Much of this material was originally presented on my blog.

The RWA Affair

(February 11, 2003)

 

The December issue of the RWR Newsletter, which is the newsletter for the 8,000+ members of RWA, included an article for which I'd been interviewed back in April. The focus of the article as it had been presented to me by a journalist named Cheré Coen was to explore the pros and cons of news, rumors, and gossip that spread through the Internet. Ms Coen wanted me to focus on the Robin Lee Hatcher hoopla, and to a lesser extent, the aftermath of AAR's review of a book by Christina Dodd.

After reading the final version of the article, I contacted RWA to see if the organization would publish a letter to the editor of RWR from me because I believed, at the very least, that the journalist misrepresented herself (she is also Cherie Claire, historical romance author, but never identified herself as anyone other than Cheré Coen, Variety.com).

The newsletter's editor informed me in early December that RWA:

"would welcome your comments as a Letter to the Editor. If you send your comments THIS WEEK, that letter can appear in the February issue, which is our next issue under production... Many thanks; we look forward to printing your letter."

Despite this assurance, my letter was not included in February's RWR and RWA has no plans to publish it in the future. Claire's article as it appeared in the December issue of RWR is not online, which means I cannot link to it, and as it is protected by copyright, I can't reprint it here. What I can do is provide my letter to the editor, the rationale provided by RWA as to why they didn't honor their agreement with me, the questions I was asked and how I responded, and my on-going interpretation of the entire affair as written about in my blog. I believe that I was promised 350 words in good faith to present my reaction to Claire's article; that RWA refuses to print it only furthers my suspicions about the original article. I realize that those of you who haven't read it are hampered by that fact, but what you'll read below should provide you enough detail to come to your own conclusions.

My Letter to the Editor

The following is the letter to the editor of the RWR Newsletter that I'd written and expected to see in their February issue:

In April Cheré Coen questioned me for an RWR article. Her email stated she was "looking at the pros and cons of news/rumors/gossip that spreads through the Internet via message board(s), using your message boards…specifically on the Robin Lee Hatcher hoopla." Ms. Coen never identified herself other than as "Cheré Coen, Variety.com." Only when I read the article in the December RWR did I learn she is Cherie Claire, historical romance author. After hearing from RWA members who read the article and found it biased against All About Romance, I read it for myself. Then I checked and discovered we had negatively reviewed one of Claire's books in mid-1999. Had I been told before agreeing to participate that Cheré Coen was Cherie Claire, I would have declined participation.

Claire's article begins with a story of how a small business was nearly destroyed as a result of a false rumor, then segues into an episode involving Robin Lee Hatcher and an interview she did with the Gannett-owned Idaho Statesman. AAR's involvement had nothing to do with rumor; we linked to the article and allowed people - including Ms Hatcher herself, an author with some excellent reviews from AAR - to comment on it. We also contacted the newspaper, which neither printed a retraction nor any letter from Hatcher. All of this is detailed in an editorial I wrote afterward, which links to every post made - including those supporting Ms Hatcher.

I see no real attempt on Claire's part to present the conflict as it unfolded. She seems to accept Hatcher's view that AAR was out to do her harm because we accepted as legitimate reporting comments she made to a respectable newspaper. That Natasha Kern is quoted in the article without mentioning that she is also Hatcher's agent represents sloppy reporting.

Rather than presenting a fair analysis of the situation, I believe Claire's article provides past-RWA president Hatcher an opportunity to blame someone else for things she said and, as a result, paints an unflattering portrait of AAR - who simply provided readers a link to the original article.

RWA's Response

When the letter did not appear, I asked the newsletter's editor what had happened. The response came not from her, but from RWA President Shirley Hailstock, who wrote the following:

Dear Ms. Gold, The Romance Writers Report is a trade magazine for members of Romance Writers of America. The magazine is distributed only to RWA members and selected publishing professionals. The only letters to the editor published in the RWR are from individuals who pay dues or publishing professionals affiliated with recognized publishers and literary agencies.

Since you are not a member, and you are not affiliated with a publisher or literary agency, your letter was not accepted for publication in the RWR.

Sincerely,
Shirley Hailstock
President, Romance Writers of America

Because the original RWR article was written for RWA's membership and not the general public, I initially decided to keep the entire thing off AAR's pages. Instead, I wrote about it in my blog, which is the location I'd deemed correct for sharing behind-the-scenes events. That's where I posted the original email from Cheré Coen, as well as my response to her. It's also where, as promised, today I posted my letter to the editor (which I'd been holding until it appeared in the RWR Newsletter). Given that it'll never see the light of day there, and because I believe RWA has been disengenous in the handling of this matter, I've changed my mind about not highlighting it for all our readers. As such, in addition to sharing with you my letter to the editor of the RWR Newsletter and RWA's official response, I've copied some blogging entries that give the background for this from my perspective, and some other material as well.

