Ether for Authors: Listening for Literature at DBW (Crickets)

In What's the Buzz by Porter Anderson

Table of Contents

  1. DBW: What We Didn’t Hear from Howey
  2. DBW: Writers With Us in (Surveyed) Spirit
  3. That ‘Socking Great Wooly Mammoth’ (not that Wool)
  4. TOC is next and Here’s an Inkling
  5. Agent as Author: Rachelle Gardner’s How-To
  6. Those Book Country Changes: More Info
  7. Did We Mention Conferences?
  8. Last Gas: Another Amazon Reviews Incident

DBW: What We Didn’t Hear from Howey

Hugh Howey tells me that he was writing in the Grand Ballroom at the Hilton New York on Thursday — not his grocery list, he means manuscript work — until the moment Mike Shatzkin called him up on stage.

Hugh Howey

I spoke with him at some length. We are brothers of the tropics, Howey and I, and we were in a cold, northern city.

What a chance we all missed at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo, despite the tireless, good work of the diligent and hardworking DBW team and all the well-deserved kudos flying.

The business core of the American publishing industry was as close to the act of creation in that Sixth Avenue hotel ballroom as the next chair, the next table, the next point on the conference agenda.

A poster for Howey's Wool is pictured in the London Underground. Image from

And no wonder the man from Jupiter, Florida, was writing.

It’s important for the increasingly fêted author of the Wool series to be nearly continually at work.

The five novellas sold together as the Wool Omnibus were, in fact, getting their London launch on Thursday from Random House UK as Howey appeared onstage at the conference in a all-too-short interview with his agent, Kristin Nelson and Shatzkin.

Two more Wool-y books are to come; the omnibus is the start of a trilogy being tracked by its audience along with its author.

If you have yet to understand the special person-to-person relationship a smart hybrid author sets up with his readers, see how Howey shows his avid readers his progress on his site,

As regards his latest work, Wool section 8, “Third Shift,” we learn there (left alley on his site), has a finished final draft at 62,001 words. He’s reporting to readers his progress on other writings of the moment, as well.

This is what’s meant by leveraging the Net to cultivate your community of readers.


A welcoming critique, Review: Wool, by Hugh Howey is out now from David Barnett in London’s The Independent. And how civilized is that no-bias review headline. No stupid thumbs up or down. No asinine stars. You actually have to read the review. Imagine that.

Barnett swats tons of zombie garbage off the table immediately, writing:

Hugh Howey’s Wool is a proper futuristic dystopia in which the dead don’t eat the living but rather harbour the secrets of what has gone before; secrets to be picked at and peeled away piece by piece to unveil the true horror of the world. It calls to mind the science-fiction movies they used to make so well in the 1970s — Logan’s Run or George Lucas’s THX 1138.

The Ridley Scott film deal already done, the Simon & Schuster agreement in place for only the print rights, Howey and Nelson are heroes to many authors for retaining the guy’s e-rights. We listened to his-‘n’-her tales of how the big house was brought, finally, to offer a print-only deal. (And Nelson’s initial mistrust of the offer, quite a story.)

We heard all this in our hundreds, launching our tweets in their thousands.

Our friends at DBW tell us there were more than 1,300 people registered for the conference this year, a terrific number. And the Epilogger account I ran on the event, at this writing, counts more than 10,555 tweets connected with DBW. There are a few confusing tweets in there about Pakistani issues, too, as our hashtag #PIA — for DBW’s excellent Publishing Innovation Awards — appears to have picked up several Pakistan International Airlines tweets. Friendly skies.

Hugh Howey and agent Kristin Nelson talk onstage at DBW with conference chairman Mike Shatzkin.

The moment I’m remembering is when Howey and his agent Kristin Nelson sat looking for all the world like a comfortable married couple, chatting on their sofa with Shatzkin. Nelson told us how she saw Howey selling $50,000 a month, then $150,000 per month, in self-published books. On a single day’s promotion, he shifted, as the Brits say, 20,000 copies.

She took to sending a monthly spreadsheet with his numbers to publishers, she told us, so they could see this phenomenon they weren’t interested in doing business with…until S&S blinked.

We heard that. It was a fine interview about a bellwether in digital development. The personable Howey and the gracious, carefully spoken Nelson did a great job, as did Shatzkin.

But we didn’t hear this:

He turned back to the tan hills. In the corner of his eye, he thought he saw another pixel die, turning stark white. Another tiny window had opened, another clear view through an illusion he had grown to doubt. Tomorrow will be my salvation, Holston thought savagely, even if I die out there.

