The Quality of Mercy

One of the unusual aspects of the book publishing industry, particularly the fiction part of the industry, is that — while like in any industry, there are fierce negotiations, cases of skullduggery, missed opportunities, word feuds, back-stabbing and whatnot — there is the other side to it, a philosophical attitude if you will, the side that generally recognizes that book authors are eccentric emotional messes who often make mistakes, don’t follow instructions, get hysterical, don’t know what they’re talking about and find the whole weird industry confusing and illogical  (as well they should.) It’s the side that, while these things are irritating and clucked over, are also accepted with a shrug and an “it’s authors, what are you going to do?” sort of attitude, generally followed by a pat on the back to the afflicted author, preferably in a bar. The flailings of authors at routine etiquette or marketing strategy is accepted as just part of the business, kind of like you just accept that your uncle keeps a collection of dead newts in his attic. This is not to be confused with tolerating the egos and inanities of actors, say, or other creative high priced talent, which is done because said high priced talent is seen as bringing in the mullah. No, authors seldom bring in the mullah. It’s just that clueless or unwise behavior from authors is such a part of the landscape that it’s simply not worth getting into a fuss over. It’s even often endearing. At times, it’s even justified if impractical.

Such is the case with author Jacqueline Howett, whose self-published electronic novel The Greek Seaman happened to be reviewed on a review blog for self-published books, BigAl’s Books and Pals, with a mild recommendation but a criticism of formatting and typos that made the text difficult to read.

Ms. Howett got upset and blasted the reviewer in the comments, accused the reviewer of lying about things, placed blame on the reviewer for not downloading a second, supposedly cleaner copy, etc. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, as many people could see. In the industry, this sort of thing barely raises an eyebrow, along with the suggestion to others that “this is why you don’t do that sort of thing as an author.” A teachable moment, maybe, but so common an author error as to not be particularly interesting.

But we’re in the viral Internet age. So instead of it being just a passing scream heard by a few, like in the old days when the review might be just in the local paper, Ms. Howett’s meltdown has traveled across the global blogosphere as a temporary cautionary tale. Her character and her prose have been dissected at length in blogs and chatrooms; she’s been routinely attacked and has ridiculously attacked back, blowing her tantrum into epic proportions. She was unpleasant and unthinking and upset and that means she’s now entertainment. The reviewer has had to throw up his hands and spend lots of time answering questions. People have declared it the end of Ms. Howett’s efforts to market her writing and some have even attempted to arrange that end to her career through nasty reviews on Amazon, done without reading the book, followed by some writing positive reviews without reading the book because they feel she’s being picked on.

Of course, this isn’t going to necessarily end anything for Ms. Howett. This is fiction publishing. But it is a prime example of a new routine in fiction publishing — the public savaging of the author with newts in the attic and the increased desperation and vitriol of some authors if they feel they or their work are facing a savaging. It’s a return of sorts to the days of poets reading on the Elizabethan stage, getting heckled, complaining with insults, and getting pelted with fruit. Sometimes the audience went right for the fruit.

It’s this new sort of circus that apparently caused a number of blog reviewers with aspirations to publish their own work to believe, with all seriousness, that there was a cabal of Young Adult fiction writers who would go after you if you wrote a bad review of their work, would make sure you didn’t get published, or if you did, that you didn’t get the cover blurbs that suddenly were so apparently important that not having them could destroy your career. They would blackball you out of the industry, make sure agents refused to represent you, etc., because there would be these little black checklists that the industry would apparently follow if mid-list YA authors told them to.  Why did they believe such nonsense? Because some YA authors throwing a fit over bad reviews made such threats, as did one or two obnoxious publishing people who apparently are incompetent or just have particularly nasty senses of humor.

When presented with this information and the request for confirmation or acquittal of the existence of the YA cabal, established YA authors and other authors — after they had picked themselves up from the ground where they had fallen crippled with laughter — attempted to pat the author-reviewers gently on the back and lead them to the bar via the blogosphere. Despite their efforts, though, it’s all too easy for people to believe that fiction is a hostile world, and to sometimes attempt to make it so.

But mercy is the quality not strained from book publishing and particularly that expression that is fiction publishing. It still droppeth as gentle rain on the place beneath. It droppeth on Ms. Howett. It droppeth on Big Al. It drops on YA authors and aspiring ones who like to do reviews. It’s a forgiving industry in which the minor mistakes are forgotten, authors have to learn not to collect newts no matter how provoked they feel, and nobody has time to keep black checklists nor any interest in listening to authors’ complaints about other authors or reviewers. It is an industry that promises nothing and guarantees neither publication nor sales, but it offers a wide open field to try to get those things without a three strikes and you’re out policy or a who you know policy.  It’s about as kind and gentle as you’re going to get in the business world.  It’s flexible.

And so this too shall pass until the next meltdown or conspiracy theory or other mistake that becomes blood sport. And one day perhaps fiction authors, from the big to the small, will learn that going after reviewers has no place in what they are doing. Until then, fiction will still show them mercy and totally ignore any idea of a cabal.


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