January 29, 2007 - Issue #253

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Tales from the Ballot Box

Robin and Anne can attest that this was not the column I'd planned to write. I'd actually written not one but two other columns before realizing that the reason I couldn't quite get them right is because neither was the right column for now. I think this is. This is more or less an open letter to the online romance novel community, even though I realize most who read it are AAR readers. But because things get around on the Internet, and because this involves the entire community, here goes...

AAR has conducted an annual reader poll since the start of AAR...indeed, I conducted the first year of the poll when I was still attached to The Romance Reader. During those first years, far fewer people were online than today, and as the Internet has grown, so has AAR...and so has this poll. We are now in the midst of our 11th poll, and many more people are voting this year than ever before. I'm thrilled about that because the more people who vote, the more representative the results, and the more I can quash the grumblings that invariably occur after results are announced each year that the results don't represent the readers..

Because as we all know, there is no true way to quantify what is the "best" in anything. How you judge the best romance is invariably different than how I judge the best romance. What is "best" is an opinion, and all opinions are informed in different ways. One of AAR's long-time readers, Mark, judges what is best to him based on a humor rating. Anne can be picky about things like dialogue tags, but she often can't figure out why she likes one book more than an another, she just knows what she likes. My own method of determining which books are "best" in the various categories is to look at the grades I assigned each book. This year was particularly difficult in that I awarded no 2006-published book Desert Isle Keeper (DIK) status. So I took a look at all the B+'s I awarded - and started from there. As I wrote in my year-end wrap-up column in December, Lisa Kleypas' Devil in Winter, Anne Stuart's Cold as Ice, Christine Warren's She's No Faerie Princess, Linda Howard's Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Lynsay Sands' Love Is Blind were my top-rated 2006-published romances. So I worked from there, although some of the books I voted for on my ballot earned B's - including Perfect Stranger by Anne Gracie, Susan Wiggs' Summer at Willow Lake, Kelley St. John's Real Women Don't Wear Size 2, and Second Chance by Jaclyn Reding.

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If you've read any of the above-mentioned books, you may have agreed or disagreed with my assessment, but in each of the categories I filled out in my poll, the books I voted for were the "best" in my opinion. As you can see from checking out our interim results for the poll thus far, some of these books are doing quite well. Others have been a blip or totally overlooked. When the final results are announced, if some of these books have won or earned honorable mention, I'll think it's kind of cool that I was in sync with other readers for the year. But if not, I won't think that the results are somehow wrong, I'll simply realize that my opinion was not shared by enough other people. Perhaps plenty of people also enjoyed these books, but perhaps they read others - that I've not read, or not yet read - that they enjoyed better. Our poll measures what those who participated in it felt was the best at a certain point in time. I think it's as simple as that. To dismiss the results as "nothing more than a popularity contest" does a disservice to the books and those who voted.

I've been very careful about my choice of words in terms of talking about feelings rather than beliefs. Because romance novels are books based on relationships and emotions, we often have strong emotional reactions to what we read. I'd probably go as far as to say that for many of us, we read romance novels because they evoke strong emotional reactions. Hence, I say I feel rather than believe Cold as Ice was the best romance I read in 2006, just as I feel Sue-Ellen Welfonder's Until the Knight Comes was the worst romance I read in 2006. Anne read the first chapter and was unimpressed by silly actions taken by the characters. Yet on the other hand, Beverly Forehand-Anderson, who reviewed the book for AAR, gave it a B+.

If everybody had the same reactions to what they read, doing a poll like this one would be a total waste...everybody would know the results without even having to conduct the poll in the first place. But we don't. Mark looks at humor, Anne looks at writing and stylistic elements but winds up voting by gut instinct, and as for me, I look at a variety of things, but am guided eventually by my emotional response. You may look solely at the technical proficiency of the writing itself...or count the number of Kleenex you used in reading the book. Each method a voter employs is valid for them.

Okay, that's the easy grumble to set aside. A far more difficult one, and one which gets more difficult each year, is the larger issue of representation. I alluded to it before, but let me restate it: our poll measures what those who participated in it felt was the best at a certain point in time. The sticky point there is the phrase "those who participated in it". I tried to be very aggressive this year in terms of publicizing the poll among our readers - and among the general romance readership. And on the one hand I'm very gratified that voting so far this year has been so strong; if it continues at the same pace through the remainder of the voting period (and I truly wish it will), we'll have had more than 50% greater participation (in terms of valid ballots) than we did for last year's poll. On the other hand, though, I've been thoroughly disgusted at the amount of ballot box stuffing this year. While so far I've been able to validate 50% more ballots than at the same time in last year's polling period, this year I've also had to invalidate fully one third of the ballots received. You read that right...for every two valid ballots this year, a third is invalid because certain authors and/or their fans decided that winning on the merits of their books was too much to leave to chance.

