Saturday, April 28, 2012

When the words can be fixed, will they be fixed?

What do you do when everything about the writing goes wrong?  When the sales aren't there or the reviews are bad?  How do you deal with the disappointment, the hurt, the rage?  When you think it's everyone else's fault but yours?  When you wonder whatever the hell made you think you could write?

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.

In a sense, that's what I've been doing for the past year.  It hasn't always been easy.  Far from it, in fact.  There have been some major obstacles on the road, like Simon & Schuster's greedy, selfish, dog-in-a-manger refusal to revert my rights to Moonsilver and Touchstone and the ongoing bullshit with Dorchester.

One thing I haven't had to deal with, however, is the kind of review that a friend of mine received on an e-book she recently published, with some of the following details altered to preserve privacy.

The novel is a historical (early 20th century) romance woven around a murder mystery and is loosely based on some of the author's own family history.  She began writing it about 10 years ago, long before either of us ever thought about digital publishing.  At that time, I had read the very beginning of it, maybe 10 or 15 pages, and pointed out what I thought were some weaknesses, especially her problems with grammar and spelling.  Her response at that time was that she'd worry about fixing things if she ever got the book written and started looking for a publisher.  I never heard any more from her about it.  I moved to a different part of the Phoenix metro area and we kept in occasional touch via phone calls and email, but the subject of her writing never came up again.  Neither did the subject of mine.

Shortly after I began to try to resurrect my writing career last spring, my friend was forced into early retirement.  With a generous severance package followed by unemployment compensation that would see her through to full Social Security benefits at age 66, she decided to follow my lead and work on her novel.  According to an email she sent out, it went live on Amazon on Leap Year Day, 29 February, with Smashwords to follow.

In a separate private email to me she said she knew I was busy and she didn't want to impose on me for a critique, so she had a few friends and family members read it.  The final proofreading was done by a daughter-in-law who is a teacher. 

I was surprised that she had priced it at $6.99, which I thought was high for a self-published book by a first-time author.  The cover art was basic and rather bland but not too bad, though the title lacked pizazz.  The blurb, too, seemed generic and much too short to contain any impact.  Basically it said that the heroine's parents are killed in what appears to be a murder-suicide.  She believes someone else murdered them, so when her husband leaves her due to the scandal, she teams up with another guy to find the real killer. 

Except the blurb wasn't even that enticing.  At least, however, it had no typos or misspellings.

Despite all those shortcomings and because I knew a little bit about the factual story behind it as well as the way the author had at one time planned to fictionalize it, I saw strong potential in the book, but I wasn't about to shell out that kind of money for it.  I downloaded the Kindle free sample.  I didn't get around to reading it, however, because I had a ton of my own work to do with Firefly, art shows, my day job, etc.  Then a few weeks later, it popped up free on Amazon.  At that time, I noticed that it had several reviews.  Good for her! I thought.

Well, maybe.

The five-star reviews were almost certainly from friends or family members:  None were verified Amazon purchases, none of the reviewers had other reviews on record, none of the reviews were substantive.  All were posted the same day, a few days after the book was published.  Most simply said things like "I really loved this book!  The author did a terrific job maintaining the suspense!  Recommended for everyone who likes romance and mystery!  This would make a great movie!"

There was a single one-star review which had been posted the day of the free offering.  If I remember correctly, the title of the review was "Absolutely horrible.  Do NOT buy this."  I don't look at train wrecks or car accidents, but I admit to being somewhat fascinated by negative book reviews.  I couldn't resist, even though I knew I was going to be upset.

Well, I wasn't wrong.

The review cited formatting so bad that it made most of the book virtually unreadable, and what sections were readable were incomprehensible.  The reviewer wrote something along the lines, "How anyone could expect people to throw away seven bucks on this piece of garbage is beyond me.  The writing is so bad the person whose name is on the cover shouldn't even call herself a writer let alone an author."  And it went on for about five paragraphs, getting nastier and nastier and nastier.

I winced reading it.  I could not imagine how my friend must have felt reading it, if she even had yet, since the review had just been posted that same day.  This review went beyond brutal.

Wondering if what the reviewer had written was based on the actual book or was just some malicious spew, I took a look at the free sample I had downloaded.  I literally gasped when I saw the product.  The author had apparently uploaded her original MSWord file without removing any prior formatting, so there were headers and page numbers in the middle of sentences.  The spacing and paragraph formatting was all screwed up.  What appeared to have been hidden tabs in the file generated some paragraphs that were only eight or ten letters wide.  The author had clearly not even run her spell check.  If anyone at all had proofread it, I was prepared to eat raw oysters.

