One of the paradoxes of our time is that while people often claim that publishing is in its death throes, it’s never been easier to get published. We live in an age in which it’s possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to make their book (or music, art, or video/film) available for the whole world to see. That is, theoretically. Because as wonderful as it is to think that talented, creative people are guaranteed a way to publish their work for the world to enjoy, that there will be no brilliant novels languishing unknown in a drawer because their authors couldn’t get closer to being published than a publishing house’s slush pile, as those who have self-published any of their work know, it’s damn near impossible to get anything approaching a reasonable audience to look at whatever they’ve produced. What people mean when they claim publishing is dying is that the traditional publishing model is on its way out. And perhaps it is. Perhaps we are moving towards a publishing business model that will be almost exclusively author-driven and involves the author hiring whatever level of editing, production, and marketing services he or she can afford... which means that, as most authors won’t be able to afford to sink any money into a such a risky venture, most publishing will be a modest, do-it-yourself affair with correspondingly modest readership and financial results.
One of the dangers of this outcome is that almost all of our writers and artists will become dilettantes who are expected to produce work for the rest of us to enjoy in whatever time is left after working a day job (not to mention doing the housekeeping, spending time with their romantic partners, raising their kids, exercising, seeing their friends etc.), and all in return for driblets of money that may not pay for much more than the cost of the internet connection required to publish their work. How many books will even the most talented and committed writer produce under such circumstances before deciding it just isn’t worthwhile, or even possible, to keep at it anymore? This rather heart-rending article from author Christopher Pierznik, "What Happens When (Virtually) No One Buys Your Book", paints a vivid picture of the kind of scenario I am thinking of. Pierznik is keeping on because he finds writing too rewarding to give it up, but many gifted writers won’t.
The other serious drawback to self-publishing is that, as so very many people have the same few artistic goals and so very few have the taste, skill, and talent required to produce anything really worthwhile, we’re all getting swamped by a sea of self-published material that is mediocre or worse, with no feasible way to find the high-calibre creative work. Who's going to read all those thousands of wretched self-published books on Amazon to find the occasional scattered gems among them? Self-publishers are always told that they have to market themselves, but the truth is that many very accomplished self-published writers and artists do knock themselves out trying to promote their work and still aren’t developing much of an audience. If anything, increased individual self-marketing efforts on the part of the self-published legion only makes matters worse, because it means more people yelling into the void and more people tuning it out. No one really trusts or even wants to have to see or listen to these amateurish promotional efforts. After all, as the old saying goes, self-praise is no recommends, and a self-published author’s mother’s glowing Amazon customer review of his or her self-published novel is even less reliable, not to mention more piteous.
The truth is that, as our society so often does, we’re asking too much of those who are the most burdened by a common problem, and it’s both unfair and unrealistic for us to do so as the issue is systemic and in most cases can’t be resolved by even the most Herculean individual efforts. What we need to do as a society, whether we’re creators or consumers of art, is to figure out how to make it possible for the cream of our artistic efforts to rise to the top where it can be readily found (and one hopes, purchased) by those who will appreciate it. We need to develop reliable and efficient ways to find the best and most worthwhile of self-published, and for that matter, traditionally published materials.
I don’t claim to have the wholesale solution to this structural problem, but I do think that part of the answer is that we need critics and filters. We need reasonably objective and non-vested people with educated tastes to do the time-consuming work of sifting through the mass of what’s out there and to highlight the best of it for the rest of us. And then, as this task will take an army of critics, we need systems, or filters, to amalgamate all these critical opinions. It’s an enormous and historically unprecedented privilege to have access to the sheer mass of books, movies, art, and music that many of us do, but the excess of it all is overwhelming. In a time of cultural overabundance, those who can devise filters to streamline choice for the audience and make it easier to find the good stuff will be providing a useful and gratefully received service, and if they can also find a way to monetize the service, they’ll do very well for themselves.
