Sunday, January 13, 2013

The words in delicate balance (part 1)

Those of us who put our own products and services into the marketplace no longer, in a sense, have lives of our own.  We are inextricably linked to our products.

This does not mean, as I've blogged before, that we should consider our products -- whether they are novels, paintings, agate pendants, restored classic cars,  or personal accounting services -- living beings that we are as emotionally connected with as we are with our children.  That's not what I'm talking about at all.

I'm referring instead to the idea that if we are trying to sell a product (or service), we have to go into each and every situation in our daily life, whether it is related to that product at all or not, as having a potential for a sale.  Standing in line at the grocery store, waiting to get the oil changed on the car, watching the grandkid's soccer game, chatting online about preparations for approaching bad weather or how to plan a vacation: Any time we are in contact with other people, we could be presented with an opportunity to hawk our product.  Therefore we must always be in salesperson mode.

That's the concept.  And it makes sense.  Sort of.

It's that "always" that bothers me.

If we must always be in that salesperson mode, even when we don't feel like it, have we crossed into some kind of mercenary, maybe even predatory, zone where the sale becomes the only thing that's important?  Is there a point, then, at which we cease to be a self and become only the product?  And if not, then where is the line drawn between the end of self and the beginning of product?

Since this is all very abstract, allow me to offer some examples to illustrate.

Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine became a distributor for Amway products.  She and her husband began going to weekly meetings at which they listened to the Amway sales pitch and were encouraged to use only Amway products.  Over a period of several months, she replaced all her household cleaning products with the Amway brand, as well as many of her personal care products (shampoo, soap, cosmetics) and even clothing items (pantyhose!).  She always had a few samples in her purse, so that no matter where she went, she was always prepared to offer a sample and expound on the merits of the Amway product over any other brand.

In an unguarded private moment with me, she complained about the inferior quality of a particular Amway item compared to the brand she had used for many years.  When I asked her why she didn't just use the other brand if it made her happier, she drew back in horror.  Her personal comfort and satisfaction, she insisted, were far less important than promoting the brand in every way possible, because it was essential to making sales

She stuck with the program for about a year, then became disillusioned when she lost some very good friends over the quality of some of the Amway products.  It wasn't that she constantly pushed the products at them, but rather that she finally admitted she had lied to them about her own experience with the product, telling her friends how wonderful it worked when in fact she didn't think it did.  When she asked her distributor (or whoever her immediate superior in the multi-level marketing plan was) how to handle the loss of the friendships, he told her to forget friends like that and concentrate on selling product. 

Too late, she realized she could have been honest about not liking one product and kept her friendship, through which she might have sold more products.

Honesty is the best (sales) policy.

This past holiday season I sat down and watched Miracle on 34th Street for the first time.  I'm not much of a movie buff, so yeah, I was one of the few people on the planet who had never seen any version of the film.  This was the colorized original, with Edmund Gwyn, Natalie Wood, Maureen O'Hara, and John Payne.  And I knew most of the basic storyline before seeing it.  But putting that notion of always being in selling mode into play, what Kris Kringle did seemed to be counter to Macy's best interest, but of course it developed in totally the other direction:  By sending customers to the rival store, Kringle boosted his own employer's reputation and thus increased their sales as well. 

So when an online discussion among a group of writers turned to whether or not writers should review other writers' books, it's not surprising that there were a variety of opinions.

Some said absolutely not.  No writers should ever review other writers, because the reviews would always be seen as biased.  And because some of them very well might be.  Given what's been seen with reviews on Amazon and increasingly on GoodReads, where authors plot (pun intended) to give each other 5-star reviews, this kind of perceived bias is understandable.  Especially when all too often the authors involved hide behind screen names or don't let anyone know that they are personal friends.  And to be sure there are also the cases of authors who get into the online venues and trash their competition's books. 

Others said they would only post favorable reviews, even if that made them seem dishonest.  They would not post a review at all if they couldn't give the book (based on Amazon's ratings) at least three stars.  Some defended the practice on the basis of general good will and not wanting to trash anything in the marketplace, even though they agreed some of the stuff out there is. . .trash.  But more than one admitted they did not want to suffer any personal backlash.  To paraphrase one, "I don't sell that many books as it is, and I'm not going to jeopardize those sales by antagonizing anyone."  Another went even further than that and confessed she was afraid of being the victim of a revenge review or even being personally stalked by an angry competitor.  Again, to paraphrase: "We've all seen how some of them go after non-writer reviewers who don't like their books; can you imagine what they'd do to someone who was writing the same genre?  No, thank you.  I don't need threatening phone calls at three in the morning or seeing my kids' school pictures posted on some 'I'm gonna get you' blog."

Out of all the writers in this discussion, more than half said they would not review self-published material at all because they read almost none of it anyway.  And they agreed that the choice to limit the type of material they read also limited the possibility of the need to leave a really negative review.  As more than one of them wrote, "Sticking with the tried and true that's been through the standard process pretty much eliminates the real crap."