Email from "Cheré Coen, Variety.com"

"You own a message board on your Web site so you see lots of stories coming through. With the Robin Lee Hatcher article, you posted the link to the board. In the process, many people attacked Robin personally, some claimed you were trying to get more hits to the site, some were glad you brought it to their attention, etc. But this was news.

"What is your position on this? Did you feel, as the Web site owner, what you were doing was justified as journalism, letting your readers know what was going on in the romance community? Do you monitor what people say in situations like this (and others) and take into account that someone may slander another person and evoke a law suit?

"In Christina's case and the report of plagarism - and forgive me on this, I've only heard bits and pieces so if you could enlighten me on this one, I'd appreciate it - was this more of a rumor that got out of hand?

"Also, in the Robin thread, someone accused you of lighting fires to get more traffic to the site. Can you comment on this?

"I'm looking at both sides of this issue. Was there an incident when news got out that was positive about someone, but not true? A rumor that they hit the best-seller list or won a Rita, for instance.

"Just so you know and feel comfortable with my questions, this is not an anti-message board article and I don't plan on rehashing all these issues. It's just an examination of how the Internet is changing our lives. And anything more you'd like to add, please do."

My Response to Cheré Coen

"I'd like to answer your question in a couple of different ways. It's true that gossip spreads like wildfire on the Internet, but gossip spreads quickest when there's a large audience for it. Here's an example: The May issue of Romantic Times featured a gossipy segment about a copyright infringement case we first reported at our site in February, which we did because we try to report news-worthy items to our readers whenever we can. I worked on that initial piece by doing research on the 'Net, calling lawyers for both publishers involved, and following up on leads. The resultant piece provided a lot of good information to our readers on an important topic (timely too, given the Doris Kearns Goowdin and Stephen Ambrose situations), including these things:

  • Cindi Louis' CRAZY THING CALLED LOVE had indeed been removed from distribution by Harper for copyright infringement after an agreement was reached w/Harlequin and an "unnamed author." Although the "victimized" author was not named by the lawyers, one of our sources close to the author provided that information, and though we didn't have a second source, we shared what we had learned, which turned out to have been accurate after talking to the lawyers again and mentioning the name "Linda Turner," and her book, THE PROPOSAL.
  • Harlequin doesn't file US Copyrights, which may, in fact, make it more difficult to protect its writers against copyright infringement.
  • How to determine which books are registered as having US Copyrights.

"We thought the story was done until we read the May RT and found they had printed something based on a phone call made by someone close to Cindi Louis, and this person was said to have a good 'reputation.' The RT article turned the tables and made it sound as though Louis was the injured party and intimated 'not-good' things about Linda Turner.

"So, as I reported again at AAR this past week, I started digging again - calling the lawyers, asking other category romance authors for information on timelines: how long does it take for Harlequin to approve a proposal for a book from an author they've worked with before; how long does it take to write a category romance; and how long is a book "in the can" before it is published? I also did research that determined - from information on Cindi Louis' web site and elsewhere - that she could not have written her book prior to - at the earliest - some time in 1997, which is after Turner's book would have been "in the can." I found out who RT's "author X" was as well.

"In short, I handled the story just as a reporter for my local newspaper would have, by doing research, checking facts, creating timelines, going to the lawyers, etc. My report was not gossip - it was reporting. As big as we are getting, though, RT has a whole lot more readers, and so a whole lot more people aren't going to know what really happened unless RT actually does the leg-work - or they report on what AAR already reported.

"But mainly what you'll find at AAR are discussion points - based on what we're reading, what we hear people talking about...and whenever we hear of an article about an author or w/an author in the mainstream that is 'news-worthy,' we report on it. A few years ago, there was a romance author killed by her either ex-or-soon-to-be-ex husband. Much of the reporting done in the mainstream played off the fact that this woman was the author of those lurid romances rather than the fact that she had been brutally murdered. We opened discussion on that too, on one of FIVE message boards, one of which is solely for the use of authors to promote themselves. When the Janet Dailey/Nora Roberts copyright infringment story first started to be known, we covered it, and covered it fully - I think we scooped just about everyone w/that story.

"Earlier this week there was a very interesting post on one of our Message Boards (regarding the Hatcher story) that said something that I think is critical to understanding AAR. This comes from Beverly Medos on our Potpourri MB (Beverley used to do a monthly column for AAR, but hasn't for 2 or 3 years now). She wrote, in reference to the Robin Lee Hatcher controversy:

"I almost posted on this earlier but had decided not to, however, now that someone else has brought it up I have to agree. I didn't read the original article because I wasn't interested in the topic but I did scan the threads in question and read some of the posts as things developed. And the entire evolution of the discussion was just weird. What I mean is that this site has never been a stranger to controversy but what many don't realize or appreciate is that the reason isn't because Laurie actively stirs it up. It's because she isn't afraid of it. It's a subtle distinction, but it is also a big one."

