Letter to Pat Holt Uncensored
The Holt Uncensored column for December 20, 2002 included a letter from romance novelist Jo Manning. Pat Holt addresses that letter in the January 21 issue of her column, and a letter from me is excerpted as well. The following is my entire response to the Manning letter, along with links back to the two Holt Uncensored columns. I appreciate the chance Pat Holt offered for me to speak directly to her readers. If you accessed this page directly from the Holt column and would like to skip the excerpted portion of my letter that you read there, click here. To read the letter in its entirety, simply continue.
Dear Holt Uncensored:Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about Jo Manning’s letter to you. All About Romance exists solely for the purpose of giving lovers of romance novels an electronic “back fence” by which they can discuss the genre. We accomplish this via original content in our commentary, reviews, interviews, polls, and other articles, and through the five message boards we operate.
Because we’ve taken the neighborhood “back fence” and expanded it electronically, our content and response to our content reaches a wide audience. What we do is simple: our staff offer informed opinions and our message boards allow people to expand upon them or to refute them with their own. Other mechanisms are in place for disagreement – we sometimes post dual reviews and invite readers and authors to contribute segments to our At the Back Fence column. We try to be organic in nature, allowing readers to dictate content in terms of giving us ideas to write about. We offer so many ways for lovers of romance to communicate because we’re all about the sharing of ideas and opinions. Because of this we try to discuss all sides of an issue.
For some reason this has created dissention among some lovers of romance novels, including certain authors. I believe this happened for a couple of reasons: the print publications that “grew up” with the modern genre romance were all about cheerleading, and the idea persists that discussion must be all positive, all the time. The other reason is that most of the print publications that have deigned even to review romance novels are publications not written for the reader as end user. Publications such as Publishers Weekly and Library Journal review books with a different sensibility than publications that review books for readers, primarily because of their audience and their mission.
Reviews with consumers as the end user are written with more personality and flair than those written to be read by those in the publishing industry because they are meant to impart information as well as entertain the consumer. You can see this difference by comparing and contrasting reviews written for Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, or People to the magazines listed in the previous paragraph. AAR’s style is modeled on EW’s reviews, where books, movies, music and TV shows are graded and written about in a far more theatrical manner than you’d read, say, in Publishers Weekly.
Even though AAR is considered one of the premiere sites online, the Internet, as far as romance novels are concerned, is still limited in terms of power. Were we truly as powerful as some seem to think, books we championed would become immediate bestsellers. And if we were as negative a force as some would say, books we panned would never make bestseller lists. And yet, neither is the case.
There is some confusion between reviews by our staff, comments by readers on our message boards, and the type of reviews you’ll find at sites such as Amazon, B&N, and Epinions. This is indeed unfortunate as there is quite a distinction to be made.
The reviews at AAR are comprised of “AAR Reviews” and “Desert Isle Keeper Reviews.” The former are written solely by our review staff and can receive grades of “A” through “F.” A book receiving a grade of “A” is given “DIK status;” it is considered a desert isle keeper. DIK Reviews are written by our reviewers, readers, and authors of their all-time favorite books, and in the case of authors, books which influenced their writing.
As a reviewer who has written some 300 reviews in the past 6 years (of which 1/3 were paid reviews), I’ve approached AAR not as an amateur venue, but as a site with original material as professional as you’ll find anywhere. Most of our review staff have read romance novels for many years, and many are professional writers and/or editors in “real life” – a few have been or are published romance authors. Official reviews as they appear on our site and the type of review you’ll read at Amazon and/or B&N online are different animals altogether. Indeed, even those DIK Reviews, which we make a point of distinguishing from our AAR Reviews when not written by our staff, go through a rigorous two-tiered editing process, just as you’d encounter at a “professional” review publication. This is perhaps the major difference between our reviews and what you’ll encounter at Amazon and Epinions. I wish I could counsel authors before they jump into a message board discussion with both barrels blazing to remember that the MB discussion will disappear within a few weeks, whereas an actual AAR review will remain forever.
I say this because in the past few months I’ve witnessed authors who’ve received good grades from our review staff squander those reviews by their online behavior when they felt provoked. In one instance, an author received DIK status for a book but was so argumentative with readers on one of our message boards that I doubt few readers would even remember the book had received our highest accolade. A more recent incident involved Jo Manning herself. Again I would venture to say that few readers would remember at this point that her book received a recommendation from AAR. Indeed, Manning herself failed to mention her good review with us in her letter to you, which surprised me. A review remains forever while a message board discussion will be gone soon as soon as the board is trimmed to make room for new discussion. At AAR this generally takes two to three weeks. Online conduct, however, both of readers and authors, lingers much longer in everyone’s memories.
The Internet reaches an electronic “back fence” larger than a virtual back fence; it is because of this that I believe a segment of the publishing community is concerned about AAR’s impact. Readers who haven’t had a venue to talk about the books they love – warts and all – love AAR, as do many authors who recognize the value of good, honest discussion. Our commentary is widely read and we try to provide all sides to the issues we tackle. But we know we’re reviled by other authors who find our style of review mean-spirited. Some find us mean-spirited simply for reviewing books we didn’t like.
We do post negative reviews, and yet the D’s and F’s, when added together, account for just over a fifth of all our reviews. Nearly 50% of our reviews are in the A or B range. Put another way, we post more than twice as many A’s and B’s as we do D’s and F’s (see our Reviewer Scorecard for details). We model our reviews after reviews in Entertainment Weekly, which also assigns grades, and have a page online of mainstream reviews that are far more negative than anything we’ve ever written.
This is where the excerpted portion ends.
