Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Getting the word(s) out, or "But I'm so not a shameless hussy!"

Self-promotion is not my strong point.  I could no more build a blog or a website with half a dozen copies of my book cover shoved in the reader's face than I could audition for American Idol.  It's just not me.  I even had doubts about posting the cover for Firefly at the opening to this post.  But I did it.

What prodded me into today's brief and mild shameless hussiness was discovering that I and my blog had been mentioned on author Courtney Milan's blog a couple of months ago wherein she asks about the ethics behind authors' requesting reviews:

What do you think of authors asking for reviews? I don’t mean asking for reviews in exchange for money or a prize.  I don’t mean asking friends and family for reviews. But I have seen a handful of self-published books, where at the end of the book, there is a brief note that says something like this:
If you enjoyed this book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon.com
Disclaimer:  I don't know Courtney and to the best of my knowledge she doesn't know me.  We post independently and occasionally at DearAuthor.com and maybe a few other places as well, but there's nothing orchestrated or coordinated about that.  So when I saw she had linked to this blog, I was both surprised and flattered.

I had an initial response to her query, but as I read through the other comments, I began to modify my opinion.

When I originally blogged about negative reviews and later linked to the Amazon Kindle forum thread on "Badly Behaving Authors" the main concern was authors and their friends and their sock puppets posting scads of favorable reviews of their own books or paying strangers to write favorable reviews regardless whether they had liked or even read the book.

But Courtney Milan was asking about another issue entirely, which was the soliciting of reviews in general, either by the author or by Amazon -- or, one would suppose, by the publisher.

I worked through the issue this way:

1.  Most businesses will ask for feedback, and they often couch their request in terms that encourage positive feedback.  Today, for example, I bought a new phone.  I knew what I wanted when I went into the store, I expressed my preference to the salesperson, and I walked out 45 minutes later with exactly the kind of device I wanted.  There was no pressure to buy more phone than I wanted, though he did just kind of assume I wanted a charger for in the car.  I rarely use the one I have, but figured it would be nice to have just in case.  When the whole operation was completed, I was asked for my feedback.  No one said, "If everything is okay, how did we do?" 

2.  Sometimes the solicitation for a review, such as the Amazon request, is to leave a comment if the reader enjoyed the book, with the implication being that only favorable reviews are requested.  Well, is that necessarily in and of itself a bad thing?  Some businesses will post a cute little sign that says something along the lines of "If you're pleased with our service, tell your friends; if you're not pleased, tell us so we can make it right."  Of course, this also implies that they don't want you spreading negative comments that will hurt their business, but there's also the sense that sometimes a bit of communication may be all that's needed to turn a no-stars review to a five-star.  In other words, give the business a second chance.

But that's a one-on-one situation, and that's not what a book review is all about.  There's no suggestion that if you didn't like the book, the author will rewrite it to your satisfaction.  You're not, after all, buying a personal service but a finished product that someone has put out there for you to buy, or not. 

Points #1 and #2 pretty much contradicted each other, in the sense that #1 makes a solicitation for feedback good or ill, but #2 rejects a negative comment made publicly but does not offer any kind of satisfaction in exchange for no negative comment.  If that makes sense.


3.  Books have always been sent out for review.  In the old days of print only, copies were sent to the major review magazines like Romantic Times and Affaire de Coeur.  Each of them had their stable of reviewers, and even though there were always rumors that buying advertising would help an author's review be more positive, there was at least a sense that the reviewers themselves had some integrity when it came to their opinions.

Again, however, I have to add a bit of personal observation.  I was absolutely flabbergasted when Firefly received Affaire de Coeur's award for Best Historical Romance of 1988.  (I should scan the certificate and post it here.  Maybe tomorrow?)  I had heard rumors that sometimes those awards were withdrawn if the winning author couldn't attend the banquet, but my award came with a letter that said I didn't need to attend.  I had an out, however, because my daughter was competing in the Arizona State Spelling Bee that same week-end.  (She hates to be reminded of it, so I'm taking yet another opportunity to embarrass her.)  But I had never taken out an ad in Affaire de Coeur and as far as I knew, neither had the publisher, Pageant Books.  Firefly won on its own merits, as far as I knew.  I certainly had nothing to do with it.

Several years later, when Moonsilver was published by Pocket Books, it was sent to Affaire de Coeur for review.  Again, this was at the direction of Pocket Books, not me.  It was given a very, very nice review, which I have a copy of somewhere or other.  And what I'm going to write next is something virtually no one by myself knows.

