At the Back Fence Issue #292

January 28, 2008

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

The Half-Way Mark

My original plan for this week’s column had been to use a recent Time magazine cover story as a jumping off point. Then I decided to write about our twelfth annual reader poll. It is, after all, what occupies my mind these days, what with spending six or so hours daily tallying results.

I’m writings this on Sunday afternoon, thisclose to the poll’s half-way point, so what better time than to bring you all up to date on where things stand?

First things first: I’m a worrier and a control freak. Combine the two and you’ve got an obsessive personality. I’m like everyone else, so I always do a little happy dance when one of the titles I voted for gains more votes, but because I’ve not read a great number of the books that made it onto our interim results, I feel the need to exert some control over the process. How I do that is to obsessively tally results after entering ballots into my database. I may not have read Book A, but I can tell several times a day how it’s doing in this category, or that one.

As for the worrier in me, that begins even before the poll opens. Invariably I engage in the following discussion with myself: “What if this is the year that the poll tanks, that nobody votes, and AAR goes into the dumper?” This year, after glancing down at my right foot after returning from our Sunday morning Starbucks jaunt, I added to that litany of fears with this question: “Does anybody else ever have a stigmata of the toe?” (My husband believes the answer to that question will be a resounding “No!”, but I’ve always wondered if the toe stigmata is unique to me. A stigmata of the toe occurs when a toe begins to bleed, generally as a result of the toe next door having a nail that apparently grew oh-so-slightly too long without notice, and all of a sudden cut into its neighbor. It’s never something I notice until I’m wearing socks, which admittedly I don’t wear when I’m puttering around the house. So an unfortunate symptom of a stigmata of the toe is that it generally occurs in public, requiring that I remove my shoes and hosiery in public to fix the problem.)

But back to the topic at hand; my yearly worries that our annual poll will flop. Ever since I assumed personal responsibility for the poll, I’ve become ever more invested in its success. It’s never enough to achieve the same amount of participation we had the year before; each year must improve upon the last. Many of you can probably recite my mantra on this:

  • The results are as representative as those who voted.
  • The more who vote, the more representative the results.
  • A result is not ‘wrong’ if you disagree with it.
  • Dismissing any or all of the results as ‘merely a popularity contest’ does a disservice to all those who voted.

In 2005, for instance, we more than doubled the number of valid ballots over the year before. And last year we were able to count 60% more valid ballots than in 2005 by my bumping up efforts to increase participation – and this year I’ve been ratcheting them up another several notches. Until this year, though, I never set an actual participation goal: To increase valid ballots by a third. And while it may seem as though I didn’t set it high enough in terms of percentages when compared to the percentages for last year and the year before, it’s impossible to keep percentages apace when actual numbers increase as ours have. The 33% increase in valid ballots I’d like to receive this year amounts to more than the same number of valid ballots that gave us a 100%+ increase two years ago.

Will we achieve our goal of a 33% increase? It’s going to be extremely close. As of the writing of this column on Sunday, we’re behind, but after creating an announcement space for the poll at the top of the Announcements Forums last Thursday, and posting a graph (and updating it daily), we’re a lot closer than we were just three days ago. On Thursday of last week, we were at 35%; as of yesterday we’d added another 7%. If my quick glance this morning is accurate, we’re even closer, at 45%. Of course, we should be at 50%, so the decision I made to last week to cast a wider net and draw in additional voters seems the correct one. On Friday AAR’s pollsters and I agreed on an email to send out to a large number of authors so that they could make readers aware of the poll. The trick was in the writing of the request; how did we reach more voters without ending up with mostly fangirls voting a straight ticket or near straight ticket for the author who alerted them to the poll? After all, none of us want to end up with the same situation I found myself in last year, with a full 25% of discarded ballots by the time the poll closed.

