Posted in Book marketing, Writing books

An Amazon Marketing Surprise? At least a surprise to authors

A friend of mine whose blog “A Writer of History” is a must-read for anyone attempting historical fiction (or even for other types of fiction for that matter), shared what she discovered when doing marketing research on Amazon recently. M.K. Tod and I happened to be having lunch a week ago when she related to me this interesting (shocking?) discovery. It seems that Amazon isn’t a level playing field, after all, for all writers and all publishers. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us, but, somehow, it does.

Read down and click on the last line to see the piece.

An Amazon discovery — A Writer of History

I suspect many of you will know this, but it was news to me. Two weeks ago, in a burst of marketing effort (actually planning), I looked at Amazon’s top sellers in women’s historical fiction. My purpose was to find comparables for a novel I plan to self publish, and from there to discover what […]

An Amazon discovery — A Writer of History
Posted in Ethics, Publishing, Self-Publishing

Barter, buy or blackmail: The ethics of book reviews

five star 2It matters not whether one of the “big” publishers puts out your book, whether your great-aunt with a penchant for publishing edits and distributes it for you from the trunk of her car, or you publish it electronically all by yourself, if you want people to read your book, you’ll probably want book reviews.

Book reviews, and the concomitant moaning that goes on in writers’ circles about reviewers, has a long and storied history. According to Jane Hu, the term book review first appeared in 1861, but the notion of the review or “criticism” (after all, those who write reviews of books or movies have traditionally been referred to as “critics”) goes back as far as 1661 in Paris.[1]

As Sarah Fay, writing in The Atlantic has said, throughout history book review writers, “seem to delight in publishing manifestos that outline the book review’s shortcomings and inadequacies.”[2] She went on to suggest that book reviews have been criticized as reeking of “mediocrity, elitism, nepotism or all three,” and further that they lack intelligence.  In the current Wild, Wild West world of digital publishing, it has never been truer.  And although as Hu says, “Most often, dissatisfaction with the state of book reviewing has come not from the readers who are the reviewers’ intended audience, but from writers who have felt their work mishandled, unjustly ignored, or cruelly misunderstood,”[3] this too has changed.  Discontent with the reviews is now springing from readers – like me.

Although traditional book reviewers – those who through history largely worked for magazines and newspapers – have been criticized for their overall general meanness, today’s book reviewers seem to have the opposite problem.  According to Amazon, the majority of book reviews are in the four-and-a-half to five out of five range.  How is it possible that so many books are truly worthy of five stars?  Well, they’re not.

Earlier this month, Amazon filed a law suit against four web sites that they believe are producing fraudulent book reviews.  According to a report in Entrepreneur, “The suit alleges that fabricated 4- and 5-star product appraisals dilute Amazon’s brand and negatively impact sellers on its site who don’t subvert the system by paying for fraudulent reviews.”[4]  It is this notion of the fraudulent (read: paid-for) book review that incenses me the most.five star 1

The companies in question just might be ones with whom you have dealt, but I hope not.  It seems that Amazon and its readership are no longer going to stand still and accept that so many books can possibly be as good as they appear to be. But the lack of integrity demonstrated by buying book reviews is only one of the loathsome ways that writers these days (self and traditionally published, mind you) are procuring deceitful reviews.

A writer recently related a story about being approached to do a review.  When the honest review was completed, the writer was informed in no uncertain terms, that anything less than a five-star report would result in one-star reports being posted for her books.  Clearly, no honest review could be forthcoming.

Then there are the writers who approach you with the offer to provide your book with a terrific review – in exchange for one for their books.  Honest?  I think not.

Who suffers in all of this wrong-minded marketing?  The readers.  I can hear writers out there now telling me that readers will, in the end make the decisions.  The problem with that line of thinking is that it smacks of a very utilitarian approach to ethics (i.e. the end justifies the means – in this case, very clearly, they are saying that lying up front is okay if they make a sale.  I beg to disagree), and it fails to recognize that readers will already have purchased god-awful books, spending hard-earned money on crap that could have been avoided if honesty had been forthcoming.

Although I recognize that great reviews are terrific for marketing books, why are so many people afraid of honest reviews?  The reason is probably related to the fact that most people don’t write as well as they think they do (if you haven’t been exposed to this truth, read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well immediately), aren’t interested in hearing negative criticism, or don’t care.  The latter care only that you buy their book and quality be damned.  Maybe readers aren’t going to take it anymore.  Bravo Amazon.

[1] Jane Hu. 2012.  A Short History Of Book Reviewing’s Long Decline. The Awl online.

[2] Sarah Fay. 2012. Book Reviews: A Tortured History.  The Atlantic online.

