Monday, September 03, 2012

On Common Decency

Recently, the writing community has been rocked by a series of revelations surrounding the abuse of user-reviews by authors and other industry professionals, both to champion their own work (or, in the case of paid "reviewers," the works of their clients) and to denigrate the work of their perceived rivals. And a number of writers have responded with what I believe is a very thoughtful and right-minded open letter condemning such behavior, one whose contents I wholeheartedly support.

Now, I suppose I could, as some have done, copy said letter to my blog and sign my name to it as well to show my support for it, but a) I was not consulted in the writing of it, and would not like to foster any misapprehension that I was, and b) I occasionally fancy myself something of a writer; since this scandal is one that's close to my heart, I thought I'd spill some ink of my own on the matter.

First, a couple clarifications. This is not the publishing equivalent of inside baseball, of interest only to those who make their living writing, editing, or marketing books. This issue affects every single reader who's ever bought a book based on customer reviews or sales rank. Because what we're talking about isn't simply a couple petty pot-shots or fake-raves to soothe an author's tattered ego. The folks who're buying or penning fake reviews aren't faking one or two. They're faking dozens, if not hundreds. The more good reviews, the higher up the results list a book hits on a given customer search. The more bad ones, and the farther down the list it falls. And if there's one thing I've discovered in my two years of obsessively monitoring my Amazon sales-ranks (first for my self-released short story collection, 8 POUNDS, and now for DEAD HARVEST and THE WRONG GOODBYE), it's that the best way to sell books is to've already sold a bunch of books - or to've garnered a bunch of good reviews.

You drop your price, your sales go up. Your sales go up, you start hitting top ten lists. Top ten horror anthologies. Top ten hard-boiled crime novels. Top-ten cat-based mysteries. And reviews work the same way. Pick your favorite genre. Sort by best-rated. You find some fantastic stuff that way. And no doubt a couple hucksters as well.

My point is, these ratings are life-and-death for an author. And the people who take the time to leave honest reviews do the authors they support a great service. The people who slag authors, on the other hand - be they sock-puppeteers or simply folks who hate-read for sport (they're out there, believe me, and their naked vitriol sets them apart from those who legitimately write tough-but-fair reviews) - are no-shit taking money out of authors' pockets, and food off of their tables. But big-shot authors can afford it, many of the latter no doubt think. To which I say this: how many of your favorite authors are also reporters/doctors/lawyers/TV writers/whatever? Do you think it's because they don't find writing fulfilling? No. It's because as a whole, writers don't get paid nearly as much as most folks think. And that's part of what infuriates me about this whole scandal. Hate-readers assume authors are all rich. Fellow authors ought to damn well know better.

When I decided to make a go at writing professionally, I made a pact with myself. If I was to chase my lifelong dream, I was going to do it right. No schmoozing just to get ahead. No backstabbing or shit-talking. No public airing of dirty laundry. No lying, misleading, or double-dealing, no matter how minor. And sticking with it hasn't always been as easy as you'd think. As an example, early on in querying, I was fool enough to grant an agent an open-ended exclusive on my manuscript. They sat on it for months. In that time, other agents whom I'd queried expressed interest in reading it - one of whom, as it happens, now represents me. But I'd made a promise, so I kept it, gritting my teeth and asking if the others wouldn't mind waiting until I heard back on the exclusive. Damn if I wasn't tempted, though.

I confess, that pact has left me reluctant to solicit reviews from folks I know liked my books, because I felt like I'd be stuffing the ballot box; the closest I've come as far as I recall is generically encouraging folks to review authors whose books they've enjoyed. It's led me to insist my wife not review my books online, despite the fact that I believe her when she says she quite liked them. (In the interest of full disclosure, I suspect she's rated me favorably on GoodReads regardless, but, God bless her, she's never been one for taking orders from me or anybody.) And I have never, ever reviewed my own books at any venue anywhere. Not under my own name, nor any other name, nor anonymously, and I never will.

But here's the thing: my position is a personal one, and has no ties whatsoever to this scandal. Nor do I suggest the hard line I've taken is the right path; Lord knows I've been tempted to tweet, "Like my book? Kindly say so on Amazon/GoodReads/B&N/your nearest street corner!" And frankly, I don't think any less of folks who do. I've also never written a scathing review of another writer's work, even when I really, really hated it (yeah, it happens from time to time), but that's simply because I don't get anything out of tearing others down. I like to like things. And when I do review something, I put my name on it (or, on Amazon, my initials; my reviews appear under the name "CFH"). As for the stuff I read that ain't my thing, I tend not to bother, since it a) mostly fades with time, and b) informs my taste and hones my writing near as much as the stuff I love. On the rare occasion it's so bad as to offend, I set it down and never (publicly) speak of it again. If other folks that hate it do the same, stuff like it'll disappear without anyone having to be a dick about it. (Okay, I confess I've taken a couple joking Twitter pot-shots at latter-day George Lucas and Thomas Harris, but they come from a place of love. Jilted, tainted, squandered love. But I digress.)

If you ask me, the sockpuppetry and assorted skullduggery that's recently come to light is but a symptom of a greater problem: namely, the breakdown of civility that arises when people are free to conduct themselves anonymously, without fear of reprisal. Many comport themselves with class and decency whether speaking anonymously or not. But those who don't wreak havoc, and lead to rambling posts like these.

Please note that none of the above applies to serious, professional reviewers (be they big or small, print or online, paid or merely passionate). They are tastemakers and gatekeepers, and the vast majority of them have earned their post as such. In fact, I find it funny that the very user-reviews many thought of as their death-knell have only served to underscore their import. In an era of "FUKYEAHTHISROXXX" and "OMGsukk!" I'm grateful there are still proper critics out there who can contextualize a novel in complete sentences, much less convey their passion or lack thereof for a given work without unfair bias or hidden agenda.

I only hope they all dig mine. Because in case you haven't heard, good reviews sell books...