writing

Shooting for 5 stars ... or why I decided to leave indie book review groups

NOTE: EDITED 28 March to add note about "minimum viable product".

I admire indie authors and have absolutely nothing against indie publishing - I republished my backlist as an indie earlier this year and every story you've heard is true: about how much work it is, how subject to luck it is, how long-term the game can be.

In that game, reviews - especially Amazon reviews - are like gold. All kinds of speculation abounds about the number of reviews you need to be treated well by the algorithm. Regardless of the truth of that, reviews definitely matter. Books without reviews are very hard to sell. Some promotion services won't accept your book without a certain number of reviews, and with an average above a certain number of stars.

So, it should be entirely predictable what happens next. Indie authors work out how to most effectively get more reviews.

This isn't a sock puppet story. Amazon has rules about that, and they also have rules about review swapping. And so when you enter reviewing clubs (mostly on Facebook) you'll find all kinds of elaborate rule sets designed to ensure that reviews are NOT swapped and that all is above board with Amazon. The groups vary enormously in how they run - some are only for "free" books, some require you to purchase the book. Some do monthly assignments, others keep a rolling review-last-post list, others just have open posts. The thing is, however they run, the rule sets usually include a policy about what to do if you don't want to give a book 4- or 5- stars.

And here, I ran into my problem.

The first book I ever reviewed, I couldn't give it more than 2 stars. I don't even know where to begin with the editing it needed. The site asked me to contact the author, which I did, and they were gracious about the feedback. That group's policy was if you couldn't give at least 3-stars, they preferred you contact the author first. That, I can almost be ok with - because at 2-stars, the book probably has huge problems that an author probably needs help with, rather than a flaming through the Amazon star system. But then this month, on a new group where I had paid for the books I was reviewing, I posted two reviews, one 3-star, one 4-star. Then next thing, I had a message telling me that in future, I needed to contact the author if I wanted to give a 3-star review (equivalent to "It's Okay" on the star scale), and give them the choice of whether to accept it.

I'm sorry, what now?

Look, reviews are the author's bane. Bad reviews are hell. But I have never in my life expected that I had the right to reply, let alone to silence a reviewer who wanted to give me a less than stelllar review. And yet here, in this club, the expectation is that an author can choose not to accept a review under 4-stars, anything less that "I liked it". What happens with a rule like this? I would suggest that predictably, reviewers feel pressure not to rate under 4-stars. Because then, you have to have that uncomfortable conversation direct with the author, telling them that their book was only "okay" in your eyes and asking if they're ok with that opinion going live. I'm not fine with that. I also highly resent being told to do this when I PURCHASED THE BOOK. I subscribe to the philosophy that someone who's paid to read my book can say whatever they want. That's just the nature of the industry. 

I expressed my discomfort with the rule, and in the conversation with the (admittedly lovely) admin of the group, it was clear they didn't really understand why I had a problem. Not posting the review doesn't increase the author's ranking, I was told. Well, that's obvious, but it also skirts around the fact that their books rating doesn't decrease, either. This is the book reviewing equivalent of academic publishing's Achilles heel - no one publishes negative results, so the published record is skewed towards studies where a positive result was seen. So too then with book reviews, and I'm so frustrated with buying indie books stuffed full of 4- and 5-star reviews and finding they aren't that good. Not just not-my-taste not good but poorly written, wouldn't make it out of the slush pile not good. I never understood what was going on there. Now, I wonder if it's just group and club reviews pushing up ratings by deterring anyone who thinks different.*** The admin told me it was totally my choice to give a poor review, just not every author wanted to receive a 3-star review, that's why I had to contact them. Yeah, really missing the point!!

So I did the only thing I can do: I made my choice to leave.

I'm not going to be part of it, this culture of reviewing books of fellow indie authors with the punitive demon of a no-low-reviews sitting on my shoulder. It's against every value I have of fairness and justice and honesty. Reading these books takes a good deal of precious time, as does writing a considered and honest review. If I've paid to boot, then I'm damn well going to be honest about it, and not be held to a rule that allows an author to say, "no thanks, that review's no good for my ranking". But on Facebook, you can't be anonymous. Your picture is right there next to the reviews you've done. I felt I had no choice but so say I couldn't subscribe to the rule, and to bow out. I'm not handing out my reviewing time under those conditions.

