The Red Room Factor

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle has a story about Red Room, a venture-backed portal for writers that’s attracted investors like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. There’s lots to like about Red Room at first glance: It boasts a slick design, features on big-name authors like Salman Rushdie, and links to news, blogs, and multimedia for individual writers. If I click on, say, the page for Adam Johnson (whose first short-story collection, Emporium, I liked quite a bit) I get info on his books, a quick bio, updates on events, audio of a story of his (reg req’d), and blog, should he ever choose to write one on the site.

I started getting skeptical, though, when I saw this quote in the article by Norman Mailer Anderson, author of a raucous, funny novel about Northern Californians, Boonville: He says Red Room is “becoming the definitive, encyclopedic reference for writers, as defined by writers, which I think is different from defining writers in terms of the commerce they can garner from them, or the anonymity or carelessness that goes on in Wikipedia.”

But: Amazon and Wikipedia aren’t the sole outlets for an author to promote himself, and if your Wikipedia entry is “careless,” you can correct the errors yourself. If the value of Red Room, as founder Ivory Madison argues, is that it gives lesser-known authors a foothold “much as emerging musicians do on” according to the article, why can’t an author simply start a MySpace page? If social networking has taught us anything, it’s not the theme of the site that matters, but the opportunities to put your name in front of lots of other people. Why an author would choose to go to Red Room, simply because it’s “all about books,” instead of simply launching a blog or a Facebook page isn’t yet clear to me. Amy Tan, richer than God, can afford to blog for the first time on a circa-2000 portal site; lesser-known writers are at a high risk of getting lost in the shuffle here.

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