Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘book reviews’

Reviews and Maturity

So this post is the result, as so many of my posts are, of a few conversations I’ve had recently about writing, and life. I’m constantly learning, but at this point, also trying to share what I’ve learned with others who ask me about stuff. Like whether they should ‘un-publish’- a book that was their first, and they now feel is immature and not a reflection of them as a writer now. I pointed out in response that I leave my first novel up, despite it getting not-so-great reviews, because it’s a reflection of where I started versus where I am now. No, readers probably don’t pay attention to dates published, in most cases (I know I do if I am trying to blitz-read an author, because it lets me read series from the beginning if they have been so inconsiderate as to not mark books with series identifiers. Pet peeve: number your series books, people!). I know I have fans who were interested to read it and see my growth as an author, because they took the time to reach out and tell me that. I leave it up for them, and because with some two dozen titles on Amazon, I know it falls to the bottom and only a reader who was working through my whole body of work would find it. Along with some of the other oddballs I’ve written.

And along with that is the other conversation I had on facebook about one-star reviews and whether they are always bad. They are not. I had a prominent reviewer give my latest novella, Snow in Her Eyes, a one-star review, and it led to more sales than that story might have seen elsewhere. Because he was very articulate about what his problem was with the story.

I only work for myself; there is no one who tells me I have to review certain books. I only read what I want to read; that’s why, if you look at my reviews, you will find that the vast majority award 4 or 5 stars. I have been chastised for this in the past; some people have accused me of pandering to authors, others have told me I was an easy grader.

Well, bite me.

If that is the case, why am I reviewing a book that I gave one star?

Part of is is because of the limitations of the Amazon rating system. If you look at what the ratings mean:
1 star: I hated it.
2 stars: I didn’t like it.
3 stars: It was okay. (Amazon says this is a negative review, which makes no sense to me.)
4 stars: I liked it.
5 stars: I loved it.

You will notice that those ratings say nothing whatsoever about the artistry of the writing; the internal consistency of the story; plot development; originality; NOTHING at all about what I think really makes a book worth reading. It is an utterly subjective rating system, and I suppose the only kind that makes sense in the mass-market approach Amazon takes with the book reading public.

Now, that only explains the rating system, and not why I reviewed a book I gave 1 star to, and why I gave it one star.

Briefly:
1. I gave it one star, because in the first paragraph, the author kills off a baby girl. No women, no kids; one star.
2. I reviewed it because the author is Cedar Sanderson, and she is one of my favorite writers, and one of my favorite people as well. I couldn’t NOT review it without my favoritism toward her and her work utterly destroying any credibility I have as a reviewer.

Read the rest at Papa Pat Rambles (and stay for the wonderful essays and quirky reviews!)

A one-star review – especially when it is balanced with other high reviews – can actually be a selling point. It’s only when you see an imbalance of one, two, and even three-star reviews that it’s obvious there’s a problem with that book. And sometimes even ‘a problem book’ can be enjoyed by readers. I ran across a case recently where a friend I trust had reviewed a book, the author found the review, leaped like a gazelle to the absolutely wrong conclusions, and I was highly amused. I also decided that I would not read that author’s books. Not because he’d had a hissy fit over the negative review, but because I saw enough of a theme in the reviews of his books to know my friend was right, and I would not enjoy those books. I have to say the ‘sex scenes written by Victor Appleton II after a few stag films’ nearly made me snort my coffee onto the monitor!

I’ve come to a point where I trust the reviews on Amazon. Sometimes it’s not what they say that is important, it’s how they say it. Like the book with 104 reviews… until you clicked on ‘verified purchasers’ and suddenly it had five, and of the others the majority of them mentioned they had received a review copy in return for their review. I have nothing against review copies. But I do think that if the book does not generate the bulk of it’s reviews from people who read it after buying (this book was not in the KU program) then there is a problem with it (and reading the blurb and ‘look inside’ not to mention the ghastly cover, cemented that impression).

