By Stephen Geez
That online behemoth known worldwide as Amazon has been messing with my lightning bugs.
“Lightning bugs” are what I call them because my people are from the Southeast USA. I grew up in Michigan where people tended to call them “fireflies,” but since those wonderfully incandescent glimmers of dancing whorls never appeared in my bulldozed and sodded maze of suburban streets, I figured the Southern folks who lived among them earned the privilege of naming them.
Lightning bugs use their lights to advertise, which for them is the most effective way to gain attention in hopes of making connections. They rise into the open spaces and show off their best. As an author, I have to show my wares in retailers, my book covers glowing, glossy blurbs shining, in hopes of making reader-buyer connections. Amazon owns the biggest field where my works dance, and with that comes privilege, too.
At around age four, I traveled with my family to Tennessee to visit kinfolk. On a warm June night the fields around us came alive with whorling twinkles of intermittent lights. I’d never seen anything like that, and it fascinated me profoundly. My Southern kin thought nothing of these wonders. That wouldn’t be the last time I noticed people’s tendency to grow accustomed to—and eventually indifferent about—the spectacular beauty of their everyday worlds.
I wanted to see lightning bugs up close, so having been assured they don’t bite, I scrounged a glass jar, cajoled my father into nail-puncturing some holes in the lid, and set about collecting several specimens. The first few mesmerized me. Wow. Christmas lights in June, with no wires, alive and independent, right there in the air, in great numbers. I found them delightful!
I found my lightning bugs so fun, I decided I would like to add to my collection, so I chased down and caught a few more—then a few more, and even more. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point my fascination with looking at a few of these wondrous beetles turned into a quest to collect as many as I could. Surely I had more lightning bugs than any other kid in the world.
Coming to check on me, my father suggested maybe I had enough, that a small jar might not have enough air, that at some point I would need to release them so they could go on about their lightning-bug business. I would hear none of it, not with so many more waiting to be caught.
Then I fumbled the lid.
It fell and rolled away. As I tried to retrieve it while covering the jar with my small hand, a whole mess of those flashing wonders quickly escaped. By the time I got the lid secured, I’d lost most of my lights.
And I started to cry.
My father didn’t understand. I’m not sure I did, either.
All I remember of the rest of this story is that at some point I realized I’d never really needed so many lightning bugs. A few good ones to enjoy for a time, to learn from, to eventually let go, well, that proved to be quite delightful in its own right.
Authors like to collect book reviews on Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com, GoodReads, and other sites, especially reviews that praise the work, offering up four or five stars, making our books shine brightly in a crowded readers’ retail field.
Still, lately Amazon has been simply removing reviews, making them disappear without warning. They use sophisticated algorithms to decide a reader posting a review might somehow know the author, such as by following him or her through social media. Often these connections are tenuous or even irrelevant. Sometimes they come from honest efforts to support indie authors with honest reviews of each other’s work. Still, Amazon does what it wants, nothing personal about it, and that means sometimes those algorithms will knock the lid off our jars and many of our favorite reviews will float off into the ether.
For many of us, at least the ones who strive for some modicum of introspection, it causes us to pause and wonder if we’re counting reviews and boasting the numbers like trophies. Amazon has taken some of my highest-rating reviews, yanking those five-stars right out from under some of my books, mostly because the writers belong to clubs I have joined. Well, hmmm.
Still, another five-star “Gosh, I really liked this book” might not say quite as much, after all, either to us authors or other potential readers. I like a somewhat lower rating by someone who paid attention and really got what the book is about—then wrote a thoughtful review meant to give us real feedback. Besides, a lack of reviews might just say that a book’s particular readers are not the review-posting types, so when someone does take the time, it means that much more.
Lightning bugs can be delightful, but they come and go. We should enjoy them, learn what we can during the brief time we have them, and accept that sometimes they will fly away. Nothing is gained from crying about them. I know reviews count, but I try not to count them.
Still, I’ll hold on to the lid, um, in case you and your friends want to help me, you know, catch a few more!