Tag Archives: amazon reviews

No one who refuses to read this book should ask me for book marketing tips any more

The book in question is the autobiography of Bill Veeck, Veeck as in Wreck.

Clients ask me for marketing tips all the time. Of course, a cynic might think: “If he were that good at marketing, he’d probably be writing and pushing his own books.” Most authors hate marketing and think it’s icky; they just want to write, publish, and let their work rise on its merits. Well, it is icky. It’s like picking up after your dog icky. However, if you do not pick up after your dog, your back yard is not a fun place.

Other than how to approach Amazon reviewers, there is not a lot of useful stuff I can tell people about marketing books. The cynic above? S/he is quite correct about me.

The author who refuses to embrace marketing, and who insists that it’s a commercial rather than a vanity book, should be writing fantasy. That’s because that stance is indicative of a very active and fertile imagination, an ability to suspend disbelief in the face of obvious evidence. This should enable him or her to come up with some amazing alternate realities.

I believe that all projects should begin with a fundamental mindset. Winston Churchill knew it. His six-volume WWII memoirs, which are some of my favorite reading, began with a Moral of the Work:

“In war: resolution. In defeat: defiance. In victory: magnanimity. In peace: goodwill.”

One may debate the moral, its applicability to the telling of history, or whether Churchill lived up to it in life. He did establish a mindset, and one supposes it guided him. Thus it is with writing, or the marketing of writing. If the mindset toward marketing is that it’s icky, I see a high probability that the result will reflect the mindset. That means the author doesn’t sell very many books, and perhaps even takes a net loss after all the initial expenses are considered.

So; mindset before all. And that’s why authors seeking marketing tips must read Veeck’s book.

  • It is about growing up around and operating baseball teams.
  • It is about breaking attendance records, even with lousy teams.
  • It is about one’s approach to the public.
  • It is about just enough chicanery.
  • It is about an unconventional mentality.
  • It is about marketing without fear, shame, or guilt.
  • It is about how to treat those with whom one works.
  • It is about having fun, and plenty of laughter, while practicing all of the above.

If authors let some healthy portion of Veeck’s rollicking, fun-loving, generous, brass-balled, loyalty-building, establishment-defying, disability-defying, fiscally savvy, opportunistic mindset sink into their marketing approach, there is further point in discussing strategies. They will have a mindset, a guiding attitude, and will thus be able to carry out those strategies without feeling like they are picking up dog turds.

If they decline to read it, or read it and decide that marketing is still icky and they just want to write, I will be delighted to serve as their editor and will not bother them any more about reading Veeck’s book. However, they should know that I’ve already given them my best marketing advice, from my limited storehouse of same, and that I may not have much else of use to tell them about how to get people to buy books.


 

*I can’t finish a discussion of a book written with Ed Linn without a shoutout to his efforts as co-author. I have read several sports books written ‘with Ed Linn.’ Mr. Linn has passed on in recent years, but he happens to be one of my best examples of voice. All of Veeck’s books with Mr. Linn sound consistently Veecky. Others, with other autobiographists, sound like those persons. When I edit multiple POV first person fiction, I remind myself that those voices must, must, must differ, must match to the developed characters, and must further the speaker’s development.

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How (and how not) to solicit book reviews

The book industry has changed, in case you weren’t paying attention, and the downfall of the New York model has gone hand in hand with the changes in the game’s admission rules. The bar has dropped from ‘has to make the publisher money’ to ‘author has to be willing to shell out a little money or become a DIY publisher him/herself.’ If you don’t hire any editing, proofreading, typesetting, cover art or printing, there’s no noteworthy cost. It’s guaranteed to be lousy on some level, because just about no one who writes well does all the rest of that well, but congrats: you’re published.

In short, the ticket price has dropped to a sliding scale, but there is no parking or mass transit, and traffic is horrible.

If you self-publish, of course, you’re also the marketing department. (Even under other forms of publishing, you are still the marketing department, though it’s more comforting to pretend that you are not.) That means trying to get some book reviews up on Amazon, which probably has 90% of the market share, or on blogs or other bookselling sites. Most people will read at least a few book reviews before buying a book. A book with no reviews appears to be a book that has generated zero interest, and inspires like in the shopper.

