Thursday, December 18, 2014

Artists and Personal Responsibility, Or Why There's Nothing "Terrifying" Nor Even Surprising About Sony Pulling 'The Interview'

RE: The Interview, here's a comment I posted in reply to Chuck Wendig's blog post Art Held Hostage: Why Sony Not Releasing “The Interview” Is Scary. This is my response to those who say Sony's decision to pull the Seth Rogen / James Franco comedy film The Interview, in which two hapless celebrity interviewers get an interview with Kim Jong Un and are pressed into service by the U.S. government to use their access to assassinate Un, is "terrifying", "horrifying", "scary" and lots of other hyperbolic adjectives:

 - - - - -

Y'know, the go-to solution to this problem has always been not to name specific names. It's one thing to make a film about a group of CIA operatives trying to take down "a Russian official" who's made to look and sound like Putin but is given a totally different name (such that the audience knows exactly who's being portrayed, even if it's not explicitly stated), but it's a horse of a different color when that same film is made and DOES have an actor portraying the REAL Putin. Naming ANY specific, real-life individual, especially the real-world leader of a sovereign nation, in a story that mocks that individual or lays out an assassination plot against that individual (that's backed by the U.S. government) is asking for trouble. This is why the Roman A Clef has a long and celebrated history.

Sure, in a perfect world any artist should be able to make whatever art he or she wants so long as it doesn't break actual laws or harm actual people. But there's 'a perfect world' and the world we actually live in, which is populated by plenty of crazy and heavily-armed people, and when there's a very simple alternative that can accomplish the same artistic ends *without* putting anyone's data or lives at risk, why not just go with the alternative? Would you rather compromise a little and still get your art and message out there, or dig in your heels and see your art wielded as a tool to do gross injury to innocent people?

 -- END COMMENT --
--BEGIN COMMENTARY--

Whither the artist's personal responsibility and common sense? Does the right to make a statement of some sort trump all other concerns, including the safety and security of innocent people?

A photo-realistic painting of hundreds of actual rape victims' hospital ID bands would make a powerful statement about the numbers of girls and women who are victimized in such a way, but it would also be an irresponsible thing to put on display because it would make the victims' identities public. And the artist should know that. 

A performance art piece in which someone dressed as a police officer pretends to choke a black child to death in the middle of a town square, in plain view of passersby, while others dressed as police stand with their backs turned, would make a powerful statement about the de-facto police state that exists in many parts of this country. But it would also put everyone who's participating at risk from people who don't know it's a performance art piece, and might step in to try and assist the "victim". In this age of cell phones everywhere, it would also likely become an internet sensation of false reporting by well-meaning people who'd post their images and videos online with statements about ongoing police brutality, which in turn would foment more anger and hostility toward police in general. And the artist should know that.  

My point is this: art is not "being held hostage" in this case. This is a case about a breathtaking lack of judgment on the part of Sony execs who greenlit this project without a thought about the entirely predictable fallout. It would've been a simple matter to tell Rogen and Franco their script could only be produced if the "dear leader" character were given a different name and and were put in charge of a fictional regime in a fictional country.

Before anyone cries, "CENSORSHIP!" stop and think it through. Would the substance of the film be altered to any significant degree? Would the jokes still work? Would the central message still be there for any who cared to hear it?

Now ask yourself: if that were the film Sony made, would thousands of innocent Sony employees still have their social security numbers and medical records leaked to the public? Would Sony's servers still be wiped? Would we be hearing threats of terrorist acts against innocent moviegoers? I think not.

This is the juncture at which the Stand On Principle types usually chime in to say that forcing artists to consider the possible threats of hackers and terrorists when art is created effectively stifles the statements those artists want to make. But it doesn't, as centuries of Roman A Clef novels have proven over and again: you can make your point and get your statement across without putting any innocents in harm's way.

If you feel so strongly about whatever it is you want to say as an artist that you're willing to be martyred for it, by all means go right ahead. If your statement puts others in harm's way however, you better think pretty damned long and hard before making it. Who are you to decide for everyone else that your precious artistic integrity is worth the potential harm to others?