That glowing review in Affaire de Coeur was not unbiased.  Although I had nothing to do with choosing the reviewer and knew nothing about it at all until my editor sent me a copy after the review was written and the magazine published, I was disappointed not to have had an unbiased reviewer say all those nice things about the story -- and about me.  But the reviewer, Ann Douglas, was also a writer, and my local RWA chapter had selected her as one of the winners of our inaugural "Hot Prospects" writing contest just a couple years before.  Her book, a Regency romance, was ultimately published along with one or two more, before Ann passed away.  I had the delightful task of calling her to inform her she had won, and I also got to meet her at that year's RWA national conference.    Is it possible she really liked Moonsilver as much as she let on in her review?  Well, I'd like to think so.  But I'll never know for sure.

Considering that points #1 and #2 had pretty much cancelled each other out, #3 was the deciding factor.  I was firmly in the "no solicitation whatsoever" camp.  And that means authors should not even send advance copies to review sites.  Publishers, yes, and I say that even knowing that gives the traditional publishers (whom I hate with a passion) an advantage.  But publishers, publicists, and even agents act as buffers between the reviewer and the author.  Reviews need to be honest and unbiased.

Reviewers need to be unbiased.  Certainly that's not going to be an absolute, and in this age of social media, many reviewers are going to have some personal acquaintance with many authors.  I've had some email exchanges with Jane Litte over on Dear Author, and some of our exchanges have even been a bit contentious!  Do I think that would make her biased either for or against me and my books?  I don't know.  I think she would be able to be reasonably honest, but how would readers perceive it?  And that's the big issue.

Readers no doubt believed Ann Douglas' review of Moonsilver was her honest and unbiased opinion.  I alone knew otherwise.  Honest, perhaps, but if anyone knew the full story behind it, how could anyone have believed there was absolutely no bias?  Who could have completely trusted that review?

Certainly I have no solicited reviews -- good or bad -- on the items I've put on Amazon or Smashwords.  I don't solicit reviews on the jewelry and other items I sell at art shows, so why should I do so with my books?  You buy it, or you don't, and if you want to tell your friends about it, that's fine. I hope you'll say something nice, but if you don't, well, you don't. 

You know you can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

I'm not a very good self-promoter.  I'm embarrassed often to even tell people I write, and it was okay for a long time because I actually didn't write.  The books that had been published were my own personal little triumphs, with or without best-seller status, with or without five-star reviews from anyone.  I was the socially-inept geek in high school who said she was writing a book, so seeing seven novels in print was my vindication to all the much more popular kids who acted as if they didn't know I even existed.  (Some of them did know, and that's a story for another sleepless night.)

I never expected to be a best-seller.  Oh, sure, there was the faint hope in the back of my mind, but realistically, no, I didn't see that in my future at any point.  I had written the books, I had been published.  My name was on the cover in raised foil letters.  I was vindicated.

But in some ways, I remained that geeky little nerd, because I had neither the hustler mentality nor the money to go along with it that was needed to promote my books.  When other authors were sending out fancy bookmarks and taking out ads in Romantic Times, I was working a full-time job to help pay the household bills.  I went to the RWA National Conference and a few small local conferences, but I couldn't afford to do any kind of tour.  I won't even tell you about some of the disastrous book-signings I was involved in; the memories are too painful even now.

I had thought, or perhaps just hoped, it would be different with digital publishing. 

It's not.

Oh, I'm slightly envious of those who have the time and the money and the chutzpah to self promote, but certainly not to the point of being vindictive.  Would I like to take out an ad on Dear Author or Smart Bitches Trashy Books or All About Romance?  Sure, if I could afford it.  But I can't.  Would I like to hear the cyber-squees of fans who see a post from me on a website and just have to let me know how much they loved my latest book?  Sure.  But it's not going to happen, and I'm okay with that.

What I'm not okay with are the authors whose digitally self-published books I've been watching on Amazon, authors who have gamed the system to promote their books not with paid ads but with phony reviews.  And the reason I'm not okay with it is because I have no defense against it.  No author with any integrity does. 

I had no idea when I selected five titles for my original little study two months ago that I would uncover the most discouraging thing I've seen since the form-letter rejection slip.  Over the past eight weeks, I expanded my sample of five titles to more than 30.  I watched the daily listings of free Kindle books at ereaderIQ.com and selected a mix of original digital works and republished print titles.  I did not leave any reviews -- that's in violation of Amazon's terms anyway -- and I will not list the titles, authors, or any identifying details, in part because I don't want to give them any free publicity.

Again, they are all historical romances, since that's my area of expertise.  They all have at least one five-star and one one-star review.  Most of the digital originals had way more five-star reviews than one-star, and far too many of the five-star reviewers had few or no other reviews on file.  Many of the negative reviews -- what few there were -- were challenged by either the author herself or other persons who I could only assume were the author in sock puppet mode or her friends.  I realized then that the authors were gaming the system in a way I couldn't. 

