Once again, there are rumblings among indie authors about how big, bad Amazon is being mean. I’m the first to admit Amazon isn’t without fault. It takes actions, mainly due to automation, without warning. Innocents can and sometimes do get caught in the massive bans wrought by Amazon bots. For those wrongly caught up in the bans, the process of getting their accounts reinstated can be long and frustrating. They are why Amazon needs to look at their process and change it. Read more
Posts tagged ‘reviews’
There was a time when I wanted nothing more than to sign a publishing contract with a traditional publisher. I would have sold my soul, or come close to it, for that opportunity. Over the years, as I did more research into the publishing industry and as more opportunities for indie publishing became available, that changed. It wasn’t just because I no longer had to wait months and sometimes years to hear back from a publisher — if I ever did. It wasn’t just because of the horror stories I heard from my traditionally published friends. All that had an impact on my decision to go indie but what influenced me the most was simply watching traditional publishers, especially the bigger houses, and seeing some of the decisions they made — or didn’t make.
That decision was reinforced over the last week or so as word of actor Sean Penn’s novel hit the internet. I’ll admit right now that I’m not a big Sean Penn fan. Yes, he can act and he’s been associated with some very good projects. But there is something about him I just don’t like. Even so, I know I don’t have to like the person to appreciate their art, their work. There are very few actors or writers I refuse to support simply because of their politics or behavior, etc. Read more
The other day, I opened one of my social media accounts to the chest beating and teeth gnashing of a number of authors. No, it wasn’t a mass rejection by publishers that caused their angst. Nor was it news that their Amazon KDP accounts had been canceled. It was the sound we hear every couple of years when Amazon decides to enforce its terms of service when it comes to reviews and authors — and other product suppliers — suddenly realize their review numbers have diminished, sometimes drastically.
In a conversation with several author friends about this last night, I wondered if I was odd. Okay, okay, I know I’m odd. I meant more odd than I already knew. You see, other than occasionally checking my reviews to see if there’s a common thread in them, I don’t pay that much attention to them. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate every review I get. But like many writers, I’m insecure. Putting a new book out is like shoving my baby out into the world on his own for the very first time. I’d much rather keep him home and safe, whether that’s what he wants or not. When it comes to writing, it is too easy to obsess about negative reviews or to start to believe the positive ones — if that happens, it can keep a writer from turning a critical eye to their own work. Read more
Since Amazon first opened its virtual doors, there have been concerns about reviews. Not just for books but for all the products sold through its site. It is no secret that authors have paid for reviews — and some still do. Or that there have been fake accounts set up to give sock puppet reviews. There have been stories about sellers and manufacturers planting fake reviews as well, all in the hopes of bolstering their product rankings and ratings. From time to time, Amazon has taken steps to combat this trend. One of the last times they did it, they brought in a weighted review system. This one differentiates between “verified purchasers” and those who did not buy the product viz Amazon. Now there is a new policy in place, once that should help — at least until a new way around it is found.
Simply put, Amazon now requires you to purchase a minimum of $50 worth of books or other products before you can leave a review or answer questions about a product. These purchases, and it looks like it is a cumulative amount, must be purchased via credit card or debit card — gift cards won’t count. This means someone can’t set up a fake account, buy themselves a gift card and use it to get around the policy.
To contribute to Customer Reviews or Customer Answers, Spark, or to follow other contributors, you must have spent at least $50 on Amazon.com using a valid credit or debit card. Prime subscriptions and promotional discounts don’t qualify towards the $50 minimum. In addition, to contribute to Spark you must also have a paid Prime subscription (free trials do no qualify). You do not need to meet this requirement to read content posted by other contributors or post Customer Questions, create or modify Profile pages, Lists, or Registries
Whether this change will work in the long run, I don’t know. But, for now, I welcome it.
There is, however, one change I wish they would make. There are a number of readers who are active reviewers but whose reviews aren’t weighted as “verified purchases” because they get their books through the Kindle Unlimited Program. Those downloads are as easy to track as “verified purchases”. So why aren’t they given more weight than those reviews from people who have not gotten a particular book from Amazon?
On a totally different topic, I came across this article earlier this morning and it left me not only shaking my head but wanting to rip someone a new one.
Landing a traditional publisher can be a frustrating, convoluted process. Yet, most speakers, professionals and fiction writers want to publish a book. The main reasons being: credibility and retail distribution, followed by logistical help producing and fulfilling sales.
Self-publishing lacks legitimacy, especially now that anyone with internet access can publish on amazon and call themselves an expert on whatever topic they choose. It’s lowering the legitimacy of Amazon bestsellers every single day, while traditional publishing remains an elusive endeavor.
