Not a day goes by that my dear former Facebook friend Jamie LeBoink doesn’t send an invitation out asking people—everyone, anyone–to “like” her and her writing. I think she was up to about 1500 friends at the point I disengaged. And three of those 1500 folks might actually, eventually buy Jamie’s writing, assuming she ever gets around to doing any.
My point is not that LeBoink is an idiot and that we should all boycott her. My point is that we all do stupid stuff when we’re starting out in this business. We spam our friends and family. We write reviews for ourselves. We argue with reviewers. Just like a baby sucking his toes, we don’t know any better.
Nobody is born knowing the ins and outs of publishing and promotion. Having that first book come out is sort of like landing on a planet in outer space. Is there any other life here? Are the natives friendly? Do they eat little boys and girls like you for lunch? You watch, you follow, you learn. And often how you learn is by making mistakes.
Those of us who have been stranded here a while will watch, struggling to keep a straight face, as you stagger around the dunes and fall into the very same quicksand pit we did. And some of us will offer a helping hand. And some of us won’t. But very few of us will change the sign on the path leading to the quicksand so as to guarantee you fall in.
While we may not start out knowing that it’s not kosher — no, not even if you go months without a single review on Amazon — to write reviews of our own work (or even tell your mom what to write), we do all know it’s not okay to hurt someone else. We do all know that actions motivated by spite and jealousy and pettiness are not okay. We certainly have the survival smarts to know that if it’s something we’d be embarrassed about having made public, it’s Not Okay.
That’s the topic of today’s post. The fallacious and ultimately self-destructive idea that you have to play dirty tricks on other authors in order to get ahead in this business. The mistaken notion that Everyone is Doing It.
Yeah. Right. And nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Imagine if you will, Robert Crais and Michael Connelly putting their heads together and writing a bunch of one star reviews of all Robert Parker’s books as part of some misguided strategy for success.
I know. I can hear the snickers from here. Not because we’ve all been there and done that, but because it’s so…lame. That behavior is pathetic and we don’t think of real professionals, and definitely not successful professionals, having to resort to that kind of thing. Successful is not desperate, and trying to blackball the competition is desperate.
So when we snicker as we hear of authors in our genre writing bad reviews of other authors (and, yes, we do hear this because it’s a very small fishbowl) whom they believe are too popular for their own good, we’re not laughing with you. We’re laughing at you.
It’s so…Snidely Whiplash trying to sabotage Dudley Do-Right’s jalopy.
Part of why we laugh is because we all recognize the feeling. The frustration that others are getting an unfair amount of attention or help, the secret belief that somehow our act of spite will help even the score. Literary types though we are, a lot of us are also ambitious and competitive and it’s hard not to view our publishing success as some kind of race, even though logic tells us this is not so. Someone else’s failure does not equal our success — or vice versa.
Never mind the fact that it’s bad for your soul when you give into the temptation to act on your jealousy and fear and insecurity, never mind the karmic backlash — maybe you don’t believe in souls or karma or practicing random acts of kindness. The main reason you don’t want to give into practicing Stupid Author Tricks is because they don’t work.
That’s the other reason most of us laugh at the idea of Messrs. Connelly and Crais ganging up on the competition. It’s a dumb idea. It’s Wile E. Coyote brooding over his new Acme DIY kit.
And the reason that I keep bringing up cartoon analogies is because if you think, for example, nominating yourself for an award and then voting repeatedly through anonymous hotmail accounts is a great idea, you’ve got the tactical smarts of a ten year old.
I’m not going to pretend that success in publishing is all fairness and equality and only the good shall triumph in the end. Yes, the two key ingredients are skill/talent and hard work, but promotion is a big part of success in this game. So is luck. I won’t lie to you. I’ve had a lot of luck. But I’ve also worked my ass off — and I’ve been doing it for many years. You want to know the secret to my success? Two things. Focus and Sustained Effort.
So let’s talk about the most popular dirty tricks that naughty authors play on their colleagues, and I’ll explain why they don’t work and why you want to steer clear of the authors who practice this crap.
Now the overarching reason you want to run a mile if someone suggests you engage in things like stuffing ballot boxes is, if you’re going to do something unethical and embarrassing, you don’t want witnesses — and you sure as hell don’t want accomplices.
People have big mouths in this business — in any business — and friends come and go. You want to be careful who you trust, and I would suggest that you not place a lot of trust in someone who is urging you to do unethical and underhanded things. The true test of character is not how we treat our friends, it’s how we treat our enemies.
Okay? Pretty obvious, right? Let’s move on to the actual charges against the accused.
1 – Writing reviews for your own books.
I’m trying to look severe here, but this is really kid stuff. I’ll settle for putting a frowny face on your chart and benching you at recess. Come on. Yes, it is bad news not to have a single review on Amazon — or worse, a sole three-star (or lower) — but faking reviews doesn’t change the fact that no one has read your book and been moved to comment. So you writing a review — even if you try to be honest in your “review” — doesn’t change that.
