Thursday, July 26, 2012

Book Bloggers

I posted a comment awhile back on a column for the San Francisco Book Review that was written by a colleague who is from the same area as me and someone I’ve grown to like quite a bit through talking with her via social networking sites over the past year or so. Let me start by saying that I’m super happy for and super proud of Rachel for having her article published by the San Francisco Book Review--it’s kind of a big deal place to have an article, especially for California writers. The article was largely written with a writer audience in mind, and so my comment that has been getting so much attention lately was directed at other writers.

I have since been able to clarify my statements, which were posted in haste, with many book bloggers and reviewers on an individual level, and I’ve enjoyed this since it was a good chance to catch up as well, but I thought it’d be a good idea to clarify things on a larger scale.
From the LA Times
Firstly, let me say, I wish I had put quotes around “blogger” in my original post, because that’s really how I meant it. The type of blogger I was talking about isn’t in the majority and I’m very sorry that from the way I phrased my post that many bloggers felt I was talking about them. That was not my intention and I do believe the specific type of “blogger” I was talking about makes up probably less than 10% of the whole. You know what, I’m not even going to use the same word for them when writing this anymore. After talking with an accomplished book blogger on twitter last night, I came to the conclusion that I don’t even see the two as being of the same group. There are book bloggers, paid and unpaid, who behave in a professional manner whether or not they’re getting paid for their time, and many of them aren’t but are deserving of compensation for their work. But then there is another, smaller group that I’ll just refer to as hack-jobbers who go out of their way to find books they’re going to hate so they can attack them. These two groups are not the same in my mind and I feel terrible that my post appeared to lump them together, which was not my intention.

From Bill Wasterston who wrote stellar dialogue for a stuffed tiger.
My post’s primary goal was to give comfort to other writers who have been hit by these hack-jobbers. The original article was written to other writers--it seemed like a good place to talk to them. I may have just come from one of the burn pages or I might just have been thinking about my last trip to one--either way, I was mad and posted in haste to say the writers who were being “reviewed” by these hack-jobbers, who don’t actually seem to finish very many of the books they “review”, should take heart in knowing they’ve succeeded at something wonderful:  selling a book. And they shouldn’t let a hack-jobber make them feel like it wasn’t an accomplishment.

The thing about book bloggers, the real ones, not the hack-jobbers, is that they’re doing something nobody thought they would. I am writing specifically to the book bloggers here; I’d love to sit down with each and every one of you, have tea, and tell you this face to face, but we’ll have to settle for this. The Big Six publishers didn’t think you would do what you’re doing--they bet a lot of money in a roundabout way that you wouldn’t. You’re sorting the huge flood of indies in a way they never could and you’re doing it without anyone telling you when or how. You all just started doing it. You loved books so much that you gave up your free time to help others love books too. As an indie author from an indie publisher, I need you and appreciate you for working on this enormous labor of love, without pay, that will hopefully never be completed. We’re in this symbiotic relationship where indie authors and unpaid book bloggers are creating a literary world that has never existed before. If unpaid book bloggers didn’t review indies, the Big Six would be right about this new system not working and indies would have an enormously difficult time succeeding; likewise, if indie authors/publishers didn’t put out their work, book reviewing would still be dominated by paid reviewers in the New York Times and other publications, and they’d all review the same several books from the Big Six. What is being created by unpaid book bloggers and indie authors/publishers is a system where readers have more choices than ever and opportunities to read books that suit their every taste and/or desire; the Big Six and traditional paid book reviewers simply can’t do this because there just aren’t enough of them. Most indie authors, myself included, would have an extremely hard time standing out from the crowd if it weren’t for book bloggers pointing to us and saying, “Hey, that person’s got a book you might like!”

I’m going to run through a list of book bloggers and show you exactly what I mean about good people doing good work. Some of them have reviewed my books and some of them haven’t, but I’m only going to post one of my own book reviews, and I’ll save that for the end--trust me, it won’t be self-promotion.