If there's a way to make that same statement without bringing harm to other people and you still choose the route that makes sacrificial lambs of others---people you don't even know---, I don't care if you're an artist or not, and I don't care how important your statement may be: in my opinion, you're just being selfish and irresponsible, and any harm that comes to others as a result of reactions to your art is your fault.
 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Facebook Fan Page Reach: No, It's Not All Over For Free Promo On Facebook

If you've been promoting your brand and books on Facebook via a Fan Page*, then stories like The Free-Marketing Gravy Train Is Over on Facebook (from Time Magazine's site) may have you in a tizzy. Don't be.

Those articles are either intimating, or stating outright, that this is some kind of plot on Facebook's part to force Fan Page owners to either pay to "boost" their posts or pay for ads in order to maintain the same level of exposure, or "Reach", as they've enjoyed in the past. I don't doubt Facebook is very much interested in selling "boosts" and ads, but the truth is that you don't have to invest in either of those things to increase your Fan page posts' Facebook Reach.

*Note that this post only applies to Fan pages, not individual Facebook Profiles (aka "Timelines"). This is because there are no tools for measuring engagement or boosting posts on Profile/Timeline pages: those pages are supposed to be for private individuals to engage socially with their private networks, they're not intended to be used for marketing purposes. So if you want to deal in Reach on Facebook, you need a Fan page.



How Do I Know This?

I manage a few FB fan pages for my day job and I've been observing the 'Reach' trends on both 'boosted' (promoted for a fee) posts and non-boosted posts. The ones with the greatest Reach are ALWAYS the ones with the most "engagement": Likes, clicks, Shares, comments. This is regardless of whether or not a given post has been 'boosted', and in fact I frequently see non-boosted posts far exceed the reach of boosted posts.

It's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg loop once the post is out there, because you have to get initial Likes, clicks, Shares and comments to improve the post's visibility in your Fans' newsfeeds. Higher visibility leads to more Likes, clicks, Shares and comments, and so on and so on.

FB is keeping the details of their Reach algorithm secret, but based on what I've observed it goes kind of like this:

You post something to your fan page. Facebook says, "Okay, we'll show this post in the newsfeed of a very small test group of your Fans, and see if it gets any engagement. If it does, we'll show it a larger group. If it gets more engagement from that new group, we'll show it to an even larger group." And so on, and so on. So Facebook isn't just blowing smoke when their reps say the new algorithm is intended to ensure that only the most 'engaging' stuff gets pushed to users' newsfeeds.



Context, and Specifics: How Many People Get To See A Post Immediately, and Ultimately?

One of the Fan pages I manage has around 16,000 fans (or "Likes"). I make three posts a day to that page, and others I work with make another 3 - 5 posts to the page each day. A typical post that hasn't been "boosted" via paid promotion is only initially shown to 50 - 60 of the page's fans. That's about .3% - one third of one percent of the total number of people who Liked the page and actually WANT to see updates from it.

If the post gets one Like, it may or may not get more exposure; that seems to depend on who is doing the Liking (more on that below). But if it gets more than one Like, the Reach needle definitely starts to move. For example, an unboosted post I made on one of those Fan pages at 5pm yesterday got an initial Reach of about 54, then it got 5 Likes and its Reach expanded to around 1200.

Likes are well and good, but it's the Shares that really kick your Reach into high gear. After that example post got its 5 Likes, it got one Share and Reach immediately jumped to over 3,500. I guess this makes sense, since a 'Share' shows a lot more interest (or, "engagement") than a Like. More Shares tend to lead to more Likes, which increases Reach even further, and so it goes.

Even so, ever since Facebook altered its Reach algorithms for Fan pages and introduced its new Reach tracking tools last year (not coincidentally, about the same time the 'boosted posts' advertising program was rolled out), I've never ONCE seen ANY page posts on ANY of the pages I manage, boosted or not, reach any more than about one-third of the page's total Fan base. Boosted posts seem to consistently hit a reach of around 15% of the page's total Fan base, and only rarely go higher.

It's true that boosting a post that's already getting a pretty good Reach organically may create a snowball effect, but since you have no control over whose newsfeeds will be included when you pay to boost a post, you can't be certain about this. If the extra Reach is only, or mostly, going to page Fans with very small followings of their own, it may not make much of a difference. More on that in the next section.



The Reach Formula Is Complex, and Has Many Factors

Another Fan page I manage has nearly 70,000 fans, and the Reach of its posts seems to be calculated a little differently from the page with the 16k Fans. For one thing, its posts generally get a starting Reach of around 800, which is about 1.1% of the total page Fans. That's considerably higher than the initial Reach on the other page, and I take this to mean that Facebook is assuming more popular pages should automatically get more Reach, right off the bat. So the size of your page's Fan base matters: the more Fans, the wider initial Reach.


