In case you missed the earlier rant that I spent five hours writing Tuesday morning, it's here.
It's outrageously long, but I needed to write it for myself. I paid for it Tuesday night with an aching back from being hunched over the laptop so long.
This follow-up may be equally . . . wordy. And it won't be written in a single evening.
The comment Debbie's Spurts left on the earlier post reminded me of an important point that she brings up frequently: bullying.
I've been called a bully when I've usually done nothing more than point out someone's errors. Maybe they were violating Amazon's or Goodreads' or BookLikes' Terms of Service. Maybe they were using trademarked or copyrighted material without permission. Maybe they called a character in their book James Helston, Duke of Tamar, and then referred to him as "Lord James." Maybe they sited the car accident at the corner of Dearborn and LaSalle in Chicago. Maybe they set their 1898 western historical in the state of Arizona.
Pointing out an error is not bullying. Even giving a book a terrible, horrible review isn't bullying. Even carpet bombing an author's entire list with one-star ratings isn't bullying. It may be mean and nasty and petty and juvenile, but it's not bullying.
Bullying is done to benefit the bully. Panning someone else's book doesn't help me. It often hurts me, in that people are less likely to buy or read my books. Or they may be inclined to rate or review my book unfavorably. I'd do much better for myself if I just kept my fingers away from the keyboard and said nothing but nice things about other people's books.
But, you say, if I turn people away from buying other books, doesn't that boost the chance that they'll buy mine? Am I not trying to thin out the competition?
Well, to be perfectly honest, maybe. But if in writing a bad review and pissing off people I lower my chances of selling, what advantage is there in weeding out competition?
So why then do I write and post negative reviews, or even negative comments? (The minor explosion on Monday night was not due to a bad review. I had simply made some comments in a blog post that did not directly identify the book or the author; I posted no rating either.)
Part of the answer is easy.
When I read a book and write a review of it, I am 99.44% of the time reviewing only the book: the story, the characters, the format, the research, the style. Sometimes, occasionally, the author's behavior will impact my reading, but usually that's in the positive direction. Most of the time, however, I don't know anything about the author outside her or his writing. That means my opinion is formed only by the book itself, good or bad.
Some authors don't like this. They don't like my honesty. Worse, however, they don't like my standards. My standards are very, very, very high.
Sometimes the authors' fans don't like my critiques either. They take the reviews personally, as though I were criticizing them, as readers, too. I don't care what they want to read. What I do care about is that readers who want good books to read have the tools they need to find those good books.
This goes back to the changes in publishing over the past couple of decades.
The publishing of genre fiction has changed dramatically. The most important but the most invisible change is the absence of gatekeepers. Traditional publishing enterprises that have come through to digital from paper publishing still have editors and proofreaders, but those have always been invisible. The marketplace only gets the end product, so it's difficult if not impossible for the average reader to know when the gatekeepers are operating and when they aren't. Those of us who are activist readers -- following reviews, participating in discussions, etc. -- know how to determine if there are gatekeepers on a given book or not.
The vast majority of readers don't know how to tell the difference.
The vast majority of readers don't leave reviews, good or bad.
We don't know how many of the reviews that show up on any given book are genuine honest opinions of disinterested (unbiased) readers and how many are sock puppets of the author, friends of the author, purchased reviews paid for by the author, or recipients of free copies of the book who want to keep receiving free books.
Many readers aren't reading to analyze the books they read. They just want to be entertained.
A friend of mine who does a lot of reading in a wide variety of genres and who is on a tight budget, too, recommended a Kindle freebie to me some months ago. It was a spy thriller that she said she had really enjoyed and it happened to be set in a location I had told her I was interested in. She happens to have a background in the technology that was spotlighted in the story, so I figured she was recommending a good book. Unfortunately, I found some glaring errors of fact in the first few pages, errors so huge that I couldn't imagine someone with expertise in that field wouldn't have caught it. I who knew almost nothing still caught the mistakes!
But when I brought it up to my friend and told her I couldn't read a book in which the plot hinged on something so patently wrong, she just shrugged. She had noticed the detail, of course, and knew it was inaccurate, but read on anyway and still enjoyed the book enough to recommend it to me.
On the other hand, she draws an absolute line on formatting. She refuses to read anything with block paragraphs rather than indented, and I can't say as I blame her. I don't like them either. And she has very little toleration for poor spelling and bad punctuation.