Where this leads: if you’re written any Amazon reviews of any note at all, there are a lot more people seeking reviews than there once were. Naughty secret: for whatever it was worth, under the old Amazon review system where someone named Harriet Klausner ranked as #1 for years by writing about three book reports a day, my highest ranking (out of about 150,000 reviewers) was #73. In 2000, that got me about 1-2 review requests per month.

Today, under the new ranking system (in which my body of work is unremarkable) and having written about ten reviews in the last ten years, I get 1-2 review requests per week. It has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the exponential increase in self-marketers. Self-publishers, even those who hire professional assistance and produce quality work, are of necessity self-marketers. The self-publisher who is not also a self-marketer is either disinterested in making money, or disinterested in facing reality.

Some of those seeking reviews are doing it right, and some are doing it wrong. Here is how to do it right.

  • The approach must be personal and by name. ‘Dear Reviewer’ is of minimal worth; that tells me it’s spam, and should be deleted.
  • The approach must indicate why I was selected. A generalist approach (“as you have reviewed many books on Amazon…”) is a failure, because that tells me it’s spam.
  • The why must be credible and sensible. At the least, it should refer to a genre of material I have read, and better that it include specific titles. I’m not saying that someone needs to butter me up, just that it needs not to look like spam.
  • The offer must include a print copy of the book. Of course, this is not true for many reviewers, and is not possible for many books. To me, an author serious enough about wanting a review is serious enough to mail me a copy. Therefore, this one’s optional, as I have specific conditions that don’t apply to everyone else.
  • The offer must not involve a pre-publication version, a.k.a. a galley. Galleys may be rarer today, but I remember a number of approaches where someone wanted me to review a .pdf of the galley. I don’t think too many reviewers are interested in pre-publication galleys–they want to review the book after it’s gone gold.
  • The offer must include contact information beyond an e-mail address. This is business. We are real people. If you are an author, you’re a public figure on some level. Providing your contact information highlights your authenticity and encourages me to take you seriously. If you write under a pen name, you should provide your real name, or if not, explain candidly to me why you can’t (your ex-husband is a complete psycho, you are living under an assumed name in Ecuador, etc.).
  • The offer must not put me on a mailing list of people to spam later. I will generally remember who has written to me before, so if you send out a second round hoping for better results, you won’t get those results from me. I realize that this sounds implausible; who would do such a stupid thing? Please believe me when I say that some people are so desperate for publicity, they will do exactly this. When I see it again, I get very grouchy. I had to report one author to her ISP.
  • The offer must be phrased in your best writing. Because if you can’t write well when you step into my spotlight (and presumably are presenting yourself at your very best), that tells me that your book may be badly written. If I suspect that it is, I won’t proceed further.

Why?

Because my time is finite, and I don’t want to accept a commitment to read a book that will be torture to my brain. Especially when good practice demands that I drop whatever else I am reading and fulfill my commitment to read it.

Because I will then be expected to review it (and professional ethics demand that I do so in a timely manner), and I have zero fundamental desire to impale a book in public. The idea of harming an aspiring author’s prospects is completely counter to my line of work, my thought process and level of enthusiasm–it feels like a police officer ordered to slap around a nice elderly lady. Most would refuse.

Three, because I get nothing from this. I don’t have tremendous motivation to write book reviews, as anyone who looks at my body of work at Amazon (seven serious book reviews in the last four years) can tell. When I write a book review, I am donating my time almost for free, and to make it worse, Amazon is going to whore my review out to anyone it wishes (a major reason not to donate them free content).

Even if you do everything right, I may not end up accepting a review copy, and the reasons may have nothing to do with anything you said or did. I could just be too busy to do it right and on time. But if you do everything right, someone else will.

The worst thing about book reviewing

…is a bad book by a good guy.

I mostly don’t donate free content to Amazon any more, and when I do, there’s usually a motive beyond the desire to share my opinion. There are many reasons why, from the basic dumbness of the rating system to Amazon’s whoring of the content to not donating work to for-profit enterprises. In the past I’ve talked about how not to solicit book reviews. That’s another reason why: most of the books whose authors wish me to review them, I don’t care to read. Either their book is in a genre I’ve never shown that I cared about, or they want me to review galleys or e-copies, or they write badly enough in the letter to make me decline. After you get one bite of a rotten egg, after all, do you keep eating?