"I'm glad Beverly wrote that, because that's how I see it too. We are a large enough site - w/2.1 million hits every month and roughly 100,000 unique visitors every month, that we don't need to create controversy to bring in hits, particularly not to encourage advertisers, which, if you knew our revenue stream, would be laughable. What we do is encourage discussion - that's the long and short of it. The complaints we most often get are from people who are not regulars at the site, but come by when it's 'their' author being discussed (or a friend), and will turn a perfectly interesting discussion into a flame war.

"Here's a perfect example: last summer I started a discussion about the winners of 2001's RITA awards (top romance author awards given out by RWA). Since I'd heard lots of grumbling about certain of the winners from readers on our boards and two discussion lists, I basically said the following, after congratulating all the winners: 'Just like you may have an Oscar party to diss the winners of have a Miss America party to make fun of Miss Tennessee, which of the RITA winners did you think didn't deserve to win?' I even listed the few categories I had found surprising, given the buzz (or lack thereof) of certain books.

"One big name author who I named didn't think that was very nice, and she and I went back and forth on the MB, each clarifying our points. It never got ugly between us - we were professional about it. But some of our readers - including one who is the biggest fan of this author you could imagine, thought the author was trying to cut off discussion. This was not pretty to watch, particularly when this author's fans 'invaded' our board. It was like being fire-bombed and it didn't stop at our site until I posted a message saying we'd granted that author Desert Isle Keeper status (our highest honor) 'X' number of times. (And it continued at the 'fan' site - 500 posts, including a call by some of the fans to 'boycott' AAR until the author stepped in and they knocked it off).

"Even so, before that happened, several authors had come by AAR to talk about judging in the RITA contests. It was fascinating to me to hear one author talk about 'craft and technique' while another author talked about 'wearing her reader hat and voting for the book she liked best.' You don't find that kind of in-depth discussion at sites that don't invite these types of discussions, and since I'm utterly fascinated by what happens in the creative mind, I was pleased.

"The big name author and I continue to talk regularly; she reads every column I write and though she's not visable at AAR all the time, she continues to be a part of certain discussions. And though I thought the discussion led to the revelation of some really interesting stuff, she hated the whole thing. I realized that's because she's not used to being in such discussions daily while I, at this point, am. If you talk enough to enough people and encourage them to talk back, there's going to be disagreement...and some of it will get loud. Sometimes people forget that the act of reading a book and talking about it is NOT brain surgery, that we're not solving the Middle East crisis...they forget what we're talking about are books, a form of entertainment, and let their passion for a book or author get the better of them. Readers are people, and it's human nature once in a while to lose perspective, and a sense of humor.

"The home page of our site says 'AAR - the back-fence for lovers of romance novels.' Some people don't get that, think there's an ulterior motive behind it, or don't agree w/it - thinking we all have to be 'nice' all the time. I guide content at AAR only in that I ask the people who write for AAR to write about what's interesting to them, because it's bound to also be of interest to our readers if they're enthusiastic about it. I also ask that their writing be entertaining, as well as informative.

"Now, talking about the Robin Lee Hatcher thing specifically, a major author who apparently also lives in Idaho was appalled that a former RWA member would be quoted as having said the things she says in the article. If you read my final note - after Hatcher and the editor at the paper spoke - you'll note that the paper made no changes and didn't publish Hatcher's letter. This is a woman who's been interviewed many, many times, and just as I'm being careful in my answers to you, I assumed she was careful in her answers to that reporter. The spin she tried to give at our site some days later - and the spin of one author who really does not care for AAR - didn't come off as genuine to many of the other authors and readers who participated in the discussion. Most of the people who got angry about the discussion at all, and tried to change the focus, were not 'AAR regulars;' many were people who clearly had never been to the site before, including one poster who asked who the 'mysterious LLB' was.

"What happened, instead of commenting on the actual piece, was a discussion of whether or not I should have posted a link to it w/out going to Hatcher first. I found that discussion silly - still do - because the Idaho Statesman is a legitimate and non-tabloid newspaper. As I said on the message board, 'this is not a tabloid newspaper with articles about 100 year old women giving birth to 300 pound babies....' But for some of the people who posted, it was easier to focus on how nothing ever printed in a newspaper is believable. That's a specious argument to me but it made for a hell of a blow-up on the message board. What was most interesting to me during the discussion was how many authors came out and posted using their real names and said they found Hatcher's comments upsetting. Generally when a discussion gets as loud as this one did, authors stop using their real names.

