August 15, 2011

WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE...

On the cover of Cassandra Clare's popular young adult book The City of Bones, there's a prominent quote from the author of Twilight, Stephenie Meyer: "The Mortal Instruments series is a story world that I love to live in. Beautiful!"

Neil Gaiman raved, "Stephen King's Under the Dome was one of my favourite books of the year so far."

Taylor Stevens' debut novel, The Informationist, got labeled "One of the best thrillers of the year!" by Tess Gerritsen.

Let me ask you this: When you see a quote from one big-name author singing the praises of another author's book, does your bullshit radar begin pinging?

Why would a famous scribe like Meyer stir herself to offer up what amounts to a huge advertising coup to another author anyway? Let's examine her possible motivation:

The quote was given after Meyer found herself truly moved by a book she chose on her own to read.

The quote was heartfelt and unsolicited, but Meyer was given a copy of the book by the author/agent/editor.

The quote was solicited and Meyer felt she had to provide it, but she honestly enjoyed the book.

The quote was solicited and Meyer was under pressure to say good things about it.

The quote was provided as a tit-for-tat to benefit both authors. Meyer's name and the name of her book appears on the other author's cover, thus giving her extra exposure while the other author gets an endorsement that will potentially sway Meyer's fans to read his/her book.

Unless some industry insider starts blowing his or her whistle, we'll never know for sure, but the fact is: it's common practice in publishing for authors to review each other. When I've seen these quotes in the past, I've generally taken them at face-value, especially if I like the quoting author's work. It never occurred to me to wonder whether I've just been duped into buying a book I wouldn't have if it didn't have such ringing praise from someone I admired.

In the Meyer and Clare scenario, can the reader trust that Meyer really would like to leap between the pages of Clare's book and live there?

I ask because I've been accused of unethical conduct by the reigning opinion-makers at a popular reader's forum (that will go unnamed to hopefully prevent retaliation).

Let me start at the beginning: I created a website, a place where indie-authors could connect and exchange honest, unbiased read/reviews. This was born out of the frustration I experienced trying to promote my books. There exists a series of vicious concentric circles wherein an indie-author cannot sell their book without getting the word out, but can't get the word out without being accused of spamming. Everything we do to promote our work is either restricted (we can comment about it only in segregated sub-communities on forums) or suspect (we cannot ask our family, friends or peers to endorse it). Since we are shunned by major book review publications and ignored by most book bloggers, what are our options other than to pour money we don't have into paid advertising (which is arguably just as suspect)?

According to my detractors on this particular reader's forum, agreeing to swap reviews with another author isn't one of them. The response to my little post announcing the website I created was immediate and fierce:

"Just an FYI before the feeding frenzy starts on your thread. Most readers on XX don't look on authors exchanging reviews with affection. It seems dishonest and some of us feel that we can't really trust a review done by one author in exchange for another review."

"There've been numerous discussions about WHY review swapping is a bad (BAD!) idea."

"We get these posts a lot, Mel, and the overwhelming consensus is that these sort of things are unethical."

"I think that the only reviews that are worth having are professional reviewer sites (not the kind you pay for)."

"…around here, we've had this discussion many, many times. And the consensus is always that this sort of thing is a bad idea. Not only because it can look like gaming the system, but also because it can be bad for business. The appearance of swapping favorable reviews with other writers can cast doubt on all of your legitimate reviews."

Given the admitted number of times this issue has come up in that forum, it seems obvious to me that the concept is NOT distasteful to everyone, but as soon as the idea of swapping reviews is proposed by some hapless forum member, these "self-appointed desk-jockey lynching mobs," as a friend describes them, pounce. Notice the phrases such as "most readers" and "overwhelming consensus." I was given the choice to read the links to previous discussions—proving that the issue has been well-and-truly argued and won—or to take their word for it that It Has Been Decided that swapping reviews is downright wrong.

While my thread was combusting from the negative feedback, I began to get private messages from sympathetic folks unwilling to go against these forum bullies.

"The same thing that's happening to you just happened to me! …Everyone slammed me and called me unethical to the point that I was in TEARS!"

"I saw your book review post and was about to sign up when the comments scared me away."

So why is it that these bullies seemingly don't recognize a practice that already runs rampant in the traditional publishing world? Is Stephenie Meyer "dishonest?" Is she more legitimate than me because she's backed by a traditional publisher who can influence a "professional reviewer site" to read her book? If Stephenie Meyer can give Cassandra Clare a quote, why can't I give one of my fellow indies a quote?

The goose does it, why can't the gander?

My friend puts it this way, "These little lynching mobs don't have any real or meaningful power, and in the petty power they DO exert, they slavishly ape the actions of the people who are over THEM in the rest of the world."

Really, people? Way to go…way to beat down the little guy.

Perhaps my biggest sin in this sad story was that I went public and embraced the tit-for-tat concept instead of accomplishing it behind-the-scenes like the big boys and girls undeniably do. Instead, supposedly I've "cast doubt on all of [my] legitimate reviews." All one of them.