Anyone who has been following me much at all knows that I frequently make reference to the old days of traditional print publication. I'm going to do that again in this post, so if you're sick and tired of that subject, you can skip this one. ;-)
Anyone who has been following me much at all also knows I am terrible at self-promotion. I love talking about writing, expressing my opinions about good and bad writing, chatting up weird crap that happens in my life whether related to writing or not, showing off some of my artsy fartsy crafting. But even here on my own little blog, I have significant difficulty promoting my own books. This is nothing new. I've always been reticent about tooting my own horn.
Part of the reason is that when I began writing with the intention of getting my work published, I was ridiculed and discouraged. For many, many years, I was told I had no chance to sell my work to a legitimate publisher and that I was foolish -- sometimes the operative word was "stupid" -- to try. Considering that I began writing adult fiction at about the age of eleven and didn't sell my first novel until I was 36, that was a lot of ridicule and discouragement. At one point, I was fired from a job because my boss didn't believe I was really writing a book and therefore I must be lying and untrustworthy.
Had there been any countering support or encouragement, the outcome might have been different, but there was very, very little. The overwhelming majority of reaction was negative, and especially after losing a job over it, I learned the very difficult lesson and kept my mouth shut.
Even after selling that first novel, I didn't always get positive reaction. In the early 1980s, historical romances were routinely dismissed as "bodice-rippers" or soft porn, and anything described as a romance was often just dismissed as "a Harlequin." So even though I had achieved publication, the nature of my work did not attract anything like acceptance of success.
Along with the routine dismissal of romance fiction as a genre, there was also an expectation that writers all made lots of money. Few non-writers understood that royalty rates for the newly published were often just four percent of the retail cover price. When Legacy of Honor was published in 1985, that meant I earned 16 cents for each copy sold at $3.95.
In a saturated market like romance, certain authors hit it big, but many others didn't. And it took a combination of many factors to reach the level of sales that allowed a writer to make a career at the craft. One had to be reasonably prolific; Janet Dailey made a name for herself by writing a new book every month. As an example of "nothing succeeds like success," Dailey was able to devote herself full-time to her career and leave everything else to her husband.
What few writers understood back in the heyday of romance publishing in the 1980s and 1990s was that publishing was a business and writing was an art. The overwhelming majority of the writers were women, and the overwhelming majority of them had no experience with or knowledge about the publishing business. Kathryn Falk's magazine Romantic Times and the organization Romance Writers of America, Inc, both founded in the early 1980s, promoted romance writing as a desirable and lucrative career for women, with Publication(sic) as the brass ring.
RT and RWA also promoted promotion. Authors were (strongly) encouraged to buy advertising in RT and accompany the ads with personal profiles or articles further promoting their latest titles. Again, success bred success, as those who either already had sufficient income to afford paid advertising or those who had achieved sufficient sales levels with previous books could buy additional advertising, get their books in front of the reading public, and sell more.
This was a huge departure from traditional publishing promotion, which had been handled by the publishers. Whether they took out ads in newspapers and magazines, sent their top listed authors on paid book tours, or booked them onto television shows -- Janet Dailey, for instance, appeared on The Phil Donohue Show in 1981 -- the publishers arranged for and in many cases paid for the promotion of their authors and their books.
What happened as a result of RT and RWA was that for romance writers in particular, these new venues for promotion allowed publishers to deftly slide some of the responsibility -- and cost -- for promotion onto the authors. Did this in turn prompt higher royalty rates? Of course not! What are you, crazy?
Indeed, publishers found more and more ways to cut royalties to romance writers. Bulk sales and direct-mail subscription clubs paying two percent or less became popular ways to add to publisher revenue; these options were less viable for other genres simply because science fiction, mystery, and other types of novels didn't have the market share that romance did.
Do you begin to see how this played out? Over a period of less than twenty years, much of the burden of promotion had shifted from the publisher to the romance writer while more and more of the profit had shifted from the writer to the publisher. It was a very convenient spiral, and many of the writers who couldn't afford to pay to play just quit the game or stayed in the lower ranks of midlist and never achieved stardom.
By the time digital self-publishing became a truly viable option for writers, the shift to self-promotion had been fully established in the romance writing community. To a slightly lesser extent, it had also become a feature in science fiction and fantasy, though through a different route. Fan conventions had long been a tradition in the science fiction and fantasy community of writers and readers, thus providing various venues for authors as well as publishers to market and promote directly to readers. Fan fiction was another tradition in sf/f writing and publishing, and as the two top-selling genres began crossing over into each other's turf -- primarily from romance taking on more and more sf/f elements -- the commercial aspects of romance publishing were becoming established for sf/f writers.