I realize that's a harsh and bold pronouncement, and that in some instances, enthusiasm simply gets the better of people. In the end, though, the difficulty remains: how to ensure that the actual results represent our readership, and the general romance readership, and are not the results of "drive-by" voting of a group of people committed to seeing a particular author or authors win. It's very easy to dismiss those ballots that don't meet the basic criterion of voting in at least six categories, so that the dozens and dozens of ballots for Book X or Author Y in one or five categories simply get moved into the "discard" file. But even more ballots are "straight-ticket" or "nearly straight-ticket" ballots that are clearly not the result of thoughtful and discerning voting. Yes, it's quite possible that a single book may be a reader's favorite in quite a few categories...but not fifteen. We romance readers read a lot and are enthusiastic about what we like - but we like to spread the wealth. If a ballot is filled out so that only one book or one author has been voted for, and in a dozen or more categories, the message is clear: the ballot is from a fangirl whose sole interest is seeing her favorite author win, win win. Blythe Barnhill notes that she sees similar "straight-ticket" voting in scrapbooking polls, but it's even more insidious in that that form of "stuffing" is done by the companies who produce scrapbooking products. She adds that she's seen companies win honorable mentions in categories for which they offer few products solely because their own consultants vote in droves.

As more and more authors have gone online and developed message boards and e-mail lists, this problem has grown, so much so that when I see a flood of straight-ticket ballots, I can generally track it back to a mention on the author's site or in their newsletter. And it's perfectly fine for these mentions to be made. Several on our staff, for instance, frequent the message boards of various authors; they are fans of these authors, as are many who frequent these boards. The difference, though, is between fans and "fangirls", the latter of whom have an agenda and will promote it anywhere they can...even if that means "drive-by" voting. What do I mean by "drive-by" voting? That's what I call a person who may never have been to AAR in the past - indeed, may never have heard of AAR - and isn't interested in the poll other than as a means to promote her favorite author. As such, they hear about our poll, and for some reason I can't explain because I don't understand it, feel the need to see "their" author win, and in as many categories as possible. As we all know, many on-line polls and awards are controversial because they don't have the correct safeguards. As more people go on-line, ballot stuffing in Web-based votes becomes a bigger issue. For example, there are now concerns that ballot stuffing influences voting in Major League Baseball's All Star process; some years ago one fanboy voted for a particular baseball player 39,000 times. Others think that on-line ballot stuffing has influenced results in the Zagat's restaurant surveys.

The safeguards I've built into the vote validation process have grown over the years. In the first years of our poll, I was so naive that it never occurred to me that an author or her fangirls might try to affect the outcome. I first became aware of the problem in the second year of the poll, and I'm embarrassed to say now that two authors probably would not have earned honorable mention or won had this year's safeguards been in place back then. Then, as now, the question remains: Why? Particularly then, but even now, what good does winning in our annual poll do for an author? Will she shoot to the top of the NYT bestseller list as a result? Will she get a better contract with her publisher because AAR's readers felt her book was the best? How good does it feel to win through cheating? What's so frustrating about this particular question is that, as far as the authors involved are concerned, most are apparently good writers who have earned positive reviews at AAR. They should let their talent speak for them and win honestly. Were I to let this go unchecked, it seems to me that any victory would be an empty one. True, maybe only the guilty would know, but since the value of these results in reality is so intangible, well, again, why? While it's an honor to win the AAR poll, it's still just an on-line poll. Samuel Goldwyn once reportedly said "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." The same could be said of many on-line polls. Because so many polls have been hijacked, few people take them seriously -- even the ones that do have safeguards will be tarred by the same brush. So is there really a reason for anyone to try to influence the results?

As for trying to understand why a fangirl wants her author to win, I'm stymied. I just don't get the mind set of "Wow...I don't visit AAR, but because, along with a bunch of my cyberpals, we voted en masse, Author X won!" Feel free to explain it to me if you can. To put it bluntly: fans who vote for their favorite author over and over again, in so very, very many categories, aren't helping their author. They're only creating ballots that will be tossed out. And worse, they're casting all ballots for that author in a suspicious light.

Answering these questions would be wonderful, but rest assured that those who try to affect the outcome of the poll illegitimately, whether authors or fans, aren't fooling me. This does not mean that authors can't vote. Authors can and do vote...but don't vote using your real name and then again using your pen name, and don't ask your husband, brother-in-law, mother, aunt, niece, next-door neighbor, critique partner, and three best friends to vote on your behalf. You'll all be wasting your time. The same goes for fans. Don't use your regular e-mail address, your Yahoo address, your Gmail address, and your Hotmail address to vote for your favorite author over and over again. It doesn't do your favorite author a favor. Because I have one goal as far as this poll is concerned, and I'm like a mama bear about it: it's to assure that the results are legitimate and representative of AAR's readership as well as the general romance readership. Which means that those of you who fall into either category have more of a reason than ever to participate in this poll. I can handle the legitimacy end of things...but for the poll to be truly representative, you've got to do your part. So please vote today.

 

TTFN, as Tigger Said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

 

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