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Dear Author

Poisoning the Well

For better or worse, I have always been a fighter. For the people and principles I care about most, I will go to the mat, and the more unfair a situation becomes, the more energized to set things right I seem to become. I’m one of those cynical idealists who generally doesn’t trust people and yet can’t stop believing in basic ideals about how justice prevails and everything comes around in the end.

But over the last year –and especially the past month– I’ve seen things in and around our book communities that, honest to God, have so shocked and appalled me, and that seem so far beyond what any decent human being would do, that I can’t even figure out where and how to engage effectively and productively. It’s like one of those computer games where you can’t get from point A to point B without stepping in an unseen sinkhole or explosive trap.

This weekend, when the Internet exploded with The Guardian’s appalling breach of reader trust in publishing the disgusting account of author Kathleen Hale gleefully stalking a reader-reviewer, right on the heels of the somewhat less damaging, although not completely unrelated rant by Margo Howard over negative Amazon Vine reviews, I feel like we’ve reached a new level of ethical corruption in our book communities, where corporate systems – be they publishers, newspapers, or even authors — are more openly and unapologetically preying on readers, while readers seem to have fewer and fewer places to find safe harbor.

That, for example, The Guardian saw fit to publish the Hale piece, despite all of its obvious problems, is not merely baffling to me, but downright horrifying. How could anyone miss the massive hypocrisy of the moment where Hale’s obsessive distrust and pursuit of a pseudonymous reviewer is unselfconsciously eclipsed by her wholly uncritical trust in and promotion of a pseudonymous practitioner some of the most vile online vigilante injustice against book bloggers we’ve seen in the past decade? How could anyone think that publishing a professional author’s vaguely apologetic and yet not at all regretful hunting down of an amateur book reviewer was a good idea, especially when the author made a slew of completely unsubstantiated and suspect claims against the reviewer, who had NO VOICE in the piece. And for those of you who may have been taken in by Hale’s obviously practiced ‘aww shucks’ confession of her obsessive tendencies, think about the fact that every single thing you think you know about that reviewer comes from a person who a) writes fiction for a living, and b) has absolutely no incentive to fairly represent, let alone make sympathetic, the person she’s hunting down like an animal.

And perhaps worst of all, The Guardian, in running that piece without context or counter-point, threw their considerable journalistic weight on the side of vigilante injustice and thus far seems content to hold to that position. We also know, direct from Hale, that a “contact at a publishing house” confirmed private blogger information with her, and I know we’re all holding our breath in anticipation of a statement from Harper Collins.

But the fact that ANY publisher might have furnished that information to Hale is likely scaring the hell out of anyone who has provided their address to an author or publisher for an ARC or contest. To those authors and editors and promotional staff who have not violated the trust of readers, thank you. To those of you who have spoken out in support of readers and reviews of all varieties, even snarky, sarcastic, snotty reviews, thank you. It sucks that you end up suffering the consequences of these incidents, too.

But for me, the lesson here is explicit: there are publishers and authors who are more than willing to exploit the value of readers to promote their books and then equally willing to participate in the ruination of that valuable resource, should it not seem valuable at the moment to them. Many of us are used to the systematic devaluation of female voices in, well, virtually every community you can name. But this feels like a sucker punch to the gut, and now that I’m getting my wind back, all I can say is congratulations to any of you who helped, supported, or cheered while Kathleen Hale — or anyone like her — lashed out at a reader-reviewer. Not only have you helped diminish the serious implications of real bullying (because wishes are not ponies and negative reviews are NOT bullying), but you are fundamentally damaging the community you simultaneously rely on for its honest, spontaneous enthusiasm about books. You are, in fact, poisoning the very well from which you’ve been drinking.

That there are authors who are endorsing Hale’s behavior is reflective of how twisted the power relationship between authors/publishers and readers is. Authors who are professionally producing commercial products for profit feel entitled to hunt down those who have expressed their dislike of those products, but authors are the powerless ones here? This skewed dynamic, by the way, is one of the reasons I think it’s so important to fight the ‘specialness of books’ rhetoric – because the more we buy into that kind of exclusivity, the more we seem to be removing authors (and publishers) from the realm of commercial producers, and, therefore, from their role as business people and even corporations unto themselves. And let’s not forget how many of these business people see no harm in purchasing positive reviews or hiring marketing services to promote their work, regardless of the ethics or legality of such endeavors. Apparently the decision to ‘put food on the table’ by writing books has become license to stalk. Good to know the rules, although for readers this is no game.