[3] Jane Hu.

[4] Kim Lachance Shandrow.  April 10, 2015. Amazon Sues Alleged Sellers of Bogus 5-Star Product Reviews. Entrepreneur.

Posted in Book publishers, Self-Publishing

Holding self-published writers to account for quality

At the same time as I was contemplating what to do with my book that has reverted to me from a [now-defunct] publisher, I was preparing for my spring semester of teaching at MSVU.

One of the courses I’m currently teaching is related to my original area of specialization in communication: namely health communication.  I’ve written a lot in that area – including some four or five books – and had included a magazine health feature writing assignment for the undergraduate students in the course (there are also some Masters-level students who will do an analysis and critique rather than write a piece).  Since it’s been some years since I personally did medical feature writing, I thought that I’d update my reference materials so that I might be able to offer to the students a selection of recommended resources.  To that end, I began my book search where I usually begin: Amazon.  To my surprise, the up-to-date offerings are slim.  Of course, that always makes me see a trade literature gap; which makes me consider how to fill that gap; which makes me wonder if I have the expertise to write such a book…but I digress.

As I made my way through the list in search of what might be a useful book, I came upon one titled Popular Health & Medical Writing for Magazines.  I thought, well, that sounds just like what the students might need, so I ordered a copy to review it.  I evidently was remiss in my usual vetting of online book offerings.

I usually “look inside” reviewing the title page, table of contents, copyright page to see who published it and author bio to check for credentials.  I failed in my due diligence.  Published by iUniverse, the book turns out to be one of many (and I do mean many) books that this author has self-published.  Now, I’d be the last one to dismiss a book simply because it was self-published – many very worthy books have been published by the authors themselves over the years and I have dabbled in it myself as I’ve revealed in earlier posts – but when I began to look closely at the credentials of this “popular science journalist”  (as per the book description and her web site which I have sadly subsequently perused), I was hard-pressed to find those credentials that would lead me to recommend her work.

Her other books include such things as How to write plays, monologues, or skits from life stories, social issues, current events: For all ages, How to start personal history and genealogy journalism businesses: Genealogy course templates…, Creating family newsletters and time capsules: How to publish multi-media genealogy periodicals or gift booklets, and Middle eastern honor killings in the USA (a novel, I believe), among many others.  In fact, at the top of the author’s web site it says that she has published 80 paperback books, and half way down the front page it says 65+.  Okay, I guess that could mean 80.  Hmm…

I have no quibble with writers having wide interests – I suffer from that myself, so can identify – but I think that there needs to be some area of expertise that can be identified if we look closely.  And for someone to be writing a book about how to write health and medical pieces for popular media – well, let’s just say that I expect to be able to see that they have a grasp both of medical science and of journalism.  That was not evident – and I’m very sad to report that the self-published book that I paid for is bewildering at best.

Why I didn’t look at the first chapter title and get a clue is beyond me: “Making medical language specialists; Turning medical transcribers into medical writers and editors.”  The idea that all you need to be a medical writer or editor is to have experience as a transcriptionist made me see red.  Then sandwiched between a chapter titled “What to emphasize in medical writing…” and “Writing the self-help article” is a chapter titled “Writing about DNA and gene hunters.”  This made me begin to question both the framework and the agenda of the book.  Then the last chapter in this medical writing primer puzzled me even more: “Medical writing about pets: Care, food, travel, adventures, history, genres…”  What the h***?

So, I decided to actually read the book.  If I thought that the framework didn’t make a lot of sense, the individual chapters had something of a flight of ideas as well.  Then when I came upon this particular piece of advice: “…medical writers can also sell (or represent) the product discussed in the research and writing…” I slammed the book shut, realizing that there was a serious dearth of ethical considerations among the pearls of wisdom.   This led me to consider the following question:  Should I write a review on Amazon to save other bona fide budding medical writers from buying this book?  Or should I just let it go?

I had a sense that I didn’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings.  Where did that thought come from?  If self-publishing is to be thought of as a legitimate route to authorship, then writers need to be held to the same standards and measured by the same yardsticks as those published via the more traditional routes.  In these days of “everyone is a writer” and “everyone is a publisher” we do need some quality controls and if writers themselves are not prepared to do this, then writing and publishing is doomed to mediocrity or worse.

Clearly, the self-publishing model as it stands now is in serious need of reconsideration.  The problem is that the really well-written and edited self-published books do hold their own against anything that a more traditional publisher can produce.  Sadly, there is no way to figure this out unless you do what I did – and you buy it.  By then it’s too late.

So, it’s back to the drawing board to find another book for my students.