As an author I know I have to show maturity in how I handle my reviews, both the positive and the negative. Mostly, mine make me happy. But even the ones that make me shake my head – like the reviewer who commented on Pixie Noir that it had no emotion and she thought it must have been written by a man – don’t bother me much. Because losing your mind over a review and shrieking about it in public like the above author who gazelled off into the distance calling that there were lions attacking him… yeah, no. That’s not good publicity, dude. Not only did you lead to one of your fans making the connection to my friend and linking to his facebook page in your comment thread (and I screenshot that and let my friend know to brace for incoming) but you lead to me deciding firmly that I would not read your books, nor promote them. Guess what? unprofessional behaviour just pisses people off. I have a very short list of ‘will not buy, will not promote’ but that author is one of those. And I know I’m not alone in that reaction to author behaviours.

 

How To: Write a Review

Good Morning everyone! This is Cedar, and we’re trying something a little different this morning. See, I defy writerly stereotypes, and I am a morning person. With Kate and Sarah occupied at RavenCon, Dave on the other side of the world, and Amanda needing MOAR coffee, I’m starting the ball rolling, but then later, Amanda gets to have her say.

Yesterday in the comments under my post, lelnet (waves Hi!) made a cogent point about book recommendations. Here’s the relevant part: “4. (From Amazon’s database magic) “These books here were enjoyed by many of the people who also bought those books you already bought”
5. [Same as #2, but from reviewers I trust to be good judges of quality, but not necessarily to have tastes compatible with mine…a set that includes every human being I call a friend except for those 3 in the #2 group, plus everyone in the post rotation here at MGC and a significant fraction of the regular commenters at ATH.]
6. Reviews from people I don’t know either personally or at least through having spent a year or more reading their contributions to the blogosphere.”

And somewhere else, but I’m not finding it quickly, it was pointed out that recommending mediocre books, or bad ones, would make people stop trusting you and tune you out.

So… I’m an author, and obviously, reviews of my own books make me shake in my boots. Enough so that I have asked my First Reader to look at them for me first, and I don’t get to see the really negative ones. But I am also a reviewer and a reader, so I (rarely) write negative reviews. I hate to, and have only ever written two that were all negative, and both of them stressed me.

Most people, I think, would prefer not to write a negative review, and I don’t blame them at all. But finding a balance between honesty and not being unkind is necessary, especially if you know the author.

I’ve also been told, by a fan, that they weren’t going to review my book, even though they loved it, because they didn’t know how to write a review. Which made me sad, because I love rave reviews of my work. They are the best kind of compliments, and as I have compared elsewhere, a fine way for a reader to ‘tip the author’.

When writing a review, you don’t need to go full book critic and summarize the plot with fine litr’ry comparisons to.. whatever. Writing down how the book made you feel, with perhaps some explanation (this book made me happy because I love a good hero to root for…), a comparison to another work if you like (best mil-SF space opera to come along since On Basilisk Station, harks back to early David Weber…) and if you must, a little critique (Could have been fleshed out more, particularly in the action scenes). I belong to a henna artists group that does something that makes me happy – when you put up a picture, they do what they call a ‘sandwich’ which is to say something good, constructive criticism, and then something good again. If you are fully negative, the author/artist is curled up sobbing in the fetal position, and not contemplating your point saying ‘hmm, you could be right.’

Also, my new pet peeve… if you are critiquing an Indie author, don’t take them to task on abstruse grammar points in your review. In fact, unless there’s a typo every page, don’t even mention them. I’ve read some great stories by indies whose copy-editing could have been better. But mentioning it in the review doesn’t help them find an audience. If you must, send them a private (POLITE) message of some kind. Personally, I hire professionals for all my long-form work, so pointing out any perceived editing flaws just makes me raise an eyebrow and wonder if I paid too much and need to find a new editor. Harping on editing just makes you look petty as a reviewer.

If you hit the cogent points, and readers find that you are consistent, and consitently liking things they like, then you will be able to establish that trust lelnet was talking about. I know that for most readers, this isn’t an incentive. Why should you review? Is it for other readers, or for the author themselves?

And now, over to Amanda…

Hey, guys, Amanda here. Now that I’ve had coffee (and, Cedar, there is NEVER enough coffee), I’ll add my two cents to the discussion. Reviews can be both the life’s blood for a writer and the bane of their existence. Good reviews help convince readers to give our work a try. Bad reviews, whether they are valid or not, can drive sales away. Then there are the reviews when you just have to wonder if the so-called reviewer read the same book you read or wrote.

