Monday, September 1, 2014

What's Wrong with Tit for Tat?

I self-published my first novel this year, on Kindle in March and again for Print-on-Demand via CreateSpace in July. Like every indy author out there, I've been scrambling for reviews. Ten years ago, the number of reviewers online appears to have been sufficient for the number of active authors. At the time, new book review websites seemed to be popping up every day, begging authors for review copies and responding with  thorough and vivid reviews. Fortunately, many of those review websites are still active, and about half (just an educated guess) still provide instructions for submitting books for reviews. The rest often still maintain posted instructions for submitting reviews but also have added notices that they are no longer accepting reviews or have suspended acceptance of unsolicited reviews for some unspecified period.

In the past four months, I've posted about five dozen requests for review. I've received only three return offers to accept my submissions, and none of those reviewers have yet responded with a review. I've also asked several of my readers for Amazon reviews. So far, only one has responded by posting an Amazon review. The other two reviews Gifts received on Amazon were unsolicited. Remarkably, the unsolicited reviews are both outstanding and were quite humbling. I'm grateful for what I've received, but it would be good to get some broader coverage. Like, I suppose, any indy author, I believe my novel is well-written and worth the read. I'd like to believe it's as good as the reviewers on Amazon claim (the first reviewer said the book deserves 6 stars out of 5), but I would still like to see a broader range of inputs. And yeah, to be perfectly honest, I would also like to make a little more money on the novel, considering how much time and effort went into it.

With these concerns in mind, I've looked into the efforts of other indy authors. How did they get the word out? How do they manage to turn enthusiastic reader responses into enthusiastic word of mouth? I've seen a lot of interesting advertising in this regard, and frankly, a lot of it strikes me as just plain wrong. At last year's WorldCon in San Antonio, for example, I saw a number of indy authors hawking their books in the merchants' area. Authors handed out bookmarks, coasters, leaflets, even ball caps printed with their book title, a logo from the cover, or even a copy of the cover image. Some of these freebies included URLs for accessing free copies of the books in question. I'm sorry to say, the three such novels (ebooks) I looked at were universally bad—badly written, grammatically flawed, clumsily plotted, full of lifeless characters and bland morals. Why do so many seem to think the ease of publishing an ebook means good writing is no longer necessary? And what's with all the zombies and vampires? Perhaps I just missed the good books that were being promoted in this fashion. I hope that's the case. I hope one of those clever entrepreneurs was promoting a little-known masterwork. Sturgeon's Law, right?

Still in all, the pushy, heavy-handed sales methods I saw at the WorldCon have the virtue of being, at least, honest. I never felt that any of those authors were being anything but straightforward and enthusiastic. I wish I could say the same of the games I've seen other indy authors pulling via Facebook and Twitter and in the Amazon reader reviews. Recently, I saw another author complain about indy authors who attempt to sell their wares on Twitter. She said that she is quick to unfollow anyone who does such a thing. Another practice she says she unfollows is authors who quote their own novels. I knew exactly the authors she meant. I've seen them do this in an attempt to gain interest for their novels. I suppose, if the quotes were at all interesting, that might be worthwhile, but seriously, how much context can you establish in 140 characters? Those quote tweets are typically just silly. Still, silly strikes me far less a misdemeanor than the evil of tit-for-tat requests.

Ironically, just before the first time I saw one of these requests, I read a blog entry from another author who recommended against offering to review someone else's work in return for a review. He said (more or less, I'm not quoting) such a choice involved too many minefields. What if the other author's work sucks? If she gives you a five-star review, are you beholden to return the favor? Or what if she just doesn't like your novel? Ultimately, if you offer to cross-review another author, you'll run into one or the other of these situations: either one of you is dishonest or one of you winds up feeling cheated. Even if you both give one another good reviews, one of you could inadvertently insult the other. Some people don't take criticism at all well. For example, I recently had an incident in which another author tweeted a line from her own works about a belly dancer and included the phrase "with a clinking of cymbals." Now, I saw nothing actually wrong with the overall quote; in fact, I rather liked her use of verbs. I had one tiny problem with the sentence. The word cymbals jarred me out of the moment. When I read cymbals, I think of 18" diameter pieces of spun brass, one held in either hand, crashing together. To me, cymbals don't clink. So, I tweeted back, "@<author's name> just an FYI, those little finger cymbals are called 'zills.'"

