Saturday, January 19, 2013

The words in delicate balance, part 2

When I wrote Part 1 of this rambling little (okay, not so little) essay, my point was to search for a possible balance point between on the one hand saying or doing whatever it takes to sell copies of the book and on the other hand being honest with myself and the rest of the world.  I used a friend's experience with Amway as one illustration, and a manuscript I'd judged in an RWA contest as another.  While writing about that manuscript, I remembered the judging of the Nora Roberts book, which hadn't been a planned part of that blog post.  But it worked right in.

However, that particular example led my thought process down another pathway as well, which is what I want to explore in Part 2.  It's a rather twisted, winding pathway, so bear with me.

As I explained in Part 1, I've never been able to read Nora Roberts's books since Promise Me Tomorrow left such a bad taste.  So I can't select one of my personal "favorites" of hers; there aren't any.  Instead, I'm going to use as an example one chosen almost at random from her listing on GoodReads:  Key of Light.

The book has between 23,000 and 30,000 ratings on GoodReads (depends on which stat you read).  The average rating is 4.10 stars.  That means a helluva lot of people loved it.

But it also means not everyone did.  Yes, there are even people who leave negative reviews.

And Nora Roberts goes on.  Her success does not seem to be impeded by negative reviews.

The starting point here is that no matter how wonderful your book -- or my book -- is and no matter how many fans it has and no matter what wonderful things they have to say about it, it's a pretty sure bet that someone somewhere out there isn't going to like it, but that alone doesn't mean the book -- or you as its author -- is a failure.

As I've discussed often enough before, the traditionally published book goes through various processes before it reaches the reader in final form.  Whether a print edition or digital, it will most likely have very few errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc., and it will be formatted according to the general standard.  Paragraphs will be evenly indented with consistent margins, the font will be readable, the pages will "disappear" as the reader becomes lost in the story.  When we were judging published books for RWA contests, product presentation wasn't even scored; it was taken for granted.

The self-publishing author has to take care of all that herself:  the proof-reading, the formatting, the cover art, everything, so that her product as it appears in the marketplace is much more analogous to the unpublished manuscript in an RWA contest than to the book printed by a traditional publisher.  In that sense, all aspects of the author-published book become fair game in a review.

When authors have no control over their cover art, when they entrust their novel to the copy editing department, when they have 24 hours to give a final check of their page proofs, they are rarely held to account for the occasional typo or the inaccurate portraits of the characters on the cover.  When authors have total and absolute control, then they have no reason not to be held totally and absolutely accountable.

Manuscripts laced with typographical errors would never have passed muster when I was submitting my first efforts to publishers in the early 1980s.  There were no self-correcting typewriters then, and certainly no personal computers with software capable of checking the spelling of every word.  Yet we were held responsible for the accuracy of our presentation of a manuscript before it went through the publishing process.  Why should self-publishing authors expect to do any less?

Poor presentation isn't the only aspect of a book that will bring criticism, though it is often the one that many defensive authors whine about the most.  They plead the expense of hiring a proofreader, or they claim they are incapable of catching all their own errors.  That's one element.  But there are also the problems readers encounter with narrative style, factual research, story continuity, character consistency.  These are elements common to all fiction, and all writers have to deal with them.  Some, of course, are more successful than others in terms of the raw quality of their writing.

The critic, also of course, brings her own experience level and her own personal preferences to the review process.  Some of her comments will be objective -- Was the grammar standard or was the language mutilated?  Did the  characters' names change without explanation?  That sort of thing -- but most will be subjective.  Did she like the story?  Did she find the characters' reactions to events appropriate or off the wall? 

In many cases, the reviewer's comments will be more an expression of how much she did or did not enjoy the reading and less an analysis of why she did or didn't enjoy.  And in most cases where the reader did enjoy the book, her comments are taken at face value by the author.  She may thank the reviewer or she may simply leave the comments stand.  The author rarely if ever questions the validity of a positive review.

