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. http://www.theawl.com/2012/06/book-reviewings-long-decline

[2] Sarah Fay. 2012. Book Reviews: A Tortured History.  The Atlantic online. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/book-reviews-a-tortured-history/256301/

[3] Jane Hu.

[4] Kim Lachance Shandrow.  April 10, 2015. Amazon Sues Alleged Sellers of Bogus 5-Star Product Reviews. Entrepreneur. http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/244950

Posted in Book promotion, Self-Publishing

Who will buy your book?

Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away. — Clarence Darrow

freeOh how I empathize with Clarence Darrow.  I cannot tell you how many books I’ve given away over the years, and these days of the hideous deluge of ‘free’ eBooks as promotional tools makes the problem even worse.  I often wonder how many of other writers’ relatives and friends actually buy their books.

My family, for example, largely feels that they are entitled to receive free copies of my books.  Well, with the most recent one, I decided that this wasn’t going to happen anymore.  Even my 91-year old mother didn’t get a copy (to be fair, I really didn’t really want her to read it – to much *sex*).  The only family member who actually received a hard copy (and that was after he downloaded and paid for an e-book) was my 25-year old son who was one of my final editors.  His keen eye and firm grasp of the English language made him an ideal beta reader for which I paid him.  The least I could do was to give him a copy of the book when he was home from London last weekend.

Should I give it away?
Should I give it away?

Then there are all those other copies we give away.  And this refers equally to my books (and your books) published by traditional publishers and the self-published ones.  These are the review copies.

There is little doubt that review copies are important, however, it can get out of hand.  In addition it seems to me these days that we need to be vigilant that a so-called reviewer does not feel obligated to be a bit less critical of a book that he or she has received gratis.  (Although some bloggers seem to think that a free book might end up as a more critical review.  Not sure why.)

When I wrote the piece When is a book review not a book review? I was thinking about these kinds of issues.  So, we need to consider carefully how many books we give away for free in the hope of acquiring a positive review.

And then there are those free book giveaways that started this rant.  There is little doubt that giving books away can help you to accrue new readers: sometimes, readers who would otherwise pass over your books might try them and like them, then return to buy future offerings.  So that seems like a good investment in marketing.  We need to be very mindful, however, that if as writers we don’t value our work, we can hardly expect others to value it either.  In fact, many readers are just as likely to troll the online bookstores seeking only free books, never returning to your work when the book is not free.  There is no actual hard data on either of these situations although you’ll find plenty of anecdotal stories extolling the virtues of giving away your work.

It would be my greatest wish that writers value their work.  I often wonder if writers who don’t value their work know in their hearts that it isn’t really that good.  There is a difference, however, between the writing a book specifically for yourself and to give away to others, and one you hope to sell.  This is the kind of book you may write simply hoping that a few others might benefit from it in one way or another.

It is quite a different matter to work hard on a piece of writing that you hope readers, unknown to you at this point, will buy, read and appreciate.  This is the kind of work that we have to stop giving away so freely.

So, fellow writers, keep a very careful count of how many copies of your work you give away and the return on that investment.  I’d love to know how it has worked for you.  Perhaps we can build a database of information.  There are marketing reasons to give your work away, but that needs to be balanced by a sense of value.  Tread carefully.

It might be worth remembering what Jules Renard once wrote:

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”

Now I think I’ll surf over to Amazon and set up a free book giveaway and see what happens!!


For a few different perspectives on this issue, here are some ideas from other sources:

Why Successful Authors Are Giving Their Books Away for Free  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simone-collins/why-successful-authors-ar_b_4115300.html

Why publishers should give away eBooks   http://www.roughtype.com/?p=1573

Posted in Backstory, Book launches, Book promotion

Making old manuscripts live again

An old manuscript gets a 21st century makeover.
An old manuscript gets a 21st century makeover.

Earlier this week Jennifer Alsever wrote a piece for CNN Money called “Guerrilla Marketing for Books.”  A cautionary tale for would-be authors, it tells the story of shrinking promotional budgets at traditional publishing houses and the lengths to which authors now must go to get their books to stand out from the ever-increasing numbers of both traditionally and self-published books.  The truth is, it has been ever thus – unless you are a big-name author.

