Friday, June 01, 2007

You Know What They Say About Nice Guys?

I remember, back when I was single, talking to a friend about dating. In our discussion of the subject I said, “I want to marry a guy who’s a bit sinful.”

She just about died laughing – probably because she was already married. My point wasn’t that I wanted to be involved with some criminal or jerk. It was just that a lot of guys who had asked me out were… well… too nice. Of course, I ended up marrying someone who’s an angel. In the yin and yang around here I’m definitely not sweetness and light. I get to feel inferior on a regular basis. So, Evil Kev will likely come on and be the voice of reason in the comment thread. I’m going to go explode elsewhere.

Now, tomorrow is my birthday. Most people take stock around New Year’s, but for me it seems to happen at this time of year. And this week I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about stuff.

It did not start the moment an unsolicited newsletter arrived in my inbox, because initially I assumed I knew how I’d ended up on the mailer. It wasn’t until a message turned up on DorothyL that it became clear that this person had taken email addresses off that listserv and mailed their newsletter to all of them.

I’m not a big fan of spam. I have a strict email policy, and as a rule don’t give out email addresses without consent. Now, if an email address is in the public domain, it’s not an issue. For example, anyone can publicly get two of my email addresses, so I’m not going to flip out if someone passes them along (for personal mail, not for advertisements). Go to Spinetingler, go to my website, and you’ll find them yourself anyway.

But if you’ve been entrusted with a confidential email address you respect that. In any given week I get a number of emails where people want me to forward stuff to authors they can’t get an email address for. And for the most part I maintain a policy about not involving myself with that either. I have to assume that if people wanted to be accessed in that way they’d have an email address they made available, and so if people have questions for authors, etc, they have to find another way to reach them. It is a very delicate balance, one I’ve had to work out for myself over time. I make occasional exceptions… One thing I’ve definitely learned this year is that you’re better off keeping your mouth shut.

So, let’s go back to the unsolicited newsletter. I’m not going to do my complete spam spiel here, other than to say I hate it. There are a lot of general rules of marketing. Here’s one:

1. Know your target audience. And by knowing them it means understanding them. Would someone do an ad for the Calgary Stampede and show people in Oilers T-shirts? Not bloody likely.

How you promote, what you choose to do, to include, etc, will all matter. I don’t even like being pestered by salespeople in stores. I usually make Evil Kev ask for help if needed. When the same number turns up on my call display again and again and again and I answer and hear that click - you know what I’m talking about, that tells you it’s a telemarketer – I hang up. And then I play the hang up game – click answer, count to ten, click end.

I’ve walked right by my front door (and we’re talking screen door they can see through) when salespeople have come around. When the JWs kept bothering me in the garden I changed the day I did yard work that summer so they couldn’t catch me outside…. I hate - passionately and totally – high-pressure sales.

But this seems to be the status quo in the crime fiction community anymore. Maybe in North America, anyway. I always enjoyed Harrogate because I didn’t experience this crap.

Now, one person’s actions this week became a catalyst, but this is hardly all about them. It’s just an example.**

This leads to why I’ve been feeling this week like I don’t belong. When the discussion raged on DorothyL what amazed me were the authors defending this type of action. First of all, it’s illegal (there wasn’t even an ‘opt out’ – how to get removed from this mailing list you didn’t ask to be on in the first place) and anyone who wants to contest that can argue it with Evil Kev, who deals with this stuff all the time. But beyond that, it’s also really presumptuous and invasive. I’ve received three similar adverts this week, from authors. This is about an average week – I’d guess that in a typical month I receive anywhere from 10-20. And I delete them all.

Part of it goes with the territory of doing reviews. (And people wonder why I’m seriously still thinking about not reviewing anymore?) I have had people come up to me when I’ve been signing books at a con and ask me to review their book and offload an ARC on me then. I’ve had people email and ask for a signed bookplate from me, then once they’ve received my letter have used the mailing address to send me their book with a note telling me it’s to review in Spinetingler. How nice. Because I asked for it, said I wanted it, promised to review it? Nope.

I’ve lost reviewers for Spinetingler in the past year because of authors harassing them and violating our reviewing policy, arguing about reviews and trying to go behind my back to get promises of reviews.

