The Soapbox – Take Your Job %$^&*#@ Seriously

Take Your Job %$^&*#@ Seriously

Today’s topic requires some background reading. First, you should probably check out Lousy Book Covers. Hold those thoughts! Now read/skim Nathan Shumate’s blog post on the subject, the Guardian piece (you knew there’d be one, didn’t you?), see some highlighted pieces on FastCompany, (here’s comments on The Passive Voice), and finally, the reaction post on KindleBoards.

It’s probably not too difficult to guess my opinion on this kerfluffle if you know me at all, but bear with me nonetheless.

Classism or Constructive Criticism? “Mean Girls” or Satire?

If you don’t have time to skim anything, here’s the five-second version: cover designer creates Tumblr blog of bad book covers à la for Amazon publishers. Some featured authors go apeshit, others cry bullying. Most people laugh.

An important point to note is that Nathan Shumate does business in publishing: as stated above, he’s a cover designer by trade. At first, he offered free cover redesigns for authors who didn’t respond poorly to the posts. After two DMCA takedown notices and a strike on his Tumblr blog, however, he rescinded the offer.

Initial reactions from the Writer’s Café crowd were a mixture of “sure glad my covers weren’t on there” to “Shumate shouldn’t profit off of putting other people down.” Which okay, fine. I would definitely prefer that the party who created and updates the blog be a reader or an Amazon fan than someone profiting off the publicity the blog generates, even if he is offering his services for free to the unlucky authors, because that angle makes the whole operation a bit sleazier. Still, the above opinion is about ETHICS, not legality. He’s perfectly within his rights to critique what he dubs bad art for the purpose of commentary, satire, education, or parody. This is clearly satire, and not the nicest I’ve ever seen.

However, he is giving the featured books a lot of free traffic, and I’m sure some of the titles will see a bump in sales, just as craft items featured on Regretsy often sell well after being pilloried there. Some of the authors don’t seem to understand how creator-consumer interaction should work if they want to help their career and invoked the Streisand Effect by demanding Tumblr remove their covers and claiming Shumate violated their copyrights. (Shumate correctly points out that per the minutiae of copyright law in the U.S., he’s not even hosting most of the images, but that’s beyond the purview of this post.)

It appeared this would simply be another case of “Authors Behaving Badly,” a teachable moment on what not to do when someone criticizes your work publicly.

Then came the accusations of bullying.

People on KindleBoards started saying that Shumate’s response to the DMCA takedown requests was unneccessary:

He seems to get a real rise out of embarrassing others, hence the e-mail with the author over copyright.  She misunderstood copyright law, and was trying to protect her work from being used as fodder on a slanderous site.  He didn’t have to further embarrass her, or mock her.

Actually, it’s standard practice in blogging to mock or expose DMCA takedowns when they are without merit. It’s not only a way to openly assert that you did nothing legally wrong; it’s often about educating other non-involved people about the difference between protecting your copyrights and censoring others’ rights to free speech.

If you’re going to abuse the law and then be embarrassed when it doesn’t work, my advice would be to stop digging.

After a moderator calls the blog “bully behavior,” a bunch of people respond chime in and it becomes an echo chamber. I start to become annoyed.

Why Product Criticism, Whether Mockery or Complaint on Consumerist, Is NOT Bullying

Normally, I avoid starting off an explanation with a dictionary definition, because in social justice discussions, dictionary definitions can be both inaccurate and harmful. However, victims of bullying are not necessarily members of marginalized groups, so I think the standard explanation will work here.

bully (v.) – to use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants


Definition of BULLY:
(transitive verb) 1. to treat abusively 2. to affect by means of force or coercion
(intransitive verb) to use browbeating language or behavior

While transitive verbs can apply to inanimate objects, I highly doubt that most people think it possible to bully one’s toaster or DVD player.

Bullying is an action done towards PEOPLE, NOT THINGS.

Book covers do not have feelings. As far as I know, none of the Tumblr posts expressed any personal animosity towards either the authors, the publishers, the cover designers, or the artists (usually all were probably one and the same).

There’s a difference between outing someone’s closeted sexuality on Facebook to their family and saying a business put out a poor product by visual demonstration. One is bullying. The other is the consumer review process in the digital age.

