Saturday, 25 June 2011

Write to Reply?

This post has been brewing for a while. How appropriate that today I woke to find not one but two um, less than shimmery shiny reviews on Amazon.

For several months now, as you’ll have noticed from posts like this one on the Self-publishing Review , I’ve been equal measures delighted and disillusioned by the increasing mainstreaming of indie writers through Kindle sales success. Now there’s no way I’m going to kick off about how terrible it is that indie writers are being taken seriously, how awful it is that the bestselling indie books on Amazon are indistinguishable in genre from the bestselling mainstream books anywhere. After all, I put a thriller out, I’ve got bonkers-lucky and sold 5000 copies of it, and it’s opened doors for me. I have a love-hate relationship with The Company of Fellows and the response to it but that’s my problem, and moaning about being forced into the mainstream would be disingenuous. Besides, I have far more problems being sucked centrewards with my live shows and eight cuts gallery projects.

BUT. The thing’s this. There are things about the mainstream publishing world that really really suck. And one of the reasons I self-publish is because I want no part of it. But a lot of what I see from self-styled indie writers (with whom I get lumped whether I like it or not and whatever the definition of indie may be) is exactly what I went “indie” to get away from. And as is always the case, it always makes you crosser when your peers do something stupid than those to whom you have no connection at all.

And nowhere is this more the case than in responding to reviews (I won’t even go there when it comes to eliciting reviews). It’s been a hot topic in the blogosphere ever since *that* review of Greek Seaman on Big Al’s site. The best take I’ve seen on the subject, by far, was this from the fabulous Susanne O’Leary. Says it all, and in the best way.

I don’t really know what the best protocol is. I think it depends on who you are and all sorts of contextual details, but the basic principle I operate by is if you do nothing the reviewer looks like a dick. Say something back and you look like a dick. Only it’s not just responding in or out of kind to negative reviews. I can understand that in a way. We all get cross. Most of us write out the response in Word and then delete it. Or shout it in the shower. But I can understand if someone accidentally hits submit. It’s the calculation that bothers me. The gaming. The systematic downvoting of negative reviews and upvoting of positive ones, the pointed pointing out that really bad reviews are by reviewers who’ve not posted anything else (that’s a good thing if it *is* a conspiracy, right? It means you’ve got people worried) whilst, in the wake of the bad review one or more heavily upvoted 5-star reviews will appear by – you’ve got it – someone who hasn’t posted a review before.

Yes, it might get more readers who fall for the gaming. It might even have a positive effect in the long run. But that doesn’t make it OK, and it doesn’t make it cool. OK? Think of it like this. Two years ago we "indies" were callingb out for a less patronising system of gatekeeping. Out One. Big. Beef. with the status quo was that readers were being patronised and told what was Good For Them. We wanted to give readers the freedom to make up their own minds what they wanted. To bastardise the immortal Rolf Harris, can you see what the irony is yet?


  1. I think it depends on what you write. As you know I write marmite novels, you'll either hate 'em or find them piquant. The Amazon reviews I've received for my one Amazon title have all been very honest and I love them for that. Most have said it was a tough read, which it is. They've all said it's for a certain type of reading taste, which I concur with. Several of the reviewers contacted me before posting to Amazon and their own reviewing blogs asking me if it was okay to publish, since the review was partly critical. I was astounded that anyone would even ask me the writer for my permission. I said yes in all cases. The BookMunch was the harshest, but they didn't post it to Amazon. I love my reviewers, because they engaged with the writing qua writing, not from any other agenda that I could see.

    I can't imagine how a genre book, no matter how subversive or literary, could somehow not be lumped in with other books you might like are... That's how the Amazon algorithms work.

    And yes, most Indies and I exclude you from this Dan, would happily scale up in terms of sales and profile etc to the mainstream way of doing things. Punk becomes New wave, becomes signed to majors, becomes New Romantics. that's just how commercial culture works... One can stay pure in the margins, but few are prepared to do so long term. They want a career.

    Marc Nash

    PS has Roland got a vid of me at Stokey do you know?

  2. Not sure what you mean by it depends what you write - do you mean if you write genre fiction it's OK t respond underhandedly to a negative review? Or just that it's understandable? I totally get that it's understandable. I still think people who do it are dicks. I also think the "you have to play dirty to get to the top" thing is a real urban myth.

    Anyone who thinks they're going to make a career from writing, however commercial their output, is in need of a reality check - one John Locke doesn't make an Enlightenment as it were.

    I don't know - I'll ask Roland - he may be waiting for permission to make it public.

  3. Yes I meant it's understandable. It's not necessarily about getting to the top, but getting maybe to a middling career. For people to credibly call themselves a writer with a back catalogue I guess.

    Re genre, I'm debating whether to put my genre book under a different name. Haven't decided yet.

  4. I don't know what I'd do if I were uploading the thriller now. On the one hand its success has helped sales of Songs (but not the others). On the other hand, people who would enjoy the other books may see me as a thriller writer first and foremost

  5. It's a *good* thriller Dan, that's the important thing. If I can offer a personal perspective, I loved 'Songs...' and was somewhat reluctant to try 'Company...' at first - I wondered how a murder mystery could match 'Songs..'? And okay, from my personal perspective, it's not quite as good. But it's still good, and more relevant to this discussion, still recognisably *you*. I could instantly tell it was the same writer with the same recognisable style and sensibility writing. So you've no need to feel you've somehow 'sold out' if that's what worries you.

    Good post in terms of wider points you make.