There are probably a lot of reasons why readers don't pay much attention to these details, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. What we don't know is how much their reading experience is less enjoyable because of, for lack of a better term, badly written books. And how much better their reading experience could be if books were better written.
Reviews and blogs and online discussions are the only avenues we have for learning about the "average" reader's experience, but reviews and blogs and online discussions do not take the place of traditional gatekeepers. They can perform that function, and it's possible that some of them do. But most don't. And they have no obligation to do so.
When a book arrives on the Amazon scene, the reader has no idea what, if any, editing has been done to it. But because the self-publishing industry is still younger than a lot of readers, most readers believe there must certainly be some process through which a book passes before it's ready for publication. Even if they don't know what that process is -- because it all went on behind the scenes in the past -- readers still believe that it's there.
Often it isn't.
The first three novels I wrote provide good -- and safe -- examples.
A Party of Ghosts, written when I was fifteen years old, lacks a lot of the structure suitable to define an actual novel. The writing itself is decent, in terms of description and mixing narrative with dialogue, and so on. The grammar and punctuation are fine, even though I was at the time a thoroughly lousy typist. But I had no one to tell me how to structure a novel, how to build in conflict and character arcs. It only ever had one reader other than myself, and he knew even less than I about plotting a novel. I sent it to several publishers, virtually all of them inappropriate for that kind of book. I received polite rejection letters. I was a junior in high school.
The Ivory Rose, written about ten years later, has a much more coherent plot, At least one of the characters has a well-defined arc from beginning to end. I let several friends and family members read it, though none of them knew anything about the technicalities of story building. Their comments were encouraging, but I did not take them as informed critics. This particular novel sat with a New York agent for almost two years and collected a whole lot of justified rejections. It never went anywhere else.
The Song of Sheba, written a couple years after The Ivory Rose, is an adventure fantasy along the lines of H. Rider Haggard. By the time I wrote this book, I had a much better grasp of story structure, conflict, resolution, character internal consistency, and so on. Two friends read it and liked it, but I did not bank on their recommendations because they weren't knowledgeable readers. I did not send this book to any potential publishers.
Legacy of Honor, my fourth novel and the first to be published, was started in 1979, a year or two after The Song of Sheba, and finished in late 1981/early 1982. I had now read several books on structuring a novel, and I had read literally hundreds more novels in the historical romance genre. I shared the manuscript with several local friends, all of whom enjoyed it. They were not knowledgeable critics either, so I appreciated their support but I knew I needed more critical response. I became a member of a snail mail critique group in 1982, and over the next three to four years exchanged manuscripts with these other writers. I learned an enormous amount from this experience.
In 1982, I began sending proposals of Legacy out to various publishers. The feedback I received from editors was often limited to "thanks, but no thanks." However, I did get some rejections that included helpful comments, to the point that I made a major revision to the book before I sent it to the editor who eventually bought it.
I learned more through the various experiences connected to the publication of six more novels . . . and the writing of at least three that were not published. I belonged to critique groups, I judged RWA contest entries, I even worked for a self-styled literary agent for a while.
And of course I continued through all this to read and read and read and read.
Up until about 2000, this was more or less the course most writers followed. When a book appeared on a store shelf, the automatic assumption was that both the writer and the book had gone through all the appropriate steps to put a finished, readable book in the reader's hands.
Unfortunately, many of the digital books that started showing up in online marketplaces had not in fact been through any editing process at all. As these essentially rough drafts proliferated and digital self-publishing took off a few years later, readers got the impression "I can do better than that!" and they proceeded to do so. Except their books weren't appreciably better than "that," and the cycle persisted.
Mechanisms then arose to monetize the publication of unedited, unprofessional books. Cover art improved, even if the writing didn't. Digital formatting services could even make the text look good regardless how bad the writing was. The fake reviews and book stuffing and rank manipulation and page-flipping bots are all symptoms of the far greater illness that is just plain bad writing.
This didn't really start with digital publishing; it started earlier with mechanisms that paved the way.
Did it begin with the dumbing down of the American reading public? Well, that certainly contributed. Was it when a high school literature course was described as "comic books and science fiction" because the students wouldn't or couldn't read anything else, so they had to be provided with something in order to pass and graduate? It wasn't that there was or is anything intrinsically wrong with comic books and science fiction; it was that these students were reading a narrow spectrum of literature and not reading it critically. If they even went on to do any reading after high school -- and many of them didn't -- they hadn't been given the tools to appreciate it.