The first review I want to look at is from Loving Venus / Loving Mars. It’s an LGBT oriented book review site with expertise in bisexual literature (try to get THAT from the New York Times Book Review). They go with the A+ through F- review format. In this review, Leah is giving a C to the book. I think C/3-star/whatever-is-your-middle-rating reviews are always interesting. You get to watch a blogger really talk about the book in a balanced way. Loved it! and Hated it! reviews are useful, but when you get to see a book blogger with talent working on a 3-star or C grade book, you really get to see their critical processes in action, which also holds entertainment value:
-                     There were many times when this story was going to be a DNF for me. But I’m stubborn that way sometimes and I kept reading. I’m glad I did even if I have some critical things to say.” -- I love her for saying this. She didn’t quit on a book, despite wanting to, and she found something she would have missed if she had. That is superb book blogging and exactly what I’ve come to expect from Leah.
-                     “So I did have some expectations of a well crafted story, which didn’t happen.” -- This happens. A reviewer will like one book from the author, but not another, and Leah explains precisely why, while keeping perfect focus on the specific book she was reviewing.
I’m not going to go through the entire review because it is very in depth, but the spoiler alert/highlight section is done in a very clever way, so you should at least check that out even if you don’t read the whole thing. Ultimately, her review breaks down to the fact that the author did some POV things Leah felt didn’t work, but that the story being told was a good one, even if the way it was being told wasn’t. And she gave it an accurate C for that. This is the type of review that helps readers AND writers make better choices. Leah has reviewed a couple of my books, and she seemed to like them. She had notes on them that were helpful to me in future projects and she articulated those criticisms in a way that benefited everyone.

Another example of book bloggers/reviewers are the ladies, Rob, Amy, and Susie at Insatiable Booksluts. Rob is a woman, by the way, so that wasn’t an accident or typo. This is a fine example of a generally positive review from Amy. It’s a 4 out of 5 star book, but Amy explains very clearly why it lost that extra star.

-                     It starts off with the first line of the book, which I like because it gives the reader a sample to really get the flavor of the book being reviewed. It’s followed by cleverness in her rating of it and background on why she chose to review it. She selected the book because she wanted to review it, presumably because she thought she would enjoy it. That’s precisely why a person should read a book to review it.
-                     Amy provides a clear synopsis so her review will have context and a reader of her review could decide if the story sounded interesting to them as well. Who couldn’t like a book blogger who took that kind of care of their own readers?
-                     She concludes her review with an explanation of why it lost the star it lost, which was thought out and a reasonable flaw for the penalty incurred. She also posted a funny tweet about a typo in the book, but she did explain very clearly that the typo was minor and understandable. I thought this one, well-placed tweet was far funnier than pages and pages of viscous snark.

The website’s banner says, “Voracious readers tell you if that book is going to suck” and they do, but they also tell you if the book isn’t going to suck. They have a balance of positive, negative, and in between reviews, which means they’re taking the task of sorting books seriously, and making an honest, good faith effort to assess each book on its merits regardless of whether it ends up being one of the ones that sucks. They won the 2012 Independent Book Blogger Award for Adult Fiction category and I think they more than earned it.

The last book blogger (because I already know this blog will be +4k words) and the only review of my own work I will be posting today. It comes from Guerilla Bookworm. I don’t know if they’re male or female, and I couldn’t find on the site where it said, so I’ll just call the reviewer “they.” They clobbered my book in an example of a perfectly written 1-star critique. This specific review was entirely validating for me--someone really taking the time to dissect my book and find it wanting meant to me that I’d finally joined the ranks of other professional authors who took a lump or two at the hands of a talented reviewer:

-                     “How much did I want to adore this book?” -- isn’t that an ominous start? Immediately I knew I was in for it, but I also knew that this book blogger had come to my book with happy expectations and hopes, eager to read and review with an open mind, which meant they were doing their job.
-                     Next, they go into the sex scenes in the book, which they didn’t care for at all. The reviewer prefaced it that they even expected the sex scenes so it wasn’t a surprise to them. The attention to detail in recalling specifics on the scenes they didn’t like shows the reader of the review that the reviewer thought quite a bit about this criticism and took the time to be specific without posting spoilers. They gave reasons and supported those reasons with examples--perfect book blogger form.
-                     “That might have worked if this were a video game instead of a novel.” -- I liked this line a lot. I wanted to be a game designer for a long time. It’s in the middle of a paragraph explaining why the reviewer didn’t care for the protagonists, but again, the writing used to clobber my book is clever, well-reasoned, and an equitable expression of the reviewer’s opinion.
-                     “And, yet, I hung in there.” -- this reviewer was NOT having fun reading my book, it wasn’t even on his list, and they didn’t “owe” me a review because I didn’t submit or ask for one (not that anyone ever owes anyone a review). YET they persisted through the whole thing because they wanted to be fair and reasonable in their criticism.
-                     “I never pick up a book without wanting to enjoy it.” -- statement of what makes them a quality book blogger and not a hack-jobber: making a good faith effort.
-                     “It did give me one good chuckle in a scene involving a robot and a puppy.  So for that, Ms. Duffy, I sincerely thank you.” -- at least I got one chuckle J
-                     At the end, they discuss what they thought I could have done better, encouraged me to continue writing, which kind of surprised me, and then offered alternative reads based on the genre of my book if people wanted to see what the reviewer thought was a quality book of this type. All of which was lovely and provided valuable information for both readers of the review and the author.

The reviewer mentions at one point that they think they’re being vitriolic. I didn’t see it that way at all, but I might have a different point of comparison for that word. This review came out during a very hectic month for me, so I don’t recall if I sent them an email thanking them for their consideration, which I usually do, regardless of the outcome of the review. So, if I forgot to, and I think I might have:  Thank you for your consideration, Guerilla Bookworm, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book, but I appreciated your time and effort regardless.

There are hack-jobbers out there though. Hack-jobbers are NOT book bloggers in my opinion. The people above represent the majority of book review blogs, while hack-jobbers represent a small, but fairly vocal minority. These people, I don’t want to call them reviewers really since that seems like a secondary goal, go out of their way to find books they aren’t going to like so they can say mean things about them. Why a person would waste their time, energy, and money doing this is completely beyond me. Some of them don't even spend their money as they'll brag about exploiting Amazon's return policy to rip off authors, publishers, and distributors  by buying a book, reading it, and then returning it for a refund before writing a scathing review of the same book they just stole. And that’s really the point of part of my post on the San Francisco Book Review--nobody is making hack-jobbers do this. If they were professional book reviewers and their boss was making them review books they hated and they couldn’t leave their job because we’ve all got student loan payments, I would probably have a different opinion of them because I’ve had to work a few jobs where the boss breathing down my neck was the only reason I did something, plus they would have been given a review copy instead of resorting to stealing one. But all the hatred and bashing from a hack-jobber is done voluntarily and without compensation, so they really are just being mean to be mean. Thankfully, I’ve never been reviewed by one. Some bash the authors themselves and some just do a shit job of reviewing a book they clearly set out to hate. One of their goals seems to try to discourage indie authors and publishers from…well…existing.

I thought quite a bit about posting one of their sites as an example, but I decided against it since I really don’t want to provide even more hits and attention for bad behavior. Some people I’m sure will still figure it out.

-                     “I aim my Darts of Mockery at the small-press publisher, who later removed the book from their online store, Amazon, B&N and ARe” -- good for her? Either she’s taking credit for the removal of a book that had nothing to do with her, or she’s taking credit for insulting someone’s work out of the public sphere. Book bloggers provide information for readers to make informed decisions, while hack-jobbers want to decide what books are even available for readers by insulting writers and publishers until they leave.
-                     “so I figured I should out myself a Mean Girl” -- that’s in the header of a section where she’s bragging about all the people she’s mocked recently. It makes the website look a lot like a burn page to me.
-                     “Made it about 20%...” -- that’s a good sign she shouldn’t have even posted anything about the book. What about the other 80%? Should we all go find an actual book blogger who can finish a book rather than a hack-jobber who revels in telling us how much of the book she didn’t even read before posting her review?

Some people are only borderline hack-jobbers, but I believe anyone who reads 20% of a book and thinks they’re qualified to say anything about it needs to get their mean girl head checked.
Or put it in a cute pink book and keep it under your bed.