If, of course, the favorable review comes from a reviewer who was compensated for an agreed-upon-beforehand favorable opinion, or comes from a friend or family member or sock puppet of the author herself, the review is not an unbiased expression of an independent reader and as such has no value to other readers at all.  Such reviews may serve to generate some sales for the author but they cannot, by their very nature, help her improve her writing.  These very biased reviews are expressions of a denial on the part of the author that anything needs improvement.

If neither the writing nor the story needed improvement, the book would sell on its own merits and would not need shill reviewers.  This was true before the rise of online reviewing, but it is even more true of digital self-publishing.  All the hype and promo in the world will not sell books that people don't want to read, regardless why they don't want to read them.

So let's look again at the negative reviews, the ones that point out that the book does need improvement, at least in the reviewer's opinion.  For the independent author, the one who doesn't have a traditional publishing house behind her, negative reviews should be valued above pearls.

And not just the negative reviews her own book receives.  The indie author should be seeking out the negative reviews of other indie books, then reading those books to try to learn -- free from the bias toward her own writing -- what readers and reviewers mean when they say they don't like a book.

We do not learn from our successes nearly as much as we learn from mistakes -- our own and other people's.

But how much can a writer learn from a negative review that gives few if any details?

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a memorable one..., September 21, 2012
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Earl of Scandal (London Lords) (Kindle Edition)
Not much too say about this book, except that it does not deserve more than 2 stars. It was not a memorable story and I do not think that I will be buying more books from this author.

I chose this review by going to the Amazon Kindle listings for historical romance, selecting the current freebies, and looking for those with a few reviews.  This was the first skimpy negative review I came to.  I'm not picking on the book, the reviewer, or the author; this just happened to be the one that turned up.

How is an author supposed to use this kind of review to improve her work?

Oh, wait, let's back up a second.  Reviews are for readers, not writers, and that's absolutely true.  For those of you who think I might be contradicting myself, I'm sorry to disappoint you.  Reviews sit out there in the public marketplace to help readers determine what they will buy/read and what they won't.  Reviews are for readers.

But only a fool believes writers never read reviews.  Indeed, writers should read reviews, and they should pay attention to them, and they should use reviews as one of the many tools in their tool box for becoming better writers.  Reviews are not, however, an open invitation to a dialogue between the writer and the readers.  The writer is never implicitly invited to that conversation.  The writer must, absolutely must, remain a fly on the wall.

It's not just a matter of ethics or etiquette.  Being the silent, unobtrusive fly on the wall allows the writer to listen in on all the conversations, to take all the comments back to her work space and incorporate those comments (in whatever way she chooses) into her next work.  And yes, that "next" work may, in this day of instant new editions, be a revision to an existing work.  Once the author enters the conversation, however, she becomes a party to all future conversations, and she will never be able to trust for 100 percent certain that what she's hearing is unbiased commentary.

So, okay, reviews are written and published for readers, but yes, writers can use the information contained in them.  While a review like the one above is perfectly useful for readers, it's totally useless for the writer.

That is not the fault of the reviewer.

Allow me to emphasize that again:  A short, negative review that does nothing to help the writer improve is not the fault of the reviewer.

That's because no reviewer has any obligation whatsoever to the writer except to give her honest opinion.  None.  N.O.N.E.

The reviewer has no obligation to justify her opinion, nor does she have any obligation to write her review well.  She doesn't have to spell the words correctly, use good grammar, or even make sense.  She's not asking anyone to pay her for her work, and she's only expressing her personal reaction to the book.

Nor does the reviewer have to have any qualifications for the"job," and if she does have any (regardless what they may be), she is not required to disclose them, either to other readers or to the author of the book she's reviewing.  That reviewer "Dorothea Dungelford Loves Books" could be a retired  art history professor, an insurance adjuster, a labor and delivery nurse, an auto mechanic, a flight attendant, a barista, a stay at home mom, anything.  Absolutely anything.  Both the reviewer and the author can only take her words for what they are.