You can probably think of filters of your own that you use, not only for entertainment purposes, but for other, more mundane services. HomeStars.com is one that comes to my mind. If you’re not familiar with HomeStars, it’s an online directory of contractors with accompanying consumer reviews and an aggregate rating system. I find it an invaluable tool for finding reliable and affordable tradespeople to work on my house. The aggregate experience of ten or more people who have employed a contractor gives me very reliable data on the quality of the contractor’s service, as a single friend’s recommendation might not. Then there’s Metafilter.com, which is a community web site where the users link to the best and most interesting materials on the web for all to enjoy and discuss (and the moderators keep the site’s quality high by deleting whatever posts don’t measure up to MeFi standards). Whenever I want to find fascinating online news coverage or in-depth articles or fun websites to read, I can always find some on Metafilter’s front page. When there are an estimated more than one billion websites out there all vying for my attention, this is a real time saver.
In my own small way, I’ve created one specialized filter of sorts by authoring a knitting blog, on which I review the latest patterns from sixteen different knitting magazines and the occasional book of knitting designs. I write articles on knitting-related topics as well, but it is my reviews that are the raison d'être and main draw of the site. Knitters who wish to buy new patterns can either check out all the preview pictures on sixteen different websites several times a year... or they can just read my website. Quite a number of my readers have told me that I’ve saved them a lot of time and money and made it easier for them to find, select, and buy knitting patterns they’re happy with. Alas, nice as it is to hear that my site is as useful to my readers as I hoped to make it, I’ve yet to figure out how to effectually monetize it.
But after thinking over all the means and systems I use to find creative work to enjoy, I submit that the best existing model we have of this kind of critical filter is the one that we have for movies: Rotten Tomatoes.com. Before I began using Rotten Tomatoes to help me select movies to view, I did things like relying on recommendations from friends or individual movie critics, or checking out the IMDB pages of actors I admired to see if they’d done anything I hadn’t seen and cared to see. I found these methods frustratingly ineffective, as though I were using a single fishing hook and a short line to trawl a vast ocean for a good catch. Sure, sometimes I did manage to snag something good, half by chance, but I often couldn’t find anything that appealed to me, or if I did manage to come up with something that seemed that it might be good and watch it, it sucked. Rotten Tomatoes was a revelation. Whether I’m in the mood for a classic horror movie or a contemporary comedy or a documentary, I can pull up lists of the top-rated movies of any genre and/or of any year and pick something to suit in just a few minutes. Or I can vet a movie I’ve heard of and decide whether it’s worth watching. And if I don’t care to watch a popular movie but wish to know enough about it to be able to discuss it intelligently or to understand all the media references to it, it’s easy to find a few good reviews for it via Rotten Tomatoes. Because the ratings are calculated by aggregating the opinions of dozens of professional and semi-professional critics, they are a very reliable indicator of the quality of a movie. While I don’t necessarily love every movie with a “Certified Fresh” Rotten Tomatoes rating, I always find them worth watching. I’ve found and watched so many excellent movies via Rotten Tomatoes that I am certain I would never even have heard of in any other manner.
We need the equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, or possibly a few of them, for every artistic field of endeavour. There is not an equivalent for books. Yes, there is GoodReads.com, but it isn’t what I wish it was. At present its rating system is entirely dependent on user reviews, and user reviews aren’t reliable. They are too easily gamed, for one thing, with authors prodding (or guilting, as the case may be) their spouses, family members, and friends into writing good reviews for them, or even writing reviews of their own work themselves. Then too, even when user reviews are sincere and impartial, the opinions expressed in them often lack any real discernment or value. To be clear, I’m not saying all user reviews are worthless. I’ve read many that were intelligent, insightful, and well-written, but such a high proportion of user reviews are of such poor quality that a rating system that depends on user reviews isn’t reliable as a meter of artistic excellence. Consequently, though Good Reads has value as a place for readers to enjoy cataloguing and commenting on their reading materials, it isn’t as effective a tool for helping its users to find the best books as Rotten Tomatoes is for helping its users to find good movies and TV shows. Amazon also relies on user reviews, as does IMDB. Both sites have a lot of utility in their own ways, but neither site is what I would call a really effective or efficient means to find good books or movies.