As for the content of my original post on the San Francisco Book Review…

I used a turn of phrase that people gravitated toward in my post. I talk in colloquialisms. Anyone who has read my twitter feed or blog or has had a five minute conversation with me knows I talk a little like a mix between a Diablo Cody and Aaron Sorkin character. I also kinda write like that too. I’ve only recently realized that turns of phrase, like the one I used, are NOT universal. And I don’t just mean to the world, I mean to the U.S. Did you know “swing a dead cat” is something of a regional saying? I used it when I moved to Florida from California, and probably 60% of the people around me had no idea what I was talking about. “Why would you swing a dead cat?” they justifiably asked. I wouldn’t--it just means there are a lot of the thing in question in the area; so much so that if you had a small dead animal you couldn’t theoretically swing it above your head because you’d keep hitting those plentiful things…explaining the “swing a dead cat” phrase did not help it make sense, by the way. I used the term “above my pay grade” in the post. This is a phrase typical to military people or people with military families of a certain time frame and, as I learned, is NOT universal. I come from an extended family with a lot of military service. “Above my pay grade” has nothing to do with how much money a person makes anymore than “swing a dead cat” has to do with swinging dead cats. It’s used in the military sense when a soldier doesn’t want to answer a question, but doesn’t want to say, “I don’t want to answer that question.” The way I used it in my bastard child of Diablo Cody and Aaron Sorkin way was to mean, “outside of what I normally like.” I should have just posted that instead.
This is a picture of the space ship called Nostromo from the Alien movie--it has nothing to do with the book Nostromo, which bummed me out some.
The reading “outside of what I normally like” section of the post also included Nostromo. That is a hyper specific example, and many people caught on that. I used it because that’s MY hyper specific example of a book that was “outside of what I normally like.” A friend recommended it, said if I liked Dostoyevsky it would be right up my alley. That friend and I don’t talk anymore…I’m just kidding, I killed him to avoid future awkwardness. For those of you who haven’t read Joseph Conrad’s opus, it is as dense as marble and more intricate than a Swiss watch. The layers have layers upon layers and if you aren’t super focused the entire time, you’ll probably miss something you’ll need later. I don’t like reading stuff like that because I have a wandering mind that tends to daydream occasionally while reading. I did not end up finishing Nostromo. It was well written, the story was as massive as the sun, the imagery was compelling, but it was way outside of what I normally like. I wouldn’t review Nostromo because I didn’t finish it. The book might have had an “ah ha!” moment two pages from where I stopped reading that would have magically knocked everything else into place--Joseph Conrad was that good of a writer. But I didn’t finish, so I will never know if that would have happened. People have preferences that not every book, even the greats, will fit into, which is what that part of the post was meant to say.

I don’t believe any author could ever write something that is universally understood and meaningful to all readers. That is a preposterous goal like a person trying to fly by flapping their arms. Can people fly? Sure, or the movie Top Gun would have just been a really long beach volleyball scene. But we can’t do it at will, we can’t do it all the time, and we can only do it a few people at a time--that’s the same with writing. An author can only reach some readers some of the time with some of their message, which leads to some readers not understanding every single message or reference in a book. It’s not the reader’s fault, nor is it the author’s fault. The pieces for something to make perfect sense simply weren’t there. Book bloggers are very aware of the limitations of the written word to convey ideas perfectly and make allowances for it, because they know how it is because they’re writing a blog trying to convey ideas. Hack-jobbers assume if something doesn’t make sense to them, the fault is with the work or the writer, and maybe it is, but maybe it’s just the passage required a reader to possess a certain reference that particular reader didn’t have.

Example:  I took an Avant-garde fiction class in college. It sounded like fun and authors came to visit all the time so we could talk to them about their books and get some first hand answers about what we read. I’d never read any Avant-garde work to that point and I haven’t really since. That particular field of fiction is very self-referential, so the fact that I hadn’t read any became a real problem for my comprehension. An author of one of the books wrote extensively about another Avant-garde writer and one of her works. There was a specific passage in a particular book of this other writer that he suspected involved a very lewd act being performed while she wrote it. An email exchange later between the writers confirmed this was true! And everyone but me in the auditorium laughed. I wasn’t a stupid or inept reader--I simply hadn’t read the other book being referenced. The author could have explained that other book and the other scene in several paragraphs, but that would have completely halted the flow of writing and spoiled the remarkable musicality his work had. I was there, the author was there, and so I just asked him what the other scene was about. I won’t bore you with the whole story, but it was funny, the author explained it well, it involved a dildo, and when the premise for the reference was explained, it made perfect sense.

