Making Progress

Porch with rocking chairs, hanging baskets, and columns.I spent much of the last day in synagogue, because it’s Yom Kippur, better known as “The day of atonement,” and known in my house when “the day you spend a lot of time in a big room with people who didn’t brush their teeth that morning.”

Apparently, Emily VeingloryMrs. Giggles and Kate Garrabrant think that there’s something I ought to have been atoning for.

The short story is, I am part of a small consulting company called Simple Progress. Simple Progress was originally Mollie Smith’s company, and she’s brilliant at web management, design, and author website administration. Most of the client list she built herself. She’s pretty badass. Recently she invited me to join her company because over our semi-regular breakfast meetings (we are also neighbors) we would discuss social marketing needs for her clients, and I’d pitch ideas that would work for the authors to run for themselves or for Mollie to administer with programming, plugins and other magical things.

We think of it like languages. Mollie is extremely fluent in technology and in author promotion needs, especially since authors need to take on more of their own marketing responsibilities. I’m pretty fluent in social media and in how campaigns might effectively reach readers online in a way that isn’t an aggressive hard sell.

In other words, I speak social media and reader and author interaction; Mollie speaks tech and author, and the two of us work together to come up with social media campaigns that speak as many of those languages as possible, and that an author can run on her own. Most of what we do is web administration, mailing list management, and a small amount of consulting. 

Given the accusations about my integrity, I want to make a few corrections:

We did not come up with or administer in any way the recent JD Robb New York to Dallas Facebook scavenger hunt. If we had, I wouldn’t have participated. That campaign was concocted by some really smart marketing folks, including the marketing and publicity team over at Penguin, and run by Nora’s team – and it was pretty freaking spiffy. I think it was brilliant in the way that it involved readers and visited so many diverse web sites.

Another point: it seems that my involvement with Simple Progress has caused festive accusations to fly that I must be being paid by my clients to promote them here.

At no time am I paid to promote authors in reviews here on this site. What appears in this space is my opinion.

In fact, in our proposals and contracts, we state the following:

Promotion on any website owned or operated in whole or in part by Mollie Smith or Sarah Wendell is not included in the scope of this project.

I am not ever paid or compensated for my opinion here. I don’t know how to say that more strongly.

There are authors on the client list whose books I really, really enjoyed, and there’s books by those authors that I haven’t liked as much. But it’s an insult to them and to me that they’d need to pay for mention here or anywhere else.

It hasn’t escaped my notice that the people who have the most interest in my ethics and morals are other bloggers, bloggers with whom I thought I was on good terms. Honestly, that makes me ineffably sad. I wish that if someone had a problem with me, they’d have brought it to me, rather than talk about me online or obliquely on Twitter (hell, Katie is my neighbor, too. She’s been invited into my home and met my family. She could have rung my doorbell to talk to me).

Everything is changing online and off: agents are publishers. Bloggers, like me, are authors. Bloggers are freelancing for publishers and media outlets. Readers and reviewers are in all sorts of different roles, from copyediting to critiquing to beta readers for publishing houses. We all switch places when we ring the bell, I think. The online community is a pretty close and intermixed neighborhood, and we’re all doing new and different and amazing things – sometimes hourly.

If my involvement with Simple Progress has caused you to doubt my truthfulness or to doubt my honesty in my opinions about books, that really sucks and I’m sorry to hear it. But the good thing is, there are so many amazing romance review blogs now, there’s no shortage of opinions about the novels we love, and I hope you find excellent books to read in every genre you like.

But I also trust that if you personally thought I was up to something funny, that I was trying to pull the wool over your eyes and deceive you, you’d call me on it here so damn fast my head would spin.

I presume that’s still true. I hope it is, anyway. If I wrote a review or a comment in favor of a book that you thought was incentivized in any way, I trust entirely you’d call me on it immediately. But I would never do that to you because I value your opinion and your presence here.

There are few things I am more in awe of than the community of readers at this site. You’re as honest with me as you are with each other, and I value that more than I can say.