Now consider Likes and Shares. I've already explained how Likes have a lower Reach impact than Shares, but there's one caveat: it also matters WHO is Liking or Sharing your post. If the person doing the Liking or Sharing has a pretty wide Reach of their own (meaning, they have a LOT of Fans or Friends), his or her Like/Share will boost your post's Reach much more than if he/she has a relatively narrow Reach. So the Reach of your Fans matters, too.

One more thing: the more engagement your posts get from Shares, the wider their Reach becomes. So even if a given post has only gotten a couple of Likes and one Share on your own Fan page, if that Share is on a very popular page and there's a lot of engagement on the Share, those bits of engagement seem to be weighted more heavily than the initial Likes and Shares on your own page.

This makes sense to me, since it's definitely in keeping with the viral nature of the web: the more people who have nothing to do with the original poster become engaged with the post, the more "viral" the post seems, and the more motivated Facebook is (it seems) to broaden the Reach of that post.



What Does All This Mean For Your Fan Page?

If you've always done a good job of posting stuff people are interested in and tend to engage with, you can just keep doing what you've been doing. It's true that no Fan page post is ever going to get the same Reach today as it would have a few years ago, before Facebook started tinkering with its Reach formula and pushing boosted posts and advertising, but at least it's a level playing field. Everyone with a Fan page, from Coke to you, is climbing uphill against the same Reach obstacles.

If you've never gotten much engagement, make a concerted effort to change that. Statistics have shown again and again that posts which include an image get more engagement than those without, so start including images in your posts as often as possible. Facebook's recent site redesign definitely shows that Facebook itself places a premium value on images: they're so much bigger on the site now! Try to tailor your posts to what's most likely to generate Shares: humor, how-to's, lists and "surprising but true" stories. Videos may not be your best bet, since not everyone can watch a video at the moment they happen to see your post.

Breaking news -type stories are popular too, but won't generally be a fit for an author or publisher page.


This is why part of my day job involves creating weekly, humorous memes to be posted to Fan pages. Funny memes spark Likes and Shares like nothing else. The second most consistently popular posts on the pages I manage are about deeply discounted, bestseller ebooks; people also like those quite a bit, and like to Share them.

Start analyzing those little Reach statistics and graphs Facebook provides at the top of each Fan page, and look for patterns. If more engagement consistently happens at certain times of day, try to post at those times. If certain types of posts consistently perform better, focus on posting more of the same.


And if you happen to HAVE a Facebook Fan page, feel free to share the link to this article!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why I Like Horror

In a recent email exchange, a friend expressed surprise that Horror is one of my favorite genres in fiction. Here's how I explained why:

- - - - -

I have an odd fascination with archetypal good vs. evil (or, God vs. Satan) stories. I guess it's because, even though I don't really believe in good and evil in the Biblical or religious sense, others' unwavering belief in them seems like the primary driving force behind most human behavior and societal frameworks. Whether you're talking about education, politics, law, economics, or even entertainment, notions of what's good and what's evil are in there somewhere.

I don't go for ALL Horror, though. For example, I was never a fan of the zombie sub-genre and I can't wait for that trend to peter out. I don't find stories where it's basically a bunch of people running/fighting for their lives against some destructive horde very interesting.

The kind of Horror I'm drawn to is the sort where the stakes aren't just about saving one life, or even thousands of lives, but saving the souls of all of mankind. It's a very rich literary vein, dating all the way back to Dante's Inferno.

Horror can be tremendously inventive (see Neil Gaiman's American Gods, for example: it's a sort of fantasy/horror hybrid) without getting too sprawling (like traditional Fantasy or Sci Fi often does), and there's a lot of catharsis in it. Seeing one guy, or an unlikely team, defeat evil-with-a-capital-E definitely keeps my experiences with internet trolls, red-tape-loving government workers and rude drivers in perspective.

Also, what character could possibly be more interesting, or relatable, than Satan? According to the Bible's version of events, he was (and still is) an angel. He was banished for mutiny, essentially. He thought it was unfair of God to place mortal man above the angels, it was ultimately a fight for angelic civil rights. How many of our worldly political revolutions and wars have been built on similar foundations? To me, any Horror that traces its roots back to that first big Biblical throwdown has a lot of built-in depth, whether the creators of the piece intended it or not.