You want to treat the disease, not the symptom. You want people to read your book and write reviews. How do you do that? You offer books for review. You stipulate that the reviewer must promise to review, but that you want an honest review. You assure them you will not ask to see the review first, etc.
I know. You’re thinking…what if someone writes a negative review? That’s still better than no review and everybody won’t write a negative review. Most people write positive reviews. In fact, most people think they’re writing positive reviews even when they’re writing negative reviews. Relax about the whole review thing. You just need enough of them so that other readers can see that pioneers have safely crossed the no man’s land of your pages.
Again, offer books. If you’re a new author, give away a lot of books — try and give them to people in exchange for fair and honest reviews. Look at the cost of these giveaways as advertising.
2 – Writing reviews for friends’ books.
There isn’t a problem with this unless you’re trying to pretend that you’re an objective reviewer — or you haven’t actually read the book. I write reviews for my friends and I don’t hide the fact that they are my friends.
One friend writing numerous reviews of the same book on the same site? See #1 above. Stacking the deck doesn’t help the fact that no one is sitting in on your card game. If you want to help your friend — really help her — look up review sites for her and help her send copies of her book out.
Generally when authors write “reviews” for friends, they’re called blurbs. They go on the cover of the book, and the reader can take them with a grain of salt or not. Sometimes friends do interpretative dances for friends, but that’s another post.
Note to professional reviewers: Friends do not review friends. Why? Because you will either be too harsh in an attempt to appear unbiased or you will be biased by friendship. Or maybe you honestly hate your best friend’s book and you’re dumb enough to say so. A true friend puts her friend’s ego before her own.
3 – Exchanging reviews with other writers.
This isn’t a problem if the books are really read and if there was not an unspoken (sometimes spoken) understanding that only positive reviews will be exchanged. Is it unethical? Maybe mildly so in some Utopian author universe. I will say it’s a fairly common, if essentially useless, practice.
Why is it useless? Because it’s always the same circle of people reviewing each other in pretty much the same places, and so if their other promotional efforts are paying off, they’re all recognized to be other writers. Today’s readers are much savvier and they spend a lot more time socializing with us on the net, so they basically recognize the maneuver for what it is.
Reviewing books you haven’t read? Just say no.
4 – Amazon tagging more popular authors with your name or your book title.
This can be a solo operation or a number of authors banding together to target and tag. The theory behind it is a sort of roughneck Readers Who Like This Might Also Like That.
At one time the Adrien English books had something like 47 tags for a new mystery release by a then-unknown (and still largely unknown) m/m author. My own titles at that time only averaged about 12 tags, so it was obvious something was up. Most readers don’t bother to review, let alone tag, yet here was an author with a new release that more people thought was like the Adrien English books than the other Adrien English books!?
Although this is an essentially harmless move, the gall of it irritated me enough that I complained to Amazon, and the tags were removed, which I think explains why it’s not a useful tactic. It also had the effect of turning me off this author’s work — and that distaste lingers to this day.
5 – Writing negative and hostile reviews of other authors as part of your strategic plan. Or playing the ubiquitous Goodreads star system.
Usually under anonymous or a fake name, right?
Peek-a-boo! I seeeee you! Where do I start? Never mind the fact that this is neurotic and negative behavior and you probably want to get that looked at, these reviews always have that…whiff of sour grapes to them. Which means readers automatically, if unconsciously, discount them.
But the main reason why this is a mistake is because once again you’re treating the symptom and not the disease. The problem is you feel like here’s new author Angelika Mouse getting all this attention and help and she’s dangling her prepositions all over the place while you, YOU, who have been slogging away since the Ice Age, can’t get arrested if you ran naked through the halls of GayRomLit. You address that by taking Ms. Mouse down a couple of stars on Goodreads and maybe writing an anonymous nasty review or two instead of analyzing why she’s getting the response she’s getting.
What you ought to be asking yourself is not how can I destroy her, but rather, what is she doing that I’m not — and is there anything I can learn from her success?
Maybe yes, maybe no. One thing for sure, if your attention is focused on another writer’s popularity instead of your own writing, you’re looking in the wrong place. Removing Ms. Mouse from the equation will change nothing for you. Not one single damned thing. Didn’t you read any Grimm’s fairytales when you were growing up? Quit carrying on like the ugly elder step-sister.
6 – Force-feeding your Goodreads groups and Facebook pages to anyone who’ll bite.
This is on a par with culling names from discussion lists you belong to and force-subscribing them to your author mailing list. I don’t know if it’s unethical so much as bad manners — the latter’s even worse, to my way of thinking.
Most of us are using Facebook in a way it was not originally intended. We’re using it as a promotional tool. A reader “friends” me, I “friend” the reader back. It’s reciprocal. A lot of this friending is author-to-author, and that’s great. We’re networking. That’s part of the job — in fact, that interaction is one of the perks of the job — but there’s a fine line in social media and it’s easy for newbies (in particular) to trip over it.