That’s what Loren Kleinman had to say at the beginning of the “interview”. Yeah, way to alienate a lot of authors right off the boat. But I kept reading and I kept wanting to reach through the screen and shake someone. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions, but here are some of my concerns about what Publishizer does.
The first thing that stood out to me as I looked at their site (which did not inspire a great deal of confidence) is the second step in their process. You “raise funds by selling preorders for 30 days, using our book marketing tools.” This is before you submit your book to publishers. So, how are you going to follow through with these sales after you have signed a contract with a publisher? More importantly, if Publishizer uses these “preorders” as part of their sales package when they market your proposal, I have several more questions: 1) what if you don’t have a large enough number of preorders to show your book has serious traction? 2) Who determines what that number is? and 3) How doe the publishers know these are legitimate sales?
Then there is the fact their “software” determines where to pitch your book. The questions about this are numerous but they boil down to one or two. First, how do they gather their information to make this determination? Second, what publishers are in their main database and how many of those publishers have they actually submitted to? There’s a third question that goes hand-in-hand with all this: how often do they update their database and submission parameters?
If you scroll down, you see they have no cost to “set up” your campaign and you get to keep 70% of your preorders. Oh-oh. That rings more alarm bells. That means they keep 30%. What do the publishers you are trying to sell to think about this?
In the fine print down below, they have some questions and answers. It seems they will pitch at least 30 publishers. This is where it gets interesting. They say they will pitch traditional, advance-paying publishers but also “independent publishers and high-quality hybrid publishers”. Anyone want to take a bet one which type they sign with more often? In the links at the bottom of the page, they have a list of publishers. Another knock because that list is not alphabetical.
Now, this site might be completely legit and it might have successfully helped authors get viable contracts. I don’t know. What I’m saying is if you are contemplating using it, be sure to read all the fine print first and do an in-depth search on it before “signing” anything.
One of the joys of being indie is that you get to be your own publisher, with all the control on how to bring your stories out to the world and represent them. One of the real drags is that you are your own publisher, with all the responsibilities and priorities therein that do not line up with your artistic priorities.
And one of those priorities, as a publisher, is gathering market feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the currently published catalogue, and what’s doing well and trending in the market right now, in order to make business decisions about future releases. (Unlike trad publishers, though, you’re rather committed to accepting any books that come out of your dedicated on-staff writer – you can’t simply turn down a book and go to the slush pile. Makes it a little trickier, it does.)
Feedback comes in several forms – first, the volume and velocity of sales. For your first couple books, this is going to be a real struggle and a giant mystery to you, because you have no internal sales baseline. You have external ones – kindle rank and the hot new releases / bestseller charts can tell you how you’re doing compared to every other book, and you can track the trajectory of sales on other books by watching their ranks rise and fall, and how long they stick around for visibility (but you can’t see what they’re doing for fanbase or publicity). You also have reviews on similar books in genre / subgenre, and you should be reading those, and developing your ability to look for trends.
The internal sales baseline will come with time and more books. But that’s for another article! Right now, let’s look at those reviews.
When the average reader looks at reviews, they’re looking for two very specific things:
1. Are these reviews trustworthy or fake?
2. Is this a book I’ll enjoy?
The first is why you look for one and two star reviews: they provide that curve that looks “real”, because humans know instinctively that if it’s too good to be true, it ain’t true. The second comes in when you skim through the reviews, discard the ones that don’t have much content or are obviously off the wall, and check to see if the things you like are in there, as well as the things you hate. (Even when a reviewer likes what you hate or hates what you like, the review’s still useful at saying if those things are there.)
But now, as a publisher, you’re asking new questions, with different answers:
1. Who is the intended audience for this book?
2. Did the cover / blurb attract the right audience?
3. Did the book fulfill expectations?
4. What did they like in general and in specific about it?
5. What did they want changed / not like?
Phase 1: Pick at least one subgenre you write in, and start reading through the top 50 bestseller’s reviews like a publisher. You’ll start to notice trends, and audience expectations – and develop the filter for weeding out “this person obviously brought their mental issues to this book, and review reflects same.” Get plenty of practice on the skills and plenty of data on broader trends and audience expectations before you try to apply this to a book where you’ve got skin in the game.
Also, on Amazon, people have the option of marking a review as helpful instead of leaving their own review. Weight reviews accordingly.
You’ll also start seeing trends of authors who have fans that read everything they put out, trends of early reviews (fanbase) versus later ones (word of mouth / browsers, and other non-prior-fans), and so on.
