Fork in the Road

I started reviewing on Amazon in 2006. At first, I wrote reviews to stop myself from buying the same book more than once, which I did a couple of times. Very frustrating. But engaging with reviews slowly but surely changed the way that I browsed and made purchases. In the bad old days, I'd go to a bookstore. I'd select from what was available. I read a lot of books that didn't suit me at all, because that was the only way to sort the wheat from the chaff. When I stumbled across an author I loved, I clung to her with a loyalty born out of desperation.

The next stage was to check the reviews of a book before I bought it. "This sure looks interesting," I'd think to myself. "What do the reviews say?" But the book--title or author--still came first. I didn't have any romance reading friends, so no word of mouth. My discovery process was determined entirely by what books Amazon or my local bookstore chose to feature.

Soon enough, I'd taken a different tack entirely. I'd search for a book I loved on Amazon and scroll through the reviews looking for other reviewers who'd felt the same way. Whose enthusiasm harmonized with mine. Then I'd click through to the reviewer's backlog of reviews and browse until something new and unfamiliar caught my fancy.

I'd buy the book and read it. If I liked it, I'd return to the reviewer's backlog of reviews and hunt through them again. I'd make more purchases, until I'd exhausted the supply or until I discovered that our tastes weren't as similar as I had originally thought.

By 2009/2010, this was my primary method of discovering new books. I didn't cling quite so desperately to those autobuy authors anymore--I was having much, much better luck finding new-to-me books and authors that I liked, and reading fewer duds. So more books, and an overall higher percentage of satisfaction.

What a revelation. You know that almost every really prodigious reader has at least one hidden treasure that they cherish and recommend with special enthusiasm? And that once you've discovered half-a-dozen reviewers whose tastes are sympathetic to your own, that means half-a-dozen hidden treasures? I was so much more willing to experiment than I ever had been before, because it was working out really well for me.

So I wrote reviews, and some of them were negative. Around the same time, I was also starting to write seriously--to think about getting published--and reviewing honed my craft. Articulating what worked for me, what didn't work for me, was a good habit.

But I'm still not published, and the prospect was even more distant back then. Mostly, I wrote--and valued--negative reviews because I had begun to browse so differently. I wasn't browsing from book to book anymore. I was browsing from reviewer to reviewer. My goal was to find a good taste match, and I offered up my own honest opinion for other readers on the same hunt.

I had stopped thinking, "Is this book good or bad?" and started thinking, "Is this book for me?"--the same way I might think, "I prefer white chocolate to milk chocolate," or "I would rather go to a Belle & Sebastian concert than a Dropkick Murphys concert."

I think part of the reason why people react badly to negative reviews is because they still browse vertically, from book to book, rather than horizontally, from reviewer to reviewer--they see a judgment, not a key. In some ways, reviews are like dog whistles; tuned so that only certain people can hear them.

I joined Goodreads in 2011 and I loved it because it facilitated the kind of discovery that worked so well for me. Unlike on Amazon, where I'd have to remember, "Oh, so-and-so wrote a review of X, which only has two or three reviews, so it'll be easy to find her profile again if I search for X..." (I did that a lot), I could make friends, I could follow people, I had a whole timeline that was full of information about what they were reading...what bliss.

So I loved Goodreads. I was a heavy user. But while I sank roots into the site, I also picked a pen name, built a website, and joined Twitter. I started to exist, publicly, as an aspiring author.

There are a couple of things I want to communicate with this post. One is the way that I used reviews. The way I gravitated towards reviewers, how the net effect has been to make me more open and experimental, more aware of my own tastes and better able to supply them.

But the other thing is this conflict. That over the past year or so, with one author/reviewer scandal after another reverberating around the internet, I realized that I couldn't keep one foot on either side of the growing divide.

I knew that some of the people I interacted with as an author would feel betrayed by my reviewer activity. I knew that some of the people I interacted with as a reviewer would feel betrayed by my author activity. Because I'd written a harsh review, because I might have ulterior motives when writing a review. So I knew I'd have to pick. I knew which I'd pick. But I hung about at the crossroads, putting it off for as long as possible.

Goodreads' recent change of policy gave me the kick in the pants that I needed. For an overview of what I mean, I recommend the Soapboxing posts on the subject (By the Numbers: An Analysis of the Reviews Deleted in the Goodreads Policy ChangeGiving Offense: Full Revolt on Goodreads, and The Last Twenty Four Hours on Goodreads), though others have addressed the issue brilliantly.

In short, it is now Goodreads' policy to delete reviews that address author behavior. And I think that's terrible.

I'm an author. Aspiring, yes, but I've finished three books and a handful of novellas and short stories and, so, I'm owning it. Author. But two weeks ago--before (spoiler alert!) I started deleting all my negative reviews--I had 500+ reviews under my belt. And I am 100% pro-reviewer.

Pro a reviewer's right to review however she wants. Readers decide what they care about. What draws them to a book, what pushes them away from one. If a reviewer is mean or gushy, rational or emotional--well, that's her business, her conversation, her way of reaching out to other reviewers. Her dog whistle, that plays a note only some people will hear and respond to.

So, yes, I think it's valid to make choices based on author behavior. Yes, I believe that communicating about problematic behavior is important. And no, I won't contribute content to a site that has decided to stifle those conversations.

I deleted all my reviews. Every last one. Goodreads will no longer profit from my content.

Once I decided to leave Goodreads, the next step was obvious--if painful. I decided to kill my reviewer identity. I deleted all the 1-3 star reviews I'd written of genre books on Amazon and rechristened my newly-sanitized profile with my pen name. I left all my reviews of non-fiction and literary fiction, so it's not all rainbows on roses. But romance, fantasy, paranormal, a newbie author, I'm going to aim for decorum. Only the four and five stars are left.

That's the fork in the road. My goal is to fit into a community of authors, to be a good colleague. I'm sad--gutted, really--about giving up a piece of myself, something that I loved and found really rewarding. But, as so often in life, you can't have it all.

Whatever happens in future, it'll happen as me. Erin Satie, an author who also writes reviews. I'll keep posting reviews on my website (I put three up this week!), and I promise that I'll only ever recommend books that I have actually read, cover to cover, and sincerely enjoyed.

Oh, and I joined Booklikes. I still don't really understand how it works, but you should totally friend me.