I am careful in my reporting AND my commentary never to say anything that is libelous. I don't 'report' something false, and if I'm giving my opinion, I'm clear about it. But my personality comes through in both my reporting and my commentary - I'm like a dog w/a bone when I'm interested in something because I'll follow every lead exhaustively until I'm satisfied that I know all I need to know. I also tend to be not only a problem-solver, but a problem-finder, which means I automatically tune into things that are potentially interesting to our readers. What can I say...I'm an intense person, and that intensity spills over into the site. I can't control what our posters write, but if things get too out of hand and the discussion ceases to be useful, we have moderators who will delete a thread.

"As far as the Christina Dodd situation, here's what happened: our reviewer read her book, realized it reminded her of an earlier (and better) book by a different author, and thought about how to best approach that in her review. Most of us at AAR are tremendous fans of Entertainment Weekly, and they often print tables w/in their pages comparing and contrasting two things. So she decided to do the same. I thought it was absolutely brilliant because when we'd said in earlier reviews that one book was too similar to another, we'd get the 'that's too vague' complaint. By showing the similarities point by point, the reviewer was making clear that she found Dodd's book paled in comparison to the earlier release.

"This time, however, there were calls on the MB that by pointing out the similarities, we would 'ruin' the read for readers, that we were calling Dodd a plagiarist. We most assuredly did nothing of the kind; we pointed out that if someone wanted to read a story based on that premise, they'd do better to find that earlier release. That's what we do in our reviews - we inform AND entertain. I still think it's one of the best reviews we've ever done and I'm very proud of it, and the reviewer who wrote it.

"The only people who used the 'P-word' were some readers on our board, and we made sure to repeat over and over that we had never said such a thing and were NOT saying such a thing. Some other authors signed to that publisher emailed me privately; one author who'd gotten mostly great reviews from us said she'd gone to her editor to request we never review her books again because we were out to destroy Dodd's career. Never mind that we'd given Dodd top honors for several books in the past - and those top honors were controversial in and of themselves. My favorite book by her generated six weeks of material for this site because so many people found the book's handling of certain issues so troubling.

"Our site has grown exponentially for years now; we are in a period of tremendous growth yet again which started in September and has continued unabated ever since. Generally we go through one 'burp' a year that bumps us up to a higher level, but for the past several months, we've just had increase upon increase upon increase. MOST romance sites come and go; few stay online as long as we have, and some that have been around a long time are too conservative in their nature to suit me, which is why I think people like to visit AAR. And some exist only to provoke; they're fun to visit but mostly for shock value. I think AAR is dynamic, fun, and there's always something new to read or discuss. We also offer a depth of material you won't find elsewhere - so much original content, and so much scholarly work too. I've been extremely proud of our Historical Cheat Sheet since its inception; there's probably 70 articles in it now that teach history to readers.

"The 'traffic' argument goes like this: I create controversy so traffic will increase so we'll get more money from advertisers. I bet we lose more prospective advertisers BECAUSE of the controversy than we get. We could earn a lot more via our amazon links if we gave better grades in our reviews...but we don't, because we're not in it for the money. I've become convinced that unless you're selling porn on the 'Net, you're not going to make a living at it. If you can, I sure haven't figure out how.

"We would do the same 'work' we do now if we had fewer visitors. As long as those who write for the site and who visit the site are enthusiastic, then we'll do what we're doing. The material our staff originates fulfills my mandate of being informative and entertaining, and of creating points of discussion, of allowing our readers to have a voice. Many of our most popular discussions follow the human side of romance reading - how many books do you have in your tbr pile, do you sneak a peek at the endings, what are your favorite books, what are your reading idiosyncracies...? These questions help us come together as a community - if you can talk to someone else who has 300 books in their to-be-read stack, you don't feel isolated. Your neighbor may make snide remarks about your choice of reading material, that snotty clerk at the bookstore may look down his nose when you show up with five romances at his register, but you've got a place that encourages you to engage in intelligent discussion about what you love to read. We celebrate our hobby, our obsession with reading, our bookishness and revel in it...that's what this site allows. We believe we do more to promote reading through our content than we're given credit for.

"We consider ourselves organic in nature, talking about what interests our readers because we ARE readers. We not only allow dissent - we encourage it via our dual reviews (two reviewers w/different viewpoints on a book will sometimes both review it), our daily message board discussions, and the publishing of all sides of an issue in our commentary. The At the Back Fence column I write, now along w/two co-columnists - began in 1996 before I had message boards - it was me, the readers, and email. But we take advantage of the interactivity on the 'Net with our columns, our message boards, our polls, and the fact that if you disagree w/us, we'll give you the opportunity to voice your opinions...we'll even publish them.

"How anyone can have a problem w/that is beyond me.

