Saturday, October 9, 2010

Under the Influence

Until a day or so ago, I didn't know what I'd write about for the blog this time. I mean, we write, we pray, we eat, we sleep, we take bubble baths, some of us sing...lather, rinse, repeat. Right? Sometimes it's hard to find something fresh, new, and different to pique interest and get writers thinking.

And then...something happened.

A friend of mine read another author's book. Liked some things a lot, liked some things not so much. Wrote up a nice review, extremely balanced, with the negative stuff soft-pedaled. (I know. I saw it.) And, bless her heart, she sent it to the author in question, telling her in effect, "This is what I wrote about your book, I thought you'd want to see if before everybody else does."

Was the author pleased at this courtesy--which my friend was not obligated to do?
The author got upset because there was a sentence or two that said parts of the book were weak.
The author proceeded to tell my friend that, as an influencer, she was supposed to say only good things about the book. 

The problem with that scenario friend didn't know she'd been put into the "influencer" category.
She hadn't volunteered to be an "influencer." And now she's in a position where she perceives a need to "rebuild a relationship" with said author.


I've been in the writing business a long, long time, and the first--and only--place I've ever heard of such a thing as an "influencer" is in the Christian fiction biz. Perhaps it's been out there for awhile. Perhaps it's some tool a marketing genius thought up, and it's taken off in this particular niche in a way it hasn't taken off anywhere else. All I know is, I actually had to ask someone what an "influencer" was when I thought about doing the task--because I had no earthly idea what was entailed. The answer I got was, "You read the book, and then you spread the word about it. Mention it in your blog, mention it on a web page, you know...the usual."

Fair enough. So the idea is, you volunteer to talk about a book. You know you're going to do it. You read the book with that in mind. But does anybody see what wasn't mentioned in that description above?

Right. The expectation that you will say only good things when you do that talking.
In other words, the author wants you to censor what you say...or she wants to do it for you.
How is that serving anyone in this business?

"But, Janny!" you may be saying. "If an influencer goes on a blog and says, 'This book wasn't great,' how is that going to help an author's career?"

Fair question. But that only brings up the second, and more crucial question: since when does "talk about the book" translate into "help me sell a boatload of these things, or don't bother"? Independent readers aren't obligated to go out and sell your book. That's your marketing department's job. That's your publicist's job. That's your job. The reader's job should read. And remark. And evaluate.

Yes, of course, they shouldn't set out to slam your book--that's just as bad as setting out to deliberately sugarcoat it. But they do all of us a disservice when they're not allowed to point out where an author could have done better, or something that may not have worked for them, in context of an overall positive experience. That's not panning a book. That's giving a fair evaluation of it, and it's giving people who look to "influencers" for news about new books an even playing field from which to make a purchase decision.

Unfortunately, though, as things stand now, the moment we engage a reader as an "influencer," in effect, we want sugarcoating out of her--and we're apparently appalled if we get anything else.We put her under a hidden agenda. In other words, we engage in duplicity. In plain English? We lie to ourselves, and we want cooperation from others in doing so as well.

Last time I looked, lying was a sin. Or doesn't it count if it's among Christians?

Think I'm being unduly harsh? Well, consider this. If I read an account of a new book from a person I know, whose taste I trust, and she raves about the book--while holding back on all the flaws she saw, but is forbidden to talk about--how does that help anyone in this business? It makes me fighting mad, because I trusted this person to give me a fair and honest scoop--which she's hogtied from doing. Worse in the long run, it lulls an author into a false sense of complacency--because, trust me, if you don't hear about the flaws, you're going to think there are none.

Yes, common sense "should" take over, and you "should" realize no book's perfect. But are you going to...really...if no one's allowed to say so? You and I both know the answer. Of course you're not.

Then, when truly independent readers pick up that book and find those flaws, and are under no unspoken expectation to ignore them, they're going to mention them, loud and long, in review sites. What happens when that author weeps about those reviews to her friends and influencers? You and I both know the answer to that one, too. Her friends rally around her, saying those are just"bad reviews." That she should "pay no attention to them," or that the reviewers "just didn't get" her book, or...

Like I said before, hogwash.
And it's all the worse hogwash because we actively encourage and demand the process continue.

We as Christian writers owe each other more scrupulous honesty than the world gives. We owe each other the truth, spoken in love. We owe each other transparency, not duplicity. Right now, people can be blindsided by these hidden and--let's face it--unfair expectations. Because "influencers," if they're allowed to say only good things, aren't "influencing" anyone at all; they're selling. They're acting as publicity agents. They're creating buzz.

People get paid for doing that in the real world.
Why we don't do so in the Christian fiction world is a question we owe it to ourselves to answer...and a bad situation we owe it to ourselves to fix.



  1. I don't normally do book reviews, but even if I did, I would never agree to act as an "influencer." And I want to know what's wrong with my stuff as well as what's right with it, because, otherwise, how will I learn? Some of my best rewrites were prompted by negative comments.

  2. Whoa. More strongly phrased than I'd have offered such feedback, but maybe it's time we admitted some of these Christian emperors have no clothing on.

    Yeah, we should speak the truth in love...but if we must first accept bridles and bits in this particular horse's mouth, we're not doing each other any true service. The kind we as Christians owe each other.

    How's that for mixing metaphors?

  3. I thought reviews and influencers were two different burgers. A review is a commentary, an opinion, to my way of thinking and pointedly to evaluate the work good and bad where as an influencer is a support system, of sorts. I would expect an influencer to stand down from the position if endorsement couldn't wholely be made. However, when has a book ever been published impeccably flawless? Why couldn't/shouldn't an endorser also hold an opinion? I've got to say there have been books I've read where I was surprised at the endorsements. I thought, "so-and-so really thought this was great?" I've also been amazed recently to see books with two or three pages of endorsements. That makes me dubious, too. Was it that tough of a sell to the publisher? I'm not talking from experience, I'm unpublished. These are things I'm noting for future use. Perhaps I don't understand the differences between a reviewer,endorser,influencer. I'll be watching for futher discussion here.

    Truth, in love, should flow out of all we do.

  4. I think there's a lot of confusion out there as to the roles of reviewers and "influencers." It does seem that "influencer" is just another word for, as it was aptly put, a support system for a writer. That'd be fine, if that's how it's presented--but it's often not. And the disgrace of "endorsements" from people who've never even read the book has been something many writers have been befuzzled about for a long, long time--across the board, Christian and secular.

    I'm really not angry at the system, per se. I just want the terminology explained and represented that there are no hard feelings on either side. For the record, I've stepped away from being an "influencer" on a book when I felt I couldn't recommend it--and I've told the author why. The reaction I get is usually, "That's okay, we're all different." So there you have it.


  5. If I agree to be an influencer I read the book. But I only go to the trouble to write a review of the book if I do believe in it. I would never give a false review.

  6. An endorser is a published author who gives a good blurb for the book.

    An influencer is a reviewer who may or may not be published. An good influencer does not write a false review. What would be the point. Their future reviews would not be trusted.

    As part of a support system an influencer only writes reviews for the books that are worthy. And to point out a minor weakness is not bashing a book, in my humble opinion.