Indie author Jane Steen has a few things to say about Anne Rice.
Speaking from her Facebook page, or Page (Anne Rice likes to use Capitals and calls her Facebook followers the People of the Page), the bestselling author has taken yet another shot at what she calls the “notorious gangster bullies” of the Book World (capitals are Ms. Rice’s). I call them reviewers, and although Ms. Rice has been at pains to persuade us that she’s only targeting specific individuals—apparently those identified by the discredited Stop The Goodreads Bullies website—her various appearances on Amazon fora and elsewhere, combined with her support of a petition designed to nix the use of online pseudonyms, seems to suggest that her problem lies with any reader/reviewer who expresses a negative view against a book. Especially hers, or those of her People.
Before Ms. Rice embarks on the writing of what she promises will be a solid and dignified pamphlet summing up her years of research into the murkiest regions of the review swamp, may I suggest a point of discussion? I believe Ms. Rice may be interrogating the Book World from the wrong perspective, namely that of the late twentieth century.
Back in 1976, when Ms. Rice was a new author with a breakout novel, the Book World was a very different place. Readers found their books in physical locations—libraries and bookstores, mostly, although then as now the passing of a good book from friend to friend could boost an author’s chance of success. To get into those libraries and bookstores, each manuscript had to pass through a series of gatekeepers—agents, editors, publishing house committees, buyers, and the people (librarians and bookstore employees) who actually dealt with the consumers. A system grew up whereby a book’s success could be powerfully influenced by deals the public never saw, for example by money being paid by a publisher to a bookstore to place a book on one of those enticing tables near the front doors. Or, to take another example, a publisher might pay for advertising to make a book stand out from its competition; or it might hire a publicist to create enough buzz in the media that the book would make its way onto the bestseller lists. With the exception of a few outliers, success was dictated by budget rather than merit.
Around this iceberg-like system, where nine-tenths of the action went on beneath the surface of the average reader’s awareness, revolved a variety of more or less independent reviewers and publications designed to help bookstores, librarians and even readers work out which books were really worth purchasing. So by the time Interview With The Vampire came into the readers’ hands, it had already passed through layers of gatekeepers who had absolutely nothing to do with the average reader-on-the-street. Authors like Ms. Rice could experience direct connection with their readers through fanmail and personal appearances, but to a large extent that readership had already been sifted out for them and it was a receptive readership, primed to like the author’s work and often unaware of alternatives.
From the author’s perspective, the Book World must have looked pretty nice back then. There were dragons, indeed, in the form of hostile reviewers, but they were easily located, identified and avoided. A book was successful if it managed to stay in the stores long enough to build up substantial sales before being returned or remaindered, and the bulk of a store or library’s inventory was made up of perennial favorites plus the season’s new offerings (which, remember, were influenced by the gatekeepers).
Today’s new authors don’t live in nearly such a straightforward Book World but the old system lingers, albeit fragmented and encroached upon by the new. It’s easy enough for an author who started out in the system of forty years ago to view it as a hallowed tradition that both can and should dominate over the disrupted publishing scene because of its claim to quality and, well, solid dignity. I’m not going to rehash the story of how the old world of publishing has aided and abetted the rise of the new by cannabilizing itself—think celebrity books, the returns system and the supermarket-as-bookstore if you need examples—but instead I’ll concentrate on the massive shift of gatekeeping from those levels that come before the reader to the readers themselves. That, I’d like to argue, is the perspective from which Anne Rice should be interrogating the industry.
If Amazon, for all its faults, has taught us one thing, it’s that the internet-powered consumer wants choices. It became the 800-pound gorilla it now is by driving home, during its early years, one simple message—that it was the world’s largest bookstore. Over the years Amazon has made it possible to find pretty much everything the customer wants, from an obscure small press novel of the 1980s to self-published tentacle monster porn. The empowerment it’s given to third-party sellers of used books and to author-entrepreneurs is almost incidental to its main mission of identifying and supplying the drug of choice, and the reason it stands so high above other booksellers—online and real-life—is that it’s made the gatekeeping layers as thin as possible. Like it or not, that’s the world the post-millennium generations are used to, and it’s going to be hard to stuff that genie back in the bottle.
Alongside choice, the internet has given consumers a sense of entitlement about their opinions. There’s a wrong side and a right side to that, and I’m not going to argue one way or the other. My point is, that monster’s loose and it’s a many-headed hydra that can’t be destroyed. Unless you dismantle freedom of speech, the only rules you can impose on online reviewing are those set by the site owners. If the 800-pound gorilla is sitting back and saying “hey, this works for us,” all the outrage in the world isn’t going to shut it down. If Amazon’s review space went, another would arise. And I’ll concede that these are pretty brutal spaces—whenever I think I’ve seen it all, something comes up on Goodreads that has me muttering “are you kidding me?”
But that’s my twentieth-century perspective talking. Anne Rice is just the megaphone (yeah, oldspeak) of a whole bunch of authors who’ve left their mental baggage back in 1990, and would rather rage against the way things are than understand how to work with the outspoken sense of opinionated entitlement that, let’s face it, her generation was all about promoting back in the 60s and 70s. I’ve got nothing against Ms. Rice personally; I think she has a right to air her opinions just like anyone else, and if I sound derisive in those early paragraphs it’s more about the sheer pomposity of the tone she adopts and her disingenuous methods for ensuring her megaphone’s louder than her critics’ (starting a new thread to dump well-argued opposition, for example, which she does all the time).
Savvier authors more in tune with the twenty-first-century industry take their cue from Amazon and give the readers what they want. This doesn’t necessarily mean toadying to them—readers, as a body, can take a surprising amount of push-back and even rudeness from an author if they don’t feel they’re being manipulated or disregarded. What readers want, I think, is the acknowledgement from authors that they have a vast choice of reading material, that they get to have an opinion on what they read and that they’re increasingly the gatekeepers of the publishing industry. They want authors to realize that they, the readers, are more aware than any generation before them of their power as consumers, know when they’re being marketed to, and have the choice between going along with the marketing message (even amplifying it and making it their own) or simply turning their backs and declining to purchase.
So when Anne Rice brings out her pamphlet against the readers she considers gangster bullies, she needs to know that its effectiveness will be limited to those who think as she does because they share a perspective of the Book World that’s well past its expiration date. She’ll also, unfortunately, pull in a number of young authors who listen to her because of her status as an elder of genre fiction, isolating them on little islands of resentment and outrage while the thinking authors get on with successful reader engagement. And that they choose to listen to Anne Rice is no loss to the rest of us.
Jane Steen is an indie author of historical fiction.