Friday, February 01, 2008

The Fallacy of Internet Intimacy

*And author marketing stupidity and why you should think twice before joining groups, a false statement about me in print and subsequent review conflict of interest issue for me.

MySpace. Facebook. Library Thing. Forums galore – author forums, general discussion forums… too many to name.

On the one hand, the internet serves the purpose of freeing us from the confines of our locale. I am not limited to discussing books with my neighbours, thankfully. The world is at my fingertips, and I can connect with people in Austria, Germany, France, Indonesia, Australia, Holland… wherever… who share my interests.

However, much of our contact with others isn’t substantive. It’s superficial. On average, people write and mail fewer actual letters, settling for the quick and easy convenience of e-mails. The problem is, the communication is usually reduced to the form, being brief and superficial, or addressing one specific reason that prompted the contact. We no longer enjoy the pages filled with the latest news and thoughts of the sender – something I greatly enjoyed with people for many years (ahem) 20 or so years ago. In fact, I still have a box of those letters.

I haven’t signed up for MySpace or Facebook. I can’t stomach the idea of being poked or tickled for hours on end online.

And the other thing is, I actually want to have meaningful contact with people. I don’t feel most of these venues allow for it. Authors go on, sign up, do the standard polite-face-mask thing and friend people with one end in mind – selling books. This is all part of the growing “us and them” rift in the business. More and more authors are adopting the celebrity attitude – set apart. Some are downright exclusive.

You can drop by the blogs and see them at work. They only respond to comments posted by authors. Not the rest of you lowly people.

I hate that.

Yes, I can be totally tongue-tied and awe-struck in the presence of someone I admire, but that’s on me. I’m always taken back when someone responds to me that way. I mean, I’m just me.

Part of the reason I’ve kept this blog. Part of the reason I try to keep it conversational. Part of the reason I try 90% of the time 8 times out of 10 to respond to everyone who comments in the first several hours of shelf life of a new post.

If I ever become one of those snooty authors with my head stuck up my ass, I certainly hope Bunny, or someone, will give me a good spanking.

The problem is, it all ties to a culture of marketing that’s becoming more prevalent amongst authors.

Over the past year, I learned a lot. I learned a lot about who would sell their baby and their soul to succeed in their career, so sticking a knife in someone’s back didn’t even cause them to blink an eye. I learned that the culture now is more toward being a celebrity than actually being a writer.

Blogs for instant gratification. Post your short story, post the latest news about what’s happening to you and collect those comments, wear them on your sleeve like badges. Join MySpace and enter the competition to have the most friends. It doesn’t matter that what it really means is you have the most superficial acquaintances you call friends in the hope that you’ll make money off them. Sell sell sell.

Me, I’ve always been big on heart, and sincerity. You couldn’t keep me from talking up a book I liked. I’ve truly lost count of the number of e-mails from people who’ve said, I bought my first Rankin book because of you… which usually leads to some commentary about being hooked. I’m a natural evangelist for what I believe in.

But not for a fee.

Some things you start, you believe have a level of sincerity to them. A group of authors band together as they approach first publication, to mutually support each other through the process, to make it a little less scary.

Sounds good.

Until it becomes an extension of an organization, with a heavy marketing emphasis and instead of it being about a group supporting each other it becomes a promotional tool with little to no camaraderie and just a regular checklist of things to do and more requests for money to spend on promotion.

I encourage anyone who’s thinking about joining forces with a group of others to seriously consider the long-term vision and goals and know about the costs and what everyone wants out of it in the end. If your vision isn’t compatible, don’t get involved.

And if the group vision shifts and it isn’t for you anymore, get out.

It bears being said, because I know authors who spend in excess of $600 annually on group memberships. Add in your own promotional expenses, costs of websites (at the very least domain registry and hosting, if not design and maintenance costs) travel to a con, to do bookstore signings… well, it starts to become ridiculous. And I see no reason for authors to spend twice as much money duplicating the same efforts.

Plus, if you’re in a group, the behaviour of one reflects on everyone.

It isn’t because I’m a snob that I’m flying solo. It’s more because I want to limit the scope of my potential conflicts of interest, to keep doing what’s important to me.

