The Tricky Ethics of Goodreads Giveaway Program

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Everybody loves freebies and, if you’re a bibliophile like me, you especially love it when that freebie is a book. Welcome to the Goodreads Giveaway, a program where GR’s reading millions can get in on some free action by simply registering for the many, many books that site offers for free consumption.

Of course, giveaways are not a new concept. In the publishing industry, ARCs (advanced reading copies) have been provided to readers since the beginning of book-publishing time. The purpose? To generate buzz and provide fodder for reviews leading to sales.

Amazon, the new owners of Goodreads, has its own giveaway program called Amazon Vine. In the beginning, Vine members only had to write reviews for some of the free books they received. After a year or two, however, Amazon changed the rules. All free books had to be reviewed or else you were cut off. That’s right. Your vine would wither and fall off the Giving Tree just like that.

Some Vinesters were not wild about this change, but I saw some justice in it. Why? Because, in this day and age, some people run mini-businesses out of their homes. E-bay is only the best known of the many ways to do this. You get something for free (or at a reduced price) and then resell it on-line for personal profit. It’s the American way, no?

But wait a minute. At least most Vine books are imprinted with “Not for Resale” or “Advanced Reading Copy–Not for Resale” on them. This is often NOT the case with the Goodreads Giveaway program. Meaning? The books obtained for free look like any book you might buy at a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Thus, reselling is easy-peasey.

But is it ethical?

It depends on how you look at it. Some publishers and authors see the purpose of a giveaway as buzz, pure and simple. It gives the book attention. After all, hundreds (and sometimes over a thousand!) readers sign up for the free book. Can this be a bad thing?

Yes and no. If the buzz translates to sales, readers, and reviews, then no, it can’t be a bad thing. But in the case of Goodreads Giveaways, books people sign up for (by default, they  get put onto “to read” lists) are as likely not to be read as read. Even after they WIN the book against hefty odds and it shows up gratis in their mailbox, participants are under no obligation to read or review the book. Life is busy, after all, and as St. Frank of Zappa once said: “So many books, so little time.”

According to GR, excited publishers and authors have good reason to use the Giveaway program. Up to 60% of winners review the books they receive, Goodreads tells us, but this seems optimistic. A look at the stats of some Giveaway participants reveals why. Many posters sign up for free books in serial fashion. Each day dozens upon dozens of additional books accumulate on their “to-read” shelves until you see poster stats like “To-Read: 23,749” next to “Read: 0” or “Read: 7.”

Ouch. Will they ever return to the hopeful author’s “to-read” book in three months or even three years? With 23, 749 books on deck, probably not. Heck, even with 749 or 49 on deck, probably not. There are even Goodreads Giveaway groups, where posters can brag about the spoils of war and the blessings of Lady Luck. If it sounds like fun, it apparently is.

What can we conclude? That, at least in some of the cases, people use the program either for the thrill of the win (an innocent form of on-line gambling) or for the chance to sell books for personal profit. In the case of those who do choose to sell the book, the publisher loses on printing costs and the author loses on royalties.

You might call this a form of piracy, but it’s not. It is legal, after all, and publishers and authors put their books up knowingly, eyes wide open and hoping for the best. Which is really what the Goodreads Giveaway program amounts to from the writer-publisher point of view: Hoping for the best (and what is the publishing industry if not a metaphor for hope?).

Bottom line: If I win a giveaway (and I haven’t among the few I’ve signed up for), I will read it and offer my honest opinion because, to me, that’s not only the purpose but the right thing to do. Could that be bad for the publisher or author? Sure. I could 2-star the book. Is that any worse than not reviewing the book at all and reselling it for personal profit? It’s an interesting question I’ll leave to the philosophers. At least until Goodreads Giveaways follows Amazon Vine’s lead.

 

Dean Young on Reckless Poetry

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Here’s my review on Dean Young’s _The Art of Recklessness_. I read it because I could use a little shaking up. Hell, everybody can. Seems everyone’s writing the same poem sixty-seven different ways (that look amazingly similar), my and self included. Young, who has a facility for flights and fancies, makes it look easy–then talks about it as if it’s easy. If you’re interested in his little book, here’s a preview:

What? There’s an ART to being RECKLESS? Seems I took no classes as a kid, as a teenager. I just had at it, the devil take the hindmost (because he seemed little interested in the foremost). The title, though, is chosen because it is part of Graywolf Press’s “Art of…” series. Dean Young (who else?) got the call for recklessness because, well, HIS recklessness (called “poetry” in some rhomboids) is quite artful. Came this close (holds fingers an inch apart) to winning the Pulitzer Prize for his collection, [book:Elegy On Toy Piano|147931].

