Nine Ways to Fix

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 “ 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 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.

13 thoughts on “Nine Ways to Fix

  1. All good suggestions. It’s really useless without RSS feeds for the authors/members you want to follow. And they should have automatic updating of your page with anything you post on your own blog. Amazon makes this very easy so that anyone who has bought one of my books, for example, will see my latest blog post (unless they opt out) when they look at “Amazon Blog.” There is no reason not to link the Red Room pages to whatever the authors/members are doing on their own pages and it would ensure that those pages are kept up to date.

    I appreciate your shout-out and your pointing out the author/member distinction! I had spent so little time there that I did not even notice. It turns out that there is an application process to be considered an “author” and that it REQUIRES that you be referred by one of their authors. My application was bounced because I left that space blank, assuming that a list of my books and publishers and professional associations would suffice. I remembered that I initially heard of Red Room via an email inviting me to join, tracked it down, and filled in the name of the person who sent it. I have no idea whether that will pass muster.

    The only problem with your thoughtful list of recommendations is that I am not sure the thing is worth saving. It reminds me of those Famous Writers School ads so deliciously skewered by Jessica Mitford. As you say, it is silly to suggest that Authors are there for cozy chats with the rest of us about all our pesky problems with subordinate clauses and lame-brained copy editors in some sort of Us Weekly “stars! They’re just like US!” fantasy.

    But it would be fun to see status lines like “Amy Tan and Binky Urban are now friends” or “Joe the Plumber has joined the group ‘I got a million dollar advance and now need someone to write the thing. Anyone interested?'”

  2. Thanks for weighing in, Nell, and for clarifying how the “Red Room Author” system works. I don’t have high hopes for the future of the site, but if it’s going to survive it definitely needs to make its purpose clearer. No, Amy Tan isn’t going to hang out with Joe Wannabe Author, but if they featured interviews with established authors giving advice to people starting out, the site could at least establish a niche that it could build around.

  3. Dear Mark: You doth rock! Truly appreciate the time and effort you put into this post, and I dm’d you ala Twitter w/some info of my own about my interest in your feedback. As for snark – don’t ever feel the need to hold the snark on my account. Snark makes the world a more amusing and all around better place.
    Muchas Gracias!

  4. Hi Mark,

    Being a relative unknown, I blogsearch my name pretty often so I can pour anxiously over reader reviews. That’s how I stumbled upon your post. While I think some of your suggestions for RedRoom are solid, I have to disagree with your overall assessment of the site.

    It’s been hugely beneficial to me as a new writer. My RedRoom page gets three or four times as many hits per day as my ‘official’ site. I’ve met a vast array of writers through it, from poets I’d never heard of to scifi scribes whose novels I read as a kid. To me, it’s a fantastic resource.

    The “split” between members and authors is nowhere near as dire as you make it out. Members have access to the same functionality I have–they can post blog entries, pictures, bios, etc. (And it’s free!) Their comments are linked to their pages just like authors, and whenever an RR member leaves a comment on my blog I almost always click through to find out more about him/her.

    There is a potential at RR for readers and authors to have unprecedented access to one another–almost like a huge ongoing salon. The problem, as I see it, is that some authors don’t yet understand digital culture, and this prevents them from making full use of RR as a resource. I imagine most of the really big names (Rushdie etc) leave posting blogs to Their People and rarely update their pages, reducing their presence on RR to near uselessness. (There are exceptions to this, it should be noted–Amy Tan writes some wonderful blog posts.) But a lot of new writers, who understand the utility and culture of the internet, have used RR to great effect.

    It’s not yet time to write the site off.

  5. Hi Willow,

    Thanks for this—I appreciate your taking the time to speak as somebody who spends a lot of time on Red Room. When I drill deep into the site, it’s clear that there’s a lot of action going on among the writers who’ve signed up. What baffles me is that the site doesn’t do a better job of announcing that that sort of action is happening, and do more to allow writers to connect with one another more publicly—to let me see at a glance, for instance, which writers on the site you commune with and/or enjoy reading, and allow me to easily get to their pages too. I don’t doubt that the pages for the “big names” are managed (or neglected) by their people—all the more reason to shutter those pages. People can spot insincerity online a mile away.

