29 A Conversation That Can’t Be Controlled (Sarah Wendell, Smart Bitches Trashy Books)

Sarah Wendell is the co-founder and current mastermind of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, one of the most prominent communities examining romance fiction online. The site specializes in reviewing romance novels, pondering the history and future of the genre in digital and print form, and bemoaning the enormous prevalence of bodacious pectorals adorning male cover models. Sarah is also the author of Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels and co-author of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: the Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, which is used on syllabi at several universities including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and DePaul. 

Because I’m a blogger (and boy, is that ever a visually ugly word), I tend to locate things in a very immediate sense of time. Usually I’m focusing on what’s happening right now, what might happen in the future or taking a look at what’s changed in the romance genre and its readership over the past 30-odd years. It’s more difficult to write something that looks back over the past seven years I’ve been running Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, identify what I’ve learned, and where we’ve been.

I look at books, at readers, at trends, and cliches, and I honestly don’t spend a lot of time looking at myself or my own statistics. So beginning this chapter, I’m almost compelled to locate the words I’m writing now in the events that are happening now, in March 2012. I suppose this is “dating” my chapter in a damaging way, but one thing I’ve definitely learned online, while also learning about publishing and the community of readers who thrive within it, is that the more things change, the more many try to keep things exactly as they are.

Right now, a published fanfiction called 50 Shades of Grey is dominating the news. As I wrote on 2 March 2012,[1] this book has received the kind of attention publicists have fever dreams about. Good Morning America interviewed me for a segment that aired 13 March 2012. It focused on the fact that this book has reached record sales and top positions on bestseller lists purely through viral word-of-mouth exposure online and off. People are spreading the word about this book and creating astonishing sales, and there hasn’t been any major advertising push from the publisher. I suspect that will change, now that Random House has paid a reported seven figures for the rights to the 50 Shades trilogy. But the initial thrust of sales power came from readers talking to other readers.

Consumer interaction is, and has been, a powerful conversation that cannot be controlled.

That’s what book blogging is at its best: a conversation about books that can’t be controlled, not even by those who start it. People want to create content about the things they read. I can moderate heavily or even close comments, but if people have something to say, they will find a way to say it, even if the genesis of their thoughts is no longer a venue for continued interaction.

In speeches and panels about blogging and online reviewing, I have cited Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus several times. Shirky suggests that the excess brain energy we carry increases with each successive generation. As we build wealth and more of our daily chores and processes become automated, the potential creations of our harnessed surplus grow over time.

I was grabbed by the idea embodied in the subtitle of Shirky’s book: “Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” As consumers, we are more driven to create in response to what we consume, and we are encouraged by various forms of social media to interact and gauge our likes and dislikes against those of our friends, former friends, and casual online and offline acquaintances. The younger generations currently ascending into the ever-so-desirable advertiser demographics no longer passively consume entertainment. As Shirky notes:

“Several population studies—of high school students, broadband users, YouTube users—have noticed the change. Their basic observation is always the same: young populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposes pure consumption. Even when they watch video online, seemingly a pure analog to TV, this generation now has opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world.”

That interaction is becoming second nature. For example, I rarely watch television without a laptop or smartphone nearby to talk about what I’m watching. I also do the same while reading. I consume entertainment with interaction tools close at hand.

Now, advertisers are driving collaborative creativity because it is more valuable for the products being promoted. Here’s an example: on the highway circling the exit of the Lincoln Tunnel into and out of Manhattan, a route travelled by many thousands of people every day, huge billboards advertise products. One is almost always touting Absolut vodka. At one point, the text at the bottom of the billboard cautioned those reading to drink responsibly, then proclaimed the company’s URL.

Now, the billboard directs folks to facebook.com/absolut.[2] Absolut probably spent a great deal of money on its destination website, but the interaction of fans of their product and the presence of those fans on their Facebook page is more desirable now. The interaction and the conversation and the content that result are more valuable than a one-way intake of information from one user looking at a website.