It’s been said that AAR sets a negative tone. I strongly disagree. For the most part, discussions on our boards are conducted with reason and by those with reasonably good manners. Sometimes readers agree with an opinion put forth by one of our staff while at others they disagree. Certainly spirited debate may occur, but most often that debate is useful. At times, though, tempers do flair. We notice this most frequently when certain authors or their friends or fans visit AAR. Our forever-growing group of regulars generally comport themselves well.It’s interesting that for some, fostering a negative tone means that we “allow” people to say negative things about a book. Sometimes these comments may be very negative, which indeed can be hurtful to an author, but as reviewers and readers, our reviews and discussions of books do not consider the author’s feelings. I doubt seriously whether Roger Ebert of the Sun-Times or Owen Gleiberman of EW considers a director’s feelings before writing a negative review. And when I’ve spent $8.00 to see a bad movie, my friends and I don’t “feel badly” for the actor who gave a bad performance when we’re talking about it over dinner afterward.
What makes AAR work for readers doesn’t always make it work for authors, and yet there are many authors who visit daily and take part in our online discussions. But the variety offered on the Internet for lovers of romance can make it difficult for authors to navigate. Responding on a message board at an author’s web site or a “fan” site is different than contributing or responding on a message board at AAR. Authors are certainly welcome at AAR, but unless they are careful, they may be perceived as trying to quash discussion. This isn’t “fair,” but it has happened often enough that readers are sometimes pre-emptively defensive when an author joins the discussion. This is generally when that negative tone creeps in.
And now to move on to the article Ms Manning excerpted in her letter from the December 2002 RWA newsletter. Oddly enough, in all her correspondence with me the author of the article never indicated she was anyone other than Chere Coen, Variety.com. Until I read the printed copy of the article months later, I had no idea she was also Cherie Claire, historical romance author. Had I known this, particularly since we negatively reviewed one of her books, I would never have agreed to participate in the article.
The article begins by detailing how a business was nearly destroyed by a rumor, then segues into an incident that began on one of our message boards. That incident began with a link I posted to a newspaper article in a Gannett-owned, non-tabloid newspaper and had nothing to do with rumor. The article was a fact, and though the object of the article did much to disown it, the fact remains that the newspaper never printed any letter to the editor from her, or printed a retraction. Indeed the wording of the newspaper’s editor response, while perhaps cryptic at first glance, is quite telling upon a second read.
There are no hidden agendas at AAR, nor do we like to humiliate authors. But we do often provide links to articles of interest to romance readers. This was no different, and yet the outgrowth of that link was most certainly different from what we’ve seen before. It’s clear that many more people distrust the media than in the past, but the up-shot of much of the discussion regarding this newspaper article was that it must not be true and/or that AAR had purposely tried to embarrass this author for things she actually said. I don’t know about you, but when I say things to a reporter or online, I am not embarrassed by them. If I were, I wouldn’t say them, and I certainly wouldn’t say them for public consumption. Although the object of the article called AAR “www.characterassassination.com” in the RWA newsletter, for what logical reason would we have caused harm to an author we had previously reviewed quite positively four times out of five (highest grade/A- and lowest grade/C+)?
As for the idea that our review staff enjoys giving negative reviews to well respected authors, we don’t. We would much rather love every single book we read, but given how expensive even paperbacks have become, we are compelled to give our honest impressions of what we read. We judge each book on its own merits; an author may receive a “D” or “F” from us for one book, and DIK status for another. You can see from a quick look at our Did You Know…? page that this indeed has happened. The same author who received DIK status 22 times also received a grade of “D+.” Another author with seven DIK’s to her credit also received “F” grades. In at least a couple of instances, an author received both DIK status and a “D” or “F” – for the same book. Because of our rigorous editing process, we often remove some criticism from our harshest reviews so as not to over-kill the point, but love a book or hate a book, anyone who reads our reviews will know exactly what we felt about a book, and why. The “why,” we hear from readers, is very important because it helps them make informed decisions about how to spend their hard-earned money; what engages or turns off a reviewer may do the opposite for a reader.
What is posted on our message boards is most generally opinion. When opinion veers off into something that can be answered objectively, it generally is, and quite quickly. Here’s a very recent example regarding Suzanne Brockmann. I’ve seen Brockmann’s star on the rise for a few years; she has received DIK status 11 times from our review staff. One of her books won as our reviewers’ favorite romance of 2001. Not only that, she has done extremely well in our annual reader polls. Yet I began to see what looked like a backlash against her in the past several months and because I couldn’t understand it, wrote a segment essentially asking why in a recent At the Back Fence column.
Discussion on our ATBF MB included a post from someone who had heard (and believed) that Brockmann had snail mailed 8,400 ballots to RWA members asking for their votes in a yearly list of favorite romances compiled by RWA. Brockmann came to our board and refuted this, after which I asked whether anyone had actually seen one of these alleged postcards because I did not want AAR to be a party in spreading a rumor. Others then posted that they too had heard and believed the story, but none had seen the postcard. Eventually a few authors explained how the process actually works – Brockmann would not have had access to the snail mailing list of RWA, for instance. If not for this discussion, a false rumor that had been floating around for months and had probably contributed to the backlash against this author might never have been debunked.
Those interested in learning more about the specifics of the RWA article, which is not available online, can link to my November 29th blogging (my blog is not officially connected to the AAR web site and so I hesitate in linking to it, but in the end I believe it is of value). It contains the questions I was asked and my answers.
We at AAR take our mission extremely seriously, and do our best to put out a professional product. Our open and honest discourse, our entertaining and informative material does a tremendous amount for the romance novel genre. We provide a community within which romance readers can talk intelligently about the books they love.
Sincerely, Laurie Gold aka Laurie Likes Books
Publisher, All About Romance