Authorial Intent Is Dead; Long Live Authorial Intent

This is yet another example of authors being unable to separate themselves from their work. Professional authors should not respond to reviews, and it’s probably not a good idea to respond to satire blogs, either.

Once you put out a product, your intentions are no longer rules that the reader has to follow. What you meant to say or represent may not be what other people see. That’s why writers should put the best product forward that they possibly can.

Wearer of Many Hats, Master of None

It’s also why I was kind of disappointed that so many KB members were worried their covers might be on the blog. Not surprised, but disappointed nonetheless.

The cover design is no longer a writer’s issue. It’s a publisher’s issue. When you type the final word of the manuscript, it’s time to take off your writer’s hat and put on the publisher’s hat.

This is a reality check. There are no ‘just writers’ in self-publishing. If you are running the show, you are a small business owner.

As a publisher who is trying to be a professional and, you know, actually run a business, you should be contemplating three options if you are neither well-funded enough to spare $30 on a pre-made cover nor skilled enough in design to make one on par with other professional designers. You can either:

a) save up some money until you can afford the cover your book deserves — skipping 6 to 8 venti Starbucks drinks should more than cover it, OR
b) barter services for the ones you can’t do professionally yourself (ask around for links to writer’s groups and see if you can beta read or ghost-write or proofread or do something for someone entirely unrelated to writing, just trade SOMETHING …besides sex), OR
c) learn to do graphic design the way you learned to write: through lots of study and hard work.

Notice there is no option where you do a disservice to your book and insult your potential customers by slapping a cover on that resembles a fifth-grader’s binder sketches on crack.

Honestly? We’re not talking about $600 for a block of ISBNs here. Self-publishers are often micro-entrepreneurs, working on shoestring budgets. But shoestring budget does not mean “no budget.”

Lots of beginning actors work two or three jobs in an expensive city for months just to afford good headshots, because they know that showing up with a professional-looking résumé means having professional photos. The ones who can’t wait to save up trade modeling work for a free portfolio with a photographer. Again, you only give what you get.

I would venture a guess that anyone unwilling to sacrifice, save, or task a risk on themselves by investing at least $100 in any business venture is not serious about making that venture into a real job. Ask any successful businessperson if they disagree with that statement.

But But But… What If Those People Don’t Care About Making Money / Just Want to Share Their Stories with Their Friends and Family?

[These publishers] are most likely people who like writing, cannot find a publisher, and just wanted to publish their novel so they could share it with others –
They probably told their friends and family they wrote a novel you could find on Amazon, and were proud of that little joy they had –until everyone else started making fun of them.

Setting aside (AGAIN) the debunked fallacy that the blog mocks writers and not merely bad cover art…

There’s a place for them to display their works, usually for free. There are many places, actually. Wattpad. Scribd. File-sharing sites. Clones of the aforementioned places. Their own blogs or websites. Depending on the presentation, YouTube, Facebook. or Flickr. Heck, you can make Lulu books semi-private if you want to. Why didn’t they just email or snail mail copies out?

These publishers choose not to do so. Why? I suspect it’s because they wanted the prestige of having their books on sale next to NYT bestsellers and self-publishers who take their work seriously without having to invest the time, skills, money, or hard work to sell at that level. That’s disrespectful.

Other “Mean” Websites Are Okay Because They Only Mock Out of Print or Traditionally Published Books!

There are plenty of sites on the internet mocking unfortunate cover art. Good show, sir was already mentioned, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books sometimes does it as well. The big difference there is that those sites mostly take on trad covers, often for books that are already several years or even decades old.

Question: do indies WANT to be seen as total flaming hypocrites?

Self-publishing is now finally a viable, well-known, and widely accepted way to make a living as a writer. The whole point is for our books to be indistinguishable from traditionally published books, in both appearance and quality. Yet we expect to be coddled while everyone else is held to a higher standard?

NO. Just no. The idea is so ridiculous… I can’t even.

Seriously, people? Seriously?

Graphic Design Is a Skilled Profession

JYFI to people who don’t think graphic design is a professional skill:

The reason some writers can pound out an award-winning short story in a day is the same reason why some graphic artists can design an award-winning wrap-around cover in a weekend. Those achievements are possible because of all the hours of training that went into all of the work that came before. Do you think anyone can just wake up one day and write like Stephen King? What makes you think you can sit down at a desk one day and design like Shepard Fairey?

