15 February 2013

Manipulating The Dawn

Dear Director of Marketing and Public Relations,

I get a lot of pitches from PR companies and publishers. Most emails just get deleted – no, I really don’t want to interview a religious advisor on how to prepare for end-of-life, nor do I want any printable Pajanimals valentines, and I’m not interested in learning “how to cook like a deaf chef”. But sometimes I read the email, and I’m intrigued enough to respond.

Such was the case when you asked if I’d like to read a memoir about sailing around the world. It’s such a romantic notion, putting out to sea like that. And sailing – is there anything more exhilarating? I used to sail a lot as a young person – racing Blue Jays, cruising Long Island Sound on my grandfather’s yawl. Once we spent two weeks on that boat, with a compass and a one-way radio, and I’ll never forget sailing to Block Island through pea soup fog, somehow managing to hit the harbor entrance spot-on. If we hadn't, we’d probably have ended up in Portugal, at least, that’s how we like to tell the story.

So your book arrived, and because of various things going on in my life, I didn’t get to it for a while. When I finally sat down to read it, it turned out to be a slog. Oh, it’s not that it’s not interesting in parts – I mean, sailing around the world with islands and broken stays and a cat and drama is not uninteresting – but it’s dreadfully written.

You sent a follow-up email, asking if I’d “ever received a copy of How the Winds Laughed?”

And I answered:

I did, thanks. I'm finally reading it. I'm not likely to write about it because, frankly, I don't think it's very good. Interesting at times, yes, but rather clumsy and kind of confusing.

You wrote back and offered a few more books from your publishing house.

I wonder if you'd like to try reading a book by one of our seasoned writers? It's also a memoir, about end-of-life circumstances with her parents. It's tragic, funny, and transcendent and has been praised by all who've read it so far. It's called Entering the Blue Stone. I have attached the press kit here.

Apologies for never answering that email, but I was a bit put off after I figured out that Entering the Blue Stone had been written by your mother. I mean, it may well be a lovely book, but I think you should have mentioned up front that your mother had written it. In fact, though, you didn’t even name the author in the email – but when I saw in the press kit that you shared a last name, well, that sent me off on a search. It's not that it's a conflict of interest that you're representing your mother, but it seems to me you should be a little more transparent about the relationship.

By the way, because maybe I was unclear – by “not likely to write about it”, I meant that I probably wouldn’t take the time to write a blog post, because a blog post needs a hook and some passion, for me anyway, and I didn’t really have the energy to review a book that wasn’t worth reading. Also, remember that your initial email to me was addressed "Dear Esteemed Blogger", which leads me to think it's pretty clear that we were talking about my blog. But, because I like to warn my fellow readers, and because I compulsively track the books I read, I did post a few sentences on both Amazon and Goodreads:

After slogging through 40% of this, I decided to put it aside because life is too short to finish lousy books. Sure, it's interesting at times, and doesn't everyone kind of want to run off and circumnavigate the globe in a 28' wooden sailboat? Alas, it's rather clumsy and kind of confusing.

Sample sentence:

"Dawn rose slowly, pulling up her various window shades, tinting the lagoon gray". Please, who the hell is Dawn? Oh, Dawn's not a person, dawn is when the sun comes up. So why is the lagoon gray, and where are the rosy fingers?

The other day, you found the Amazon review I’d written, and you sent me a fairly unhappy email.

I'm writing because I was a bit stunned to see that you took the time to write a very negative review of How the Winds Laughed on amazon. I understand you didn't like the book--not every reader "gets" every book--and Addie Greene's primary audience may be readers with some knowledge and experience of sailing. But when a reviewer lets us know (as you did), that they don't want to review a book, we'd never dream that he or she would then post a derogatory review on amazon.

Fuze is a small press, running on a shoestring and dedicated to taking chances on new voices. For Addie Greene, Winds is her first book; she would be eager to hear constructive criticism/feedback. Amazon has complicated algorithms that greatly influence whether they totally bury a book or not, and negative reviews play a significant part in that decision. Given all this, I wonder if you would consider removing your review? Of course, if you had bought the book and felt dissatisfied enough to post such a review, I would never take issue with it.