My only selling tool is my writing.  In my books, of course, but also this little blog and my posts on various discussion boards.  I believe in my writing as much as any author, but I know it's not perfect.  And even if it were without flaw, I know my story lines and my characters and my settings and time periods aren't going to appeal to every reader.  But I still think my writing is solid.  It was, after all, good enough to be published by New York publishers.  That counts for something, doesn't it?

But good writing isn't enough.  Coherent stories and likable characters aren't enough.  In fact, none of that is even important any more.  Now the only thing that matters is having the nerve to go out there and get people to brag about you.  Friends, relatives, strangers, it doesn't make any difference.  Buy them if you have to.  Set up fake Amazon accounts, if you have enough credit cards.  The reviewers don't have to be telling the truth, they just have to do it.  And then you have to have the nerve to deny anyone else a critical voice.  You have to be willing to do anything, absolutely anything, to push your product. 

I wrote in my follow-up to the first long post about suspect reviews that I had acquired the original five titles.  And as I wrote above, I've acquired a whole lot more.  By Amazon's guidelines for reviewing, I can't review my own work, nor can I review works that directly compete with me.  So I can't post my comments on Amazon, where readers might actually see them.

Nor will I post reviews here, since that was never my intention with this blog.  This was to be about my journey as a writer -- yes, it's all about me here! -- and not an examination of other writing.

But so much of the stuff is bad, really bad, and that's what's so discouraging.  The works that are adamantly defended by the authors (in violation of Amazon's Terms of Service, no less) and their friends are among the worst.  The writing is bad.  The characters are unlikable and inconsistent.  The plots have more holes than Swiss cheese.  (I couldn't think of an original simile that wasn't either obscene or too graphic, so you'll have to live with the cheesy one.)  Some of them are very badly formatted for the Kindle.  Spelling and grammar are atrocious; historical accuracy is virtually non-existent.  It's as if the ease of research with the Internet means it's no longer necessary.  No one cares.

(And if my lone reviewer ever finds her way to this blog, or anyone who has read her review finds this, the courier font was corrected as soon as it was discovered, which was before her review was posted, even though the "ugly" font didn't show up on any of the test runs before uploading.  And yes, ice cream was certainly available in Arizona in the 1880s.  Tombstone had an ice house in 1881 and even telephones!  Ice cream wasn't the error that I let stay in place; in fact that was one item I had verified for the 1988 print edition!)

Clearly, however, none of this matters.  All that matters, as it always has, is how many people can say something and make other people believe it.  The truth is no longer a provable fact; it's only an opinion, and the more people who hold that opinion, the more truthful a fact becomes.

I can't compete with that.  And I won't even try.  I may not sell 100,000 copies, or even 10,000, or even 1,000.  But however many I sell, they will be sold on the basis of what the books themselves are, not on the basis of any phony reviews I've had put on Amazon to pump up sales.

As a Chicago native and White Sox fan, I grew up with Chicago Daily News sports reporter Bill Furlong.  For years and years and years I've attributed this quote to him, and maybe I've got it wrong considering that I only saw it once and I was maybe 12 years old at the most at the time.  But I like to think Bill Furlong said it, and it's one of those little lines stuck with me and I've tried to live by:
'Tis better to be honest and hated than corrupt and despised
In this age of millionaires and billionaires as the moral standard, I guess it's understandable that writers will do anything to sell, anything short of producing a worthwhile product.  Maybe that's all they care about.  Maybe that's all that means anything to them.

And maybe, in true Dunning-Kruger fashion, these writers sincerely believe they have written well.  Perhaps they are simply incapable of seeing the flaws in their books, flaws that are the result of their own incompetence.  Or perhaps they are psychologically incapable of accepting criticism.  I don't know.  I don't know any of these people (and I really don't want to know any of them!); I have only read their books.  I know bad writing when I see it. 

I think my books and my writing and even my proofreading can successfully compete against them, but I don't have the shameless PR hussiness to compete with the sock puppet reviews and the nasty responses to negative reviews.  I won't even try.

The other little aphorism I learned in high school and which has stuck with me as determinedly as Bill Furlong's is from Spanish poet Antonio Machado:
El ojo que ves no es ojo porque tú lo veas; es ojo porque te ve.


  1. I haven't anything useful to add about reviews but I think I've spotted a typo. Shouldn't "el ojo porque te ve" (the eye because it sees you) be "es ojo porque te ve" (it's an eye because it sees you)?

  2. Muchas gracias, Laura. That's what I get for staying up until almost 2:00 a.m. Now corrected.