Authors and Readers – Friend or Foes? [Guest Post]

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As part of our tour stop for Expiration Day we’ve got a guest post from the author, William Campbell Powell! We asked him to muse on what it’s like to be a new author in a time where participatory fandom has become the norm. Fans and authors have become used to immediate access of one another and reviews and information flow freely. We wondered what it was like for authors who are new to the scene and William was gracious enough to let us know

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Authors and Readers – Friends or Foes?

As a new author, I still read my reviews avidly.  I was a bit slow to realise Expiration Day had a presence on Goodreads, so by the time I joined Goodreads, I already had half a dozen reviews up there – some good, some bad.  So I never experienced the anguish of waiting for my first review, though I can imagine what it might feel like.  Nevertheless, I don’t truly appreciate the desperation that might afflict a lone author, trying to get their self-published novel noticed, and the temptation to ‘seed the soil’ a little bit, with a self-penned review.

Goodreads advises its authors to steer clear of interacting with reviewers, even to thank them.  That feels to me like I’m being really aloof, and early on, I once did ask a reviewer to mark her review as containing spoilers.  No response.

In hindsight, I may have had a lucky escape there, because I’ve seen that reviewers can get really heated about being told what they can and can’t write in a review.  On the whole, I can sympathise with that attitude – after all, the principle of free speech is dear to authors.

Of course, with freedom comes a matching responsibility to use that freedom wisely, and not every writer (under which umbrella I place both authors and reviewers) wields the responsibility as wisely as we might wish.  That’s democracy, though, where the wise and the foolish both have a public voice, if they desire.  The only sanction we should apply to fools is to ignore them.

Right now, I perceive that free and rational discussion between author and reviewer has been poisoned by groups of Badly Behaved Authors (BBAs), and groups of Review Trolls, speaking freely, but not responsibly.  At the moment, the review boards on Amazon, Goodreads and elsewhere are apparently awash with sock-puppetry, bullying and other forms of trollish behaviour.

That’s a real shame, because it’s breaking the trust that should exist between authors and readers.  I’ve come to writing from the world of business, where I’m encouraged to listen to criticism, but also to engage with the critic to really understand the underlying issues.  That dialogue doesn’t exist – and perhaps it is the anonymity of the internet that’s to blame, but I don’t think forcing reviewers to identify themselves is the solution.

As a computer scientist, with some appreciation of what can be done with Big Data, I suspect that several remedies may soon emerge.  Sock-puppetry could be spotted by analysis of device IDs, analysis of vocabulary choices and analysis of rating distribution.  Likewise, trollishness.

So if you see high but roughly similar numbers of 3-, 4- and 5-star reviews, and a handful of 1- and 2-stars, you can deduce that the book is probably well-written, probably doesn’t suit everybody (what book does?), but a few people really didn’t get it.  On the other hand, a book with extreme ratings (mostly 1- and 5-star reviews) is probably the target of either BBA sock-puppetry or trolling, or both.

The nature of the internet is that a review site that gets this right will be trusted by reviewers and authors alike, for their own different reasons, though publishers and booksellers will only be convinced if both authors and reviewers desert the failing sites in sufficient numbers.

The downside is that if you can analyse the reviewers well enough to identify the sock-puppets and the trolls, then you can also identify the rest of us.  Who do you trust to behave responsibly with that kind of information?  The NSA?  Google?  Amazon?  And even if you trust them, what if their data leaks?  And that’s a solution worse than the free speech problem we’re trying to solve.

No thanks.

So for me, I will step carefully.  I will look carefully at reviewers’ behaviour before interacting with them.  I keep an open contact address on my website, though, because I don’t want to live aloof from readers.  I look forward to interacting with you.

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William Campbell PowellWilliam Campbell Powell was born in 1958 in Sheffield, but grew up in and around Birmingham. He was educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and gained a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge to study Natural Sciences. Leaving Clare College in 1980 with a BA in Computer Science, he entered the computer industry, which is where he has been ever since. William has been writing since 2002, experimenting with various genres, but he is most at home with Science Fiction, Historical Fiction and fiction for Young Adults.

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