As you read through, you may find yourself strongly drawn to download a sample or buy a book you’re looking at. When that happens, make notes on what attracted you to that book – was it the cover? The blurb? A particular review? If a particular blurb or review made you go “I want this!”, write it down and come back later to study what made it so compelling that you can use in your own ad copy/blurb.
Phase 2: Pick at least 5 books that you really love, and a couple you really hate. Go read all their reviews. Now that you have a broad sense for reading like a publisher, you’re going to sharpen it on books that you know the characters, plot, and worldbuilding – so you can see again how the books draw an audience, what that audience is, how they fulfill reader expectations, and so on. Be aware that books that have been out for several reprintings are not nearly as useful for cover/blurb draw, because they will have gone through several iterations.
Are there any reviews or blurbs that make you go “Yes! This!”? Copy them down, so you can study later what they used to hook you in, and how you can apply that. (In fact, while the main function of a review is for one reader to comment to another reader, if you think of them as amateur ad-copy, there’s a lot you can learn.)
Phase 3: Now, only after several hours spent on learning to practice and hone these skills on other books, turn to your books and read the reviews. Did the cover/blurb attract the right audience for the book? What is the right audience for this book? What did they like / dislike?
Once you have this information, it gives you a way to gauge what covers and blurbs will work, and what won’t. What phrases and keywords, characters and plots, are going to hook the attention of the audience, and you should try to work into your ad copy/blurbs. What audiences are attracted by the book, and if you have it correctly categorized / keyworded to find them. And, also, what they really like, and what they want differently.
As an example, I fell into the classic trap in Scaling the Rim of going “My science fiction hits all the romance beats with a major subplot, so it’s romance-scifi.” But as I read the first wave of reviews, I realized that the audience that really enjoyed it weren’t the romance crowd (it had too much scifi for romance-scifi, and no sex scenes), but the scifi-thriller/action-adventure crowd I hadsn’t even considered due to lack of combat. So, I pulled it from romance and reset with action/adventure keywords to hit that subgenre’s lists instead. Sales them picked up – and the reviews were happier!
Note that everything above has to do with marketing your book, and possibly with editing your publishing house’s books. It has almost nothing to do with writing your book! Write your books from your heart, from your muse, from your curiousity and wonder and dreams. Don’t try to paint-by-numbers due to what the market wants right now!
Kris Rusch speaks of writing and publishing as wearing two hats – and when she writes, she takes off the publisher hat, with its responsibilities and prioroties, and puts on her writer hat, with its completely seperate, and sometimes completely conflicting, responsibilities and prioroties. She even has seperate computers to help remind her that her creativity is not driven by her publishing – her publishing is a way to monetize her creativity.
There will be things that help with the general writing: in Peter’s earliest books, a number of reviewers complained that Peter’s protagonist was a golden boy, and his writing was too stilted. If you get common points in reviews in your own books, remember that reviewers are readers writing for other readers, they’re not professional authors and gifted teachers writing a personal feedback to the author. They’re not even beta readers. So they will identify that something is a problem to them – but they may not have the right cause, and generally don’t have the right fix.
In Peter’s case, he identified that he was writing a very old-school British hero for a very modern American audience. He was using British English with its more formal structure and style instead of the more informal American English his audience is used to, and they weren’t seeing the modern American ratio of challenge to success they were accustomed to. By changing the language in successive books and adding more metaphors and colloquialisms, focusing more page time on the difficulty of overcoming each challenge, and narrowing the scope of each book to a few challenges or limited time span, he brought the stories more in line with reader expectation and the reviews & reader satisfaction went up.
But he did not sit down and say “I am writing military science fiction. Therefore, I must have a galactic war humans are losing, a near-derelict ship, a rebellious antihero captain on the outs with his/her superiors, and a plucky crew of rejects and oddballs the captain must motivate for the do-or-die long shot that will turn the tide of the war / stop the invasion, because those are the most common current hot tropes.”
That is the difference between using market feedback to improve your writing, and “writing to market.”
As for Scaling the Rim? I noted that a lot of people shared my dislike for infodump and enjoyed building the world from clues and references – but a number of other people missed a few subtle bits of worldbuilding laid in, and were confused because there was no infodump to clearly explain what’s going on up front, who the good guys and who the bad guys were, and the history of the world and the peoples to date.
Because I choke on infodump both as a reader and a writer, I’m not going to start putting in lots of narrative summary. I will, however, clearly have to up my game on building more background in early along with the foreshadowing, so I don’t confuse readers – or they don’t stay confused!