Nor did we hear any other text from Wool.

Not one word. Not five minutes.

We had the author right there. But we didn’t get to hear his work, didn’t get to hear what this runaway best-selling fiction sounds like. We talked about sales, not about the text that drives them.

Mike Shatzkin did, in fact, tell the audience that he has read Wool and likes it, a gracious endorsement.

But what are these words that sell $150,000 per month? What story pulls down a ground-breaking print-only deal from Carolyn Reidy’s house? Here was a ballroom full of folks engaged in the world of books, and we heard nothing from the book that was made the centerpiece of the conference’s Thursday morning.

Isn’t that a remarkable thing? DBW went by with much cheer-leading about corporate optimism and upbeat publishers. End of Act I. Pause before Act II. Settling this and sorting-out that.

But books? No, not a reading from the Florida-based phenom. Not a recitation from someone at happy hour. Not a breakout session given over to what’s in those loudly hawked Top-25 best-selling ebooks DBW sends us email about each Monday.

The closest we came, in fact, is in those Publishing Innovation Awards. While we didn’t hear text from those carefully juried winners, we did see visuals and have a chance to learn a bit about the developments in storytelling technology that gave us 13 prize-winners. Otherwise, a visitor to DBW could be forgiven for believing that the industry! the industry! is ensconced as firmly in a silo of its own business-melodrama as Howey’s characters are in their underground silo.

The opera of CEO surveys and next-merger debate (place your bets now) has carried many in the biz so far afield, it seems, that no one apparently thinks to say, “Hey, we have Howey right here talking about this Mannheim rocket of a book he published himself. Let’s hear a few words of it.”


Don’t tell me tight schedule. We could have cadged five minutes from lots of spots on the agenda, like lunch. Or the Barnes & Noble presentation.

Next year, when DBW is again, like the Olympics, the “best one yet,” I hope we can look for a chance to get a little bit of content into the mix. It’s not all distribution and workflow and competition with Seattle. The customers don’t come for that. The customers come for what Howey knows and does up until the moment Shatzkin calls him to the stage.

And after all, “Book” is DBW’s middle name.

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DBW: Writers With Us in (Surveyed) Spirit

From the Writer's Digest / Digital Book World survey presentation, "What Authors Want"

What Authors Want: A Comprehensive Survey of Authors to Understand Their Priorities in the Self-Publishing Era is reported to have been conducted with a survey pool of nearly 5,000 authors—self-publishing, traditionally publishing, want-to-be-publishing, and “hybrids.” The key messages here, presented at the conference by Writers Digest’s Phil Sexton, are that “hybrid authors” — engaged in both self-publishing and traditional publishing—make more money from writing, engage in more social-media tactics to support their writing, and are the least impressed with traditional publishers. As DBW’s Jeremy Greenfield turns it with near-Downtonian understatement:

Those who have experienced both the publishing industry and self-publishing seem to be least enamored with the publishing industry.

Greenfield posits this as bad news at a good moment, another shoe making a timely fall:

The good news for publishers is that aspiring writers still believe in their ability to help them. It’s not too late for publishers to improve their services to authors to attract and retain the next generation of best-selling authors.

Phil Sexton

He writes that as-yet unpublished “outsiders [who haven’t yet seen publishers at work close-up] probably have among them the next generation of best-selling authors” and still seem to want to give publishers a chance. But, of course, we don’t know that “outsiders” have the next best-sellers among them, do we? And, as Greenfield writes, the more experienced writers surveyed “have a very low opinion of publishers, by comparison.” As a commenter to Greenfield’s writeup puts it, authors seem to be telling this survey about what I call the “cutie on the beach” effect: the closer they get to traditional publishers, the worse those publishers look.

Jeremy Greenfield

Sexton raised an interesting question in his presentation to the DBW plenary Thursday of this material: do traditionally-only publishing authors realize that their hybrid colleagues are doing much better revenue-wise than they are? Surely, if they don’t know yet, they will find out. The implied worry for traditional publishers: how long will it be before trad-publishing authors do figure out that self-publishing seems to substantially enhance an author’s career — creating more skepticism and criticism of the publishers? If the results of this survey are correct, then to know traditional publishers close up is to dislike what they do.

From the Writer's Digest / Digital Book World survey presentation, "What Authors Want"

Hybrid authors — having experienced both sides of publishing — sharply disagreed with such sentiments as:

  • “Publishers add value by directing a book’s development to be more like what the market wants” and
  • “Publishing a book involves managing a lot of complexity that is best run by a professional publisher.”

