Monday, February 3, 2014

Selling words under the table

Since my earlier blog post here regarding how some sellers on Amazon and elsewhere seem to be buying positive reviews for their products, my cynicism has been growing.  More and more evidence emerges that honesty is a more and more rare commodity in the marketplace.

While I suppose it's somewhat understandable that sellers of products might be inclined to hype their  wares perhaps more than warranted, what I find most confounding is the negative attitude of buyers and potential buyers toward those who advocate honesty.

If you need to read that sentence again to make sure you understood it, feel free.  I'll wait.  ;-)

What it boils down to, though, is a pretty simple set of questions:  Do readers not want to read good books?  Do readers not know what a good book is?  Do they not care at all any more?  There is usually very little resistance or complaint when someone posts a positive review.  And as such, there are groups and organizations that purport to grant some kind of "seal of approval" to those books that pass some perhaps arbitrary criteria for professionalism.  That's all well and good, but how does the reader ever know what to avoid, if there are no negatives?

Ah, that's when it gets really dicey.  Because there's very little marketplace support for the person who dares to write a negative review, the kind that says loud and clear, "This book is utter crap."

When a book reviewer contemplates posting a negative review, she has to confront a series of Catch-22 situations, the first of which runs something like this:

Did you read the whole book, first page to last?

If yes, you read the whole book, you're permitted (!) to write a negative review, but you run the risk that you'll be accused of stupidity, because only a stupid person would keep reading a book they hated.  In other words, if you read the whole book and hated it, your negative review is invalid and a lie and you shouldn't post it.

If no, you didn't read the whole book, then you're not permitted to write a negative review because the book might get better toward the end and you'll find you really liked it.  In other words, if you didn't read the whole book, you can't be certain you really hated it, and your negative review is invalid and a lie and you shouldn't post it.

Negative reviews of anything less than the whole book aren't fair to the author.  Even if you clearly state you didn't finish the book because the characters were flat, the writing was flawed, and the story made no sense, it's not fair to the author if you review without finishing.  After all, the author wrote the whole book and somehow or other that seems to imply that the reader must read the whole book -- or shut up.

There's another Catch-22, too, related to that "fairness to the author" routine.

Are you an author?  Have you ever written a book?

If yes, you have written a book, then you are qualified to write a negative review but you shouldn't because you should understand how hard it is and should have an appreciation for what the author went through.  If you criticize her work, you're not being fair, you're not being kind, and you're not being supportive of your colleague.  If you criticize her work, you must be a jealous competitor, and you should not be allowed to review.  (By the same token, if you are an author and you post a positive review, you must be just boosting the ratings of a friend and your review is dishonest and you should not be allowed to review.)

If no, you have never written a book, then you are not qualified to write a negative review because you are unable to appreciate what the author went through to produce it.  Her effort, her dedication, her desire are far more important than your experience of 20, 30, 50 years as a reader.  If you criticize her work, you are just being mean and ignorant, because above all else, her feelings are important..

Is it a majority of readers who react this way?  Probably not.  And as for the authors of those badly-reviewed books who respond angrily to their critics, they, too, are in the minority.  Unfortunately, both groups are very vocal and, dare I say, aggressive in their behavior.  It truly takes a brave soul to go up against them.

It's even more difficult when the reviewer who dares to post a negative review is assaulted by the fangurlz and the friendsandfamily and the shills and the sockpuppets and the tit-for-tat review swapping circles.  Having been there more than once, I can tell you it's not a fun experience.

And for an author who truly does care about the marketplace and the quality of the material being published because of the effect it all has on the ability of self-publishing authors to have any hope of breaking the stranglehold of the traditional publishers, it's particularly daunting.  Is there a sense of mission?  Oh, absolutely.  Can that mission become an obsession?  Oh, absolutely.

What's the alternative?  To just let it go on?  To let the spammers and scammers and purveyors of crap to ruin the marketplace?  Maybe it is.

Or maybe we just have to be more aware of what kind of insidious disease we're up against and adopt some kind of resolution not to let it win.  Maybe we owe it to our readers, both the ones we already have and the ones we hope to have.

Because if we aren't writing for our readers, why in the ever loving hell did we ever publish it?


  1. I so hear you about the Catch-22 of reviewing!

    I'm about to publish a three-star review for a book, after the author contacted me requesting the review.

    She contacted me again yesterday, to ask when the review would post (as she's planning a 99 cent campaign, and wanted to coordinate the dates.

    I sent her a copy of the review in advance so she could decide whether or not she wanted to promote it (I don't usually do this, but I met her when she attended a presentation I gave on reviewing at a writer's conference). She replied that while she won't promote my review, she's happy for me to post on Amazon and Goodreads - after all, even critical reviews can help.

    I don't necessarily recommend the book as good reading. As I said, it's three stars, which is 'okay' on Amazon.

    But I am impressed by her ability to remain polite and professional throughout what could have been an awkward exchange. I think she deserves credit for thanking me for a review that is honest, but not glowing - and I wish all authors could be so nice.

  2. Good post. I have been thanked for my 3 star review, so not all authors are, erm, I will not swear here. But I think one more problem not yet mentioned with this whole "Let's all pat each others' backs and suppress criticism" is that I cannot find a book to read. There are a million, and they are all rated 5 stars, so how do I as a reader pick one? I will not read a million samples either, just to find a book to read on the bus. I may as well give up and go to suckle on the teats of the "big 5" publishers. It's a pity as the ratings could have been a good, democratic way to shift chaff out of the pile.

  3. You and I have a past nightmare in common. I'd love to chat with you via Goodreads some time about it.