 

Categorized:

General Bitching...

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    Your description of the way that roles are changing, blending and playing off one another is very helpful.  There’s always the potential for conflict of interest, and it seems to me that you have done the right things to protect against it.  Now, go brush your teeth.

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    Dude. I always brush my teeth. THAT I am VERY paranoid about.

  3. 3

    *sigh* Sucky way to start the new year. 

    I think what annoyed me most when I looked at the vague allegations was that they were vague allegations.  If someone has proof that there’s collusion between review sites and authors, present the evidence.  If you do not have proof, hold off until you do, or drop it.

    When bloggers act as news outlets, it’s a good idea to recall some basic journalism school teachings:

    “Getting it right is more important than getting it first.”
    “If your mother says she loves you, check it out”
    “If you ever spell judgment with an ‘e’ again, you’re fire—” (Sorry, that’s from my own early reporting days.  I still have nightmares about those ‘e’s.)

    Hang in there.

  4. 4

    Meticulous more than paranoid.  The good news is that this little dust-up reminded me to order your book.

  5. 5
    corina says:

    Seems to me this whole kerfuffle is another lesson in internet business best practices: disclose. Disclose early, disclose often, disclose everything. (God that word really quickly lost all meaning with repetition. Is it even a word or did I make it up?)

    I really don’t doubt your motives or your ethics in this or any other instance. I believe you when you say that you are not compensated for reviews. You have built up an enormous store of goodwill in your readers and followers, but I don’t KNOW you, much as it feels I do because I read your website and follow you on twitter. You sound surprised that this raised any eyebrows, which in turn surprises me. Conflicts of interest are mostly in the eye of the beholder, and I’d think that you, with all your savvy, would have known that any undisclosed (by you, on your blog) business link would lead people to ask questions. You’ve answered them, and that’s great. (Look out, strained metaphor ahoy!) But I hope this is a lesson for others out there that no matter how comfortable you are changing hats, people are more likely to trust you when you say you are only wearing one when they can see all the others lined up in your closet.

  6. 6

    I differ that Sarah sounds surprised that it raised any eyebrows.  A blogger who writes a “no coverage” clause into every contract is very aware of the potential for conflict.  She sounds sad that people who know her didn’t ask her before posting allegations.

  7. 7
    Kismet says:

    I agree with Brian’s observation… and the fact that it is sad. It’s not high school anymore, we don’t have to run to our lockers and whisper behind our hands. We are adults, and the bloggers mentioned are considered to be professionals (you know, as opposed to the actual teenagers that use blogs as Dear Diary entries) so, then act like one. If you have a concern or issue, ask someone directly involved rather than dropping vague allegations on the internet.

  8. 8
    Penelope says:

    Oh, the drama!

    I just gave a talk to the Rhode Island Romance Writers group, and we discussed this very topic. Book bloggers and review sites are morhping from “old skool”-style blogs to “commercial” sites. Bloggers now receive free ARCs for review, promote authors via advertisements on their sites, and tweet/facebook about them. There is a murky line drawn between giving an honest opinion on a book, and promoting authors who are repeatedly giving you freebies, buds with you on Twitter, etc.

    I agree with Corina. Full disclosure is always a good idea. I help authors come up with promo strategies for their books….free of charge. I have a heading on my site that discusses this. People know I am an author, a reviewer, a “promo consultant,” and a lover of bearded men. :^) It’s always a good idea to upfront about all of your “hats.”

  9. 9
    Carolyn says:

    Or just providing links only. Shame when your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing.

  10. 10
    Cris says:

    I’m a regular romance reader that also reads a lot of blogs, so somewhere along the way I knew about Sarah’s business and it never occurred to me that there was a problem because I have never once been misled by one of the positive reviews on this site. Never once have I read a DIK and thought ‘WTF? This must be a promotion because it stinks’.

    Sarah has earned my trust as a blogger and reviewer and for people to suddenly start tut-tutting about this issue when they don’t name one single instance of ‘That book sucked and Sarah gave it a great review AND the author is a client of hers’, then I’m just not interested in their opinion on anything.

