If there's a system, someone will figure out how to game it.
Yes, the discussion about reviews has begun again at Dear Author, and I'm determined not to fill up other people's blogs with my bizarre opinions and observations.
Allow me to digress just a tiny bit. Back around 1989-1991 or so, I wrote reviews for a magazine called Rave Reviews. This was a sister publication to Kathryn Falk's Romantic Times and was supposed to cover pretty much everything but romance: mystery, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, horror, whatever -- even cookbooks! I read a lot of stuff I had no business reviewing because I didn't know the genres well enough, but I did the best I could. And I did get to read a few really fabulous books -- among them one of the best fantasy books I've ever read bar none, Brad Fergusson's The Shadow of His Wings. Seven or eight years later, I did some freelance reviewing for a website that featured mysteries, and I knew enough about what makes a good mystery novel to write creditable reviews.
In both instances, of course, there were word length minimums and maximums, rules regarding spoilers, and so on. But the basics were similar: Tell the reader a little bit about the book, express an opinion about it, justify your opinion, and offer a recommendation or not. And also in both instances, there was no payment other than the free books.
The objective, of course, was to help readers make up their minds about what books to buy and the hope was that the reviewer would like the book enough to recommend it. I do not recall ever being told to give only "rave" reviews -- even given the magazine's name -- and I do not recall ever having a rating changed upward. Though I can't speak for any of the other reviewers, I was never pressured to be anything other than scrupulously honest in my reviews.
Extremely low ratings -- the equivalent of Amazon's one-star rating -- were rare, because all of the books we reviewed were "published." All of the books had gone through a process of selection, of editing, of copy editing for internal consistency, of typesetting and proofreading. We reviewers knew when we opened the book that it would be at the very least readable. The paragraphs would be uniformly indented, the punctuation would clarify rather than muddle the meaning of the prose, the words would be the right words and they'd be spelled correctly. If we did have to give a one-star rating or tell prospective readers the book wasn't worth buying, our opinion was based on the content of the story, not on a poor presentation.
But that was then and this is now. With the ease of digital self publishing and the availability of inexpensive but top quality cover art, it's more and more difficult for the casual reader to distinguish between the well-crafted and the slapdash. Many books are now published without professional editing, without competent proofreading. Errors of fact aren't corrected; plot and characterization inconsistencies abound. Sometimes it seems the writers have either forgotten or never knew the basic rules of English sentence structure and grammar.
And I'm not even sure that matters to most casual readers, especially readers in the romance genre, because there the pay-off is in terms of emotions, not technical expertise.
Personally, I can't read, let alone enjoy, a book that's laced with typos and punctuation errors and screwed up syntax. When I come across a gross and easily-avoided factual error, I tend to cringe and give up. Most readers don't notice and don't care.
Most readers don't recognize bad grammar. Most readers don't recognize wrong word usage; their, there, and they're are interchangeable in the minds of most readers and don't even ask them about rein, reign, and rain. Most readers won't notice if the villain's last name is sometimes Forster, other times Forester, and occasionally Foster. If they do notice, they don't care. None of that "stuff" affects their ability to enjoy the book.
As a writer who had to work with the old system of submissions (I hate that word) and rejections and revisions and editors and crappy cover art and all the rest of the traditional print publishing industry, I'm absolutely delighted to see the rise of independent digital publishing. I intend to take all the advantage of it I can.
But digital publishing has its drawbacks, too, and one of them is the ability of the individual author to game the system. In the bad old days of print publishing, an author and/or her publisher could make a calculated investment in promotion to get a book noticed, as when Dell provided free copies of the hardcover edition of Outlander to all attendees of the 1990 RWA conference in New Orleans. The system is also gamed when political interests buy up fifty or a hundred thousand copies of a book to put it on the best seller lists. An author with a small publisher or small budget can't hope to compete with the big dollar operations.
Today it isn't dollars as much as it is numbers and algorithms. Any author with enough time and moxie can post reviews and click "like" buttons to push her book into the spotlight.
Today -- Sunday, 8 April 2012 -- the #1 listed book on my Amazon Kindle ebook listing is Peter Behrens' The O'Briens. I sorted by Romance>Historical>Last 90 days> Popularity. Even though The O'Briens isn't tagged as historical romance, it's the first title that shows up. It has 22 reviews on Amazon with a 4.5 star average rating, and one "like." Published by Random House, the Kindle edition sells for $12.99. What makes this book the most popular in the historical romance category? I don't know. But it's there.
