Saturday, October 13, 2012

Scary words, and not in the way you think

This is kind of a mind-cleaning ramble, an exploration and exposition of some thoughts that maybe don't make any sense and maybe don't mean anything in the broader context of what this blog is about.  But recent events have added to some thoughts that have been plaguing me for a while, so maybe here is the place and time to air them.

First of all, I had a productive week last week in terms of my writing, which is something I haven't been able to say for a while.  I took some time off from the day job, got out into the open air, put some work in on my other hobbies, and did some writing.

My respite from the day job and some other responsibilities was not total, however.  I still had work to do on some other ventures, and one of those ventures involved dealing with a sudden crisis that could have derailed a project that had been in the works for many months.  In the process of dealing with this crisis -- which was very fortunately solved quickly and to just about everyone's satisfaction -- I had a confrontation with a person who (in my opinion) was doing everything she could to avoid taking responsibility for her own mistakes and misunderstandings.

This was not the first time I've been in that kind of situation with her.  I would like it to be the last, but that's probably not going to happen either.  In my humble opinion, she's one of those people who thinks the world revolves around her and no one else's concerns matter at all.  Everything that goes wrong is someone else's fault, even if the mistakes are demonstrably hers.  Oh, well.

Also during this "vacation" time, I was in communication with a geographically distant friend who has had some recent personal crises.  She's a single mother of a special needs child and is facing other very severe family health issues, plus has an extremely stressful job that takes more and more of her energy.  As easy as it would be to tell her to quit the job, we all know that in these times that's not always a viable option.  Because of her location (Rust Belt, Midwest) jobs are even less plentiful, and her family situation, the need for insurance, steady income, etc., makes change in perilous times even more perilous.  There are also legal considerations related to custody of the child that make a change of location much more complicated than would be expected.  And there's no walking away from the obligations of parenthood.  It's difficult for me to do much more than offer moral support (and sometimes immoral!), but I do what I can.

After my little vacation ended and I was getting back into the swing of the daily grind Thursday, I also had to deal with a couple of unrelated issues that had me tied to the computer for a very long virtually unbroken stretch in the afternoon.   To fill the waiting time between emails and website posts, I surfed Amazon for interesting Kindle fare, and specifically self-published fare.

I read in a variety of genres.  A lot of romance, certainly, because that's what I enjoy most and write the most, and the non-fiction research material.  But I also read quite a bit of fantasy, some mystery, some mainstream thrillers.  I'm not into vampires and shapeshifters and . . . ugh . . . zombies.  I rely on to give me the daily romance freebies, and then sometimes I just surf through Amazon.  I never know what I'll discover.

My mother was never much of a reader when I was growing up; my dad was the booklover and had the books that I gravitated to when I got older.  But my mother always had a fascination with Ancient Egypt -- capitalized like that when she spoke of it -- and in part her later-in-life reading habit grew from the  novels of Joyce Verrette set in Ancient Egypt, Dawn of Desire and Winged Priestess, in the early 1980s.  Then it was Clan of the Cave Bear and similar pre-historic settings.  She liked the ancient stuff.  And once hooked on reading, she hasn't stopped.

I've kept my eyes open all these years whenever I've been book-looking, just in case I find something along those lines that Mother might enjoy.  She doesn't do computers, so ebooks are out, but I've occasionally run across paperbacks for her.  Yesterday I thought I had found one.  In fact a series of them.  Then I looked closer.  What I uncovered was, to me, very disturbing.

Originally print published through PublishAmerica, the paperback editions were outrageously expensive.  Apparently no copies -- or very, very few -- had sold into the general marketplace, because there weren't even any cheap used copies available.  Some new copies were available directly from the author as an Amazon affiliate, but the price was still way too high for a paperback by an unknown author.

The newer Kindle editions were expensive, too, about twice what most self-published ebooks cost on Amazon.  I looked at Smashwords, but there were no digital editions available there.  Since I don't have a Nook or other device, Amazon and Smashwords are the only sources I checked.  I was pretty sure, therefore, that these were probably Kindle Select editions, meaning they weren't available anywhere but Amazon.