I’m seriously thinking about pulling down the review site completely. That may sound harsh, but the entire reason we started this was to help writers. The result is constant pressure and criticism. We can’t review enough books. With the online review site we’ve had a number of people contribute, and they usually send their stuff in in bulk (6-12 reviews at a time). They’re all volunteers, some won’t read books or review books they don’t like. Fair enough – who am I to tell them they have to review books they hate? Certainly not their boss. Then we get criticized because most of the reviews there are positive. Well, that is why we name the reviewer, so readers can get a sense of who they do and do not agree with, in general.

In fact, I’m thinking about changing the policy so that we don’t take books directly from any authors at all. We’re on mailers for Serpent’s Tail, Bitter Lemon Press, Harcourt, Simon & Schuster and ECW and on lists for a few publicists. I’ve got no shortage of books already – in fact, more than I can already review. Why put myself through the headache?

The answer: I don’t have one anymore. This used to be about supporting careers, in some cases giving exposure to books that people otherwise wouldn’t hear as much about, because the new or lesser-known authors aren’t going to get a NY Times review. And so many of the newspapers review the same 36 high-profile authors there are a lot of talented people falling through the cracks.

The way I had it set up was that anyone with a book to review was to email me with a description and a request to send a review copy, and if I had a reviewer I’d get back to them with where to send it. I used to forward the description around to a list of reviewers I had signed on. If someone wanted it I’d email back and tell them where to send it.

This all took a lot of time. I did it, because it was important to protect the volunteers from being harassed, and because they were being put under pressure to promise to produce reviews for one of our issues, and they have no ability to promise what’s going to be in an issue. We juggle that right to the end, depending on the number of profiles and interviews.

Anyway, I’ve taken the long way of showing how, with just one facet of Spinetingler there is an extraordinary amount of time taken up to make it work. And the result has been public criticisms, complaints, whining, constant harassment, somehow my mailing address has been passed around and I’ve gotten books from people I’ve had no contact with…

And it ALL pisses me off. You want to see the demon in me you take advantage of my good nature.

I find myself wondering if I want to participate in contributing to the careers of people like this. It’s a very short walk to the answer. What’s the solution? Pull the plug for everyone? Create a permanent shitlist of people I won’t touch work by?

Actually, the last one carries some weight with me, because life is too short. You know what? I’ll admit it – I haven’t read most of Michael Connelly’s and George Pelecanos’s backlists. I’ve never read Dennis Lehane, Ruth Rendell, James Lee Burke. I’m new to Denise Mina… I’ve never read Ed McBain.

Hell, I could decide to just keep up with my favourite authors and read backlists by greats and not lack for a good book to occupy me for years.

And getting in my face with high-pressure sales just isn’t the way to get on my must-read list.

I am not saying a person can’t talk about their book. Even I do, from time to time. I’m not saying people don’t need to play a part in promotion: Book tours, interviews, signings, etc. are part of the reality anymore, and I’m all for people being inventive and doing some fun promotional activities to drum up interest in authors and the written word in general. But when the emphasis is more on promotion than writing I have no interest in reading the books.

I realize there are problems all the way through the industry. I realize it’s hard to make it in this business. I understand all of that. But it doesn’t excuse people doing anything they want to promote their book. They can do whatever they want, but then they have to face the consequences if others respond negatively, as they might.

Everyone has a responsibility to think through the consequences of their actions and accept the risks.

Now, this collecting of email addresses off DorothyL was what led to the argument presented to me that making spam illegal violated someone’s right to free speech. What the fuck are they on? I have to allow people to spam me and respect their rights? What about mine? I suppose I have to read it all too or I’m not being properly respectful. As Evil Kev said yesterday in the comments it has nothing to do with that – it’s impersonal, bulk mailings. That isn’t free speech, it’s an advertisement. I am under no obligation to sit in front of my tv and watch the commercials. I’m under no obligation to listen to people who come to my door to tell me about the love of Jesus or why the vacuum they’re selling is so great. If I ask them to leave and they don’t I have them arrested for trespassing. You can’t even go stand on a street corner and sell whatever you want – you have to get permits. I mean, seriously, what a completely idiotic basis for defending spam (not to mention that it is illegal).

Oh, and for those regulars around here, I got more spam from that church ministry this week, so this was a very bad week for it.

But more and more, this seems to be the way that it is. The philosophy is he who shouts the loudest wins. It’s ridiculous. I’ve seen authors post comments on forums written in third person so that they can use their name through their post, over and over again, and this is their normal thing.