So I'm a sucker for archetypal good vs. evil stories (Constantine, The Ninth Gate, The Exorcist, The Shining, The Stand, etc.) and vampire stories, because vampires are considered to be no less "fallen" than Satan.

I don't write in the Horror genre because I don't think I have the right sensibilities or skills for it. But I'm very glad that others do.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

How To Sell Your Integrity, $470 At A Time

Here are two new questions authors need to add to their vetting process when considering hiring out for costly author courses, services and how-to books:

Do you have an affiliate program for this product or service I'm considering, and if so, how much of the sales price will be paid to the affiliate advertiser?

Imagine that the answers to those questions are, "Yes, I do have an affiliate program, and half of the price you pay is sent back to the affiliate whose link you followed."

So far, so bad. Now imagine the price you're being asked to pay is $940, and $470 of that fee will be paid to the affiliate.

Pick your jaw up off the ground because I'm sorry to tell you, this is not some far-fetched scenario. Today I received this exact offer to become an affiliate advertiser for someone offering author and book marketing/publicity products and services.

I get affiliate requests pretty frequently but anyone who reads this blog or visits the Publetariat site regularly knows I don't say "yes" to many of them. Today's request is just about the best example I've seen to date for explaining why.

Here are the pertinent excerpts from the email invitation, with my comments below each. Note that any boldface emphasis in the quoted passages has been added by me.

I am writing today to suggest a partnership: make this course available simply by letting their existence be known. With my affiliate program, the seller earns a full 50% commission. Although the science exposed is worth hundreds of times more then what is being charged for this air-tight system, the Amazon course is priced at a disquieting rock-bottom $937! Each time a client purchases the course, $468.50 will be deposited into your PayPal account.

I wouldn't call $940 for a course in how to game Amazon a "rock-bottom" or "disquieting" price. Well, maybe disquieting, but not in the way this offer intends. Considering how many books and courses on that very topic are already available for a fraction of that price, and how many free resources are available on that topic as well, I'd say "highway robbery" is a more accurate descriptor to use here.

So why is the price so high, you wonder? That would be on account of the $470 this publicist pays the affiliate on each sale generated by the affiliate.

If I were to accept this offer and start promoting the program to my readers, and one of those readers who signed up were to later learn HALF the cost she paid for the program went to me as an affiliate advertiser fee, she would feel I'd been dishonest and greedy, and that the publicist had ripped her off. And she'd be right.

How could I possibly stand behind this program as a good value for the money, knowing HALF of that money is going to pay (maybe "bribe" is the more accurate term to use here) affiliates? How could this course possibly be worth $940 if the woman who created it is willing to give away half the purchase price on every sale to an affiliate?

Please let me know if it would be of interest to sample the course to ascertain this match made in heaven: a plethora of magical material tailor-made for the self-published author, coupled with exposure to a large population of our shared target market. A mere 20 sales a month garners a cool six figure side-income- not bad for mailbox money!

This is the passage that troubles me the most about the email because there are plenty of desperate and greedy people out there in the online bookish world who will immediately accept this invitation, start promoting the hell out of the program, and have no ethical qualms about it at all.

These are some tough economic times and as a single mom raising two kids, one of whom is heading off to culinary school this fall, I could definitely use the additional income. But I won't line my pockets by emptying the pockets of people who trust me.

...my follow-up tradebook, [Title] ...This industry textbook is chock full of secrets about which PR firms never want their clients to know. In and of itself, [this book] is worth thousands of dollars. However, I also sell it independently for $295 because our goal is to help the self-published author achieve at an affordable price-point.

I wouldn't say $300 is "an affordable price-point" for a BOOK. At least, not unless there's a cashier's check for at least $250 bound into it. And given that elsewhere in the email she says she throws this book in for free when someone buys the $940 program, it's hard to believe it's really worth anything near $300.

So I'm going to reply to this woman with a fairly curt, "No," and invite her to read this blog post if she wants to know why I'm not taking her up on "this match made in heaven", and why I'm not anxious to start working on that six-figure side income.

My integrity is not for sale.

Monday, December 30, 2013

On Breaking Up With An Author: An Open Letter To Stephen King

I originally posted this open letter to Stephen King on my Facebook page, but it generated such a lively and sometimes heated discussion that I've decided to share it here. Let me preface what you're about to read by saying I've been a big fan of Stephen King going all the way back to Carrie. Granted, I was only 8 years old when that first book was published, but I started in on King at the age of 13 or so and happily devoured everything he had to offer well into my 20's. Whenever I wanted a good, old-fashioned scare from the type of book I didn't dare read alone at night, King was my go-to source.