This is the email the pollsters sent:

All About Romance is currently in the middle of its 12th annual reader poll (of books with a 2007 copyright). It’s the largest romance novel reader poll that we know of, and we’re trying to get the word out to as many romance readers as possible to vote. The best results are the most representative, which is why want to cast a wide net and catch as many readers as we can. That said, though, we don’t want “straight-ticket” voting of readers devoted to one or two authors they’d like to see win in as many categories as possible. As such, among our ballot requirements is that at least six positive categories be filled out. Any ballot that looks like it’s a straight-ticket or near straight-ticket vote, is automatically discarded. We invite all romance novel readers to vote…once…as soon as possible, and to pass the word along to your romance reading friends. Help make this the best annual poll we’ve conducted.

If the ballots I’ve seen since those letters went out are any indication, our letter has done what we wanted. Voting has increased, and as has been the case through this year’s poll entirely – knock wood – ballot box stuffing is a very minor issue. Most readers who voted in response to our request that authors inform them of the poll filled out ballots quite even-handedly, and the straight-ticket or near-straight ticket votes that were submitted were actually made earlier in the poll. Some I tracked to blog mentions. Others, based on their composition – and their arrival – were probably made as a result of authors contacting their friends, often other authors, to tell them to vote. As for authors who have submitted ballots as a result of our email request, well, they took our concerns very much to heart. This weekend I went through an email exchange with an author very worried that she not be too greedy in voting for one of her titles, among the many others she included votes for. Since I voted for her book in at least one category on my own ballot, I replied that her ballot looked far more reasonable than one I received very early on from another author who voted only for her titles in the positive categories – and only for one other author’s titles in the negative ones. Since I can’t tell if that ballot was a joke, it remains in “ballot purgatory” for now. Because I have respect for the “greedy” author, I’ve been a weenie, afraid to write her and ask if her ballot was in jest. Given her personality, it might well have been, but if not, well, she’s lost some points in my estimation for pursing a vendetta.

Why do I worry so much and set possibly impossible goals? it’s as simple as this: I know of no other romance novel awards voted by romance readers that are as comprehensive as ours. The online romance novel community is large and diverse, but since we’re out there doing the poll, why not have all readers come together in one place? Other online venues are going to talk about the results anyway – why not try to include everybody up front so that everyone can have ownership over the results? Not only are the results more representative if a larger number of people vote, if I can reduce some of the nay saying that invariably accompanies announcement of the results, I’m thrilled to do so.

Each and every year some readers will be frustrated that Book X won in some or several categories, particularly because Book Y was clearly the superior read. Forgetting for an instant that judging a book is entirely subjective, and that readers arrive at their judgments using different criteria, a poll like ours only measures a snapshot in time for those who voted. If, for instance, I voted for Book X and didn’t get around to reading Book Y until after the poll closed, regardless of how much I may have loved Book Y, Book X’s win should not be diminished. Book Y might be the best book ever written, but if few people read it, it doesn’t matter. Book Y’s brilliance may be akin to the tree falling in the forest when nobody’s there. Yes, it might happen, but who cares?

As for the results themselves, while obviously I can’t get into details, I can talk about a few things in general terms. First is that I guess it was a brilliant move on my part to remove the Worst Romance category and replace it with this one: Biggest Wallbanger or “I Tried, I Really Did,” because, percentage-wise, many more of you are filling out the latter category than filled it out former one last year. I think it must be as I suspected; that there’s some sort of “finality” that readers don’t want responsibility for with deeming a book worst that doesn’t apply when naming one best.

Another trend, a less helpful one, is taking place in the SF/F& Futuristic and Paranormal & Time Travel categories, and to a lesser extent, in the Luscious Love Story and Erotic Romance categories. The problem is one of categorization. Could these problems be taking place because we’ve been able to attract so many new voters to the poll? If so, how do you suggestion educating voters in future polls above and beyond what we currently do to help?