    Show don’t tell.

  11. 11
    Sarah Frantz says:

    Sarah, I’m wondering if you had a similar reaction when you started taking advertising? Did people assume that taking on advertisers meant that you’d give good reviews if you reviewed the authors who were buying advertising? Because if not then, why now?

  12. 12
    Anonymous Reviewer says:

    Am I the only one seeing the irony of this statement?

    “I wish that if someone had a problem with me, they’d have brought it to me, rather than talk about me online”….

    And the author just did the exact same thing.

  13. 13
    Del Dryden says:

    I’m gobsmacked they didn’t contact you and just, you know…ask. And FFS, my eyes rolled so hard at the “I’m just posting a link, I’m like Switzerland, so neutral” claims. Please. When you post a link, and say “oh, looky. HMMM. INTERESTING.” everybody on the planet knows exactly what that means.

    I do love your point about the increasing fluidity of everybody’s roles on the web these days. Easy to get confused about who’s doing what for whom, I guess. But it still comes down to good faith and clean hands, both of which I believe you have.

  14. 14
    Las says:

    I’m also surprised that Sarah’s surprised. It just seems pretty obvious to me that it’s a conflict of interest, and I think it’s disingenuous to ask people to not make those kinds of assumptions and act hurt when they do. I mean, come on, you’ve been around way too long…are you really telling us that it never occurred to you that this would be an issue?

    I’m not objecting to your role in Simple Progress, really, just because I think that that line has long been crossed all over Romancelandia with bloggers being obvious online buddies with authors, etc. To me Simple Progress just sounds like an extension of that.

  15. 15
    Silver James says:

    Am I the only one seeing the irony of this statement?

    “I wish that if someone had a problem with me, they’d have brought it to me, rather than talk about me online”….

    And the author just did the exact same thing.

    And you are remaining anonymous why? Seems to me the names she mentioned have already “brought it to the yard” and she’s using this forum to reply. How is that the same thing?

    I’m way behind the curve here because I hadn’t heard about the new consulting enterprise, the kerfluffle on social media, or the accusatory fingers being pointed. Frankly, I suck at social media and read only a handful of blogs (I can write or I can blog hop but don’t have time to do both) but I have had the opportunity to meet Sarah and while we aren’t BFFs by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve found her plain-spoken, sincere, and not one to play internet troll. She’s savvy at what she does, happy to express her opinion and give advice when asked, and while I don’t always agree with her reviews, I trust her insights because I trust her. IF and that’s a great big bold IF, she ever had a conflict, I have no doubt that she would err on the side of caution and walk away from one side or the other of the conflicting project.

    Just my two cents worth.

  16. 16
    anonymous says:

    @anonymous reviewer:  it is not the same thing.  Sarah was accused of something publicly.  It is entirely appropriate that she respond publicly.  She linked to those who questioned her, so it isn’t as if she is being surreptitious here.  Had she been called out privately and responded publicly, that would be different.

  17. 17
    Melanie says:

    Sadly, in today’s internet world, people post ideas, information, and accusations without doing research all of the time. You would think that since some of these bloggers have a relationship with Sarah, that they would have at least asked her directly. I do think it would have been nice to have posted information about Sarah’s affiliation with this company earlier, just to help avoid the confusion, but this does not make vague (and pretending to be innocent) accusations are the way to go. As others have mentioned, Romancelandia is fraught with conflicts of interest. Its a small community, and like a small town, people KNOW each other. Bloggers and reviewers go to conventions where they meat and befriend the author’s they review. They get to know publishers and agents and it creates a complicated web where really anyone can be accused of being biased. We have known that Sarah knows these people personally (which, maybe I’m naive but I find it harder to give a friend a bad review than someone who’s offering me money) and that she is a part of the business through her advertisements on this site as well as her interactions at conventions and her own publishing. Simple Progress is another facet of an already tangled web that exists all over the industry. While it was perhaps a mistake not to disclose on it sooner (as a question, she says recently she joined the company, how recently does in my mind—perhaps incorrectly—on whether there should or could have been more disclosure to this point), but this does not make her suddenly a bias/compromised source. If she was a compromised source, she was one long before and so are some of the biggest names in romance bloggers and reviewers.

    likely78-there will likely be 78 people who disagree with me.

