A few days back I received a direct message on Twitter from somebody in the book marketing business. She was inspired to connect because she’d seen some of my complaints here about the San Francisco-based literary Web portal Red Room. (See “Redroom.com Redoubles Effort to Become Worst Lit-Themed Social Networking Site on Earth”, “Red Room—What Is This Thing, Again?” and “The Red Room Factor.”) This person wanted to know “what would make such a site workable in your opinion.”
I don’t know if this person is in any way affiliated with the site, but it’s a fair question regardless. I have no special knowledge about what makes Web sites workable, let alone profitable—my current employer is in the midst of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and I couldn’t tell you what the fix is there. What I can say is that as a person who cares about books—and who would like to see a site dedicated to writers and readers become something useful—I see plenty of low-hanging fruit at Red Room. Some of what follows restates my earlier complaints. But I hope what follows comes off as more constructive and less snarky. So, for what it’s worth:
Ditch the Celebrity Angle. A recent press release announcing Red Room’s partnership with National Novel Writing Month describes the site this way: “Red Room is the online home of many of the world’s greatest writers and the only social network to feature celebrity authors including Khaled Hosseini, Dr. Maya Angelou, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Candace Bushnell, Tobias Wolff, Alice Hoffman, and James Patterson.” True enough, the site pushes those big names on the homepage: The first thing I see when I go there is a slick, magazine-style tease for Rushdie. But once I click, all I get is junk. There’s the beginning of a quote from Rushdie dated December 3, 2007—and when I click to read the whole thing, I learn that it was from something he told Salon.com in 1996. Red Room’s sclerotic obsession with pushing the handful of big names that did them a solid on their launch date has got to stop. If none of those authors mentioned in the press release have contributed anything of substance that’s unique to site in the past month, bury their pages.
Give Me a Reason to Sign Up. After the celeb-author nonsense, Red Room pushes me to “Join Our Community.” When I click through, though, I get no information about the benefits of joining the site—I’m just told to pick a username and password, give my e-mail address and real name, and agree to the terms of service. Not exactly inviting. If I click on “Become a Red Room Author,” the site becomes only slightly less chilly. “Red Room authors are selected through a brief application process. To begin this process you must log in.” If I’m a writer, I have to go through a signup procedure and a mysterious vetting process, with no information about what I’ll get out of it.
Do Better By the Writers You Have. I am not a Red Room Author, so I’m not not clear on what controls one has over their page on the site. But if the page for Kim Addonizio is any indication (picked pretty much at random from the “A” page, though I’d heard of her 2007 novel, My Dreams Out in the Street), writers may not have a whole lot of say in the ugly things done to their pages. Pushed up top isn’t her bio, or information from her most recent book—it’s a video ad for Stephen Colbert’s now year-old book. Pushed to the bottom? Addonizio’s much more informative Web site.
Make Clear Why You’re Promoting What You’re Promoting. Through some mysterious process, certain books published by Red Room authors are anointed “Red Room Editors’ Picks.” Not a bad idea, as far as it goes. But if I click on the page for Mitch Cullen‘s Tokyo Is Dreaming, there’s nothing telling me who selected this book and why. For better or for worse, I don’t have to wonder why Huntress: Year One got picked—it’s written by the site’s founder, Ivory Madison.
Collapse the Authors/Members Divide. Some people on Red Room are authors. Some are members. What’s the difference? Hard to say. Nell Minow, better known as the Movie Mom, has written a couple of books, but she’s a mere member. When the author-member split isn’t confusing, it’s condescending. Jennifer Gibbons, for instance, is plugged on the members page as an “aspiring writer.” Which would merely be stating the facts on the ground, except that social media works best when it levels instead of stratifies; instead, Red Room has stubbornly chosen to allow members to network with other members but not with other writers. (And the networking options are limited; see below.)
Lose the Wacky Video Skit. It’s two and a half minutes long and feels like The Decalogue:
Make a Noise When Your Members Make a Noise. In August G. Willow Wilson wrote a blog post on Red Room about the controversy over The Jewel of Medina. That post got responses up through ten days ago—impressive legs for a blog post of any stripe. Smartly, Red Room has made this a “Featured Blog Post” on its blogs page. Less smartly, I’m not clued into how much commenting action is going on with the community. When was that most recent blog item posted? How many comments has a hot post received? Red Room does a lousy job of broadcasting how busy its members are.
Let Your Members Make Friends With Each Other. Six months ago I would’ve laughed at the idea of a Facebook-style social network dedicated exclusively to aspiring writers, which most Red Room members appear to be. But Facebook, at least for me, is now chaos—my Live Feed is clotted with announcements from people I kinda-sorta know befriending entities, movies, games, groups, and (no small thing, this) other social networks. If Red Room can argue that it’s an oasis for a writer looking for a way to connect with other writers about practicing their craft, it may be on to something; members might be able to form online or in-person writing groups, talk shop, or generally befriend each other. The genius of social networking is in how it allows you to announce your affinities—in writing or in anything else. But as it stands, contacting others is relegated to filling out a form and commenting on posts.
Start Emphasizing the One Thing That Is Your Genuine Point of Differentiation From Your Competition. Before it was a Web site, Red Room was a successful writing group. To the extent it has any value online that could distinguish it from other sites, it ought to focus stubbornly on ways to make writing groups work online. There’s actually a hint of what’s possible on Red Room, something the site foolishly buries. Click on the “Tips” tab and you’re sent to a page that (after some gassing from Ms. Madison), includes a wealth of nuts-and-bolts essays about writing, marketing, landing an agent, whether or not to pursue an MFA and more. Some of the pieces are cursory; some state the obvious. (“DON’T GET DRUNK AT THE CONFERENCES.” OK, got it!) But none of it, at a glance, seems to point an aspiring writer in the wrong direction. With some effort to cultivate stronger pieces, the Tips section could actually be the centerpiece of Red Room. That’s because the most trusted published resources for young writers—magazines like The Writer or Writer’s Digest—put much of their work behind a paywall. At the moment, nothing on the front page of Red Room says, “Here’s a place where you, the aspiring writer, can improve your work by communicating with your peers and learning from others in the business, including some of the most successful authors on the planet.”
How to make a buck off any of this is a matter best addressed by bright financial minds, and I’m not one of them. But just about anything would be an improvement over flogging Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on the homepage.
The D.C.-Area Readings page is updated. Jon Meacham‘s Nov. 19 reading from his biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion, has been canceled; in Meacham’s place, interestingly, is Margaret Atwood, reading from Payback, her cultural study of debt. Also worth looking into: William Ayers makes his controversial appearance at Busboys & Poets on Monday; the National Press Club Book Fair brings a few dozen authors, mainly journalists, to town on Tuesday; Howard Norman moderates a discussion of The Journal of Helene Berr at Temple Sinai on Thursday; and Friday brings Russell Banks and Richard Russo together at the Folger Shakespeare Library, for what will presumably be a chat about fictionalizing the American working class.