But even while I watched as some public high school reading curricula diminished the importance of critical reading skills, I also watched as the largest writers' organization dumbed down the writers.
I joined Romance Writers of America in the mid-1980s, after I had sold my first historical romance. At my first few national conferences, I was surprised at how many of the workshops/seminars were targeted at the basics of writing. When I began judging manuscripts for RWA contests, I was appalled at the poor quality of some of the entries. Believing -- perhaps foolishly -- that feedback on those entries would help the writers improve their product and take them closer to the goal of publication, I provided extensive, detailed critiques. I got some pretty harsh feedback.
Common responses were that I wasn't supportive enough, encouraging enough, kind enough. But, but, but, I countered, do you want to learn how to fix it, or do you just want a pat on the head?
I don't know what the membership of RWA is now, but by the time I left in 1998, the total was about 10,000, and the ratio was still about nine unpublished members for every published author. Although RWA had instituted its Published Authors' Network ("PAN") in 1989 -- I was at the organizing meeting at the conference in Boston that summer -- and a few years later inaugurated the Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter ("PASIC") -- which I personally founded in 1993 -- the emphasis through 1998 remained on the unpublished and doing everything to help them sustain the dream that someday they might get published.
Take that how you will. I'm not going to get myself in any more trouble.
There were scandals with unscrupulous agents. One agent went around a particular conference bad-mouthing some of her clients. I personally heard some of those comments because they were made to me by her about some of my friends. When some of us reported her unethical behavior to RWA, we were told nothing could be done because unpublished writers still wanted agents. "Even lousy ones?" I asked an RWA official on the phone. Her response was that RWA couldn't take the legal risk of criticizing an agent.
Even when an agent stole money from a client? Even then. Yeah, I was one of those who was stolen from; I was lucky enough to fight back and at least not only get what the agent owed me but get her taken off the contract so none of my subsequent payments or royalties went through her.
So over the years, RWA took care of the unpubs at the expense of the published authors. And when digital publishing came into its own in the 21st century, there was nothing stopping those who were desperate for publication and felt a certain grievance at all the gatekeepers who had denied them for so long.
That's one of the reasons why romance has seen the highest spike in badly written books. There has been a stable of writers waiting for their opportunity. Yes, it's also because romance has been the biggest market for genre fiction. Yes, it's also because there are still readers who consume romance at levels not matched even by science fiction, the second on the list.
RWA, with its numerous conferences and booksignings, has taken the industry out of New York and into the heartland. This is a good thing. But in doing so, it has also encouraged that dream of wild success. And it has fostered a connection between readers and writers that sometimes becomes unhealthy. Social media has exacerbated this. Readers become fans on Facebook pages and author websites and Twitter and Instagram, to the point that they see the online followership as the equivalent of personal friendship.
And therefore woe betide the critic who dares diss a favorite author's new book. Those reviewers and bloggers who might have provided some gatekeeping services now had to be very wary of just how critical they might be of a beloved author's book.
The whole Lauren Howard/Pippa catastrophe was an extreme example, because she herself did not have a following and the book wasn't even published. She had sent out a few ARCs and listed the book on Goodreads prior to publication. Someone gave it a 2-star rating without a review, and Howard/Pippa went ballistic. People who didn't even know her came to her defense to the point of threatening bodily harm to anyone who dared tell the truth about Goodreads' policies!
Amazon had no incentive to provide any internal quality control beyond the basics of machine-checking for basic readability. Even then, it sometimes failed. But along with its subsidiary Goodreads, Amazon had less and less incentive to police reviews. Authors were prohibited from posting negative reviews on Amazon if the item being reviewed was in their own genre, but authors could post positive reviews. Many of those reviews, of course, were of books by their friends, even though that was supposed to be prohibited, too. And it's still being done.
Many of us remember the difficulty of getting paid reviews and reviewers removed, even when hard evidence was presented.
Goodreads had all its tone policing in force, because of course they wanted the authors and their followers to stick around and buy ads and -- of course -- publish on Amazon.
Thus the removal of far too many potential gatekeepers for the self publishing authors, namely, the critical reviewers.
I know there's going to be a cry of "Gatekeepers kept too many of us out of publishing! They stifled niche markets! Down with the gatekeepers!"
But, no one on the other side of the gate gets to voice an opinion. No, not the authors who got inside. I'm talking about the readers who were reasonably guaranteed that the product they bought was of acceptable quality. The authors screamed, whether it was because they were kept out or because no one was screened for quality writing, but no one heard the voices of the readers.