Here’s what I said in the comment thread at KB about this:

The book covers in question are not bad by a matter of “taste.” Me thinking that the Wheel of Time books have terrible cover art is a matter of taste, as is disliking ‘man titty’ on PNR novels (tramp stamp or not, I prefer women on PNR covers). But you know what? If the only successful PNR books were the ones that featured headless, limbless torsos of well-oiled male flesh, you can bet the farm that I would be slapping Fabio wannabes on every PNR title I published, because it does NO good to design my covers to my tastes if no one else buys them.

Design, like writing, requires that one know the rules before attempting to break them.

In Summary: Respect Your Work, Your Customers, and Yourself

I don’t know what reaction people think I or others had when seeing those covers. I didn’t laugh, because I didn’t think they were funny.

I cringed. I was sad. I was frustrated. I didn’t laugh. Because ensuring people won’t take your products seriously isn’t funny. It’s a shame.

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2012.11.02 – The Soapbox: The Amazon Review Crackdown, and Konrath Fails Again

Amazon has effectively decided that you cannot be both an author and a reviewer. At least not on their store website.

The Scandals

After a series of high-profile scandals involving sockpuppetry, malicious author-on-author review sabotage, bullying and harassment* of negative reviewers by authors, and shill or paid reviews, Amazon has decided to enable an algorithm to remove any reviews on products it deems suspect. The focus seems to be on books, however, as evidenced by the angry authors on KindleBoards.

* NOTE: potential anti-Semitic slur in article heading. Don’t start arguing about Shylock on my blog or the difference between language reclamation in the U.S. vs. the U.K. I’m just pointing this out so that you don’t click on it if you don’t want to read it.

This is actually not a new story. Mainak Dhar was exposed in April for buying reviews for his books on Fiverr, where he spent money to have random people actually buy his books before leaving reviews on Amazon, thus marking them as verified purchasers and increasing the weight of their reviews on Amazon’s algorithms. It’s unclear just how many of his five- and four-star reviews were fake, but what is clear is that his books had regularly hit the Top 100 lists in their categories before the news broke.


My first thought when I heard this? I was surprised it took this long for Amazon to do something. Granted, their solution seems like ineffective overkill and pretty unfair to people who review without ulterior motives, but Amazon is focused on the long-term viability of its business. Amazon has built its brand on making the customer Number #1. Its website is the largest review site in the world. If people gaming the system becomes a threat to its brand, it should come as no surprise that executives decided to crack down on the abuse.

Of course, not everyone feels this way. Take J.A. Konrath, who wrote a complaint letter to Amazon Customer Service that managed to be both indignant and obsequious:

People are seriously disappointed in how Amazon handled this. It was a knee-jerk,  inappropriate reaction to a ridiculous case of unjustified moral panic, and a Big Fail.

Again, I’m not trying to point fingers, signal anyone out, or place blame. […]

Why not? Isn’t Amazon the company taking down the reviews on its own site?

As it turns out, it’s because Konrath knows who’s really to blame for Amazon taking down legitimate reviews along with the suspected shill ones:

But I don’t blame Amazon for this. While I don’t think they approached this situation in the right way, they were showing how customer-centric they are by reacting to public opinion. Namely, complaints about their review system brought up by those very clever No Sock Puppets Here Please authors.

Congratulations, NSPHP signatories. Because of your concerns about Amazon’s review policy and your ridiculous little petition, and the resulting media witch hunt, thousands of legitimate reviews have now been deleted.

Ah, I see! It’s not the fault of the con men abusing a system designed for consumers, or the company that makes arbitrary decisions to react to bad PR. It’s the fault of people POINTING OUT the bad behavior in the first place. Because that totally makes sense.

Can you hear the sound of my eyes rolling yet?

Apparently, the authors, reviewers and readers who do not, in fact, condone unethical and possibly fraudulent behavior like Joe Konrath did, are to blame for Amazon trying, albeit in a chainsaw-beats-a-scalpel sort of way, to throw out the bad apples. (My apologies for mixing metaphors. The inner editor is on break for NaNoWriMo.)

