authors who believe negative reviews hurt their books, this is success, this is achievement of the agenda.
But at the very least it’s a very myopic definition of success, and at worst it’s detrimental to the book community as a whole, inclusive of those authors currently trying to make that community serve their market goals (see Sunita’s post on creating a market for lemons). Once we can no longer rely on reviews for authenticity, the value of reader responses becomes unreliable and undermined, and the point of all of this “gaming” behavior – to create reader buzz – is moot, because readers will, in turn, feel tricked and manipulated, and beyond a very core group of fans, they will look elsewhere for their entertainment — maybe to other authors, maybe to other ways to spend their leisure time. You can already see a certain instability in the self-publishing market, where one book will sell really well, but later books suffer from a substantial drop in sales (you even see a version of this in the way all of Hugh Howey’s books since Wool have performed). Or authors who screamed onto the scene as stars drop off the radar within a year or two (aka where is Amanda Hocking?).
In fact, despite the continuing insistence that readers have the power to drive the market, this is a situation in which more and more readers feel powerless. How many more examples will we see, in this market, of the brilliance that was SB Nonnie’s C review of Carla Cassidy’s Pregnesia at Smart Bitches, as well as Cassidy’s equally brilliant and classy response – a combination that generated wonderful reader buzz for the book, the kind of buzz that spontaneously sells books. How much fun can reading and reviewing be in an environment where readers don’t feel safe to speak without giving second thought to every word and opinion?
No, this is not a problem that readers can solve. This is a problem that I think only authors have the power to address, although, unfortunately, not immediately or directly. Not engaging in these destructive behaviors is essential, of course. But there’s another, relatively simple, thing authors can (and some already) do: let readers know they’re safe to say whatever they want about their books. Telling readers directly (on Twitter, Facebook, websites, reader boards) that they support the right of readers to speak their mind, and to do so in whatever way suits that reader’s style – whether that be snarky, gif-filled, short and sharp, long and ponderous – can give readers a much-needed safe harbor. It may even help sell a book or two — assuming that the author backs up the message with action (or the lack thereof). Along with that, authors who value authentic, open book communities can discourage their own fans from feeling the need to protect the author’s books by going after other readers. Authors have an incredible amount of influence over their fans, whose loyalty can be marshaled to fight for an author’s economic interest as their own. That authors can get readers to do this speaks volumes about how much potential authority can be leveraged over loyal fans.
The book community is at a crossroads right now. Publishing is at a crossroads right now. There is very much a wild-west aura to the self-publishing landscape right now, with authors rushing to stake their claim. And like its historical namesake, this gold rush will come to an end, too, and the market will shake out, sacrificing many along the way. There is no guarantee that the authors who remain will be the “best” writers with the “best” books. However, the pendulum always swings, and it’s going to swing here, too. No one knows what the future of publishing holds, but as everyone tries to make their fortune in this new, uncharted territory, readers are being trampled.
I often hear authors say that they are readers first. Well, if that’s true, then this is the time to put on the reader hat and stand up for the basic rights of the reader to talk about books without the fear of reprisal by authors. Honest reader reviews are a natural resource in the book community, and one that needs to be protected on behalf of the literary ecosystem as a whole. And, as that Ella Fox post indicates, it can’t be a one-time thing — there needs to be sustained effort, and partnership among readers and authors, dedicated to cultivating an environment in which readers feel safe to be honest. Honest feedback can be one of the most powerful natural marketing resources for authors, but that resource has to be cultivated, not threatened and attacked and harassed. It wasn’t that long ago when, at least in the Romance community, there was a lot of pride around the wide expanse of readers who engaged openly and critically with books. I don’t know about you, but to me that environment feels like it’s contracted significantly, both in size and spontaneous enthusiasm.
But you tell me: are you still feeling the fun? Do you feel inhibited in what you say about books? What would you like to see happen in the online book community re. authors and readers?