Bloggers proliferated, and some of them felt they could only stay in business by promoting books, authors, publishers. "No negative reviews" became the mantra. Reviewers like the late Harriet Klausner got visibility; authors like Anne Rice used their own visibility to tone police negative reviews.
In spite of all this, some voices persisted. I was one of them. Oh, I got banned from Goodreads for my sharp honesty in criticizing bad writing and badly behaving authors. I have evidence that I was personally targeted by Goodreads -- and possibly through them by Amazon, but that's murkier -- in a way that no other reviewer was. I came to BookLikes where I had hoped to continue at least to review honestly and avoid some of the drama.
Some of the drama, of course, followed me, but after a while that died down. We had some little fires of controversy, but for the most part BookLikes was a haven. I credit this community in particular with providing me the encouragement to take up writing again, and seeing me through the publication of The Looking-Glass Portrait.
It was here that I posted about the "stuffed" books even before I knew what they were. So I got involved with the unofficial group on Twitter to get some of those books removed from Amazon. (There's a huge financial impact to the stuffing issue, but that's not germane to this discussion.) Some people were impatient; they wanted the books removed immediately upon report. I cautioned patience, because I knew how long it had taken to get fraudulent reviews removed. To the surprise of a few, the books did begin to come down rather quickly; Amazon's notice of the official change to TOS regarding stuffing was dated 1 June, and before the end of the month (today is only the 27th) many of the worst "stuffers" have been removed.
The trolls who had defended the stuffers by saying stuffing wasn't explicitly prohibited in the TOS were never truly vicious. They found some marks who fed them persistently, but the 280-character limit of the platform made it easy to avoid the heated, long-winded arguments that had led to the BBA crisis on Amazon and Goodreads, circa 2011-2014. The Twitter version also lasted a much shorter length of time, a matter of weeks rather than months and years. The cast of characters was smaller, too. There were only three or four trolls (who may have all been the same person anyway.)
But I had forgotten the way defensive authors can act when confronted with their own shortcomings. So the reaction to my criticism stunned me. The trolls had been accusing all of us of being on a witch hunt (sound familiar?) and targeting the stuffing authors with the intent to destroy their careers out of jealousy. The trolls defended the stuffers and insisted they had done nothing wrong and that we were the bad guys. To have someone I believed was on "our" side turn around and attack me was a shock.
I admit I'm not knowledgeable about the new crop of authors of "new adult" romances. I came back onto the book scene just about the time of the Beautiful Disaster battle, and nothing about the discussion of that particular book made me eager to read the genre. I don't find abusive relationships romantic in any way. Yes, even "broken" or "damaged" people deserve to find love, but in the kind of novel I personally want to read, those damaged characters are redeemed and healed through the process of finding and then earning love.
What I saw of the books being reported for "stuffing" wasn't appealing to me. Nor were the stories related to the "cocky" trademark argument. I'm not trying to tell other people what to read; I'm just saying this isn't my preference. So when a new author entered the Twitter discussion, I often looked them up to see what they wrote. I don't have the resources to support all of them; I have to be very selective.
I hesitated to write anything Monday night when I discovered . . . what I discovered. I suspected there might be blowback, and I'm not at the income level of Anne Rice to be able to withstand a bunch of retaliation. I had to decide whether to ignore it for the sake of my own potential sales (which are nothing to jump up and down about anyway) or make a discreet comment to express how I felt -- which is the way I've always felt -- about authors who go out of the way to defend bad writing, because they're usually guilty to some extent or other.
I chose honesty, regardless of the ultimate price.
When I explained a small part of this to BF last night -- a very small part! -- I realized I was defending myself perhaps just as unfairly as an author who can't proofread defends herself. And I remembered how one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, Ash from The Far Pavilions, complained that so many things in life were unfair (p 232). Ash also confronted George Garforth when Garforth was caught in a web of his own lies and told he should shoot himself. That's exactly what Garforth did, too (p 234).
I've been a reader of historical romances for somewhere around 60 years. I wrote and published seven of them. Who knows how many more I might have written and published if I hadn't pissed off a certain editor? And who knows if it was entirely my fault? All I know is that I'm pretty sure I know good writing when I see it and bad writing when I see it, too. And maybe that's all I've got to give the book community.
Maybe it's more than some others have to give.
As a long ago sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News said, 'Tis better to be honest and hated than corrupt and despised.