In 1999 King was hit by a car and needed an extended period of convalescence. He even spoke publicly about the possibility of retiring. It didn't last, he came back in 2006 with Cell, and he's continued to release new novels, essays and other works since. And I haven't liked a single one of the novels he's written since his return. Book after book, year after year, he continues to disappoint me and make me regret having given him the benefit of the doubt (and my time and money) yet again.

With that said, here's my open letter.

- - - - -
Dear Stephen King:
It was a lovely reader-author relationship while it lasted, but it's been over for at least a decade and it's time for me to move on. I think it's really wonderful that you've found faith and feel that it, and sobriety, have turned your life around. I just don't enjoy the fact that those two things have become the central themes of virtually every piece of fiction you've written since you discovered them.

I came to you looking for truly frightening, taut, dark and edgy supernatural horror that explored the limits of human strength and character in the face of pure, inexplicable evil. But you haven't been writing that kind of material for a very, very long time and what you have been writing has been so self-indulgent, maudlin and overwrought that's it's difficult for me to believe you even have an editor anymore.

I held out hope that with Dr. Sleep, your long-awaited sequel to The Shining, you would return to form at last. I was wrong. It's less a supernatural horror thriller than an overlong, overwritten examination of sad-sack, grown-up, recovering alcoholic Danny filling in as your usual Christ figure as he takes on your recently-typical cadre of banal baddies.

Again and again you write these characters who are supposed to seem boringly ordinary on the surface yet filled with a churning malice and menacing hunger to destroy and subsume, but they turn out to be boringly ordinary through and through. Selfish and grasping, sure. But not remotely alien or deeply disturbing in the manner of the bad guys from your earlier books, like Black House and The Stand.

So, this is goodbye. I will always remember the good books fondly, and know you'll be just fine without me.

Sadly,
Me.

- - - - -

It wouldn't be right for me to reprint the discussion that followed on Facebook, but I can share one of my follow-up comments by way of further explaining what my primary issue with King's more recent work is:

- - - - -

See, if King wants to switch it up and write character studies, that's fine. It's a departure from what made him a bestselling and beloved author, but it's his right and many a creative type has branched out into other types of work and found a NEW audience with great success. But King's publishers just keep on banging that "Master of Horror!!" drum on every book he releases and forcing every new book of his into the "thriller" category (no matter how much the book DOESN'T fit that category), to try and hold on to the old audience, when they know very well the new book is NOTHING like the stuff the old audience originally came for.

I am part of that old audience, and I don't turn to King for character studies, historical fiction or coming of age stories. IMO, there are already plenty of other authors who do those things FAR better than King, and if I want those kinds of stories I'll go to those other authors. What (IMO) King was best at was the supernatural horror-thriller, with evil that's not grounded in any system of religion or morality, but just IS. The fact that it was totally unpredictable, illogical and inexplicable is what made it so scary: if you can't explain or predict it, how can you avoid such evil in real life? There was no soft landing with the old King, there was no "we all learned something today" moment. And that's what made it so great, IMO. It was nihilistic. But once King himself stopped being nihilistic, so did his work. Great for the man, bad for the work.

- - - - -

As I state in my open letter, King will be just fine without me. There are literally millions of readers out there who are still buying and loving his work, but I will no longer be among them.

I'm disappointed to see the novels of King's son, Joe Hill, going down that same overwritten, poorly edited, more-character-study-than-horror road. Hill's Locke and Key graphic novels (with illustrator Gabriel Rodriguez) and his Heart Shaped Box were right in line with what I loved about the Stephen King of old. But Hill's supposed horror-thriller Horns is about 60% backstory/character study/coming of age tale, and his NOS4A2 suffers from the same problems of repetition and authorial navel-gazing as his father's more recent works.
 

So what can I learn from this experience as an author?

Well, I haven't released any new fiction in a very long time. But I guess my author takeaway is this: if I choose to break with my usual style or genre(s), I have to expect I will lose at least some of my original readership. If I'm no longer giving them what they came for, I can't expect them to keep coming back.