So, I wish everyone luck. Indie authordom is a tough gig, but no one is really served by setting up an environment like this. It encourages inflated reviews, encourages skim reading, encourages reviews as a currency, rather than as a reflection of the book itself. Direct interaction between authors and reviewers is always fraught, and in this case, see nothing but conflict. So I choose not to engage. I feel the better for it.

 

***after publishing this blog, I came across the concept of minimum viable product, through Peter M Ball's newsletter. Basically, this is the idea that you put out a minimum standard of product to draw people in, because raising it to the quality of a fully finished and refined product exceeds your capabilities/resources/patience. A lot of indie publishing, I suspect, falls into this category, either deliberately or through lack of knowledge for how to actually edit a story to a high standard. I've even had an author tell me directly that they'd had a lot of trouble with a book that just didn't quite work, but they'd decided to push it out there anyway just to see how it might do. Now, not every indie is doing that. But the fact that some (many?) are doing this makes the concept of not allowing low reviews even less palatable.

What other people think

On dealing with online judgement, with some great words to remember

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Any writer will tell you that dealing with reviews is a tough gig. Issac Asimov is supposed to have said that writers "fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review."

We all have different techniques for dealing with it. Mine is to not read reviews (works most of the time, but sometimes I must to say, maintain this website). One other writer I know takes a pragmatic approach and says that as long as someone's paid for her book, they can write whatever they like.

But there's no avoiding the fact that the online nature of the world now means that what other people think of you -- your books, or just you -- can be right in your face. If you write romance, or you self-publish, that can be particularly sharp, because so many people think that it's fine to take a dig at you (including big respectable institutions, like this in The Guardian and this in The New York Times) and make fun of what you do because, I don't know, they feel morally superior or something like that. People who are in privileged positions will do it, even though it's really beneath them to be so petty. They do it anyway. I've had it happen to me so many times I've lost count.

When you're starting out on a new venture (as I am right now - can't share details yet, but I will) you're particularly vulnerable to that. And so I wanted to share with you this from the Barefoot Investor that landed in my inbox this week. As someone who's been through financial ruin due to predatory financial advice, I'm a keen follower of Scott Pape and his no BS independent stance, but please know that I don't have any association with him. This is just very timely and important to remember advice, I think. 

Truth is, most people worry about what other people say about them.

Yet here’s the rub: if you’re doing brave things — working hard, starting a business, kicking arse with the Barefoot Steps — chances are you’re going to make someone around you feel uncomfortable. And they may try to bring you down a peg or two … back to their level.

If you listen to them — or worry about what you think they’d think — it’ll eat away at your self-confidence. And that will keep you in jobs you don’t like, relationships you’ve outgrown, cars you can’t afford. Worse, it’ll waste the precious time you have on this planet.

What’s the answer?

Care with both hands. I can count the number of people I care about on two hands — chances are you can too. And when you think about it deeply (and I have), these are the only people who matter.

If you’re being a jerk, or hurting people, or behaving like a Kardashian — they’ll pull you up on it. And that’s the only time you need to worry about someone’s else’s opinion. For the rest, just talk to the hand.
— -- Scott Pape, Barefoot Investor Newsletter, 25 Sep 17

So, for all those doing brave things, carry on. If you see someone trying to be brave, lift them up. The world will be cruel enough. And don't be afraid to call out your friends when they behave like jerks to other people beneath them. Hard to do, but important.

The Travelling Epic - Geocaching meets writing

A geocache in its natural habitat ... A few years ago when hand-held GPS was kinda new, the ManBeast and I invested in a bright yellow Garmin. Not one with maps in it for the car, but a rugged looking outdoorsy thing. The reason? We wanted to try geocaching, a friendly sport where people hide caches, and post GPS coordinates online for other people to find them. As a keen fan of any buried treasure story, I found this awesome fun. The thrill of the chase! The highs and lows of finding (or not) the cache! And the fun times avoiding detection by muggles (non-geocachers). These days, of course, you can do it with a mobile phone.