But putting all the mechanics aside, the storytelling and the writing were sub-standard as well in every way imaginable.  In other words, it was a mess.  Within a few seconds, I knew the truth:  The vicious review was 100% accurate.  Mean and nasty, but painfully accurate.

I was embarrassed for my friend.  So embarrassed, in fact, that I didn't know whether to download the full free version or just stick with the sample I already had.  After thinking about it for an hour or so, I opted for the full version, hoping there might be some improvement. 

There wasn't.  I had no idea what I'd say to her if she asked my opinion.

A few days later (mid to late March) she sent out another email to apologize to all her friends who had Nooks or other devices and couldn't get the Kindle version the day it was offered free; she was having some problems with the Smashwords formatting and it might be a few more days before it was available there, but she would make sure all of them got a free copy, too.  And she thanked the friends who put up nice reviews on Amazon.

She did not mention the not-so-nice review.

Nor, as the days went on, did she mention Smashwords again.  I knew, from my own experience with Amazon, that the free promotion she was offering on her book was only available in the Kindle Select program, which meant the book had to be exclusive to Amazon and she could not therefore put it on Smashwords or she'd be in violation of the Kindle Select exclusivity.  Finally, as I was putting the last touches on Firefly  prior to uploading it to the Kindle program, I received an email from her.  Unlike the other emails, this one was not sent to all her friends and family.  Just to me.

She started out angry about the bad review, lashed out at the reviewer for being so vicious.  Then she moved to being angry at Smashwords for not being able -- or willing -- to reformat her files for her.  She admitted she had done none of the preliminary work to prepare those files for conversion, but she couldn't understand why Smashwords wouldn't do the work for her.  From there she vented her anger at Amazon for not telling her clearly enough that Kindle Select meant she couldn't put her book on Smashwords or Nook or anywhere else.  And finally she raged at Amazon for removing the five-star reviews she, her husband, and her two daughters had tried to put on the book.

The email ended with the announcement that she had removed the book from Amazon completely, and then with what I thought was a gracious hope that I'd have success with Firefly, which she had just seen go live on Amazon.

How was I to respond?  I didn't know.  I waited two days, during which I contemplated calling her on the phone.  But I knew I couldn't tell her the truth, which was that for all its nastiness, the one-star review was absolutely accurate.

So I wrote a little note extending my sympathy for all the trouble she was having, hoped she got it worked out, thanked her for her kind good wishes, and that was about it. I mentioned I'd been really really busy.  I hoped that last would be sufficient hint that I didn't have time to deal with this issue.

Her response arrived almost immediately, but it was brief, acknowledging she knew how strapped for time I was and maybe we could get together one day soon.  I know her well enough to understand this was her way of saying she wanted help getting through this trauma.  Over the next couple of days, we exchanged a few emails on the subject, all mercifully short.  But I knew eventually -- and probably pretty soon -- she was going to request my full opinion on the debacle.  I also knew I wasn't going to be able to refuse to help.  That's just the way I am.

Let me back up for one more excursus. 

When I was judging for RWA contests, I never pulled punches.  I got a lot of really badly written stuff, and I never sugar-coated my comments.  This sometimes got me into trouble, such as when I judged the entries in a contest sponsored by my own local chapter and was told by the contest chair that I did not have entries from any of the chapter members, whom I of course knew personally.  The problem was that the contest chair flat out lied to me and deliberately gave me an entry belonging to one of our members.  And it was awful, and of course my critique generated a lot of very hard feelings.  But even so, all of my criticisms were based on the writing and nothing else.  I had no clue who the author was until afterward, so I couldn't have made the critique personal anyway.

Okay, back to the present situation.

Earlier this week, I began to prepare a response to my friend.

I wasn't exactly sure where to start.  I personally had never suffered that kind of review or critique or anything else.  But I did know where I could see some.  I looked at the analysis (and follow-up) I had done regarding Amazon reviews of self-published historical romances to see if there was something I could take from that to offer her.  Also I studied negative reviews as they'd been posted at various sites such as Dear Author, SBTB, All About Romance, and so on.  I followed a lot of links to a lot of reviews on a lot of sites, usually not knowing how I'd got where I was.  Eventually, somehow or other, I found myself on an Amazon discussion thread about "Badly Behaving Authors."