I like Cedar’s “sandwich” analogy and it is something I try to do in my reviews, especially those I do for Amazon. If I’m taking the time to post an Amazon review, it is usually because I want to help spur the author’s sales. That isn’t the place for a full critique of the book. For one thing, most people scan the Amazon reviews. They don’t read them all and they sure don’t read the long ones.

That said, I have given one-star reviews for books so badly written as to be unreadable. I’m not talking about having a few typos or formatting issues. When those reach the level of being bad enough to throw me out of the narrative, I let Amazon know and Amazon will, if it receives enough complaints, will let the author know. No, I’m talking about barely disguised, or no attempt to disguise, someone else’s work as a writer’s own. That is an instant one star review and a report to Amazon or wherever I’ve downloaded the title from.

My habit as a consumer is to look at how many reviews something has and the breakdown of ratings. If there are several dozen (or more) five star reviews and basically no negative reviews, my BS meter starts going off. Sure, a book can be that good. But usually, there will be someone who will at least give a three star review. Even though Amazon and others have tried to tighten up against sock puppet reviews, they still happen. So, as much as I hate getting mediocre to bad reviews for my work, I know it happens.

I want to add a couple of things to Cedar’s list of what not to do in your Amazon review. Don’t review the price vs the length of the work. I’m sorry but doing that just makes you look bad. Amazon and sites like it tell you how big the download file is. Often the product description will not only give you the size of the file but the estimated page length. Check it before hitting that buy button.

Also, and this is a big hot button for me, don’t start a review with “I haven’t read this book yet but I’m giving it a one star review because. . . “ Yes, I’ve been tempted to do that before. But that isn’t a review. It’s a statement about the author’s political/social/religious/whatever beliefs.

Finally, as an author, don’t respond to negative reviews. Please, I know how precious your baby is and how tempting it is to jump in and try to defend it. But don’t. Just don’t. You will never win. Just chalk it up to someone who doesn’t like you for whatever reason and move on to your next work.

Tossing it back to Cedar or anyone else now. We’ll continue the dialog in the comments section.

Abundance Mentality

I was accused the other day on FB of having a scarcity mentality, while the other person proudly proclaimed they had an abundance mentality. After I got through face-palming over the ridiculousness of it, I decided it was a good point to bring up here. You see, this person was reacting to my having asked a question after they seemingly randomly shared links to their books on someone else’s wall. Getting huffy and saying that the person had been looking for books to read… fine, I really didn’t care. But the snarky comment, when this person is known for their book spamming?

As marketing goes, in general it is considered really bad manners to be constantly pushing your books. Doing it on your own FB wall, twitter feed, or what have you is one thing. If you do it too often people will tune you out or unfollow you. But promoting your books in groups, semi-private events, other’s personal timelines… those are really bad manners and justifiably will get you tossed on your ear from most places. I know that some groups allow promotion on certain days, but even then it’s questionable.

So why is this? When we’re pushing our own work, there’s a fine line between “look at my beautiful baby!” and “hey, meester, wanna meet my seester? She’s cheep!” Desperation never looks good on anyone. But you want to, need to, sell your book and get it in front of other eyes…

You know what looks a million times better than pushing your own book? Pushing someone else’s book. Look, this isn’t a competition. One author cannot possibly write enough to keep an avid reader ‘fed’ with enough material. Personally, for me as a reader, a dozen authors couldn’t do it. So why not keep that abundance mentality – only not just toward your own book – be generous, share others. By networking, we can get fresh eyes on our work.

I do this by reviewing books weekly on my blog. Sometimes I cheat a little and review shorter works, like the novelette I just did, because I don’t always have time to read a full-length novel. I will also share purchases, finds, and new releases by friends on FB, twitter, and G+ (which I’m still not sure how effective that one is, but that’s a different conversation). I’m fairly careful about this, as I don’t want to promote anything I’m not sure of. So if it’s a brand new release I haven’t already had a chance to read, I’ll share if it’s a trusted author. Otherwise, I wait until I’ve had a chance to at least start reading it.