Some of us -- the vast minority, I might add -- insisted we would continue to review and review honestly even the self-published real crap.  One or two stated that they felt comfortable enough in their professional standing (meaning, sales) to withstand any negative response.  Another modified her claim by saying she did not post lengthy reviews of books she didn't like because she really didn't care enough to, but she didn't hesitate to label them as "DNF" (Did not finish) or something else that indicated she didn't like them.  She, like all of us in this discussion, had experienced some retaliation or at least response from an author of a book she didn't like.

It's not important how many of us there were or who we were.  Although I was not the only one who said I would continue to read self-published work and comment on it, there weren't many of us at all.

In the course of the discussion, I mentioned that I had judged RWA contests for many years and that had kind of thickened my skin for the comments coming back from the unhappy authors.  One other member of this little impromptu group (I know none of them personally) gave a cyber shudder and said she had done that once and never again.  But I laughed and said I'd had both good and bad experiences.

And that reminded me I hadn't completed a comment tossed into one of my earlier posts here on this blog.

Remember when I said (I'll look it up for you later if you don't remember) there was one manuscript in one RWA contest that I scored really high and was the only one that didn't get published?  It's been well over 20 years now, and after a couple years of corresponding with the author, I lost track of her.  I knew she had some difficulties in her real life and I suspect they interfered with her writing, but if by some chance she's out there and by some chance she sees this, maybe this will spark the spark again.

I remember the plot and I remember some of the details of that particular contemporary romance novel.  I hated judging contemporaries because it wasn't my favorite genre to read and so I didn't feel as competent to judge as I did with historicals, but this one I knew was a winner.  If I still had a copy of the manuscript I might be tempted to quote some of it, but since it was never published and I don't have the author's permission, I wouldn't even try, and anyway I don't have it.  But the one scene, in the funky little dive-y bar, where the heroine is trying to drink a frozen strawberry daiquiri from a plastic soft drink glass and the hero watches her struggle to suck the thick, pink slush up the clear straw. . . . .

It was a great story, with great characters in a believable conflict and . . . . that scene. . . . and it still ticks me off that it never got published.

But that online conversation also dredged up another memory from another RWA contest. 

I joined RWA  in the spring of 1984, so I think the first contest I judged in must have been 1985, just before we moved to Arizona.  My packet of five or six single-title romances arrived and I set to work reading them.  Again, this wasn't my chosen sub-genre, but because I was already published in historical romance, I wasn't allowed to judge in that category.  I vaguely remember a couple of the books -- one was by an author I had met briefly but didn't really know -- but one in particular stood out, mainly for its awfulness.  Yes, a published book that was embarrassingly awful.  I had never heard of the author but it was a cinch I was never going to read anything by her again.  Of the books in that batch to judge, I gave Promise Me Tomorrow by Nora Roberts the lowest possible marks.

Over the ensuing 28 or so years, Ms. Roberts has gone on to phenomenal success.  I've met her briefly at a couple of conferences and have had a couple (fairly public) online conversations with her, but I certainly can't say I know her.  But even she has publicly pretty much disavowed that particular book.

I just wish I hadn't been so conscientious and returned the books to the contest coordinator the way we were told to.  Many of the judges didn't, and if I'd been unscrupulous, I'd have a $100 book in library.  Well, nah, probably not.  I really didn't like it and I'd probably have taken it right to the book exchange!

The unfortunate thing is that I've never been able to read Nora Roberts since then.  I've tried.

The fortunate thing is that I doubt Ms. Roberts holds that miserable contest score against me.

And who knows?  Maybe my honest score and comments (I think I made some but I'm not sure) helped Nora Roberts become a better writer. I don't know what other scores Promise Me Tomorrow received in that contest; maybe everyone else told her it was, um, not the best they'd ever seen.  Maybe she took those comments to heart and looked at her work with a reader's eyes and learned something.

Do I take credit for making Nora Roberts what she is today?  (Where's the GIF for laughing my ass off?)  No, not hardly.  But that contest experience combined with Nora's eventual success is just one of the things that keeps me from backing off my criticisms.

Will I risk losing sales of my books?  Oh, of course I will!  I'm not delusional, for crying out loud.  But I still believe that books must sell on their own merits.  If my books are good enough, if they reach an audience (and remember, most of them are 15 to 20 years old, so the market and the audience has changed), they will do well.  But I am in this to be a writer, as I was when I wrote my first novel at the age of 15.  It's the writing that matters to me, and always has.

So yes, I take the risk that when I post a snarky comment about another writer's misspelling it will backfire on sales of my own books.  (And what sales are those, you ask?  I need that lmao GIF again)  But I also take the chance that my honesty will resonate with others, so that when I find a good self-published book, like Trish Albright's The Time Keeper  (except for the ending) or The 19 Dragons by S. M. Reine, that opinion too will be taken seriously.

But my heroes have always been teachers, and maybe that's what I should have been.  Because when I see a book that's not well written, a story that isn't well told, I want to make it better.  I want to help that writer realize her dreams.  Not her dreams of selling lots of copies, but her dreams of telling good stories well.

To be continued. . ..

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