For the most part I’m just pissed way the hell off and galled that authors like Hale benefit at all from the precious resource of honest reader reviews. But I know that many readers are legitimately scared. Blythe Harris has apparently announced that she is giving up book blogging. And anyone who believes that this is a victory does not yet understand how important it is to a vibrant bookselling community to have a diversity of honest reviewing voices, nor how the real value of those most positive reviews is revealed only in the context of the negative ones.

For the first time in the decade plus that I’ve been engaging in book talk online, I feel like in every facet (NOT every author, editor, publisher, and journalist, but every part) of the book writing and publishing industry there is some kernel of tolerance and even advocacy for the victimization of readers, who, if we are to believe all the marketing rhetoric, are supposed to be one of the most important constituencies when it comes to keeping the industry in motion. Theoretically, ideally even, one would think that you would want to protect the autonomy and safety of those you rely on to purchase your books and indirectly market them through independent reviews. Oh, how quaint and nearly old-fashioned Signet’s ethicality in the face of the Cassie Edwards plagiarism case now looks. Although perhaps we should have taken more seriously and ominously Kensington’s acquisition of Janet Dailey or their silence in the aftermath of the Deborah Anne MacGillivray revelations.

Not that I begrudge any publisher or author those business decisions that legally maximize their profit – after all, that is part of what makes commercial publishing a viable industry. And the fact that genre fiction, especially, seems to draw so many of its authors from the ranks of its readership makes all these violations seem particularly illogical, even depraved.

In fact, one of the things that strikes me as so odd about this whole fiasco is that we routinely tolerate – even advocate – pseudonymity in the creation of author names, especially when the specter of social disapproval is strong (erotic fiction, for example). But even in more mundane circumstances, like when an author continues to review, or is trying to re-brand, perhaps in a different subgenre or genre, pseudonyms are wielded like shields of divine protection against the possibility or harassment, stalking, and other unseemly effects of daring to be an artiste. If we are so willing to let those who are writing for commercial profit these protections, why in the hell would we not extend them to reader-reviewers and bloggers, many of whom are getting nothing out of their reviews except the fun of talking about books with people on the Internet?

When I really think about this, I realize it’s been growing in plain sight for many years. I know that there have been some more blatant examples in the past few years, but all of the ‘oh, we should be nice in our reviews’ talk, tales of the so-called Dixieland Mafia, reader stalking of yore (remember the Emily Giffin incidents), and other admonitions associated with “mean” book reviews have been swirling for years, and apparently we are at a point where enough momentum has built that readers no longer have any reason to trust that an author, publisher, or media outlet will protect their rights and interests at the most basic level of legality, ethics, or human decency. And that’s a seriously fucked up state of affairs, especially when you think about Sunita’s point that the value of the community – its honest, spontaneous, and sometimes viral conversation — is what has made it a target to begin with. It’s clear to me that unreasonable people cannot be reasoned with, that no one who justifies the victimization of others would ever think it’s okay if it happened to them. Logic won’t prevail here, and calls for human decency and accountability continue to go unanswered.

So where are we now? Have we finally turned the final corner into complete corruption and chaos? Is there nothing for readers to do but evacuate the community completely, leaving it to those who refuse to do something to keep reading safe? As I said initially, I have always been a fighter, but I am at a loss at this point. I do know that our book community still has many important voices, and it wasn’t too long ago that we saw a powerful communal stand against the silencing of book bloggers. As inspiring and awesome as that was, we’re clearly dealing with something that manifests destruction in myriad ways and from multiple directions at once. Just yesterday a UK reader reported being physically assaulted by an author. How many more have been threatened, stalked, harassed, or even assaulted?