One tactic mentioned in the story is of an author who commissioned a jewelry artist to make necklaces that are featured on her book’s cover as well as a new perfume based on one of her fictional characters. The amount of work and money involved for an author in doing this is staggering to consider.  This, however, reminded me of an event in the provenance of one of my recent ‘new’ books Confessions of a Failed Yuppie.  Stick with me for a few minutes!

If you’ve been reading Backstory for a few years or even months, you might have realized that the “backstory” I’m trying to tell is the anchor of my own experience in writing and publishing.  More than that, though, my objective is to explore the issues that are important to all of us who are more than passingly interested in reading – and writing.  Sometimes I rant about things that have annoyed me; sometimes I tell you a story of my experience.  Sometimes I tell you a real backstory to my writing: what inspired it, how it developed, what happened next.  This post is one of those true backstories.

In the early 1990’s I was on a rant about the Yuppie lifestyle.  So I decided to write a book about it – but rather than a non-fiction examination of the phenomenon, which would have been more akin to my writing experience at the time, I decided to write a novel – a satire of sorts.  I felt strongly, though, that I wanted it published no matter what, so I did what self-publishing authors did at that time, I sent it to a vanity publisher.  (For the working definition of a vanity publisher, you might want to surf back to last week’s post: The confusing world of 21st century publishing jargon: A glossary for writers).

In due course, a box full of hard-cover copies of Yuppie arrived on my doorstep.  What to do with them?  Those were the days before book promotion through online networking channels was de rigeur.  Indeed, there were no social media channels.  Just imagine such a world!  I decided that the first order of business would be to have a book launch.  But before the launch, I’d need some “merchandise.”

The old Yuppie cover and the mug: "I confess: I'm a failed yuppie" with a "reject" stamp!
The old Yuppie cover and the mug: “I confess: I’m a failed yuppie” with a “reject” stamp!

I created a design for the front of T-shirts and for mugs and had dozens of these pieces of paraphernalia created – all at my own expense, of course – and had them available on the day of the pary.  I also had a poster-sized blow-up of the cover of the book so that it could be the focal point of the party, next to the book-shaped cake that adorned the dining room table.  I then created a guest list and sent out invitations.

As parties go, the event was a great success.  We had door prizes of T-shirts that the guests obligingly sported and everyone went home with a signed copy of the book.

As the weeks went by, a number of the guests told me that they had enjoyed the book and when was I going to write another one?

The book, naturally enough, never sold.  Getting a self-published book reviewed in those days was not next to impossible, it was completely impossible.  And since there were no social networks available to promote it, short of taking out advertisements at great expense (I did that once) and going door-to-door with a pile of books (which didn’t sit well with my personality), the book would languish with thousands of others.  And so it did.  Until last year.

Writers have lots of finished and unfinished manuscripts hiding on their hard drives or taking up space in filing cabinets.  I know that most of us should toss most of it, but sometimes a manuscript draws us back and that’s how I felt about Yuppie.

So, I took out the hard-cover copy with its tattered edges and began to write rewrite the book.  It’s now a 21st century Yuppie story, and taking advantage of the digital advances, I decided to make it available once again.

Two decades in the making, Confessions of a Failed Yuppie lives again, and it starts with a definition of Yuppie:

 

“YUPPIE”: A Definition

Acronym for Young Urban Professional, usually occurring in a married pair (often male/female but not necessarily). Categorized as upper middle class or at least moving in that direction, ambitious, well-educated.  Characterized by excessive concerns about appearances.  Lightly narcissistic.  May have money or at least leverage.  But not necessarily. Normal habitat is the urban condo, sometimes the single-family dwelling of dubious heritage in a downtown area with a postage stamp for a yard, for which a bidding war took place prior to acquisition.  Yuppies with children often move to larger, more impressive dwellings.  Diet consists mainly of cocktails, organic kale and the latest gastronomic fad.  Would not be caught dead in a North-American-produced automobile brand.  Skis in winter, does hot yoga, plays squash (it’s making a come-back), and quietly brags all year round. Widely thought to have become extinct in the early 1990’s.  Not so much.

Maybe you’d like to read the rest.  Or not.