I am always, and I encourage you to be as well, honest in my reviews without being harsh. Would you review a book differently if you knew the author was indie vs trad? How, and why would you? Ask yourself, and if you’re being harsher on Indie, reconsider it. I also suggest you be selective. If the book isn’t the best product, don’t recommend it, or you will lose the trust of your readers and friends (well, at least in that department). Story is king, and if it’s a good story, well, tell everybody about it!

I do share books often, perhaps sometimes too often, but I know that like me, many of my friends and family read a lot. I also know that finding a new book or author is hard. None of us have the time to waste, nor the money, in exploring the wilderness of Amazon for a good read. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard ‘I rely on recommendations to find new books’ in the last year or two.

I’m branching out a little, to see if running an ad will help. But I’m in no hurry, my plan for my writing is very long-term. I don’t need to be spammy, and I certainly don’t need to try to suppress other writers, because in the long run, the more readers there are, the better for all of us. Word of mouth is slow, but it’s the gold standard for a reason. When you have readers talking about your books, and doing it spontaneously, that’s better than money can buy.

Books these days aren’t scarce. But wading through the abundance can be intimidating for the reader, and sticking out can be hard for the author. You don’t want to stick out in all the wrong ways. Readers can help their favorite authors out by sharing, reviewing, and talking about books. Authors can help one another out by putting on their reader hats (what, you don’t have one? Mine is all wide-brimmed and 40’s movie starlet!) and doing the same. By coming together, we can help one another. Just don’t be spammy, and don’t go around accusing others of wanting to suppress you, or you will get an honest review, and that might not suit you!

 

Bought and Paid For

Sometimes I see a review on Amazon that makes me do the puppy thing – you know, cock my head and make that little “baroo?” noise. Amanda shared a link to a book with an improbably high original price (marked down to free, for now, though) and seriously questionable antecedents, and after I laughed at it, I read the reviews. When I found this: “exelene article Delivery time is punctual and responsible for everything that is recommended to all is the best way to shop …” I sat back and thought that’s the first spam comment review I have ever seen. But then again, reviews are becoming suspect.

I do read reviews on books I’m thinking about buying (other products, too) on Amazon. I’ll hunt down reviews outside Amazon from time to time, but they are handy right there, so that is usually what I look at first. But I do this with an awareness that I cannot always trust what they say. I hear from people outside the industry that they no longer trust reviews, either, because they keep hearing about the reviews being paid for, to give a book lots of nice boost.

But, what about the time-honored practice of giving away copies of books in return for a review? Isn’t that the same as say, this? When you can buy five book reviews for only $30, why worry about what the unwashed public has to say about your book? The service even guarantees you won’t get a harsh review, saying “we can’t guarantee all bloggers will love your book but we do ask bloggers to only post fair and professional reviews. If a blogger really can’t get into your book we ask them to refrain from posting anything too harsh as reviews can make or break an authors career! It should also be noted we don’t believe it is ethical to pay bloggers for ‘good’ reviews.”

Maybe this is why we find reviews on the book with, I kid you not, the World’s Worst Cover, praising it to the heavens. Midwest Book Review wrote this: “Ancient curses can be quite the ruiner of one’s day. “The Mystery of the Mummy” is another novel from Roger D. Grubbs following the continuing adventures of Andrew Rogers and Kathleen McGregor as they are tasked with stopping a millennia old curse from consuming the world around them. If they don’t act quickly, the mummy will be more than some ancient sack of bones, but the death of us all. “The Mystery of the Mummy” is a top pick for suspense fans, highly recommended.” In fact, all six reviews on this book are in the 5 star range, leaving me wondering what lies beneath that truly horrifying cover photo. After having peeked inside, I am disinclined to plunk down the money to endure the rest of it. It’s just as bad as the cover.

No wonder then that book reviews are losing ground as trustworthy indicators of a book’s merit. I can generally tell if an Amazon review is sincere – for one thing, any negative comments without being all negative are likely an honest appraisal. Not every reader will like every book. I have a few blogs I read reviews on and trust. I myself review books on my blog every Friday, mostly Indie authors, trying to give an authentic review when I do so. But the concept of shelling out money for reviews strikes me as wrong. What do you, kind readers, think? marketing is hard for us authors, requiring a lot of our time and effort. Reviewers obviously need some reward for their efforts in reading, but is a free book enough? Is even that too much? I’m not a proponent of making anyone work for nothing. But I look at my reviews as a tip after having bought the books and already spent something, the review is worth perhaps more to the author than that money. I’ve accepted some books for review on my blog, but I am wary of doing so, as I feel that by doing that, I’m obligating myself to that author.

