The Meaning of Book Reviews for LibraryThing
I have just finished my seventh book review for LibraryThing. Most of my review content uploaded to the site has been possible by books given away at LibraryThing by either publishers or promotional groups. The aim of this tiny essay is to inquire about the meaning of writing for a website such as Librarything given what is happening to publication in general across the internet.
When one enters text or other content into fields in LibraryThing, there is no editor standing over one’s back checking form, grammar, whether anything inappropriate has been included or even whether your content has “stayed on message.” None of these factors are taken into consideration when text is added after the user has logged into the site under his or her account. Reviews, upon submission, can be voted positively following current crowd-sourced, social trends. Reviews can even be flagged for content reasons. But there is no committee, fact-checker or grammar check required to submit.
There are myriad points one could make about writer-controlled content added to a popular and publicly used site such as LibraryThing. Many of the same points can be made about author controlled web-sites of any kind. Writers, like all “public” figures, want to appear to put their best looking foot forward. In our contemporary era, web personas and content added to pages attached to these personas, are submitted to websites. Some of these websites are built upon freely available web authoring software such as WordPress.com. Others may have started out as Blogger sites but have transitioned into full-blown branded sites. And I do mean branding. This means that even if the free code has been downloaded from WordPress.org, it has been manipulated and customized according to specific and unique interests and then hosted at one of the many places to host code seen through browsers as a URL.
Whatever code and style limitations that may have been imposed by free blogs hosted at WordPress.com (which always include .wordpress.com in the URL) have been evaded by adding more distinguishing features, but not limited to, branding through naming. Some famous authors with fully branded websites (which do not necessarily have to be based on WordPress.org code) are William Gibson, Thomas Pynchon and Jeanette Winterson. I mention these three as examples of different styles that are designed with the intent to brand each author for marketing (which is not a bad thing). Each site is different. In truth, each of these sites may have people who run them who are not the authors themselves. But that doesn’t matter because the authors themselves are in control of what happens on them and how content is uploaded for live viewing.# So even though each author’s controlled and branded site looks nothing like LibraryThing nor a “standard” blog that could be run by anyone with an internet connection, the overall demand from controlled web publishing technologies are the same – content added for all the world to see is uploaded/added by select administrative personnel who determine what content is loaded and may or may not have any fact-checkers, editors or “appropriate” content managers standing over their shoulders deciding whether said content has “stayed on message.”
Now, it probably works to the benefit of every author who has a branded website to “stay on message” and use all necessary fact-checking and editing skills at hand because, well, they’re authors who author (write) and who are interested in developing an educated and positive fan base. These aspects of web publishing, however, are used by every author. It doesn’t matter if an author runs a small blog hosted on freely available software (where the software is openly branded) or a site built on fully developed and manipulated code. Each author wants to put his or her best looking foot forward. One could argue the best looking feet on the internet are branded and controlled websites. But it is not the case that every author prioritizes his or her writing the same way as another more famous one. Plus, there are lots of important and famous institutions (some universities and publishers) who use freely available web publishing software (where the software is openly branded) to promote their goods and services. Why can’t a “normal” person do the same thing? Time and space change all the time.
It seems to me many authors who care about their content added to the internet will already do their best to upload and submit the highest quality content they can manage. No, not every submission or act of uploaded content counts as authorship or toward activities built to promote a “writer.” But these days with technologies such as websites, blogs, Twitter, google+, about.me, LibraryThing and other social media applications that can be linked to each other, why would an author not make the most of every act of content upload? The linking of technologies to each other, a form of interoperability, can be used extremely effectively to promote and cross-promote writing of all sorts all across the internet. In some cases, a single post in social media will automatically cross-post to other applications. Professional writers use these technologies intelligently all the time. An amateur or non-professional writer can as well.
In many cases, posting in social media dovetails into the history of a writer’s writing. Writing a “proper” essay somewhere for web or print publication in which content is theoretically edited by a “real” editor is then promoted via blogs, websites with branded URLs and social media technologies. And now with publishers of books and e-books lining up to get some of those same publications promoted on LibraryThing, literary minded writers and creators of creative critical essays can submit high quality reviews for others to read while “real” writers can submit reviews to “real” publications on the internet. I understand the conundrum of peer-review when it comes to what makes a “real” publication. In no way are those justifications negative. They make sense to me too. In tandem with this point is the statement from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers that users who write reviews are more likely to receive more books to review than those who fail to submit reviews for books received has the caveat: the actual content of reviews does not matter. In this, a submission to LibraryThing may not count the same as publication proper, but publishers are still riding a circle by using it so heavily to promote (alongside “real” sites of publication) their wares. One just hopes, at least I do, that all reviews submitted to LibraryThing exhibit the best looking foot forward by writers submitting content for this particular social web portal. There is obviously some value and some cultural cache attached to these reviews.
Thank you for reading.
As always, I am open to comments here or @ Twitter.
#If this is not true, please communicate with me in a polite and educational manner. Thank you.