Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Giving meanings to the words

Once again, I want to state very clearly that there will be no reviews on this site, and what follows should not be taken as a review but rather as an observation and essay of opinion about reviews.  At least, that's the way it is intended.

The motivation behind this essay comes from two sources. 

The first is a report that an author has successfully sued a reviewer whose review was not just negative but contained factual inaccuracies that the court deemed malicious.  In the linked report, another reviewer defends reviewers and their snarky reviews.

The second is a scathing review and heated commentary on Dear Author regarding an author-published book.  I was one of the commenters, and my comments were a bit lengthy.  But there were some issues that I wanted to address beyond those comments specifically about the nature of reviews, and felt I could more appropriately explore those issues on my own blog.  So here I am.

It's already been discussed on several websites whether or not authors should also be reviewers.  There are pros and cons, and I've stated that I do review occasionally on Amazon those books that prompt me to make a comment.  I do not review under my own name.  Yes, sock puppetry here, one of the joys of the Internet.  Some of my reviews have been exceptionally harsh, as when a digital book is so badly formatted that it is completely unreadable.  And there was the instance where someone, perhaps the author's husband, took me to task for not liking what he considered a "masterpiece."

First sub-topic I want to address is specifically the issue of the validity of reviews on Amazon.

It appears to be quite well known and accepted/acceptable for authors of all stripes to have their friends and relatives post such reviews, even to the point of copying and pasting other people's reviews and slapping their own name on them.  Rather than examine that in detail, let's take it as a given then that most books will have a few biased reviews, and that those reviews will be almost universally glowing and full of unqualified praise.  Thus this is a masterpiece everyone should read right now.

How many such 5-star reviews is a book likely to get?  I'm going out on a limb here by guessing the appropriate number is six, or rather between five and seven.

Most people who write a book and get it listed on Amazon -- regardless how the book is physically published -- can come up with five to seven people who are willing to post glowing reviews.  They may not have written the reviews, and in fact they may not have read the book, but they are willing out of friendship with or family ties to the author to lend their names or sock puppets to the cause of promoting the book.  Fair enough.

Now let's take that one step further and apply it just to the small press, independent, and author-published books that may (or may not) have a small paper-and-ink print run (or are POD) but depend mainly if not exclusively on digital publishing such as Amazon's Kindle program or Smashwords.  This category includes such publishers as Ellora's Cave, Carina, Samhain, and others that are not mainstream, New York "legacy" publishers engaged in "Agency" pricing for their digital editions. 

These books do not get the promotion or the attention that legacy books do.  While Pocket or Kensington or Avon may be able to send out ARCs or print copies or even free digital editions to the major reviewers, the self-published author can't.  And the major review venues, whether Publisher's Weekly, Romantic Times, or Dear Author, are going to review those books their reviewers want to review and their readers (and/or advertisers) want reviewed.  In any given month there will be a lot of books released by popular authors, and they will get top billing, regardless of genre.  Dan Brown, Stephen King, Clive Cussler (or ghost), Patricia Cornwell, Jayne Ann Krentz -- these are the authors whose books will be reviewed the minute they hit the store shelves or the digital download servers, if not before.  And more often than not, these books get good reviews.

The author whose book doesn't get reviewed by the major sites has to rely on his or her own devices, and that very well may include getting someone to review the book and say that they liked it, loved it, even if they didn't.  As I stated a few weeks ago I was informed of an author-published book that I ended up not liking and gave a negative review, for which I got chewed out.  That book now has eight 5-star reviews and my 2-star review. 

Most of those seven other reviews contain nothing more than glowing praise for the book.  They give few details of the plot or storyline but call the book a masterpiece that grabs them from the first sentence.  Most of the reviewers have no other reviews at all on Amazon.  One is another self-published author.  One reviewer has about 20 reviews all posted within 10 days prior to or on the same date as the review of the book in question.  I haven't checked to see if they are cut-and-pasted from someone else's reviews, but they are posted in batches at a time.  Are those legitimate reviews?  I don't know, but I must admit I'm suspicious, which means I'm not inclined to believe them.

The problem is, Amazon uses those reviewer ratings as a means of sorting the titles.  The more and the higher the review rating, the higher the book will land on Amazon for the purchaser who sorts by rating.  This is not the default sort, but it is one way, and it must be used often enough if Amazon maintains it.

