Saturday, September 21, 2013

A really bad idea . . . . and why

Okay.  So most of you are aware of The Big Kerfluffle over on Goodreads regarding the matter of negative reviews, offensive shelf names, and so on.  At the moment there are over 1,000 responses and I'm sure more will be coming in as the week-end progresses.

It ought to be interesting, to say the least.

Since I came to this space and staunchly defended Goodreads just a few weeks ago, I feel I'm entitled to spew a few more words on why I think the new policy is all wrong.

Remember, I'm old.  I remember very well the days before the Internet, the World Wide Web, Amazon, digital publishing, and especially digital self-publishing.  I'm not alone, and I'd love to hear from other people who have lived through The Great Leap Forward.

But in those old days before KDP and Smashwords, readers went to a bookstore and bought a book, read it, and then maybe chatted about it with their friends.  Maybe they had a local book club, or they were just a couple of neighbors who got together over a cup of coffee to talk books and swap a few.  They'd put codes or comments inside the front cover -- "Hot!"  "Elaine loved it."  "♥♥♥." -- to mark the books they've read and their opinions when they took the book to a used bookstore or swapped with friends.  If they were readers of serious literature, they might check out the reviews in the newspaper or major magazines, but if they were readers of genre fiction, they'd have to rely on genre-specific magazines for any reviews at all.  Publishers Weekly and other trade magazines did not review genre fiction. 

Readers rarely met the authors of the books they read unless there was a booksigning, usually for only one author, or maybe a few.  Conventions -- or "cons" -- organized by and/or for the fans of a specific genre might bring a bunch of authors together for an event.  Readers brought their treasured "keeper" copies to have them autographed, and they got to visit with the author for a few minutes or listen to her speak at a seminar, but other than that, there was little direct interaction between writers and readers.

Also, there was an entire publishing apparatus between the writer and the reader:  Publisher, editor, graphic designer, bookseller, publicist, etc., etc., etc.  That apparatus not only provided a physical moat, if you will, between the book as it emerged from the writer's writing instrument of choice, but it provided gatekeeping for the quality of the work into the marketplace.  The reader knew that if she bought a book published by Crown or Baen or Avon or Signet or any of the other established publishers, it would be readable.  It might not be to her liking, but it would be written in mostly recognizable English, have reasonably competent printing and binding, and so on.

The only people who might get hit with promotional materials for a forthcoming book would be the booksellers, who might be showered with flyers and posters and bookmarks, which they could distribute to excited fans or dump in the wastebasket.  Then the books were distributed and they either sold or they didn't. 

Authors collected their royalty checks, if there were any, and stayed home to write their books.

Science fiction cons started the engaging of writers and readers, and that revolution was further incited by Kathryn Falk and Romantic Times magazine with her booklovers' conventions, and by Romance Writers of America.   Because RWA did not have any qualifications for membership, anyone could join and many fans did just that.  More than 80 percent of the membership was (and probably still is) unpublished; they were essentially fans who got to hobnob with their favorite authors and pretend to be on a par with them.

I was a member of RWA for over 10 years.  I attended enough RWA conferences to know how this worked, and it didn't always work to the benefit of the authors.  In fact, so many of the authors were unhappy with this arrangement -- as one said, "We always have to be 'on' for the fans, and they don't like it when they find out we're only human." -- that I started a separate group within RWA just for published authors so we could have our own conference without all the fans around.  It did not make me particularly popular with some factions of the organization.  But the Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter, born from an idea that popped into my head on the evening of Sunday, 13 October 1994, is still going strong.

This is a big picture issue, which is why I've brought all this history into it.  The background is essential to understanding why this recent decision of Goodreads' is wrong.

The self-publishing revolution changed all of the above.  The publishing apparatus was no longer necessary, so anyone could become "an author."  And any scribbling could become "a book."  The machinery for ensuring quality of the product had been removed as a necessity.  Of course there were still books being bought and published by traditional publishers, with all the gatekeeping and quality assurance systems in place.  But there was also another industry coming into vocal being.

Not only did the newly self-publishing authors have little to no experience with how the marketplace worked, they often didn't know how reading and readers work.  And that set the stage for confrontation.