I don’t believe all publicity is good publicity. There is such a thing as over-saturation. Anyone remember the cola wars from a few decades back? I hated Pepsi, because they were so continuously mean.

Now, I’ve always maintained a person’s blog is their blog and what I say here nobody is forced to come and read. That said, I stop reading blogs that are just one advertisement after another. There isn’t a lack of advertising in my life, thanks.

At some point, authors have to have confidence that the people who read their work will be enthusiastic enough about it to tell others, mention it on lists, blogs, whatever. If anything, I overdue it talking about authors I like, but it is genuine enthusiasm for great work, and that covers a lot of sins. Plus, I mostly do it here, where nobody has to read it. And what do I gain financially? Nothing. That’s why people will forgive it more – there’s sincerity to it.

Evil Kev’s theory is that the farther you are from the praise, the more valid it is. By this, he means that if I talk about how wonderful my book is, it’s rather meaningless. I’m expected to say that. If Evil Kev talks about how wonderful it is (which he has) it’s also pretty meaningless. He’s married to me, and fears for his life.

If a friend talks about the book, we’re moving into grey territory. They might just be being nice, or they might be very sincere. I don’t talk up every book I ever read, and I’ve given negative reviews, and part of the reason (as much as I dislike the public criticism) is that if I never have anything negative to say it makes my compliments worthless. If every review I write is glowing then I’m probably not a very discerning reader. Now, I’m not going to come on here and trash the books in between the greats, but that’s why there are gaps sometimes. And sometimes, I’m just holding on for an issue or for the release, so the timing is sensible.

But it is when people you don’t know, have never communicated with, turn up on your blog and then email and say they enjoyed your book and look forward to the next one that you have a real compliment. That carries more weight than anything else.

As I’ve been thinking about all of this, I’ve been struck by the reality that nice guys finish last. What the heavy-duty, in-your-face, mega-marketers don’t get is that if every author did that, we literally wouldn’t be able to hear ourselves think. Life would be nothing but advertisements, for one thing.

A new book is published every three minutes. Imagine if even half the authors in the world went for their 15 minutes every time a book came out. I’d be hearing overlaps of overlaps of overlaps of adverts and wouldn’t be able to make sense of any of it. Nothing else would ever be posted on blogs or lists – there wouldn’t be time.

You want to know another reason – beyond genuine enthusiasm – that I talk up certain authors? They don’t do it themselves. I loved Steve Mosby’s new book, and he’s one of the least in-your-face guys going. I’m really happy to throw my recommendation behind it because the work deserves it. And because he never asked me to, nor would he. He doesn’t strong-arm or pressure people.

I don’t belong with what passes for the status quo anymore. I –naively – really thought that promoting the work of others was a really good thing. Of course it builds name recognition for everyone who contributes – that’s a reality of it, although when we started it I didn’t have a book deal and never knew if I ever would, so promoting my work wasn’t even in the equation. Still, I felt it was worthwhile putting in the time to help out others.

These days, I’m rethinking it all. Maybe I should get with the program, and just be all about me. After all, I’d have a lot more time to read what I enjoy and to write my own stuff.

And I sure wouldn’t have to put up with the constant headaches and criticisms that go with the territory.

More than anything, I want to say to these blights on the industry that they should be ashamed of themselves. As I said, we’ve lost reviewers over the bad behaviour of some, and when people are volunteering I can hardly blame them. The self-centeredness of some people is ruining things for a lot of others.

For now, I’m keeping a list of names of authors I won’t review work by. Sounds harsh, but it’s the only way I know to try to make sure the nice guys don’t always finish last. And I’ll continue to think over not taking ARCs from authors anymore. Unfortunately, it puts the advantage to those with publishers and publicists who’ve formed a relationship with us… But I am not paying to go to Bouchercon so that I can be seen as a walking wallet and/or dumping source for review copies.

I’d rather stay home than go through that again. I have - and will again if need be - pull profiles of people who treat others like shit, who are pressuring and inconsiderate of interviews/reviewers etc. Anyone who is willing to discard friendship for a better advantage with their promotional efforts can kiss my ass.

I never started writing books to sell my soul, and if you have to be a bad person to make it in this business, then I'd rather not. Thing is, I don't believe that the way to get ahead is by stepping on others. When people see a good movie they want to see another good movie. When people read a good book they want to read another good book. Our energy should be on introducing readers to the right books for them... not just our own stuff. If they become an enthusiastic reader they'll move on and read from a wider pool, and that benefits everyone.