  18. 18
    Jane says:

    @Las – a lot of people suspect relationships that don’t exist such as one of the commenters believing that Sarah’s site thought up the Nora Roberts blog tour.  I’ve had others accuse me of relationships with authors because I engage with them on twitter when I have no other relationship with those authors that I engage with on Twitter.  In fact, I think that there are some authors that try to cultivate relationships with bloggers believing that can lead to a positive review.  I’m actually very leery of this and find friendships with authors for those reasons problematic.  But I don’t view interacting with authors as creating relationships guaranteeing them positive reviews and if authors think that, then they are sorely mistaken.  I also dont believe most authors think that.  The challenge is that when someone accuses you of having a relationship you don’t have, how do you disprove it short of opening up your email box? 

    These vague rumors point out vague accusations, but there is never anything concrete and that’s probably because there are plenty of examples showing how Sarah (and other bloggers with purported relationships with authors) are being even handed.  Frex, Toni Blake is one of the Simple Progress clients.  In the same podcast that Sarah recommended one of her books, she also admitted she didn’t like one of Blake’s books. I commented at length how the Blake book I read did not work.  If Sarah is being paid to do promo as part of the SP deal, then she’s not delivering a very good product for Ms. Blake. 

    Do readers really believe that bloggers would piss away years of goodwill to pimp one or two authors?  And if those authors were true friends of the bloggers, would they want to use that friendship to destroy a blogger’s reputation?  The only way a blogger maintains a readership or grows one is by having an authentic and consistent voice and that authentic and consistent voice cannot be maintained if is is purchasable by contracts or friendships.

    The blogger’s reviews work only to the degree that the people who read them find them helpful.  If the review is no longer driven from the same source (honest response) then readers will move away from that blogger.  Pimpage isn’t going to work with readers of the blog if it isn’t authentic.

  19. 19
    JamiSings says:

    @Darlene – Problem is, bloggers are taking from the examples of today’s “journalists” who publish opinions, not facts, or don’t do their research at all. So if the professionals don’t bother, the bloggers probably feel why bother?

    @Anonymous – Grow up. This is more like a press conference to address every false accusation and accuser at once. If you’re so brave then what’s your real name?

  20. 20
    Las says:

    @Jane,

    Just to be clear, I really don’t mean to accuse bloggers of bad behavior when I mention conflicts of interest and such. I just think…it is what it is. Of COURSE there’s going to be some blurring of the line, especially when a blog crosses over from just a reader writing reviews to an actual business.  I doubt that bloggers are outright lying in their reviews, but I do believe that their various connections to authors and publishers can affect how they write those reviews to some degree. You might give an F to a book by an author you love and interact with a lot online, but the tone of that review is going to be a lot different than the F review of a book by an author who’s work you usually dislike or who you don’t know from Adam.

    The last time this issue came up, a commenter on one of the blogs said something like: all the obvious connections between publishers/authors and bloggers (like promos, giveaways, etc. makes what’s supposed to be blogs for readers feel like just more cogs in the publishing machine. That really sums it up for me. It’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that I don’t treat all blogs equally. Some I read for the reviews, some for the commentary, some for the information.

    What does bother me is when bloggers act surprised/upset when the line-blurring is brought up by readers. Your intentions might be pure, but you have to know how it looks.

  21. 21
    Lisa J says:

    I have to agree with Jane.  If a reviewer I trusted suddenly changed the tone of their reviews and became inconsistent in their reviews, I would stop trusting their reviews and no longer visit their site.  Why would someone want to ruin years of building trust and relationships to shill for someone else?