Only one of the books had a review, and it was a one-star, negative review that had drawn some challenging comments.  Not a lot of comments, just a few.

Frequently, a negative review is preceded by a bunch of five-star reviews, and this book didn't have any at all.  Maybe it was my boredom because I had to stay at the computer, maybe it was morbid curiosity, I'm not sure what it was, but something piqued my interest about this . . . situation.

And the situation became, in the words of the immortal Alice, curiouser and curiouser.

Please note that I'm not giving any names or links.  I don't want to be thought of as a basher or stalker or, the good goddess forbid, a bully, and also I don't want to leave this blog vulnerable to search engines.  (I already know of one author who trolls this site on an almost daily basis.  I have no idea what for, but I don't want any more like her.)  More than likely, the author or her friends and supporters can still track this down, but I'm not writing anything that is inaccurate or malicious.  Just the facts . . . and a little bit of logical speculation. 

Amazon's listing didn't give a great deal of information and I'm a bit hesitant to go directly to an author's website, but I did have one other source for information.

I'm a relatively new member of GoodReads, which I joined a few months ago as a way to do a little  self-promotion, which I've never been very good at.  And I don't have a lot of time to spend on GR.  Mostly I try to organize my own library of books on there -- I've barely started -- and when I have time to browse, GR seems to have a better system for recommendations than Amazon does.  If I had an unlimited budget, I'd buy LOTS and LOTS of books based on GR suggestions, but not so much based on Amazon's.

I've never paid hardly any attention to the reviews on GR because it seems to me that they're hard to find.  Several hundred people may have "shelved" a book, but those who have actually rated and/or reviewed it may be few and far between.  Now, understand that this may be due to my own ignorance about exactly how to use GR.  Part of the learning process, so to speak.

But when I began to look at the information about the author and her publishing venture available just on Amazon, on GoodReads, and in the "Look Inside" Kindle preview about the author, I saw red flags all over the place.

It's a given:  All authors who put their work into the public marketplace are at risk for criticism.  All books have to sell, ultimately, on their own merits.  These are the basics of the writer's existence, and have been since the beginning of writing for publication.  Period.  There's no arguing this.

Not all authors are prepared for criticism.  Not all authors are emotionally capable of handling criticism.  Some can handle gracious criticism and not the brutal "This sucks hugely ginormously!" kind of criticism.  Some aren't bothered at all by "You should never write another word ever as long as you live!"

I'm neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist, and all I have is a master's in sociology, but the more I read of this particular author's . . . experience . . . the more alarmed I became.  It bothered me all of Thursday night. 

It wasn't the listing, the bad review, or even the challenges issued to the lone reviewer.  What literally kept me awake was that the author had a public meltdown over that single bad review.  A complete disintegration.  In page after page after page of a badly formatted blog post on GoodReads, she recounted every low-light of her life, from two failed and abusive marriages to the diagnosis of one of her daughters as autistic to her failure to find and hold gainful employment and the threatened financial catastrophe as a result of her books not selling.  All her life she had wanted to be a writer and she had sacrificed enormously to achieve her goal of literary success.  She had spent hours and hours of time and lots and lots of money on research materials, reading every book she could get her hands on and even traveling to the sites where the action in her novel would take place.

All this effort, all this expense, all this time and dedication and sacrifice to see her words in print, and now it was all destroyed by . . . one mean, unprofessional reviewer who didn't like the book.  The author might lose her house . . . because one reviewer thought the story rambled.  The author might see her utilities turned off . . . because one reviewer found typos.  The author's entire world would come to an end . . . because one reviewer gave the book one star on Amazon.

The drama was never-ending.  If it were a four-year-old having this kind of meltdown, one thing.  An adult woman well beyond the teen years?  A whole 'nother thing.

There's a part of me that wanted to shake some sense into her, tell her to grow up, get real, chill out.  But I didn't do anything because I don't think she's capable of absorbing "sense."