I have a real appreciation for authors who give back to the community, not just take. This is why I decided to continue reviewing. It may not be my personal passion, and I may feel the conflict every time I sit down to write a review, the weight of responsibility of setting myself up as judge and jury over another author’s work, but I think that’s a good thing, because it means I always carefully consider what I’m going to say.

And it is important. We’re constantly being inundated with news about declining review coverage. The result? Publicists turn to amazon reviewers in order to get coverage for books, and I don’t need to rehash all the reasons I have concerns about that. These days, it seems what it takes to make you a credible reviewer is whether or not you receive free ARCs.

I can give a little more than that. Yes, it’s time-consuming. Yes, it’s work. Yes, there are times people won’t agree with my conclusions, but that’s okay.

Now that I’m reviewing for multiple online venues, as well as in print for Crimespree, I’ll be considering every book choice more carefully. This doesn’t involve not reviewing books that don’t work for me so that I don’t piss anyone off. I’ve already dealt with what will probably be the toughest review ever for me to produce, one I lost sleep over. (here)

But in the end, we know two things. Bad reviews sell as many copies as good reviews. And if a reviewer is caught in a lie about a book, their credibility on every review is destroyed.

Remember what I said earlier, about being about heart and sincerity? Consequences… well… whatever. I’d rather stop attending conventions than sell my soul for a lie of convenience. And more about lies of convenience in a moment, but I’m serious on this point. Even staying silent sometimes is a lie. I’d rather switch gears and start reviewing outside the crime fiction community if people are going to treat reviews like something they should dictate, even if the reviewer is an author.

I’m already in a situation that seems like an apparent conflict of interest. In 88 days What Burns Within will come out, and on the back cover, along with blurbs from Ken Bruen and Crimespree Magazine, there’s a blurb from Brian Lindenmuth at Mystery Bookspot. Brian had the book before there was a deal on it. He blurbed it before the deal was made public.

In other words, months ago.

My awareness of Mystery Bookspot had come via his review of my first book, and an interview he did with Ken Bruen. I didn’t know him then.

But last week, I joined the team at Mystery Bookspot, so by the time my book comes out, it will look like a group I’m involved with endorsed me.

Although that certainly wasn’t how it happened, and there was no conflict of interest at the time, well, some people won’t look for answers and just see that and make a judgment.

I’m prepared to live with it, because I know it was an honest endorsement, and genuine. I did ask Brian not to run the review now. I’m more concerned with his reputation than mine at this point.

I know for myself, sometimes I look through books now and I know certain blurbs deserve to have a great big black marker line drawn over them. They aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Same with some reviews. Every reviewer and blurber creates their own standard of integrity, and people will believe their recommendations or not based on how they handle themselves.

I don’t give credit to a blurb from anyone who says they’ll blurb anybody who asks, or treats it like their own marketing tool. Another reason to review instead of blurbing. I’m quoted as Spinetingler Magazine. That’s not specifically good for me – it’s good for every single writer we’ve published work by as it brings people to Spinetingler. I can live with that. It isn’t so self absorbed.

But there are reviewing conundrums that come up for me, from time to time. For example, originally I was part of Killer Year. So were two other authors who left the group for various reasons. However, in the article on Killer Year published in the latest Crimespree, those authors aren’t mentioned.

I am.

I’m not sure why they just couldn’t leave me out of the whole thing. At the end of the article is the line:

“Due to other commitments, Ruttan was unable to continue her affiliation with the group.”

sell my soul for a lie of convenience…

That statement is absolutely false. I was removed/kicked out of Killer Year because my publisher was not approved by the ITW and I wouldn’t join as a reviewer.

Really, that’s the end of the discussion. I could get into a long, drawn-out discussion about whether or not it was fair. I could bring up all of the e-mails – I keep all my e-mails – from ITW people and certain Killer Year people that, in my opinion, make their ultimate act reflect badly on them.

Although a similar lie was posted on their website last year, I only took the action necessary to get it off. If anyone has asked me why I didn’t continue with the group, I haven’t lied.

But I didn’t make a public declaration about it, until now. Was it a lie of silence?

