The Impact of Technology on Reader Civility

Perhaps I’m a minority of one, but after almost forty years as a professional writer, I’ve noticed a distinct change in the attitudes expressed by readers… and in the way those attitudes are expressed. On the one hand, the rise of the internet and emails, not to mention instant-messaging, allow readers a far greater range of ways to express their views about books they like and dislike, and those choices have definitely led, at least in my experience, to greater contact with and interaction with readers. I have to say that, for me, the overwhelming majority of such direct contacts have been positive.

On the other hand, the comparative anonymity of the internet, the proliferation of “review” sites, both professional, semi-professional, and non-professional, and the growth of “reader reviews” on the bookseller sites, particularly Amazon and Barnes & Noble, have resulted in what I can only call “the enshrining of the validity of each individual’s opinion.” We all have opinions, and some are more valid than others, usually depending on the expertise of the one proffering the opinion. But this “enshrining” has led to the growth of a sub-class [sub in more ways than one] of opinion-givers who often express their opinions of a book as extremely negative opinions of the author and who express themselves rather vociferously if the book doesn’t meet their expectations… or even if an author doesn’t write the next book quickly enough to suit his or her fans. At times, such as when a book has received glowing reviews from all sorts of standard literary authorities and when the vast majority of readers rate it as good or superior, it’s fairly clear that the reviewer is angry because the book didn’t meet his or her very personal expectations. Ten years ago, as I’ve noted previously, there were precious view of these violently negative opinions. Now, very few popular authors escape them, especially authors who write a range of work that doesn’t fall within a narrowly defined sub-genre.

What concerns me is not that readers don’t enjoy certain books by certain authors, but the anger expressed when an author fails to meet a reader’s expectations, especially when it’s clear that most readers do in fact like, or don’t actively dislike, the book in question. It’s almost as though those violently negative reader-reviewers take it as a personal slight that the author didn’t meet their individual wishes. They don’t seem to want to understand that with thousands or even millions of readers, not every book that an author writes will please everyone, and not even, in all probability, everyone who liked the previous book. In my own case, I know this to be true, because regardless of appearances and readers’ perceptions, I do some things differently in every book. That upsets some readers, and others get upset because they don’t see enough radical difference between the approaches in books.

For an author, that comes with the territory. What comes increasingly with the territory, and shouldn’t, is the growing amount of abusiveness written and directed at authors personally… even if much of it is somewhat subterranean in forums only visited by their faithful. If a reader doesn’t like a book… that happens. If the reader wants to say why, that’s also fine. If the reader doesn’t want to read any more books by that author, that’s also a personal choice. But targeting authors personally and abusively in reviews and forums because they don’t meet expectations… or deadlines — that’s not only bad manners and uncivil, but reveals an incredible degree of anti-social self-centeredness that bodes ill for our society.

Contemporaneous with this type of self-centeredness is another kind — the posting of downloads of e-books on a wholesale scale by individuals. Now… there are all sorts of arguments about whether legal downloads — or even the free-distribution of e-books by some publishers — affect book sales positively or negatively. I suspect that depends largely upon the author, but so far studies are inconclusive. If publishers wish to do that, they do so in the hopes of encouraging other sales, and with the full knowledge of the author. They also seldom release many books by a given author at one time. If a publisher or an author chooses to offer free downloads to encourage sales, that’s their determination and choice. But it’s clearly both unethical and illegal for someone else to make that choice for the author or publisher. What not only bothers me about such “wholesale” postings by individuals is not only the contempt for the author that such download postings represent, but the fact that none of these “downloaders” even seem to recognize that their actions are contemptible as well as illegal. Almost all the authors I know — and after all the years I know a great number — work demanding, sometimes grueling, schedules. Many still hold down full-time jobs in other fields. Contrary to popular belief, most published authors do not make millions. In fact, most can’t support themselves on writing alone. Among those of us who can, only a few handfuls make the “millions” [and, no, while I’m comfortable and not hurting, I’m not even close to being in that class]. So… posting or using such downloads declares in effect that the person who reads them doesn’t value the writer’s work enough to pay for it. Some them claim that they do so because books and e-books are overpriced. That’s a cop-out, not to mention inaccurate. If books are so overpriced and publishing so profitable, why are almost all publishers laying off staff and closing imprints? No… for these downloaders, it’s all about “me.” Yet most of them would be highly offended and more than a little unhappy if their employers suggested that they should work for free, which is effectively what unauthorized downloads are imposing on authors and publishers.

As I said in the beginning, almost all readers are generous, open, and, even when they don’t like what I or other authors write, polite. But I can’t say that the growth and increasing visibility of a self-centered and often verbally/textually vicious and comptemptuous sub-class isn’t disturbing, particularly in these times.