Don’t @ Me

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Reading reviews can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster. The warm and fuzzy feeling when someone has connected with your characters; understood what you were trying to do and are happy they bought a ticket to your show. The shock and anger when someone dismisses your work, casually labels it ‘boring’ or the real killer, ‘light reading’. Some authors choose not to read their reviews, which is completely understandable. But for a lot of us, this is the only kind of feedback we get and so we cross our fingers, keep one eye closed and dive in, hoping for the best.

Over time, you come to realise that your book is no longer your private property. It belongs to anyone who hands over their hard-earned cash to buy it and their experience of reading it is unique to them and something you have no control over. This knowledge has given me a certain amount of detachment from reviews. As someone once said, reviews are for the readers and that is as it should be. But does that mean that authors don’t read their reviews?

I remember when I published my first book, The Heirloom. I hoped that people would buy it, read it and with any luck, enjoy it. It took roughly two years to research, write and rewrite. As a newly, self-published author, it took a very long time to get off the ground. If someone had told me back then that people would not only read it, but contact me to say how much they enjoyed it, well, I would have felt like my dreams were coming true.

That’s why I think the recent discussion on Twitter, sparked by an author who said it was ‘rude’ to tag them, is confusing a lot of people. On a basic level, writers write because they want to share a story with the world. Now, they might not care what the world thinks about their story (I’m thinking of Sally Rooney who said in an interview that she doesn’t read reviews or let them hold any sway for her) and that is their right. Writing a book does not automatically lock you into a contract where you have to be open to everyone’s’ opinion on it.

However, this is social media. It’s where you come to interact with people and if you’re an author (especially a well-known author), people are going to @ you. I see that Sally Rooney no longer has a Twitter account, which is really the only way to go if you don’t want to be involved in the conversation. I also noticed that Gail Honeyman, author of one of my favourite books, has also been inactive on her account since 2017. Now, I don’t know the reason for this (she’s probably writing another amazing book!) but prior to that, she responded to everyone who tagged her.

Which makes me wonder about the other part of the tweet – how we are limited ‘professionally’. Does this mean that publishers preclude authors from engaging with reviewers? Perhaps that’s a valid point – but I’ve never heard of this being the case and it certainly isn’t for me. In fact, the more interaction the merrier. But I think saying ‘thank you’ or liking a tweet is hardly going to create any conflict of interest. Or is the author referring to negative reviews and the unwritten rule that authors should not engage in online spats about their books (are you listening John Boyne?!) Maybe that is what she meant – it is so difficult to have a nuanced conversation on Twitter.

But speaking of negative reviews – I think it’s safe to assume that most authors do not want to be tagged on those! I saw Erin Morgenstern had to ask people to refrain from tagging her in conversations about how they didn’t really enjoy her new book. That’s just …. shit, really. I don’t know why anyone would want to call an author’s attention to their negative opinion of their book. Where is that conversation going to go? Is the author supposed to apologise? Give up writing?? Of course not. I like to use Goodreads to write my reviews, but I’m always cringing that an author might see the negative ones. Yes, it’s my honest opinion, but I’m not going to draw their attention to it by tagging them.

The fact is, everyone is entitled to make their own boundaries and I respect that. Judging from the comments, most people don’t expect a response from the author anyhow, but it’s nice when it happens. I tag other authors when I’m in love with their book – you can bet your butt I tagged Gail Honeyman with a link to a gushing review on my blog and she said something along the lines of Yay! thanks and we all went home happy. But I have tagged one or two authors who haven’t responded, for whatever reason, and that’s cool too. Maybe we should just agree that it’s not rude to tag and it’s not rude to not reply. Simples.

However, I don’t like the idea of self-appointed spokespeople making sweeping generalisations on behalf of all authors everywhere. We have all taken different paths to this place and some of us see it as a validation of sorts when someone has taken the time to say, hey, nice work.

Neil Gaiman added his tuppence worth, giving credence to the belief that authors do not want to read their reviews. Again, it came off a little patronising and, as happens on Twitter, we all have knee-jerk reactions. Later, he qualified his comment with the following:

This just goes to show what I believe to be the crux of the issue. Most of us would struggle to get reviewed in the mainstream media. Our aim is to be read by regular readers, not critics. So yeah, of course we want to hear from those people! The day I have a bad review in the Times and someone tags me in it, maybe then I’ll understand the annoyance these writers feel. But you know what? Maybe I won’t, because I’ve had to grow a very thick skin over the years – something all those articles written by publishers and agents tell us we need to do if we want to be authors!