Let’s tackle the second pairing first, because it’s more surprising to me given that neither is a new category – and that the distinction between both seems a clear one. But maybe it’s not so clear to new voters, or to voters who don’t necessarily notice a book’s imprint when they buy it. A Luscious Love Story is a mainstream romance featuring hot love scenes that readers adored. An Erotic Romance is a hybrid between Erotica and Romance (sometimes referred to as Romantica). Many publishers established specific imprints for their Erotic Romance releases, such as Avon and their Red Imprint. That’s why I’m so confused that Lisa Marie Rice’s Dangerous Lover, published by Avon Red, has earned more votes in the Luscious Love Story category than it has in the Erotic Romance category, which is where all its votes belong. If current trends continue, the final results will be vastly different for this book than they would have been if all of its votes were in the Erotic Romance category. Unfortunately, it’s not a simple matter of my moving votes from one category to the other – which I couldn’t do anyway without voters’ permission. In most instances readers chose another Erotic Romance for the Erotic Romance category. Either readers truly cannot differentiate between a mainstream romance and an erotic romance or they are trying to have their cake and eat it too. If you’ve not yet voted, please keep in mind that trying to spread your vote among as many books as possible is fine, but they need to fit the category or they may nullify your choices due to vote splitting.

1/31: I’ve flipped through Dangerous Lover myself and it is definitely not an erotic romance. Why on earth was it published by Avon Red?

As for the SF/F & Futuristic and Paranormal & Time Travel categories, oy! I often feel confusion about categorizing certain “woo-woo” or “monster” books – but I never knew that confusion was so widespread. In previous years there has been one catch-all category for all books set in alternate realities, the future, or with major sf/f, paranormal, or time travel elements. This year I decided to split the one category into two because of the explosion of these types of romances in terms publishing and readership. I used the same two categories our pollsters used in last May’s mini-polls. I added online definitions for both categories to the faux pop-up page that has existed for a few years now to explain the cabin and road romance, what glomming is, what a buried treasure read is, etc.) and, as in previous years, linked to them from both the ballot page and the interim results page. Still, some readers voted for vampire romances in the SF/F & Futuristic category while others submitted votes for fantasy romances in the Paranormal & Time Travel category. It’s easy to see why readers can be confused about certain books. What do you call a book featuring vampire aliens or demons who aren’t demonic? But other readers don’t seem to be as much confused as hedging their bets by voting for the same book in both categories. They may think they’re helping an author – in particular, Nalini Singh – but they’re actually doing her a disservice.

For the site, reviewer Kate Cuthbert and I are currently involved in a project I first mentioned when I wrote my Urban Fantasy ATBF column back in October. As a result of our discussions, we will likely re-categorize a great number of books, and using existing fields in our database to allow us to create sub-categories. That’s in itself is not germaine to this discussion, but there has been such disparity in classifying certain books in the poll that those by Nalini Singh, Jacquelyn Frank, and Meljean Brook are in a similar predicament to Lisa Marie Rice.

As a result of this, I’ll be watching all four categories closely. Because this is not the first year for Most Luscious Love Story and Erotic Romance, it’s less likely that I’d do anything regardless of the result, but because this is the first year for a split in what encompasses the entire paranormal world, I’m not quite sure what will happen. Should we combine the categories again, being sure to omit double votes for any one title? Your advice is welcome on the ATBF Forum.

But before we head off to the forum, let me thank all of you who have voted thus far, and to make another plea to those who have not voted. If fewer than 15% of those who get our weekly newsletter submitted a ballot this week, we’d meet our goal by Sunday night, February 3rd.

Although the ATBF column exists to engage our readers in a two-way discussion, this particular column was written to provide information of interest to our readers, and to help those who have not yet voted in our annual reader poll. I’d love to see some posts on the ATBF forum, but haven’t devised specific questions because I’m just not sure the column lends itself to discussion per se. Of course, we encourage your ideas on how to further spread the word to other readers so they might vote in the column, as well as your suggestions on how to handle the categorization issue I wrote about. Most of all, though, please keep those votes coming so that we meet our participation goal! It’s not that without a 33% increase the poll is invalid; it’ll be valid if we don’t improve over last year’s results. But as I wrote above, I believe this is the largest poll of romance readers, so why not have as much participation as possible? I think it would be great if every reader could “own” the results…don’t you?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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View interim results (updated 1/28)

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