Ether for Authors: What Happens When Everybody’s a Critic?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

24 August 2013 iStock_000027387348XSmall Kourion mosaic photog CaronB texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Reviewing the Reviews, Part 1
  2. Reviewing the Reviews, Part 2
  3. Reviewing the Reviews, Part 3
  4. Congratulations!…Now How Do You Sell It?
  5. Conferences
  6. Last Gas: Amy Tan’s Wearable Book Cover

Reviewing the Reviews, Part 1

The key word here is “book.” The reviews that have been deleted — and that we don’t think have a place on Goodreads — are reviews like “the author is an a**hole and you shouldn’t read this book because of that.” In other words, they are reviews of the author’s behavior and not relevant to the book. We believe books should stand on their own merit, and it seems to us that’s the best thing for readers.

Kara Erickson

Kara Erickson

This is Kara Erickson writing, in her capacity as Director of Customer Care at Goodreads. And what she’s announcing on the Goodreads site in an article and update headed Important Note Regarding Reviews is a potentially important iteration of the company’s reaction to what has commonly been referred to as bullying on the site.

The bright line being laid down here by the administration of the company is in the difference in reader/member commentary about books and their commentary about the people who either write or read those books.

Erickson’s lead two points are these, emphasis hers:

1. Reviews should be about the book. If you think a book is a masterpiece, tell people why. If you hated the book, say so. If it had potential but fell short, share your perspective. 2. Members are not permitted to harass or threaten other people. We have always dealt with this promptly when it has been brought to our attention.

This is a response many will welcome to a steady chorus of complaint about hostile comment and intimidating behavior on the vast reader recommendation site. Writing on the Ether Goodreads pieceFor background on the issue, you might look at Writing on the Ether: When Bad Things (Seem To) Happen on Good Sites at JaneFriedman.com. Alleged hostilities have run both ways, some authors complaining of threatening and offensive comment from reader-reviewers, and some reader-reviewers claiming the same problem with authors. The company has maintained that the cases of members behaving badly have been limited to a fraction of the overall operation. Erickson writes:

To put things in context, every day we have more than 30,000 reviews written on Goodreads and, on average, only a handful are flagged as inappropriate. That means 99.99% of new reviews are happily within our guidelines. (Funnily enough, we get way more flags from people asking us to add a spoiler alert to a review than any other type of flagged review.)

One thing I’ve noted in the past is that Goodreads now has some 20 million members, a group roughly the size of the population of Australia.

It’s not as if unfortunate incidents won’t happen in so large a setting, though that doesn’t mitigate the company’s responsibility to do what it can to prevent and/or contain the bad moments. Goodreads.com

To that end, Erickson writes, new efforts include:

  • Making it easier for people with complaints to reach Goodreads staffers.

 

 

  • Providing “better education for authors about Goodreads and our review guidelines.”

 

 

  • Deleting content focused on author behavior.

 

Dated September 20, Erickson’s post at the time of this writing already has 2,180 comments.

Erickson’s original write is succinct on the point likely to cause the most controversy, the removal of certain entries and of lists and “shelves” (collections of books members create and name as a group or “shelf”):

We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior. If you have questions about why a review was removed, send an email to support@goodreads.com.

 

But charges of heavy-handedness and unfair corporate action have followed. Erickson, in her update, writes:

Someone used the word censorship to describe this. This is not censorship — this is setting an appropriate tone for a community site. We encourage members to review and shelve books in a way that makes sense for them, but reviews and shelves that focus primarily on author behavior do not belong on Goodreads.

The developing picture here is of a company working to respond to a field that is both relatively new in one sense and peculiarly emotional.

Customer review, a device that’s routine nowadays on online retailers, has never gone so smoothly in the world of books as it does in, say, apparel or gardening implements or dog treats. (Cooper the Literary Beagle likes to rate his treats.)

And in the case of Goodreads, one of the more volatile elements involves the fact that it’s a community peopled both by reviewing readers and by authors. For decades, literary criticism—which in its best forms was never consumer-review at all, but considered artistic judgment—was, for better or worse, a place inhabited by critics.

The writers who were critiqued could communicate through letters to the editor or more direct messages, but the main venues for these reviews were the pages of newspapers.