Also, if I should ever be lucky enough to become a bestselling author, I should do everything in my power to ensure I've got editors who are brave enough to be as ruthless with my work as they would be with a manuscript from any first-time author. In my opinion, King's novels have been crying out for a quality edit going all the way back to Cell, and regardless of his changes in tone and content, a quality edit could've vastly improved every novel he's released since his return to publishing.

Finally, categories matter. I should never categorize my books according to what I think will sell without regard to their actual genres, because it makes readers angry when they feel you've basically tricked them into buying a book they didn't want.


Happy trails, Mr. King. Your work will always be part of the canon of my youth.



Monday, December 9, 2013

Don't Be Too Quick To Shut Down That Author Blog

As many of you already know, my Publetariat site was offline entirely for close to two months in the early part of this year, and then it was back online but laying more or less fallow for several more months while my work continued behind the scenes to ensure the site was secure and functioning properly.

Now that I've got it up and running again, with new material being posted there five days a week, I've discovered that many of the sites and blogs I used to visit when searching for possible content to share on Publetariat have disappeared.

I suspect many of those missing site and blog owners eventually threw in the towel because they felt they didn't have the time or energy to keep adding new material on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis, and having been repeatedly admonished to do so, felt there was little point in keeping the site or blog going if they couldn't live up to that requirement.

Giving up was a mistake.

As you may have noticed, I don't post here daily, weekly, nor even necessarily monthly. I post when I have something to say that I think is worth sharing, and frankly, it just doesn't happen all that often.

Don't get me wrong: I am most certainly NOT saying that people who DO post daily, weekly, et cetera are just flapping their gums for no good reason. Plenty of bloggers have a lot of interesting, valuable, educational, or even just amusing stuff to post on a regular basis, and I applaud them for being so prolific.

But even if you're like me, only posting as time allows and when inspiration strikes, it's still worth keeping your blog up because longevity has intrinsic value on the internet. Here's how the cycle works:

The longer your blog is up, the more legitimate and "trustworthy" it looks to Google and other search engines. The more search engines "like" and "trust" your blog, the higher (closer to the top) its posts come up in search results.

The higher your blog's posts come up in search results, the more exposure you get. The more exposure you get, the more traffic you get. The more traffic you get, the more people you get sharing links to your blog. The more traffic and links you get, the more legitimate and trustworthy you look to search engines.

And the cycle repeats, ad infinitum.

What all of this means is, even if you're NOT posting fresh content on a frequent basis, the mere fact that your blog exists---and continues to exist, year in and year out---is helping to cement and build your author platform by improving your search rankings.

Even when I'm not posting new stuff here, people keep coming every single day from web searches and by following direct links to stuff I've posted here previously.

Of course, posting fresh content regularly will always help to drive more traffic and get your books more exposure. So if your goal is maximum sales, the laidback, infrequent posting approach won't work for you.

But if you're considering shutting down your site or blog merely because you don't currently have the time or energy to update it regularly, DON'T. Someday you may again have the necessary time and energy, and until then, your "resting" blog is still building traffic and credibility for you. Given that it can take years to build a following and reach respectable web traffic numbers, why on Earth would you want to throw away the equity you've already built?

Let your blog lie fallow if that's what you need to do right now, but don't shut it down if there's even the tiniest possibility you'll want to blog again in the future.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Goodreads Review Policy Changes

As part of a recent policy update, Goodreads implemented the following change:

**Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.

Apparently, lots of Goodreads members are very angry about this and many are going so far as to cancel their Goodreads accounts.


Pick A Side, Any Side

On the one side are the authors, who feel reviews focused primarily on the author rather than the book, or which include allegations of plagiarism, are inherently unfair. Admittedly, some authors try to retaliate against those who post negative reviews even when the review is solely focused on the book's content, and because of this many Goodreads members are afraid to post negative reviews at all.

On the other side are the reviewers, who feel they have a right to know when authors behave badly, when authors retaliate against reviewers, or when there are allegations of plagiarism in connection with a given book.

Some authors say they are under personal attack from reader-reviewers who misuse the Goodreads platform, and that false claims being posted about them are causing real damage to their sales and careers. Some reader-reviewers say they are just as much, if not more, under attack from authors. There have been reports of reader-reviewers being harassed on sites outside of Goodreads, having their personal contact information exposed online, or even being hacked as "punishment" for a negative review.