Which, as it turns out, there are regulations about (I should have known… aren’t there regs about everything these days?). Shiny Book Review, a site I know and trust (full disclosure, they reviewed Vulcan’s Kittens, giving it a B- for editing problems. Which led to me having a professional editor go over it, but I digress.) has a whole section on the ethics of how they handle reviews. And they have made my mind easier about the whole obligation thing. “One more thing: the FCC now requires that a disclaimer be made regarding books sent to Shiny Book Review and/or any book review sites.   That disclaimer is as follows: we at SBR are often sent free books, but are under no obligation — none whatsoever — to give anything except our opinion, freely stated.

And this led me to do a little more poking. I found a well-written article at a food blog, of all places, which normally I wouldn’t cite, but she does it so well. Included are links back to the regulations themselves, so you can explore to your heart’s content if you so choose. I just don’t have time, a house to clean, homework, and all that jazz. Which means that most people probably don’t bother to look at them, either, and accepting paid reviews might not be a good idea if anyone ever comes looking closely at the sites you are reviewed on. Not a scandal you want your book tarred with. So in the end, trust no one, er, walk with caution, and if you do reviews, make it clear how you were compensated, even if only with a free book.

In the end, after asking around, I’m not sure random reviews are even given any weight by consumers any longer. Goodreads has been plagued by scandal, Amazon has too many sock-puppets, other mass review sites like Library Thing are just too obscure for the general public. As a reader, I have people I trust to review a book which I will buy on their recommendation. Most of them are not in the business of giving out reviews, it’s just a whole-hearted “oh, this one is good!” Larry Correia’s book bombs, Howard Tayler’s blogunderschlock, David Pascoe’s random reviews… those are the books that grab my attention and get me to hunt them down and buy them. I’ve rarely been disappointed that way.

As an author, I’m still mulling over what this means, other than the oft-repeated ‘word-of-mouth’ is the best marketing of all. You can’t beg, buy, or steal publicity like those spontaneous reviews. When you get one, it’s like a standing ovation, and the three I have gotten I am more grateful for than I can express. Buying reviews would only cheapen that, for me.

Saturday Book Review – Shark Boats by Leo Champion

Before I start the review, a few words from me in my admin hat. We’re going to start doing reviews once a month, probably the second Saturday of the month. We will not be taking requests, but if there’s something you’d like to review, feel free to write up a review and send it to me, Sarah, Amanda, or Dave. Reviews don’t have to be books, or fiction, but if you review movies, games, non-fiction, or whatever, please relate what you’re reviewing to some aspect of writing craft.

Shark Boats is not a book I would have picked up off a shelf – and I would have been poorer for it. Readers familiar with Col. Kratman’s books in the Desert Called Peace universe will note a certain similarity to the world building in the sense that Shark Boats uses a colony world where the technology level is relatively similar to our own, although the means by which the Shark Boats universe arrived there is quite different, and the feel is much more akin to the early phases of World War II than Col. Kratman’s works.

Shark Boats is primarily military science fiction, a subgenre that normally doesn’t appeal to me. It’s also about as Human Wave as you can get without sticking on a flashing neon sign that says “Read me! I’m Human Wave!” (Please don’t. That’s just tacky.) The plot centers around two men, one on either side of the nascent war, their motivations and the events that drive them into a collision course.

Jack Reiner is a kid from the streets made good and an officer in the United Southern Colonies Reserve. He’s also quickly and cleanly drawn as a sympathetic character who readers will want to see triumph. When his marine escort squadron is destroyed and the survivors murdered. A small piece of good luck sees Reiner and the embedded journalist as the sole survivors of the slaughter, and from there the action continues at a pace somewhere between breathtaking and exhilarating while Reiner tries to catch the man who ordered the massacre.

