As difficult as it is to believe, I've been online almost 20 years. Or maybe more than that. I'm not sure when I got the first modem and the Prodigy software, but it had to be somewhere around 1992.
One of the first lessons I learned back in those old Prodigy days was "Don't Feed the Trolls!" I remember a few of those first encounters. Of course then as now I was mostly visiting threads and discussions about writing and reading, and we'd always get a few doofuses who wanted to make fun of women who read and wrote romance novels. Then there was a guy who insisted no successful writer ever came out out of a critique group. By the time I moved on to the GEnie network's Romance Exchange, or RomEx, and then to AOL, ignoring trolls was just another part of online life.
However, I learned these lessons the hard way. All too often I'd get suckered into one of those discussions, the kind that you can never win because they're designed that way. Kind of like the old joke, "So, tell me, Bob, are you still beating your wife?" There's no way to answer that and save face.
Yes, indeed, I often ended up in the role of the miserable, frustrated little soul, hunched over her keyboard into the wee hours, my brow furrowed in concentration, an enormous thought bubble hanging over my head with the words "Someone on the Internet is WRONG!"
Most of the time, it wasn't worth the effort. I changed very few opinions, if any, since all of us were safely ensconced behind our monitors and we didn't have to suffer much in the way of consequences.
The online world has changed a lot since then. When I started with Prodigy and GEnie and AOL, DOS was still viable and there was no www, no Facebook and no eBay and no Amazon and no PayPal, no Twitter and no Pinterest and no YouTube. Now we have all that, and more, and we still have the trolls.
As I've come back into my writing career (if you want to call it that) I've believed more than ever in the integrity of the words. What we write has meaning and it has consequences. If we are not prepared to accept the consequences, then we should not put our words out in public. Once those words are out there, once we've hit the post or send or publish button, we've lost control of those words. They are ours, but they are no longer ours alone.
One area that has quite obviously attracted a lot of trolls is the whole issue of book reviews. It's been a hot topic just on this little blog, even though I don't do any reviews here. I do write about reviews here, however, and one of the issues I've addressed is the need for honest reviews, especially about bad books.
The sad truth is that there are a lot of badly written books out there. The sadder truth is that a lot of those badly written books are published by their authors. Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords -- the two platforms I've used -- make digital publishing a snap, and far too many people have been seduced by that snap. They've published too many books that weren't ready for publication, and worse than that is the fact the authors themselves weren't ready for the consequences. They don't know why their books weren't ready nor do they know how to make them ready. All they know how to do is lash out at the critics -- or anyone they perceive to be a critic.
I don't think I'd make a very good reviewer. I say that even though I have been a reviewer in the past. But the reviews I wrote for Rave Reviews and for the long-defunct online review site whose name I have completely forgotten were bland and formulaic and utterly commercial. The opinions were mine and they were honest, but I felt as if they served little purpose other than to announce hey, random reader, here's another book you might want to take a look at.
As I've written elsewhere on this blog, the books I reviewed then were published by established print publishers who had a vested interest in making sure their product was literate. That was one of the beauties of the old publishing machine. You either wrote well enough to be published or you learned and practiced until you did. When you wrote well enough to be published. . . .you were published, and it worked equally well in reverse: If you were published, then obviously you wrote well enough to be published.
Now there's no such validation, because anyone can be published. There are no gatekeepers.
Books, however, involve a three-phase process -- writing, publishing, and reading. Along with the traditional gatekeeping between writing and publishing, there was another between publishing and reading: the book review. Though less a true quality assurance function, reviews did serve to assist readers in making selections, especially in the romance fiction community.
But book reviews have proliferated just the way publishing has. Where reviewers were few in number and were selected for publication in much the same manner as authors -- You had to have some credentials. If your review was published in a reputable magazine, it was deemed to have some validity -- now anyone can be a reviewer, just as anyone can be an author.
So what the reader is faced with today is a double whammy: A flood of self-published, unvetted reading material and a flood of untrustworthy reviews and recommendations.
