Sunday, February 19, 2012

Publishing in the Age of Google Alert

            By Nancy Bilyeau

Occasionally when my red “smart” phone trembles in my palm, signaling the arrival of book news--perhaps welcome, perhaps not--I think of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia.

            Adapted into a fine film called Angels and Insects that ramped up its more-decadent plotline, Morpho Eugenia is at its core a mid-Victorian love story between an impoverished naturalist named William Adamson and a repressed governess named Matty Compton (wonderfully inhabited by Kristin Scott Thomas). Long before their feelings are made known to each other, when William can do nothing but admire Matty’s vigorous wrists, they hatch a plan to earn much-needed money: write books about insects. William’s is about ant colonies on the grounds of an aristocratic mansion where they are both ensnared; Matty’s is a fairy tale featuring same bugs.

            The two of them get busy researching and writing. And I know what you must be thinking: How could decadent plotlines exist in such a novella?  But this is the sublime A.S. Byatt, and yes, it gets kinky, including a passage about a family card game that spells out a sexual act not legal even now in any of the United States. To my point—William and Matty mail off their respective manuscripts to London. And more than a year later: results. William receives a letter saying, “We are very happy you have chosen our house as publisher and hope we may come to a happy arrangement for what will, I am quite sure, be a most fruitful partnership.” Moreover, Matty tells him she has quietly sold her insect fairy tale book and now has in hand a sizeable bank draft. With that money, they run away from the mansion in the middle of the night, heading straight for the Amazon, determined to study much larger insects for a number of years.
            Since the mid-Victorian age, there’ve been some changes in publishing.
            About six months ago--which would be a year after I’d sold my historical thriller The Crown to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster--someone savvy about these things told me to put a Google alert on my name. This was the best way to keep up with news on the book. I did so, and for several weeks was kept informed about the dessert recipes created and then published by a distant relative in Michigan and the high-school-quarterback achievements of an even more distant cousin. I was intrigued by an alert that led to news of someone with my last name being arrested and charged with robbing a Dollar Store in Kentucky. I pondered under what circumstances this would have seemed a profitable plan.

            My Google moment came when I sat at the bar at our local Thai restaurant, sipping a club soda while waiting for my take-out order. It was Friday night, there wasn’t much food in the house, and I wanted to surprise the kids with Pad Thai and their favorite duck with crispy noodles dish. My phone whirred, and I glanced at my Gmail account: “‘Publishers Weekly’ review of Nancy Bilyeau’s ‘The Crown.’ ”  I clicked on the link, excited. My first review! And then a cold and sour panic took hold in my stomach as I read the sentences once, twice, three times. It wasn’t a good review. There was no Pad Thai for me that night, and not much sleep either.
            Since that autumn evening, I’ve been reviewed in national magazines like O: The Oprah Magazine and Entertainment Weekly, in trades such as Kirkus Reviews and BookList, in daily newspapers and on more than a dozen blogs. The reviews of The Crown have been mostly positive. Oprah said, “The real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy, and betrayal.” It’s wonderful to read a sentence like that. Yet nothing can quite erase the dismay and disappointment I felt when I read my very first review in a Thai restaurant, with no warning from agent, editor or friend.
            I considered removing the Google alert the next day. But I decided, “No, put on your big girl pants—you have to be able to handle this.” And so when the Google alert trembled the next time, I clicked open my Gmail. I had roughly the same defensive stance as a boxer who’s suffered a powerful right hook, trying to ward off the knockout. This alert wasn’t even about me. That Michigan relative had produced an amazing apple crisp, and I burst out laughing.
            The next time Google came for me it was just after breakfast on Saturday morning—a giveaway of advance copies of The Crown just commenced on goodreads. I had no idea this was planned. But before lunch, I’d fired off emails to friends and relatives. My goal was to hustle 50 requests. It was absolutely thrilling to watch the number of people who requested The Crown soar to just over 1,000 in a week.

            More and more, the Google alerts were for me and not the chef or the football player: book reviews; an announcement that the first two chapters were posted on scribd; a news brief in Time Out New York about my upcoming reading and signing at a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. After my book was published on January 10, the alerts came faster and faster. Yet more reviews—Devourer of Books just named The Crown her pick for the month of January. Yay! A piracy website with a skull & crossbones as its emblem offered my book for free, a novel that took five years to write. Boo!
            Google knows no borders, and now that my novel is on sale in the United Kingdom I get alerts on reviews popping up across the Atlantic. Don’t get me wrong. Coming out with a first book is exciting. But there is much about publishing a book that is baffling too—and at times harrowing. Several times I’ve considered removing the Google alert that sends news updates hurtling into my world. Wouldn’t it be nice to search through the Amazon for unusual insects with William and Matty, oblivious of the latest news in book publishing?
But in the end I always accept that knowledge is power. It was Sir Francis Bacon who said it first, in Religious Meditations Of Heresies in 1597, proving that for me all roads lead back to the 16th century.