The man in charge of the slaughter, Hector Chavez, is a True Believer in the Communist cause. Champion could easily have made Chavez a cartoon Communist Villain and the book would still have worked. Instead, Chavez and all the Communist military are drawn as humans. Some believe, some just do their job because it’s their job. They’re all clearly people – even Chavez, as the effective villain of the book, has sympathetic traits.

Hell, even in the short time he has focus, the leader of the communist revolution is a believable human – an idealist who is gradually corrupted by his unrealistic beliefs and the things he has to do to bring about his People’s Republic. This, in my view, is one of the greatest strengths of the novel: while Champion never loses sight of who his audience should be supporting, he includes supporting characters on both sides who are as varied and human as you’d find in a real war, right down to the incompetent career officers and self-interested politicians Reiner deals with during the course of the story.

Champion’s style is clean to the point of minimalist, but with a lot of depth layered into the apparently sparse prose. There are no weaknesses anywhere in this book: the world-building, while not staggeringly original, is solid and believable. The characters are brilliantly drawn and the plot is a tightly threaded mixture of adventure, political intrigue, and understated romance (both in the old sense and the modern sense).

I thoroughly recommend it.

Sunday Morning Musings

by Amanda S. Green

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the States. This is the traditional beginning of summer and, most importantly, a time when we remember those men and women who have given their lives in the service of the country.  So, let me take a moment to thank them – and their families and friends – who have made this ultimate sacrifice.

Now, onto business.

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about agents becoming publishers and the problems I foresaw with such an undertaking.  Let’s face it, when you sign a contract with an agent, it is with the understanding that they will go out and find you the best contract possible with a publisher.  They are your agent.  It is their responsibility to work for your best interest.  When the agent becomes a publishers, they are now wearing a hat that conflicts with their duty to represent your best interests.

Unfortunately, the trend is continuing.  It was announced earlier this week that Bloomsbury is forming a digital publishing arm that will partner with agents to publish their clients’ works.  Now, the announcement looks okay on the surface.  This enterprise is to focus  on those works where the author has died and the work is no longer in print.  But, it still begs the question of who is the agent working for.  If there is enough interest in the work to bring it out in digital format, then why isn’t the agent sending it out to digital publishers, both traditional (in this instance, meaning established publishers who regularly publish in both print and digital formats) and digital publishers?  How can they put the work up for auction and keep it fair without hiring a third party so the agent can blind bid on the publishing rights?

Now, I’ll admit that this announcement doesn’t come right out and say that agents are part of the “publishing” house.  But it specifically says it will be “partnering” with agencies.  Again, this partnership seems to be blurring, if not outright crossing, the line between representing the best interests of the author/client and the best interests of the agent.  I guess only time, and probably the courts, will tell.

Borders is back in the news.  Specifically, the creditors committee has objected to Borders’ request for an extension of 120 days to file its reorganization plan.  If granted, the deadline would be moved from June 16th to October 14th.  The objection notes some of the same concerns I wrote about last weekend.  But it basically comes down to the facts that Borders continues to bleed cash and isn’t cooperating with the creditors, leading to grave concerns about the future of the bookseller.  Considering the fact that Borders also wants to reject its “master licensing” agreement with Seattle’s Best Coffee in such a way it would allegedly infringe on SBC’s intellectual property, well, you can understand the creditors committee’s concerns.

Finally, I have to give a hat tip to one of the local newspapers here.  Imagine my surprise this morning when I was reading the Dallas Morning News and came across a book review and large excerpt on the front page of the entertainment section.  This is notable for a number of reasons.  The first is simply the placement.  Book reviews are usually relegated to the middle of the section on Sundays.  Second, this article and the accompanying snippet consisted of as much space as the entire book review section usually does — and did so without other reviews being deleted.  Third, as with so many papers across the country, the Morning News had stopped printing reviews and only recently (the last year or so) returned to doing so.  Finally, and this is the really exciting part for me, this front page treatment with snippet is the first in an ongoing series.  The paper is going to start spotlighting some of Texas’ best authors in this manner.  So, here’s a tip of the hat to the DMN and a heartfelt thanks from a grateful reader.

The floor is now yours.  What items in the publishing news have you seen this week that you want to discuss?  Or is there something from this past week or two that you’ve read that you think we need to talk more in-depth about?