October 17, 2013

Judging a Book by its Cover, A Cautionary Tale

Several months ago, I entered SelfSame in the Writer's Digest 21st Annual Self-Published Book Awards in the Middle-Grade/Young Adult category. Winners were announced this week; I'm disappointed to say I wasn't one of them, but I was sent my scores and the judge's commentary.

In the scoring criteria, SelfSame was given 5 out of 5 points for Structure and Organization, 5 out of 5 points for Grammar, 5 out of 5 points for Plot, and 5 out of 5 points for Character Development.

The Judge's Commentary was a flat-out rave:

"This was another of my top favorites! It was very hard to choose this year. I was captivated by this story of Enid and Sorcha, 2 halves of the same soul. One in 1764 and the other in today's world, two centuries later. It was a fascinating novel. I loved all the historical facts in Enid's story. I loved that they knew about each other all along. I loved that their grandmothers excepted [sic] all of this.

"The writing was spot on. The characters, in both time periods, felt real and were interesting. The pace was even and kept me engaged. I loved the way Melissa Conway wove the story with each chapter going back and forth between the girls. And I am a romantic, so I loved the ending!

"I think YA girls will eat this story up! I will add this to my library and be happy to encourage my readers to pick it up."

So why didn't it win?

Well, the judge gave me a score of 3 out of 5 for Production Quality and Cover Design. That's right. She said: "The only place that I can see improvement is the cover. I get it after reading the book, but nothing about this cover would entice a reader to pick it up and delve in to it."

While I'm thrilled she liked the content, Judge 52's disdain for my cover really cost me. Any indie authors out there thinking about entering the Writer's Digest Annual Self-Published Book Awards, please be aware that your cover WILL be judged. As it is judged by all your readers, despite the old adage that they shouldn't. ;-)


April 2, 2013

Modesty and the Indie Author

I once had a job at a retail clothing store. It lasted six weeks before I could no longer force myself to, well, force myself upon people. The manager of the store was always hovering over me, urging me to make myself indispensable to the customers. In my mind, the best way to do that was to greet them, let them know I was available if they needed anything, and then get the heck out of their way. But the manager wanted me to strike up a conversation and begin suggesting clothing items. I was supposed to spew flattery and steamroll over any protestations that they didn’t need my help.

It was far from my dream job and I ended up quitting before I got fired. Sales has never been my thing; I’m painfully shy when it comes to approaching people I don’t know. I don’t like it when a salesperson gets in my face, so why would I do it to other people?

Imagine my dismay upon discovering that being a successful indie author requires not just having the sales skills to effectively market myself and my work, but using them, blatantly and often. Indie authors must somehow gain a following. It’s not enough for us to write a good book, we have to inspire our readers to help us, to spread the word for us, because most of us can’t afford to pay for advertising.

It’s called ‘marketing,’ and for those of us with deeply ingrained modesty, it’s a nightmare. I’m supposed to be on Twitter, constantly tweeting about my books. I’m supposed to be on Facebook, constantly posting about...yeah, you get the picture.

The thing is: I’m grateful to every single person who’s not only read my work, but taken the time to go to my Facebook Author page and click LIKE. I’m beyond thrilled every time I get a review on Amazon or Goodreads or LibraryThing, or a tweet from someone begging me to write faster because they are dying to read the next book in the series.

I don’t want to repay them by filling their inboxes with spam.

There’s no question that I’m shooting myself in the foot by not taking advantage. Thing is, how am I supposed to interact with my fans when I can’t even comfortably call them that? They’re just people who happen to like something I wrote. And I’m just a writer who seems doomed to fade into obscurity because I cringe away from putting myself out there.

I’m exceedingly lucky to be able to write my books. Note that I didn’t say ‘write my books for a living.’ I’d have to be a salesperson for that to happen.


February 20, 2013

Yet another post On Book Reviews (as they apply to Indie Authors)

Opinion [uh pin yuh n] a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty. A personal view, attitude or appraisal.

Subjective [suh b jek tiv] existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought. Pertaining to or characteristic of an individual; personal; individual: a subjective evaluation.

All opinions are valid except for the fact that they are also subjective.

On the surface in this day and age there are two main ways of choosing a book: by browsing a physical book store or online retailer, or hearing about it through a book recommendation site (word of mouth).

Browsing might feel like you’re asserting your own will in picking out a book, but the reality is, finding one is rarely a happy accident. At the bookstore, the prominently-placed books are more likely to catch your eye – if you don’t see a book facing spine-out on the bottom shelf, you’re less likely to find it. This visibility principle applies to online stores as well. Those books high up on popularity lists are more likely to sell. But how do they get there?

In a word: Hype [exaggerated publicity; hoopla].