Ed Nawotka

Edward Nawotka

There’s a poignance here to the timing of great critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s death at 93, and the question it prompts Publishing Perspectives’ Edward Nawotka to ask: Will the Digital Era Produce as Influential a Book Critic?

Even on the consumer-review level of a site like Goodreads, the presumably smart aspect of a community inclusive both of the writers and their consumers, the readers, is new and evolving.

Clearly, at times, there are hotspots of behavior in this mix that are unacceptable. No one has a right to intimidate or demean someone else, and the fact that it occurs because of book reviews is all but preposterous.

It was amazing to see how many times the word “attack” turned up in comments that followed the Writing on the Ether post on this topic at JaneFriedman.com, for example. However small this element may be, it’s there.

And Goodreads, of course, must respond or risk an escalation of bad press about it, if not of actual hostilities.

As Goodreads makes its seemingly logical moves—a clear delineation of “reviewing” a book vs. a person seems an utterly correct start—we have a larger question to think about, and that’s anger, per se. Bitterness. Rancor.

At times, it would seem laudable to say, “Books are forms of expression that elicit great emotional response.” We’d want to be proud of this.

And yet, throughout the publishing world’s busy online exchanges, instances of something darker seem painfully common, whether they involve authors from one mode of publishing discussing another mode of publishing, “gatekeepers” discussing the formerly “gatekept” (I’ve made up that word), or, in Goodreads’ case, readers and writers trying to discover and enjoy each other.

As Erickson writes to the Goodreads membership:

We are simply asking that you flag the content [deemed wrongful] to staff’s attention rather than responding to inappropriate behavior in the review space. We will take it from there.

For a community so vast, this hardly seems a burdensome request from those responsible for moderating the site.

In our next section, we’ll look at another unhappy aspect of reader/customer reviews of books, equally baffling for the strange, negative impulses involved. 

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Reviewing the Reviews, Part 2

 

These days, bestselling authors with a ton of reviews are presumed guilty until proven guilty. Ask any major-leaguer who leads the league in home runs what they go through as the season progresses. This is the new and ugly norm.

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey

Author Hugh Howey’s Very Small Rocks? is an unusually sad, difficult article for him. The bestselling writer, who will appear October 8 at Frankfurt Academy’s CONTEC 2013 Conference (a Publishing Perspectives interview with him is here), normally is a notably chipper observer of the publishing scene, cheerfully joking about his own “ingenious idea quota” as he offers yet another suggestion.

This time, we hear a different tone.

And if we are to fully explore what the rise of entrepreneurial publishing means today—mindful that so much of it is promulgated online—we have to concede that there are disturbing, perplexing factors at work.

Howey is just one of many writers recently accused—anonymously in online articles without substantiation—of buying reviews favorable to their work. There is, apparently, no clarity on who is behind these allegations.

The reason we’re hearing from Howey and not from another author on this, as a matter of fact, is because, as he writes, he’s strong enough in his following and his success to speak openly about it. As he puts it:

I am lucky to have tremendous support and an incredible number of unassailable reviews from readers, bloggers, and major media outlets. But I am watching friends get attacked. And they have much more to lose than I do. And I think I’ve been a chickenshit for quite long enough. I’m more than a little upset at myself for being such a coward for so long.

 

He relates his own fear of accusations of review-buying to childhood experiences at the hands of bullies, and shows us an ugly flip side of the Internet’s capacity to support author-reader interaction, bonding, and community:

This is the dark slice of what is otherwise an amazing ability to connect with readers, 99% of whom are positive, supportive, and wonderful. But it’s that other 1% that you live in terror of. And you know that if you say anything, if you stick up for a friend, that you’re next.

Extra EtherIt’s been more than a year now since the late-summer 2012 uproar over bought reviews and “sock puppetry” (posing as someone else to praise your work or damn others’). Extra Ether: Buying Book Reviews – Still Admire John Locke? was keyed on that author’s confirmation that he had participated in extensive review-buying services designed to inflate his books’ ratings on retailer sites.

While retailers have made moves to delete wrongfully placed reviews, the issue, we learn, has not gone away for many authors. Howey:

In a forum thread yesterday [September 21], anyone who spoke up about a similar issue promptly received a spate of 1-star reviews from one of these accusers. Over a hundred books in an hour were hit, including all of mine.

