Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lessons For Authors From American Idol & Survivor

I'm not much of a reality TV watcher, although I've been following Survivor this past season, and my sister's family religiously watches American Idol, so while I've been staying with them I've been getting a full dose of the show.

And it got me thinking. Tonight, I watched as Kristy Lee Cook was voted off the show. Simon hadn't had high praise for either of the bottom two. He'd called Kristy's performance whiny and said that Brooke's was like ordering a hamburger and getting a bun with no meat. Ouch.

Here's where authors and singers are alike: scrutiny is part of our reality. While you have to work hard, hone your craft, learn the business to make it in music or in publishing, all you need is a mouth and a willingness to state your opinion to be a critic. You can go on amazon and rank our books and albums, or on forums and blogs and share your views with all who'll listen.

And here's where authors and singers are different: authors don't have to stand on a stage and get that kind of criticism thrown in their face, and take it publicly.

I'm starting to think that authors should be required to watch American Idol and Survivor. Really. Every time you think about throwing yourself a pity party because you got a bad amazon review, start thinking about how harsh it would be to stand on a stage and be criticized in front of millions.

I'm not saying that I think it's easy to get bad reviews. In fact, I know it sucks. But what I am saying is that if we put it in perspective, we can at least appreciate that it could be worse. We can take our lumps in the privacy of our own home 99% of the time, and don't have to put on a brave face when we feel like crying.

Another thing I've learned from American Idol: opinions are subjective. Okay, I didn't learn it from the show, but it's been drilled home. Look at Jason's performance. Randy was not down with it this week, but Paula and Simon loved it. (And how often does that happen? Randy's giving the thumbs down while Simon's giving compliments?) In fact, with most of the contestants there was a difference of opinion. Syesha is a great example. She was fantastic this week, absolutely impressive if you ask me... but Simon didn't think so.

Then I think about Survivor, and last week's tribal council. I think about what Alexis said about Eliza's social game, and there's a lot to take from that. Not everyone finds it easy to gel with large groups. Some players who may be strong and smart end up being eliminated early because they can't navigate the political waters or form alliances with the right people.

What does that have to do with the bad review author blues? It goes back to that point, that opinions are subjective. We all have different personalities, different tastes. If you're like me, you've had a moment when you've just seen someone and known instantly you'll get along, or that you won't. We connect to people in different ways.

It's the same with art. Music and writing... these are things that can be taken on two levels. I can appreciate that some contestants on American Idol can sing, and sing incredibly well, but their style isn't to my taste. I can respect their technical ability, but I won't be out buying their album. I'm not saying they can't sing; I'm saying what they sing and how they sing it isn't a style I prefer.

Does that sting? Yes. As an author, I appreciate that it stings, but we do have to come to terms with that.

I know as a reader, I wouldn't want someone stripping me of my right to like what I like, and I have to afford the same courtesy to others.

Now, amazon reviews are something that's been done to death. I don't want to go see my page filled with nasty one star reviews. I'll admit that... but I also trust in the intelligence of the majority of readers. If those nasty reviews are filled with personal jabs or unsubstantiated criticisms like "it sucks" and "can't write to save her life" or things of that nature, most readers will see them for what they are.

And in my experience, most people I know want to make up their own mind about books, and don't trust in the random comments of a stranger online to decide what they will and will not buy.

For those of you who haven't heard already, an author went to war with a reviewer on Amazon. I learned via Tess's blog, which gives more of the details about the situation. It gelled with what I'd already been thinking about during American Idol, because I think the author went way too far. Essentially, the author assaulted that individual's right to have an opinion.

Like I already said, I'm not going to say it doesn't hurt. It's one thing to vent on your blog and say you feel a review comes off as a personal attack. Let your readers decide for themselves, and if they agree you will have their full support.

But I don't care what this person said in their review - bringing their children into it is not acceptable. I've written about internet bullying before, but this is a particularly disturbing case to me. It seems as though this author has made what I'd consider to be threats, and if I was that reviewer I might consider my legal options.

After all, if a review really is "abuse" why not file a civil suit against the reviewer?

Unless, of course, you know the truth that the rest of us can plainly see - you're a bully, using legitimate disappointment to justify extremely inappropriate behaviour.

(Now watch me get my first bad review tomorrow after posting this, so I have to eat some crow. Meanwhile, if you want to read the latest wonderful review, check out Lenore Howard's take on Fresh Fiction.)


Randy Johnson said...