Whether the extent of self-promotion that became de rigeur for romance would ever have achieved the same status in sf/f is almost moot. Digital self-publishing forced it on every writer in every genre, with few exceptions.
Digital self-publishing -- let's call it DSP for convenience -- cut out the commercial publishers entirely. Writers no longer had to go through the arduous and often discouraging process of sending their manuscripts to publishers and agents who all too often sent the works back with form letter rejections. Writers now needed only to upload their MSWord document files and presto! they were published authors, often literally overnight. Instead of four percent or even eight percent royalties, these new DSP authors could brag about collecting 35% to 70% of the digital cover price.
That 16-cents-per-copy that I earned for Legacy of Honor as a $3.95 paperback in 1985 could become (roughly) 30-cents-per-copy for a 99-cent Kindle edition in 2013.
Of course DSP also means the writer has to provide all the services that used to be done by the publisher: editing, formatting, proofreading, cover art, and promotion.
Back in those old days of traditional print publication, the typical reader walked into a bookstore -- new or used doesn't matter -- or library and chose their preferred reading material from a fairly limited supply. Virtually all of the titles had gone through the same reasonably professional production process from manuscript to printed book, and the reader could be reasonably confident that whatever book she took from the shelf would be readable. It may not be great by whatever her personal standards might be, and it may not be to her personal taste, but it would be competently produced in terms of a commercial product.
And while the acquiring editors at any given publishing house might screw up and pass on the next best-seller, there was also a pretty good chance that few commercially viable manuscripts fell completely through the cracks. In other words, to put it simply, if the book was any good, it would find a publisher.
With DSP, virtually everything about publishing changed, though some things changed more than others.
One thing that changed was the profit motive for publishers. Traditional publishers knew enough about their markets that they chose products they firmly believed would sell and bring a reasonable return on the investment in editing, printing, and promotion. They had to pay for their staff and overhead, and they also had to show a profit to the stockholders. They couldn't afford to publish garbage, at least not on a routine basis.
DSP allowed writers to publish garbage and not answer to anyone at all.
DSP erased all the distinctions that used to protect readers from garbage.
While writers might be expected, even in the age of DSP, to have a working knowledge of how publishing used to work, most readers had no interest back then and still don't. Whether they are browsing the shelves in a big Barnes and Noble media store, digging through the offerings on the Friends of the Library two-for-a-dollar sale table, or scrolling through the Amazon Kindle listings in order low price to high, the readers still see "published" as "published." And all they really want to do is read good books.
Let me give you an example.
The link is to a novel titled Surrender Ma'Lady by one Willow Fae von Wicken. I will leave it to you whether you want to look at the text of the book itself, but be warned that the quality of the writing is, well, it's probably best described as below standard.
The story is described, per the listing on Amazon as:
Victoria Whittenberg was shipwrecked and bound by shackles, trapped in the clutches of Enrico Rodriguez, her captor, the man who she witnessed shoot her fiancé. She was left with little choice but to approach a lone rider who had witnessed her demise, and without a word, he rode away, leaving her to the mercy of killers.
Although a publisher is listed, Dymond Publishing appears to be a front for the author-as-publisher. That prospective readers are unaware of the realities of publishing is evidenced by the following, a review posted on Amazon for this book:
"Worst case of editing that I have ever seen."
Except that the author was (more than likely) the only "editor" the book ever saw.
And this is not a rare phenomenon. Over the past several years, there have been countless cases of writers whose books have been negatively reviewed who have complained that they can't afford an editor, and/or are waiting until they make enough sales that they can afford an editor, at which time they will re-publish the book and all the readers who slogged through the unedited version can now read it again, edited. As if they wished to.
Willow Fae von Wicken's book is perma-free at Amazon. (I don't know how that works, only that it does.) There are lots and lots of freebies in all genres, and many of them are DSP works that would never have seen print in the old days. That's what the publishing industry has evolved into. I'm not passing judgment here, though my loathing for traditional print publishers is no secret. DSP has given many people opportunities for writing careers that they might never have had in the old days.
However, DSP has thrown readers into an unexpected chaos, and this is why I have tried to champion readers and their rights ahead of writers and their rights, at least in the marketplace.