Now, caches come in all sizes, but many are the size of an eclipse mint tin. Most caches contain simply a log-book and a few knick-knacks to swap in and out, like the stuff you get in Christmas bon-bons. But when it came to making our own caches, I had an idea for one with a difference. I called it The Travelling Epic and it began the tale of Gordo, the Magnificent. The idea was that each finder would add three sentences of Gordo's story, then move the cache to a new location and post the coordinates. The idea was that the story would grow and travel. I loved the idea. I still do.

Sadly, all has not gone smoothly for Gordo. Over my time in New Zealand, it appears the cache has disappeared. I went to the last posted coordinates last weekend to check for myself, and lo, he was not there. :( This happens. Caches get cleaned up (a cache I made called "Ripley's Cache", where finders had to solve clues based on Aliens to get the coordinates disappeared from its hiding spot) or succumb to the environment (another of my caches, "Shiver me Timbers!", which was a swap cache for foreign coins, disappeared in the 2011 flood).

However ... in the case of Gordo, it was fortunate that one of the earlier hiders sent me a type up of where the story had reached. More entries since this have been lost, but like any treasure, this is just part of the story. So, here, I give you the account of Gordo as I have it now. I'll try to get a new cache out there and circulating again. There's always more to the story :)


The Tale of Gordo, the Magnificent [a travelling geocache story]

6 February 2007 by WHITE HORSE (me) & KELVINATOR (the ManBeast)

Standing head and shoulders above other warriors, Gordo the Magnificent, blond and burly, was a king among men. On the third Sunday after Springfest, and after a long trek through the southern forest under stormy skies, he arrived at an unfamiliar precipice, yawning five strides across and deeper than what could be seen. Gordo cursed; there had been enough delays already on this errand and all ten men with him were getting edgy.

26 March 2007 by CEBIDAE

There was nothing that could be done about it tonight though, so Gordo had his men set up camp for the evening.

After a restless night contemplating his current predicament, Gordo was having breakfast in his tent when the watch reported that a dust trail was spotted on the horizon. As the camp was packed up for the trek to find a pass over the ravine, it became clear that a single rider was approaching them, fast.

11 June 2007 by WIZ & THE NAVIGATOR

He looked again, rubbing his eyes in disbelief. Never had he seen such an awesome horseman – or maybe this wasn’t a horseman at all…? Gordo woke up – realizing that the dream he had was so real – so vivid – so incredible amazing that he had trouble finding his path back into the real world – or was it …?

26 October 2007 by SUNSHINE TOLEDO

This dream had been haunting Gordo for many years as he was aware that there was no dry land around here. The forest was thick, lush and dripping with the fruits of recent rain, good soil and Spring weather. Why did he dream of deserts and dry dusty tracks across vast treeless plains?

16 November 2007 by CREW153

His mind went back to his childhood when the dreams first began. As a son of a farmer and brother to 3 older boys he had led an idyllic life of plenty in a land of prosperity. At the age of 18 this all changed.

18 August 2008 by K8’n’Co

Marauding hordes of barbarians were marching out of Dredendorf Land in the north, raping, pillaging and burning all in their path. The people of Nerengal fled before the ferocious invaders, but they would soon converge on the safe enclave of Sensursey in the Valley of Everog, the last stronghold of Gordo’s countrymen. All men of age had been summoned to defend Sensursey and as Gordo, his father and brothers stood at the fortified city walls, watching the rising dust of the approaching Dredendorflander onslaught, they knew that to defeat this juggernaut they would have to rely on their special powers.

6 August 2008 OMY130 X&S

Standing 10 abreast along the city walls, each man thought of loved ones which they may never see again. Gordo held his mighty sword high and conjured the thought of kindred spirits to make his blows fast and true…

17 December 2008 by the olly’s

all of a sudden the skies blackened, the winds roared, lightning blots blasted the earth and brought down trees around them and the heavens opened up, drenching Gordo and his men.


If you want to give geocaching a go, see: http://geocaching.com.au/.