What Can a Train Wreck Tell Us About the Future of Publishing?

You probably heard of the Jacqueline Howett fiasco a couple of weeks ago, wherein one self-published author got a bad review, yelled at the reviewer, and then began swearing at everyone who came to the reviewer's defense. In reading it, I understood the train wreck analogy: I knew people were getting hurt, but I couldn't not watch.

It got a lot of people thinking about self-publishing (and the social psychology of the internet), but to me it says that maybe the worlds of traditional publishing and self-publishing aren't as different as we think they are.

Before I go on, though, a little Professionalism 101:  


Okay. What was interesting to me about this incident was what happened on that book blog was the same thing agents complain about in the slush pile. Namely, an unprofessional author got mad about a rejection.

The only difference is, this time, everybody got to see it.

It's like the slush pile is being made public, along with everything that means--unprofessional authors arguing with rejections, berating reviewers on their blogs, complaining about the unfairness of the system. Except now, "the system" isn't a centuries-old institution trying to make money off authors. It's just people.

Some revolutionists say this New World, in which anyone can find their own audience, removes the gatekeepers. But seeing a slush-pile-like reaction like this seems to imply the opposite: the gatekeepers are not gone, they're changing.

A gatekeeper's job is to sift through the slush, separating the good from the bad using the only measuring stick they have: their opinion. Book bloggers, like the one Howett railed against, are among those new gatekeepers. They can't keep people from buying something, of course--just like Random House can't keep me from renting my own printing press and hand-selling throughout the country--but they have a very strong word-of-mouth influence. Many book bloggers even have a very agent-like process, with submission guidelines, queries before full requests--and, apparently, dealing with the angrier members of the slush pile.

Understand, I don't think this incident says anything about self-published authors in general. For one thing, traditionally-published authors sometimes do the same thing.

For another, all the indie authors I know are professional, stand-up folks. Howett is an outlier.** My point is that the same outliers are, and always have been, in the query system. What happened two weeks ago is the same kind of thing agents deal with all the time.

It makes me think the Old World and the New World might not be as different as we thought.

* I do believe that, in theory, an author could respond to a negative review in some positive way. Something like, "I'm really sorry you didn't like that aspect of my book, but I appreciate the constructive criticism. I'll try and improve that in the future."

But it's only a theory. I've never seen it done, nor done it myself, so I don't know how it would be received.

** Also, Ms. Howett may have been having a very bad day, or any other number of things, that might have contributed to her public outrage. This post isn't intended to mock her, just to take a look at how similar it is to a slush pile.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I like your analogy! Very apt.

Also, I think responding to any review (good or bad) is not a great idea (caveat: unless it's someone you already know or have a personal connection with, like a blogger friend). Here's why: reviewers are creating reviews for readers, not authors. To have the author pop in and say "Hey! Thanks for the great review! You're just the best!" is not very professional, and will probably make the reviewer feel uncomfortable. Professional distance is a good thing.

Of course, there's no reason not to tweet, post, or otherwise hype a good review like crazy. It helps your book, and spreads the book reviewers name around - probably the nicest way to say "thank you" for a great review.

mooderino said...

Interesting stuff. I think there have always been some writers who have taken reviewers to task, some poeple are more sensitive than others, some reviewers have an agenda etc., but in this particular case it was more that the reviewer was very mild in his criticisms and generally supportive, while the author overreacted hugely and was stupendously blind to her own faults, making her comments unintentionally hilarious.

A bit of a perfect storm I think most people won't encounter, although who knows?

Moody Writing

Author Joshua Hoyt said...

THis is an interesting thought. I agree that the most important thing is to be professional especially when it comes to rejections. This is when our character is tested. I like what susan said as well about separating or distancing ourselves.
I guess this is another reason for critique groups so we are hardened to the critiques that will come.

Ken Lindsey said...

Just a simple, "Here, here!" from me today. Great post

Matthew MacNish said...

This whole thing made me very sad. I got the impression that she had poured her heart into that story, and had probably never gotten any feedback from anyone who knew anything about writing. It can be a very difficult task to accomplish by yourself.

In fact, I would argue that no one should write a book alone, and then publish it without having someone who actually knows something about writing take a look.

I do think you have a point though. Great comparison to the slush.

jjdebenedictis said...

Interesting point! I hadn't made the connection between replying to a rejection and replying to a negative review.

I can't imagine it ever looking bad on the writer if they thank the reviewer for their comments and taking the time to talk about the book. It's possible the reviewer would react badly, but the writer would only look even better by comparison, in that case.

The Writing Goddess said...

I would go with JJdeb. on this - at least thank the reviewer for his/her time. If you can show class and graciousness, even when you are undoubtedly hurting, then people will probably be more likely to remember that and read your next book, which hopefully is not a piece of slush.

I agree with Susan, though, one shouldn't gush over a good review, either, "OMG, Reviewer, you so totally rock and let's be besties, XXOOXXOO!" It's keeping the big picture in mind, and representing oneself as being professional, always.

WV: entell - I'm going to keep writing entell I'm successful at it.

Myrna Foster said...

It's considered good manners to thank agents and editors for their criticism, if they take the time to give you any, especially if they've pulled your work from the slush pile. I've rarely had an author react to a book review on my blog, but the few who said "thank you" made a positive impression. Okay, I might have squealed and showed my husband ;)