Ego and Economics: Bad Reviews, Stalking Authors and the sense of Existential Threat

I’ve been following much of the discussion surrounding the controversial Guardian article by author Kathleen Hale. Hale became obsessed with a reviewer who had given her book a negative review and she tracked her down, drove to her house, tried to confront her and wrote about her stalking in The Guardian.

There is a good chance if you’re involved in the world of books at all, as a reader, reviewer or writer, you are already familiar with the details of this disturbing story. If you’re not, a few articles I would recommend are On the Importance of Pseudonymous Activity; The Choices of Kathleen Hale; Author Studies, Kathleen Hale, Native Authors; The Choices of Kathleen Hale.

Initially, I must admit, I wanted to write something about this case because it shares so many elements with the novel I am crowdfunding– Identity Theft and I thought there might be a marketing connection. (Identity Theft is about a worker in a rock star’s office who decides to catfish a fan which eventually leads to her being confused for a celebrity stalker.)

But today when I was reading a response story in The Guardian (Inside the World of Amazon Vie Book Reviewers by Suzanne McGee) a quote jumped out at me:

“There is no industry that combines ego and economics like book publishing, however. It is now customary for authors to regard any negative review as a vast threat to their livelihoods and future book sales.”

While it is wrong to take the actions and attitudes of a couple of badly behaving authors as representative of the whole lot of us, there is a lot of truth to this statement. Increasingly, we authors are made to feel as though our careers, indeed our very ability to survive, pay our bills, feed our families, depends upon our online reputations.

Just the other day I clipped an article on marketing for the writer that repeated the conventional wisdom. I wanted to find it again for his article, but I don’t know what I did with it. No matter, you can look at just about any blogging author’s twitter feed to find multiple examples.  The key to having a career as a writer is to form relationships with readers, to build a social community. You need to connect to readers and get them invested in you as a person. Some time ago I wrote about the changing expectations of a writer’s role in the process in an article about Amazon’s @author program for Kindle. The article I was commenting on called the new relationship between author and reader the “digital commodification of authorship that takes place by way of community and conversation.”

In any case, the Nieman article proposes that this assumption, that the author will continue to be available to the reader after completing the book, changes expectations about what a “book” is about. A book becomes a dialogue, never entirely finished and closed. It seems likely that the ways we conceive of “books” and literature will evolve because of this technology. This is an interesting development and we’ll see where it goes.

This notion, that the author will continue to be available to the reader after the book is published, was not the norm in traditional publishing.  The idea that you have to be available, sociable, likeable and connected personally to the audience is a challenging one for a field famously made up of introverts and near hermits. What we socially awkward literary types are being asked to sell is not our work but our personalities. Just when you think you’ve found the career that perfectly suits your solitary nature you’re told that the only way to have a career is to build up your social following, have more “friends” and “likes” and “followers.”

And make no mistake, this social pose is a matter of survival.

“In absolute numbers, more self-published authors are earning a living wage today than Big-5 authors,” says The Tenured vs. Debut Author Report.

Those traditional publishing gigs, complete with professional PR people are fewer and father between. The delays between books make it impossible for a writer to keep career momentum and income flowing. The best way to actually have a living wage as a writer these days is to publish yourself, build a brand, get out there and be social.  Those reputations are built one Goodreads review at a time.  To a less stable individual, a single unflattering comment can become a threat to her very identity and ability to survive.

Debbie Reese wrote an excellent article on why authors and their works cannot be entirely separated.  It is true that your enjoyment of a book does not depend upon your love of the author as a person. Some of the artists we most admire had some of the most problematic personalities. But the identity of the author continues to be part of our legitimate literary discussion:

Teachers assign author studies. There are guides on how to do them. Publishers like Scholastic offer guides, too. In them, students are asked to do research on the author’s life, and that author’s body of work. They are asked to make connections between the author’s life and work. They are also asked to make personal connections between their own life experiences and those of the author and/or characters in the author’s books.

As long as that remains true authors will continue to worry about their online reputations (as we all do) and to feel a bit threatened when they discover something negative is being said about them or their work. The book becomes part of your public identity.

The fact is, no one controls her image or how she comes across to others. No one can guarantee that everyone will love her and think wonderful things about her. We’d all love to be able to ensure that, but we can’t. We all have to come to terms with the fact that not everyone likes us. Writers just have the fortune and misfortune of having this process (when it comes to their work) be more public. Thanks to reviews and sites like Goodreads, we get to hear what people say behind our backs in a way that people generally don’t in every day life. When you read a review you don’t like, it is probably best to treat it as a bit of overheard conversation. The reviewer was not talking to you, but to other readers.  The best thing to do for your own sanity as well as the general peace is to pretend you never heard it. If it’s unfair let other reviewers plead your case. If there is merit to it, file it away for next time you write.

Absolutely do not go on a clue hunting expedition to expose the blogger’s identity and under no circumstances should you leave dog poop in anyone’s mailbox.

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