What did I gain from this book? A lot of what, a bit of why, but not much how. That is, if you’re looking for Dean to share secrets to his controlled anarchy, keep looking. Instead, he shares a few opinions on the wild and the crazy, on the Dadas and the Surrealists. And though he claims John Ashbery to be our greatest modern poet, he mentions him but once, giving the lion’s share of attention to poets we don’t immediately consider when we think “reckless”: John Keats (with his wild and crazy Odes), William Wordsworth (who never met a word he didn’t consider worth writing down), and Walt Whitman (leaves and the grass electric).

“If the poet does not have the chutzpah to jeopardize habituated assumptions and practices, what will be produced will be sleep without the dream, a copy of a copy of a copy,” The Dean of Recklessness tells us. He also is a great cheerleader. Any poet would love to have him as a teacher (U of Texas, Austin, methinks). “Our poems are what the gods couldn’t make without going through us.”

Dean Young may seem playful as hell in his poetry, but this book can be scholarly as all get-out at times, throwing around some big-boy words (the kind where I say, “Huh?”). He also quotes with abundance. Here’s a Wallace Stevens, for instance: “It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.” Oh, I love it. <i>The Art of Being an Amateur</i> I have nailed! Where do I begin collecting checks and raves?

And there’s humor here: “Poetry, as everyone knows, is in competition with girls’ volleyball for the crowd. It’s all about numbers… And in regards to the common bellyache that the only audience for poetry is poets: but it’s been noted by many that poetry is like a foreign language; you need to learn grammars and idioms to get it, so what’s so terrible about people who know Portuguese being the people who are interested in listening to and reading Portuguese? Arcane specialization? Elitism? Surely no more than girls’ volleyball. Poetry’s greatest task is not to solidify groups or get the right people elected or moralize or broadcast; it is to foster a necessary privacy in which the imagination can flourish. Then we may have something to say to each other.”

Dean also calls complacency the greatest enemy of art, with an aside about the hidden “me” in “poetry”: “It is also worth entertaining the notion that the least important time in any workshop is when your own work is being talked about. It’s called ‘Poetry Workshop,’ not ‘Me Workshop,’ after all. The imagination wants to say something you can hear and often what you say about someone else’s poem is exactly what you need to hear about your own. The way in is to go out.” Clearly Dean Young has trafficked with a few poets in his day. Self-promotion (while pretending not to self-promote) is the name of the game.

As for examples of reckless poems, they are few and far between, given the brevity of the book. It’s more Young providing the Old history of imagination’s resistance. All in all, equal parts cheerful and depressing. Cheerfully, you might wing it next workshop or on-line critique group, even though you know the mavens of tradition are waiting in the wings to nitpick your punctuation, your grammar, your syntax. On the other hand, he warns, sometimes reckless art is bad art.

Great. Just when I was beginning to take wing and feel the exultation of freedom, I get the overheating rays of the sun again, melting my wax. You can write bad poetry conventionally OR unconventionally, I’m afraid. The World of Art takes no prisoners, even in a minimum-security prison like Recklessness.

 

You Won’t Find This Quiz on Goodreads*

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*But if you did and took it, you’d probably be in first place thanks to this sneak preview.

 

Nota bene: This quiz is for experts–that is, anyone who has ever read a poem (ANY poem, even “Roses Are Red–Still”). Having read The Indifferent World itself is not a requirement. It only helps a little, I promise. So go ahead. Impress yourself!

 

What is this poetry collection about, anyway?
___ Non-GMO Corn Flakes
___ John Calvin, predestination, and midnight Skip-Bo games in Plymouth
___ our world
___ nobody knows

What does “indifferent” mean, anyway?
___ quiet, shy
___ perspicacious
___ shrinking
___ Who cares?

How many rhyming poems will I find in this book, anyway?
___ one
___ eleven
___ twenty-one
___ none, which makes it more fun

In an earlier Goodreads life, the author went by what pseudonym, anyway?
___ Bwana
___ Newengland
___ Talleyrand
___ Alfred E. Newman

What lake is pictured on the cover of The Indifferent World, anyway?
___ Lago Maggiore (Frederick Henry’s favorite in A FAREWELL TO ARMS)
___ Lake Tahoe (Mark Twain’s favorite in ROUGHING IT)
___ Lake Victoria (Queen Victoria’s favorite in Africa)
___ Lake Anon (Anon Ymous’s favorite in Goodreads quizzes)

What is the author’s favorite infinitive, anyway?
___ to eat
___ to sleep
___ perchance to dream
___ to craft

After writing a novel (unpublished), a collection of vignettes (unpublished), and numerous short stories (unpublished), why did this author choose to write poems at such a very late age, anyway?
___ It was free (verse).
___ He was out of options.
___ He met a Muse on Facebook.
___ It was the only genre to take the “un-” out of “published.”

The first poem in this collection is about what pressing social issue, anyway?
___ A hunter choosing to shoot a deer.
___ A hunter choosing NOT to shoot a deer.
___ A hunter choosing to watch “Bambi” or “Old Yeller” on Wednesday night.
___ We’re going to build a wall.

