Value Your Writing

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I was watching a documentary about Christie’s Auction House the other day (more unexpected research!) when they took delivery of a beautiful Constable painting. Three specialists inspected the piece, oohing and aahing over the quick brush strokes and immensity of the sky. Then came the real deliberations… how much was it worth? As they debated over how many tens of millions it might fetch, the documentary maker asked them how they arrived at such a price (£20 million). The specialists said that the price was based on how much previous Constable paintings sold for and how much buyers would be prepared to pay. It was staggering to me – it wasn’t so much to do with the actual artwork itself, but how the art world chose to value it. The artist is long gone and even if he were alive today, could not profit from these kinds of sales. Banksy highlighted this issue when he shredded one of his paintings that was resold at auction.

The way society values things can often seem completely unrelated to an item’s true worth. It seems to be more about ownership and the prestige that it brings, rather than investing in an item because it means something to you. The documentary went on to boast about Christie’s new operations in China, where they were basically teaching the Chinese the value of Western art (i.e. teaching them how to spend their millions lusting after the same limited number of artworks deemed worthy). It all seemed so fake and contrived to keep money flowing within the same circles. As my mother would say, money for old rope! These auction houses aren’t actually creating anything or adding value – they are making their money off the backs of artists who died hundreds of years ago, many of them penniless. I often think of Van Gogh and how he struggled throughout his life. Ostracised by the art world at the time, his paintings speak to so many of us now because of their individuality and unique style.

Anyway, what has all this got to do with anything? Well, I’ve been stressing over book sales recently – wondering if I could be doing more and getting frustrated with myself because OBVIOUSLY I’m not doing enough. Which has ultimately led to me viewing my work purely in terms of rankings, sales and reviews. Which is awful – nobody should view their work in those terms, yet it is a reality you face when you’re trying to make a living out of writing.

The problem is, it’s an extremely narrow view of how much your book is worth. I lost touch with how much value I gained from writing my stories in the first place – how much writing helped me through the ups and downs of life. My books have been an escape and a sanctuary. A source of limitless frustration, yes, but also a source of pride. Becoming a writer has been a dream come true. It has given my life a whole new meaning and purpose. Not to mention the joy of being read! One of my favourite reviews (which I should really stick on my fridge in moments of doubt) was from a reader who thanked me for following my passion and living my purpose. Now, what could be worth more than that? You can’t put a price on that kind of connection.

We are all creators, communicating our unique experience of life. Value arbitrarily placed on something by the outside world doesn’t always necessarily mean ‘better’. It might just mean they can find a buyer for it, or that it will sell with minimal fuss. The same applies if you submit a manuscript to a publisher – if they don’t think your book is commercial enough, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t any good. Market forces are driven by very different motives. Was J.K. Rowling’s writing any less impressive when she was writing in a cafe, unemployed and unable to get published? Were Van Gogh’s paintings any less vibrant and expressive when the art world had turned their back on him? The work is it’s own reward, its value is inherent, regardless of stats or awards. Your writing has value, whether you are published or not, whether your last book was a hit or not. So never skimp on the quality of your work – make it the best it can be, for yourself. Don’t follow the markets or compromise your ideas. Never stop dreaming. The process of creation, fulfilling your artistic potential, telling your story – all of these things are beyond price tags.

We all want to be successful, but I’m not sure that allowing the world to tell you how much you’re worth is the meaning of success. An artist’s career will always have peaks and troughs, but that does not reflect your worth or predict your potential. We should value our talent and keep writing (and stop checking the sales reports!)

What Is A Review Worth?

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Out of every 100 copies of my book sold, approximately 2 people will leave a review. At least that’s what the statistics say, but empirical evidence shows that it is far less.  The fact is that most readers don’t see the connection between leaving a review and improving the book’s visibility on Amazon or Goodreads.  Yet, that is exactly what happens, every time someone writes a review. In fact, few people outside of the publishing industry are aware of the importance of reviews.  They are the lifeblood of authors and their books – a priceless promotional tool that is aimed purely at other readers. In this USA Today article by Elizabeth Weise, it claims that “Just going from zero review to one increases the rate at which online window-shoppers actually click the ‘buy’ button by 65%.”