The mood of the conference’s publishing people, in DBW’s interpretation, was upbeat with “hearty laughs and robust audience applause” as attendees “literally” — wrong word, of course — “jammed” hallways to network with each other. Not that there wasn’t an air of collegial pleasantries on the floor.

Edward Nawotka

My host here at Ether for Authors and Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, Edward Nawotka, noted this in his fine summary, Three Key Ideas From Digital Book World 2013, writing:

The publishing industry has settled on politeness and dialed back the hyperbolic “end of the world” rhetoric and “come to Jesus” digital evangelizing that has marked such gatherings in recent years.

James McQuivey

But when James McQuivey of Forrester announced that 85% of publishing CEOs surveyed for this year said they’re optimistic about the digital transition, his qualifying comments didn’t always come along. As Greenfield wrote in Publishers Are Optimistic About Digital Transition, Say E-Readers Will Soon Be Irrelevant:

At the same time, they [surveyed publishing CEOs] are less sanguine about their own company’s prospects. About two-thirds say that their company is capable of competing in a digital environment; just over half believe in their company’s strategy; and only a third say that their company is stronger today because of digital.

In fact, what McQuivey — author, himself, of the coming book Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation — did say is that CEO’s opinions of their own companies’ responses to the digital dynamic were down by about 10 percentage points per metric. Which made all that “hearty” sound less, what..reliable? Honest? Realistic?

From the Writer's Digest / Digital Book World survey presentation, "What Authors Want"

Sexton — under whose direction F+W Media’s springtime Writer’s Digest Conference in New York will be staged April 5-7 (information to come soon) — told us that self-publishing authors were the ones who, on the WD/DBW survey, demanded from publishers the highest royalty rates on e-books and the greatest advances on royalties.

  • Hybrids also seemed to understand online bookselling as “good for most authors” better than did aspiring, self-published, or traditionally published authors.
  • Hybrids knew better than their fellows, the survey told us, that self-publishing “has been, or will be, good for me personally.”
  • Hybrids showed us that speed-to-market is a major factor in going self- or going traditional. (An aside: the hybrid author Hugh Howey spoke of how he can publish a novella at 2 a.m. and by noon see reviews of that book appearing on Amazon. This is the kind of speed-to-market that keeps him writing in a conference ballroom until called to the stage, see our first section.)

Taken together, the various points of data gathered in the “What Authors Want” survey are the kind of thing that should make all of us ask why the publishing folks at DBW were so heartily laughing? Let me try to describe, once more, the fundamental finding of this survey, as conveyed to us by Sexton:

From the Writer's Digest / Digital Book World survey presentation, "What Authors Want"

Authors who have tried both self-publishing and traditional publishing are the hardest on traditional publishing, the least happy with traditional publishers, the most successful financially, and the most critical of traditional publishers. These are not punch lines. A bright spot? Hybrids said they appreciate “valuable editing services” from traditional publishers more than self-publishing authors do. (The fops among us will say there’s no surprise there — have you read a self-published book lately?) But the hybrids also said, much more loudly than their fellows, that traditional publishers:

  • “Move too slowly,”
  • “Keep too much money,”
  • “Don’t ‘get’ digital,”
  • Don’t “offer better financial terms,”
  • Don’t “add prestige to my reputation” and
  • Don’t even “offer better distribution and sales services.”

From the Writer's Digest / Digital Book World survey presentation, "What Authors Want"

The picture Sexton was painting in slide after bar-charted slide wasn’t good for traditional publishers. The hybrid authors surveyed reported themselves to be more motivated by money than the others and less impressed with publishers’ ability to add any value by making a book “more like what the market wants.” And yet, how much of this session of the conference have you heard about? Well, you know, it was “just the authors” talking. Laugh on.

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That ‘Socking Great Wooly Mammoth’ (not that Wool)

Before moving on, I’d like to point you toward a new post from London in which our good colleague Sheila Bounford writes of Brett Sandusky’s post, Elephants in the Room — which I touched on in my Thursday coverage from the conference in Writing on the Ether — and on Michael Cairns’ The Death of the Middle Man — Predictions for 2013.

Sheila Bounford

Bounford quotes Cairns in lines that might have come right from a summary of findings in the DBW What Authors Want survey (our segment above):

The publishing value chain is compacting, making it easy for content producers/authors to reach consumers directly which, in turn, is also changing the financial model on which publishing is based. The functional areas where publishers added margin in order to make a profit — overhead, distribution, marketing & sales — are becoming less important (though not unimportant) when authors and contributors can reach their market directly.