Now, I'm not even sure it's possible for me, under the guise of my sock puppet, to review my own book, and somehow that seems even too underhanded for me.  (Only kidding!  But you know what the book is so you can easily check to see what kind of reviews it's received at this point.  As of 8/16/2011, none.)  But it does make me understand why authors resort to it.

How are readers, then, to determine which Amazon reviews are valid and which aren't?  I'm only addressing Amazon at this point because that's the only system I'm familiar enough with as an author publishing there, as a reviewer reviewing there, and as a reader buying there.  Here's my formula for determining which, if any, Amazon reviews are valid: 

1.  Until the book (or story or novella) has at least 10 ratings, ignore them all.
2.  Ignore six of the 5-star ratings.  Assume they're from friends or family members who are biased.
3.  Of the remainder (if there are any) trust with reservations only those reviews from reviewers who have at least 20 posted reviews over the past six months in that category, i.e. contemporary romance, urban fantasy, traditional western, political thriller.

It's not a foolproof system, and it makes no guarantees, but it may help you weed out the stuff that gets big ratings but turns out to be icky.

And remember, I'm only talking about the reviews posted on Amazon and only for small press or author-published books, because most print-published authors will have other avenues for publicity and attracting reviewers.  This is, of course, especially true in my particular genre, which is romance, where there is a huge online presence of writers, reviewers, readers, etc.

If you discount the first five to seven glowing reviews and look at the rest with an informed eye, I think you can much more fairly determine which are the valid reviews.

The reason I begin this long rant with that introduction is that, as has been discussed many times in the blogosphere, self-publishing opportunities at Amazon, Smashwords, and other outlets allows writers to bypass all the traditional gatekeeping that the print publishing industry used to perform.  This includes the functions of agents and editors not only to select the publishable manuscripts but to take those that are potentially publishable and make them publishable through directed editing and revision.  It is now possible for anyone to compose a story of any length, design a 600 by 800 pixel cover for it, upload it to Amazon or Smashwords, and sell it right alongside the 600 by 800 pixel cover for the latest from Nora Roberts, Erik Larson, Laura Hillenbrand.

The question then becomes how does the reader slog through the sea of dreck, and how does the author find an audience?  Is it fair that some authors will in fact not find an audience?  It may not be fair, but it is probably true.

How the readers find the material they want to read is a different but related matter, and it may be as unsatisfying as sitting down and sifting through the gazillions of titles, looking at product descriptions (the equivalent of back cover blurbs), reading reviews, and reading free samples.  The trade off, of course, is that readers now have more choices, but at a price in time and effort if not cash.

Every reader, of course, takes a risk when buying a book.  (Not when borrowing from a friend or library or the free book exchange at the local coffee shop.)  No matter what the recommendations from reviewers, no matter how intriguing the samples, there's always the chance of getting a dud.  That's pretty much what happened over at Dear Author last week-end, when reviewer DA_January read a book she ended up not liking.

I'm not going to post the book's title or the author's name here, because I don't want this blog to become a link used to promote the book.  I was so appalled at what the review said the book was like that I downloaded the free sample from Amazon.  When I had finished the free sample, I had to say that my views on the book pretty much coincided with January's, and I was not shy in voicing my opinion.  I rarely am.

For anyone who doesn't wish to go over to the other site, read the review, and read the 250+ comments, I'll summarize --

The book is set in Britain during an indeterminate historical period alleged to be a generation or so prior to the rise of King Arthur.  Various petty kings and dukes are fighting it out for supremacy, presumably because the arm of the Roman Empire has been withdrawn.  One of these kings defeats a duke and takes the duke's castle, possessions, and daughter. Most of the duke's people are slaughtered, many of the women raped, including the duke's daughter, who is to be the heroine of the story.  The hero is the victorious king who orders, participates in, and/or condones all the raping and slaughter.

DA_January, the reviewer, took exception primarily to two elements of the writing.  One was historical accuracy, the other was characterization.

Let me deal with the latter first.  The king who orders and/or condones the slaughter and rapine is the hero, and the reviewer felt that under the subjective standards of the romance genre, this type of behavior was not consistent with "hero" material.  She cited numerous examples of his, dare I say it, savage and unrepentent ruthlessness, and from that determined she could  not accept him as a viable hero because the author never redeemed him

The duke's daughter heroine, on the other hand, was described as being too passively accepting of all the trials and tribulations and trauma heaped on her, especially the frequent brutal rapes, without much resistance or reaction.  Her primary means of coping with her situation seems to be rationalizing that everyone gets treated this way and it's no big deal.