Howey’s answer is a kind of formal pledge to those who follow him—”I, Hugh Howey, have never paid for a book review in my life”—and, of course, writing about it rather than remaining silent.

But again, as in today’s first section, we have to ask ourselves what unhappiness is being revealed relative to online consumer book reviews? What in publishing, in books, generates this sort of push and shove? Howey writes:

Knowing yourself is the most important thing. Watching others pick and choose how they know you—this tells you all you need to know about them. I felt liberated when I realized this. I began to see others for how great and not-so-great they are. (The next step is to learn not to judge them when they do not-so-great things.)

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Reviewing the Reviews, Part 3

 

Amazon and Facebook and Twitter have more value than any possible competitors because they have more people actively engaged with them every single day. B&N can’t compete with Amazon around reader reviews because it has far fewer of them. Amazon tells you that X people out of Y found this review helpful. You need numbers to do that. Only one person in many writes a review. Only one person in many reads any posted review. And only one person in many bothers to post that they found a review helpful. That’s one in many cubed. The denominator is one enormous number.

Mike Shatzkin

Mike Shatzkin

See what I mean? You can’t walk twenty feet this week without somebody bringing up consumer reviews. This is Mike Shatzkin.

Amazon’s book customer traffic is probably 10 times or more what BN.com’s is. So it is possible for Amazon, and for nobody else, to tell you that X out of Y found this review helpful with meaningful numbers. (Even if Jonathan Franzen and others aren’t impressed with the provenance of the reviews. And even if some of the reviews have been deliberately gamed.)

If you’re not following his reference to Jonathan Franzen, Dennis Abrams’ Franzen Says Amazon Presages the Apocalypse will get you sorted. Shatzkin is currently participating in the readying of two upcoming conferences—”shows,” as he and a lot of us call them. On Thursday (September 26), there’s Digital Book World’s Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo at New York’s Metropolitan Pavilion.

McCarthy, Peter 3

Peter McCarthy

In the run up to that one, Shatzkin’s co-organizer Peter McCarthy has produced a useful interpretation of three major techniques in Marketing Books Using Demographics, Psychographics, and Consumer Behavior at DBW’s site. And then on October 8 in Frankfurt, Shatzkin and Michael Cader produce the Publishers  Launch Frankfurt 2013 in cooperation with the Frankfurt Academy and Book Fair.

Meanwhile, Shatzkin’s new write, Don’t blame Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter for the fact that technology changes behavior, includes an important point we tend to overlook about reviews: While the rise of online consumer reviews may make it seem that those yellow-starred, thumbs-up, thumbs-down rips and raves by folks you’ve never heard of are in our faces more than anything else (and they probably are), the Internet also has expanded the reach of more traditional criticism.

New York Times book reviews are available to far more people than they were before Amazon came into being and through the same computers that bring in Amazon. And when Jonathan Franzen writes his piece for The Guardian, far more people…will read it than would have when there was only print. And anybody interested in the new book of his that he is promoting can just click a bit more, probably to Amazon, and buy it.

Along the way, Shatzkin tells a funny story (depending on your point of view) about someone who uses Amazon as Barnes & Noble’s search engine:

I am very close to somebody who vastly prefers to buy her books from Barnes & Noble for reasons that would probably appeal to Jonathan Franzen. But, over many years, she has found that their search engine just doesn’t work effectively. So she finds what she wants at Amazon and then goes over to BN.com to purchase it! Most people won’t do that; they’ll just buy where it is easiest to shop. Is it Amazon’s fault that they’re cleaning BN’s online clock through a better service?

Perhaps most centrally, Shatzkin looks at Franzen’s idea that Amazon wants apocalyptic domination of the market.

Amazon is probably smart enough not to want a world in which, as Franzen fears, they publish everything that isn’t self-published by an author. They know they benefit from the investments publishers make and they’re probably even detached enough to know they benefit from books being in the marketplace because they’re supported by sales Amazon doesn’t have the breadth to make. And let’s remember that book sales are probably down to a low double-digit percentage of Amazon’s business. They have bigger fish to fry than building their market share or their margin at the expense of publishers.

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Congratulations!…Now How Do You Sell It?