We all know what hype is, but I wonder how often we consider that its pervasiveness gives it a sort of credibility. Behind every blockbuster you will find a focused marketing team and a coffer full of advertising dollars. A book you may have initially dismissed as uninteresting will begin to look better and better under a constant barrage of hype. It influences us whether we are aware of it or not; that is the nature of being repeatedly exposed to something – it becomes familiar, and spurs us to find out for ourselves what all the fuss is about.

What has this got to do with book reviews and indie authors? Well...indie authors don’t have the benefit or even the option to use hype to promote our books. To use a couple of arguably clich├ęd but apt phrases, an indie author’s only hope is to create ‘the perfect storm,’ of publicity using what limited resources s/he has available to them; in effect, setting in motion that nebulous confluence of circumstances leading to the mythical ‘tipping point.’

Without paid-for hype, we have only one method at our disposal to get the attention we need to sell our product: book reviews.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: it is common practice for Big Name authors to review each other’s work. They place gushing quotes from their peers on their book jackets, and use them in their advertisements. When indie authors review each other, however, the practice is considered suspect – even though it’s the exact same tit-for-tat behavior coming from the Big Names. I can only attribute this to public perception of authenticity: the Big Names are officially vetted by professionals, whereas everyone knows indie authors were rejected by those same professionals, making them desperate and willing to lie for each other to sell a few books.

Now, of course it’s an exaggeration to lump all indie authors together in such a stereotypical manner, but there you have it. I happen to be acquainted with dozens of indie authors whose integrity would never allow them to stoop to underhanded methods, but I also know a few who, like the child who considers any attention better than no attention, will resort to bad behavior to get ahead.

Avid readers are the target, because they will have already plowed through the blockbusters and tend to dig deeper, browse further, take more chances to find a good book. If they stumble upon an indie book (unlikely), or deliberately seek them out (due to affordability), the first thing they see is the overall star rating (I’m using Amazon in this example, but most [all?] online book retailers use a similar rating model). After the star rating, they check to see how many ratings the book has gotten. If the book’s overall rating is a glowing 5-stars with very few customers having rated it, they might move on. Why? The most obvious reason is s/he might assume a book no one has reviewed is a book no one has read. S/he might also jump to the conclusion that it is a book no one wants to read. It’s also possible our avid reader is aware of the well-known ‘fact’ that the first several reviews on any given indie book are written by friends, family and peers.

Next, s/he reads the blurb. If it’s intriguing enough, s/he will then move on to the reviews, or, if s/he is that rare creature who doesn’t let a stranger’s opinion influence him/her, s/he will read the sample – the first 20% or so of the book. Reading the sample is the best way to evaluate quality of writing and the author’s ability to ‘suck you in.’ But for the purposes of this post, we’ll say this potential customer peruses the reviews.

What will s/he find? A veritable mish-mash of subjectivity with so many potential factors it would be impossible to list them all, but I've identified some of the more colorful types, from an author’s tongue-in-cheek point of view. Assuming the book is not riddled with spelling and grammar errors, these are the kinds of reviewers you will find:

The Family-member. Despite what our naysayers might think, a Family-member is the least likely person of the average indie author’s acquaintance to write a review of our books. This is because very few of our nearest and dearest can be bothered to read them. I’ll use myself as an example: I have five self-published books under the name Melissa Conway with a total, as of this writing, of 103 reviews on Amazon. Not one of those reviews is from a family member. However, when an author’s Family-member does venture to post a review, the result is usually easy to spot. Delirious praise from someone with the same last name as the author is merely cringe-worthy.

The Friend. Way more likely to not only read the author’s book than a Family member, but to review it. Always 5-stars, always a Rave. This is not to say the opinion isn’t sincere, but the simple fact that the Friend knows someone who wrote an actual book can often influence their review more than their opinion of the story/writing. Now, keep in mind that the average author is probably an introvert who doesn’t have many actual friends, so there won’t be an abundance of these reviews. Also, subsequent books by this author are likely to have few, if any, Friend reviews, for the simple reason that the more familiar an author becomes with the ins-and-outs of marketing his/her books, the less likely it is they will want a Friend review casting doubt on them.

The Peer. There is nothing an author holds in higher esteem than the Peer. They are other writers/authors who have quite likely also developed an online friendship with the author. The Peer review will focus on the positive, but will not always be 5-stars. The Peer thinks the author is at least an adequate writer, and often s/he was a beta-reader and/or editor of the book in question. Peer reviews are generally honest because the Peer wants to avoid the appearance of impropriety, which will reflect negatively on their own career. Often, Peers will identify themselves with a qualifier, such as, ‘I am acquainted with the author through social networking.”