After all, I used to read stuff from other genres, more historical, sci fi, fantasy before I got converted to crime fiction, and look at me. Can't shut me up over what I'm enthusiastic about, but I'm definitely not lending my name - or my free time - to support people who don't support anyone in this business but themselves.

I guess I have less appreciation for being a bit sinful these days. Good thing I married a saint. His graciousness compensates for my grumpiness, I hope.

** (In fact, they emailed and apologized. I took them at face value, decided to accept they were just genuinely enthusiastic about getting word out about their novel, and offered to do a free ad for them in Spinetingler. They never responded, but those who tell me I don’t give second chances can officially go @!*$ themselves.)


angie said...

Rant on, sistah!

Spam sucks. It's illegal (duh), and mostly ineffective. The problem is that it SOMETIMES works, so people keep doing it. I don't get anything close to the volume of SPAM that you do, but I delete a fair amount of BSP/Spam and curse each and every time I do. I also make a mental note about the author - as in "put that one of the NTBR list." Life's short. Plenty of great books by writers who don't annoy the crap out of me.

I hadn't realized the review sitch had gotten so bad with Spinetingler. Sad. I mean, I do understand that it can be difficult to get anyone to just read your damn book, but to harass a reviewer seems...idiotic and counter-productive.

Thing is, most seasoned writers don't do this crap. It's the newbies (and some, ah, "alt-pub'd" ones) who confuse promotion and Spam. Like I said, I get that you want folks to read your book. Spam's just not a very effective way to make that happen.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yup, and I'm 'unfriending' someone who just sent me stuff through Crimespace as well. Guess they've got a couple signings this BEA and in NY. Like I care? I mean, I'm going to fly to NY for their signing? I don't think so.

See, that's the thing - if every author did that every time they had a signing, or a book release, or got a good review there wouldn't be time for anything else.

The people who applauded the author who compiled email addresses off of DorothyL basically tattooed a great big I'm a FUCKING IDIOT sign to their heads. This is nothing that self-published authors haven't already done, and for the love of books, do we want everyone joining lists and discussion groups to do likewise? No.

The authors I considered putting on my shitlist this week were actually those ones - the ones that argued this behaviour was okay. If they don't get it they'll never get it, and since they're okay spamming the whole fucking world they sure don't need my help spreading the world. They're already yapping so much I'm sick of them and their book.

Sounds mean? Too bad. And to the one who said that of course you feel a sense of accomplishment when you do a damn good job and want to toot your own horn - you know, that's why people have Mommies and Daddies and spouses - people who are obligated to tell you you're hot shit.

I'm under no such obligation. That wasn't on the list of conditions for membership when I signed on DorothyL, and this attitude of entitlement - that people have the right to make everything about them and stick their stuff in everyone's face continuously - is why I'm signing off later this month. It's become a list for self-promoters and the few who want to discuss the annual topics, like if it's okay to kill a puppy, and who needs it?

Not me.

Vincent said...

While I think your original policy for Spinetingler was admirable and no doubt helpful for lots of writers, I can't help but read your post and then pick up on what Angie said - life's too short. If you can cut out all that hassle with a blanket 'no review copies from authors' policy, then, much as it seems a shame for all those polite and respectful writers out there, I'd say that's the best option.

JamesO said...

I can't help thinking that the best way for a new author to get recognition is to sing the praises of all the other authors he or she adores. Constantly talking about yourself is a very boring conversational gambit, so why people think it works for marketing, I don't know.

And I got that Crimespace thing too. A bit daft, really, given that it says I live in the UK on the site.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Vincent, I think it's going that way. Of course, it's going the way of me never reviewing at all. Life is too short. It's my free time, I can spend it doing what I want, instead of feeling under constant pressure.

And if anyone thinks it earns you favours, it doesn't. When we needed books signed as prizes last year I emailed a lot of authors (and we were buying the books ourselves, so it was just a moment of their time at a convention I'd see them at anyway) and a lot didn't even respond, never mind indicate they'd be willing to take a moment to sign the books. Yeah, it changes my impression of them.

James, I agree - I feel like I talk about me enough here. I'm pretty bored with me, can we talk about someone more interesting?

