Crowdsourcing literary fiction? or nichesourcing?

HarperCollins has turned to “crowdsourcing” to find material to publish. Their online site www.authonomy.com invites authors to submit their novels to be reviewed by other novelists who have also submitted their work. This is a new kind of publisher slush pile. Instead of having interns or agents sift through submissions, they are having the reading public do it for them.  This is, theoretically, a good tactic for commercial publishers since it should give them direct information about how the general public is likely to respond to  work they are considering.

The problem with this kind of approach, other than the obvious one –mediocre readers selecting for mediocrity– is that the books that have been reviewed by other writers get placed near the top of the page, so those seeking to find books to review are offered those first.  Potential reviewers may not scroll down or click through long enough to get to books that haven’t gotten much attention yet. And those remain unnoticed. The end result is the most often reviewed tend to get reviewed more often. HarperCollins ought to add a randomizer so that potential reviewers are offered all books available without bias and without indicating how others have rated them. (Let’s face it, we are all sheep, some more or less so.) In the end, the ones that make it to the top of the slush pile illustrate what’s called the “Matthew Effect” for Matthew 25:29 “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” HarperCollins may have wished that their new system would select the fittest among the crowd.  However, the notion that the fittest survive is something of a fallacy. Any evolutionary biologists will tell you that natural selection can only work in very small, isolated populations. The truth is that in the general population, which is extremely interconnected by the mass media, the most common and the ones that got their first tend to survive to reproduce more.

Theslushpilereader.com is a smaller site, with under, it seems to me, 100 works listed.  It functions much in the same way the HarperCollins site does, but it includes a randomizer.  Here, as well as on the authonomy site, “literary fiction” works are also calling themselves “romances” and “thrillers” and etc, a contradiction of terms.  And there is no way for  a writer to specify which genre of writer is eligible to review his work. The result is those voted best in the “literary” category don’t seem very literary. What does the crowd know about literary?

Traditional commercial publishing, in fact, has used the crowdsourcing model for years.  Books that get attention, tend to get attention.  I remember The Bridges of Madison County came out the year my first novel did. It was so popular, if you hadn’t read it, you might miss out on dropped comments on cartoons and news programs. Unlike just about everybody else, I refused to read it, but it did help me notice that millions and millions of people were not buying my book. To make the sting even more painful, Bridges was heralded as a work of literary fiction (maybe it wasn’t really) that had crossed over to popular audiences. In those days, the mid-nineties, you could slip into a circle of strangers at an art opening and say, “I just finished Bridges and…” and half the people in the crowd would take you up on your topic.  Try that today and you’ll get confused looks or lip curls. The fluke phenomenon that made that book popular back then was unable to give it the inherent staying power it lacked.

Likewise the flukes that are driving a work up to the top of the authonomy.com webiste won’t be there to help it if HarperCollins should decide to take it to print. Although I don’t think the HarperCollins site is of interest to literary fiction writers (it has relatively few literary works listed, and almost none that aren’t really something else), I do think what I will call nichesourcing might be helpful. It won’t do to have a writer of “thrillers” reviewing someone’s literary fiction.  Literary fiction writers have to figure out how to police their part of the crowd. They need to isolate themselves into niches.

Crowdsourcing may be useful for working bugs out of a system, and it has been used by software developers who invented the term. Basically the users work to improve the software every time they submit an error message. Any monkey can find an error–but not a good book.  For this you need well-defined communities. And these days that usually means online communities.

The most active online writing community sites seem to be variations on Match.com or worse: huge writing workshops where bad writers give bad advice to other bad writers.  Among these is at least one good resource: librarything.com.  Here readers list all the books in their libraries and, through their “connections” stats, readers can find other readers who have a high percentage of the same books. Members of Library Thing post reviews of the books they own.  This is similar to Amazon.com’s customer review system, which lets you read all the reviews of those individuals whose tastes you share.  What Librarything does that Amazon doesn’t is automatically match you with the reviewers you will likely agree with. You can waste hours clicking through Amazon reviewer lists.

Understanding that word-of-mouth publicity is an important part of selling a title, small publishers are starting give free copies to Library Thing members for review. Since they know the reading tastes of the members they can offer a book for review only to those who might actually like it. LibraryThing also has various groups to join and listings for local author events.

I joined a year ago, but just got around to filling in my profile this week. So far, LibraryThing has provided me with some good reading recommendations, but I don’t think its potential as an online community has been realized yet. Like many brick and mortar libraries today, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of ongoing activity.  It seems a little too quiet. It’s perhaps a lot to ask of readers to check back often to see what’s new at LibraryThing.  And it seems a lot to ask of readers to enter all the books they own into the database.  Amazon.com already has a huge database detailing the reading preferences of millions of people. I wonder, might they think of offering a review system that automatically links readers to reviewers with similar tastes? Amazon’s recommendations are pretty good: I’ve bought many of the books they’ve suggested based on my previous purchases. But I would like to be able to navigate through their review system a little better, to find that book that, for whatever odd reason, isn’t categorized as one I might like.