From the author's response, you'd think I'd just written a scathing one-star review of her novel. In response, she posted that she knows what they're called and that she had been teaching belly dancing for several years.  She also listed a couple other names for zills. I apologized in a direct message, explained that I'd meant no criticism of anything but her use of the word cymbals. She told me I was "arrogant" to offer my one-word correction without first finding out about her background (think about that: before mentioning a word choice disagreement, I'm supposed to review her CV), unfollowed me, and tweeted out several angry versions of how I had criticized her entire oeuvre as inaccurate based on some passing acquaintance I'd had with belly dancers in the past. Not one word of what she posted was true, but after a half-dozen such malicious tweets, I unfollowed her. I know, some of the people on Twitter are not altogether there, but I never expected such a violent response to a disagreement over one word.

Now, imagine what might have happened if I'd agreed to trade reviews with someone like that. Clearly, anything anyone says by way of critique is out to get her. Worse, I've seen what happens with the opposite end of the tit-for-tat review scale. Earlier this week, I was followed by an indy epic fantasy writer who self-published his premier ebook on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP) and CreateSpace, about a year ago. Currently, he's selling the ebook for 99 cents (the paperback for $9.49), and I went to the Amazon page to have a look. I read the author's product description for the novel, and I was disappointed. The summary is hard to read, it throws in too many characters and tries to give too much information about everything happening across multiple races, including passing judgment on each character's motivation, while spouting dozens of cliches and managing to really tell nothing much of any consequence about the novel. In a phrase, the description is badly written. In my experience, this bodes ill for the novel. I know, everyone makes mistakes now and then, and most of us hate writing those synopses, and a typo or even a missing word or two I can overlook. When the entire description is such a mess, I usually find the author's works in exactly the same state.

Still, this author has accumulated 18 Amazon reader reviews: 14 five-star,  four four-star, and one two-star. Not a bad set of reviews, I thought. As usual, I checked the outlier first: the two-star review. I expected to see the usual two-star review—a pair of angry sentences disdaining some minor aspect of the author's work or complaining that he was just another hack ripping off Tolkien or Pratchett or Martin. Instead, I found a detailed, multi-paragraph review of the novel, describing what the reader (Alexander Crommich, who also operates one of those book review websites) found promising in the work but also carefully explaining what the reviewer believes are the author's weaknesses and foibles. Despite the length and thoroughness of the review, it doesn't read like an English teacher or professional editor taking apart and examining every little nit. The two-star review reads like an earnest effort to help the author.

Next, I looked over the five- and four-star reviews. Most of them were written within two weeks of the book's publication and appear to have the same voice. I hate to cast such aspersions, but that voice is awfully similar to the author's voice (in his product description). A few of the positive reviews are from other indy authors who admit they are writing reviews as a favor for a fellow author based on interactions in social media. Altogether, the four- and five-star reviews are badly written and as jam-packed with cliches as the product description. Deciding that I wanted to write this blog post, I surrendered my 99 cents and purchased the ebook. Perhaps I can be faulted for approaching the work with too much prejudice, but I really hoped I was going to be pleasantly surprised and find a hidden gem. Sadly, the book reads pretty much like Crommich says. It's a misshapen conglomeration of tenses, peppered throughout with cliches and just all 'round bad writing. Metaphors are mixed; descriptions tend to be highly detailed without delivering up much real information; subject-verb agreement is often lost in the mess; the author seems to confuse telling us what's going to happen for foreshadowing; heroes and villains alike are stereotypes; and the entire plot reads like a ripoff of Moorcock's Eternal Champion series (long-dead hero rises from the grave to kick ass and restore the Cosmic Balance between the forces of Law and Chaos) filtered through someone's Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

I considered returning the ebook and writing my own one-star review, but—screw it. Let the guy keep his $0.64. As for a review, all I'd be saying would be tantamount to "Look at Crommich's review. He nailed it. Don't waste your money." You may have noticed that I did not mention the author's name or the name of the book. Nor will I. Yes, it's a badly written book. Yes, I feel shenanigans are at play in the author's accumulation of unwarranted positive reviews. Just as with the psycho-author who turned a one-word disagreement on Twitter into a war over the validity of her every written word, I will not lambaste someone in a public forum. I would like to see those fallacious four- and five-star reviews go away, but as I really have no solid evidence of wrongdoing on the author's part, that wish will have to remain a personal preference.

(Now, I will privately, however, point any curious individual to the Amazon page of the novel in question. Drop me a line, and you can read the reviews and decide for yourself. I strongly recommend you not buy the novel, though. Trust Crommich's review.)

My point? When it comes to reviews, tit-for-tat is a bad contract. Bypassing the obvious point that authors who agree to such nonsense are unlikely to give an honest assessment of your work, even a writer you admire can occasionally produce a work of lesser quality. What are you going to do then? Pretend the lesser work is worthy of praise because she usually produces good work? Bad plan. Better to avoid these contracts altogether.

NB: I am not saying authors should never review the work of other authors. Author reviews are among of the best reviews. I just don't think any strings ought to be attached to the review requests—especially not "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."