TIPM Morning Brief: Friday, September 27th – Heroes, Villians and Statistics

It’s another packed brief of stories making the publishing news headlines over the past few days. Alas, once again the self and mainstream communities of the publishing industry are still fixated on creating heroes and villains in equal measure. The publishing industry has an innate knack of exploring extremities, finger-pointing and looking for scapegoats while deftly ignoring the real challenges and finding solutions to them.

Bullies and Book Reviews

Amazon-owned online reading and review community Goodreads has introduced some new policy changes and it’s the one concerning abusive or author-focussed book reviews posted to the community which has created mixed reaction, from the supportive to the outraged. Here is an extract from the new policy:

“Goodreads is for expressing your honest opinions about books. Don’t be afraid to say what you think about the book! We welcome your passion, as it helps the millions of other readers on Goodreads learn what a book is really about, and decide whether or not they want to read it.
We believe that Goodreads members should see the best, most relevant, thought provoking reviews (positive and negative) when they visit a book page. Our job is to show members those reviews, and not show reviews that we deem to not be appropriate or a high enough level of quality.
However we value that members trust us with your thoughts and words and take our stewardship of storing your reviews seriously. We promise to always store your reviews on your profile and in your bookshelves and will never delete or modify them – except for certain extreme situations, which are described below. Your thoughts and your words are yours, and we promise you we will always respect that.”

Goodreads go on to explain that those ‘extreme situations’ resulting in deletion of reviews and bookshelves will include the following:

“Reviews of the author. Mentioning the author in the context of a review is always acceptable, but reviews that are predominantly about an author’s behavior and not about the book will be deleted.”
“Reviews that attack other reviewers will be deleted. Statements like “Other reviews have said this book is terrible, but I disagree” are fine, but if the primary purpose of your review is to mock or harass another Goodreads member, we may give it a lower priority or delete it entirely.”
“Reviews that are harassing or threatening, or that contain hate speech or bigotry. These will be deleted outright and anyone posting them risks being removed from the site. “
“Reviews that attack other reviewers will be deleted. Statements like “Other reviews have said this book is terrible, but I disagree” are fine, but if the primary purpose of your review is to mock or harass another Goodreads member, we may give it a lower priority or delete it entirely.”

Even before Goodreads posted to members about the revised policy changes, community members reported that administrators were already busy swinging the axe on what they deemed abusive or violating their policy. In a flash member bookshelves were cleared of any offending stains and comments were given the bin instead of a warning or steam wash. The budding literary critics of Goodreads stood aghast at this.
Perhaps it was a case of Goodreads taking a sledge hammer to crack an egg or two, but there are still quite a few authors welcoming of the policy change, in essence, because 30 or more authors, including Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath and Melissa Foster have been accussed of buying fake book reviews. Foster addressed her Facebook follower with the following:

“Yes, I am aware that there is a horrible post circulating about me and 30+ other prominent authors stating that we buy fake reviews and other such nonsense. While I normally ignore these sorts of libelous slams, the **cowardly** anonymous poster has previously threatened me and a number of other authors via Goodreads’ private message system. He has since been banned from that platform, and GR has put a cyber bullying policy in place. This person is probably more dangerous than the typical troublemaker.”

“When you’re prominent, you attract haters, some of whom have no problem inventing scandal when none exists. I find myself in the company of basically every legit successful indie author out there (on his list), and consider myself flattered. I thought I’d never see myself mentioned alongside Hugh Howey, HM Ward, Joe Konrath, and a myriad others, for whom I have nothing but respect. (Gotta spin this positive, right?)”

The post Foster is referring to has appeared on a number of newly set up mirror sites supposedly written by an inside industry marketing guru in the know. Of course, whether you believe some authors buy fake reviews or not, making such claims publicly does require some substantive evidence and the aforementioned post contains nothing of the sort.
Much of the feverous debate on Goodreads in recent weeks appears to have sparked Goodreads into axe-mode in a bid to clean up rogue and abusive comments through posted reviews, though I suspect the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater. Goodreads did later concede that it should not have deleted material posted to the site and community before alerting members to the policy changes. But the real issue here is when you draw up a policy that says book reviews must primarily focus on the book, not the author, you are attempting to draw a line in a non-absolute world. Of course, any comment or review, if it is abusive or threatening to the authors or community members should be deleted. It’s not rocket science to spot those and act accordingly with a warning or site ban, but attempting to curtail reviews deemed to be about author behaviour per se is like trying to reinvent literary criticism or the wheel.
The Return of Franzenstein!
In the past week there has been much reaction to Jonathan Franzen’s piece in the Guardian UK – What’s wrong with the modern world? – a rather luddite inspired middlebrow snipe about technology and the age of social media. Mike Shatzkin on Idea Logical took a more tempered view, examining how technology changes behaviour. Shatzkin didn’t feel the need to ask Franzen to step outside before administering a damn good thrashing of the author. David Gaughran, over on Let’s Get Digital, had to figuratively have his grip released from Franzen’s lapels on several occasions. From the opening paragraph of Gaughran’s piece, The Hilarious Hypocrisy of Jonathan Franzen, someone was definitely about to get a damn good thrashing and it wasn’t Gaughran. Franzen was writing in the Guardian as part of the build up to the release of The Kraus Project on October 1st in the UK.