I would like to see Goodreads take their user services to the next level by featuring links to professional, or at least semi-professional, book reviews and setting up an aggregate rating system based on them, as Rotten Tomatoes does with movie reviews, and I’d like to see each area of the arts get equally effective filters. It won’t make the world less noisy and it won’t mean every gifted artist will succeed in finding an audience, but perhaps such filters will give both artists and audiences a fighting chance of cutting through the clamour and finding each other.
Thursday, 16 July 2015
Wednesday, 6 June 2012
If I’m going to write about Etsy, I should probably begin by saying that up until this past spring, I loved Etsy. Etsy was, if not in exactly in my blood, so often on my mind that it seemed to be nestled among my neurons. Before a recent job loss, I was on Etsy nearly daily doing searches and making sure no one else had bought any of the items I had favourited. I just can’t tell you much it meant to me that I, a super-picky and budget-minded and so-seriously-retro-that-I’m-anachronistic shopper who comes home empty-handed from most of her trips to the Eaton Centre, could type a few search terms on Etsy and then browse through pages of items that are at least in the ball park of what I want. Between March 2010 and March 2012, I made 79 purchases on Etsy. Etsy helped me rebuild my jewelry collection after it was wiped out by a burglary (my second, sigh) in January 2010. Etsy made it possible for me to have a mostly non-cheesy collection of swan items. Etsy helped me find very specific gifts for assorted gift-giving occasions. Etsy helped me find affordable Art Nouveau antiques for my 1912-built house. Etsy has an enormous selection of goods, many of which are at very reasonable prices, and a legion of talented, hard-working, honest, and professional sellers.
But for all its good points, Etsy has its flaws, which range from slightly annoying to the truly ugly, and when one of its failings manifested itself in an outright fiasco this past April, I became unwilling to shop there any longer.
Etsy claims to be an online marketplace strictly for hand-crafted and vintage goods. Their site policy states that vendors can only sell items that are either substantially handmade by the seller, craft supplies, or vintage items, which according to their policy must be at least 20 years old. It is, on paper, a great policy which has allowed them to corner a niche in the marketplace. Unfortunately Etsy does not make an honest effort to enforce the policy. The site is rife with mass-produced goods that are available at much lower prices on eBay and Amazon.
I was trying to give Etsy the benefit of the doubt that they were at least attempting to enforce their policy and finding it beyond their capabilities, until this past April. On April 20th Etsy posted an interview with a featured seller, Mariana Schechter, owner of Etsy shop Ecologica, who claimed she designs and makes handmade furniture from salvaged wood. She said in the interview that, “So many designers and craftspeople eventually mass produce their products. Mass production makes it easier to sustain bigger profit margins, but it takes away from the individuality of each item”, and added, “There is something personal and unique that occurs when you craft something with your hands.”
Of course this all sounded beautifully in line with the Etsy mandate, until April 21st, when a website called Regretsy.com exposed and proved Schechter to be a wholesale importer whose supposedly handmade goods are entirely factory-made and shipped to her by a company called All From Boats, based in Indonesia.
On April 22, a full day after the news broke, a coffee table from the Ecologica was among the handpicked items on the front page, and after a week or so of internet sturm und drang (read: Etsy and Regretsy and Metafilter threads of punishing length), Etsy took the official stance that Schechter’s business qualifies as a “collective” under their guidelines, and scolded their users for being meanies.
On June 5th, it was discovered that the Ecologica Malibu shop had been closed. Etsy will not say why. My own best guess is that Schechter closed her own shop because she wasn’t making many sales and/or had finally figured out she was never going to get any respect from the Etsy community again. But the kicker is Etsy has not removed the Featured Seller article about Schechter. Etsy's shameless disregard of their own site policy is stunning. My suspicion is that Schechter’s import business paid them for the featured seller spot. If that is the case, Etsy can’t remove it without breach of contract.
All this brou-ha-ha over Schechter was simply an especially dramatic boiling over of problems that have been bubbling for a long time.