The Drive-by. These are low-star-rating-givers more likely to haunt reader sites like Goodreads where the reviewer doesn’t have to give a written opinion. Often, but not always, the Drive-by has just created an account and the book in question was one of many s/he rated upon first joining. If you look at the other books the Drive-by has given low stars to, you will find many beloved classics. If you look at the Drive-by reviewer’s profile, it probably doesn’t have a picture or any personal details and will show that their last activity was on the same day they joined.

The One-and-Only. These reviewers claim to have been so negatively affected by the book they have broken out of lurk mode to post their first ever review with the sole objective of warning other readers.

The Spurt. This reviewer is similar to the One-and-Only, but instead of just one review, has written a ton of them all on the same day, including an unflattering one of the book in question. The reviews in this cluster are all short, and seemingly honest.

The Shill. This reviewer gives out 5-stars or 1-stars with the express purpose of pumping up one book while taking its competitor down. I know the Shill exists because I’ve read a lot about them lately; how some authors hire people to do this, or make multiple fake accounts to do it themselves. I have no idea how to recognize a Shill’s review because it might look like a Rave or a One-and-Only or a Troll; conversely, the Rave or One-and-Only or Troll, might in reality be a Shill.

The Troll. This reviewer seems to really have it out for the author. Often the review is accompanied by claims that the writing was so bad s/he could only get through a few chapters. The Troll always uses a pseudonym (usually one innocent-sounding name like ‘Jennifer’) with no profile information. They have plenty of reviews over a convincing period of time, but most of them are negative. Trolls relish trash talk and will go to the trouble of posting the same scathing review on multiple review sites.

The Blogger. A reviewer that identifies him/herself as a book blogger can almost always be counted on NOT to be a Shill. They have often been solicited by the author in exchange for a free copy of the book, but this won’t influence their opinion of it. The majority of Bloggers focus on the positive aspects of every book they read and many won’t post a review of a book they didn’t like. On the other hand, and especially if the Blogger is using a pseudonym, they can be unapologetically blunt and difficult to please. Some authors seek the difficult Bloggers out in particular in the hopes that their book does please them.

The Rave. I’ve lurked enough on Amazon’s Customer Discussion boards to have a good idea what kind of reviews seem suspicious (a positive Shill review). Unfortunately for those of us who have gotten authentic reviews that include lots of ALL CAPS enthusiasm and liberal use of exclamation points, these are at the top of the ‘yeah, right’ list. Phrases like IT WAS AMAZING!!! and BEST!! BOOK!! EVER!! will generally garner skepticism whether the sentiment was genuine or not, especially if the reviewer doesn’t point out specifics in the story. Sometimes the Rave will add a caveat that they saw all the 5-star reviews but didn’t believe them until they read the book. This is an indication that the Rave is genuine.

The Editor. This is the low-star kind of review written by someone who is obviously another writer, or worse, a wannabe. The Editor usually thinks the book’s premise was intriguing, but the writing lacked (insert favorite writing ‘rule’ of choice here). These reviews are almost always written under a pseudonym and are most likely to send the author into a tailspin of paranoia. Since it’s obvious the Editor is a fellow writer, the author may wonder, with all the nonsense going on (see Shills), whether this is a competitor or even if they actually *know* this person. (As an aside, you can find out the real name of any given account holder on Amazon who has a baby registry and sometimes a wish list.)

The Freebie. People don’t tend to read outside their comfort zone. The Freebie knows what s/he likes, but being a shrewd and frugal reader, takes advantage of the temporarily free ebooks on Amazon. The Freebie may not understand (or care) why those books have been made free. They may not know the author is attempting to give away as many as possible so the book will rise to the top of the ‘free’ charts and get much-needed exposure. This has been one of the few reliable ways to make our work known, but it has its (sometimes severe) downsides. First, savvy Freebies are aware that an ebook in Amazon’s KDP Select program will likely become free in the future, so they pass on purchasing it. Second, Freebies are less likely to select a free book based on whether they actually want to read it. This wouldn’t be a problem if they didn’t also have the ability to review it. Even the honest Freebies who put a disclaimer in their review such as, “I don’t normally read this genre, but it was free, so...” have still brought the author’s overall star rating down if they review it negatively.

In the end, despite lumping reviews and reviewers into groups that make the worst of them easier to swallow, I believe subjectivity rules – and comforts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated the phrase, “You can’t please everyone.” When an incomprehensible review is suddenly stinking up one of my book pages, I take it on the chin and vent in private to those I trust. It would never occur to me to confront the reviewer, even if the review reeks of Shill – and even if I only imagine it does.

Reviews are all we got. Those of us lucky enough to acquire enough of them, good, bad or ugly, might even generate a little Hype.