  6. I had a member page for a few months, then asked that it be deleted. It is exactly what it’s advertised to be – a “MySpace” for writers. And that’s not good. We know A-list writers aren’t hanging out there. They’re off writing. We know serious, yet-to-be-published writers aren’t hanging out there. They’re off writing. That’s what writers do. I don’t see that it offers much for readers or writers. Most of the authors who have pages there are D-list authors, and instead of honing their writing skills, they’re using the site just like MySpace – writing blogs about their personal lives and then patting each other on the back. Unless the site changes significantly, and I don’t think it will, I don’t any future for it at all, except as a useless “MySpace for writers” where all the D-listers just pat each other on the back. Ugh.

  7. Dear Mr. Athitakis:
    Someone forwarded your blog to me because my name was mentioned in your blog. Hey, I’m always glad for a plug, although I disagree with your assessement with Red Room.

    I came to RR ten months ago after reading about it in the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I was going through a writing drought. I was dryer than a desert and wasn’t sure if I wanted to even write any more. Anyway, I’m always interested in new websites about writers, plus since it was local doubled my interest. Also three of my former teachers (Susan Browne, Jessica Inclan, and Kathryn Reiss) are RR authors. Contrary what others have said, they are not D- authors. I have found many talented writers/authors on Red Room, writers I never heard of like Belle Yang, Evie Shockley, Marilyn Kallet, and Michelle Tea. Again, these ladies are not D listers.
    Soon blogs became available to members. I started blogging and staff at RR started to respond to my work, mentioning it on their tips page,etc. Soon I started having a following. I got up early in the morning, wrote, then started writing fiction again.
    With the aspiring writer deal: I truly didn’t find it condescending at all. It’s what I am, good or bad. Hey, I’ve been called worse-to “wanna-be writer” or “Aw, you think you’re going to be published? Isn’t that cute?” I rather be someone that is aspiring to be something rather than nothing at all.
    Now for all intents and purposes, I won two contests with RR. I won the grand housewarming prize (an amazing night out at the St. Francis with Phil Bronstein and Terry McMillan, along with co-winner Ericka Lutz and escort Katie Burke) I also won the Summer Reading Experience Prize. I am a bit biased. However, I’m just a woman from Lafayette, California, able to send something I wrote to Connie May Fowler and Ianthe Brautigan, and I get responses back. This amazes me.
    Is Red Room perfect? Of course not. All websites are a work of progress. Yet I agree with Willow. Don’t write Red Room off yet. It’s just getting started.

  8. <>

    I do have to disagree. The above are D-list authors. That doesn’t mean they’re bad writers, but in the eyes of the publishing world, they’re D-listers, people whose work isn’t expected to sell much more than a few copies.

    I’ve been taking note of Red Room’s Alexa statistic and notice that most of its users come from India. Perhaps it has a future as the “MySpace of the Indian World.” I don’t know. But it just doesn’t offer the features that serious writers, readers, editors, publishers, etc. want in a site.

  9. Jennifer, I have to wonder why it meant so much to you and to Erika Lutz to win a Red Room contest? I know that took a tremendous amount of energy and work. If you’re a serious writer, wouldn’t that energy and work be better put into honing your writing skills?

    And Willow, as for your Red Room page getting more hits than your Website, I am skeptical. According to Alexa, the average Red Room visitor doesn’t visit more than one plus page per visit – his or her own, I would have to assume.

  10. I haven’t read this article for about a year, but I was checking the page rank of some other sites and I decided to check’s page rank because I noticed the site owner took none of the above author’s suggestions about how to improve her site. (The celebrities one cannot “network” with and who are not using redroom, etc. are still featured, the site’s still in BETA, there is still an arbitrary division of readers and writers, there are no writing tips (could it be Ms. Madison doesn’t really know any?), and a look at the site showed me that while people are writing blog entries, no one is commenting on them).

    Sure enough, is about to fall out of the top 100,000 in page rank. That is bad. Really bad. For

  11. I don’t even know if I’m a Red Room “member” or “author” even though Amazon sells 30+ of my books.

    The only beef I have with an otherwise wonderful site for writers is that Red Room doesn’t allow us to post Google AdSense ads on our articles and blogs on Red Room.

    But the techn support is great with answers to members’ questions answered usually within 24 hours, sometimes less!

    PLEASE, Ms. Madison, Huntingdon, allow us to place ads so we writers can continue to make a living from our work.

    Frank Sanello

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s