You invite people to join your mailing list and your Goodreads groups and your Facebook Fan Pages. Now, I don’t know about you, but where I come from an invitation is generally not a fist wrapped in my collar and someone yanking me across the threshold and locking the door behind me. I think of that as more like abduction…or maybe holidays at my Aunt Marie’s, but either way, not something I’m going to put up with from a fellow author.
I think there is a misconception that being able to show a lot of “friends” on Facebook will make you look popular and so people will pay more attention to your posts. When I see an m/m writer with 2000+ friends gained within a month I see someone who did mass invites. That’s what we all see because we all know how it works.
There’s no harm in this, but there isn’t a lot of use either. You want your mailing list to be made up of readers and friends who are genuinely interested in you and your work. That way there’s a much better chance that they’ll read your posts and check out your books than if they just automatically friend everyone who friends them.
You invite people and if they don’t accept the invitation, you let it go. Maybe you wait a few months and invite people again, but you don’t, day after day, keep asking the same people to like your page. Oh, you’ll get 1500 people to “like” your page but they’ll never read the damn thing or comment on any of your posts or buy anything you write. They’re not there for you. They’re there because it’s polite to friend people back.
That politeness thing? Brush up on it.
7 – Nominating yourself for awards
See also Voting for Yourself and Judging Your Own Work under Publishing No-Nos.
In fairness, there are some awards you have to nominate yourself for. If you’re self-published you’ll have to nominate yourself for stuff like the Eppies and the Lammies. You don’t nominate yourself for reader awards. End of story.
Yeah, I can hear the whining now. But it’s always the same people getting nominated! No. It’s not. Sure some of the same people get nominated every year, but the winners are just as often newbies. Why? Because of the very thing you’re crying about.
Trying to rig reader awards requires the investment of anonymous votes and haranguing friends and strangers on lists you frequent. That’s a lot of work. You’re probably turning off as many people as you are earning votes. Plus, winning by such means doesn’t change the fact that you are not a reader favorite. And trying to convince readers they love you when they don’t, is not only self-defeating, it’s self-destructive.
Yes. Self-destructive. Because you’re the one and only person who believes that win should mean something. You are destined to be disappointed. Why? Let’s say you rig the Golden Café Speckled Trout award and you win. YAY!!! Now you go around announcing that win everywhere, and maybe a couple of readers decide to give your work a try based on you winning that award. YAY!! And the readers like your book. YAY! And…so what?
There are now dozens of these little awards and they all work to one end — and it’s the same exact end that all promotion aims for — to get people to try your work. Once they try your work, they either like it or they don’t. That’s the same result you’d have had if one of your banner ads or one of your excerpts had moved a reader to buy your book. And you wouldn’t have had to sell your soul for it. Winning these awards, while lovely for the ego, will not change the course of your publishing career. I know mainstream authors who’ve won major genre awards — and they were still dropped by their publishers. So do you honestly think winning the Golden Café Speckled Trout award is going to put you on the map? Or that it was worth cheating to win?
Promotion does make a difference, but if you think all publishing success is strictly about promotion, you are both sadly cynical and ridiculously naïve.
8 – Bullying, brow-beating, or otherwise coercing another author to engage in any of the above behavior.
If we want this genre to be taken seriously, we need to stop conducting business in the playground. If you’ve been around long enough to pick up some of these tricks, you’ve been around long enough to know better. Trying to force other authors into joining you in your bad behavior doesn’t legitimize the bad behavior. It means you’re a fascist on top of everything else.
If you want to make bad choices for yourself and your career, go ahead, but don’t drag others down with you. And you young’uns, don’t let yourselves be badgered into doing things that make you uncomfortable. I guarantee you that Everybody is NOT Doing It.
Can you damage your career by being caught engaging in any of this behaviour? Um…honestly? Probably not irretrievably in this particular very young, very brash publishing niche. But if your literary aspirations stretch beyond getting published with Big O Press, yeah. You do not want your prospective editor at HarperCollins reading the five-year-old thread where you get called out for backstabbing other authors. Very few people find cutthroat behavior appealing, and the competition for mainstream publishers is much, much stiffer. You don’t want to get nixed because you look like a whack job.
When it comes to how you conduct yourself in this genre, always try to behave as though you already were the big name you plan to be. Don’t give into jealousy, insecurity, frustration.You honestly think Robert Parker nominated himself for awards or sat around checking and re-checking the competition’s Amazon stats or wrote nasty anonymous remarks in the comment sections of online articles about other authors? I don’t think so. Ask anyone who knew him. They’ll tell you he was one hell of a writer and a very nice guy.
Take the high road. The trip may be a little longer, but the scenery is nicer and the air is a lot fresher.
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