It's a very very very long thread, and it only goes back to about February, so goodness only knows how many more examples of badly behaving authors there are, but I wasted, er, spent well over a week's worth of spare time -- usually during breaks in my work-at-home day job -- slogging through the various discussions.  Pretty much the main issues appeared to be that authors behave badly when they:

1.  Review their own books under sock puppet names.
2.  Have their friends and family provide 5-star reviews without disclosing their bias.
3.  Buy fraudulent 5-star reviews through services like or trade 5-star reviews with other authors on a quid pro quo basis.

But authors behave most badly when they:

4.  Respond to negative reviews with challenges about the review's or the reviewer's validity.
5.  Rally their "fans" to down-vote negative reviews and/or up-vote positive reviews.
6.  Lie about their sock puppet identities when confronted.
7.  Lie about rallying their "fans."

First of all, #1 is a violation of Amazon's Terms of Service.  I know, I know.  I didn't read the whole thing either, but anyone with any ethics knows that's just not right.  Apparently there are a lot of people who do it anyway.

#2 is also a violation.  You're not supposed to have anyone with a "financial interest" in the work review it.  Again, splitting hairs over it is one thing, but ethically it should be pretty clear.  If readers know  that it's your aunt or your mother-in-law or your husband writing the review, then they can take it for what it's worth.  But if they don't know, that's not kosher.

#3 is just wrong.  Period.

#6 and #7 should be pretty clear, too.  It just doesn't do to lie about who you are when confronted, especially since it appears the people on that Amazon thread REALLY know how to dig out the dirt about people.

#5 is malicious=wrong.  Don't do it.  Ever.

So what about #4?  Responding to reviews didn't initially seem to me like a bad behavior for an author, though I could understand that challenging a reviewer on what was probably just a personal opinion might not be good form.  I didn't know whether my friend had responded to the reviewer or not, and again, because the book had been removed, I couldn't find out.  But I did know, from my earlier analyses, that one of the one-star reviewers of one of those books had been challenged.  It was an easy matter to go back to my analysis and identify the book, the author, and the reviewer.

The review in question was indeed harsh.  I had forgotten just how harsh.  There seemed to be a certain anger in the reviewer's tone, as though she/he felt personally affronted by a book that didn't live up to expectations. But through various challenges, the reviewer remained resolute: The review was based on specific issues backed up with citations from the book.  The various challengers to this reviewer did not respond to those issues.  They just made what amounted to ad hominem accusations.

Reading through these exchanges, I began to revise my own feelings about reviews and their purpose.

I'd always felt that a review served much the same purpose as a critique: It was one reader's opinion expressed to the author regarding a reaction to the book.  Even though I had been a reviewer for Rave Reviews a bazillion years ago and for a now-defunct mystery review website, I never really thought of my reviews as being directed toward other readers.  That is, of course, who the audience was, but that's not entirely how I felt about it.  Maybe because I was a writer??  :shrug:  I don't know.

Even more than my stints at reviewing, I had put in a lot of time as a member of writing critique groups and as a judge in various RWA contests.  In retrospect, probably 95% of my critical reading had in fact been specifically oriented toward the writer rather than the reader, with the implication that my comments would help the writer improve her product.  And I had never denied that I was sometimes a pretty harsh judge and critiquer.  But my comments/criticisms were always based on the text, not the writer.

I know it seems as if I'm veering way off topic here, but be patient.  I'm really not.

While all this was going on -- my friend's bad review and subsequent de-publishing of her book, my e-publishing Firefly, my strolling through the Amazon discussion forums, my re-visiting my own analysis of reviews, etc. -- Dear Author featured a hilariously written but savage  "guest review" of a self-published book.  Most of the readers of DA agreed with the reviewer, but one steadfastly disagreed, and on two points in particular:  That self-published books should not be held to the same standard as traditionally published books, and that reviews should not be "mean."  Personally, I disagreed rather strongly with both contentions.  And so did most of the other DA readers.

At almost the exact same time as this discussion was taking place, another reader posted on a three-week-old Dear Author discussion regarding her dislike of negative reviews and how negative feedback on her positive review of a book she'd enjoyed had prompted her to remove her review.  Because I had posted in that thread and signed up to receive email notifications of additional comments, I was made aware of these additions to the old thread.

Something made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  Ultimately, last night I posted something to that old Dear Author thread that maybe I shouldn't have:  I suggested the outraged reader sounded more like an outraged writer.  The exchange continued for a while, and then I went to bed.  But those comments bothered me, both hers and mine.

I was up early this morning and immediately began to go back through all this garbage.  My friend had sent another email and I knew she wanted to talk, or at least wanted some substantive response from me on what she should do.  In a way this stuff is garbage -- there's no earthly reason why I should obsess about other people's books' reviews. 