Promotion is now the name of the game, not publishing. Anyone can be published, but now it takes promotion to make a career.
Writing a book and publishing it via DSP costs pretty much nothing. Of course a writer can pay for professional editing and proofreading and cover art, but none of those expenditures are mandatory, and many unsophisticated writers -- those who turn out works of the quality of Surrender Ma'Lady or just slightly better -- consider such services unnecessary in terms of establishing their careers as authors. Promotion, however, is another thing entirely. Promotion that generates visibility for the work is essential, many writers believe, to garnering sales. Promotion becomes not only the motivating force behind everything the writer does, but also justification for anything she does.
This includes, but is certainly not limited to, traditional promotional tools such as paid ads, distributing free copies of the book for reviews, soliciting endorsements from established writers with recognized followings.
Digital Self Publishing, however, is part of the whole digital universe, and social media in all its forms has become the billboard -- in the original sense of the word -- for the self-publishing author. Promotion through social media, then, includes but is not limited to:
Spamming her book, its cover, its blurb everywhere she can think of. Every Facebook post, Instagram and Twitter several times a day. joining every discussion group on Goodreads whether it allows promotion or not. The irresistible urge to spam was what led to Amazon restricting promotional posts to certain forums, because readers and participants in the other forums got sick of the spam.
These paid-for "reviews" are, of course, violations of U.S. Federal Trade Commission regulations, but the feds aren't going to go after either the paid reviewers or the writers. The FTC might, however, crackdown on the commercial sites such as Amazon if the level of violation reaches too high. Regardless, the pressure to achieve visibility is enormous, and many writers will succumb to the temptation.
Sometimes the violation is less odious than buying the reviews. Having family and friends -- with "friends" encompassing fellow writers who agree to do "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" quid pro quo favorable reviews -- pose as strangers to leave favorable reviews is another way to gain visibility, even though it's just as much in violation of FTC regulations and certain sites' TOUs as the paid reviews.
And sometimes the desperate need for visibility prompts writers to set themselves up as arbiters of moral standards, declaring that only certain kinds of reviews should be allowed, that only certain kinds of readers should be allowed to review, that reviewers have an obligation to the writer rather than to their fellow readers.
These are the writers who have forgotten -- if they ever knew in the first place -- that reviews are for the readers, not for the writers. Reviews are the observations and comments and opinions of unbiased, independent readers to readers. Does the foremost book retailer, Amazon.com, violate this standard with their "Top Reviewer" status, often conferred on people who love every book sent to them because that's how they continue to get free books? Yeah, they do. Do readers know and understand and qualify or disqualify those reviews? I'm sure some do, but I'm also sure many don't.
I took a long vacation from the book community because I was sick and tired of the blatant gaming of the system. I felt I was losing my perspective not only as to what was good writing and what wasn't, but also as to what was legitimate criticism and what wasn't. Did the books of writers like Willow Fae von Wicken and Raani York, Sharon Desruisseaux and Victor Bertolaccini deserve the scathing reviews I left for them? Had I made my criticisms too personal, even though I knew nothing about the writers?
I still don't know for sure.
What I do know, however, is that this drive for visibility, and especially for favorable, 5-star visibility, may lie behind the sudden uptick in successful authors drifting onto the dark side of questionable behavior. Why else would a writer with over 9,000 followers on her Facebook page put out a plea that readers treat her books like her babies, with only the utmost kindness and consideration and no criticism? Why else would a writer with over 90,000 followers on her Facebook page urge those followers to manipulate one of her negative reviews so she didn't have to see it any more.
As author Jenny Trout has written about readers,
Sadly, Amazon sends out requests for reviews that the writer has no control over; that's the way Amazon operates, and the writer has to put up with the fallout if the reader gets ticked off. (And yes, writers also have to put up with the disgruntled readers who leave low rated reviews over issues the writer has no control over.) And yes, it's a reality that reviews generate visibility and all of us writers want visibility.
They already gave your book the time it took to read it. Why on earth should we be asking for more? And it feels as though the question devalues that reader who doesn’t leave a review. “You don’t count,” we’re saying. “You read the book, but you didn’t leave a review, so you’re not as appreciated as my other readers.”
But to what level do we need to stoop to get it? Urging random readers, who may know nothing about effective reviewing, to leave a comment like, "Great book, I loved it. You should read it"? Is that what happens when a writer lists her book for free and 4,000 people download it because it's free but only seventeen actually read it?