Phil Sexton

Phil Sexton

Well, that is the question, isn’t it, from one end of the new conference season to the other. And in its new programming mode that includes a day focused entirely on self-publishing organized and led by Phil SextonWriter’s Digest Conference West in Los Angeles on Friday (September 27) will have a special session addressing just that issue.

One member of the panel I’m moderating on the topic will be with me in Frankfurt in our big Self-Publishing’s Implications for the Industry “learning lab” at the CONTEC 2013 ConferenceAmanda Barbara of Pubslush is speaking in LA, then she and I are going to split a cab to Germany.

Here’s a special Publishing Perspectives feature on that large, interactive leadership session. If you’ll be in Frankfurt on the 8th, please join us for CONTEC, there’s info below in our Conferences section.

Also on our “Now How Do You Sell It?” panel is the ever-eloquent Jon Fine, Director of Amazon’s Author and Publisher Relations; filmmaker and author Eric DelaBarre; author and coach Nina Amir; Red Room’s CEO Ivory Madison; and WaveCloud’s CMO Bill Van Orsdel, a great group.

Amanda Barbara

Amanda Barbara

One of the points Barbara will bring to the table is that authors today can be too quick to rule out print, assuming their market is entirely digital.

“Although the profit margin on printed books is significantly lower than on ebooks,” she says, Pubslush is advising that “providing your book in the two formats your readers are looking for can only boost sales. And believe it or not, modern readers still want hardcopies.”

She’s right, of course, and the focus our digital dynamic has put onto ebooks can easily make us forget that print is still a major force.

“Ebook publication should be taken just as seriously as print publication,” she cautions, in terms of the care needed to produce a professional-quality book. But she counsels looking at the demographics of a book’s likely audience—how do your readers like to read—to help make a decision about final formats.

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Conferences

CONTEC conference speaker bloc for 24 September 2013

Among the more than 50 speakers appearing in two weeks, at the October 8 Frankfurt Academy CONTEC 2013 Conference, are, left to right from top, Hanno Hepke, Salla Vainio, Cristina Mussinelli, Eldars Loginov, Nicolaas Faasen, Melissa Fulkerson, Jakob Larsen, Patrice Chazerand, and Jens Bammel.

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. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term. Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

September 26 New York City (Metropolitan Pavilion): Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo: “This innovative conference & expo is really two related shows, held together. The Marketing Conference is a full-day dedicated event that presents a comprehensive strategy for marketing in the digital age. The Publishing Services Expo offers three finely-targeted “mini-conferences” for important and often-overlooked publishing constituencies. Each track is an affordably priced, efficiently programmed two-and-half-hour session that pairs concise educational sessions with vendor speed dating to learn about new solutions.” Produced by Digital Book World and Publishers Launch (Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin). (Hashtag: #DBWMP) Save $25 on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

Bookseller Children's ConferenceSeptember 26 London (Southbank Centre): The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference. “Building an international children’s publishing company in an internet age…current and future technologies that are driving change in children’s market…a whistle-stop overview of the market using Nielsen BookScan sales data. Are the biggest writers continuing to dominate? Are sticker books still selling? And what’s up with YA?” (Hashtag: #kidsconf13)

 

Writers Digest West 2013 WDCWWriter’s Digest Conference West: “You’ll make real connections with fellow writers, experience the thrill of pitching your work to literary agents and editors, and get practical publishing-industry advice and writing inspiration from successful authors at Writer’s Digest Conference West.” Speakers include: Jon Fine, Nina Amir, Philip Athans, James Scott Bell, Lisa Cron, Eric DelaBarre, and more. The program this year includes standalone boot camp sessions, a one-day self-publishing conference, and the regular conference with agent pitch slam. You can participate in a boot camp or the Saturday Pitch Slams day alone, if you don’t have time for the entire conference. (Hashtag: #WDCW13) Save $25 on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

  Screenwriters World West 2013 - #SWCW13September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest’s Screenwriters World Conference West: “Scribes from around the world unite at Screenwriters World, the annual destination for both professional and aspiring screenwriters to come together to discuss the craft, share ideas, and network with fellow creatives.” Speakers include Erik Bork, Ruth Atkinson, Josie Brown, Karl Iglesias, Jeanne V. Bowerman, and more. The schedule this year includes optional boot camp sessions. (Hashtag: #SWCW13) Save $25 on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