“Take his attitude to reviews. One of the (many!) things Franzen is decrying about the modern world is the forthcoming extinction of “responsible book reviewers.” Of course, responsible here means a reviewer for a print publication which restricts itself to straight white male authors of serious literary fiction, published by a small selection of approved publishers. The silver service at the top table is being rudely disrupted in other ways too. Franzen is also worried about the health of bookstores and the impending demise of the “Big Six” publishers.”

… and Gaughran continues in a relentless pursuit of his opponent around the ring with stinging shots, right, left … landing several body shots … The referee warns Gaughran to keep his shots up higher.

“Franzen’s reflexive Neo-Luddism means he sees “the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers” where I see more writers than ever before making a living from selling books thanks to the internet. But Franzen can’t see that because, to him, e-books aren’t real books, self-publishers don’t count, and I suppose none of us are writing serious literature anyway.”

Franzen’s corner look worried. They know the bell isn’t for another two minutes. But Franzen comes back fighting with the help of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse …

“Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.”

But it may be too little too late for Franzen. He’s looking tired and running out of new ideas to combat Gaughran’s southpaw literary stance …

“Franzen fears a future where readers exclusively decide what to purchase based on, he says, easily gamed Amazon reviews, but has no problem with the long-standing payola practices of his publishers (all of ‘em) in paying for placement on book-chain front tables, position on bookstore bestseller lists, and entrance into celebrity endorsed book clubs.”

Franzen wasn’t expecting that one! He looks to his corner. His corner look back at him, towels in hand. Wait! Gaughran isn’t quite finished yet.

“One of the most enjoyable aspects of Twitter is sharing information and making connections with people. And the most effective way to do that is simply by having conversations. But I suspect Franzen doesn’t like conversation either, as it implies two people talking, and he probably only likes the sound of one particular voice. His own.”

It’s over! Franzen won’t get up from the canvas after that one. Franzen just didn’t see that last one coming, though my ringside colleague insists it’s more to do with him not wanting to hear it coming. HarperCollins are in Franzen’s corner, head in hands. They can’t believe this. Franzen looked a certainty on print paper with all his training and track record. But you’ve got to adapt to different styles. You can’t just come to the ring and expect to box the same way and always win.

The State of Independence 2014

No, this isn’t a political draft paper for the future. This is a ‘report’ gaining some coverage in the publishing media this week. Except that it is not exactly what it seems at first. This appeared on Mediabistro’s Appnewser, as well as a number of media websites over the past few days, declaring: The Self-Publishing Market: $52 Billion Game Changer. That’s a hell of a lot of money and will encourage the self-publishing community that the future looks so bright, it’s time to reach for the shades.
Real and substantiated data on the self-publishing industry is vital, yet still extremely hard to come by, because much of the data produced on the publishing industry comes from traditional publishers reporting data to Nielsen in the UK and Bowker in the USA. So much of what is published now is made available through online sales channels and does not always fit easily for data gathering into the norms of how the industry once gathered data. So any new report or study that examines the impact self-publishing is having on the industry is always welcome, just as long as that data is reliable and comes through properly recognised sources. Otherwise we are back to the age old problem of simply leading data to the interpretation of marketers. You can take any set of data and present it whatever way you want to underline a sales strategy.
The self-publishing report State of Independence 2014, is a case in point. It was produced by New Publisher House, a self-publishing service company, which still has to be launched, founded by Australian media and technology businessman, James O’Toole. You can also find out a little more about his background here. The report can be downloaded here, but only its summary points. In other words, we still don’t know how or where the data was correlated from to arrive at the following declarations:
  • The US self-publishing market represents $52 billion in untapped revenue
  • 8 times the number of mainstream published new titles are self-published
  • Aspiring self-published authors with completed manuscripts outnumber published authors 100 to 1
  • Public domain reprints have fallen 300% in 2 years
Take careful note of the ‘untapped’ reference above in the $52 billion revenue figure. Does that include the services sold to authors in the self-publishing industry, because we are hardly talking about self-published book sales? Also, bear in mind, the largest self-publishing service provider in the world, Author Solutions, recorded just over $100,000 million in sales with a net income of $4.2 million in 2012 before the company was purchased by Pearson Group. These New Publisher House jokers are having a fucking laugh with their figures! 
Currently the report is only partly available and we are told on the New Publisher House website that it will be fully available when the company launches its services fully. Sorry, but that isn’t good enough. You can’t make any such claims and then promptly run away from them. The report states:

“This report examines new data, from sources including Amazon and mainstream publishers, to give an entirely fresh perspective on the state of today’s publishing industry.”

What new data? Publishers share their data with Nielsen and Bowker, in a limited way, just as Google and Amazon share data in a very limited way. Are we really to believe that James O’Toole and New Publisher House has got hold of exclusive data none of the rest of the industry had already? I don’t think so, unless of course New Publisher House conducted their own survey of the industry. And to carry out a fully accurate survey that really examines the impact self-publishing is having on the wider industry, you would the cooperation of many publishers, retailers and industry bodies unwilling to this share data.
Interestingly, I found this hidden page on Google listing New Publisher House on Indiegogo, now listed as invalid, but suggesting the company was looking for crowdsource backing some 7 months ago. Hardly the most convincing start for a company run by an internet pioneer and technology expert – James O’Toole.
Perhaps the best thing New Publisher House could do is disclose the full report with proper data support if they feel they are doing something revolutionary in the author services industry. Until then, I rather take what comes with a pinch of salt.

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