I don’t know. That’s for all of you to decide. Honestly, originally I’d decided not to review KY books last year because I was part of the group, and I felt that wasn’t appropriate.

I didn’t want to hurt Sean and Gregg, both of whom I consider friends, and if I had a problem and needed to talk I know I could pick up the phone and call either of them – and I certainly hope they feel likewise.

There are others I don’t know well and have nothing against.

Frankly, I really don’t want to be embroiled in an argument or controversy. But because someone felt it was acceptable to put a lie in print, I’m saying something now. In the spirit of The Wire, I’m not carrying water for them.

And I think it’s unfortunate that in producing this article, the author never fact-checked with me.

Now, this leads me to a renewed dilemma. After spending my hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars, and feeling lied to by certain people, and being given the boot I was no longer part of the group but still didn’t review the books because of the bad feelings between myself and a few certain people. I felt that even if I was completely objective about the book, unless it was a primarily positive/glowing review, people would dismiss it as sour grapes.

And I didn’t want my credibility tainted.

Enough time and distance and healing for me with most of them brought me to the point where I recently accepted review copies of The Deceived by Brett Battles and The Guilty by Jason Pinter.

I know for myself that I’m capable of picking up a book written by someone I dislike as a person and reviewing it fairly. I learned a standard of objectivity in journalism, and I’ve been a supervisor and had to discipline staff I personally liked, even fire them. And I’m not saying I dislike either of those two authors. If people spam me (as one person did over the KY anthology) I’ll definitely lose their book in my pile for a while. Few grudges are ones I carry eternally (although I might make an exception soon enough).

But I don’t want to produce reviews that lead to people questioning whether or not they're sincere. Okay, people may question any of my reviews. Let me rephrase. I don’t want to produce reviews that I know people have a legitimate reason for being suspicious of – I need to be able to look myself in the eye and be okay with it.

Which doesn’t mean I’m always perfect about everything, have never done a petty thing in my life – I’ve done plenty. All it really means is, I’m trying to be a sincere, honest person. And I have always, for four years now, given generously of my time to support this industry and other authors.

I rather resent that although it was made clear a year ago that I would not tolerate them publicly lying about the reasons I didn’t continue with Killer Year, someone felt it was okay to stab me in the back one last time. Well, probably not the last time…

They’ve done an enormous disservice to the other authors in their group.

Which brings me back to the point – the actions of others you join forces with will reflect on you.

And that illusion of intimacy is just that. Repackage it, rename it… a marketing scam is a marketing scam.

Maybe I’m beginning to understand why some readers don’t want to meet authors.

Just remember, there's a whole big world out there beyond the internet, and the person you piss on today may be a person you need tomorrow.


Chris said...

What's funny is, I'd always assumed most writers were fans first. I sure as hell am, and I think I'm more delighted to hear a compliment from a non-writer than a writer. After all, non-writers make up the bulk of the reading public.

I have to believe that the crassness of a lot of marketing ploys will serve to limit their effectiveness. I've connected with some very genuine folks (present company included) through this-here series of tubes, and as far as I'm concerned, that's worth a lot of the crap. Of course, nobody's out there spreading lies about me, so it's easy for me to say.

As long as you go to bed at night with a clean conscience, to hell with the rest of 'em...

Brian said...

If I didn't know you and was reading this post and becoming aware of the history for the very first time I would say that it sounds like KY didn't use any of their namesake when they stuck it to you.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Indeed, Chris. I think the main thing is, you can be sucked in by the illusion for a while, but eventually those who are looking for what's genuine start to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I turned down review copies of books by some ITW members in the wake of everything, but there really is only a short list of people I consider responsible for this. Unfortunately, they've done a disservice to the other members of their organizations, and as a reviewer I'll consider that as well, but there are four people in the group I am absolutely certain had no prior knowledge of this. Beyond that, I may have to extend my reviewing ban, for another year at least.

And you just move on, end of story.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Brian, :)

John McFetridge said...

You worry too much...


Sandra Ruttan said...

On this John, I actually take a bit of offense to that.

At least there are still a few people in the world who give a damn about integrity. I'm sick of people playing politics over writing - a passion, something I love. May the genre self destruct before we see the day it's run by people who don't apply themselves to writing a better book to succeed, and instead descend to mudslinging and spreading lies about others.

angie said...