CONTEC Frankfurt 2013 with dateOctober 8 Frankfurt Book Fair: CONTEC Conference: “A new, highly-engaging event experience created by the Frankfurt Academy to address the complexity of the needs of today’s publishing business. CONTEC gathers stakeholders from across the publishing ecosystem – from STM and trade publishers to service providers and tech startups – in one arena to redefine and redesign the experience of publishing.” (Hashtag: #CONTEC) Save 20% on registration with code CONTEC13KPTW20 at checkout.  Note our interviews with author Hugh Howey on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing and the “Big Data / Little Data” session panelists here at Publishing Perspectives, as well as a feature on the interactive learning lab, “Self-Publishing and Its Implications for the Industry.”

Frankfurt Academy All Access Ticket

And consider the Frankfurt Academy’s All-Access Ticket, which includes unlimited access to events including CONTEC Frankfurt 2013, Publishers Launch Frankfurt, Rights Directors Meeting (RDM) 2013, First Timer Seminar, Rights Express, Digital Resume, Frankfurt StoryDrive, Experience the Exquisite, Business Breakfasts and more.

 

Publishers Launch Frankfurt 2013October 8 Frankfurt: Publishers Launch Frankfurt 2013: “Publishers Launch returns to the Frankfurt Book Fair for the third year in a row, now moving to the natural pre-Fair ‘conference day,’ Tuesday, to make it easier for you to attend. This packed event will continue and expand upon today’s key themes of scale and consolidation across the publishing world, while also looking at scaling strategies for vertical publishing – a natural way to prosper in the shadows of publishing and retailing giants. We’ll also look at the implications (and opportunities) of the explosion of digital publishing from non-traditional players and authors and agents publishing directly.” Note this week’s interview here at Publishing Perspectives ahead of the conference with Charlie Redmayne, HarperCollins UK CEO.

October 12 San Francisco: Writing for Change Conference: “The Fifth San Francisco Writing for Change Conference is the place to discover whether your book can change the world. The theme of the conference is “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” and the goal is to encompass business, politics, technology, social issues, the environment, culture, the law, and much more.” The event will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Center at the corner of Geary and Franklin in San Francisco.

Books in Browsers 2012 2October 24-26, San Francisco: Books in Browsers: Produced by the Frankfurt Academy and Hypothes.is, this is among the most advanced of conferences dedicated to bringing designer and code savvy into contact with editorial and content leaders, Books in Browsers is produced for a fourth time by Peter Brantley in generous association with the Internet Archive and Swissnex San Francisco, produced and sponsored by Hypothes.is and Frankfurt Book Fair. Speakers include Kate Pullinger, Baldur Bjarnason, Bill McCoy, Justo Hidalgo, Richard Nash, and more. (Hashtag: #bib13) General registration now is open.

Get Read conferenceNovember 13-14, Online: Get Read – Marketing Strategies for Writers: Dan Blank’s We Grow Media presents this two-day Internet conference for authors, “focused on helping you ensure your books get read.” Speakers are to include Jason Ashlock, Claire Cook, Elizabeth S. Craig, Jane Friedman, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Ami Greko, Rachel Fershleiser, Richard Nash, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, Chuck Wendig, and more. (Hashtag: #GetRead)

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and usually includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Details as they become available. (Hashtag: #fbook13)  Now open for bookings.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

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Last Gas: Amy Tan’s Wearable Book Cover

So no writer really likes that business about a picture being “worth a thousand words.”

Clearly it’s a ghastly saying created by photographic equipment makers.

But I concede in this case—just this once, mind you—that it might be easier if I just show you what’s up with author Amy Tan’s forthcoming release (October 1) from HarperCollins, The Valley of Amazement. Here she is in the tweet that got a lot of others busy with their advance copies of her book:

Pretty soon:

And:

You can never count out the Rockettes:

And:

Got the idea? Let me note that this much-enjoyed cover design is by Allison Saltzman. She puts a good face on her work, no?

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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. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. His all-new London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


Main image – iStockphoto: The gladiator Lytras at Kourion | CaronB

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.