Writers, Review No More?

Remember how there was a huge controversy back in the beginning of 2011 about traditionally published authors and agents advising upcoming authors not to blog critically about other books because it might hurt their career? How it was all intertwined with a so-called YA Mafia? Yeah, I’m betting a few people remember that. If not, here’s a refresher.

The gist of the whole kerfluffle was this: with Twilight‘s fame came a huge influx of adult female readers along with more intense scrutiny of YA genre and the messages some of its books convey to children, particularly about gender, class, sexuality, and race. At the same time, social media and online fan culture / blogging exploded, making interactions between authors and readers inevitable. Some of those readers turned out to be both book bloggers and aspiring writers, and the notion of separating the analytical side of one’s personality from one’s business decisions didn’t make sense to some people. The blogosphere tends to foster an incendiary atmosphere: you either shout loud enough for everyone to hear you, or you write about enough popular or controversial topics that someone else eventually shouts for you. Fandom culture — and I’m inclined to believe that a huge portion of consumers participate in fen-like activity or activity that relates to fandom whether they recognize it as such or not — is always oneDr. Who casting decision or Jensen Ackles interview away from kersploding all over The Interwebz.

All of this noise and constant, immediate feedback has served to muddle the boundaries that used to exist between artists, their published art, and their fans. Why are authors “answering” reviews that are not meant for them, that are conversations between other consumers? (Because authors can find them, probably. Also, Google.) How is it fair to ask writers to maintain an online presence and then threaten them with morals clauses if they reveal unsavory opinions on their Twitter feed? (CLUEFLASH: making blatantly offensive and bigoted statements tends to have offline career consequences, too.) It’s a big, new, scary world out there in the digital universe, and there aren’t many written rules, because most of us can’t even agree on who deserves to write them.

On the one hand, it is pretty easy to separate your writing career and your blogging career. They’re called pseudonyms, and they’re quite useful when writers just can’t stop themselves from ranting about Stephenie Meyer or E. L. James for the fourth time.

In addition, there is no cabal of successful authors out to put you down, and while I’m sure NY published YA authors are only human and gossip in cliques on a regular basis, it’s highly unlikely that any working writer has either the time or the inclination to actively sabotage more than one person’s life on their Burn List at once. Their own names are often higher up on that particular To-Do list than yours.

On the other hand, and I disagree that giving potential authors advice to keep controversial opinions to themselves is in any way equivalent, it is never okay to harass reviewers who choose to review honestly and critically. A lot of authors have behaved badly this year, and last year, in YA literature, in adult literature, both self-published and legacy published. Heck, there have been cases in the past month where authors or their anonymous supporters have doxed reviewers for critical book reviews or selling finished copies — in other words, not ARCs — to used bookstores.

Reviewing honestly and critically, it seems, has become a hazardous profession.

For a writer, the choices are therefore meaningful: to review or not to review, to only recommend or not talk about other people’s books at all, to review under one’s real name or under a pseudonym. It seems that if you use the same Amazon account to both self-publish and review books, Amazon has made that choice for you —

You can’t do it. You can’t post your reviews on Amazon, not for books that ostensibly could compete with yours in your genres, not for books that are on completely different subjects. At least, you can no longer do this without risk of your reviews being deleted, or worse.

It remains to be seen whether there will be broader consequences, like whether Amazon will penalize high-profile authors who post reviews on competing books anywhere else on the web by changing the terms of their contracts. My gut says no, absolutely not. They can’t even personally oversee the review deletions on their own site, much less troll the web looking for mean-spirited invectives. Nor do I think they engage in secret compacts with big publishing to shut out indies (where do people find these conspiracy theories?). Amazon’s turf is Amazon’s turf, and everything else is the Wild, Wild, West.

Then again, company lawyers have been known to do really nasty things to contracts… *cue ominous music*

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I just had an unlikely but wonderful run-in with someone who I have known as a screen name for a couple of years, at a place where I had never expected to meet someone else with such similar career aspirations and habits. It was like a nice kick to the head — “Hello! Self-publishers are everywhere now! Some of them are even *gasp* remarkably like you!”

Also, that friend with whom I had the self-publishing convo with last year? Her boyfriend is self-publishing now. Wonder how those dinner table career talks are going.