I write lesbian books. Moreover, I write silly lesbian books. I do it because I like writing silly stuff and I’m a lesbian. That’s about as nefarious as my process gets. I don’t want to trick readers, I don’t want my work to talk down to them, and I don’t write for a universal audience since I know not everyone likes silly or lesbians. My books contain references to lesbian culture that I seldom explain, but could easily be understood with a quick google search. Some readers run the search and some don’t. Either way, a scene not being understood is almost never due to a reader not being smart enough or a writer being too smart. Especially not in my books which are about robots, and vampires, and puppies, and first loves, and oral sex, and post-apocalyptic blimp piloting, and gangs of department store Santas running extortion rings, and…you get the point. I’m not writing highbrow stuff so I assume if a reader doesn’t understand a section in my book, it’s probably just because they haven’t had any experience with the terms gold star lesbian or uhauling or “the chart” or someone being a total Shane. Readers aren’t dumb, but no reader can reasonably be expected to have heard of everything a writer puts in their book and no writer can reasonably be expected to explain absolutely everything they mention. And that was my point that kind of got lost in the original post on San Francisco Book Review.

Someone brought up Mark Twain being snarky toward JaneAusten and James Fennimore Cooper--he was, but the authors he attacked were long dead (Literary Offenses came out in 1895. Cooper died in 1851 and Austen died in 1817) and Twain had his own body of work for people to criticize in response if they so chose and he encouraged anyone who felt up to it to do precisely that; to my knowledge, nobody wanted to get into a literary fist fight with Twain, but he did invite anyone who felt like it to try. I’m sorry, but that analogy doesn’t fit hack-jobbers. If Stephen King suddenly decided to put his Mark Twain suit on and write a tell-off piece about Faulkner, that would be a valid analogy to what Twain did. Anonymous or semi-anonymous people posting insulting comments about a book on the internet are not analogous to Mark Twain.

As for the snark stuff, censorship, and first amendment rights to voice opinions…with very few exceptions, people can say what they want. Does what they say hurt other people? Does it reduce the level of dialogue? Are they being mean in an attempt to be funny to other mean people? If the answer to any of that is ‘yes’ then it would follow that a reasonable, kind person wouldn’t say it know matter how protected their speech is. A good example of this: my own original post on SFBR. I was a writer talking to other writers about hack-jobbers and yet I ended up hurting book bloggers with my words. Simply having the right to say something doesn’t mean you should.

As for the comment section, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with that yet. I will warn people about this though: any comments pertaining to the SGRB/Goodreads feud will be deleted. I’m not happy about so many people trying to drag me into drama that I’ve made clear I want no part of, and I’m not interested in hearing why someone thinks this post relates to something I have nothing to do with and want nothing to do with. If fanning the flames on that mess is your idea of fun, you’re welcome to it, but not on my blog.


Rachel Thompson said...

Insightful article, Cassandra. Thank you clarifying your comments but no apology necessary.

Just as not everyone understands a writer's words in a book, that seemed to be the case on the @SFBookReview. Your intent was different than how people took it.

That's part of what makes us humans so damn tricky.



Anonymous said...

I'm a little disheartened and disappointed, reading this. I honestly expected better of you. While a lot of what you say makes a lot of "sense," you are still trying to place groups of people into boxes.
It feels like you want to give guidelines as to what is or is not allowable. Considering that you write lesbian works, I thought that you - of all people - would not go around trying to force others to only do what you think they should do. It feels like you are judging, that you are saying "there can only be one way, my way." And then, when confronted about it, instead of saying "Yes, I did it and it was wrong. I didn't think." You say, "Well, I wasn't talking about you, I was talking about those dirty other people. I think you know where that line goes from there. I think you might be able to understand the hurt that comes from not judging each individual person only by that person. Because it's always easier to dehumanize a group...

So yeah, I'm disheartened. Really, really disheartened.

Anonymous said...