"To my knowledge, nothing we've ever officially 'reported' was inaccurate. There are always statements on our boards that turn out to not be true, but we work hard to prevent what I call 'fraudulent' posts and ballot-box stuffing. You'd be amazed at how many people seem to think doing well in one of our polls is important enough that they'll go to the extreme of stuffing the ballot box. Sometimes they are authors, sometimes they are small publishers, and sometimes they are simply fans.

"If a visitor to the site posts something that turns out to be untrue, someone else will correct them asap. I can't remember a time when some sort of false rumor started at the site that wasn't ended immediately, either by another reader, or an author who's 'in the know.' Obviously there's speculation about this and that, but our readers are savvy enough to know what's speculation and what's real.

"A few weeks ago we posted a negative review of a book and suddenly there were posts all over the Reviews MB. Several of the posts were made w/in an hour and a half, at midnight on a Sunday night, purportedly from six different people. So I did an IP check and learned that all the posts were made from the same computer. A rabid fan of the author's felt the need to do this, why, I can't be sure. I ended up deleting the thread, although I reposted it in one lengthy post when readers asked to see it. But that fraudulent poster hasn't returned.

"I think message boards can be valuable tools; just tonight I got a lead to follow-up another copyright infringement case I covered a few years ago. Had we not been having a discussion of the Turner/Louis case, that lead would never have come my way. I expect to be contacting the two publishers' lawyers next week.

"I like to think of our site as a way to educate people - for instance, someone who posted on our message board about the Cindi Louis/Linda Turner case thought that Louis' book was pulled from distribution simply because Harlequin made a complaint about it. In my response, I explained that wasn't so - that a publisher does not pull a book from distribution over a complaint, and would never allow another publisher to say a book had infringed upon its copyright unless that had been part of the confidentiality agreement. If you don't ask questions, you don't get answers. One of our boards exists solely for readers and authors to educate one another. There are historical questions asked, questions asked about an author's backlist, or questions like this: 'I read a book three years ago that I can't remember now. The hero was name so-and-so, the heroine was such-and-such, and this is what happened in the book. Can you tell me the title and author?' Nine times out of ten someone will post a correct response, and usually w/in hours or a day.

"What I've noticed about AAR's message boards is this: authors (and readers) who come expecting everyone to agree and be positive about the books they're reading will not enjoy themselves. My philosophy is that in real life, people disagree - if we all thought the same things, we'd be incredibly boring. Am I always pleased at how a poster will comment on something she didn't like, from a book to a review at AAR? Of course not. Have I started some discussions in a manner I'd later wish I'd begun differently? Yes, upon occasion, although I RARELY 'lose it' because if I'm responding to a MB post, I'll sit there for a considerable period of time before hitting that 'post' button. Same goes for email. I think of AAR as a dinner party at my house; I do what I can to make sure my guests are having a good time, that they're being entertained, but I want them to participate. I try not to be rude to my guests, to be accomodating to their needs (our content is often reader-driven), but if someone breaks a vase on purpose, tells me my food stinks, or tells everyone to go to 'a better party,' I'll call them on it, gently at first, but then less gently and more forcefully.

"The Internet, because of its anonymity, makes people think they can say whatever they want w/out using the manners they were raised with, and I'm assuming these people were raised to have good manners because I was raised to have good manners. Which is why I'm careful...but I make no bones about my personality and the sensibility of the site. Sometimes we're tongue in cheek, sometimes we're sarcastic, but I think to our readers we're fulfilling our mandate.

"It's also easy to misinterpret what someone else is saying when you can't see their face or hear their voice. Which means there are limits to what interaction on the Internet can provide. But for romance readers, who have felt the need to be 'in the closet' because of what we love to read, AAR has provided a sense of community where any reader can say whatever she/he believes or feels. For many of our readers, that's a very valuable thing, and something they can't get in the 'real' (non-cyber) world. My main goal was to create that community; I think I've achieved it even if it scares others."

Excerpted from my November 29th Blogging

About the only not so warm and fuzzy feeling I have today comes from an article in the December edition of the RWA newsletter. Way back in April of this year, I was contacted by a reporter for Variety who had been asked to write an "article on news/rumors/gossip that spreads through the Internet." She was specifically interested in the Robin Lee Hatcher/Idaho Statesman episode and that now-infamous review we posted for Christina Dodd's Lost in Your Arms back in February. She asked me some questions and I provided a quite detailed written response in return.

After I learned the resultant article was finally in print, a copy was faxed to me. After my first read-through, I definitely had some thoughts, but was most surprised to discover, at the end of the article, that the author of the article was in fact the author of some historical romances under a different name. When I checked my file on all our correspondence, I found no notice that the author had identified herself as that pen name. And when I checked our archived reviews, I discovered that we had published a very negative review of this author's work back in 1999.