You know, if someone really is the hottest thing since sliced bread, chances are the world will already know that.

Evil Kev said...

"I'm pretty bored with me, can we talk about someone more interesting?"

I think that is my cue. As Sandra said, I'm an angel alright: The Angel of Death.

I was thinking and realized something. Look at how simular these two statements are:

"Hey Mom, look at me! Look at me! MOM LOOK AT ME!"

"Look at me, I have a book out! Look at my new book! LOOK AT ME!"

So clearly BSP is linked to a lack of attention by their parents to these authors.

So maybe next time you see some someone yelling about their book, tell them that Mommy's watching, they don't need to yell anymore.

Randy Johnson said...

I understand your frustration with it all and wouldn't blame you a bit for stopping reviews. But I'd hate to see it. I started reading your blog because of your promoting different authors, as well as our common interest in Ian Rankin. I've bought Steve Mosby(all three) and Simon Kernick(two) because of you. And I bought your book primarily because you weren't ceaselessly promoting it. But you have a right to sit back and just relax. So go for it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Evil Kev, so what you're saying is they're mentally unbalanced because they weren't hugged enough as a child?

Randy, I don't think anyone could stop me endorsing books here on my blog. It's my nature to be enthusiastic about what I like. I probably really liked show and tell as a kid (although I don't remember).

I find myself thinking more that if I shut down accepting review copies, and only review books I buy myself, at least I'll eliminate all the headaches. Our reviews will always come out well after the release of the book then, although that doesn't bother me. Thing is, I know that it won't stop the spam, the in-your-face marketing people do at Bouchercon etc.... but it's one less thing for me to be irritated by. So maybe it would be worth it.

Ali Karim said...

Read Dennis Lehane and Mike Connolly.

You'll thank me later, especially Lehane's sHutTEr iSLaNd - it is one of my all time favourite books, it's about life, death, love and insanity - made me buy a strait-jacket...



Sandra Ruttan said...

Ali, I love the not-so-subliminal sHutTEr iSLaNd advert! I have A Drink Before The War here. I'm really impressed with what I've seen of Lehane in terms of The Wire, and that's how I started reading Pelecanos as well, so I know I won't regret it.

And Michael Connelly is a really nice guy, one of the least in-your-face guys out there.

Anonymous said...

Empty vessels make most noise....
P.S. Evil Kev had me in fits of giggles there. (sorry, i know this is a serious discussion).

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh Chelbel, you have no idea how happy that will make Evil Kev! He loves it when people acknowledge how witty is. Possibly his mom didn't hug him enough either... (joking!)

jersey Jack said...

The Mommies and Daddies Hot Shit line was one of your all-timers, although I admit I only joined the F.O.E. in February.

And as for people who piss you off, Hunter Thompson said it best: Let them drink Drano, Sandra. They are not worth your time or anger.

mcewen said...

Sounds a bit like my Dad's philosophy - don't stamp on people's fingers as you climb the ladder of success as you'll surely meet them coming down the other side.
Cheers and thanks for the insight.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Jack, I agree. And keeping that shitlist and just expanding it as necessary is a definite option. I know you'll do a good job representing the F.O.E. next week too.

mcewen, I love that saying. The only people I think deserve a kicking are the ones grabbing your ankles trying to pull you down.

anne frasier said...

it figures we were ranting about the same thing today. :D

Anonymous said...

This post really opened my eyes to the ugly side of the publishing biz. So much pressure is being put on authors to self-promote but it seems that they need an etiquite guide in the form of how not to promote. Maybe it's something you should write.

I was gob-smacked that a author's spouse wrote a rebuttal-that is so disgustingly lame and embarassing, and that people write about themselves in third person-I'm vomitting as I type.

I can understand your frustration. At the end of the day you've got to do what you have to do for your quality of life.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Nope Amra. I can't write it. I've said my bit, repeatedly, plenty of places. I find that the people who buy into the mega-marketing/pushy approach don't/won't listen. See, when you hand sell books from the trunk of your car you take money in hand, and you have this illusion you're making a dent. And you know, I'm not saying that's even always a bad thing - John Grisham did it with his first book and wound up getting a movie deal.

But when you buy into that as a way of life, that's different.

I suppose I may also have a low threshold for tolerance. I don't know. Pressure turns me off. Any short-term gain from pushing me usually turns into long-term resentment.