According to GR reviewer Alex, poetry is WHAT, anyway?
___ “…sublime” (as opposed to sub-lemon)
___ “…supreme among the arts.”
___ “…like an onion left in the root cellar too long.”
___ “…dumb.”

How difficult was it to create ten questions about a 98-page poetry collection containing 80 poems, one that POETRY magazine said nothing about and THE NEW YORKER chimed in with “We’ll second that!” anyway?
___ very
___ very
___ very
___ all of the above

 

Answer key: 
Do you really need one?

 WHAT IT MEANS:

None Correct: Now that’s indifferent (then again, who cares?)
1-2 Correct: You know, infinitive! A verb with to in front of it….
3-4 Correct: Poetry. You’ve heard of it, right?
5-6 Correct: It was the sub-lemon that threw you, right?
7-8 Correct: Very, very, very (all of the above) good!
9 Correct: Call Mr. T! You’re on the A-Team!
10 Correct: You know me better than I know me. Drop me a line, why don’t you. I’m still trying to find myself and California’s a long way aways.

Playing Favorites with Your Own Poems

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As any parent knows, you don’t play favorites among your kids. You can HAVE a favorite, of course, but you take that scandalous secret to your grave. If you have a toothpick of common sense, that is.

For your children, circumspection is clearly called for, but what about your poems? Publish a book and people will inevitably ask, “So, which one is your favorite poem in the entire collection?” Sharing this knowledge will lead people to flip to that page and read that poem, so you hedge. What if they don’t like what you have crowned “the best” and think it’s so-so? They will assume the rest of the book is so much poetically-licensed garbage (see Jersey Turnpike, Exit 157), that’s what.

OK. Maybe I exaggerate. Slightly. In fact, although I’d rather know what my readers’ favorite poems are (which I don’t ask because it presumes they’ve read the book cover-to-cover–a healthy presumption), I will admit here that I do have favorites (plural, thank you). Having more than one is safer (the old “safety in numbers” adage). One of them is the second poem in the collection, “Barnstorming the Universe,” which first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Off the Coast, that estimable poetry journal from Maine.

Why do I like this poem so much? It’s playful. And it harbors a story (but then, most poems do, kind of like the “surprise inside” you expect from a box of Cracker Jacks). Here’s the poem. Ostensibly it’s about an old leaning barn in Maine. Ostensibly.

 

“Barnstorming the Universe”

The big barn must have landed
overnight, the jolt of its descent
crippling one side so the whole
structure leans south. The white
paint, curly from reentry, looks
foolish as a washed cat.
The roof, too, shows evidence
of atmospheric stress, the mottled
landscape of its green top—tar
paper from missing shingles
probably scattered from Pittsburgh
to Poughkeepsie—having the look
of some moody old bass lurking
in the shallows, scales flaked and
grated at the speed of light.
Incredibly, atop the cupola, a rusted
and outraged weathercock still claws
the ridge. His wattle and comb hang
sideways, one eye searching for
intergalactic beetles, black-backed
fugitives from Andromeda or the
Crab Nebula. A sliding door is ajar,
exhaling the stench of stardust,
of Saturnine ring particulate, of dead
Martians matted on rotted hay.
In the side window, a single shard
of glass clings to the sash. If only
the barn could speak of the yawning
silences, of the teeming nothingness
that peered inside as it hurtled
its way home to this Maine field.

–Ken Craft, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press, 2016)

 

In the summer, I run 5-8 miles most every morning, and when I do, I pass this barn on the top of Mayberry Hill. It is, in fact, nowhere near as bad as this poem says it is, but the roof! The roof was the image that inspired this poem. Some shingles are there and others are missing, giving it a mottled green and black look and reminding me of the scales on an old fish that has been through the wars. Atop that roof is a tilting weathercock which no longer abides by orders, the wind’s or God’s.

From those two visuals, I imagined a leaning, disheveled barn that landed overnight in the middle of a Maine field–a barn that had witnessed things that NASA’s astronauts had not even seen.

Barns with a history like that belong on the endangered structures list. I don’t care what condition they’re in. Thus we get the shingles “scattered from Pittsburgh/to Poughkeepsie,” the “rusted/and outraged weathercock” clawing the ridge, and–my favorite–the “stench of stardust,/of Saturnine ring particulate, of dead/Martians matted on rotted hay.”

If you’ve ever wondered how runners pass the time as they jog along country roads, wonder no more! Their bodies may be on automatic pilot, but their minds? God only knows. Some planet the Starship Enterprise sailed past, maybe. All the poet has to do is make his entry in the Captain’s log when he gets home and downs his chocolate milk. Sometimes that leads to favorite poems, even.

Just don’t tell anyone. Because it’s only one of them. Honest.