Had I know that the author of this article had been previously reviewed by us, particularly in light of the grade she received, I don't know that I would have agreed to participate in the article. And, after I read the article again, and then again, and then heard from people who had also read it, I began to believe that the article was perhaps less "just an examination of how the Internet is changing our lives," and more a piece with a particular slant to it.

That said, anytime someone - including me - participates in an article, there's always the possibility that the end result won't be the expected. I more or less repeated that over and over again during the RLH episode when I stated that anyone who has been interviewed in the past needs to be ever-vigilant about every word uttered. Indeed, when I was interviewed this summer by a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer, I spent quite a bit of time crafting my responses with extreme care.

I'm bothered not only by the fact that the author of the piece in the RWA newsletter never disclosed her pen name, but that the article led off by talking about how a rumor has nearly ruined a small business. After all, my linking to the RLH article wasn't a rumor - the article was a fact, the article was written in a reputable paper owned by a reputable company. And the fact remains that the newspaper did not print a retraction, which leads me to continue to believe that Ms. Hatcher did, in fact, say the things she is quoted as having said. Whether the interviewer provided the context is something about which Ms. Hatcher, having been interviewed many, many times in the past when she was president of RWA, should have exercised more control over during the interview process. Sitting for an interview is not like sitting down and having a conversation - the person being interviewed has a duty to measure each word, and to be clever enough up-front to know that the interviewer may have a "hook" in mind. When I responded to the questions for the RWA article, I knew there might be a slant, which is why I indeed crafted every response very, very carefully. Nothing I said in regards to the interview was taken out of context, although it does appear at times as though I'm responding to a direct allegation of mis-doing by either Dodd or Hatcher when in fact I was not.

I was also bothered that Natasha Kern was quoted in the piece, and yet her relationship to Ms. Hatcher (she is her agent) was never stated.

I have written to RWA asking if I may prepare a letter to the editor of their newsletter, which I would like to see printed in a subsequent edition. I'll let you know if this occurs, and if you have the chance to read the article itself, I'd love to know what you thought about it.

Excerpted from my December 4th Blogging

Those of you reading my bloggings know that I've been in contact with RWA regarding the December issue of their RWR Newsletter. I described the situation in detail in a previous blogging, and was given the green-light yesterday to prepare a letter to the editor of no more than 350 words. Considering my general verbosity, that was a challenge, but I spent a considerable amount of time yesterday writing, editing, and reconfiguring my letter so that it came in at precisely 350 words. I am told it will be included in the February 2003 RWR, and at that time I will publish it here.

Excerpted from my December 24th Blogging

There's no getting around it - something happened Friday night that refuses to let go. I'm working on the problem, but it's hard to say whether it'll be resolved to my satisfaction. Here's the deal. Last month Pat Holt and I did reciprocal segments for each others' columns. If you haven't read my segment in her column, you can link to it here. Well, an author chose that entree to write a letter to Pat Holt Uncensored that appears in her December 20th column (in the letters section) complaining about AAR even though her topic is wholly unrelated to what I wrote for the Uncensored column.

(That author's letter to the editor includes excerpts from the RWR Newsletter article, which is why I discuss it here.)

Letter to Pat Holt Uncensored

The Holt Uncensored column for December 20, 2002 included a letter from romance novelist Jo Manning. Pat Holt addresses that letter in the January 21 issue of her column, and a letter from me is excerpted as well. The following is my entire response to the Manning letter. I appreciate the chance Pat Holt offered for me to speak directly to her readers.

Dear Hot Uncensored: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about Jo Manning's letter to you. All About Romance exists solely for the purpose of giving lovers of romance novels an electronic "back fence" by which they can discuss the genre. We accomplish this via original content in our commentary, reviews, interviews, polls, and other articles, and through the five message boards we operate.

Because we've taken the neighborhood "back fence" and expanded it electronically, our content and response to our content reaches a wide audience. What we do is simple: our staff offer informed opinions and our message boards allow people to expand upon them or to refute them with their own. Other mechanisms are in place for disagreement - we sometimes post dual reviews and invite readers and authors to contribute segments to our At the Back Fence column. We try to be organic in nature, allowing readers to dictate content in terms of giving us ideas to write about. We offer so many ways for lovers of romance to communicate because we're all about the sharing of ideas and opinions. Because of this we try to discuss all sides of an issue.

For some reason this has created dissention among some lovers of romance novels, including certain authors. I believe this happened for a couple of reasons: the print publications that "grew up" with the modern genre romance were all about cheerleading, and the idea persists that discussion must be all positive, all the time. The other reason is that most of the print publications that have deigned even to review romance novels are publications not written for the reader as end user. Publications such as Publishers Weekly and Library Journal review books with a different sensibility than publications that review books for readers, primarily because of their audience and their mission.