  22. 22
    Theo says:

    Seems to me, if Sarah was involved in any collusion at all, she’d never post a review that was less than stellar about one of the books she’s read. Since that’s not the case and she posts reviews that are both complimentary and not so, including often to the same author on different books, the accusations without irrefutable proof are senseless and without merit.

    As to taking this “public,” she was accused publicly, she has every right therefore to dispute publicly.

  23. 23
    RebeccaJ says:

    Ahh jealousy rears it’s ugly head now that the book is out:)

  24. 24
    A Deb says:

    I would never in a million years, believe any of the authors on that client list would need to buy a positive review. That is what this implied conflict of interest is all about. I mean seriously, Nora Roberts would feel the need to buy a positive review?

    If Sarah was a former blogger of a highly respected site, turned venture capitalist for the start ups featured on said blog, then yes, I might raise an eyebrow. Disclosure of the venture capitalist would be important. Big money in this instance. But a review of a 7.99 book is no where near the VC league.

    Those who raised the issue sound very petty to me.

  25. 25
    Tina C. says:

    Friends don’t spread gossip through vague accusations and innuendo.  Journalists and “journalistic-bloggers” don’t print something without actually speaking to all of the parties involved, if at all possible.  Emily Veinglory,  Mrs. Giggles and Kate Garrabrant have proven themselves to be neither.  However, perhaps they never considered themselves to be either of those things.

    As for Sarah’s involvement in Simple Progress, she is savvy enough that she should have realized that this could cause the appearance of conflict of interest, even if there is none.  She should have disclosed the relationship, if nothing else, because there are a few people that she’s outed for things like plagarism and unethical business practices.  Consequently, there are a few people looking to take her down or, at least, wanting to bask in the Schadenfreude.  People like that will always be looking for something that they can smack her with.  Why hand them the bat?

    That said, I do not believe that she’s ever gave a review that she did not feel was deserved, good or bad, for friendship, money, or any other reason.  In fact, one of her clients is Anne Stuart and I absolutely shredded one of her books in a guest review.  She never once hinted in any way that it was a problem with it or my opinion and posted it in full.  In other words, if she’s taking money for good reviews, she’s doing it wrong.

  26. 26
    sugarless says:

    Sarah, your site has retained the integrity it has had since it first started – or at least since I first started visiting it 3 years ago. I’ve found your reviews consistent – you only give good reviews to good books and bad reviews to bad. If that had changed, I could see where the allegations come from, but it hasn’t.

    You consistently post (and publish!) things that celebrate the romance novel community and it upsets me to to see parts of that same community turning on you.

  27. 27
    Mireya says:

    I am 100% with Las on this.  She expressed it clearly enough, at least from my perspective, so I don’t think I need to say more.

  28. 28
    Las says:

    I don’t think Sarah would write a dishonest positive review. Would she write a snark-filled negative review of a book by, for example,
    Loretta Chase, though? Guest posts don’t count. Would Sarah herself write that review? She might comment that she didn’t like it, but would she dedicate a post to it? There’s no way for us to know that, of course, because the absence of a review can’t be considered proof of anything. But I don’t believe that there’s any way for this new business to not affect how she runs this site. Maybe it’s not deliberate, but it has to happen.

    I find it pretty disturbing that the focus here is how mean those bloggers are being to Sarah. Way to deflect, there.

  29. 29
    Lakaribane says:

    I don’t think that Sarah’s integrity is in question. I don’t believe the tone of her reviews has changed.

    BUT

    The perception of conflict of interest is bad, not matter the person’s personal ethics, because all we know of Sarah is what she posts here.

    Also, even if it is a new venture, SB Sarah posts every day or almost so…

    I have to agree with Corina: disclose, disclose all, disclose early. Don’t leave it up to others, friend or foe.

  30. 30
    Laura says:

    This whole thing feels like a plot from a Regency Romance. Sarah was caught in the moonlit garden with the very sexy Consulting. Nobody saw anything, but they’re trying to ruin her anyway. Stay strong! Be the romance heroine we all know that you are!

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