I don't think it's that no one has ever said "no" to her.  She claims to have queried numerous agents and publishers and they all said no.  She's gone through two marriages and divorces and now is married to someone who has a retail business.  She claims to have had at some point a small farm where she raised exotic livestock and had some kind of art studio associated with the farm.  This is all information available on her GR profile or her linked web page.  I did no "sleuthing" to find any of this.

She claims to have years and years and years of college and to have read everything required for a doctorate in . . . something.  Yet a closer examination of her claims reveals much of her college level education is vocational and continuing education, not academic.  And she seemed, from my reading of her blog, to have no real grasp of the difference between reading the course materials and actually taking the courses: attending lectures and seminars, writing papers, discussing issues.  Getting grades. Been there, done that.  As I wrote above, I do actually have a master's degree from Arizona State University.  Not purchased online.  I wanted to go for my Ph.D., or to law school, but finances and family circumstances didn't permit.  I got over it.

More and more and more of her anguish poured out about how this one negative review had totally destroyed her dreams.  But threaded through all the drama was additional information about her and her writing venture.  Her parents, who apparently live in another state some distance from the author, are also apparently her publishers.  I'm not sure exactly what this means, since there's no investment involved in self-publishing on Amazon, and it appears that's the only place she has published the digital books.  (The earlier, expensive paperbacks were, as I had suspected, published through a notorious print-on-demand "publisher.")  There may have been some expense to format the digital product, though the author states in her blog post that she spent a lot of money and a lot of time reading books to learn the graphics part of publishing.  Maybe, as nominal publishers, her parents funded this study?  I don't know.

Her parents are identified by name in the front matter of the author's books.

The publishing company's name is the last name of the parents followed by "Publishing."  The author states publicly that her parents are her publishers.  This is not conjecture.  And again, it is information that is easily accessible, provided on Amazon and/or GoodReads by the author herself.  I did not even go to her website.

Of the two comments that challenged the one-star Amazon review, the first was posted by a person with the same first initial and same last name as the author's father.   The second comment was deleted by its author.   It could have been an accidental duplicate by the first commenter, it could have been written by another fan, or it could have been written by the book's author herself.  It could have been any number of things.  That part is speculation, since the comment was quickly removed.

However, when I began to look at how her books had been received on GoodReads, my other source of information, I noticed they had very few reviews at all.  Even though in her blog post she said she had a lot of Facebook followers, there were few reviews of any kind on GR.  One person, however, who consistently gave her books five-stars was only identified by a first name, and that happened to be the same first name as her father.  He had no other books listed, just hers and all with five stars, but no reviews.  The author herself, of course, gave her books five-star ratings, which is within GR's guidelines.  And they were appropriately labeled as being reviews by the author.

But I went to bed that night disturbed by this almost -- I hate to say it -- suicidal-sounding blog post by the author.

One thing I hadn't done was actually look at the book(s) by this author.  I wasn't on my laptop, which is where my Kindle for PC app is loaded, so I couldn't download a sample anyway.  And because I was watching for various emails to come in that would need quick responses, I didn't want to clutter up my open browser windows any more than necessary.  So it wasn't until Friday morning that I actually took a look at the writing.  I had checked out the front matter -- that's where I found out about the author's parents being her publishers -- but I hadn't gone any further into the text itself.

What I found was appallingly bad.  Excruciatingly bad.  Insufferably bad.

If you've read any of my little how-to posts, you have at least some idea what I'm talking about.  You know that simple errors of punctuation and word usage can turn a good story into a hot mess.  You know the difference between an editor who actually turns a rough, unpolished manuscript into A Real Book and a proofreader who fixes the typos.  You know the difference between a professionally formatted ebook and an uploaded raw Word .doc. 

Imagine, if you will, a digital book product that breaks every single one of the basic rules of authorship mechanics, and not just occasionally but frequently.  On every page.  Numerous times on every page.

Let's look at some of the basics of digital book production.  I mean the real basics.