It sometimes feels like all of this advice for writers is being sent in the wrong direction. I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman, but he does not speak for all of us. Just like he didn’t speak for me when he said eBook piracy was ‘an incredibly good thing’. Illegal downloads are having a seriously adverse affect on authors trying to establish a career in the digital age, affecting sales and creating an environment where readers no longer see the value in paying for books. You cannot assume that everyone in this industry is on a level playing field. We are a diverse ecosystem and one of the most integral parts of it are book reviewers/book bloggers. Elizabeth Bear’s tweet was especially dismissive of bloggers who read/review/promote book reviews and naturally tag the author as an FYI.

Whatever the intention was (and I’m learning that your intention can be very much misconstrued on Twitter) it has again highlighted the amount of unpaid work bloggers do with little or no credit. Another tweet (oh my God, I’m spending so much time on Twitter!! Help!) from a book blogger laid out how much time it takes and commitment to keep a blog going and how a simple high five from an author can make it feel worthwhile. It strikes me that in a multi-million euro industry, the people who do all the work get the least reward. Authors receive tiny royalties, have to do their own marketing and bloggers work for the price of a free book.

Anyway, I don’t want to end on a bum note. No-one is forcing us to be here, we do it because we love it, but as in life, it only takes some small courtesies to make it better for everyone. Try to not to illegally download books – I know we’re all on tight budgets, but please borrow from a library instead and if you can, leave a review. Show book bloggers some appreciation by liking their reviews – yes they love books anyway but I can’t imagine having to read loads of books I didn’t choose and then promoting them and promoting other bloggers, all for free! And do tag authors – most of us are not guaranteed newspaper reviews or even book deals. So it’s a lovely boost when someone takes the time to review your book (just don’t share the negative ones with us – no good can come from it!)

As Rebecca Solnit said, a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. We need each other.

The Author Is Dead, Long Live The Reader

 

 

A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

Rebecca Solnit

 

A very strange thing is happening as my new book, The Story Collector, takes its first tentative steps into the world.¬† Advance review copies are winging their way to people and for the first time in my writing career, I feel content to let go.¬† With my first two books, I stood nervously by, watching my ‘babies’ like a helicopter mom, growling at anyone who deigned to pick on them, ready to steady them if they stumbled.¬† But not with this one.

My sister began her Masters in Comparative Literature in NUIG last year, which has been great for me because I’m learning all about critical theory without having to leave my house!¬† One day, over a pot of tea, she introduced me to an essay¬†‘La mort de l’auteur’ (The Death of the Author)¬†by the French literary critic and theorist, Roland Barthes.¬† Coz that’s our life now.¬† Ultimately, he claims that ‘The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author’.¬† I was furious as my sister told me that the reader is the new author!¬† ‘Do you know how long I’ve been writing this story?’ I said.¬† ‘This story was my idea, it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for me!!’¬† I was on my high horse and refusing to come down.

But weirdly enough, I’ve recently arrived at a similar conclusion myself.¬† In order for readers to interpret a text, they need to divorce it from the author.¬† To be honest, I think most authors would be happy enough with that.¬† We write stories to say the things we cannot – yet nowadays authors are expected to talk endlessly about their own work, which can spoil the magic and influence the meaning of the text.¬† Barthes argues against this kind of contamination and asserts that books are¬†“eternally written here and now”, with each re-reading.¬† I love that idea, because there is a kind of immortality in that.¬† Stories live on forever because they are constantly being reborn and rewritten by each new reader, long after the author has shuffled off to her great reward.¬† It’s up to the readers to assign meaning to the text now; my intentions are no longer important.¬† We produce the work, but the ultimate destiny of the work is in the hands of the reader.¬† It is now left open to their interpretation and I think that’s why it’s so important for authors to take a step back.

