Monday, May 27, 2013

Reviews, Author Entitlement and Selling Out.

A joint post by Ceilidh and Christina.

So, it's been a fun couple of weeks in the increasingly weird world of self-publishing.

Best-selling author Kendall Grey recently published a blog piece on what she saw as her choice to "sell out" and write an erotica novel to make some money. The result of which made her $10000 in the space of two weeks. In her piece she referred to her own work as "trash" in comparison to her "beautiful, artistic, deep" urban fantasy series which didn't sell as well as she'd hoped, and sneered at those who did buy her erotica novel. Apparently the world doesn't give a shit about "art". 

Understandably, people got mad at what they saw as an author denigrating her fan-base which she happily mined for the sake of profit. The post has since been taken down (but can be read here) and written what can only be described as an incredibly weak non-apology which is more concerned with pushing the blame around. She continued to dig herself into a hole when caught out asking people on her Facebook page to anonymously troll those who had taken issue with her hypocrisy on Goodreads. On that note, I now want a t-shirt that says "Goodreads Motherfucker".

At the same time, best-selling erotica author M. Leighton announced she was pulling her latest book, Until I Break, from sale, blaming the negative reviews (even though at the time the book had about 2 negative reviews on Amazon). This, unsurprisingly, led to a surge in sales with the book ending up in the Kindle top 5, and accusations of a publicity campaign for sales began to surface. Leighton has retained a silence and refuses to address these questions head on. 

What these incidents both have in common is something we've seen far too many times in the book blogging community, something that has exponentially grown since self-publishing became legitimate. Here we have reviews being demonised, again, and the concept of negative criticism not only being something terrible but something utterly life ruining. 

What really gets me is this sense of entitlement that some authors seem to have in regards to their work. I myself am an aspiring writer, but I am also a realist. Of course I dream of success and rubbing elbows with people who have influenced me, but I know if I want to make that goal a reality I have to work hard and deal with inevitable setbacks. No one is immune to failure: not Stephen King, not J.K. Rowling, not anybody.

What makes a creative work resonate with people? What makes a work fall short? The market is fickle and unfair. A poorly written, badly edited book will make bestseller lists, and a beautiful, unique story goes ignored. It's the nature of the business. No one is "owed" anything. Not sales, not fans, and certainly not glowing reviews or even attention.

Therefore when an author throws a tantrum because his/her book was not well received, it reflects poorly on the author, not the industry. What makes it worse is that these authors often cite themselves as victims of bullying and abuse, which is an appalling way to deal with those who dare to think that your book isn't sublime.

We've seen this entitled attitude appear more frequently in the past year or two and it's tough to deny its connection to the meteoric rise in popularity and legitimacy of self-publishing. From Grey & Leighton to the sadly all too real harassment that happened with Stop the Goodreads Bullies, it's become all too regular an occurrence to see this lashing out at reviewers, particularly of the "Goodreads Motherfuckers" (Amazon gets its fair share of the blame too, but the system there's easier to rig in the author's favour than it is on GR, particularly if you have enough fans to help you out). For me, it's like watching a fandom go feral. There are no senior figures, so to speak, to tell everyone what the protocol is, and it's too easy to get caught up in the baiting and emotional circle-jerk of emotional manipulation. It's natural to want to defend that which you love, but now it's become a little too wild and very few people come out of that unscathed (not that it seems to hurt sales and popularity, otherwise Jamie McGuire wouldn't have a career. Sadly she still does).

Back to Grey's claim of "selling out", her blog post came with more than a few implications about what she thinks of the industry and literature in general as well as those who consume it. She deems erotica to be "trash" which suggests she finds sex loaded books to be trashy, yet her favoured urban fantasy series is described as "sexually explicit". So what makes that explicit sex more artistically worthy than her contemporary erotica? Sex has always been part of art. If that's not "selling out" for Grey then is it the general quality of the book? Before her lash-out, "Strings" had a GR average of over 4 stars and was very well liked. Granted, many popular things could objectively be considered poor in terms of quality but that doesn't make them worthless.