Reviews with consumers as the end user are written with more personality and flair than those written to be read by those in the publishing industry because they are meant to impart information as well as entertain the consumer. You can see this difference by comparing and contrasting reviews written for Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, or People to the magazines listed in the previous paragraph. AAR's style is modeled on EW's reviews, where books, movies, music and TV shows are graded and written about in a far more theatrical manner than you'd read, say, in Publishers Weekly.

Even though AAR is considered one of the premiere sites online, the Internet, as far as romance novels are concerned, is still limited in terms of power. Were we truly as powerful as some seem to think, books we championed would become immediate bestsellers. And if we were as negative a force as some would say, books we panned would never make bestseller lists. And yet, neither is the case.

There is some confusion between reviews by our staff, comments by readers on our message boards, and the type of reviews you'll find at sites such as Amazon, B&N, and Epinions. This is indeed unfortunate as there is quite a distinction to be made.

The reviews at AAR are comprised of "AAR Reviews" and "Desert Isle Keeper Reviews." The former are written solely by our review staff and can receive grades of "A" through "F." A book receiving a grade of "A" is given "DIK status;" it is considered a desert isle keeper. DIK Reviews are written by our reviewers, readers, and authors of their all-time favorite books, and in the case of authors, books which influenced their writing.

As a reviewer who has written some 300 reviews in the past 6 years (of which 1/3 were paid reviews), I've approached AAR not as an amateur venue, but as a site with original material as professional as you'll find anywhere. Most of our review staff have read romance novels for many years, and many are professional writers and/or editors in "real life" - a few have been or are published romance authors. Official reviews as they appear on our site and the type of review you'll read at Amazon and/or B&N online are different animals altogether. Indeed, even those DIK Reviews, which we make a point of distinguishing from our AAR Reviews when not written by our staff, go through a rigorous two-tiered editing process, just as you'd encounter at a "professional" review publication. This is perhaps the major difference between our reviews and what you'll encounter at Amazon and Epinions. I wish I could counsel authors before they jump into a message board discussion with both barrels blazing to remember that the MB discussion will disappear within a few weeks, whereas an actual AAR review will remain forever.

I say this because in the past few months I've witnessed authors who've received good grades from our review staff squander those reviews by their online behavior when they felt provoked. In one instance, an author received DIK status for a book but was so argumentative with readers on one of our message boards that I doubt few readers would even remember the book had received our highest accolade. A more recent incident involved Jo Manning herself. Again I would venture to say that few readers would remember at this point that her book received a recommendation from AAR. Indeed, Manning herself failed to mention her good review with us in her letter to you, which surprised me. A review remains forever while a message board discussion will be gone soon as soon as the board is trimmed to make room for new discussion. At AAR this generally takes two to three weeks. Online conduct, however, both of readers and authors, lingers much longer in everyone's memories.

The Internet reaches an electronic "back fence" larger than a virtual back fence; it is because of this that I believe a segment of the publishing community is concerned about AAR's impact. Readers who haven't had a venue to talk about the books they love - warts and all - love AAR, as do many authors who recognize the value of good, honest discussion. Our commentary is widely read and we try to provide all sides to the issues we tackle. But we know we're reviled by other authors who find our style of review mean-spirited. Some find us mean-spirited simply for reviewing books we didn't like.

We do post negative reviews, and yet the D's and F's, when added together, account for just over a fifth of all our reviews. Nearly 50% of our reviews are in the A or B range. Put another way, we post more than twice as many A's and B's as we do D's and F's (see our Reviewer Scorecard for details). We model our reviews after reviews in Entertainment Weekly, which also assigns grades, and have a page online of mainstream reviews that are far more negative than anything we've ever written.

It's been said that AAR sets a negative tone. I strongly disagree. For the most part, discussions on our boards are conducted with reason and by those with reasonably good manners. Sometimes readers agree with an opinion put forth by one of our staff while at others they disagree. Certainly spirited debate may occur, but most often that debate is useful. At times, though, tempers do flair. We notice this most frequently when certain authors or their friends or fans visit AAR. Our forever-growing group of regulars generally comport themselves well.

It's interesting that for some, fostering a negative tone means that we "allow" people to say negative things about a book. Sometimes these comments may be very negative, which indeed can be hurtful to an author, but as reviewers and readers, our reviews and discussions of books do not consider the author's feelings. I doubt seriously whether Roger Ebert of the Sun-Times or Owen Gleiberman of EW considers a director's feelings before writing a negative review. And when I've spent $8.00 to see a bad movie, my friends and I don't "feel badly" for the actor who gave a bad performance when we're talking about it over dinner afterward.