Maybe it’s having a (brilliant!) publisher this time around that means I don’t have that obsessive protectiveness I had over my first two books.¬† There are some major conflicts of interest when you are the author and the publisher.¬† Everything is taken personally because you are solely responsible for every aspect of writing, designing, producing and selling the book.¬† Or maybe it’s the length of time that has passed since I typed ‘The End’ and actually seeing the book in print that has given me a sense of distance.¬† Yet again, it could be the years of picking up good and bad reviews for my work and understanding that while some people might love what you write, others will hate it.¬† And that’s okay.¬† That’s normal.¬† I think I have finally realised that reviews don’t determine whether or not you are a good writer.¬† Chances are, those people aren’t even taking you or your writing career into consideration – they’re merely logging their own response to a work for (and this is the important bit) the benefit of other readers.¬† I’ve also taken to singing Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ when I get a one star review, which has been surprisingly helpful ūüôā

Either way, it’s a good thing, because The Story Collector belongs to the readers now.¬† Like our folklore and ancient stories, we don’t need to know who wrote them to appreciate them.¬† So the best thing I can do now is let this story out into the wild to make its own way – wave it off from the doorway, then turn back inside and seek out a new one.

Pre-Order your copy on Amazon now ~ The Story Collector

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THE DEFINITIVE SELF-PUBLISHING CHECKLIST ~ For People Who Aren’t Very Organised and are absolute beginners.

The definitive

You just hit publish, right? ¬†That’s what all the articles say. ¬†Any idiot can upload a book in minutes. ¬†And yes, I suppose any idiot can, but it takes a very informed, dedicated, professional¬†and talented individual to upload a book that people will want to read. ¬†A recent Facebook post from a first-time author seeking advice made me realise how long I’ve been doing this self-publishing thang and how I’ve kind of taken for granted that everyone has¬†‘the knowledge’. ¬†There are so many blogs, articles and how-to books on the subject, and yet authors can still struggle with the basics. ¬†The first author asked what she should be doing in the run up to her launch and another suggested that while there is a lot of information out there, it’s almost overwhelming. ¬†Where do you start? ¬†Where does it end?? ¬†So in an effort to share said knowledge, I’m writing a blog with an impossibly long title, which will (hopefully) be filled with all of the essentials, while trying not to bombard¬†you with too much scary stuff.

  1. Make a publishing schedule. ¬†promo-calendar¬† ¬† ¬† So you’ve typed those blessed words, THE END and you’re mooching around the Kindle Direct Publishing website wondering where the publish button is. ¬†Whoa there Tex, what’s your rush? ¬†You’ve skipped the bajillion steps between finishing your manuscript and sending it out into the world for people to read. ¬†So roll back your wagon and follow step number one – create a publishing schedule. ¬†In my opinion, you’re going to need at least six months to get everything done before your book goes live, so first things first, DO NOT RUSH. ¬†This is not a race, unless you’re hoping to win a medal for the person least prepared to publish a book.

2. Polish your prose. ¬†Has your book been edited? ¬†Proof-read? ¬†Again, don’t rush out there and get the first editor you find on Fiverr. ¬†There are so many ‘professionals’ who are feeding off the self-publishing industry, so you want to find someone who has a proven track record. ¬†A great place to find all of the professionals you’re going to need is Indie Author Alliance Services Directory. ¬†At the very least, get some Beta readers whose opinions you trust and respect. ¬†It nigh on¬†impossible to view your work objectively, so you need other eyes to see the things you cannot.

3. Hire a designer. ¬†Again, you’re going to need time to find a good cover designer and depending on their work load, you might have to wait a few months in a queue, so best to get in early. ¬†Again, look for examples of their work. ¬†Don’t worry if you are on a budget, there are plenty of websites that offer pre-made covers that are really good value and you simply add your name and title. ¬†The Creative Penn is a great resource for self-publishing and offers a handy list of tried and tested book cover designers. ¬†This is just one list however, there are lots of designers out there and a great way of finding them is finding covers you like and checking out who designed them.

4. The Blurb. ¬†You know, there are two sides to every cover and the back can be just as important as the front. ¬†The blurb. ¬†This is often the last thing authors think about and run up a quick summary in a ‘that’ll do’ kind of approach. ¬†Do not do this. ¬†Think about it, when you’re buying a book online or in a store, the cover is the first thing to catch your eye, but the very next thing you do is turn it over to see what it’s about. ¬†This is your moment to hook the reader. ¬†A few carefully-worded sentences are all that stands between them popping your book in their basket or placing it back on the shelf. ¬†Spend time studying blurbs in your genre, Google ‘blurb writing’ and keep refining what you’ve written until you’re satisfied with it. ¬†It’s not a summary and should be written in the same style as your novel. ¬†As author Susan Kaye Quinn explains on The Bestseller Experiement podcast, ‘a blurb is flash fiction, only you don’t end it‘. ¬†Write a killer blurb, or you’ll only have your shelf to blame (sorry!)