" all ties to a culture of marketing that’s becoming more prevalent amongst authors."

It's actually a bit worse than that at times. A willingness to spread lies and rumors (shades of junior high hysterics) can seriously damage reputations and careers. And it's ridiculous. It doesn't take much to step up and be honest when it really counts.

The sad thing is, I've met a lot of really great peeps via the web. But the nasties sure do stick out in my mind and make me extra cautious.

Good on ya for setting the record straight.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Exactly, Angie. When do we say enough of this petty high school crap?

As any regular reader of this blog knows, in the past year I've had to deal with the petty adolescents who spread rumors about me and Ken, and ultimately I decided not to collaborate with him or anyone else at this time just to get away from it.

And I had more than my share of shit to deal with over KY. I was a member for more than 7 full months, and more than half of that time predated the ITW's involvement. The rules changed and I got the boot, and it should have been addressed before they rushed any adoption. Instead, I was out a lot of time and money.

While I've certainly been aware of some ass covering tied to that, I chose to try to walk away and only say what was necessary, but I warned them a year ago about this particular lie.

So on top of my ex having an affair and the subsequent divorce in the past year and all the other general stress of life, there's been all this unnecessary crap. I tried walked away twice because I had enough to deal with.

But I reached my line.

And people say this community is generous and supportive, that 99% of the people are wonderful. I'd like to see more of the 99%, thank you very much.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"in the past year I've had to deal with the petty adolescents who spread rumors about me and Ken, and ultimately I decided not to collaborate with him...just to get away from it."

Now that pisses me right the fuck off. As a friend, I was excited for you because of that project. As a fan, I was looking forward to reading the book.

Fucking assholes.

JamesO said...

If you stick your head up your ass, Sandra, it's going to be hard to spank you;}#

Seriously though, it's sad when this sort of thing happens. I prefer the head in the sand approach - if I ever read a review or a blurb, chances are I won't know anything about any relationship between the author and the reviewer/blurber, so I don't worry about any accusations of bias.

As it is, I so seldom read either reviews or blurbs, all this stuff passes me by. Likewise I steer clear of forums and generally stand in the corner hoping no-one will notice me.

That way, when someone starts trying to tell lies about me, I'll be blissfully unaware. And there's nothing annoys a bully more than being ignored.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well Patrick, one never knows what tomorrow will bring, but I really had enough stress over the past year and I didn't feel it was worth the strain to friendships and honestly, if people think the way to get ahead is to step on others because they're so threatened by a female writer, well, feel sorry for them. Chauvinists? Yes. Assholes? Yes to that too. But the insecurity of needing to stop someone else from working on a project so they don't potentially upstage you? Well... I'm confident enough in myself in a writer to work on my own and stand on my own two feet. Tells you who's really about using others to get ahead. I'd rather have Ken's friendship any day of the week.

Anonymous said...

I admire you for sticking to your guns Sandra. Integrity is not something you talk about, it's something you do, and you're exemplifying that.

I knew there was something fishy going on with KY and I'm glad my curiousity was satisfied now. It's pretty disgusting that they made such a blanket decision without considering their implications.

I only read the blog because of your posts, and once you were removed from the equation I didn't go back. And I'm sure there were a few other people who did the same. Good on you for going public.

They want to have it both ways. Ditch you when it suits them but still use your name and cover up the truth of the matter.

The use of the internet in promotion throws up so many ethical decisions. I've jointed My Space, but I refuse to use Facebook because of their right-wing slant and the fact that they sell their user information.

Then there's the fact that everyone on My Space, myself included, is just collecting the friends for the sake of having a high number and potential readers of bulletins. So if everyone is using it to self-promote, who's actually buying the books?

I do want to actually use it as a friendship tool and genuinely connect with people. Read books that I wouldn't have heard of otherwise. I'm collecting a list and will buy a few.

But otherwise it will take up too much time and it's not something I can invest in right now. Revision comes first.

And I also think that sometimes we focus so much on internet promotion we forgot that there is a real world out there that we need to connect with.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Here here about the real world Amra - that's exactly it. My priority is my partner and family. It has to be. My publisher isn't going to bury me, and it's the people we love and share our lives with that matter more than anything else.

