Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Looks Like Astroturfing, Quacks Like Astroturfing...

I got a book recommendation in my e-mail from someone I have friended on Goodreads. Okay, that happens occasionally. I click through to check out the book.

What I see is that only one other person I know has reviewed it, and they're just boinging because it's out, rather than talking about the book itself. There are a bunch of reviews from people I don't know. Okay, I can work with that, usually, and with a 4.65 average rating with over 50 ratings, that usually means a pretty awesome book.

Except there's a weird sort of uniformity about these reviews. The very first one has links to a bunch of vendor pages where you can buy the book -- who besides the author ever does that? -- and some animated GIFs, and a lot of generic squee. And hey, there's another review a ways below that with... links to a bunch of vendor pages. Same format. o_O Lots of generic squee, and quite a few "OMG I got my ARC!" type comments. Some mentions of a coming blog tour. Very little actual discussion of the book itself, of parts people like or dislike -- you know, the useful stuff that shows up in a useful review.

Huh, smells like a street team.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with a street team. My understanding is that the term came out of the music business, where a street team is a group of people who hit the streets in a town where a band is coming to play a gig soon. They talk up the show, put posters up everywhere, make it look like there's a lot of buzz and excitement about the band, make people want to come hear them, make it feel like the show's going to be awesome fun and everyone should be there. Street-level marketing. Oh, and the street team is usually paid, even if it's just in T-shirts and show tickets and stuff.

A lot of writers are using street teams now to build up buzz about a new book. They form a group of fans who are willing to go out and generate buzz when a new book comes out, fans who are usually paid in free books and maybe some swag. And seriously, if a writer has enough fans to form a street team, that says something about their writing right there, so that's cool so far as it goes. Having a bunch of people read your book early and post reviews right away, whether on Goodreads or Amazon or their blogs or anywhere else, can certainly help build buzz, and that can be a good thing.

But I read Goodreads for reader reviews. Information about the book, posted by readers who've read it. When I see that the whole first page of reviews looks like it was written by people who are all focusing on the squee rather than the useful info, when I see a bunch of readers who put up a great rating with "review to come," when I see a bunch of not-really-a-review reviews that look like they were all written from the same press release...? I get the feeling that these aren't actually reviews. They feel like coordinated buzz put up by a bunch of people who are all following the same set of instructions. (Seriously, how many individual reviewers put up multiple links to a book's buy page on multiple vendors? And to see that twice in the first handful of reviews...? [eyeroll])

Having a bunch of individuals -- not Capitol-R Reviewers who own or contribute to a review site, but just-folks type readers -- put up reviews is valuable because readers like me like to see what individual readers have to say about a book. People go to Goodreads for grassroots book reviews, written by individuals who've read a book and are reviewing it. When what we find is a bunch of cookie-cutter reviews that sound way too similar, with lots of squeeage but very little info about the book, reviews that all seem to be cribbing from the same info packet? That doesn't look like a grassroots response -- that looks like astroturfing. It feels fake, it feels manipulative, and it doesn't make me want to dash out and buy the book, or even put it on my to-buy list.

I'm ignoring that book I was recced. If I hear about it again in the future, if I see people I know -- who've actually read it -- talking about it, saying what they think, discussing bits they liked or disliked, then I might buy it later. For right now, though, all I know is that a bunch of people were handed some kind of crib sheet and instructed to go out and squee. My immediate response is negative, though, and any future buzz I run into about it is going to have to overcome that.

I can see street teams working. And heck, maybe there are readers who'll see someone they don't know post, "OMG this book is awesome! I heart it so much!! Five stars!! Everyone has to buy it!!!" and will immediately run out and get it. I'm not one of them, though, and I suspect there are a lot of readers like me. If I had a street team, I'd ask folks to actually read the book, discuss what specific parts they liked (and even disliked, if any), and maybe throttle back on the squee some. Because new-release grassroots buzz should at least look like a spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm, rather than a carefully coordinated release of marketing push. In my opinion, anyway.

No sale. Try again next time.



Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, the amount of work that goes into it as well. In doing something like this. It just makes me kind of tired.

Angie said...

Charles -- a writer who has a street team probably already has a newsletter and does blog tours/hops and has swag made and all that sort of thing. They're used to it. :)

Romance writers have been ahead of the marketing curve for decades, from the... 70s I think it was, when a romance writer whose name I forget now would bring homemade cookies for the guys who drove the distributors' trucks (back when there were a lot of little local book distributors) to get them to put her books face-out and at eye level on the racks in grocery stores and drugstores and such. Of all the stuff you might've heard about how to market your book at an individual level, stuff that takes work on the writer's part but not thousands of dollars? Most of that came from the romance writers.

Street teams, as I said, came from the music business, where a decent band can find twenty or fifty fans in some city where they're playing a gig next week, people who'll be happy to spend the night plastering the town with posters, and the week talking up the band and the show. Give them some posters, some backstage access tickets, and half an hour to hang with the musicians, and they're delighted and will do it again next year. It does work, if you have enough fans of the proper level of enthusiasm.

Some writers ask everyone on their newsletter list to please buy a copy of their new book the first week it's released, to try to get to hit some of the bestseller lists. That's fine IMO, so long as they don't get too strident about it, or to abusive toward fans who have to wait for the next paycheck. When it comes to trying to coordinate a spate of early reviews, though, that gets trickier, because at that point you're trying to simulate a grassroots response, and if your simulation fails, the campaign will backfire on you. Or at least, it will for some readers (like me) who don't like having it rubbed in our faces that we're being manipulated. Do it right or don't do it is my motto for this sort of thing.


Meryl said...

Yeah, I'm always a bit wary of those "buzz" reviews as well. An honest review does much more toward making me interested in buying the book.