5. Formatting. ¬†Before you can upload your book to Amazon or Smashwords, you’re going to need to format it. ¬†You could pay someone to do this for you, but if I can manage it, I’m pretty sure you can to. ¬†Everything you need to know is in this post by Catherine Ryan Howard ¬†on Writing.ie. It’s pretty old, but I’ve yet to find a more user-friendly, dedicated formatting article that explains things as well as this.

The big question, should you publish a paperback version, is something you need to decide for yourself. ¬†Kindle Direct Publishing have made it easier than ever to do this, and as soon as you upload your eBook files, it asks you if you want to make a print version. ¬†In my opinion, you have nothing to lose but the time it takes to configure your cover (or pay your designer to do this). ¬†My print sales are relatively low, but it’s good to give your readers the option.

6. Pre-order. ¬†You know you can put your book on Amazon for pre-order, meaning that people can see your book before you launch (yay marketing!) and also order it ahead of time. ¬†This will give your sales a bump on launch day and it also means that you can start promoting your book earlier and creating a buzz, while you’re still doing all of the finishing touches behind the scenes. ¬†Confession: ¬†I did not do this. ¬†I was in too much of a rush. ¬†So is this a case of do as I say and not as I do? ¬†Well, yes I suppose it is, but only because I want you to benefit from my mistakes.

7. Reviews. ¬†Reviews (1)If you are a new author, you will most definitely need the help of book reviewers/bloggers to review your book. ¬†Now is the time to start approaching them, as the most popular ones work to very tight schedules that can be booked months in advance. ¬†You’re probably starting to see that six months isn’t very long at all! ¬†But how do you find book bloggers? ¬†Easy, just type #bookbloggers into Twitter or Facebook or any social media platform and follow the links from there. The Indie View also provide an extensive list of bloggers, so if you’re still baffled by blogs, start there.

My best advice is to treat this like your typical manuscript submission process – find bloggers that are interested in your genre and contact them according to their book review policies. ¬†You can get more information on how to approach book bloggers here.¬†¬†Advance Reader Copies (or ARC’s as they’re known in the business) are essential if you want to have some reviews on your book’s page when you launch, so as soon as you have completed your edits and finalised your cover, start sending these out. ¬†As a self-publisher, I only sent eBooks for review and used the preview file from my Kindle publishing page, so I could send reviewers a .mobi version.

There is also the hugely popular NetGalley¬†where readers can request your book for free. ¬†This is quite an expensive option and it’s difficult to say if you will hit your target audience here (as opposed to approaching reviewers personally), but if you can afford it, it’s definitely a powerful promotional tool.

8. Author platform. ¬†If you haven’t already created an online presence for yourself, now would be a good time to start. ¬†Yes, it can be time-consuming to set up and to maintain, but not only do you need a profile that people can connect with, you also need a profile so you can interact with other people. ¬†The best way to get people interested in you is if you show interest in them. ¬†Blogging is a great way to let people know who you are, what you’re interested in and what you’ve got coming up. ¬†‘But nobody cares!’ I hear you cry. ¬†Well, you can start driving traffic to your blog from your Twitter account and Facebook. ¬†While there is no way of calculating how much your online activity will result in increased sales, it’s definitely the best way to connect with readers and other people in the industry, which can lead to further opportunities for you and your writing. ¬†If you come from a marketing background, you’ll have heard of The Rule of 7, which basically means that a prospective customer needs to see ¬†your product at least 7 times before deciding to buy, so being active online can only help!

9. Price. ¬†I have never given my book away for free. ¬†Ever. ¬†It’s just not something I would endorse – you might get lots of downloads but chances are that most of those people might never even read your book. ¬†I also subscribe to the wacky notion that people deserve to get paid for their work. ¬†The prevailing wisdom is that ¬£2.99 is the average price for an eBook. ¬†It might not seem like very much, but you get to keep 70% of your royalties. ¬†It’s really up to you to decide what price you want to retail your novel at and the beauty of being a self-publisher means that you can change your pricing and experiment with what works best.

