This is not the Booklikes blog post I planned to write this morning, and yet it is.
Most people, like the women Harvey Weinstein abused over the years, lead lives of quiet desperation. We're aware of the inequalities around us, and the injustices, and the inability to do anything about it. We do our jobs and don't complain about the unfairness of the pay or treatment, because we need the paycheck. We make ourselves believe that suffering a bit of abuse will ultimately pay off. Maybe the boss who treats us like shit will suddenly offer us that promotion or raise, or that producer with grabby hands will put us in the role that will make us a star. It happens just often enough to keep our hopes alive, doesn't it.
Those of us who rock the boat, who blow the whistle, who aren't content to put up with the bullshit, we're the ones who pay the price. And we're held up as examples of what will happen to "you" if you do the same. It happens just often enough to destroy your hopes and keep you in your place, doesn't it.
Sometimes those who dare to rock the boat are very powerful, almost as powerful as the ones who knock them down. Mostly they aren't very powerful; they're just fed up to the eyeballs with the injustice of it all.
It doesn't matter; if you rock the boat too much, you'll get tipped out of it and left to drown.
Most of you know the basics of the saga that led to the Great Goodreads Purge of 2013. A few of us dared to rock the boat regarding the paid-for reviews that boosted crappy books. We documented the literally thousands of reviews and ratings that were coming from review swap groups and authors' sock puppet accounts and review mills like fiverr dot com. We dared to out the authors who were buying the reviews. And we dared to post negative reviews of books we thought were poorly written, especially those books written by authors who mistreated readers and reviewers. Some of us were authors who paid the price -- in the currency of retaliatory reviews.
And some of us got tipped out of the boat to drown -- we were permanently banned from Goodreads.
Some of us came here to BookLikes in search of a more welcoming and less hostile environment, where we could review honestly, including pointing out the author behavior that we believed was harmful to the reviewing and reading community.
For the past four years or so, we've enjoyed that environment. We've put up with the sometimes sporadic functionality of the BookLikes site. We've struggled with the book data base and its limitations. We've provided content and we've provided librarian services, whether we were official BL Librarians with the little tag or just readers eager to add our own contributions from our personal book collections.
Through most of that four years, we've been reasonably safe from attack by the trolls -- most of us know who they were/are so I won't name them. And we've been spared the spectacles of authors who gamed the system to shove their books down readers' throats and who then went into berserker mode when some honest reviewer panned their book.
Maybe our safety has been a function of BookLikes' relatively small footprint in the book community. I don't know. What I do know is that as soon as I read about the demise of Amazon's discussion forums a few weeks ago, I worried that authors desperate for a place to promote their works would eventually find BookLikes and disrupt our peaceful community.
I don't want to rock the boat. I like it here at BookLikes. Despite what certain people may think -- yes, I'm looking at you, Melissa -- I get no pleasure out of reading a badly written book and pointing out its flaws. I can understand the temptation of reviewers to post only great reviews, because life is often simpler if you just praise everything and criticize nothing.
But that's not me. I don't go out looking for poorly written author-published books so I can rip them to pieces. Unfortunately, my book-buying budget is very limited, and therefore I seek out the affordable books which are often written by the authors who publish them. And unfortunately, many of them don't meet my personal standards.
Other people seem to love them, or at least they post glowing reviews. Are they like the fans who flocked to Harvey Weinstein's movies or who watched Bill Cosby's television shows and just didn't know the sordid details of what was going on behind the scenes? Would they have cared if they had known? Or would they have said, "I don't care what he does; I like his work and I'm going to continue to support him, because my pleasure and enjoyment are more important than the price people have to pay to bring it to me."
Those people, the silent ones who never rock the boat, never see themselves as contributing to the abuse. Of course not! Are they free to continue to enjoy the products? Of course! But I am just as free to point out the full story.
See also Joanna Russ's What are we fighting for?
There are reviewers here on BookLikes whose reviews make my brain hurt, and for a lot more reasons than any of you might think. The grammar and spelling and usage are appalling, to the point that I sometimes wonder if English is not their native language. I wonder how someone can be an avid reader and not have picked up by osmosis the basics of the language, yet there appear to be many who have. Some of the books read and enjoyed and given glowing reviews strike me personally as horrible, depressing, worthless, and I can't imagine anyone finding the reading of them pleasurable. But that's their right, and I may not agree with it, but I respect it. Some reviewers appear to me -- if not to anyone else -- to have a particular agenda which I find personally abhorrent. They have as much right to express it as I have to express mine. I keep my mouth -- or my fingers -- tightly shut.
The reason I remained silent was that I firmly believed BookLikes afforded us as readers a level playing field, as free from official interference as possible. (Obvious cases of bullying or other overtly bad behavior would and should be dealt with accordingly.) I was as free to express my views on books and book-related issues -- and even on non-book issues -- as anyone else. The apparent favoritism of Goodreads and Amazon toward those books and authors and reviewers who drove the bottom line was virtually absent from BookLikes. There were no paid promotions forced into our individual dashboard feed; we didn't have to feel we had to like certain books or authors or risk retaliation from The Powers that Be.
A few days ago that all changed.
I'm a writer. I've been a writer almost as long as I've been a reader. (But not as long as I've been a rock hound!) I love writing and I love talking about writing. I made a comment on someone else's blog post about the difficulty of crafting villains in my work, an innocent and non-controversial comment, or so I thought.