All too often, a negative review is greeted with the classic response from the author (or her supporters or her fans or her sock puppet) "Yeah, well what books have you written?  Do you know how hard it is?"  And most reviewers haven't, in fact, written a book.  They don't know what's involved, and that includes not just the labor of putting all those words together, but also the production process.  The editing and revising, the proofreading and, in the case of digital publication, the artwork and formatting.

Sadly, the commercial book site that sells the most and has the most reviews is also the one that perpetuates the worst aspects of reviewing in terms of how reviews can help writers improve

Amazon does not allow authors to leave negative reviews of "competing" works.  The author whose books are not selling -- free give-aways don't count -- has almost no way to get the kind of professional feedback she may need from the place that sells the most digital books

Oh, of course she doesn't want it.  She wants praise and 5-stars and pats on the head and encouragement and affirmation.  We all do, if we're even remotely human.  Criticism is painful, no matter how sugar-coated it is.  It hurts to be told, by anyone, that your work isn't perfect and wonderful and wonderfully perfect and perfectly wonderful.  We can smile and laugh at our little mistakes (usually), but the big ones really wound.

There is also a culture being created -- in part thanks to Amazon's policies of not letting authors leave negative reviews -- that casts authors into an unfortunate and unnecessary adversarial role.  While many self-publishing authors are quick to dismiss negative reviews as coming from people who don't know what it's like to write a book, they are often just as quick to dismiss negative reviews that do come from people who do know what's it like to write a book as coming from jealous competitors out to slam the new kids on the block.

In other words, they don't want any criticism at all. 

Compounding this, of course, are those groups and websites that promote the idea that any and all criticism is mean and bullying, and that the meanest bullies are other authors.

A bazillion years ago, when I was a relatively new published author and relatively new member of Romance Writers of America, a mild controversy erupted over the "qualifications" for those who were going to judge in the national contest for unpublished writers, the Golden Heart.  Disgruntled contestants complained that at least some of their judges had little to no writing experience or other qualifications.  Not only did these contestants feel their scores were unfair because the judges weren't qualified, but they also believed they couldn't learn from the experience if the judges didn't know any more about writing a good romance novel than the writers whose work they were judging. 

Though most RWA members -- like most people today -- weren't willing to bring the issue to the attention of, well, anyone, I wasn't shy.  I wrote a horrendously long (surprise!) letter to the editor of the Romance Writer's Report, the organization's newsletter.  My letter was printed not only in its entirety but, contrary to then-current policy, anonymously.  And it sparked a discussion that continued for months, all because aspiring writers wanted -- wanted -- the opinions and comments and critiques from experienced, already-published writers.

To be sure, at that time the term "published" meant that the writer had met certain qualifications in an industry that has now changed to the point that those qualifications are moot.  Anyone can be "published."

But successful writers, those whose books are selling more than a dozen copies to friends and family or whose books are on the permanent Amazon freebie list, know that the only criticism that can help the writer improve is the criticism from people who know how to write.  And while there are some non-writer critics who can provide that, successful writers by definition know how to write.  What aspiring writer in her right mind would turn down the opportunity to get an evaluation from someone with more expertise than she herself has?

Allow me to dig into my personal way-back machine again.  In the mid 1980s, when the contemporary category romance market was booming, I tried my hand writing a couple of them.  The first, titled Magic and Roses, was never sent to any publishers.  I did share it with one of those aforementioned penpals, and she liked it very much.  So much, in fact, that she gave it to one of her  friends who had published several category romance novels.  She did not ask my permission first, and so I was rather stunned to receive the manuscript back covered with extremely harsh criticisms from someone I did not know.  I had not asked for this critique, and I never intended my friend to pass the manuscript around to others.