10. Promotion – As with your ARC’s, you need to start booking promo spots as far in advance as possible. ¬†Book bloggers host author interviews and guest posts and there are lots of online eZines where you can submit articles (with links to your new release). ¬†It’s also worth trying traditional media, like local newspapers or radio stations that might be interested in ¬†your story. ¬†As for advertising online – most ad sites require that your book has a minimum number of reviews, so you might have to wait a while for that, but you can run a Facebook ad or a Goodreads giveaway to create some hype around your launch. ¬†(Caveat: ¬†Goodreads giveaways are for print books only. ¬†They are going to introduce an eBook version, but it will not be free, unlike the paperback giveaway).

And now that you have your own platform, why not run a giveaway on your own blog? ¬†Use Rafflecopter, the gold standard for managing giveaways and I promise, it’s easy to set up and use. ¬†If your book is part of Kindle select (which is absolutely worth doing) meaning that your book is sold exclusively on Amazon, you can start preparing your kindle countdown deal which you will be able to run 3 months after you first publish. ¬†At that point, you can make your book available for 99p (while retaining your 70% royalty rate) and give ¬†your sales another boost.

So there you have it, 10 practical ways you can prepare for your book launch. ¬†HOWEVER, if you’re reading this and you’ve scheduled your launch for tomorrow and haven’t done any or all of these steps – fear not! ¬†You have two choices here: ¬†go ahead with your launch and try to do all of these steps in hindsight or just postpone it. ¬†Trust me, unless you’ve done a fantastic job of promoting the launch of ¬†your book online, no-one will even notice. ¬†I remember when I published my debut novel, I sat at home all day, staring at the screen and wondering when the sales figures would start increasing. ¬†Seriously! ¬†That’s what I did. ¬†And ¬†you know what? ¬†Nothing happened! ¬†I had a handful of sales, but to my disappointment, the Internet didn’t stop what it was doing and congratulate me on publishing my book. ¬†Do you have any idea how many books are self-published every day on Amazon? ¬†Someone self-publishes a book every 5 minutes! ¬†The best chance you can give your book is to follow all (or most!) of these preparations ahead of time.

Final piece of advice, try not to get sucked into the marketing vortex to such an extent that you delay starting your next book.  The best way to sell your first book is to write a second.

Best of luck! ¬†You’ve written a novel, now go publish it.

Reviews – The Sequel

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My previous post about reviews (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) was all about garnering reviews without annoying people or driving yourself crazy. However, I think this subject deserves a sequel, because asking for something and getting it are two entirely different things.  I recently received a 1 star review on Amazon which read like this:

THIS ITEM HAS NOT ARRIVED ON MY KINDLE, ALTHOUGH THE MONEY HAS BEEN TAKEN FROM MY ACCOUNT !!!!

*deep breaths* ¬†Now I know that I have been a part of the movement which encourages readers to leave reviews, so I guess this was some kind of Amazonian karma, but I was kind of hoping for reader reviews. ¬†Seeing my ratings go down because of a technical glitch in the downloading process suddenly brought it home to me; my book is now a product. It’s no longer the organic, living, breathing story that I painstakingly translated to paper (well, screen). It has now become something that shoppers add to their cart, along with a whole pile of other miscellaneous items. ¬†All you have to do is look at the person’s buying history to see that your book entered their lives somewhere between an eyeshadow palette and an inflatable swimming pool. So when they leave a review, they are reviewing a product, just like any other. And lets face it, most people are motivated to leave a review when they’re either really happy with something or really unhappy. All of those in-betweeners tend not to leave reviews at all.

Yet, while Amazon is a marketplace, Goodreads is a platform purely for readers, or as they put it themselves, ‘a free website for booklovers’. ¬†None of your brow wow palettes or Avery address labels here! ¬†Goodreads is a place for people to share their reading lists, so despite the constant battle to feed the hungry Amazon algorithms with more reviews, I really appreciate the ratings from Goodreads readers, which can offer a more balanced picture of how my books are being received. ¬†I have 125 ratings on GR which average out to 4 stars, so whenever I get a scathing review, I just remind myself of that and get on with my day.