First – I am a reader with some knowledge and experience of sailing. I’ve been on the water, and will be again. No, I’ve never sailed to the Marshall Islands. But I know how to fold a spinnaker, I know why a mast needs stays, I can tie a bowline, and I know what “batten down the hatches” means. Furthermore, I don’t think that a predisposition to the subject matter is what makes a person like a book. I’ve read about geology and long distance trucking and shad fishing with great relish, just because John McPhee can turn a sentence like no one, and makes obscure, idiosyncratic, unfamiliar topics come alive. The writing makes the book. Sadly, that wasn’t the case here.

Second – I didn’t say I didn’t want to review the book. I said I wasn’t likely to write about it, but that’s different. Further, a person is entitled to an opinion, not to mention a change of heart. As a publicist, you take risks every time you send your product out into the world. So do your authors. Someone will love your book, someone will hate it. Last week, a dance review in the New York Times began and ended thusly:

“N’a pas un gramme de charisme” is a worthy title for Claude Wampler’s new show: it translates, roughly, as “Hasn’t an ounce of charisma.” ...[snip]...Why does the title limit the show’s omissions to charisma alone? Everything about this piece is terrible: poorly conceived, poorly executed.

Do you think the publicist, or the choreographer, called the Times and asked them to take down the review? Um, no. It doesn't work that way. And, just so you know, the Times dance critic gets comp tickets. It's not as though buying your tickets lets you write a bad review and getting free tickets means you have to stay quiet.

Third – that you would have the temerity to ask me to remove the Amazon review is flabbergasting. Amazon’s been gamed. The review system is subject to manipulation by people who pay for five star reviews. Your request that I remove the review is just as manipulative as the person who pays $5 for a review.

What it boils down to is this:

If you send me a book, I may or may not write about it. I may or may not write something nice. That's the risk you take.

I think perhaps you’d better take me off of your list.



Disclosure: The publisher sent me a free copy of How the Winds Laughed. My opinion is my own, and I wasn't compensated for anything I said, here or on Amazon or on Goodreads.


freshhell said...

Good thing she didn't send you her mom's book. :)

Jeanne said...

Also, I hate it when you say something nuanced about a book and the only thing the person who wants to push it gets is that you "don't like it."

Julie Pippert said...


edj3 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
edj3 said...

Heck, it doesn't have to be nuanced. I can get it AND not like it.

Swistle said...

This reminds me of a Penny Arcade strip: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/24. The book wasn't FOR critics.

My favorite part is where if you don't like it, it apparently means you didn't GET it.

Patois42 said...

Makes me want to buy her mother's book just to write a bad review of it. But I'm nasty like that. Uh-oh, I just said something mean about her mother. Bad me. Mothers are the best.

lemming said...

(makes note to self never to buy anything buy this author or anyone else with a similar name)

Jocelyn said...

I hope you actually sent this, of course. The whole interaction here is representative of a larger cultural trend towards confusing "critical thinker" with "hater." Hello, People of Earth, but it's okay to articulate the failings of something without that act of articulation being inherently unfair.

Heide Estes said...

Good for you.

Kizz said...

I am baffled that people don't understand how reviews work. I mean, not every review is good. Every reviewer goes to the movie/dance/show/concert for free. Gah.

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

Ridiculous and unprofessional. Clearly, they don't understand the whole concept of what sending a review copy means.

And Amazon reviews are so compromised! I've seen self-published books get hundreds of five star reviews. Really? I'm supposed to believe a self-published book put out "off the grid" by an unknown author is going to generate HUNDREDS of PERFECT reviews? And the handful of less-than-perfect reviews all received responses, including at least one I'd bet was written undercover by the author. It was all so transparent.

I am immediately suspicious when I see too many good reviews and too many of the same terms showing up in the text again and again.

Anonymous said...

Heading up the rear to say, "creepy"!

Pretty sure delete is your friend.

Joybells said...

Write her back a note telling her that you can't wait to read the sequel to "How the Winds Laughed," but only if its entitled "How the Winds Broke."