I probably wouldn't have given all of this much thought except for the fact that I was reading a DSP title the other day in which the author's front material included this:
Please remember to leave a review which greatly helps everyone.My thought was, well, I'm not sure it would help Tim Heath if I left a negative review. It might help other readers who don't want their time wasted on poorly written books. It certainly, however, would not help me to leave a negative review. As an author I am not allowed to leave negative reviews on Amazon, as it could be considered a conflict of interest. As an author I am allowed to leave positive reviews, because . . . well, because no one considers that it might be a tit-for-tat review, or the author might be a friend of mine. So the bottom line is, I'm not going to leave a review on Amazon under any circumstances.
(Heath, Tim. Cherry Picking . Tim Heath Books. Kindle Edition.)
But then we go back to the business of reviewers leaving reviews that are "helpful" to the author, meaning the review is critical but offers suggestions that will help the author improve the book in subsequent revisions or improve the next book. As I have argued time and again, it is never the reader's job to help the writer do anything. No reader should ever feel obligated to donate her time and expertise to help a writer make more money. (Many authors do not react kindly to "helpful" reviews anyway, so there is some risk involved in volunteering. Been there, done that.)
This is especially true, in my never humble opinion, if the reader is also another writer. Why should any professional writer, one who has taken the time and effort to learn her craft, be pressured into helping her competition? (Tim Heath is probably not my competition; I don't think we write the same type of novel or target the same audience, but who knows?)
The other side of that same coin is that many readers may not know enough to provide accurate advice. If a writer's writing skills are substandard and she is looking for readers to help her out, she probably doesn't know enough to tell the difference between good advice and bad advice.
Another comment Jenny Trout made resonated with me because I had just posted about this issue on my own Facebook timeline:
I can't not write. Even when I wasn't writing, I was writing. Even during that twenty years between Touchstone and The Looking-Glass Portrait, I was writing. I just wasn't finishing novels. But I can't not write. Would I like to be making more money at it? Sure! But the money isn't what makes me write.
So many writers will tell you that the reason they write is because they enjoy it. It’s too difficult a job to do if your heart isn’t in it. So, if what you need to enjoy it is reviews, and you’re not getting them and your heart is not in it, then maybe it’s time to rethink some priorities. But it’s your job to decide whether or not to continue. Don’t put that responsibility on readers.
As a writer, I understand exactly what Jenny Trout is writing about when she continues:
I know that it’s frustrating when you see people racking up fantastic review after fantastic review. I know you want your book to reach the widest possible audience and have two full pages of positive quotes to sell it.But what no one seems to be saying is, "What if those fantastic reviews are lies?"
It's one thing to risk alienating your readers by begging for a review; I think it's another thing entirely to risk everyone else's readers by encouraging, buying, or posting fake reviews. We know it has happened; I've posted enough analyses myself of the purchased reviews from fiverr.com. But what is a DSP writer to do?
I know you're tired of reading all my blathering, and yes, I guess I sort of did take your question of "What time is it?" as an excuse to tell you how to build a clock, but that's the way I am.
I hate self promotion. I'm very bad at it. I don't know how to do it. And I think the shenanigans of writers like the two who have gone off the rails this week and all the others before and after them have made it more and more difficult for the rest of us. They're applying pressure to us, the mid-listers and below, to jump into that game of racking up the reviews by fair means or foul.
I make it a practice not to read any reviews of my work. Even when someone else re-posts them, I avoid reading them. Reviews are for readers. Period. End of discussion.
I'm reasonably accessible online. If a reader has something they really think I need to know about something they've found in one of my books, such as an error of fact or an internal inconsistency or a TSTL character, I'm not that difficult to contact. Here on the blog, for instance. Or on Facebook. Or on Booklikes. The worst I'll probably do to a stalker/harasser/troll is block them, unless of course they get really threatening, in which case I'll go to the police.
But if you want to leave a scathing review, be my guest. I'll even help you.
Ten free Kindle copies of The Looking-Glass Portrait to the first ten people who request them. I'll know you've read to the end of this atrociously long screed, because this is the only place I'll mention it. I have the DRM-free mobi file to send via email, which you can then transfer to your Kindle or Kindle app.
Is a review required? No, of course not, and because I never look, I'll never know anyway.
And then we'll see what happens. Maybe nothing. But that's okay. I can't not write.