She also finds him writing, on the 14th, before DBW had opened in New York, that:

Anyone who thinks the big changes are behind us is probably fooling himself, and may be lulling himself into catastrophic inaction.

Michael Cairns

Some of what Cairns is saying seems to serve as a warning to those who, at DBW, seemed so eager to speak of the industry’s turmoil “settling.”

Ultimately, 2013 may bring more significant change in the trade and educational landscape than we’ve seen in many recent years. While there will be a lot of focus on the big trade merger and its constituents, the industry’s other players will have to fight aggressively not to lose any advantage — we all recognize that “bigger is better” when it comes to applying economies of scale in a business whose underlying business model is changing radically.

Cairns is not necessarily downbeat about what he sees ahead: “While change often produces anxiety, I see dynamism in the book (and “content”) industry that is exciting and invigorating.” But one specific observation will gall many. In reference to big-publishing mergers, he writes:

The unlucky leftover of the three trade houses in play [HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette) will be immediately acquired by Amazon (just wanted to see if you read this far).

And he ends by projecting what could mean a different atmosphere in next year’s Digital Book World Conference + Expo:

We’re going to end 2013 thinking completely differently about this industry.

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TOC is next and Here’s an Inkling


Inkling formally announced a program they have had running for some time now, what they call their Content Discovery Platform. A “way for publishers to make digital books more discoverable and profitable,” Inkling is making any books within their format to be fully indexed and searchable via Google, like any other web content. Search engine discovery leads to free samples and a system to purchase small slices of book content at modest prices. The next phase, “the big how-to-get-it-into-our-platform question,” will be addressed in a second announcement next month at TOC.

Matt MacInnis at TOC 2012

That’s Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch on Inkling’s concept for discoverability. He’s right that as O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (“TOC”) rears into view, Matt MacInnis’ keynote address, “Unbound,” on February 13 now takes on special importance.

MacInnis points me toward his own writeup about the effort, Unseating the Giant, in which he’s getting his David thing on with the Goliath of Seattle:

Amazon’s market power is formidable: it’s easily the dominant channel for book revenues with a 27% share of all dollars spent. Like Wal-Mart in the brick-and-mortar world, Amazon can dictate commercial terms to its suppliers. It can unilaterally set price, it can make or break sales forecasts, and it can command whatever margins it wants. It can even afford to lose money on every sale in order to compete…Amazon’s behavior has served to devalue a piece of content in all its forms. I’d argue that a consumer who sees an Amazon Kindle book for $9.99 is disinclined to buy the hardcopy book at retail for $17.99. The net effect — regardless of whether this user is buying from Amazon — is a devaluation of the print product, which remains the main source of revenue for many publishers. In this case, print isn’t shifting to digital: it’s just shrinking, starving publishers of resources for interesting new projects.

And “what keeps Amazon at bay in round 2?” he asks rhetorically. “In a word, product.”

MacInnis’ Inkling scheme involves nonfiction books — Inkling works with books about  photography, business, crafts and hobbies, food and drink, medicine, music, parenting, technology, travel, and so on. Such works, maybe especially how-to’s, can be easily “chunked,” as we say, into searchable sections. The Inkling system creates “cards,” bits of searchable content.

As Greenfield at DBW has written in Inkling To Turn Google Into Storefront, Take Run at Amazon:

A card that is a step-by-step slideshow on how to tie a pork roast should show up in a search on the topic, next to the mostly free content the web offers. Users who click through can view the card for free as well as up to five more cards from the same work. At this point, however, they’re in the Inkling ecosystem and are being exposed to paid content — more from the same book.

The idea, then, is that Inkling has, in those cards, something Amazon doesn’t have to offer. Information can be bought by a reader as a smaller unit or chapter. The reader may not have to buy the entire book. And Inkling expects to have “millions” of these cards indexed by Google as it adds inventory, Greenfield reports.

Hardly averse to some swagger, MacInnis writes:

Inkling is defining a new product model with media rich, highly structured content that’s reliably rendered across platforms. The technologies we’ve had to develop to do this are far more complex than we’d anticipated when we started the company. Other companies will need to invest years of R&D to achieve the knowledge and technologies Inkling has already acquired or built.

Spending his time these days saying such slingshot things as, “Odd s are, the good stuff won’t be available through Amazon,” he’ll get a ready hearing at TOC.

