walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

A Few More Remarks about Book Reviews

Back in January, GoodReads, the social networking site for book reviews, popped up in Publishers Weekly and The Guardian because of controversy between a few badly behaved authors and agents and bloggers who were prepared to post negative reviews when they didn’t like a book and on books written by people they believed were trying to game the reviews (through sock puppets who posted positive reviews on their own books and/or negative reviews on the competition’s books). The conflict has not fully been resolved and flared up again recently (here and here). Chris Meadows has a summary of VacuousMinx’s thoughtful posts on the topic, which include discussion of GR’s response to the controversy.

Controversy between authors and their critics (and the associates of each) is not new. Pseudonymity and anonymity in acrimonious literary debate is not new. It’s easy to forget that, since the most recent, pre-Internet incarnation of the author-critic duel happened on television, radio or in the letter columns of periodicals, all of which had intermediaries that really liked the eyeballs that came with controversy, but also had to answer to a large community that wanted to limit trouble. The Internet has brought us back to the era of broadsides, when all you had to do was pay a printer to get your screed out there, and if you were careful, the printer would never be able to figure out who you were and likely didn’t much care.

Online communities are heading in the direction of more rules and guidelines and more consistent moderation. Because the precipitating event is typically someone saying, hey, this book sucks (or, possibly, this author’s behavior sucks; they are writing positive reviews of their own book or otherwise monkeying with its numerical ranking and/or writing negative reviews of the competition and monkeying with their numerical ranking), it is tempting to try to limit negative reviews. The negative review, however, is not what leads to the kind of controversy GR has been experiencing. The controversy happens when authors and others with a financial interest respond.

That’s natural, but natural is not the same as good. Authors and others with an interest in moving product need to take a gigantic step back and recognize when what they are doing is counterproductive to their interests; if they put on their reader hat (and they’d better have a reader hat or what are they doing in this business?), it should be completely clear where they have erred. (1) Customers don’t like being screwed with. (2) Customers who buy books don’t necessarily intend to read those books (all the way through), much less “like” them. People do all kinds of things with books (collect, sample, snark, share them with other people, use as reference, etc.); they just need help finding the right books for their purpose.

I used to buy books to help me find particular kinds of books. While my favorite was probably Baird Searles’ _Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction_, _Genreflecting_ has since metastasized into a genre of its own. People were using all kinds of math in recommendations engines before Amazon.com existed; I’d tried out at least two by the mid 1990s. I used to be a regular participant on rec.arts.books and rec.arts.sf.written. I’ve always talked to friends about books, read book reviews, kept track of authors, publishers and imprints -- occasionally even editors. I book blog and have friends who book blog. I have a variety of interests and buy non-fiction in support of them. I’m a regular participant in a book group. I’m presumably at least as good as anyone else at finding and consuming books I like.

I suck at it. Graded on a straight percentage (90% = A, 80% = B, etc.), I’m probably running a low-end C, and I’m giving myself points for effort and for showing my work.

I love books. I sometimes read three a day. I don’t think I’ve read fewer than 50 books in a year since I learned to read. I have detailed techniques for assessing, in advance of linearly reading a book start to finish, what to expect from the book. I read spoiler reviews. I read the end of the book first. I sample extensively when trying a new author. I’m prepared to put a book down -- maybe forever -- if it just isn’t what I expected. I’ve negatively reviewed a book without finishing it, for unreadability, bias or inaccuracy, or failing to be as represented.

It may be that my bar to “like” a book is unusually high. It may be that I consume so many books that even really good search-and-assess criteria will let a lot of clunkers through. I read a lot of books expecting the literary equivalent of choosing a fast food burger over a much better meal that includes something that you know you hate. (This is usually where someone uses brussel sprouts in a metaphor, but I actually like brussel sprouts.) Sometimes I’ll read a book I know I will hate to get some information out of it, or to be able to talk to or better understand people who are excited about it.

I don’t expect other people to know what information I need to make my decisions, just as I don’t expect to know what information will help someone else decide whether or not to read a book. What I want from a review is enough about the reviewer’s perspective and expectations to calibrate their description of their experience. I don’t care about whether you liked it or hated it or went meh: if you do a good enough job of describing the burger that you hated, I can probably figure out if it’s a burger I’m interested in. You might have hated the sauce on that burger, but I’m more interested in whether the sauce had any milk products in it. The seller doesn’t need to know whether I’m asking about milk products because I’m keeping kosher, have a milk allergy or lactose intolerant; if they can’t answer my questions about what’s in that sauce, I may have to pass on the burger.

I’m most likely to buy again from a seller (author, publisher, series, etc.) if I got what I was expecting and had at least a mediocre version of the experience I wanted. If the experience is a surprise, whether it is good is almost irrelevant. It wasn’t what I wanted. If you have to misrepresent your book to convince someone to buy it -- leave out salient factors like whether your novel about women’s intimate relationships has an emotionally satisfying ending, say -- I’m going to conclude you are untrustworthy. If you try to interrupt or prevent customers from communicating to each other what they did with your product and what the resulting experience was, I’m going to become suspicious. If you try to pretend people love your book when they don’t, or otherwise try to game the reviews, I might avoid your work independent of whether I would otherwise buy it if accurately represented, because I’m going to be unable to trust anything associated with, well, you.

I don’t think most of the people who misrepresent their product are scam artists or bad actors, although some clearly are. A few traditionalists are idealistic and contemptuous of things which have commercial success while simultaneously wanting their favorites to enjoy commercial success. They might shade the truth in a product description and then be shocked by the result. Some of the new participants have gotten caught up in an emotional reaction to people not Loving Their Work and lost perspective on what they are actually trying to accomplish, which is to connect with a market that wants to buy their work. Both of these groups risk becoming entrenched in an unwinnable war. Some people trying to game the system may think that’s Just How It’s Done and, like the badminton competitors at the current Olympics, be in for a rude surprise.

Just tell me what you’ve got. I’ll decide whether to give it a go. Anyone who listens to me on the subject after the fact can decide whether to laugh at me or go buy one for themselves. Capitalism will continue to tick along, as will civilization, and small c book culture.
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