Amazon’s current customer review system is more active than LibraryThing and, as such, a valuable online community tool.  While it lets the rotten as well as the talented reviewer comment, generally people can tell the difference. A bad review written stupidly can’t hurt, especially if it comes alongside an excellent review written with intelligence.  Your best reviewer is someone who has already thought enough of your book to buy it, so I think “customer reviews” in principal are a good thing.

Unfortunately, Amazon has taken a wrong turn recently launching what it calls the “Amazon Vine” reviewer and feeding him books to review.  One becomes a Vine Reviewer if one gets rated a lot. Obviously if you submit a thousand reviews a year you’re going to be more popular than someone who submits one per year, but certainly not better.  Anyone who has that much time on his or her hands has to be some kind of loser.

Also a reviewer may be considered popular for reviewing any product on Amazon’s shopping empire.  For instance, someone who reviews electric razors and DVD players might become a Vine reviewer of “science and technology” books!  I recently visited the Amazon page of a book written by a scientist friend of mine.  The Vine Reviewers had been placed at the top of the section, displacing the real fans (customers) of the book.  The Vine reviewers were clearly drunk on the power they had recently been given and pontificated about the book’s faults and merits. They clearly had no real interest in the subject nor authority to write about it.  Shoved to the side were the reviews of those people who honestly wanted to read the book, who had thought enough about it to buy it for themselves and who had something of interest to say on the topic. I hope Amazon rethinks this move.  It is clearly more along the lines of crowdsourcing rather than what we really need: nichesourcing, good, well-defined filters.

Redroom.com is popular site for authors.  I haven’t quite figured out what it’s useful for yet. Potentially I could use it to meet other authors I might like, but RedRoom doesn’t have a good filtering system yet. They do have a lot of members, so I decided to add my own filter and started a  “Literary Snobs Clubs” to see if I could form connections with, and help support, other writers. Nobody’s joined yet.

I’ve helped organize poetry readings in NYC for about twelve years, and I can tell you that poets are very good about forming communities. They turn out for each others’ readings. They buy each others’ books. They even talk about each others’ poems. Novelists, however, seem bearish by nature, incapable of running in packs. Could it be just the length issue that makes sharing less likely? Or does the anxiety of influence frighten them more?  (Admittedly, that was my problem, and for years I shied away from all writers who weren’t thoroughly dead.) But, as I have been saying in all the “literary fiction” posts, novelists will have to develop grass-root communities, since the  massively heavy top down approach just doesn’t work for them. Literary fiction writers with similar interests need to form communities and support each other, reading and reviewing each other’s work and sharing fan bases. The more good writing there is available, the more readers will want to read.  The audience of literary fiction isn’t like the summer reading audience: one book a year, causing books to compete for that honor. When I find a good book, I always want more. For every good literary fiction book read, there is one more member of the reading audience better able to read another work of literary fiction. Lit fiction is an acquired taste. It takes practice. Unfortunately it hasn’t been easy for readers to find literary books to read, because of the way the old publishing system was organized.

Just as with good government, a good literary publishing system would integrate bottom up and top down approaches.  We need a well-educated voting public (niche-specific online reviewers, bloggers) and choosy small presses, award organizations, online community organizers that would function like the Senate (ideally would function). Everyone involved in this niche building must be clear about what sort of niche they imagine themselves to be in. It won’t do to promote “well-written” books or “literary” books since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of agreement about what those labels mean.  We can’t afford to be squeamish about specificity. Although being frank about what you really want in a book may make you some kind of elitist or prejudiced snob, so be it. There’s plenty of room for lots of different well-defined niches and no point of milling about in one  huge amorphous crowd.

This meandering post may now come to the point. In this as well as the other posts in this “literary fiction” category, I am leading up to the conclusion that everything is changed in publishing over the past decade or so, possibly for the better (See Publishing is Dead: Long Live Publishing), and the next important steps must be taken by literary authors themselves to ensure the future health and happiness of their genre.

In the next post, I will be putting out some ideas about an award program that I, as a director of an arts organization called Dactyl Foundation, will soon launch–with the help of other literary fiction writers.

In a subsequent post, I will also be announcing a strictly literary fiction review website. This website will be different from others currently available in that any published literary fiction writer will be able to submit a review. So it will be self-managed by the literary fiction community as a whole. And, importantly, each book reviewed will be tagged and categorized by the reviewer–by style, influence and/or subject–so that readers can more easily find the type of books they are looking for.

These posts, by the way, are reverse dated because people tend to read top down rather than bottom up.

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