In my last post I spoke about book bloggers who sometimes felt harassed by authors when it came to writing honest reviews of their books, especially if those reviews were negative. ¬†It would appear that some authors think it’s best practice to pester someone into reading their book and then argue with them if they didn’t like it. ¬†Not exactly the way to ingratiate yourself to the book blogging community! It’s an unusual relationship because, for the most part, authors don’t usually get the opportunity to engage with their readers and to be honest, this is probably a good thing. Unless someone is contacting you specifically to say how much they enjoyed your book (which is a magical moment and one to be savoured) the golden rule is simple; DO NOT ENGAGE! However, when you send your book to a blogger for review, there is a teeny tiny connection there and for some, it’s enough to make some authors disregard the golden rule.

But the fact is, not everyone (and by everyone I mean even people you’ve given a free book to) is going to love your book. Believe me, I know how it feels to have spent years working on something, only to have some randomer trash it as though it were nothing. All of that effort, slaving over every sentence, every decision… it hurts. But this is all a part of it. The life cycle of a book includes having readers that just won’t get it. And as an author, you have got to make peace with that. ¬†*keep breathing!* ¬†What does strike me as odd though is the amount of authors who see 3 Stars as a negative. ¬†To me, 3 Stars says average, which, in the grand scheme of things is quite good actually. ¬†On Goodreads, 3 Stars means ‘I liked it’. ¬†Great! ¬†I’m happy with that. ¬†To be honest, as a reader myself, I give a lot of books 3 Stars and only edge up to 4 when I’ve been really moved by the story. ¬†5 is for pure perfection.

In the week that saw book blogger bashing become an online sport, lots of people made some interesting contributions to the whole discussion around reviews. ¬†I read one comment that suggested authors need to ‘disengage’ with their book once it has been published and let readers have their opinions. Another said that if you can’t handle negative reviews, don’t publish your book and just give it to your mother to read! ¬†It is difficult to switch off from your work and at times, it’s hard not to take the criticism personally. ¬†But they’re right – if you’re trying to avoid criticism, you’re in the wrong profession. ¬†Using your voice, however you choose to express it, is more important than making people like you. ¬†They might not like your book, but that’s not your business. ¬†Your business is to write.

Conversely, you cannot remain blind to constructive criticism that can actually help you grow and improve as a writer. ¬†There is a MAJOR difference between critical reviews and just plain bad reviews. And as an author, you can feel it. When someone reviews your book criticially, pointing out weaker sections or parts that didn’t work, you find yourself reluctantly nodding along and thinking, ‘Yep, I need to work on that.’ When you read a bad review, you just feel like shit. Reviews like, ‘This book is crap’, I mean really, where do you go with that? Nowhere – fast! I’m learning to let these kinds of review go. There’s a radio DJ here in Ireland called Larry Gogan who has been running the ‘Just a minute quiz’ for millennia. When a contestant is diabolically useless at the quiz and gets all the answers wrong, he has a catchphrase. ‘They didn’t suit you,‘ he’d say, with all of the kindness of an understanding grandparent. That’s how I try to see bad reviews now – my book didn’t suit them, and they didn’t suit my book.

When you publish your books, they go on a journey and will find their way to the right audience as well as a few wrong ones along the way. ¬†I’ve been able to form this new outlook because of all of the positive reviews I’ve had from readers who have really connected with the characters and enjoyed the story. So I know my books suits a lot of people, but they don’t suit everybody and that’s got to be okay. As authors, the most important lesson we were never taught at author school was that, once you hit publish, your book becomes a product that people either like or don’t like. Like a vaccuum cleaner on amazon, people will have opinions about it that have nothing to do with you – it’s their experience of the book. ¬†And you have to respect their right to express their opinions, whether you agree with them or not.

Joanne Harris, my go-to author on all things… authory, created the hashtag #TenThingsAboutReviews. ¬†If you’re looking for ways to deal with bad reviews, I would strongly recommend you check it out. ¬†And remember, negative reviews aren’t always bad. ¬†For one thing, it means your book is selling and sometimes, it can offer you a valuable insight into what readers want more of (or less of, as the case may be!). ¬†Use it as market research for your next book, but if there is nothing to take away from a review, leave it behind.