Etsy has long failed to set any sort of threshold as to the quality of the goods for sale on its site. There are people on Etsy selling—or trying to sell—rusted tin cans, pieces of scrap wood, filthy and damaged old toys, and other items that are neither handmade nor vintage. An item’s presence in Etsy's vintage or handmade categories is in no way an assurance that the item is actually vintage or handmade. There are "vintage" Blackberries for sale, as well as many other less obviously new and mass-produced goods. I’ve certainly been taken. A necklace I once bought from the vintage category was no more vintage than my 2012 daytimer because I saw the necklace—and matching earrings!—at a kiosk in the mall the week after my necklace arrived in the mail. There are also many copyright infringments. And even when items for sale are described honestly, it can be very difficult and time consuming for a buyer to find a specific desired item because the search functionality is so crude.
All of these problems hurt sellers who are trying to sell genuinely handcrafted or vintage goods. They can’t charge prices that are competitive with those charged for mass-produced goods, their goods are hard to find among the sea of mass-produced offerings, and the customers they are trying to reach are being driven away from Etsy entirely because it’s not offering the kind of merchandise it claims.
Even before the Mariana Schechter debacle, Etsy wasn’t making any discernible effort to weed out the outright crap and site policy violations. Items flagged as violating site policy remained in place. Worse, Etsy sometimes even promotes such items by featuring them on their front page collections of "handpicked items". These handpicked items, incidentally, are clearly selected to suit a colour scheme or topical theme, not on their own intrinsic merit, with the result that while the photo collections make the front page look pretty, the practical value of it to buyers is vanishingly slight and vendors who are selling garbage but who can take artistic product shots get bonus traffic to their shops, while vendors with much better wares do not.
I was glad to see Etsy has at least retired one of their more useless features, the "You might like" recommendations. I found them so absurdly off the mark as to be completely useless. Why on earth would Etsy think I might like a Simplicity clown costume pattern or a book on how to draw Woody the Woodpecker? Is it because I searched on Etsy for a skort pattern and a clown costume seemed like the next logical step? Or were they hoping in some oblique way to warn me away from that slippery slope?
As if all this weren't bad enough, by far the most disturbing feature of their business practices is their treatment of Etsy sellers. I have read accounts of former sellers whose listings or entire shops were closed arbitrarily and without warning by Etsy, leaving the sellers with no way retrieve their product images and descriptions, without any refund of listing fees that were supposed keep their goods visible and available for sale for several months, and worst of all with no way to contact their buyers and arrange for the delivery of the goods they’ve paid for. Etsy also seems to offer very little protection or assistance for buyers who are running into problems with dishonest sellers.
And another very serious Etsy business misstep, one which exacerbates all their other problems, is their refusal to allow any dissent on their site and their heels-dug-in refusal to respond constructively, or even, sometimes, lucidly, to customer and vendor complaints. On one occasion, when an Etsy member asked in the forums why there was a crumbling old brick among the featured products on the front page, a moderator simple told her not to call out in the forums.
When a reseller shamelessly posted in the forums asking for tips on how to sell her "handmade" notebooks and another Etsy user politely replied that, though her notebooks were very pretty, she couldn't sell her notebooks on Etsy because they are not handmade but mass-produced, the commenter was told not to call out in the forums.
When an Etsy seller was told she can’t sell her Mr. T album in her shop because Etsy had “received a copyright infringement complaint from an agent representing Mr. Chuck Norris” and the seller replied meekly that her listing didn’t mention Mr. Norris in any way, she was told Etsy didn’t have the information to reply to her question and that she must contact Mr. Norris’s representative. Yes, you read that right.
If Etsy wants to be a successful and respected site, much less a community, as its creation of forums and "friend circles" and other social networking-type features seems to indicate, it needs to show respect and consideration for its users by allowing a certain amount of open negotiation and conflict and by having the courtesy to listen and respond to their complaints. And too, they need to understand what a resource their users' suggestions and criticisms and flagging of unacceptable items can be.
Etsy so far seems completely unwilling to allow dissent on the site, and nature's abhorrence of a vacuum is nothing compared to the average internet denizen's refusal to accept a lack of space in which to complain. It didn't take long for some independent venues appear, and there are ways for dissatisfied Etsy users to make themselves heard. If you have problems with Etsy's practices, you can post to the Consumer Affairs site, or to SiteJabber.