When I co-founded Smart Bitches in January 2005 with Candy Tan, I was seeking engagement that I didn’t have an outlet for at that moment. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. Candy was someone I knew online through my now-defunct personal blog. She found my site after searching for raw cat food recipes—back when I had more free time, I made my own pet food. She used to leave long comments on my site, and we’d correspond very casually.

Then, after the tsunami of 2004, I emailed her, mistakenly remembering her as being from Indonesia. Candy is actually from Malaysia, and after telling me her family was all well and safe, we began emailing back and forth about random topics. Somehow the subject of romance novels came up. We both confessed to loving them and hating how much crap we took from people. As Candy wrote in Beyond Heaving Bosoms, our 2009 book, she could see people “revising downward” their estimation of her intelligence upon discovering she loved romance novels.

At some point in this conversation, we also mentioned how difficult it was to find concise and critical examinations of romance novels, especially when looking for new books to buy or borrow. One of us (we don’t remember which) suggested we start a website of romance novel reviews. After a few bizarre suggestions of what we’d call it, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books was born. We wanted to harness the power of our English degrees and our dedication to criticizing and examining the books we loved and apply it to romance novels—a genre that isn’t reviewed in most mainstream book review publications, or given much respect at all.

When I read Shirky’s book years after starting the website, I realized that our creation of a blog was in part a step toward fulfilling our lack of outlet—using our cognitive surplus. We didn’t know many romance readers. We wanted to talk to each other and anyone else who would listen about the romances we loved and the ones we didn’t. Our public conversation in the form of a blog became a conversation for many others.

When we launched SBTB in 2005, we didn’t advertise. Outside of our own circle of friends, we didn’t do much in the way of announcements. I already had a personal online journal that I was running, and “Hey, I just started a blog” was about the extent of our promotion. Neither of us expected the site to take off the way that it did.

But through word of mouth and link sharing among romance writers and readers, our audience grew. It continues to grow over seven years later. We have readers in over 150 countries worldwide, and we receive traffic from just about every timezone. I think that in part reflects that same isolation I felt originally: many romance readers (90%+ of whom are women according to the Romance Writers of America) do not have friends with whom they can discuss the genre.

Some have written to me to tell me how relieved they are to have found our site, because they didn’t have any people who served as recommendation resources for romance. Their romance reading was something of a secret, and preserving their secrecy while going online to find recommendations and discovering so many active communities of readers was a revelation for many. The most common email message I still receive is, “Where have you been all my life? I had no idea there were so many romance readers out there!”

The consumer’s need to interact and create in response to the entertainment we consume is encouraged by television shows that direct us to Facebook in the end credits, and by movie promotions that encourage us to tweet about films using a hashtag to increase word of mouth. And even if that word is negative, it helps.

In the early years of our site, one thing that surprised me was how often we were described as “mean” when we gave a thoroughly negative review of a book. When a romance let us down, we ranted about it. And when we did, the traffic went up, and the hate mail increased. We were called mean and nasty for being so cruel about an author’s hard work, even though most of the time, we were talking about a book, a product created for entertainment, and not the person who created it.

That drive to create in response wouldn’t be present if creation itself weren’t a personal endeavor. Creation is personal, from the creation of a book to the creation of the review of it to the comments on the book and the review from readers who liked or disliked either. But even a negative review is a positive thing: in my Amazon affiliate statistics, books that I’ve reviewed negatively, particularly books that have received low grades for being completely off the wall crazy in plot and dialogue, have outsold books to which I’ve given B and A grades.

One book, The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl,[3] by Sharon Kendrick, still appears on my sales reports a full two years after I gave it a D-. The author told me privately that the book has continued to sell marvelously for her. She credits my review, which highlighted some of the most over-the-top characters I’ve ever experienced in romance. In addition, she dedicated her next book to me.