Sometimes it takes distance to achieve perspective, and sometimes it takes really, really wanting someone you like and respect to see you succeed that finally pushes you to move. That is what is happening to me. I need to move forward and not live life in fear.

The best-laid plans can go to waste. Worlds can collide and crumble. Change still arrives, stumbling at times but prodding us forward. I will not fall. I will land on my feet.


DoJ Files Suit Against Apple, Macmillan, Penguin Over Agency Model

The WSJ (h/t to Passive Voice) has a nice video intro in the first several minutes of this clip summarizing the case.


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Self-Publishing… for Kids?

I came across this article in the NYT last night: Young Writers Dazzle Publisher (Mom and Dad)

First of all, let me say that Christopher Paolini notwithstanding, there are teenagers out there who can write, and I see no reason why they should have to wait until a certain age to pursue traditional publication or self-publication.

That being said, these parents are paying vanity presses to publish their children’s works at ages like 10 and 12.

What was I doing at age 12? I was writing a serial novel with my best friend. I wrote the odd chapters, and she wrote the evens. While I planned out and plotted my story arc, she just wrote whatever she darn felt like at the time, and as a consequence, our characters interacted less and less with each other as time went on.

I continued to invest my time in making the story work as a cohesive whole. After all, if R. L. Stine could write from a dual point of view, why couldn’t we? Of course, R. L. Stine wasn’t two different people, but hey, what’s good for the goose must be good for the gander, right? Meanwhile, my friend became bored (possibly because she had ADD) and started three other stories, one of which she wrote even more for than she had for our co-authored story, and all of which were pretty terrible. In fact, all of our work was pretty awful. Looking back, I would be ashamed of anyone reading my trite, badly clichéd generic fantasy story trunk novel, much less having it on sale to the entire world.

In the article, author Tom Robbins makes a nonsensical assertion that literature is unlike any other art form:

“What’s next?” asked the novelist Tom Robbins. “Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists? Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional.”

“There are no prodigies in literature,” Mr. Robbins said. “Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.”

Robbins’ point here, I suppose, is that although Mozart could compose concertos at age 5, there will never be the equivalent of a pre-teen Shakespeare. Perhaps not, but I’m not willing to make the presumption that such an occurrence is impossible.

These seems even more ironic (and makes Robbins sound even more like a nitwit) when you consider that a 14 year-old in Colorado just built a working nuclear fission reactor. Never say never! *insert lame Bieber joke here*

Poorly made justifications for ageism aside, however, this trend IS troubling: not because of the lack of gatekeepers, but because indulgent parents are mistaking hobbies for professions.

If your child is both a literary and a business prodigy, if your child can take editorial criticism and harsh feedback that can and still does turn otherwise well-adjusted adults into curled up, weeping balls of insecurity, if you could enter your child’s work blind into a fiction contest and not tell it was written by someone not yet out of puberty, then by all means, go ahead and post that child’s work on Amazon.

If, however, you are simply proud of your child and want to stroke her ego and pretend she’s as good as someone who has worked to make writing their sole profession, you should be dragged out into the street and beaten with the manuscripts from an agent’s slush pile.

Consumers deserve better. More importantly, your child deserves better. Most children are not precocious, and if they are, it is even rarer that they are multi-talented enough to both perform on Broadway and write publishable fiction. Most people are not and never will be good storytellers, because the skills needed to string together coherent sentences and school papers are only the foundation of the set of skills a person needs to inform and entertain in a cohesive and professional manner.

Building up the self-esteem of children with warped, unrealistic perceptions of their talents and places in the world is one of the worst disservices you can to them. They are not all winners or special little snowflakes. They need to continue to study and work toward their goals with the effort and dedication that those goals deserve.

There are ways to inexpensively produce professional-looking print-on-demand books without foisting your child’s amateur hour on the rest of us. Try It’s fast and easy, and you can order as few copies of a project as you want.

Most importantly, they need perspective — and perspective only comes with the judgment of impartial strangers and the wisdom from making mistakes. Don’t force them to learn these lessons the hard way. Don’t leave them unprepared for the arbitrary and cruel expectations of other human beings. Prepare them instead, and exercise some common sense, for all of our sakes.

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