Goodreads was originally established as a site for readers to list, catalogue, review, and discuss books.  Having a customer base of thousands and eventually millions of readers, the site attracted advertisers who pitched their books to potential readers.  Most readers don't want to chat with copy editors and proofreaders, and the site wasn't built for authors to interact with readers, so reviews and discussions remained pretty much focused on the content of the books.  There really wasn't much else to talk about.

Let me emphasize that again:  Reviews and discussions remained pretty much focused on the content of the books.  There really wasn't much else to talk about.

What changed, however, was the whole social media aspect that took over not only publishing but self-publishing. 

The author who self-publishes is often not only the writer of the words but the editor and proofreader, the formatter of the digital edition, the art director who chooses or commissions or even creates the cover art, the creator of the cover copy that accompanies the online listing, the publicist who hawks the book on Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr and ..... Goodreads.

The author is required, by her choice to self-publish, to fill all these roles.  She has to interact with readers in ways authors never did before.  Even if she doesn't plunge into social media with 100 tweets a day, the product she presents is much more hers than just the words.

If she does utilize social media -- including Goodreads -- to interact with her readers and/or potential readers, that action both is and is not the action of the author.  If she spams Twitter and Facebook with notices about her book, she as writer and as publisher is in control of that.  All of that is part of the book's production and distribution process.

In most cases this is a good thing.  But occasionally it's not.  And when it isn't good, it sometimes becomes horrible.

A new writer who has little writing skill, who knows nothing about the legalities of copyright and publishing and distribution, who has no agent or editor or PR assistant to manage her public behavior, who has filled her head with nonsense about how many millions of copies of her book are going to be sold, may be simply, completely, and totally unprepared for negative comments on her books.  She lashes out, creates a shitstorm, accuses people of things they never did, makes a lot of people angry, gets people to defend her based on the untruths she's told . . . . .

And then those untruths are taken as gospel, perpetuated through the social media over which she has no control, and yet readers aren't allowed to set forth the truth? 

That's what has happened with the announcement on Goodreads that reviewers may not review author behavior.

I have so far had one review removed by Goodreads.  Although I don't have a copy of that review, I know pretty much what it consisted of.

The book had received a lot of negative comments because of bad writing:  poor grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on.  The author -- digitally self-published -- became incensed and wrote a blog post declaring she didn't care that she wasn't a good writer, had no intentions of learning how to write well, and the reviewers who called her on it could pretty much go screw themselves.  When she then got flak about that -- including my review, which cited the blogpost as my reason for even looking at the book and then reviewing it -- she deleted the blogpost.  She then flagged the review and it was hidden by Goodreads.  Yesterday, that review was removed.

Another of my reviews has been flagged.  That one I've copied and saved off the Goodreads site.  Again, the book was poorly written and any original review I might have written was solely based on the content and quality of the book as a product.  But the author had taken heat for the book's obvious lack of professional editing and proofreading, so she listed herself under another name as the editor.  She assumed a third name as co-author, and a fourth as illustrator.  A 10-minute search identified all these frauds.

The book did have several five-star reviews, but they all came from persons readily identifiable as either out-and-out sock puppets of the author, members of her family, or close friends who were named in the book.  When the accounts were identified and reported to Goodreads and subsequently removed, the author lashed out at reviewers.  How can this behavior, all directly connected to her writing, publishing, and promotion of the book, not be a legitimate subject for criticism?

Another of my reviews may have been flagged; I'm not sure yet, but it, too, has been saved off the site just in case.  Again, it's an instance where the author has engaged in mildly deceptive practices, has enlisted friends and family to denounce and verbally attack anyone who dares to criticize her book,  has created sock puppet accounts for herself to boost her own ratings.

A book, even a self-published book, is a product being sold in a marketplace.  Every aspect of that product should be material for possible criticism.  Is the cover art offensive?  Is the digital formatting impossible to read?  Is the book over-priced?  Is the author issuing revised editions every week, resulting in reviewers actually reviewing different material without even knowing it?

The Goodreads (partial) ban on addressing author issues related to books is very short-sighted, but it is also consistent with an entity that is only concerned with pushing product, not with guaranteeing the quality of the product.  By protecting the feelings of authors who really can't write anyway Goodreads actively promotes bad writing and whiny authors.  By punishing the reviewers who dare to tell the truth, Goodreads is actively silencing ... everyone.

Does Goodreads allow trolling and bullying?  Yes, unfortunately, they do now.  But the trolls aren't even members of the site, and they are bullying the readers. 

They know who they are.