The publishing industry has changed a lot.  It used to be that you went to your local bookshop, picked up a book you liked the look of and if you enjoyed it, you probably loaned it to a couple of friends.  There was no such thing as writing a review and word of mouth was the only way to spread the love.  Nowadays however, leaving travel reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor has become the norm and something businesses rely on heavily for publicity and future trade.  It’s no different for books and reviews can make a huge difference to future sales, especially for Indie Authors and publishers.

If your book garners 20-25 reviews, regardless of how many stars awarded, Amazon will highlight the novel under the ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought and You might also like’ section on a page.  If your book receives more than 50 reviews, Amazon will include the title in their newsletter and increase its visibility on the site with spotlights, which means it will reach more potential readers.

Obviously, reviews are paramount to your book’s future success.  But how do you encourage readers to write reviews without resorting to begging and losing any sense of dignity?!  Readers are under no obligation to leave a review and to be fair, they’ve already paid you the highest compliment of buying your book in the first place.  But I honestly believe that if readers knew how much of a difference their review could make in terms of an author’s ranking (not to mention potential revenue and ratings), I think they would be much more inclined to write one.  Especially if they are already a fan of the author’s work. When it comes to Amazon in particular, they make it extremely easy to leave a review with their ‘reminder’ email, asking you to rate the book.  These ratings are so important, because even when it comes to promoting your book with sites like Bookbub, they take your star rating into account.

So why do such a small percentage of readers write reviews? Even readers who contact me personally to say they enjoyed my book are reluctant to publish a review online, as oftentimes, they don’t know what they’re expected to say.  If you scroll through the reviews on Amazon on Goodreads, you will find that a lot of reviews are written by professional book bloggers and are written in a standard format that includes the blurb and an in-depth critique of the novel.  However, it is the reader’s choice what they decide to write – after all it is their opinion and they’re free to express it however they wish.

One reader told me that she didn’t like reviewing because it felt like being back at school and writing book reports, so I wonder if that’s what puts people off? It’s not like reviewing a lipstick, for example, because you don’t feel pressure to sound clever about it. Either you liked it or you didn’t! But the thing is, a review is simply to inform other readers – a brief review of your response to the book, saying why you liked the book (or didn’t like it), and maybe a similar book that it reminded you of.  I am currently reading a book that I would describe as an ‘Entertaining read, very likeable characters and an interesting plot.  Fans of Nick Hornby would like this book.‘  However, when I REALLY like a book, I go all out and write something more in depth.  It’s really up to the reader – if you’re really moved by a book, you want to shout from the rooftops about it.  But if it’s just okay or average, you might not bother. However, all ratings have value and even critical ones give a more balanced picture of readers’ responses.

The truth is that we all rely on reviews to some degree before hitting the ‘Buy’ button. Apparently, they drive 20% of overall sales.  I always check out the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon before buying a book, just to get a feel for it and even if there are negative reviews, it can sometimes influence my decision to buy.  As an example, I recently bought and read an AMAZING book that I absolutely loved (you can see me gush about it here) and that was after I saw a negative review saying that it was a story about a girl who talks to squirrels.  Talking squirrels you say?  Count me in!  Obviously, the story was about so much more than that and it’s clear the reviewer hadn’t read the entire book.  But the point is that what turned her off (a little quirkieness) completely turned me on.  So you see, all reviews have their own funny way of influencing future readers.  Ultimately, I think most people make up their mind using a combination of the blurb, the cover and reviews, but it definitely makes a book look more appealing if there are more reviews beside it.

So I would always encourage readers to use this platform to provide feedback on books that traditionally, might only be reviewed by book critics or worse, not at all. Short or long reviews, they all count!  Your review has a big impact on, not only the book’s future, but also the author’s career.  Writers and readers are so important to each other, as the author John Cheever once said:

“I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”