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For budgeting purposes, if you’re hoping to register for TOC, you’re welcome to use my discount code, AFFILIATEPA, which will save you $350 on any registration, including for the Author (R)evolution Day special program for writers, set for February 12. The discount lowers the cost of the author day to $295.

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Agent as Author: Rachelle Gardner’s How-To

Rachelle Gardner

An interesting development: this week, the very widely read agent Rachelle Gardner is to release the first in a series of books designed to help authors navigate the shifting sands of publishing.

Quite appropriate to our look (above) at the “What Authors Want” survey from DBW, Gardner’s first release is How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing. My link for you here is to Gardner’s site because, as I write this, sales listings for the book haven’t yet appeared at an online retailer’s site — they may be showing up by the time you read this. Gardner has provided me with the copy for the Amazon listing, so I can give you this brief sense for what’s to come in this first of her series:

How Do I Decide? is a concise, definitive resource that will guide you through the decision, allowing you to ignore the noise and hype and focus on the right path for you. This is a fair and balanced approach that avoids favoring one choice over the other—and instead shows you how to determine which best fits your own situation.

The key, of course, and a welcome one, is Gardner’s intention of the “fair and balanced” foxiness of an unbiased appraisal of pros and cons.

Note that Gardner is one of our agents who does, indeed, work with clients both in a traditional role and in a more digital-era guise as what I tend to call an author’s manager — a long way to say that she helps some of her clients self-publish, she knows this territory.

Check her site, if you’re interested, for when Gardner’s book may land, it should be any time now.


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Those Book Country Changes: More Info

Colleen Lindsay, Community Manager for Book Country, did me the favor of showing me around the newly relaunched publishing side of the site’s operation before it went live last week.

Colleen Lindsay

You may have read of this in Laura Hazard Owen’s helpful This Week in e-Books: Kobo ramps up, Book Country goes free, Inkling gets Googled for Om Malik’s paidContent.

What she’s talking about is a relaunch of the publishing tools side of the Book Country site — not the community side. That part, Lindsay told me, is to get a revamp, as well, but it won’t be out until late summer.

The publishing tools, Lindsay says, in fact, had been disabled for a time to allow a redesign by a tech team from Book Tango — one of the companies of Author Solutions, which Book Country parent Penguin‘s parent Pearson bought.

Lindsay stresses that this is a case in which an Author Solutions development team simply has been assigned to a project. The point she’s making is that Book Country is not becoming a creature of Author Solutions, so widely reviled by authors, but is simply using an ASI team’s tech capabilities for a redevelopment of Book Country.

Book Country has relaunched its publishing platform and revamped its royalties rates.

Among the changes afoot here that I like is a loosening of the original genre-lock on Book Country. When launched, the self-publishing site didn’t allow participation by any but genre authors. Now, Lindsay says, “even literary and poetry” can be part of the Book Country publishing program. The community, when relaunched, will also embrace “almost all fiction genres, as well as narrative nonfiction and memoir,” according to Penguin’s announcement.

Some of the key elements of the relaunch of the self-publishing platform include:

A “self-starter” package that’s free to authors and includes the assistance of an online editing functionality that can flag formatting issues in-process, Lindsay tells me.

A high-end “Prospect” package that costs $399 but gives the author 100% of royalties.

A hike of royalty rates to 85 percent from 70% (after retailers’ costs), bringing the platform in line with the standing Smashwords offer, plus Book Country’s distribution includes Amazon. This change in royalties, Book Country folks hope, quells some criticism the site has taken in the past for taking too big a bite.

What’s more, Book Country’s platform becomes digital-only now, all e-books, not print.

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Did We Mention Conferences?

The season is so upon us. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to hear from you if you have a publishing conference in the offing. Let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Meanwhile, as we all rest up from the first of the major US square dances, DBW, here are some confabs to note ahead:

The 14th Annual Winter Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators is set for February 1-3 in New York. “This year’s conference features two jam-packed days of inspiration and the latest on what’s happening in the field of children’s literature from top editors, agents, art directors, authors, and illustrators. Make sure you look at the detailed description of each workshop on the Schedule before you select your breakouts.”

February 12 New York City at the Marriott Marquis New York in Times Square. A first-ever author-dedicated daylong conference from the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change team, led by Joe Wikert, Kat Meyer, and Kristen McLean. TOC Author (R)evolution Day: “This one-day conference-within-a-conference from the thought leaders at Tools of Change and Publishers Weekly is designed specifically for professional authors, content creators, agents, and independent author service providers who want to move beyond ‘Social Media 101’ to a more robust dialogue about the opportunities in today’s rapidly shifting landscape.”

