Reading and reviewing, then and now

by Sunita

Robin’s op ed post this week has generated a lot of conversation, more than any of us expected. She asked if reviewing in romanceland was still fun. There was a torrent of response, and a lot of the response from readers and reviewers centered around their increased apprehension in posting critical reviews (which is anything that results in a rating under 4 stars). Some authors who commented expressed resentment at getting lumped in with the badly behaving ones, and some were taken aback by the level of frustration and even animosity readers showed in the thread.

It’s a topic that gets discussed a lot these days, but one thing that struck me about this thread, which was reinforced in private discussions, was the sense among those who’ve been in traditional romancelandia for a decade or more that the climate is worse today than it’s ever been. Not everyone feels this way, of course; some long-time residents basically said “eh, same old, same old.” But a lot didn’t, and I agree with the people who think it’s really bad these days.

First, the required caveat: there have always been terrible reviewers and there have always been speshul snowflake authors. And there have always been fangirls. The earliest days of The Romance Reader and All About Romance are replete with incidents of authors and their loyal followers going after critical reviews of books, reviews that were labeled unfair, biased, etc. But over the years, say the early to mid-2000s, this kind of behavior slowly became considered inappropriate. Authors reined in their fans, or the fans kept their ranting against reviewers confined to author boards. You could have huge debates (remember Alyssa Tracy and whoever she wound up with instead of the guy she was supposed to wind up with in that Brockmann book?), but it wasn’t just fangirls v. everyone else, it was also reader v. reader. As it should be.

Then the KDP Doctrine was announced and the Manifest Destiny of everyone’s ability and to publish their Great American Novel came into being, and the expanding frontier led to the Wild Indie West we live in now. (Sorry. Horrible metaphor is over, you can stop wincing.)

And now we have a situation where, as Noelle Adams put it in the pithiest and most accurate summary I’ve seen anywhere,

There has always been an elusive factor in publishing success, but it’s never been as elusive as it is now. I shopped romances with publishers for fifteen years without success, and I was convinced (and still am) that it wasn’t a quality issue that was holding me back. I did, however, have some sort of an explanation for it–my writing didn’t fit the established patterns and expectations publishers were looking for. I really think the market was more knowable back then. But, more and more, it defies explanation for why some books are successes and some aren’t, and I think this just feeds writers’ desperation, which in turn leads to fewer boundaries on behavior, which in turn leads to a difficult climate for book lovers.

In the bad old days, when no agent would sign you and The Man in New York City refused to publish your quality novel, an author knew who to blame. Now, when you publish your own work and it sinks like a stone, the only person to blame is the one uploading the ebook to Amazon, so authors do everything they can to find ways to increase their book’s discoverability and they become desperate if they see something that they think will hurt it. And they believe a lot of what other authors tell them, because no one has good, reliable data that explains success and failure.

And that’s where reader reviews come in. Epinions has a lot to answer for, because now leaving a rating, review, or other type of evaluation is second-nature to a lot of consumers. Every online retail portal I can think of encourages it and it takes work to avoid rating things you use, from apps to vacuum cleaners to books.

But some authors have been told that anything that isn’t an outright rave rating tanks their sales prospects. So in addition to reciprocal positive reviewing and even buying reviews, they take issue with reviews they think will hurt them. Obviously not every author does this. But enough do it that reviewers are skittish.

I’ve reviewed at Dear Author for four years, which isn’t that long, but it’s during the rise of the self-publishing juggernaut, and over that time I have seen the change in the balance between authors who grit their teeth and complain in private, and those who sail into reader conversations to tell them what they screwed up. And more and more readers argue with reviews as well. The overall effect, for me, is exhaustion. Why am I doing this again?

Reviewing is now fraught with potential unpleasantness in a quite different way than it was before. Before, readers might disagree with me and tell me I was wrong, but the pushback was about the book. Now I worry about friends of the author, people with a vested interest in self-publishing, and a more general circle of authors and fans who see any critical (in the critique sense) of reviewing as counter-productive to the Great Goals of Discoverability and Sales Success.

And this affects blogging as well. When there was the uproar around Dear Author’s rules for commenting last year, a number of regular commenters left. I remarked to friends that I hoped someone would start up a blog that would compete with DA and SB, that they had been major players for a long time in internet terms and it was time for a challenge. After all, that’s how DA and SB started, because readers were dissatisfied with the main venues then. But it didn’t happen. Love in the Margins is a valuable addition to the blogosphere, but it is by design a more narrowly focused blog. I subscribe to it and you should too, but it isn’t intended to be a general-interest romance blog.

What we’ve seen come up are blogs like LITM, with a specific purpose, or blogs that are personal and more idiosyncratic (like Jessica’s blog or Liz’s blog or Brie’s blog or a dozen other excellent ones I’ve linked to in my blogroll). I love those blogs. I subscribe to many of them. But where are the general blogs? Where is the m/m blog to replace Jessewave? Where do we have the spirited 100+ comment conversations that have characterized romland discourse for so long, and that many of us value a lot?

I worry that general interest review sites just aren’t worth the trouble anymore. However much bloggers have ambitions to be “influencers,” as the horrible online vocabulary terms them, blogs are still a lot of work.* The newer blogs I’ve seen that aren’t intentionally limited in their scope tend to be cheerleading blogs. I find this intensely depressing.

To me, the fact that the hole Wave left hasn’t been filled, and the fact that DA and SB (and others such as Bookpushers and SmexyBooks) are still the main players speaks to the change many of us are afraid is happening. There has been churn and movement in romance reviewing for nearly two decades that I know of. Now many of the new blogs are tied to publishers or function as venues for author publicity. Those aren’t the same kind of public good providers. And yes, blogs do provide public goods. You don’t pay to access the content and you don’t have to be anyone in particular to lurk or comment. You don’t even have to give your real name and email at DA.

Whatever you think of the big blogs of today, whether you love them or hate them, they have always provided their content for free (unlike authors, who might provide limited free content to spur sales). And they’re not being sufficiently challenged by like-minded newcomers in today’s online market. We should all worry about that.


*I don’t provide nearly as much content and infrastructural support as Jane, Jayne, and Robin do at DA. But based on the number of posts I wrote last year and behind the scenes tasks, I’d estimate I spent somewhere between 170 and 200 hours directly on DA-related work (I’m not counting the reading time for most of the book reviews). That’s more than a month of full-time employment. J, J, and R put it orders of magnitude more time than I do.

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