Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Goodreads, STGRB, and Marketing
Review bullying, arguing, websites like Stop the Goodreads Bullies, and with it personal attacks, threats to reveal personal information online, accusations of illegal behaviors and inappropriate relationships: the list goes on and on and on.
It has reached levels that go beyond just words and is well in the realm of harassment and endangerment if you take them all at complete face value. These are things if done in person would lead, quite likely, to blows or worse, yet they seem to come hard and fast on the internet.
And the obvious reason is: Why?
One word: Marketing.
All business is marketing.
First let's remember that most of the drama attached to GR and reviews is tied to Self Published or Independently Published authors. It's tied to people who, for whatever the reason they have, are going it alone and doing the brunt of the work themselves. It is almost always tied to reviews as they appear on the GR website or on Amazon.com, and on occasion other sites, though those two are the big ones.
So let's talk about that effort but forget writing for a while.
Let's pretend that my friend Bob just opened a new burger joint. He's going on his own, not a franchise and he's self financing all of it. He's the one taking out the loan, paying the rent on the store front, printing up the fliers and the menus, and hiring the staff to run and promote the place.
But he's not going to sell a single burger until he tells people there are burgers to sell. He's not going to sell one item off the menu unless he can convince someone that they are worth the time to come to the burger joint and the money to pay for them. In short:
So Bob gets things going and one day he comes in to see that some one has painted "These burgers suck" on the front window in poster paints." It's easy enough to wash off, of course, and it's probably just some kind of teen age prank. But the damage is already done. There are people who had to have seen it, and it had to be a factor, if even a small one, in whether or not they took the chance on the place.
Now, if Bob has enough money he can Out-market the graffiti. He can pass out some more fliers, and he can give away more free samples. He can get sales back up.
But then one day he comes in and someone has cracked the main window with a rock. There's a nice big crack in the glass running left to right across the storefront. Can he still sell burgers? Yes. Are they same quality burgers? Of course.
Will some people decide not to take a chance on buying the burgers because the store has a broken window? Yep.
And there's a limit on how much money Bob has to keep throwing at repairs and marketing. At some point he's going to be out of money and have to rely on good word of mouth and repeat customers to stay in business.
Only books don't have repeat customers themselves. An author might, but in the seas of available media, that is harder and harder to garnish as far as followings go.
So let's talk about GR, STGRB and all that drama.
A book's page on Amazon or GR is effectively its store front. The description of the book, the author bio, and the cover art are all part of the Marketing Campaign for the book.
And so are the reviews.
At the end of the day, every single review is part of the marketing of the book. They are part of what makes people decide to buy it. They attract readers and they drive them away. To say that they have little impact on what people read isn't accurate nor is it realistic, especially for self published authors. This is why there are "pay for review" programs out there. Oh sure, they say that you're not buying the star rating, and that they'll review any material, fairly, for free. But if you want that review within the next 12 months, you'll pony up the cash for an "expedited" review and get it sooner. And they're usually pretty nice reviews. But why are reviews so critical?
Because they don't have any ~other~ marketing.
A main stream author has things like book tours, signings that people want to attend, talk shows, other authors, and thousands if not millions of dollars thrown into the mix for marketing. They also have a brand that is established, where one or two kurfuffles really are easily drowned out by everything else out there. Even when things go pear shaped, they can easily rise out of it by the sheer critical mass of their fan base.
For a new writer who is starting out there is none of that. All of their marketing money is focused, usually, on getting eyes on their Amazon page, their GR page, or their homepage. A bad review in those locations is effectively like having graffiti painted on the front of the store or having a rock thrown through your front window. There is no other way around it.
Mathematically when you have hundreds of a reviews, one or two does little. But when you have four reviews, that one negative can destroy your average.
Now I know that many people will insist that they don't read reviews, and for those who say so, I believe them. However for every one person who makes a point of saying that, there are 10 more who will not even consider an independent author with anything less then a 4.75 average simply because "why risk it?" At the end of the day there are countless new authors trying to make a break in the world, and they can find someone who will have a near perfect average just as easily. It's the nature of the beast.
So what's this got to do with drama?
Going back to the store, think about the emotional state of Bob as he comes in and sees the vandalism. Consider the frustration at having all that hard work smashed in a single night. It is completely rational to realize that these things do happen. It is rational to just repair the glass and resume marketing the business.
But at this point rational thought is hard to find because emotional reactions start to well up. This burger joint is an investment. Thousands of dollars worth. And here someone is actively trying to destroy it, to hamper it, and in doing so putting the entire affair at risk. Maybe it's based on a legitimate concern about the quality of the product. Maybe they really don't like burgers at all, or at least they don't like the way he makes them. Whatever the reason, the graffiti, the broken glass, whatever is done to mar the store front is going to have an impact on sales, and it's going to encourage an emotional reaction out of Bob.
And that risk goes past the burger joint. What's going to happen to Bob's family when the business goes belly up?
So granted, a review is meant to be a review. It's meant to be someone's impression of a work and if they think other people should buy it or not. But it should also be honest.
I understand, though I do not condone, people taking reviews very very personally. They are trying to feed their families with this work. They are trying, desperately, to get as much marketing as they can get going so that people will buy their product. But every bad review, deserved or not, hurts that effort. It's Anti-Marketing.
I have a family member who is in Marketing and he shared an ancedote he heard in college. Making this truly third hand, he had been told that car dealers would go out, buy a rival's car, and then leave it abandoned on the side of the road along a busy stretch of highway. This would give the impression that this new car had broken down and thus was unreliable. That vehicular billboard would sit there with thousands upon thousands of eyes on it, racing past daily, saying "Don't buy this car." The alternative? Well, the other guy's of course.
I also very much empathize with people who go off the rails when the reviews are not honest or fair. "I usually hate Sci Fi and this book is another example of why." If that's the case, why'd you read it? What do you expect someone to do when you paint "this burger sucks" on the front of their store when you are, yourself, a vegan? More than anything I think that websites such as GR and Amazon have done a poor job of policing this because it is, frankly, hard to police. However, the "review about something other than the book" is probably the most drama-inducing of the kinds of things that can come up. There is so much room for things to go off the rails as it becomes about what the reader likes, what the book is about, and the genre more than it is about the quality of story, the quality of writing and so on. It is much easier for someone to get emotional and irrational when a 2 star review is as much about a dislike of Vampire Fantasy than when it is about the fact that main character is as flat as the nation's employment numbers.
While I don't have any real fix or suggestion I do think that the "problem" is real and more importantly that it's not just going to go away on its own. In the era of self-publishing more and more writers are putting up a larger and larger personal stake in their works. They're going from having a BBQ party for friends and family once a month to trying to open their own burger joints and taking financial risks along the way.
These risks involve great deals of money and time spent on marketing, marketing that can be competely undone in a matter of moments by a bad review or two, bad reviews that may or may not be deserved. And then we all seem surprised when things go completely irrational.
This is the new era of publishing. This is the future.