I feel confident that if Sir Francis were here right now, he would tell me there is no going back. Information must flow, and I must be ready for it, and never fail to respond when the news comes, which is more often than not through that sudden whirring jolt in a small red phone.



  1. Well done, you!

    The trolls--and there are many--who put out those first nasty reviews...I don't know...maybe it's a novelist's rite of passage these days, surviving those. They're seldom constructive in that they help the author not at all to write a better second book, or even show the author a different view of their own work--which can be wonderfully illuminating.

    I'm delighted you've survived though. Delighted.

  2. Thank you! One of the things I thank God for is that I wrote my second book before I went through the Smartphone-email-blogging and tweeting rite of passage known as publishing your first book.

  3. Really enjoyable blog post Nancy. I am glad that youve written about your first bad review without winging and with such a positive attitude.I have to disagree with mmbennetts though. Book reviews are not put out there to hurt or harm or even help the author, they are there to help the potential reading public to make a choice how to spend their own hard earned money. I am a new author and my book will be published in August and I am p.....g myself in the knowledge that Ime sure there will be bad reviews but I shall not winge like ive seen many authors do and blame trolls etc etc... and hope that I can take it on the chin just like you have Nancy

  4. Paula nice to meet you! :) I hope that reviews do help people decide, but sometimes a negative review can skew things so much... it's very hard not to think "Unfair!" I guess the key is to keep it a thought and not a public yelp. I am going to allow myself to say whatever I like about any review to my husband, and leave it there. He'll nod, furrow his brow, and probably only take in every tenth word. Maybe that venting will protect me from embarrassing whining on Twitter!

    Imagine what it was like 100 years ago, when people could be out there saying things about your book to each other and you'd NEVER. EVEN. KNOW. Scuse me I have to go Google myself.

  5. I have been putting off setting up my Google Alert, but inspired by you, Nancy, I will pull on my big girl pants. I have decided that each negative review will be an excellent excuse for retail therapy.

  6. I just shared this on Twitter. I have disabled my Google alerts around book launch time when they were causing me unnecessary grief. I figure any really wonderful news will work its way to me eventually through other means.

    But then again, I have discovered some lovely reviews this way that I might not have noticed otherwise, from bloggers whose reviews might not have made it to my publicist's radar screen.

    Kristina Riggle

  7. Nancy,
    Thank you for this insightful information about Google alerts and I LOVE the big line. You put insecurity in its place--just as I suspect your heroine would have. And congratulations on your novel! I couldn't put it down. Joanna Stafford is an endearing character--one not easily dismissed. As you know, you kept me up late reading her tale.
    Priscille Marcille Sibley

  8. Thank you, everyone. I guess another thing about the Google alert that challenges me is I am so not in control of what is happening. Sometimes I have an idea that a review or blog post is imminent. But other times the alerts bear news that is a total surprise and can leave me playing catch-up. I wish I could be more Buddhist about it--live in the moment. Something to work on!

  9. This is a wonderful post, Nancy. Thanks for giving me another example to help explain to people how the internet has changed things for writers. My heart nearly broke, thinking of you getting that first review when you were all alone, sitting in the restaurant. So glad the other reviewers got it right! I'm nearly finished with The Crown and I'm loving it!

  10. I enjoyed your blog - having been on Google alerts with my name and my books for seven or eight years (it seems like at least twenty) and only a few times having seen something relative to my books come up, I am happy to hear your story got better. That poor review is one I can relate to for my 1st book - so excited to see the alert and then - baam! That sinking feeling of failure. It is a great lesson in humility but a reminder to keep it all in perspective.

  11. I'm so pleased to have found your blog. I'm not bookpregnant yet--still writing--but one of these days...

    I've been on Google Alert for quite a while--long enough to learn a lot about the president of Coca-Cola--but one of these days...

  12. I agree that reviews are partly written to help a reader choose. But I think there are some reviewers/bloggers who are there to blow their own horns. I have had historical facts that are correct labeled incorrect. "Aristocrats would never..." (but they did). I get a bad rating and the reviewer appears to look better informed than I.

    Most reviews can be looked at as someone's opinion. Some reviewers are qualified to correct an author. I was laughingly (and kindly) chided by a reader for misuse of a word. She was right. And she loved my book. That helped.

    As a reader, and as a movie watcher, I do not put too much stock in critics. They are looking for something different than I am. They are looking for whatever might be wrong, and I am looking for entertainment. I nearly did not watch Benny and Joon years ago because of critics comments. It is my favorite movie. I do not think they were qualified to make that decision for me. I might look at the Goodreads or Amazon numbers. If there are 30 ratings or reviews by readers and the average rating is 4, I take it that the book is fairly good. If it is 5, I think the book must be fantastic. I prefer the reader's opinions to the critics because they are there for entertainment, not to make a living finding something to chop up.

    But congrats on all the great reviews! When they don't find something to chop up, that is good news!

  13. Great post, Nancy! I love your honesty. Good for you that you faced the music and held strong. I haven't set up Google Alerts, but once I do, I'm sure I'll hear all the news about all kinds of wonderful doctors across the country. . .