So what is selling out? Is it Grey admitting she rushed this out to meet demand? I don't consider that selling out, that's just capitalism. The element that angered me was the complete lack of respect Grey showed the readers of her work. Her book was "trash" that she rushed out to make a quick buck, so the insinuation there is that those who read it are somehow lesser readers, easily pleased and placated by inferior work. There are a few things you don't do as a writer and one of them is disrespect your readers. Most writers would kill to make $10k in a fortnight. I'd sell my furniture and underwear for that privilege. She couldn't have done that without the readers putting money in her pockets. She owes them her gratitude, not her scorn.

The message seemed to be "you idiots didn't appreciate my best, so I gave you lowbrow crap and you ate it up". By trying to cover her tracks and insist that she was being humorous, Grey missed the perfect opportunity to actually apologize for offending her readers and her colleagues.

What also struck me as odd was her interpretation of the word "fan". Grey admitted to chastising those who enjoy her work as identifying as "fans" and insisted that she is equal with her readers. She defined the word "fan" as a lesser being, which I find to be both strange and insulting. Admiring something or someone does not demean a person. While we can certainly place celebrities on a pedestal, there shouldn't be any form of shame in enjoying creative work, athletic ability, and so on. It seemed like a misplaced cause, something Grey picked to make her look like a martyr.

Not just that, but she then tried to use her fans to attack those who dared to have an issue with her attitude and comments. She wants to have it both ways - to have a loyal fan-base that will buy her work without question and be on call when she needs them for whatever purpose she desires. Of course, like far too many authors lately, she decided to go on the attack against the so-called bully bloggers. Leighton tried this too and for what felt like the billionth time, reviewers who dare to go negative were on the receiving end of the most ridiculous accusations. She also claimed she was pulling her book partly because people didn't get the story. No, people got it. Their interpretations were just different from yours. Intent does not equal reality when it comes to literature. No interpretation is more valid than another. 

The bully cry came out, of course, as did the claim that negative reviews are tantamount to harassment and said reviews ruin careers and lives. I have yet to see a single article or piece of evidence that proves an undeniable link between negative reviews and low sales. If that were the case then Dan Brown would be a worldwide flop. Sadly the world isn't that fair. 

But it's easy to use these kinds of reviews and bloggers to play the victim card, as Grey & Leighton did. The Be Nice culture has permeated the blogosphere in a way that will probably never entirely go away. Think about how often this website is referred to as a bunch of bullies (note: I was bullied pretty extensively throughout my adolescence and I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone. Living in constant fear of being punched in the face is in no way comparable to a 2 star GR review so don't insult us all by making bully reviewer claims, okay?) 

What I'd like to see is some actual accountability from these authors rather than a hostile defensive reaction and a false sense of humility. Rather than licking your wounds in public, seeking martyrdom and pity while claiming to be a victim of subterfuge, abusive, and bullying...why not handle criticism in, dare I say it, a professional manner?

Why not ignore the criticism, or maybe even take a look at your work and see if the reviewer has a point? (and that's what it is - criticism. Even the most furiously written review, filled with gifs, snark, cursing, and caps lock is not abuse or bullying. There are those of us who have grown up with this sort of thing all our lives, and it is beyond vile and insulting to see those terms used by an author who has had their feelings hurt because someone didn't like his/her book).

It doesn't matter if these authors have been writing for years, or if they have an agent, a contract, etc. While it helps that when these outbursts occur, there are a few authors who come out to speak against this sort of behavior, the message to authors must be clear; if you cannot handle the idea that there will not only be people who don't like your book, but there will be people who outright loathe it and will mock it mercilessly every change they get (don't get me started on Hush, Hush. Seriously), then you simply need to find another profession. I'm not saying you can't write, but don't mass publish it. Write a story and give it to loved ones as gifts. Write it for yourself and show no one.
But mass publishing? That is for those who can take all reviews, whether glowing, scathing, neutral. It is for those who appreciate all readers, regardless of the outcome.

To wrap these jumbled thoughts up, I can only return to my earlier statements on respecting one's readers. If you don't respect the people who pay for your work and help you make a living then you can't act surprised when they dare to fight back. When you make cryptic claims about people not getting your work then don't pretend to be shocked when they're insulted or dare to think for themselves. If you want to "sell out" then go right ahead but don't treat it like it's some sort of noble deed. We're readers, we've got money and we've got better places to spend it.