I do think there are ways to connect meaningfully through places like MySpace - I just don't think there are many of them. Anything that comes off too institutional, too "business" bugs me.

I mean, to this day, given the choice I'll buy Coke over Pepsi, because Pepsi had mean commercials back in the 80s. What does that tell you about me? I don't like mean, cold or impersonal. And it influences my choices where applicable.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, and James? Being oblivious can be good, but it can also be very bad, especially if someone you love gets hurt as a result.

Something else I learned last year.

Honestly, for crying out loud, I think if anyone in NYC I don't know doesn't have anything better to do than gossip about me, they have a truly sad, pathetic existence.

John McFetridge said...

Well, I certainly didn't mean any offense.

And, this is the first I've heard that the collaboration with Ken Bruen is off, and I have to say, I agree with Patrick, it pisses me the fuck off. Purely as a fan, it was something I was really looking forward to.


The rest of that crap is just crap, those small-minded assholes can fuck off and you're better off without them.

Shit. Shitty. Crap.

john dishon said...

You're not missing out on anything with myspace or facebook. MySpace has the ugliest web design I've ever seen and Facebook is so cluttered with useless applications it's hard to tell when someone leaves you a message. And really, the only thing either one really offers you can get with the address book in your email client--that is, a list of people's contact information.

And if its any consolation, I doubt anyone outside the crime fiction community has even heard of Killer Year.

john dishon said...

the first sentence of the mission statement of Killer Year:

"Killer Year is an elite society of debut mystery and thriller writers."

That fifth word should tell you something right there.

Sorry, if it's inappropriate to post this here. I don't want to fan any flames more than necessary, but I thought that was funny.

Sandra Ruttan said...

John, you're totally cracking me up!

Randy Johnson said...

I guess I've been lucky. Most of the blogs I read and comment on are like yours. They all respond to most everyone that comments. I've sent emails to authors when I've liked a particular work to let them know, Except for one author, they returned nice emails talking more than they really needed to. One has a brother living in my hometown who I worked for years ago and I mentioned it. The author, whom I've never met, spent more of the email talking about that than about the book I'd read or his latest project. I appreciated that kind of folksiness. He seem to care about myself, which made me feel good and looking forward to his next book.

Christa M. Miller said...

"You can drop by the blogs and see them at work. They only respond to comments posted by authors. Not the rest of you lowly people."

And here I thought I was just being paranoid!

Also an eye-opener about KY. I've been grumbling, wondering if I'd ever have the opportunity to join a group like that. Now I'd have to think twice if asked. Not that that's a bad thing.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Randy, I'm glad you've had good experiences. May you never have a bad one, sincerely.

I know even I had a negative reaction from someone recently, when I responded to a message. It had been sidetracked, and it had been four months since I'd received it. Mind you, in that the death knell on my marriage had been sounded officially, with my going public, and a lot of stuff was going on, so I was personally very disoriented and overwhelmed, but I still felt bad. And the person let me know they'd taken it personally. I don't always want to assume no response is personal. That's not always true.

Christa, nope, not just you. That's all I can say. There are some blogs I can guarantee always being ignored on. For the most part, I seldom comment anymore. I haven't been around much, because of all the other projects on the go, but fell out of the habit some time ago.

RAC said...

KY? Most people prefer Astroglide…

Seriously, I've never heard of such pettiness by a group of writers. I'll bet (like many committees) most of dirty work is being done by one or two members. It's all bad, creepy karma.

Sandra Ruttan said...

RAC, yeah, I'd say you're right. On both counts.

Guess I actually have to state now, for the record, what I say on my blog is on me and does not reflect the opinion of anyone else.

Which I should think would be pretty fucking obvious, but apparently not.

john dishon said...

As a Kentuckian, I take offense to Killer Year's use of the KY abbreviation (I'm fine with the lube using it, 'cause reducing friction is good for everybody)and I'm hereby taking it back. Besides, the year's over.

Austin Carr said...

You have an awfully big heart to be wearing on your sleeve, Ms. S. It's what us fans love about you, but unfortunately, it's also an easy target. :-)