1.  Nice clear font.  Standard Times Roman, if you will.  Wanta get fancy?  Don't get any more fancy that Garamond or Souvenir (used by Silhouette Desire for years and years and years).  Arial if you must, but real print books have used serif fonts and digital editions look more like "real books" if they're in a similar font.  Keep it simple, sweetheart.

For the love of Mike, don't go into bizarre fonts.  They make the book look like a teen aged girl's diary.  No bold.  No italics except for very, very, very rare emphasis or excursus.  The book is not the art form; the writing is.  Remember the invisible manuscript?  Now you want the invisible Kindle.  Make that digital entity as invisible as you can.

Well, you know where this is going.  She started out with page after page in bold, and italic, and then switched to a weird decorative font for her text.  Not only was it difficult to read, but it made the font more and more and more visible, the words less and less so.  Epic fail.

2.  Avoid misspellings and typos and wrong words.  This is where you need the professional proofreader if you can't do it yourself.  Not an editor; a proofreader.  A proofreader won't try to change your style, but instead will fix the nitpicky errors.

And, of course, you know where this is going.  The errors were multitudinous.  Even simple words like "of" were mistyped -- "ff."  Nook instead of book.  Fair instead of fare.   Another massive fail.

And her dedication offered profuse thanks to her editor. . . .
So the mechanics of the product were a mess.   But the writing itself?  Well, that's a subjective judgment, and I won't go into it here.  That's the territory of reviews, and I said I won't do reviews here.

But after looking at the "Look Inside" feature and then downloading a sample to my Kindle for PC, I could see how honest and actually kind that one-star review had been.  And any writer who became so desperate, so discouraged, so despondent that she would write all those thousands of woe-is-me words would never have been able to take serious criticism -- especially the kind of criticism this author needed if she ever wanted to be even remotely successful. 

There was almost nothing nice to be said about these books at all.

I had actually put some of her books on my "never ever ever read in a gazillion years even after the sun has gone nova and time itself has ceased to exist"  shelf on GR, but I decided to remove them.  I didn't want to become the target of this woman's unhinged wrath.  Nor, frankly, did I want to feel responsible for pushing her over some edge if something terrible happened. 

In the process of doing that yesterday evening, however, I discovered that there had been a single comment posted to her rambling, semi-coherent blog post just within the past few minutes.  I'm not quite sure what I expected, but I was actually hesitant to click on it.  Again, morbid curiosity won out -- and I read a pretty innocuous but seemingly sincere comment to the effect that the blog post was being circulated, readers were aware of the author's (extreme over-) reaction, and it was making her look bad.  The commenter warned that the Amazon review had been honest and without malice, and that if the author was flipping out over it, she would never be able to take anything stronger, which all authors need to do if they have any hope of improving their craft.  The commenter also expressed some concern over the author's emotional state.

And in the time it took me to remove those titles from my "never to be read" shelf before the shit hit the fan from that comment, and go back to reread the comment, the author had removed the entire blog post and the comment with it.

I would later learn the author had put a flippant post on her Facebook page, essentially dismissing all her drama, all her wailing and gnashing of teeth, all her fear and anxiety and hysteria.

Either she's seriously mentally ill, or she's mean beyond words.  To elicit -- or try to elicit -- readers' sympathy for her personal plight and then shrug it all off when they do express concern but also point out her book's shortcomings is callous at best, malicious at worst.  I thought of my friend in the Midwest, soldiering on against the fates and the bureaucrats, putting her child's welfare ahead of everything, venting privately now and then but never playing the victim.   Somehow, the image of this whiny, crybaby author, putting her home and a special needs child at financial risk so she could flit off to do book research or spend money on computer graphics programs rather than pay the utility bills . . . I kinda lost it.

I don't like being held emotional hostage by some special snowflake "author" who thinks she's owed bestseller status.  But I despise even more being victimized by that special snowflake "author" who then dismisses someone's honest and sincere concern for her.

Not only has she put herself on my "Will never buy, and will never say anything nice about this author or her books," but she has also added to the growing layer of tarnish that has settled on all self-publishing authors.  I'm one of them, lady, and in my book, you are scum.

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