But I'm a writer, too.  The other night I received my first review on one of my digital editions, and it was a negative review that I didn't think was very helpful in terms of providing other readers with information to make their decision to buy or pass.  As strongly as I was tempted to make a comment, I didn't.  That reader was entitled to make those comments and she didn't need to be harassed by me.  The last thing I would want to do is discourage readers from leaving comments, even negative ones.

As a writer I do take those comments into consideration even if they aren't intended for me.  I believe that's what writers should do, if they want to improve their craft.  And all of us, regardless where we are in our careers, are constantly learning, constantly improving, constantly experimenting.  And yes, constantly making mistakes.  We have to recognize that not everything we do will work for every reader.  We have to understand that and move on, either in terms of working to fix what didn't work or in terms of accepting the fact that we will never appeal to every reader.  There are, after all, people who didn't like some of the most popular books ever written.

What disturbed me, however, was that it appeared the writer of one of the books I'd used in my analysis had taken some comments a little too personally.  As a result of my trying to find ideas, suggestions, or comments that might  to help my friend (and myself!) deal with negative reviews, I came across information that makes me suspect this writer makes it a practice to scour the Internet for mentions of her or her books and that she has found my poor little blog.  She has written in the past that she believes someone is stalking her and her books, that this someone is deliberately posting negative reviews or charging followers with the task of down-voting positive reviews.  Well, it's not I.

Because I happened to stumble on her book when I was doing my feeble little analysis, I'm somewhat acquainted with its review history.  I know that several five-star reviews were removed from the book about the time it was edited and re-published.  I know that shortly after that republication, the book received 15 or 20 new reviews, all short, and the overwhelming majority came from no-other-reviews-on-file reviewers.  I know that when the denizens from that "Badly Behaving Authors" thread on Amazon were directed to the book's reviews, they too felt the comments to the one-star reviewer were unfair.  I know that shortly after the BBA team visited the book, several of the new five-star reviews disappeared. 

This is not speculation.  This is simple statement of fact. 

I have no way of knowing how well this book is selling, no clue at all.  That's none of my business. The book has a bunch of five-star reviews.  Good for it, and good for the author.  I can speculate that many of them are fraudulent, and I'm entitled to that opinion so long as I don't accuse without sufficient evidence.  Maybe they're perfectly legitimate and the book is terrific.  If that's the case, it will sell like hotcakes and make the writer a fortune.

But the negative reviewer is still entitled to her/his opinion, and entitled to express that opinion without harassment., just as the reviewer who leaves a positive review on a book that everyone else pans is entitled to her opinion free of hassle.

As rarely as I would normally agree with Dear Author regular "Ridley," I would have to say that her tag "tone troll" applied to the poster who protested the meangirl review yesterday was spot on.  And maybe it applies to the author whose book I cited in my analysis.  Authors, all authors, whether traditionally published, self-e-published, small press published, best-seller or not, have to understand that the negative reviews, even the most brutal and painful, are almost never meant personally.  And tone is often in the ear of the listener, not in the voice of the writer (to mix a whole bunch of metaphors or something).

And that's when I knew what I had to do.  I had to be honest, and if my friend heard a tone that I didn't intend, there was nothing I could do about it.  There was, however, a lot she could do, if she so chose.

So, to get back to the original topic of this horrendously TL/DR post, here's the email I wrote to my friend earlier this morning:

You're right; the review was horrible.  I've never received one that bad, and I'm sure if I did I'd be mega upset and vow never to write again.

But -- oh, dear goddess, there's always a but, isn't there? -- there are things you can do.  I won't say it's easy to do, but try to step back and look at WHAT the review said and not HOW the reviewer said it.  Separate the review from the reviewer the same way you have to separate yourself from your book.

You know now that the formatting was wrong.  You know part of what you need to do to fix it.  That's not the reviewer's fault and it's not the review's fault.  Nor is it the book's fault.  It's yours.  Only you can fix it.  But you can  fix it.  You can't undo the review and you can't undo that reader's reaction to your book or even to your name as the author (because you know she/he is probably never going to touch anything you write again) but you still have millions and millions of other potential readers out there.

After you've accepted that the review was accurate about the formatting, move on to the next comment.  Did you have a gazillion spelling errors that should have been caught by spell check?  If so, you can't blame the review or the reviewer or the book for that.  You're the one who didn't run spell check, didn't proofread.  You can fix it.  And if you really want to be a writer, if you really want to tell this story, you will suck it up and go back and admit your mistake and fix it.  You can fix it.  Whether you will fix it is up to you.

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