And yeah, I get that not everyone likes everyone else, blah blah blah, but if you look at those standing most steadfast in support of reader rights, it’s reader bloggers – not just the bigger blogs, but all of the wonderful, intelligent, engaged, generous, and interesting readers who care enough about books to put up with all the unwarranted bullshit that being online attracts. And among all of these voices, there has to be something we can do. I know that for the foreseeable future I’m done sending traffic to The Guardian via the Dear Author news. But there has to be more. Among the options that come immediately to mind:

  1. Make our blogging communities private to protect the book talk. This would allow us to keep our priorities intact and to keep ourselves from being so easily exploited and preyed upon;
  2. Stop taking ARCs from publishers, and only take them from trusted authors. It does seem that these promotional items are viewed by some as a contract or an entitlement;
  3. Shut down completely and let the industry professionals deal with this amongst themselves. Let’s see how great things are when there are only 4 and 5 star reviews out there, and god knows how many of them actually authentic;
  4. Collective boycotting of authors, publishers, and/or newspapers. This is unwieldy, I know, although I don’t think a bunch of petitions would do anything at this point.
  5. Would anyone be up for a coordinated, temporary (week-long?) review blackout?

But what do you think? What are your suggestions for how our book communities should be dealing with this? And where are you, personally, in dealing with this?


ETA: The blogger who initially provided the reviewer’s address has posted her account of the incident, and not surprisingly, it differs in important ways from Hale’s. To wit:

Let me back track a second since this seems to be the super important part. When KH requested Blythe as her blogger, she also asked me to get Blythe’s mailing address for her because she wanted to send her a gift for hosting her for the Bash. I sent Blythe an email and she seemed super excited and gave me her permission to pass on her mailing address to KH. It seemed safe and simple. I read in KH’s article that she was requested to donate some signed books and that’s why she wanted Blythe’s mailing address. When we send invitations out to the debut authors we give them a set of questions. One of those questions is whether or not they will be hosting a giveaway for the event and if it will be open to US, US & CAN, or INT. We never ask any of the authors to host a giveaway nor do we ask them to donate specific prizes. If they have questions about the giveaway we answer them, but that is completely up to them. Most of the authors chose to do a giveaway this year, but we did have quite a few who did not host one.

Additionally, Hale has indicated to someone on her Tumblr (a screenshot is available here) that she is “proud of myself” for her article. Just let that sink in for a few minutes as you think about how our reading communities need to respond.

And here is Harper Teen’s completely anemic Twitter response to Jane’s inquiry about the incident: 

We were not involved in this incident, and we do not disclose our blogger contact information as a general matter.

Extended version of UK reviewer’s recent attack report, as well as Yahoo’s article on another incident involving the same author. 

Dear Author

The “C” in ARC Does Not Stand for “Contract”

As more self-publishers enter the market, they are competing with traditional publishers for blogger and social media coverage. Which means they are looking for bigger, better ways to get reviews and positive buzz. And apparently that is translating into pressure on some bloggers and readers who accept review copies, and who feel like an ARC comes with an obligation to the publishing industry — whether that’s an individual author or a major conglomerate. And unfortunately, this pressure — whether direct or indirect — threatens to kill the spontaneous buzz that all this marketing is trying to jump start.

From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense to get a book out to as many book reviewers as possible, especially when the marketplace is so crowded with competition for readers’ limited time, attention, and money. I have always been very welcoming of the ARC provided ‘in exchange for an honest review,’ because I think it independently serves both authors/publishers and readers. Readers get the opportunity to read a book ahead of publication and offer their voice to the discussion early on, and authors/publishers get the opportunity to distribute promotional copies of their work in the hopes that it will catch fire among readers. Theoretically, this is an illustration of the kind of situation where the only sense of obligation the reader is under is to be honest, and readers will discover soon enough if an author/publisher is sincere in that expectation. If not, the author is essentially ‘breaking the contract’ and thus releasing the reader from his or her casual obligation.

But I’ve read several posts recently from bloggers who feel like accepting ARCs has forged some kind of contract with the author or publisher, and who are coming to the realization that reviewers should never feel like they owe a publisher anything other than the consideration of a review:

Many of the commenters weren’t keen on the idea of requesting books with the knowledge that you might not actually review them, but I think that that is the wrong emphasis. As Kim and others point out in the comments, it is rare that she doesn’t read and review a book she requested, but it is important to have the option if you realize in the time between the request going out and the book showing up that you don’t want to read it anymore.

Anya, the author of that quote, is referring to a blog post by Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness, who is responding to a new program from Crown Books called “Blogging for Books.” Crown apparently conditions the receipt of future books on reviews of current books:

By requiring a review for every book, Crown is, in essence, buying a blogger’s time and attention and the time and attention of a blogger’s readership for the cost of, at best, a hardcover book. As bloggers, it’s important to think about whether we should be bought for so little.