You know how when people are discussing rape , some asshole always shows up to talk about men who have been falsely accused of rape and how horrible women are for lying? Now, I'm in no way saying that all the issues surrounding book reviews is anywhere near as serious as rape, but that's pretty much what you've been doing...going on and on for paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs about an issue that while, yes, does happen, it's so rare compared to the issue being discussed that one can only assume that you're deliberately derailing the discussion. You yourself admit that those "hack-jobbers" are very few and far between, but you chose to keep discussing them when the issue of authors freaking out and behaving inappropriately over negative reviews is what's being discussed. Why is that?

I'm not a blogger, and I only rarely write reviews--and I use that term loosely--on Goodreads, so all the drama hasn't had a direct affect on me. But as a reader, I find your comments about bloggers and authors being in a symbiotic relationship extremely distasteful. I really don't like the idea that the bloggers I read because I want to learn about and discuss books are working with authors in that way. Bloggers don't have any obligation to authors, and any blogger who operates his/her blog as if they do is not a blogger I would ever read. I read blogs because I like discussing books and the genre in general, and the blogs I stick with are those that I find to be some combination of informative and entertaining. And I know you as an author won't like this, but those mean reviews can be entertaining when written the right way. I often search out negative reviews of books I love, because those reviews can be interesting and/or extremely funny.

Lais said...

I completely get this because I am sitting right in the middle of this argument.
I'm not a book blogger, paid or unpaid, though I have written reviews for books I enjoy. I'm not an author, though I do write a lot. What I am, through and through, to my marrow, is a reader. I love books of all kinds, though often my reading preferences fall outside the main stream.
When choosing books that are not directly recommended by word of mouth, I rely heavily on book blogging sites for honest reviews. I look through Goodreads reviews, BN reviews, Amazon reviews, blogged reviews. I need them to help me winnow out the chaff. I've only got so much time in the day to read, and my brain is too important to me to gum up with genuinely poorly written books. Thank goodness for the sites that provide honest, thoughtful, critical reviews! They shine like sparkly gems in the sun! Unfortunately, the web is also saturated with shite reviewers who are determined to 'review' books by deliberately choosing books they don't like and proceeding to hack them to bits WHEN THEY ALREADY KNEW THEY WOULDN'T LIKE THE BOOK!! From a readers perspective, it's very frustrating.
The frank truth is, there ARE guidelines for acceptable reviewing behavior. No, they are not set in stone (unfortunately) but the rationale for them is no less compelling than if they were. The purpose of reviewing a book is to express an honest, educated opinion about the book. The reader wins, the writer wins..everyone wins! It's a really pure expression of reader/writer relationships. The purpose of reviewing is NOT to slander the author, or stoop to intellectual dishonesty by reading one tenth of a book and then trying to convince others how painful the experience was and how horrible the rest of the book must be, or how horrible other works by the same author must be as well.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's never okay to write a bad review. But it should be written honestly.
'I wasn't sure if I would like this book and I was right, I thought it sucked and I couldn't finish it.'
See how simple it is?
One star, F reviews should be as honest as Five Star, A++ reviews.

Anonymous said: you are still trying to place groups of people into boxes.

Bloggers/ reviewers who vary from the mutually beneficial formula of HONEST reviewing NEED to be put in boxes...with the lid taped shut.

Anonymous said: Bloggers don't have any obligation to authors, and any blogger who operates his/her blog as if they do is not a blogger I would ever read.

I agree completely. Bloggers do noy have ANY obligation to authors. But I do believe bloggers have a responsibility to be honest. If they aren't, or if they use their blog to slam an author or book for no other reason than that it amuses them to do so, that's not a blogger I would ever read.

Katy S said...

I'm always amused when people hide behind the moniker "Anonymous" - Why are they afraid to give them name?

Very well-written. Cassandra; but from my personal experience, if people are determined to be offended, they are going to find a way to be offended by pretty much anything. Talk about disheartening!

Hang in there!

cmixgeek said...

Hiya. Cmixgeek from here - thank you for your time and kind words. I appreciate your appreciation for my appreciation of your work! (wink) female, btw. Please,please, please do it again! (A constant refrain, I know) Sequel or prequel would be dope! Have a great day.

Cassandra Duffy said...

Hey Cmixgeek! Rest assured, I'm on the hook for at least three more (2 sequels + 1 prequel) in that series only one of which has been delivered thus far. Which means I should probably be writing right now.