Before I get into my lengthy analysis---sorry, but it's a quagmire and there's a lot to look at---, let me state first of all that since I am an author myself some people will undoubtedly think I have an agenda here and I'm automatically going to take the authors' side, but that's not true. I think the majority of reviewers, just like the majority of authors, aren't guilty of any wrongdoing here. Rather, it seems to me the bad behavior of a vocal minority on both sides is spoiling things for everyone.

I don't doubt the reports of extremely inappropriate, even literally criminal in some cases, behavior on the part of some authors. However, I also know there are a few bad-egg reader-reviewers out there who are more interested in power-tripping than in providing fair and informative reviews, and some who even take pride in destroying a new book's, or an author's, prospects.


Peeling Back The Layers

When it comes to complex issues like this, where there is no obvious "right" answer, nor a solution that will satisfy all sides, I try to go back to basics by removing the specifics that people seem to think makes a given situation fraught with uniqueness when really, it's not. Once all of the emotionally-charged "specialness" is gone, it's easier to simply apply logic. Here are my considerations, and conclusions.

First, what if we were talking about professional, mainstream reviewers instead of Goodreads reader-reviewers? Professional, mainstream book reviewers never (to my knowledge) base their reviews of books on author behavior, and if author behavior is ever mentioned in a mainstream book review at all, I think it's a pretty rare occurrence. This would seem to support Goodreads' choice to eliminate all review and shelf content that hinges on author behavior, merely on the grounds that such statements aren't a proper use of a book review platform in the first place.

Second, if we already draw a clear, legal delineation between opinion/free speech and libel why can't we just apply that same, pre-existing paradigm here?  We already have a legal definition of what constitutes libel, and since libel is illegal, site owners should always have the right (maybe even the responsibility) to remove libelous content, regardless of who posted it.

As the administrator of numerous websites myself, I know all too well the necessity of erring on the side of caution when it comes to deleting potentially libelous member posts. If the target of such posts makes a libel claim, that claim can name site owners and administrators as liable parties in a lawsuit. So here again, I'd be in agreement with Goodreads' decision to unilaterally delete all such questionable content.

Third, I've been witness to plenty of false allegations that quickly gathered steam and spread like wildfire all over the 'net, so it doesn't seem right to just let reader-reviewers post their various claims as facts with zero oversight. Not everyone can be trusted to verify whatever allegations they've heard, it seems most people will just pass the allegations on; this is how internet urban myths are born. Another point in favor of disallowing the 'author behavior' reviews and shelves.

Again, I'm not saying attacks against reader-reviewers are ever justified, but I think it's important to acknowledge that placing limits and controls on abusive or irresponsible reader-reviewer behavior is just as important as placing limits and controls on abusive or criminal author behavior.

Fourth, what if we were talking about consumer reviews of a product other than a book? Here again, I don't recall seeing many mentions of inventor, CEO, company or spokesman behavior in product reviews as any kind of justification for a bad review. The closest I can think of is negative app reviews where the reviewer accuses the developer of posting sock puppet reviews or collecting excessive personal information through the app.

Personally, I've always found those reviews to be abusive of the review system since they usually make little or no comment on the app itself. Why shouldn't the same standard apply to book reviews? The reader is supposed to be reviewing the book, not the author. Once more, I think Goodreads has a leg to stand on in choosing to bar 'author behavior' reviews, statements and labels based on its 'proper use' policy.

Finally, while I agree it's fair for reader-reviewers to share their personal opinions about matters other than a book's specific content, due to the libel and false allegation issues, I think all such sharing should be handled more privately or entirely off-site from sites like Goodreads and Amazon. Some reader-reviewers have said they really want to know if there's a suspicion of plagiarism or criminal author behavior, because such information truly can guide purchase decisions. However, given the enormous and somewhat anonymous nature of the internet, it's unreasonable to expect site owners and administrators to fact-check every allegation made in any of the tens of thousands, or even millions, of posts on their sites. Yet if they do no fact-checking and let potentially libelous allegations remain in place on their sites, they can be held liable in a legal proceeding.


My final conclusion is that the Goodreads policy change is both fair and appropriate, given the risks Goodreads faces if it allows the 'author behavior' content to remain.

Reader-reviewers who feel unreasonably constrained by the changes at Goodreads do have another option: they can always start their own blogs for posting 'author behavior' information, and shoulder the potential for legal liability themselves. I suspect that after a couple of cease-and-desist orders from attorneys, they might feel quite differently about this matter.