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.
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.
Reviews. The bane of every writer’s life. We love the good reviews and we are crushed by the bad. After all, our books are our babies and no one likes being told their baby is ugly. So we watch and wait, holding our breath, until the reviews start rolling in on each new release. We weigh whether we should pay to have professional reviewers and bloggers review our book. We have heard the calls from the hucksters, all telling us that for a low investment of some of our hard earned money, they guarantee a certain amount of stellar reviews. We ask our friends, family and friends to post their reviews. And we wait, wondering why folks say what they do in reviews and praying those bad reviews are outweighed by the good.
Authors gaming the review system is nothing new. In fact I should correct that last statement to say that publishing professionals gaming the review system is nothing new. There have been paid reviews probably as long as there has been publishing. The focus, over the last few years, has been not on the paid reviews from magazine — and bloggers — but on those paid reviews that show up as ordinary customer reviews on sites like Amazon.
Back in April, Amazon took steps to bring a halt to fake reviews. At that time, the target of its legal team was the site with the oh-so-original name buyamazonreviews.com. In that suit, Amazon alleged that the owner of the site was being paid for reviews of products that had never been read or used. In other words, pay the defendant a certain amount of money and he would give you a glowing review, whether your product deserved it or not. As a result, most of the sites like the one referenced earlier have shut down. But that didn’t end the problem.
In a new move to stop fake reviews, Amazon filed suit against more than 1,000 people it alleges have been offering to write fake reviews. These people are part of the Fivver community. From what I understand, Fivver is a site where you can post your services, whatever they might be, for the grand sum of five dollars. Amazon, concerned about what these Fivvers might actually be offering, had its own employees/agents contact members of the Fivver community. Not everyone they contacted offered fake reviews but a number did. It is alleged that, among other things, some of them said the caller could write the review they wanted posted, email it to the Fivver member and that member would post it to Amazon using their own Amazon account. No need to read the book. Then there was the one who said to mail an empty box or mailing envelope to give the appearance that they had mailed the book to be “reviewed” to the “reviewer”. Others allegedly said they would not read the book even if sent to them but they would give it a great review. Fast forward to this month and yet another lawsuit filed.
As you can imagine, there are some folks out there who are seeing evil in this, not from the part of the paid reviewers but on Amazon’s part. After all, if they are going after the paid reviewers, what are they going to do to the poor author who paid for those reviews? What if the author didn’t know their agent or publisher or mother/brother/uncle/friend paid for the reviews to help them?
I can’t speak for Amazon but I have a feeling what we will see happening is that a number of reviews will simply drop off the site. These reviews will either be directly tied to the sites Amazon has suspicions about or will have key phrases that are oft repeated across other reviews. It is easy enough to code a data crawler to find such similarities. It is basically the same sort of tool that schools use to determine if a paper contains any plagiarized parts.
Amazon might go one step further. Right now, if you look at Amazon customer reviews, you will see some from verified purchasers and then those that aren’t. A verified purchaser is someone who actually purchased the item from Amazon. The only problem with this is it doesn’t reflect those who borrowed a book or short story under the Kindle Unlimited program. This may be the point where Amazon needs to add that as one of the descriptors. I know a number of authors, and readers alike, who have been asking Amazon to do just that. At least that way, people who look at reviews before buying something would have an idea if the reviewer actually put down money on the book in question.
There is always the possibility that Amazon will require you to have purchased an item from them before you are allowed to review it. I’ll admit to being torn about this option. That would keep reviewers like Shiny Book Review from posting reviews on all sales sites. It would kick out reviewers who receive free copies of books unless Amazon has them register as reviewers. This is a path I’m not sure I want to see them go down.
Right now, Amazon gives more weight to reviews written by verified purchasers. As they should. I know that when I look at reviews, I tend to pay more attention to those written by people who have “verified purchaser” listed under their names. I know they might have left a review without actually reading the book but the likelihood is less than it is for those reviewers without the VP notation.
The bottom line, however, is simple. Paid reviews are a way of gaming the system. Amazon — and other sites like it — can make it harder to find folks to do them, but where there is a will, there’s a way. Someone will find a new way around the system. But, as a reader, I put more weight on those reviews written by folks I know bought the book and this is why I want to see Amazon note those who borrowed it under the KU program. They, too, pay for what they read even though it is a subscription fee and not a per book fee. If I’m getting a royalty for it, they’ve paid for it in my opinion.
Amazon is not the big bad in this case. It is actually protecting its customers and the writers who use it as a sales platform. For that, I thank them.