Crawlin’ from the Wreckage

great_car_wreck_5163.jpgSocial media and book publishing are starting to collide. Here’s the back-story: As you may know, my first novel, Between Clubs, made it to the semi-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. (muted hooray)

That means anyone can download a free 5,000-word excerpt and write a review. To judge who goes to the next round, Penguin Books is rating all 836 books on the basis of customer reviews and reviews by an Amazon Top Reviewer, and Publishers Weekly. (As Slate pointed out, the Amazon reviews have always been a murky, politicized issue.)

This week, Publishers Weekly trashed Between Clubs, probably killing its hopes of reaching the next round. (muted groans)

That hurt, though not because I naively thought everyone would love the book. I knew I’d get dinged, sooner or later (though I had a nice honeymoon, when all the customers who’ve written reviews gave me 5 stars).

It hurt because the PW reviewer got so many obvious things wrong about the review, that I know he or she skipped entire sections of the book. I also felt that the reviewer based some of the negative things s/he said on the basis of not reading. Nor am I the only one who feels wronged. There’s even a discussion thread going on Amazon, Factual Errors in PW Reviews – Do we try to get them fixed?

One writer said of the Publishers Weekly reviews that “quite a few read like 8th grade book reports, (read the first and last chapter then write it up.)”

My first instinct was to fight back, citing chapter and verse to prove that the reviewer didn’t read the book. I even wrote an angry blog post, then deleted it. (Though I did callowly leave it up as an anonymous rant on Craigslist, which was quite therapeutic.)

The writer Patricia Cornwell is fighting back against nasty Amazon reviews, but with limited success and support. According to Tess Gerritsen,

The general reaction in the blogosphere is that Cornwell is rich and famous so why does she bother to fight back? People in her position should be immune to hurt feelings. People with money and success should be able to shrug off any and all criticism.

I think that’s a sort of straw-man argument, much like the charges leveled against Stephen Fry when he complained about how taking photos was ruining book reading (here’s my blog post about that).

Writers like Cornwell get upset and fight back because they’re sensitive and vulnerable to criticism. Tess Gerritsen is, Patricia Cornwell is, I am, and so is everyone who took umbrage at a bad Publishers Weekly review.

What I find interesting about this process is that social media allows people to write whatever they want about a book — and allows the writer to respond.

I’m just not sure whether a writer should. In the Amazon contest FAQ, one of the questions is

Can I vote for my own entry?
Of course! Stay tuned – if you are selected as a semi-finalist in January, we will be providing tips for promoting your book to customers in the coming months.

I’m tempted to review my own book, both as an exercise and to correct the record, but there seems to be an invisible part of the social contract that says not to do it. Part of the reason is that once the work of art is out there, it’s on its own … and if people interpret it one way or another (even if they misunderstand), well, that’s something you can’t control. But maybe I’m wrong, and Cornwell’s right.

What do you think?

PS – The title of this post comes from Dave Edmund’s brilliant song of the same name. This week, the chorus fits:

Crawling from the wreckage,
Crawling from the wreckage.
Bits of me are scattered in the trees and in the hedges

Postscript (June 2008): Just in case you’re curious, I finally did write my own counter-review. I doubt it made any difference, but it did make me feel better.

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