Stimey said...

1. Ugh, ugh, and ugh. You are SO in the right on this one.

2. I want to hear more about this cat that was trapped on the sailboat.

Anonymous said...

As a seasoned communcations professional, and having been a teacher in a graducate program for Arts Administrators, one of classic 'Do's/Don't" tips in dealing with the media (or in your case a blogger) I say, "Take no for an answer be respectful and move on." Apparently, this individuals never took my class, nor read my listing in a leading textbook for arts administration.

Bibliomama said...

Ugh. I've virtually stopped accepting books from small publishers or self-published stuff because of this kind of thing. They keep 'just checking' how things are going until I have to say "um, I could review it, but I'd have to say it sucked". If you offer a book for review, you offer it for whatever review you get, wherever it ends up.

Absence of Alternatives said...

I applaud you for writing an honest review. Ever since I read that expose about paid reviews on Amazon, I don't know what to think any more. And the state of the "most popular books" and "recommended" books on my Kindle depresses me. I have also been traumatized by badly written books. now I want to know where you post your other book reviews so I could feel safe when I pick up the next book!

S said...

I am floored by this.

Of course you are in the right.

(still shaking my head)

mayberry said...

This was far more entertaining than the book ever could have been, clearly.

I too am so annoyed by the follow-up email... since it usually arrives less than 24 hours after the initial contact. PLEASE.

painted maypole said...

you? are awesome.

leanne said...

Wow. Just wow. Good for you though.

YourFireAnt said...

Since when are negative reviews/opinions "derogatory"? And because it's her first book, and written for sailors, only certain opinions matter?

Would he also agree to: Oh, let's give the guy tenure; he has a wife and kids even though he falsified his research in order to get a grant.

What a whiner.

Anna said...

This should go viral as best.book.review.ever.

I also think the request to have you remove your Amazon review reflects where we've gone as a society in general - disagreement and dislike are not ok, especially b/c (horrors!) sales are at stake.

Wrath Of Mom said...

Well done.

I suspect this PR person has confused sending out books for review by bloggers with outsourcing marketing work.

Florinda said...

Most of my blog content is book-related, and I absolutely agree with this: "If you send me a book, I may or may not write about it. I may or may not write something nice. That's the risk you take," and I basically say the same thing on my review-policy page. Most of the publicists I've dealt with seem to understand that, but occasionally you get one who's new and/or overzealous and/or doesn't understand boundaries.

I almost never post reviews on Amazon unless I'm specifically asked to do so. My experience is that the authors/publishers are more concerned with the rating than the review content there, and they only really want four- and five-star ratings that will help drive sales. Obviously, many books don't deserve those ratings, but considering that focus, I'm not all that surprised you were asked to take down your review. And as for this: "Of course, if you had bought the book and felt dissatisfied enough to post such a review, I would never take issue with it"--HUH? Is that because they'd at least have your money for it already? You spent time on a book that wasn't worth it; sometimes that's a more painful loss than the money. I hope they take you off their list so you don't have to go through this again.

Andi said...

Well done! It's ridiculous that these situations with publicists seem to pop up so often. One of the reasons I just stopped accepting copies of anything. Too much drama.

Ti said...

Florinda shared your post so I thought I'd comment.

I will say this, she was polite even though she was a bit pushy and her pitching her mom's book is downright laughable. I would have laughed over that one for sure.

My review policy is posted for all to see and it clearly states that the choice to review or not to review is mine and that a negative review is possible. I feel that that is my "out" and I don't need to explain it further.

Bryan G. Robinson said...

I naturally agree with you. However, as an aside, I just wanted to let you know I love John McPhee's work. He's probably my favorite nonfiction writer. I'm glad when I see others giving him a plug.

Mark Baker said...

That's just - amazing. But I had it happen to me once as well. I actually had someone threaten my day job because of a negative review. The mistake I had made? He was someone I knew in real life. Long story short, I did take that review down, but I still have a copy. It's been a few years. Maybe it's time for it to make a reappearance.

cactus petunia said...

Bravo. Well said!