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I don't know what I'm doing

I’ve been around the Internet since it was a baby. The first network I belonged to was when I was a student at Manchester Business School. Our computers were linked up to the North West Computer unit. Companies sent their payrolling there to be processed, universities used it for advanced calculations, and it was all DOS. I programmed in BASIC or Cobol. The second network belonged to General Foods, Inc., and we had to learn a specific computer language, Diplomat, which was exclusive to GF and a great way to keep security tight. Because, you know, my calculations about where we should place Angel Delight Mint Chocolate was of international importance.

Fast forward to when my husband brought home a BBC computer. He was (and is) a teacher, and because he teaches special needs’ children, computers are an important part of his job. I discovered the internet.

I wrote books, got publishers, chatted to people on the world over. And I joined some of the earliest networking groups. When Instant Messenger gave you access to people on the other side of the world. Some of the first groups I joined were associated with my hobby of dolls’ houses, and that’s where I came across my first example of gaming the internet.

It’s depressing. People joined the group, talked about the hobby with great enthusiasm, said they had a course or a shop or something like that, and started to take over the group. By the end of my association with them, they were in thrall to the one person. Yes, I left. That’s what people do. I’ve joined other groups with shop owners, course-runners or whatever, and they’ve become proper members, joined in, talked, been positive assets. I’m not talking about those.

It happens in writing. I loved Yahoogroups. I joined them, filtered the replies to my folders, and joined hundreds more. I loved the chat, the information, and at one point they were the place to be, lively and helpful. Living half way across the world from my market, they were also a link to readers, so I could read about their enthusiasms, the latest releases. In those days not every book came out in e-format, so I ‘met’ people online who sent me paperbacks through the post, and I could send them payment in kind, buying books they couldn’t easily get for them, or sending them Paypal payments. It was amateur and it was wonderful.

Then the promos arrived. Some promos are fine, I like them. The ones that tell you about new releases from authors I enjoy and authors I haven’t heard of before. I still like them. And authors joined groups who talked about nothing but their books. They were told that this was counter-productive. I mean, who wants to hear about “the book wot I wrote” over and over again? It was the result of small epublishers pushing writers to go and promote, but not telling them how, or the occasional egotist who genuinely couldn’t see more in the groups than a place to plug their books.

In the early years of epublishing, sales weren’t exactly high, and there was a strong belief that if the author did enough promotion, then their books would sell more. It’s not like that. Over-promotion leads to discrimination on the part of the reader. Authors could become boring and dominate groups, so reader-only groups were started. Some banned authors, which I hated, because I read lots. When I’m not writing, I’m usually reading, and I probably get through three or four groups a week. But sadly, I understood it, because the promotions and the constant bombardment of “buy my book” promos became wearing and tedious. Wading through them all got to be more trouble than it was worth, especially for people who accessed the groups online.

These days, reader groups on Yahoo have tumbleweed blowing through them. It’s not immediately obvious, because many people haven’t bothered unsubscribing, they’ve just gone no mail or ignored the posts. I filter promos to one file so I only have to see them once, but there are some days when I have twenty promos exactly the same from one author in my promo file. It’s too much and for busy people to whom reading is a hobby, not a career – it’s a waste of time. So Yahoogroups disappeared for readers. Writers are still there, talking about the craft and the skills, connecting and discussing publishers and other writers, the latest trends. Promos aren’t too bad on those groups, and in some, promos are banned.

A couple of years ago, blogs were where it was at, and, to some extent, still are. Review sites and sites that are lively, either run by individuals with a distinctive voice or multi-author, still do well. But the promos crept in there, too. Because of spam filters, a lot of the garbage is kept out, but another phenomenon has nearly done for them. Posts that say “I love this blog” or “this is useful information” or something equally as vague and include a link to some rubbish site. Links are important, or so we’re told. So going on a blog and making a genuine comment, joining in the conversation is welcome and positive, these vague posts stop a conversation dead. When they appear on my blog, I delete them, but as blog owner, I get the irritants in my inbox. Sometimes they get through. If they get worse, they could kill the blogs.

Now it’s happening on Amazon and Twitter. I get a lot of follows from people flogging something. They’re not interested in me, they’re not interested in chatting, they just want the links. And people who join “for the links” and never say anything. Or people who only talk about their books or their friends’ books. Ick.

Amazon – where do I start? I buy a lot of stuff on Amazon, not just books, and it happens everywhere. With book reviews, I can usually pick them out, but for other things, like computer equipment, I’m not so good at spotting them. When I read an Amazon review, I want a real opinion. I want to know what “consumers” really think about the book or the computer or whatever. When I bought my latest travel laptop (an Asus Zenbook), the reviews were really important for making my decision. This thing isn’t cheap, and I got some great information from Amazon. But when a book has a slew of great reviews, and I buy it and it really is pants, I get suspicious.

I hate to say it, but either Harlequin has a bunch of fans who are just blind to a badly written book or Harlequin authors are getting friends and family to post reviews. Because I’ve read some really appalling books recently that have rave reviews. I mean badly constructed, badly written with flat characters. And when I’ve gone to look at the reviews, they read “fantastic, great.” Harlequin has always been very reader-aware and is one of the cleverest outfits out there, the first big publisher to take ereading seriously and put a decent investment into a digitizing program. And not every author has that suspicious “this book was great” 5-star review, so I’m guessing it’s an individual thing. And it’s not just Harlequin, either. I can understand genuine fans, people who love an author and her books, who do the reviews, but some of the reviews read as if the reviewer hasn’t read it. No, I’m not naming names. It’s invidious and unfair to pick people out.

Now there’s tagging. Authors are having tagging parties, where they tag each other’s books. It means the book appears on a lot of lists, and is, ostensibly, a good thing. Helpful. But I get suspicious when this back patting goes on. “I’ll do yours if you do mine” has killed what started as useful and helpful schemes before. I don’t have any reason to think this is anything but genuine, it’s just something at the back of my mind saying, “Here we go again.”

Oh yes, and while I’m on the subject, what about all the 50 Shades copycats? They’re storming up the charts now, but by the law of diminishing returns, it will die, and it will die sooner. People will saturate themselves with the BDSM-lite genre, and then it will die. Me, I can’t do it. I can’t take someone else’s concept and run with it, but good luck to the people who are doing it. I understand that it’s hard to say this without it looking like sour grapes, but really, I’m thrilled that people are reading books rather than doing something else with their leisure time. Don’t forget, that 50 Shades itself bounced off someone else’s book. The phenomenon is a bit different and includes the desperation of traditional publishers, who need to find the one big hit that they can get into every outlet and use economies of scale to make their money. (Amazon doesn’t issue the kind of detailed information on sales that marketers in the past depended on – that just adds to the pressure). Until the bandwagon runs out of steam, they’ll pump out the books.

Gaming. These days it’s everywhere you look.

I don’t play games, mainly because I’m not very good at it. But I have to be honest – if someone hypes my books up to the multi-million, you won’t see me complaining. But that 50 Shades mock proposal we put up last week? I’ve had interest. No, I’m not doing it, because I won’t leech off someone else’s success and I want to write the books that mean something to me. Writing 100,000 words on something that I don’t have much passion or commitment invested in sounds to me like my idea of hell. Yes, it might push up sales and interest in my other books, but to me that’s gaming and I won’t do it. Sorry.

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