That response is something of an outlier, though, because most often negative reviews garner outraged responses from authors and eager responses from readers. Our collaboration began because Candy and I could not find a critical and analytical site that examined romance novels. Now, there are many reader response blogs, not just devoted to romance, either. Not all of these readers react positively to the books they read, but I maintain that there is absolute value in the negative review. It allows readers to identify the rubric employed by that reviewer in evaluating content. Moreover, hype is much less effective than snark in terms of enticing sales, in my opinion. For one thing, hype is considered suspect by those on the receiving end—and this is especially true for me.

More importantly, negative reactions inspire curiosity because people learn about each other and themselves when they can identify what it is they label as “bad” or “not to their tastes.” Imagine a review in which I am squeeing endlessly without a word of negativity about a book whose lead character eats pasta, does a lot of yoga, and finds herself. If I start spewing flowery prose about how this book Changed My Life, I bet you’d start to skim that paragraph.

But if I’m standing next to you, and I smell something in a plastic container and say, “This smells bad. Smell it,” most likely you will totally take a big whiff, not only out of morbid curiosity, but because it’s a compulsion to identify whether what’s “bad” for me matches what’s “bad” for you. The line of demarkation that defines “bad” is much more revealing than that which we consider “good.”

Reviews offer that same function, particularly negative reviews. One of my favorite email messages was from a reader who said, “I love everything you hate, and hate everything you like.” I found that to be a compliment of the highest order, because it meant that I was consistent, and that reader was happy reading the opposite of what I recommended.

Just as there are people who love role-playing games, watch television shows with intricate plots, follow reality television series or pursue artistic endeavors involving weaving, painting, or both, there are people who consume books as their entertainment. Creation is a human desire, I think. And because my favorite entertainment is books, and my favorite way to spend my leisure time is to read, the conversations I have with other romance readers about the books we love and hate is ongoing. It is out of the control of the author, the publisher, and even the blogger who might have started it.

Now that online and offline conversation have made 50 Shades of Grey a huge bestseller, the power of that uncontrolled conversation is realized. It is realized not only in a seven-figure publishing deals for the author, but also by booksellers who can’t keep the book on their shelves and must maintain a waiting list of customers looking for it, and by readers who want to join the conversation and have to read the book in order to understand the discussion. The more interaction there is, the more exposure, and the more exposure, the more profit.

Until recently, editors and sales teams saw book buyers—those individuals who decided what books to stock in their bookstores and supermarket bookshelves—as their customer. Moreover, editors and sales teams focused on what was coming out in six, eight, even twelve months from now, not what’s on sale this week. Publishers as corporations are still trying to figure out how to best interact with and serve the reader, who is increasingly their customer.

As readers spend more time online interacting with one another, we learn how publishing works from authors, other readers, and even socially active people within the publishing industry. So when readers begin responding to the books they’ve read, they respond to the author and now to the publisher as well, and it hasn’t been clear what the best response from a publisher might be. As more publishers sell directly—Random House just opened their author portal, which, among other things, offers discounts on Random House books—more publishers will experience being retailers and dealing with readers directly. That should be illuminating and create even more change in the world of reader interaction.

I gave a keynote at SXSW in 2011, and said, “Readers are a strange, sometimes unwelcome, sometimes baffling, sometimes irritating and yet absolutely important part of any conversation when it comes to the way the road to publishing is traveled.” With so many new book blogs appearing each month—and a blogger-generated conference devoted just to them purchased by Book Expo America for the 2012 BEA convention—the conversation about books and the creation of debate and extended interaction and reviews will only continue to grow.

Readers, like any other consumer of media, are not content to passively consume. Allowing their consumption to become interaction, regardless of whether that interaction is laudatory, is part of selling books now. The reader’s voice is important, as is her opinion and what she does next with her opinion. Listening to the reader and allowing the conversation to grow is essential—and is my favorite part of the Smart Bitches website.


Give the author feedback & add your comments about this chapter on the web: http://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/smart-bitches-trashy-books-sarah-wendell


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