Eventually, the author of the book showed up on Dear Author and made a statement, as did a couple of her supporters, all of whom based their support on the concept that rape was a reality in historical times and therefore it was valid as an element of this novel.

Over and over and over, through the better part of 250 replies, the book's critics continued to state that yes, they understood that rape was a historical -- and contemporary -- reality and that was not their issue.  Their issue was with the way the author had written the character's response to being raped, the contention being that a writer can include anything she wants in her book so long as the reader finds it acceptable.  And too many of the readers on Dear Author were saying the author hadn't made these elements acceptable.

The quote I think applies here is "You're entitled to your own opinion; you are not entitled to your own facts."

Responding to a more or less rhetorical question of "Don't the book's supporters get it?" from one of the posters on the Dear Author, I wrote the following:

IMHO, they're missing the point.
The serious discussion here on DA -- setting aside early speculations about whether the author was a real person or the cover quote was legit -- has focused on the quality of the writing in terms of how it integrated the dull facts into a believable and enjoyable story. Enjoyable does not have to be rainbows and puppies and kittens. Enjoyable in this sense means satisfying.
My mind has gone blank right now and I can't remember which famous author has been quoted as saying that the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be believable. What I read of the free sample of this book did not present what I know of reality in a believable way. And for the most part, I think the commenters here have stated the same thing.
No one has denied that females can get pregnant at the age of 11. What we have stated is that the "facts" as presented in the book are contradictory in a way that is consistent with sloppy writing. In other words, Ector is described as liking his sexual partners "before their womanhood," which implies a prepubescent female, once who has not developed a woman's body and has not started menstruating. So either Ruth is, at 11 or 12, sexually mature and capable of conceiving, in which case she would not be attractive to Ector, or she's not sexually mature and therefore not capable of conceiving. The fact that author leaves this contraction intact -- there are a lot of ways to resolve it -- shows to me and apparently to other readers that the writing is sloppy, it needs revision or editing, it's not ready for publication.
That's just one issue, and if it were the only issue, the book might have succeeded with DA_January. The problem is that there are so many similar issues.
There's another major problem and that has to do with the claim of historical accuracy. Again, this is something that many commenters have referenced. In order for an author to claim her work is historically accurate, she has to pick a specific historical time frame so that that accuracy can be verified. The research details she's included -- the arms and weapons, the costuming, the names, the artifacts -- are not indicative of a single well-defined era. did the items exist in history? Yes, but not at the same time and not at the time she's claiming if any, but vaguely in the Arthurian age, since that's what's stated on the cover of the book. If we write about the American Civil War, we don't include the battle of Bunker Hill or President John Paul Jones or jet fighter planes; if we do, we don't claim historical accuracy.
Once again, it seems the supporters of the book and the author are claiming that the critics and detractors are just upset because there's brutal rape and violence in the story and saying that those elements are historically incorrect and/or have no place in fiction or even in romance fiction.
1. We've all pretty much accepted that rape and violence and all that other nasty stuff are valid history.
2. We've all pretty much accepted that rape and violence and all that other nasty stuff can absolutely have a valid place in fiction and in romance fiction.
3. We've all pretty much accepted that the author of this particular work just didn't do a very good job of incorporating these elements into a viable, readable, enjoyable, satisfying, cohesive novel.
None of that is a criticism of the author herself.
What I think some of us have criticized, however, is the attitude of the supporters and perhaps even of the author herself in making claims about our criticisms and the motives behind those criticisms.
For years and years and years and sometimes even to this day, I've had nightmares about a scene in a book I read at the age of maybe 15 or 16. It was profoundly disturbing, and even to recall it now will probably distress me for a day or two.  The scene involved a woman describing watching her children being murdered by a mob. The author addressed her horror in a way that conveyed the absolute numbness that was required for the character to get beyond such a trauma and continue to function while at the same time showing the monumental effort it took to maintain that numbness. 
That kind of description was lacking in the reviewed novel at Dear Author.  And that was what was being criticized.  The book's supporters, however, seemed unable to grasp what it was we critics were criticizing, and instead they insisted we were denying -- or rewriting -- historical reality.