*Update* ¬†Since writing this post, I’ve come to another conclusion: Reviews are for readers, not for authors. ¬†Perhaps what people write in their reviews is simply none of our business because it’s not directed at us. ¬†Think about it, when you review a book, you consider your audience to be other readers – potential readers of the book and those that have already read it. ¬†I wouldn’t imagine for one second that the author is ever going to read my opinion of their book, or that it would matter to them one jot. ¬†So maybe we shouldn’t be reading them at all! ¬†I know there are authors who don’t, so at least this gives us an alternative to ‘start growing elephant skin and stop moaning!’ ¬†

You can check out my books (and my lovely reviews!) on Amazon

Reviews: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

book_nerd1Remember when you first started writing your book and your overriding thought was, ‘I just hope somebody reads it!’? ¬†All authors, whether self-published or traditionally published, are increasingly responsible for the promotion and marketing of their books (when I say increasingly, can the self-published authors at the back stop sniggering!). ¬†Time was when marketing departments did the dirty work for their authors and readers often found their next read by word of mouth. ¬†But things have changed drastically in the digital age and we’ve been¬†making up the rules as we go along. ¬†These days, the almighty review has become the holy grail for authors, fueled by Amazon’s marketplace mentality. ¬†While I do¬†encourage readers to leave a review (you can read my post about it here), it seems to me this whole review thing is getting a little out of control and needs a bit of rethink.

As I said, Amazon is essentially a marketplace, where you can find anything for sale from a hair dryer to a wonder woman outfit (I won’t tell you how I know that). ¬†Amazon uses an algorithm to categorise it’s products in order of ranking, which takes into account the price, keywords, sales and of course reviews. ¬†We’ve all seen those tweets stating that 50 reviews or more can kickstart some magical booster on Amazon, propelling your book into some undefined stratosphere. ¬†While I do believe that reviews help, I am starting to see that it is your sales in any given 24 hours which really defines where you are ranked on the list. ¬†However, in order to get sales, it helps to have a healthy amount of reviews. ¬†The words chicken and egg come to mind.

When you launch a new book, you can’t have it sitting there all naked, wearing nothing but a ‘Be the first to review this item’ sticker. ¬†Readers need to see that other readers have invested in your book and as a consequence, in you, the writer. ¬†As customers, we think to ourselves, ‘Is it any good? ¬†Who else bought it? ¬†What did they think?’ ¬†Even if we turn around and ignore everything the reviewer has said, we still like to see a bit of activity in the review section. ¬†The chances of a reader buying a book off Amazon with no reviews are almost non-existent. ¬†But how do you get reviews without readers? ¬†How do you get readers without reviews? ¬†You could bribe your friends and family, but that’s a little bit soul destroying and ultimately transparent. ¬†So, as an author who desperately needs reviews in order to increase visibility and sales, what can you do? ¬†If only there were a group of people out there who loved reading and reviewing so much, they started writing a blog about it and posting about the books they’ve enjoyed reading. ¬†Kind of like book-clubs, but a million times better! ¬†Well guess what, these people already exist. ¬†Cue the book bloggers!

There has been a lot of talk about book bloggers on social media recently, so I won’t rehash the entire discussion (check out #bloggersarerealreaders), but the main gist was that people were extremely misinformed about what book bloggers actually do. ¬†Some people seemed to be under the impression that bloggers get paid for their reviews. ¬†Well that made me laugh. ¬†Have they met authors? ¬†WE’RE BROKE! ¬†Where would we get the money to pay for reviews?! ¬†And apart from that, do they really think that authors who slave over a manuscript for a year or more, making it the best it can be, would tarnish their artistic integrity with a paid-for review? ¬†Yes, there are people out there who produce books purely as a business venture and yes there are some shady spots where you can buy reviews, but they are not book bloggers. ¬†Book bloggers read, review and promote books of their own free will. ¬†They are real readers who have found the perfect platform for their love of books, which means they get to interact with authors and other readers. ¬†And then they put great time and care into crafting an honest review. ¬†And then they share it on social media. ¬†And then other book bloggers share that. ¬†For free. ¬†For the love of books. ¬†Really! ¬†The whole reason authors tend to gush about bloggers is because they go out of their way to help you promote your book and ask for nothing in return.

However, on top of the misconceptions people have about book bloggers, it would appear that bloggers are also getting hassle from authors too. ¬†This is where I think the obsession with reviews has pushed some people into unacceptable behaviour. ¬†I recently read a post by Cat, a book blogger over at Happy Meerkat Reviews, which addressed the dark side of reviewing. ¬†I was genuinely shocked to hear that she had been bullied and harrassed by authors (she particularly cited indie authors). ¬†Even in the comments section, she had to plead with people to keep a civil tongue in their heads, such was her bad experience. ¬†I think all sides need a bit of a crash course in¬†what book bloggers do and what to expect (or not to expect) when requesting a review of your book. ¬†It’s a bit like asking someone to dance; basic rules of common courtesy apply.