February 12-14 New York City (again at Marriot Marquis Times Square) O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change for Publishing Conference: “Every February, the publishing industry gathers at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (TOC) to explore the forces that are transforming publishing and focus on solutions to the most critical issues facing the publishing world. TOC sells out every year—don’t miss its potent mix of fabulous people and invaluable information.” Under the direction of Joe Wikert and Kat Meyer.

March 6-9 Boston AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs: AWP last year drew 10,000 attendees to icy Chicago, and, per its copy on the site this year, AWP “typically features 550 readings, lectures, panel discussions, and forums, as well as hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings.” The labyrinthine book fair is said to have featured some 600 exhibitors last year. The program is a service-organization event of campus departments, hence the many readings by faculty members.

April 17 New York City paidContent Live: Riding the Transformation of the Media industryBrisk and bracing, last year’s paidContent Live conference was efficient, engaging, and enlightening, not least for the chance to see many of the talented journalists of Om Malik’s GigaOM/paidContent team work onstage — Laura Hazard Owen, Mathew Ingram, Jeff John Roberts, Robert Andrews, Ernie Sander, et al. Among speakers listed for this year’s busy day: Jonah Peretti, Jason Pontin, Chris Mohney, Erik Martin, David Karp, Mark Johnson, Aria Haghighi, Matt Galligan, Rachel Chou, Lewis D’Vorkin, John Borthwick, Andrew Sullivan, Jon Steinberg, Alan Rusbridger, Evan Ratliff, and, of course, Dominique Raccah and Michael Tamblyn.

May 2-5 Oxford, Mississippi Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference & Workshops Susan Cushman follows her Memphis Creative Nonfiction confab with this year’s gathering at the shrine. Among faculty members: Neil White, Leigh Feldman, Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Beth Ann Fennelly, Bob Guccione Jr. and Lee Martin. Pre-conference workshops or just the creature itself, your choice.

May 3-5 Boston The Muse & the Marketplace 2013 is a production of Eve Bridberg’s fast-rising non-profit Grub Street program. It’s material reads tells us that organizers plan more than “110 craft and publishing sessions led by top-notch authors, editors, agents and publicists from around the country. The Manuscript Mart, the very popular and effective one-on-one manuscript reviews with agents and editors, will also span 3 days. We expect nearly 800 writers and publishing professionals to attend, while maintaining the conference’s wonderfully intimate, ‘grubby’ energy that we love.”

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Last Gas: Another Amazon Reviews Incident


Reviews on Amazon are becoming attack weapons, intended to sink new books as soon as they are published. In the biggest, most overt and most successful of these campaigns, a group of Michael Jackson fans used Facebook and Twitter to solicit negative reviews of a new biography of the singer. They bombarded Amazon with dozens of one-star takedowns, succeeded in getting several favorable notices erased and even took credit for Amazon’s briefly removing the book from sale.

David Streitfeld

The book David Streitfeld refers to in Swarming a Book Online at the New York Times is  Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson by Randall Sullivan.

Clearly, it has its detractors. Streitfeld writes:

Outside Amazon, the book had a mixed reception; in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “thoroughly dispensable.” So it is difficult to pinpoint how effective the campaign was. Still, the book has been a resounding failure in the marketplace.

So here, in opposition to events in which authors have paid to have good reviews of their books posted — or posed as others in order to praise their own work — we’re now talking about Jackson fans attacking the book they don’t like.


Amazon said the fans’ reviews had not violated its guidelines but declined further comment. The retailer, like other sites that depend on customer reviews, has been faced with the problem of so-called sock puppets, those people secretly commissioned by an author to produce favorable notices. In recent months, Amazon has made efforts to remove reviews by those it deemed too close to the author, especially relatives.

Streitfeld is very clear that this is an admitted, organized assault on Sullivan’s book:

The fans, who call themselves Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, say they are exercising their free speech rights to protest a book they feel is exploitative and inaccurate. “Sullivan does everything he can to dehumanize, dismantle and destroy, against all objective fact,” a spokesman for the group said.

With a nice spread of reaction and a good handle on the several ironies coming together in this instance—ultimately about as bizarre as most things connected with the late pop star—Streitfeld’s article is well worth reading in the ongoing conversation about online reviews, their place and power, not just in publishing but in many other areas of online retail, as well.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at

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About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.