Other sites have sprung up to address Etsy’s business practices:
Not only is there much to criticize about Etsy's business practices, making fun of Etsy's wares is an end and a pleasure in itself. My friend Jacquilynne launched a web site called "The Good, the Bad, and the Etsy" back in June 2009. She would critique three pieces of Etsy merchandise daily, and usually it happened that one would be a well-crafted item while the other two would be hilariously badly crafted, or perhaps well-made but deeply weird. I fondly remember two of her reviews in particular. In one she referred to a top with a demure, pieced calico front view and half laced-up, half-bare back view as "Amish in the front, Rumspringa in the back". And when reviewing a $1500 needlepoint cushion depicting an erect and graphically detailed penis with the motto, "It won’t suck itself", Jacquilynne headlined her critique with a succinct, "For $1500, It Should".
The Good, the Bad and the Etsy was building momentum nicely when Jacquilynne decided to close it down just two months after its inception because she was receiving death threats from unhinged Etsy sellers who had taken umbrage to her snarking on their crafts. Again, you read that right. Death threats.
As The Good, the Bad, and the Etsy had been posted to the front page of Metafilter and Jacquilynne and I are both members, I initiated a MetaTalk thread to inform the other members of what had happened, and it became a meaty discussion about the value and boundaries of critical discourse. I recommend the thread as interesting reading in its own right.
Jacquilynne clarified her decision to discontinue the blog in the thread:
To be clear, I didn't take the blog down because I felt like I was in danger (internet death threats—ooh scary!), but I was already feeling sort of bad about one person who emailed me and seemed genuinely sad that I'd mocked her item, and I got a couple of threats in a couple of hours, it suddenly all seemed not worth it.Etsy can’t be held responsible for the behaviour of their sellers off-site, of course, but Jacquilynne’s experience does indicate that one of the site's problems is a faction of Etsy sellers who have neither talent nor the discernment to realize their own lack of ability, and who can't behave like adults when anyone says so.
Of course, I probably don’t have to tell anyone who has read this far about the most successful Etsy complaint and snark blog there is. I couldn’t even get this far through the review without referring to it. Regretsy is owned and operated by the wickedly and incisively satirical April Winchell, and on Regretsy she daily serves up the dregs of Etsy with generous dollops of snark sauce and side orders of pie charts and Photoshop, and has gotten a few book deals in the process. Winchell skewers Etsy for all its flaws and excesses, posts about everything from the serious problems I’ve mentioned to more minor nitpicks such as product shots of food with hairs twined in among the goodies on the plate, unintentionally hilarious misspellings in posters or wall decals offered for sale, poorly made or useless "crafts" such as a necklace that consists of a paperclip on a piece of stiff wire, artwork that is supposed to depict a certain celebrity and looks nothing like said celebrity, hideous and unwearable clothing, vendors who use words that do not actually mean what they seem to think, gratuitous nudity in product shots, and Etsy’s many twee pretensions. Winchell and her many devoted readers sometimes manage to embarrass Etsy’s staff into addressing at least some of its more minor problems. And not incidentally, Winchell and her readers have also raised tens of thousands of dollars for various charitable causes and given specific items, such as new sewing machines, to Etsy vendors in need. The site, which has developed its own culture and momentum, is a lot of fun and also serves the greater public good in a very concrete way. If I didn’t already think the whole "people who make fun of other people's creative work are fat jealous losers who can't do anything worthwhile themselves" was one very dumb canard, I would after seeing what April Winchell has accomplished with Regretsy. Criticism can be fruitful as well as an end in itself.
I’ll try to avoid recapping any of Winchell's posts here because there's really no equivalent to reading them oneself. There's a lot of scope in making fun of Etsy. Not only is it satisfying to see Etsy outed for its many hypocrisies and legion absurdities, but sometimes some of the offerings on Etsy, while genuinely handmade and well-crafted, are so jaw-droppingly bizarre that Regretsians marvel at and celebrate them rather than making fun of them. April Winchell has had to categorize her many posts. Some of my favourite categories are: Garbage; Compare and Save; Dead Things (and a sub category within Dead Things, Tragicrafting; Not Remotely Handmade; Not Remotely Steampunk; Annoying Descriptions; Peck of the Day (in which Winchell makes fun of the senselessness of the choices for the Handpicked items on the front page); and, for the truly unclassifiable, Don’t Ask Me.