What makes AAR work for readers doesn't always make it work for authors, and yet there are many authors who visit daily and take part in our online discussions. But the variety offered on the Internet for lovers of romance can make it difficult for authors to navigate. Responding on a message board at an author's web site or a "fan" site is different than contributing or responding on a message board at AAR. Authors are certainly welcome at AAR, but unless they are careful, they may be perceived as trying to quash discussion. This isn't "fair," but it has happened often enough that readers are sometimes pre-emptively defensive when an author joins the discussion. This is generally when that negative tone creeps in.

And now to move on to the article Ms Manning excerpted in her letter from the December 2002 RWA newsletter. Oddly enough, in all her correspondence with me the author of the article never indicated she was anyone other than Chere Coen, Variety.com. Until I read the printed copy of the article months later, I had no idea she was also Cherie Claire, historical romance author. Had I known this, particularly since we negatively reviewed one of her books, I would never have agreed to participate in the article.

The article begins by detailing how a business was nearly destroyed by a rumor, then segues into an incident that began on one of our message boards. That incident began with a link I posted to a newspaper article in a Gannett-owned, non-tabloid newspaper and had nothing to do with rumor. The article was a fact, and though the object of the article did much to disown it, the fact remains that the newspaper never printed any letter to the editor from her, or printed a retraction. Indeed the wording of the newspaper's editor response, while perhaps cryptic at first glance, is quite telling upon a second read.

There are no hidden agendas at AAR, nor do we like to humiliate authors. But we do often provide links to articles of interest to romance readers. This was no different, and yet the outgrowth of that link was most certainly different from what we've seen before. It's clear that many more people distrust the media than in the past, but the up-shot of much of the discussion regarding this newspaper article was that it must not be true and/or that AAR had purposely tried to embarrass this author for things she actually said. I don't know about you, but when I say things to a reporter or online, I am not embarrassed by them. If I were, I wouldn't say them, and I certainly wouldn't say them for public consumption. Although the object of the article called AAR "www.characterassassination.com" in the RWA newsletter, for what logical reason would we have caused harm to an author we had previously reviewed quite positively four times out of five (highest grade/A- and lowest grade/C+)?

As for the idea that our review staff enjoys giving negative reviews to well respected authors, we don't. We would much rather love every single book we read, but given how expensive even paperbacks have become, we are compelled to give our honest impressions of what we read. We judge each book on its own merits; an author may receive a "D" or "F" from us for one book, and DIK status for another. You can see from a quick look at our Did You Know...? page that this indeed has happened. The same author who received DIK status 22 times also received a grade of "D+." Another author with seven DIK's to her credit also received "F" grades. In at least a couple of instances, an author received both DIK status and a "D" or "F" - for the same book. Because of our rigorous editing process, we often remove some criticism from our harshest reviews so as not to over-kill the point, but love a book or hate a book, anyone who reads our reviews will know exactly what we felt about a book, and why. The "why," we hear from readers, is very important because it helps them make informed decisions about how to spend their hard-earned money; what engages or turns off a reviewer may do the opposite for a reader.

What is posted on our message boards is most generally opinion. When opinion veers off into something that can be answered objectively, it generally is, and quite quickly. Here's a very recent example regarding Suzanne Brockmann. I've seen Brockmann's star on the rise for a few years; she has received DIK status 11 times from our review staff. One of her books won as our reviewers' favorite romance of 2001. Not only that, she has done extremely well in our annual reader polls. Yet I began to see what looked like a backlash against her in the past several months and because I couldn't understand it, wrote a segment essentially asking why in a recent At the Back Fence column.

Discussion on our ATBF MB included a post from someone who had heard (and believed) that Brockmann had snail mailed 8,400 ballots to RWA members asking for their votes in a yearly list of favorite romances compiled by RWA. Brockmann came to our board and refuted this, after which I asked whether anyone had actually seen one of these alleged postcards because I did not want AAR to be a party in spreading a rumor. Others then posted that they too had heard and believed the story, but none had seen the postcard. Eventually a few authors explained how the process actually works - Brockmann would not have had access to the snail mailing list of RWA, for instance. If not for this discussion, a false rumor that had been floating around for months and had probably contributed to the backlash against this author might never have been debunked.

Those interested in learning more about the specifics of the RWA article, which is not available online, can link to my November 30th blogging (my blog is not officially connected to the AAR web site and so I hesitate in linking to it, but in the end I believe it is of value). It contains the questions I was asked and my answers.

We at AAR take our mission extremely seriously, and do our best to put out a professional product. Our open and honest discourse, our entertaining and informative material does a tremendous amount for the romance novel genre. We provide a community within which romance readers can talk intelligently about the books they love.

Sincerely, Laurie Gold aka Laurie Likes Books
Publisher, All About Romance

 

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