I understand the point of just making it visible, but in the end the quality of the book is what will sell it. I hope.

Angie said...

Meryl -- that's really what I want as a reader [nod] enough info to determine whether the book will be "quality" by my own standards. Past a certain medium-lowish bar, craftsmanship (spelling/grammar/punctuation, word choice, pacing, structure, plot flow, dialogue -- all the stuff that's easy to teach) is rarely a major issue. I've dragged my bleeding eyeballs through some stories that needed a really good edit because the story was hauling me along, and I wanted very much to find out what happened to the characters. Granted there are some folks out there who have a hard time clearing even my personal craftsmanship bar [cough] but what I want to know from reviews is whether the story itself is one that I'd enjoy reading, whether the characters are people I want to spend time with. I don't want spoilers, but I want some info on what kind of story it is, especially in a genre romance where the basic plot skeleton is always the same and it's the details that make all the difference.

Some stranger -- or even a friend, usually, to be honest -- going "OMG this book is great you have to read it!!" isn't going to make me buy a book, especially one by a new-to-me writer. Even a bunch of strangers, or a bunch of people I know, boinging about a book in a general way won't do it. I need info about the story and the characters, and that's where these "reviews" fell down.

The fact that they were doing it pretty much in sync with one another just added to the magnitude of the eyerolling. :/


Meryl said...

Ha, and see, I NEED to know that the writing is up to scratch. I just can't bear a book that's poorly written, no matter how good the story.

But I agree, that's where a considered review from a true reader goes a long way towards making me buy the book. I have some book reviewers I follow because I know they have similar tastes to mine, and that if they like a book I am likely to like it too. And they talk about the story and why they liked it, and that enthuses me more than "wow buy this book!"

But I suppose there must be a subset of people out there who do buy on buzz rather than content.

Angie said...

Meryl -- see, to me, between "poorly written" and "well written" is a spectrum; it's not a binary switch. The question is, how far down the spectrum can you read? For me, an awesome story with great characters can lie a bit farther down the spectrum than a common story with flattish characters.

To be honest, though, I've read fanfic where the story and characters grabbed me so hard, I read over mechanics so bad that there weren't always periods at the ends of the sentences. [headdesk] But the story was great and I had to know what happened! LOL! That writer, and others like her? If she took a year or two and learned to clean up her mechanics, or got a really good copyeditor? Then went pro? She'd be a bestseller, seriously. :)


Meryl said...

Oh I agree it's a spectrum. I can enjoy Ilona Andrews and China Mieville at the same time. What I can't bear are stories where the basics of grammar and punctuation aren't understood. That story you read with the periods, I would never get past the first page. And that's what I need to know in a review - can the author write, as well as tell a story.

Meryl said...

This turned into quite a conversation :)

Angie said...

Meryl -- the thing is, I'm a compulsive editor. I can't NOT see those kinds of mistakes. I read through a book or a story subvocalizing corrections because I just can't help it. But that story I mentioned (which, to be fair, was written by a fan who was writing English as a foreign language) was just So Damn Good that I gritted my teeth and got through it. Did I mention it was novel length...? LOL!

And the thing is, your average reader doesn't know nearly as much about language mechanics as someone who is or is trying to be a pro writer does. Stuff that's like acid in the eyes to you or me, they don't even see, don't notice, and don't give a damn if someone points it out. From the POV of 98% of the readers, the story is what's important. Grammar Nazis can be very loud (and I'll admit I'm one of them, even if I don't do it in public very often) and can sound like at least a large fraction of readers if you're looking at public responses to this or that book or story. But the fact is most readers don't respond in public. They don't hang out with other readers, they don't blog or write reviews, they're not active "fans." They just read what they like and go about their business. And most of them don't give a damn about the difference between "who" and "whom," or whether someone uses "lead" as the past tense of "to lead" (one that annoys the hell out of me), and don't care about comma splices or POV glitches. They just don't.

So we as writers spend some ridiculous amount of our time focusing on line-level mechanics, doing the job that a copyeditor should be doing, when in fact what we should work on is the story. It's taken me a while to learn to shift my focus, but I didn't start making pro sales until I did.

Of course, I was a mechanics geek long enough that my mechanics, even on a first draft, are still pretty clean. But that's not what the pro editors are looking for, really. Here's Marion Zimmer Bradley's take on it. And Dean Wesley Smith's.

A story should definitely be as clean as it can be (without scrubbing the voice out of it; see DWS's post) but that's what the copyeditor is for. What goes in to the editor should look like someone basically literate wrote it, but the emphasis should be on the story first. A great story with a lot of mechanics glitches will be bought much faster than a perfectly polished manuscript where the story itself is kind of meh.

This turned into quite a conversation :)

I'm not complaining. :D


Meryl said...

Completely agree that the average reader doesn't notice most of the stuff that we as writers cringe over. And there are books out there (mostly self-pubbed) that are perfectly constructed gramatically, and completely and utterly boring.

And then there are the ones that are just awful (in my opinion) but made their authors into millionaires, like, damn, who's that woman, writes paranormal romance...anyway, her. Because she may not be a 'good writer' but she can belt out a rockin' story, one that people rave about.

And I understand that. Everyone looks for something different in what they read. If they didn't, if story could be condensed into a perfect formula, then anyone who put pen to paper could be a bestseller.

But we know it's not that easy. That some writers get story, and some don't. And it's not a case of just being able to write a sentence.

I guess when it comes down to it, my personal taste is for story and writing, not just story. But as you say, the majority of readers won't even notice a missing period, or if they do, won't care.

I'm a firm believer that there's a reader for every book ever written. Whatever and however you write, there will be someone who loves it. It's just connecting with that reader.

I've read both those articles, and they make sense. You can't make a boring manuscript exciting, but you can polish an exciting mess :)

M :)