Not long afterward, I received a private message from another BookLikes member in response to my villain-creating comment. I thought the message was likewise innocent and non-controversial; I welcomed him as a new member to our community and added him to my Following list.
He had only a couple of blog posts here, and they were almost all self-promotional. He had no books shelved, no reviews posted. He had only three followers, one of whom was myself. But, he was new. I thought he'd learn the ropes and join in.
A day or so later, I received another message from him, this time soliciting his newsletter on a subject in which I have never shown any interest. There was no reason for him to send me this solicitation, so I wrote back that I had no interest in it and I warned him against spamming.
As events unfolded, I was very glad I hadn't reported him. He responded unpleasantly to me, which didn't hurt my feelings at all, though I did post a bit of a warning to my personal community of followers here. The sentiment seemed to be that he had indeed spammed and that behavior wasn't welcome. It should have dropped off the radar screen right there and then.
Though he had not been active in terms of shelving books or posting reviews, he had written several BookLikes blog posts about his writing. I did a tiny bit of follow up because I had a personal interest in the subject of some of his work, and I was disappointed to find hints of potential -- in my opinion -- plagiarism. But again, I kept most of my thoughts to myself or only shared them with my followers and very quietly.
Or at least I did so until the book in question began to be promoted personally by one of the few visible BookLikes employees.
Now the balance of power had shifted enormously. Now I was just another BookLikes user, subject to banning or other disciplinary measures at the whim of those nameless, faceless Powers That Be. I no longer had a safe voice.
My fellow BookLikes friends suggested that well, BookLikes staff had the right to review, and probably the right to reblog as well, which was how this had all come to my attention. I decided I must just be alarmist, even though I felt very uncomfortable.
I felt even more uncomfortable when I downloaded this author's free book from Amazon. I found more evidence of potential plagiarism (and perhaps copyright infringement, too) but I felt helpless to do any more than post a review. Even then, I knew I was taking an enormous risk. The weight of official BookLikes favor might be behind the promotional post and reblogs, but it might not.
Today that changed again. Now the support is official, with the promotional post coming from BookLikes itself, not just a staff member. Is this author now protected against negative reviews by the BookLikes support? Will we ever know? BookLikes isn't based in the United States, so it may not fall under the regulations of the Federal Trade Commission, which rules paid promotion has to be disclosed. Was BookLikes paid to support this author? Do they have a financial interest in promoting this book? Will other authors be pressured to pay for promotional support?
Will other authors be prevented from posting negative reviews? Technically, under those FTC regulations, authors are not supposed to post negative reviews of their direct competition. That's the rule that kept me from posting reviews on Amazon; it's in their guidelines and is based on those FTC regulations which have the force of law in the US. (I'm old enough to remember the Payola scandals of the 1950s, which led to some of those FTC regulations.)
BookLikes has always had this power, to promote or to silence. As far as I know, they've never used it or threatened to use it, and from that has come this feeling of safety I've enjoyed -- and perhaps you have, too -- for the past four years.
I'm here at BookLikes as a reader, as reviewer, as an artist, and only lastly as an author in search of readers. I value my friendships here on BookLikes -- yes, even with those reviewers whose spelling makes my eyeballs ache and whose reading choices make my stomach queasy -- as friendships, and not as potential sources of income. Once in a while I make reference to my own books, but I have never solicited and will never solicit sales or reviews.
Nor have I seen other authors do so, at least not within my limited circle of friends on the site. We may make announcements, yes, and comment on our writing progress. I confess, I'm now extremely uncomfortable even posting about my writing projects still in progress. Will I be required to pay BookLikes even for that kind of promotion? Is it considered spam? Are my followers uncomfortable with it?
Do I have to worry now that if I write a negative review, I will be punished by BookLikes, even to the point of being banned from the site? Will I, or other writers, or other reviewers, feel pressured to post only positive reviews? Will I, or other writers, or other reviewers, feel pressured to post only positive reviews of books and/or authors openly and officially promoted by BookLikes?
BookLikes has flexed its muscles. It has reminded all of us that it holds enormous power. Does it have as much power as Amazon or Goodreads? Perhaps not, but it has the power to silence.
It's very possible that BookLikes did what they did in the belief that they were only helping someone who deserved it. The problem is that they have the power -- which they have now used -- to determine who "deserves" promotion and who doesn't. Does that mean the deserving are those who pay? And in what currency?
I've been a victim of #metoo abuse, in ways that I'm not at liberty to divulge right now. Maybe that's why I'm more inclined to speak out than many others. But there have always been those who threw caution to the winds, who put justice above their careers, and did the right thing.
I've spent the past week or so giving some serious thought to what I want to do with the rest of my life. I turned 69 last Friday, so I'm sure there are a lot of people who think I'm a little late in getting around to that. But when I woke up this morning at 3:00 a.m., I knew that I had come to a more or less solid decision to focus more of my time and energy on my writing. I love the rocks and gems, I love the other creative endeavors I'm engaged in, but the writing is my first love, and over the past couple of years it has proven to be the most remunerative as well.
When I logged onto BookLikes and saw the official post promoting one author, my heart sank. I'm not morally capable of the kind of kissing up that's required to gain the favor of the powerful. And I'm not financially capable of the kind of promotional expenditure that others are. I've always had to rely on the quality of my work to speak for itself.
Now I know that on BookLikes, that's no longer enough. The playing field is no longer level and now it's all about power.
I have none.