There’s also a little more at play in this comment, specifically the last sentence:

Just as there is an understanding that a blogger would review a book after requesting it, we are reflecting that arrangement through Blogging For Books.

This is not the arrangement for me and, frankly, I don’t think it should be the case for any blogger. It is not the relationship that publishers have with editorial media. In the comments to my last post, Teresa (Shelf Love) made a great comment that I think reflects this point:

I’d really love for all of us as bloggers to get away from using the language of exchange when we talk about review copies. It gives the impression that the review copy is “payment” for a review, which implies that a review is required upon receipt of a review copy. If a blogger wants to make that a personal policy, that’s fine, but because the exchange language is so widespread, I worry that it sets up unspoken assumptions and expectations

This is vitally important. We as bloggers have to stop talking about books in exchange for anything. We do not have exchange relationships with authors or publishers… and the sooner we make that point the better because the longer it continues the more we start to look like paid enthusiasts rather than critics.

The last sentence there is crucial, because it speaks to the reviewer’s motivation, and I think that’s something reviewers haven’t felt encouraged to focus on in a neutral way. There is a broad diversity of legitimate reasons for reviewing, from a desire to push books that a reader loves to a love of talking about books, positive or negative, to a sense of investment in particular authors or types of books, to engage critical examination of certain books and tropes, as professional modeling (for authors, either published or aspiring), or even because they are being regularly paid to give an independent opinion, just to name a few. For some readers, reviewing is almost a public service; for others, it’s a professional obligation or a personal undertaking. The more influence publishers try to exert on reviewers, the more muddied the reviewer’s process may become, and the less engaged and invested the reviewer is likely to be. And from the outside, ARCs will be viewed with more and more suspicion, even if the reviewer’s independence is not, in fact, compromised.

Part of the problem is that ARCs have historically been produced as promotional items — and sent by the thousands, completely unsolicited, to a variety of booksellers, media outlets, reviewers, and book bloggers — but still treated like something special. Remember when some publishers were up in arms about ARCs sold on eBay? I think there was talk then of making reviewers sign contracts, or at least treating the ARC itself like a contract. And what about this post from the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, where reviewers are admonished to “use your galley access for good,” as if there is a moral component to receiving the publishing industry’s equivalent of a free sample.

And part of the problem, I think, is that reviewers can over-personalize the receipt of an ARC, either because an author sends it directly or because the reader has requested it from a service like Edelweiss or NetGalley that overtly anticipates a review. When I first started reviewing I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure I reviewed any ARC I received, especially if I requested it. Because I had never represented myself as someone inclined to give positive reviews, I never felt pressure to provide “good” reviews, but just the pressure to provide review started to get to me, and I stopped proactively seeking out ARCs.

But I also think there’s a somewhat illusory distinction and elevation of so-called “amateur” reviewing. And the reason I call it illusory is because I think it’s connected more to the idea of being unpaid than it is to either the quality of the reviews or the personal motivation for writing them. As if a review in RT or Publishers Weekly is automatically more suspect than one posted on Goodreads. Especially since ARCs, for some authors and publishers, represent informal compensation for a review, which is both skewing the idea of payment and importing an artificial weight of obligation onto something that should never be characterized in those terms. Being paid to write reviews is much different than being paid with a copy of a book for a review of that same book. The FTC did play a role in popularizing this terminology, but I don’t think those revised guidelines are as influential as other factors — like the investment some self-published authors, for example, put into marketing strategies like street teams and a critical mass of positive reviews.

Ultimately, the freedom to determine why and under what terms someone wants to write reviews must be left up to that reader. There will always be paid-for positive reviews; there will always be quid pro quo and family/friend/sockpuppet reviews. And there are also going to be readers who want their favorite authors to succeed, and who are happily going to write positive reviews of their books. Just as there are readers who will seek out opportunities to write paid reviews with no role in the selection of books to be reviewed. Not all readers will have the same goal for their reviewing, and that’s okay. What’s important is that the reviewer can make his/her choice independent of publisher pressure (self/indie and traditional) and then openly and honestly stand behind that choice.

And perhaps we also need to have an honest discussion as a community around what expectations other readers have of reviewers and reviews, as well. How do community expectations as a whole shape perceived obligations around ARCs and reviewing, and do we need to re-think some of those expectations and perceptions? Or do you think reviewers should feel obligated to provide reviews in exchange for ARCs, and if so, why?