I've said it on other blogs about Amazon customer reviews. I agree with what you've said. I review books occasionally. I've never reviewed a book I didn't like though. The reason is that it might not be the book, it might be me. My enjoyment/dislike of a book could have a number of reasons; my mood, it might not be a type of book I like, the style of the writer, etc. Just because I don't like a book doesn't automatically make it bad. Just not for me. I have a three strikes policy regarding books. If I start a book and can't get into it, I lay it aside and try something else. Coming back later, if it still doesn't work, again I go to something different. The third time things don't click it gets put away, never to be tried again. As I said earlier, that still doesn't make it bad. Just not for me. That's why I never review a book I didn't like. I just try to tell people what I liked about those that I really enjoyed.

Randy Johnson said...

Oh , I wouldn't worry about a bad review either, Sandra. There has probably never been a book, in all of history, that everybody has liked.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Someone once said to me that nobody trusts a book that's universally praised, and I see the point. I know not everyone will like my work. Bad reviews still sting, and we authors do put our heart and soul into our writing, so it's not surprising many take it personally... but to survive you have to learn to let it go.

Thing is, people put so much emphasis on amazon, yet amazon accounts for a relatively small percentage of book sales overall. Many of us never pay attention to amazon reviews. I take my referrals off people I "know" to some degree - have either had multiple interactions with online or seen enough of their commentary to trust their recommendations. I pay far more attention to 4MA referrals than anything else.

And I've definitely had some books I just wasn't in the right mood for, that on a second try I loved.

But still, what amazes me is this is over a three star review... What on earth would that author have done if they got a one star review?

John McFetridge said...

Well, you know, singers don't, "have to stand on a stage and get that kind of criticism thrown in their face, and take it publicly," either. Some just chose to go on American Idol. Like you say, it's not a style of singing that interests me, but the singers I like would never go on something like American Idol...

I think you're right, you should never trust something that only gets good press.

Years ago we used to see the tag line on movie posters, "Something for everyone!" and I'd think I'll just skip that movie, I don;t want to sit through all that stuff for other peoples' tastes getting ot the ten minutes that are for me.

I'd rather read a book that some people really, really love and others really, really hate than one that everybody feels is okay, or good, or just all right.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Actually John, musicians can routinely be booed on stage - public performance is a far more critical aspect of their career than ours. In fact, I remember someone booing Corey Hart at the CNE some years ago...

So it may not be millions in that sense, but it's the same principle - public rejection. And then there are radio programs. Country 105 used to have Pick It or Kick It, which was a national program in the evenings, and the songs up were voted on and if they didn't get over 50% approval they wouldn't be played during the show. That has a direct financial impact on the artist, because of the radio royalty structure for songwriters and recording artists for songs played on air.

On the one hand, people can say, "That's not fair! Anyone can just screw with their income!" But on the other hand, they can affect income by not buying the records. End of the day, it doesn't matter how widely panned in reviews and by some within the genre - James Patterson, Dan Brown... these guys aren't hurting at all.

The best thing authors can do is seek to reach their intended audience. People who love cozies and read little else in the genre will probably not like WHAT BURNS WITHIN and I'm not going to stuff it down their throat. Heaven help me, much as I love my cats and scarcely go to bed without two or three curling up with me, I'd gag if forced to read those cat mysteries.

Lyman Feero said...

In my theatre days, I saw how harsh audiences can be. When a good friend of mine put up a play that he wrote, the audience booed and threw chewed gum and playbill airplanes up on stage. The lead actress brokedown and my friend never wrote a play again. He stuck to directing. Everytime I put up a play I hold my breath until the end. Especially plays I've written and directed. I would much rather read a harsh review on one of my fiction pieces than live through people getting up and walking out.

Live performance = live critique. You don't have time to protect your emotions. It just cuts you to the bone.

Like Randy said. Bad reviews are inevitable. Personally, I get more out of the bad ones. Ego stroking is fine but it's good to get smacked around a bit as well.

Anonymous said...

I have to say it-why is it always within the romance community that such bitchiness abounds? And I can make this comment having been an aspiring and failed romance writer and a member of a romance writing group and organisation.

Is it their obsession with juvenille fantasy that makes them regress to their teenage years? While yes there are scandals involved in other writing communities-there's never anything as juicy as those in the romance community.

This is quite disgusting and scary. Just as well my policy is only to trash books in conversations with friends and never record those opinions in writing. Although it pisses me off too-that you have to censor yourself because you don't know if there's a nut job out there gunning for you.

Having said that-since when is a three-star review a trashing?