The online book world has opened an entirely new universe of opportunities, particularly for debut novelists who otherwise must struggle to get noticed in the overpopulated physical world, where chain store co-op runs out after two weeks and newspaper reviews are dwindling. Online, there are now hundreds of eager, enthusiastic bloggers who run book sites, most of whom are indifferent to how much marketing support your book got from your publisher. There are forums dedicated to every possible genre; there is Library Thing; Good Reads; Shelfari; YouTube features book trailers and author podcasts; and writers can host their own blogs as a platform to introduce their wares. In summary, the internet has become an indispensable vehicle for getting the word out about books.
In fact, web-based book promotion has become such a rage that even amazon.com has gotten into the game, offering authors a unique place to blog on the Biggest Online Book Seller in The World. Amazon.com has always been an equal opportunity capitalist, where the self-published, indie-published, and big-house published mingle freely and every-day readers can post reviews. It’s truly exhilarating to witness the breakdown of the old guard; no longer must a writer despair because the NY Times has bypassed his or her book for review. No longer do an elite few hold vigil over the gates, selecting those few special offerings that deserve their coverage and consigning the rest of the multitude onto the ARC discard heap.
Writers have always walked a delicate balance when it comes to reviews. By their very nature, a review is subjective. It’s one opinion, whether that person is the illustrious William Safire or Kmart Lady. Of course, Mr Safire is arguably better qualified to present his opinion, given his career, while Kmart Lady is an average reader, who knows what she personally likes in a book. One hopes Mr Safire will judge a book not only by its written merits, but also on its contribution to the canon, to society, to the readership it aspires to reach. After all, reviewing a book professionally is about looking beyond one’s personal taste: critical reviewing, it can be said, is as much an art form as writing itself. The best critical reviewer, the professional who gets paid to do it, should evaluate a book not by what he or she personally likes but by the standards that have been set, i.e., is this particular book well written and does it successfully accomplish its objectives within its specified category. If so, why? If not, why not? Negative or positive, a review should be a candid accessment of a book's merits or its shortfalls; personal taste, when it comes to play, should be kept in close check.
Fiction has always been tricky to review, however, because it is personal, crafted to elicit an emotional response. And here is where the intoxicating freedom of the internet can turn ugly, for as in all utopian playgrounds, bullies will emerge; and on amazon.com, bullying authors has become a blood sport. With so many non-paid readers jumping onto the review circuit, there is much to be said for their opinions. We all look at those five-star and one-star reviews when determining whether to purchase a book online and quite often those readers have something valid to say. Are we actually swayed by them? Aspiring reviewers seeking the sobriquet of Top Amazon Reviewer (designated by a clickable blue line under their name) want us to be. Desperately. They want as many helpful clicks on their reviews as possible, so they can rise above the furor and . . . well, it’s not quite clear exactly what they will achieve except for that dubious clickable distinction, but they still fight for it as much as any professional reviewer will fight to be published on the front page of the NY Times Sunday Book Section.
And so, a select few of these otherwise unknowns, who often operate under assumed names and hide behind cute animal avatars, have taken to attacking authors for a variety of reasons, often unsupported by any actual evidence. They gather up minions of followers to click helpful on their reviews even if said minions have never even read, much less purchased, the book in question; they accuse authors who dare step into the fray to question their antics of being hostile, unable to take criticism, of having their friends post gushing reviews to mislead readers, and then embark on crusades aimed at bringing the author’s ranking tumbling down. Some are even authors themselves, who secretly envy a colleague's success, and use the review and comment sections via an alias to lambast the object of their envy.
Perusing the battle lines being drawn in amazon.com forums and review comment sections can be quite an elucidating, and terrifying, experience. Some of these self-anointed reviewers /commenters are nothing short of back-yard vicious, appearing to delight in the unmasking of one author caught with her proverbial knickers down posting a review of her own book under her spouse’s name – a grievous act, though hardly criminal. They attack en masse another author who challenges them to put their fingers to the keyboard and see if they can write and then get a book published; and they complain about the waste of money spent on self-published books, arguing that said books should carry a label, like concentration camp victims, blissfully unaware that the very freedom the self-published author enjoys at amazon.com also allows these reviewers their little corner of celebrity. Overall, they seem less concerned with honestly expressing their opinion about a book so much as having their opinion heard – as much and as often as possible. They want an audience. And they’ll do anything to get it.
What can writers do? We don’t dare engage them lest we find our amazon page flooded by one-star reviews nor do we dare say aloud what everyone else must be thinking, mainly: Wait a minute. Exactly who is this person and what qualifies them to review any book? We're not supposed to question readers, or, in this case, those who claim to be readers. We're supposed to remain indifferent; we must recognize that not everyone is going to like what we do and if we can't take the heat, we shouldn't be in the kitchen. Though some of the reviews that materialize on our pages like malignant mushrooms would, in any other setting, be worthy of a libel suit, we're not supposed to notice, nor react - at least not where anyone can hear us. So, we sit and stare at the computer screen in horror, wondering what on earth we did to deserve such malice. After all, we just wrote a book. It's not as if we ran over somebody's grandmother with our car.
While the voice of our reader is one every writer should rejoice in, for it means our words were read and deemed important enough to rouse a reaction; and while the internet has now opened a path to millions of people whose sensibilities and passion for books are godsends to writers seeking to reach out, beyond the playground where readers and writers meet is a dark parking lot populated by bullies and sadists, who lie in wait for that one unsuspecting, unskilled author to show his or her hand.
It’s a case of writer, beware.