  1. First off, if you are asking someone to read and review your book for free, the least you can do is supply them with a copy of your book. ¬†I mean, that’s just basic, right? ¬†But that doesn’t mean a book blogger is suddenly under ¬†your spell and working as a member of your promotional crack team! ¬†Anyone who thinks a free book somehow guarantees a review at all, never mind a positive one, obviously hasn’t done a giveaway before ūüėČ
  2. Book bloggers decide what they will and will not read.  Period!  Just like normal human beings, they have their own tastes in books and while the majority are pretty open to most genres, they often provide a helpful list on their REVIEW POLICY page of what they do and do not accept.  You should probably read that page.
  3. They do not guarantee a positive review.  However, some reviewers will go so far as to not publish the review if it is negative and may (potentially) harm your book launch.
  4. They may not reply to your request, for any number of reasons. ¬†That’s the point where you move on and politely ask someone else if they would like to dance/review your book, instead of harassing someone who isn’t interested. ¬†On several occasions I have had book bloggers agree to read my book, but then I never hear from them again. ¬†People change their minds. ¬†That’s life. ¬†You move on.
  5. You know what’s really nice when somebody asks you for a favour? ¬†If they use your actual name! ¬†I can’t believe the amount of book bloggers who receive requests addressed to Miss/Mrs/Madame. ¬†Come on people, if you want someone to show your book some love, show them a little respect first and at least find out who they are, the kind of books they like to read and just maybe don’t bully them. ¬†M’kay?

So there you have it. ¬†It’s a simple contract – you offer a free copy of your book to a reviewer and ¬†all they ask in return is to have the freedom to give your book an honest review. ¬† But hey, book bloggers aren’t the only reviewers out there, are they? ¬† Well, I did a little research of my own regarding reviews and asked the members of an online bookclub if they ever leave reviews on Amazon. ¬†As you would expect, the majority of replies were were an overwhelming no. ¬†Some said that it never occurred to them and it wasn’t something they had ever considered doing. ¬†Some said they would feel self-conscious writing a review. ¬†Some said that they had considered writing reviews, but on reading book blogger reviews (which tend to include plot summaries and in-depth analysis) they felt intimidated and as though their review wouldn’t be as good. ¬†They felt there was no point in contributing a short review of a few lines, when compared with the lengthier book blogger reviews. ¬†I felt really disappointed by that, because while we’ve come to rely on book blogger reviews in order to gain exposure, other readers can be put off by them and don’t feel ‘qualified’ to air their own opinions.

There was also a feeling that book bloggers are somehow part of the author’s promotional team and that it’s all a bit of a marketing scam (especially if the reviews are positive). ¬†I think they feel this applies equally to self-published and traditionally published authors. ¬†Publishing houses have always sent ARC’s (advance reader copies) to reviewers and with services like Netgalley, this is now open to all and sundry. ¬†This is standard practice and does not mean that the publishers are ‘buying’ reviews, but some people do see it that way. ¬†I think we really need to address these misconceptions and make people aware that, far from being an industry, writers and bloggers are just individuals with a mutual interest in promoting books.

But then I got the answer to my question that changed everything. ¬†One woman said that writing a review felt like having to do a book report at school and she said it would ruin her reading experience. ¬†I was so glad to hear that, because it reminded me of a very important point: readers do not owe us a review. ¬†They have already paid us the ultimate compliment of reading our book – which is the very outcome we wished to achieve at the start. ¬†It’s when we are expected to turn into authorpreneurs and take sole responsibility for promoting our books that we feel under pressure to ask for more. ¬†We’re desperate for reviews, because that’s what we have been told matters most. ¬†And maybe it does matter, but at what cost? ¬†As writers, we just want people to enjoy our words. ¬†I want people to get swept away in one of my stories and fall a little bit in love with the characters I’ve created. ¬†All of this algorithm, ranking and visibility stuff just sucks the joy out of the relationship between the writer and the reader. ¬†I think we need to take a Buddhist approach to reviews (disclaimer: I know next to nothing about Buddhism!) and just let go. ¬†Yes, by all means send your book out for review and and stick that bit in your back matter about how leaving a review would be lovely, but then just let go of the outcome. ¬†And get back to writing your next book!