In one favourite Regretsy post of mine, which involved Winchell’s recap of a Etsy "Featured Seller" article on a Etsy vendor named Sartoria, Winchell employed something I’ll describe as a Wank-O-Meter to measure Sartoria's level of fatuous pretension in the article. Spoiler: it's a very high level. Moreover, one can almost smell Sartoria's studio through the computer screen.
While many Etsy vendors are wonderfully good sports about having their items mocked and appreciate the increased traffic and sales that Regretsy always brings their way (after all, purchases are paid for in government tender whether bought in a spirit of irony or while "under the influence" or in sober and sincere appreciation), some aren’t. As in Jacquilynne’s experience, some of the Etsy crafters whose items are mocked on Regretsy don’t seem to have much more maturity, self-control, basic literacy skills, or grasp of what does and does not constitute illegal behaviour than they do esthetic sensibility. Winchell therefore gets her own share of hate mail, which she opportunely turns into fodder for more Regretsy posts in her Mailbag category. My favourite of these letters was a classic from a person who threatens to call a "layer" and get a "crease and desist".
All snark (or most of it) aside, as I see it, Etsy only has two viable ethical options, the first being that Etsy must begin to enforce its own policies, make every effort to close resellers down as efficiently as possible (they would never get them all) and remove any Featured Seller spots involving resellers. And in this case Etsy should also apologize to the community for not doing so earlier, as it has been dishonest to claim to be promoting handmade goods while knowingly allowing resellers on the site.
Alternatively, Etsy should admit they’ve become dependent on resellers to keep the site profitable, and announce that from now on they will be allowing resellers but their products will be strictly labelled and categorized as such. If they have received payment from resellers for Featured Seller spots, they must come clean about that and promise users that from now on paid advertisements will be completely distinct from any editorial content, and promise that they will do their utmost to make sure the handmade categorization can be trusted by all users. They should also apologize to the community for not doing so earlier.
Both of the paths involve making some changes and disclosures and apologizing to the Etsy community. There is no way around that. There are also other changes that need to be made, such as setting some sort of standard for goods offered on Etsy, treating their vendors better, improving the search functionality, allowing honest dissent on the site, and just in general listening to and learning from the criticisms made of Etsy.
But at present I don’t have any reason to believe we’re going to see Etsy make a real effort to clean itself up. And I believe what will happen is that Etsy will slowly decline.
At present Etsy has a reputation for being the go-to site for handmade goods and are valued at more than $600 million according to the The Wall Street Journal, but they can’t coast on an undeserved reputation forever. The Etsy "handmade" brand will become increasingly derided. Etsy will gradually lose their frustrated artisan sellers and their disappointed customers to other sites that offer genuinely handmade goods and treat their users with more respect, such as ArtFire.
Gradually Etsy will become eBay, only smaller, with higher prices and an obviously dishonest, inept management style, and they’ll find out they can’t compete with eBay on those terms. And there’s an ironic justice in this. Etsy has forced their artisans to compete with sellers hawking mass-produced goods labeled as handmade, and they’ll eventually find themselves pitting these "handmade" wares against a juggernaut vendor selling reams of mass-produced goods for far better prices.
That’s my prediction. Of course, I could be wrong, or even if I am right, Etsy may manage to stick around and stay profitable for many years to come, but meanwhile, I have done my bit to protest Etsy's dishonesty and mismanagement by closing my Etsy account, discouraging my father, who is a talented woodworker, from opening an Etsy shop, and by writing and posting two Metafilter posts and this review to let people know exactly what Etsy’s all about. And then too, I keep in mind that there are compensations in Etsy’s continued survival, namely that Regretsy is ying to Etsy’s yang, and that so long as Etsy refuses to mend its ways, Regretsy can go right on trumpeting the fact that Etsy’s ass is showing through its "reclaimed crocheted afghan" pants.