It's almost impossible to argue with people like that.  It's not just that they're stubborn -- a comment of mine which prompted some slight amusement -- but that they have invested themselves in what they see as a personal attack on the author when it is no such thing.

Why is this important?  And what's the connection to the first cited news item about the critic who got sued?  It's important because, as a later thread discusses on Dear Author here, reviews are part of what reaeders go by when choosing what to buy AND because in this age of digital publications, there's almost no way to return your purchase if you find out it's a dud.  Wary readers who have been stung too many times by gushing reviews by friends and neighbors that lead to sucky books are now unwilling to part with even small sums to try the untested works of new, digital-only authors.

The first article, of course, shows that even professional reviewers can and sometimes do lie to further a personal agenda.  One of them got caught because what he did was detrimental to the writer's ability to earn a living.  No one is going to sue the reviewers who lie to promote the work, and yet they do it all the time.  So the issue is not whether the reviews are honest but rather are they beneficial.  If they're beneficial to the author's bottom line, lying is apparently all right. 

Reviews should be fair and honest.  Should be, but often aren't.  And this hurts the good writers far more than it helps the bad ones.  Ultimately, if a book -- or novella or short story -- is good, it will stand on its own.

Or at least that's the way it should be.

In the week or so since the whole brouhaha developed over at Dear Author, I happened to post another review -- under my "alias" -- for another book that I had read only the free sample of.  I saw the book, cover, and basic description on a generic surf through Kindle titles.  Again, the title and author aren't important and I'm not going to give free linkage to them.  The writing was appallingly bad, with virtually every grammatical error known to the English language commited within the first 10 pages.  Egregious flubs such as "...he had went to find..." and "...she put there bags in the carraige[sic]..." and "Galloping across the moors, her cloak soon became soaked with the rain" and you get the picture.  There were e-book formatting issues as well that made the book difficult to read in the Amazon Kindle version -- inconsistent paragraphing, new chapters starting in the middle of a line of text, etc.  

Despite this, the book had four or five 5-star reviews and no others.  Three of the reviewers had reviewed nothing else.  The reviews were generic along the lines of "This is so wonderful, everyone should read it!" with no real analysis or description of the book.  Under normal circumstances and based on my "formula" for validating reviews, I'd have dismissed all of these.  And so I posted my own review, with a brief analysis of the writing style problems as well as some comments on the novel's structure -- like the two-page, single paragraph info dump as the heroine's sister "reminds" the heroine of the heroine's life story prior to the opening of the book.

Yesterday I received via email from Amazon a notification that someone had commented on my review.  The brief comment basically stated that "this reviewer has X number of reviews on Amazon and 75% are 1- or 2-star reviews.  Guess you can't please some people."  I immediately went to the book's listing on Amazon to post a reply to that comment, but the comment had already been removed.  I have no idea why.

My response, of course, would have been to point out that there are far more reviewers who seem to be very easy to please, who toss around 5-star reviews as if they were Mardi Gras lagniappes.  It's only the negative reviews that come under fire.

As a result of that disappearing comment, however, I decided to check and see if there were comments attached to any of my other reviews.  I already knew about some of them, and I found only one other that I hadn't seen before, and this one pretty much said the reader was glad to have more details about the book than just gushing praise.  So I felt pretty validated by that.

I also knew that one of the books I had severely trashed -- primarily for the formatting that made it literally unreadable -- had subsequently been removed from Amazon, but what surprised me yesterday was to discover that two other NASP books I'd given critical reviews to had been removed as well.  I have no idea why they were removed, and I can only assume they were removed by the authors unless there was material in them that violated Amazon standards in some way.

Maybe that's a point that has to made, too.  If we take it for granted that most NASP books are going to  receive at least a few 5-star fab rave reviews, then maybe someone somewhere needs to step up and be the gatekeeper who warns the unsuspecting.  Amazon and the other digital publishers will not step up and do this; they are making money off these books; not only do they not have to be gatekeepers, but they don't want to be gatekeepers because, unlike print publishers who have/had a substantial financial investment to recoup, it's not in their best interest.

More on this later.  It's gone on long enough, and probably most people have lost interest by now anyway.

*NASP = New Author, Self-Published

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