At the time, I had already sold one novel, so I had a pretty good trust in my basic writing skills, yet many of the comments written on the manuscript called those skills into question.  I quickly recognized that in some aspects -- grammar, word choice, punctuation -- this woman knew less than I did about writing.  I also discovered that some of her questions about the story had already been answered, and this suggested she had not read closely.  (For example, in a scene where the hero and heroine are talking in the garage at his home, my critic had written, "How did they get in the garage?  Is there a door or something?"  In fact, the door to the garage had been mentioned a page or so earlier, plus the hero had said something to the heroine about the car "...and reached into his pocket for the keys while he opened the door to the garage.") 

It would have been easy for me to dismiss all of her criticisms because she had been wrong on a lot of details.  And I won't deny that all her criticisms hurt, not least because they came with absolutely no warning.  But she was also right about a lot of things, elements of the story that as its creator I couldn't see as well as conventions of the contemporary romance market that I was not familiar with.  I determined, based on her comments as well as my own research into the market, that the book was not worth the substantial effort needed to rework it.

I could have relied on my friend's much more encouraging evaluation, but the bottom line was that I needed the truth.  As sincere as my friend was in liking the story, she didn't have the professional expertise to see its flaws.  As painful as the stranger's comments were, and as inaccurate as some of them were, her overall assessment was the more valuable one.

A few years later I wrote another short contemporary romance novel that came close to finding a home at Silhouette Books.  The editor liked the sample and the outline and and loved my writing, so she requested the completed manuscript.  Though she ultimately rejected because of what she perceived as a paranormal element, I felt I had improved vastly from the previous effort.  Needless to say, that hint of the paranormal would not be a problem in today's market, but in the late 1980s it was; maybe I should update this one and publish it?  Maybe?

But I'm getting even more sidetracked than usual, so let's come back to the original subject, which was a search for the balance between doing what's best and/or necessary to make sales of one's product and being honest even if it hurts my sales.

I wrote at the end of the previous part of this monster that my heroes have always been teachers.  I've always looked the critiquing process as a teaching/learning opportunity.  Much of what I post here is an effort, however feeble, to share some of what I've learned with other writers.

But I've also always been conscious of the overall image of the writer, and specifically the romance writer.  Now that there are so many romance novels -- as well as novels in other genres with important romance elements -- being digitally published by their authors, it's almost impossible not to be aware of the negative image many of those books and authors are constructing.  It's amazing to me that 20 years after the publication Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, all the defenses are still in place.  Not only is it politically incorrect to question the values in romance novels, but it is also politically incorrect for writers to criticize other writers because the quality of the writing, and that includes the content as well as the form, is less important than that the image and perception of women as a monolithic class be maintained. 

There is some really, really, really bad writing out there.  There are some writers who flat out refuse to accept criticism.  There are writers who will label any critic a bully rather than examine their writing in light of the criticism to see if there is any validity at all in it.  I personally find that far more offensive and far more detrimental to the image and reputation of romantic fiction and its writers than an honest review that says, "This book is horribly written and here's why."

I don't believe in astrology, but it does come in handy now and then.  Like now, for instance.  I'm a Libra, so finding that balance is supposed to be important to me.  Even after all these words, even after a lot of thinking and digging into the old records and dredging up some not always pleasant memories, I'm not sure I've found a balance that serves both needs equally.

There's another experience from many years ago that I could tell, but won't, because it's even more painful than the others.  I will only say that when I'm confronted with a choice between honesty that might hurt for a while but do some good in the long run and not hurting someone's feelings even though they could be hurt far more down the road a bit, it's a pretty good bet I'm going to choose the former.

My balance has tilted in favor of honesty.

As a sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News wrote many, many years ago, 'Tis better to be honest and hated than corrupt and despised.


  1. Thank you for speaking the truth. It would be wonderful if the folks who really need to understand this were capable of it.

    1. Thank you so very much, Pete. I know not everyone can or will take the same kind of action I do, and that's okay. We each have to do what we think is best for us in our personal situation. And I guess the consolation all of us can take from it is that those who really want to succeed will seek out the truth and make it their own. Those who don't, well....

      Peace and all good things to you, Pete.