If I try another sort, this time by Average Customer Review, I get such a confused collection of top titles that I can only conclude that whatever calculations Amazon uses to rank the selections is beyond my mathematical capability.
Into the Free 149 reviews, 4.7 star average, 146 Like
Promise Me This 46 reviews, 4.8 star average, 1 Like
Words Spoken True 58 reviews, 4.7 star average, 5 Like
Sixty Acres and a Bride 69 reviews, 4.6 star average, 30 Like
These books may have been promoted via paid reviews or by social networking. They may have been promoted by other people seeing a few reviews, reading the book, and passing along their own subsequent enthusiasm.
But because of the various little scandals regarding review-buying, authors behaving badly, and fans behaving badly, it's almost impossible for the casual reader to depend on the review process. Obviously the system on Amazon -- which has a vested financial interest in the review process as a tool for selling more product -- is open to gaming. From what I've seen, the review websites such as Goodreads are also susceptible to manipulation.
That creates a dilemma for both the reader and the writer. The reader can presumably figure out a selection process that works for her in terms of deciding how to buy books. If she wishes, she can then review, "Like" or "Unlike" her choice, and so on. She can choose to vote up a book or author she likes, vote down one she doesn't like. And there's not much the author can do about it, especially if the book is published by a traditional publishers.
But the writer isn't completely powerless, and the independent or small-press author of a digital book has far more options than in the days of print only. She can, for instance, come back to the review and respond, either with a thank you, an apology, or a challenge.
The author who comes back to the review and responds with a gracious appreciation for a good review may be seen as engaging in just another promotional technique, establishing a social connection to a reader who liked her book and might be interested in buying others. There's a risk, of course, in that such a relationship can backfire if the reader doesn't like the next book she reads.
The author who apologizes for whatever it was that made a reader post a negative review may be able to make amends. If there's a problem with formatting, the author may actually be able to help by checking the uploaded file and fixing it if needed.
But if the author is unable or unwilling to fix whatever problem prompted the reader's negative review, the author is probably better off taking her bitter medicine and biting her tongue.
Unfortunately for both readers and self-publishing authors, the digital publishing process sometimes becomes the equivalent of entering the manuscript in a contest or submitting it for critique, with the significant difference that both the book and the comments directed at it are public. Instead of the privacy of a contest score sheet or a critique group's discussion, the negative reviews can be seen by anyone and everyone.
I've been through the submission and rejection process. I know it hurts. I know what it's like to believe your book is fabulous and perfect and ready for publication and the best seller list only to have some mean old editor send a crappy form letter rejection. Though I joined RWA after I had sold my first book and therefore was never eligible for the Golden Heart contest, I've participated in critique groups -- face to face as well as online -- and I've had to take the lumps that come from the negative comments.
I've also been a contest judge, and I've received the nasty emails and nasty letters from contestants who didn't like the low scores I gave their entries -- and from one to whom I gave a high score but not high enough! No matter how much I tried to explain my decisions, no matter how often I tried to soften the blow, sometimes the books were just so poorly written in my personal opinion that I felt I had no other choice.
It's very difficult for any author to be objective about her own work. And while the traditional dictum that critiques are for authors and reviews are for readers worked well for print-only publication, the advent of digital self-publication means that reviews are increasingly a tool for writers, too.
Sometimes that tool inflicts severe pain.
And sometimes the pain leads to bad author behavior, everything from sockpuppetry to purchased five-star reviews to lashing out at critics to online author meltdowns.
I feel sorry for the authors who get bad reviews; I know the experience isn't pleasant. But I don't feel sorry for authors who behave badly. And I don't feel sorry for authors who game the system and have it come back to bite them.
I also feel sorry for the readers who are discerning enough to recognize the bad books and who are conscientious enough to post negative reviews, only to be challenged by too-sensitive authors. For the author who wishes to improve her craft, nothing is more valuable than honest criticism. As authors, we are almost always too close to our stories, our characters, our research, to be able to tell what works and what doesn't. We can't rely on critique partners who may have seen four or five versions and who know us too well. We can't rely on friends and family who have built in biases. We need to know what's wrong before we can fix it. We need to know our weak points so we can strengthen them.
As Justin Kruger and David Dunning wrote in 1999, it's often those who are least competent who are the most confident about the quality of their work. Fortunately or unfortunately, the ability to game the system in the digital publishing field means that a lot of unskilled and unaware writers are still going to achieve some success. And that's the real monster.