Independent reviewers who try to wade through this tsunami are often attacked by self-publishing authors as well as their supporters. This has been documented time and time and time again. There are groups and individuals campaigning to force bookseller sites like Amazon and reader sites like GoodReads to limit reviews to only positive comments. Reviewers are scolded if they aren't "nice" enough. Reviewers who dare to express honest, personal opinions that happen to be negative have been the victims of cyber stalking, harassing phone calls, and publication of private, personal information -- all forms of extortion or blackmail to silence them.
In other words, the authors whose books are receiving negative reviews have resorted to threats -- and in some cases carried out those threats -- rather than look to see if there is any validity in the criticisms. And once the author has become angrily defensive about her work to the point of refusing to change one precious word of it, she's in denial and virtually incapable of seeing the errors that have to be corrected.
This is true even when the criticisms are leveled against elements of the book that are demonstrably and objectively inaccurate.
For example, is the document properly formatted for digital publication? Just about anyone can look at a Kindle device or the Kindle app for PC or Android or whatever and determine if a manuscript has been properly formatted. Are there double- or triple-spaced breaks between paragraphs? No paragraphs at all? Are the margins reasonable, or too narrow or too wide? These are the basic mechanical details of publishing the already-written book. This is the process that makes the digital content look like a professionally prepared product. This is what the "real" publishers do when they digitize a book. The self-publishing author who doesn't care enough or know enough to format her product so that it looks professional probably doesn't care enough or know enough to write a good book. Yet often when these formatting errors are pointed out in reviews, the authors or their supporters deny that the errors exist -or- they insist the formatting errors don't matter, that the reviewer is petty for pointing them out, or . . . whatever.
If there are spelling errors, punctuation errors, formatting errors, factual research errors and the author refuses to acknowledge them she is not going to be capable of handling the editing necessary to fix character motivation, plot continuity, and historical accuracy.
Many of these problems used to be resolved in the critique group, contest, or "beta reader" process. I don't know what happened to that. I know that some of the free publishing sites such as www.booksie.com offer the writer the opportunity to receive feedback, but how much feedback is actually offered, what quality it is, and whether the authors take most of it is unknown to me, at least at this time. Booksie, at least, allows the writer to delete negative comments. Denial, denial, denial.
The ability of authors to deny or ignore criticism extends to more formal, commercial digital publication as well. Ebooks aren't carved in stone. When a book -- or its author -- receives too many negative reviews, the author can simply unpublish the book and then republish it, wiping the page clean of one-star reviews and negative comments. Then all the fans and friends and family members and paid shills can repost the good reviews before the meanies get in there.
Reviewers have little recourse. GoodReads, where I have actually begun writing reviews of some of the books I've read, defends readers more staunchly than writers and at least does not remove books solely because the authors have complained of too many negative reviews. Once listed, the book remains along with all the reviews and comments.
I'm not afraid of the trolls and bullies. I won't link to them or their websites, I won't name them, I won't out them from behind their screen names and avatars. I don't care about them. I write under my own name, and I will review under my own name.
As a self-publishing author, I care very much about the quality of the other books in the market place. I'm not afraid to go up against the books published by the traditional publishers. My work always has to stand on its own merits. Nor do I fear competition from the hundreds, thousands of books offered at bargain prices by their self-publishing authors, because I am confident my work is at least equal to if not superior to them.
If there is any threat at all, it comes from the poorly written, poorly presented books that make so many readers reluctant to even try the independent, small-publisher, and self-published fare. There are no gatekeepers between the authors and publishing any more, and too few trustworthy gatekeepers between the publishing platforms and the readers, other than reliable reviewers. Because some of the reviewers have either given up on "indie" books because of the actions of trolls and bullies, someone has to step into the breach.
I love writing and I love reading. I love books. Although my publishing portfolio isn't extensive, I think I have sufficient credibility to make not necessarily a good reviewer, but a good critiquer. And the trolls and bullies be damned.