*Over at SBTB Sarah is running a Q&A with Susan Mallery about her newest reader initiative. If you haven't yet read it, I would.
With the rapid changes in publishing authors have been pushed into being their own publicity department. With so many voices willing to tell authors what to do (and what not to do) it seemed like a great opportunity for us to connect with an expert on author behavior. Meoskop has been a blogger and reviewer under various names since the mid 1980's, when net access was primarily through phone numbers found in the classified ads. Back in the day we'd phone a stranger's basement to talk books.
Q: So Meoskop. (Can I call you Meoskop? Going 3rd person seems like something I should ask permission for.) You get a number of books for free. What's wrong with Susan Mallery offering books to her readers?
A: I suppose I can call myself anything I like, so yes, feel free. If it's good enough for Michael Douglas... Wait, books. Let's get back to that. Nothing is wrong with Susan Mallery giving away any number of books she chooses. The free book is a long standing promotion. In fact, the free book is one of the best tools an author has to self promote.
Q: Then what's the issue? If authors have been giving books away since books began and many reviewers frequently receive promotional copies, why is Mallery's Review Crew controversial? Is this about gatekeeping reviews?
A: Not at all. In fact, a novice reviewer can be a consumer's best friend. The conflict lies in the author's natural (and necessary) desire to promote being at war with the consumer's natural (and necessary) desire to find reviews they can trust. The issue here is the winnowing of the review pool. Mallery says that she has thousands of readers wanting a chance at reviewing her books in advance. Where I believe she's raising the eyebrows is the consolidation of her reviewers...
Q: I have to interrupt you. If I'm not mistaken you didn't pay for a Courtney Milan book in all of 2012. In point of fact, you proclaimed yourself her number one fan girl in 2011. How can you hope to have any credibility at all on this issue?
A: Excuse me. I was assured there would be no Courtney Milan questions.
Q: You're evading the point.
A: Obviously, I am untrustworthy. This question proves that. It is that fact upon which my credibility hinges. An author or publisher who provides a free book to me has no assurance of a positive review. In fact, when it became clear to both of us that I would likely be hate reading her new release, Avon declined to provide me with an advance copy of Lorraine Heath's upcoming work. I have a track record of refusing to review authors who expect favorable reviews of their work. Or any review. I frequently decline to review ARCs that have been sent to me. Sometimes they're boring.
Q: Mallery obviously realizes not all reviews will be favorable. While she demands a review within two weeks to remain in her program, she acknowledges that not all reviews will be five star!
A: It's the tiered aspect. If Mallery ran a lottery for each release that did not have the tiered aspect this wouldn't have warranted a second look. By offering bars for her reader reviewers to hit, she introduces the elements of bias. She wants something for her time and money that is in conflict with general consumer interest. If you want the next book, review it in two weeks and you're golden. Look at all the thousands of people that want to be you. You're in the Review Crew. You're an insider. I love 5 stars (who doesn't?) but you say what you really think. On the one hand, she's saying (mostly) all the right things. On the other she is justifiably building a network of reliable superfans who can commit to deadline. It's like walking up to the people camped out for a new Chik-Fil-A in a Chik-Fil-A uniform while carrying a video camera and asking them if the food is any good. They're going to say yes. They wouldn't be there if pickle brine made their nose hairs curl.
Q: Aren't all review and promotion schemes in conflict with consumer interest?
A: Pretty much. The tightrope for the author is to conduct their promotion in a way that enhances their brand. Libby Bray puts on a cow suit, I pre-order her book. Maybe I hate it (ok, I did) but I bought it. I hit a review site I know is flawed (that would be any of them) and I see 200 happy reviews all posted in a two week window? That one star review complaining that the author never calls her mother just became the ONLY review I read. Mallery is gambling (probably correctly) that more readers will see a stack of glowing reviews and slam the preorder button than will call shenanigans. Shenanigans rarely answers the phone, anyway. It's probably going to work. But undermining already flawed review systems undermines all authors. A reader who doesn't trust anything she reads has reduced discoverability.
Q: Discvoerabi - whatever you said. That's like, making my head hurt. You're not industry, are you? That industry stuff is a snooze. I just want to find a good book and buy it. How does Susan Mallery stop me from doing that? I don't see the issue.
A: Maybe she doesn't. Maybe the future is one where buyers expect hundreds of largely positive reviews to quickly appear on her books. What does that buyer do next? If the buyer disagrees with those reviews or knows about the Review Crew does the buyer stop trusting all positive reviews? Are you going to trust positive reviews on other authors? Will the three star review become the new rave review? Look! This book doesn't have 5 star reviews - it must be good! Will the one star review be the only one given credibility? In a sea of solicited 5 star reviews how do you apply comparative meaning?
Q: Was that a shot at Klausner? That got old in the 90's.
A: Not at all. I do me and I let other reviewers do them. My point is that an author who plans on having the same name (or hundreds of names) attached to her book reviews needs to carefully consider issues of credibility. Consumers already suspect reviews and review sites.
Q: Are we back to Courtney Milan?
A: You really need to get over this Courtney Milan thing. You're starting to embarrass me.