Now and then, an author does it all right. I had such a situation just before we moved to Idaho. Author seemed mature, pleasant and sincere, pitched the review correctly. I really don’t like thriller stories that much, but I’ve reviewed enough Laurell K. Hamilton books that if he imagined I liked thriller/mystery, it only meant he’d done his homework. He offered a complimentary print review copy, as authors (or publishers’ reps) must. They simply must, for it’s the only compensation the reviewer gets in return for committing to read a book which may be agony to finish, donating hours of time to a tragic cause while looking wistfully at the pile titled ‘Books To Read Which I Know Are Much Better Than This.’ The only way he could have hit the ball harder was for the subject to just happen to line up more with my preferences; say, a travel biography. If there were a book I’d take a chance on, this author’s would be the one.

So I did. My custom is that when I’m sent a review copy, I drop any other unpaid work in its tracks and get to reading. The author deserves that courtesy. I let the author know the book (actually two) had arrived, grabbed a diet cola and sat down to read.

The ideal result for all is that I love the book. I don’t want to shamble through 300 pages of suffering. I also don’t want to write a review that leaves blisters. I don’t want to write a Gentleman’s C review (a three-star review given out of mercy to a one-star book). If the author is famous, or has committed offenses against historical writing, I don’t one bit mind hammering the stake, decapitating the corpse, sewing holy wafers into the fangy mouth, and chucking the head into a river. That sort of author will probably never see the review, and if he or she does, probably won’t care. S/he will probably do another line, say ‘those who can’t do, pan those who can do’ and tell Araceli to do a better job on the kitchen. To an aspiring author, though, a very articulate but harsh review is a serious problem.

Most people work more on the principle of suggestion than they like to admit. In this context, if Joe Reviewer highlights a dozen glaring weaknesses in a book, anyone who reads that review and then the book is likely to watch for those weaknesses. And to post ‘me too.’ The whole picture can unravel. One could always take the ‘tough luck, be a big boy/girl’ approach, write a brutally honest and balanced review, and let the chips fall. And if I took reviewing more seriously than is the case, I might. In fact, I really don’t even give a damn about Amazon reviews. Too many fools, too much gang-rating, and too many people with no taste. They are the worst metric going that does the most needless damage to good books and promotes bad books. Yes, the people have spoken, but the people are stupid. This is why McDonald’s is more popular than Fuddrucker’s, and why democracy breaks. It follows that, not wanting to suffer though a bad book, I try to avoid reviewing them. Now and then I get surprised in a bad way, as in the case under review.

I’d expected to yawn over the story but not the writing, yet it was the other way around. The author had a great story concept, but the presentation was pure tyro. If he engaged an editor, he or she needs to be fired. Typos, typesetting mistakes, bad character introductions, perspective all over the place, forgetting what the reader knows and does not, dialogue not very credible, passive voice everywhere, inconsistencies of tense. If I had been asked to edit it, the author would have paid what I charge for a complete rewrite. And yet the fundamental tale was excellent, with plenty of surprises and good discipline in pace of revelation. Even as I groaned over the flaws, it held my interest to the very last in a genre I barely like.

What do you do in that case? Hammer the stake? Deceive the public? Welsh on your commitment?

Sure, you have every moral right to post a completely honest review, and in the take-your-quarts big boy/girl school of professional writing (where being mean is a way some people like to show off their cred, and where being arrogant and smug is taken by so many as a sign of authorial coolness), you would. You’d also hurt a human being. Remember, I care minimally about my rep as an Amazon reviewer. Amazon and its reader base don’t pay me enough to care. The only pay I got was a copy of a book, and I’m not generally inclined to turn around and hurt people who paid me…if I can help it. I also would rather not leave behind me a trail of slain dreams. To get me to play Simon Cowell, they have to up their bid. A lot.

When I realized that an honest review would skewer the book, I wrote to the author and said so. I offered him three choices:

  1. The big boy/girl method, posted with no holds barred.
  2. Same review, but sent to him privately.
  3. A more informal yet candid critique, without the writing-for-public-consumption gloss.

What I did not tell him was that 3) would be far and away the most painless and helpful for both of us. Happily, that’s what he chose anyway. If I have to say it, I did not pitch my own services as a book mechanic. Now that would be sleazy: lurk for writers needing help, lure them in, beat down their will by panning their writing, then offer to save them for a fee. Marketing in disguise; the car dealership service department where you take your vehicle in for an oil change, and they ‘find’ $2000 worth of stuff to fix (that would cost $750 at a real mechanic’s shop, except the real mechanic would tell you that $250 would cover what you actually need). The HVAC company in Kennewick that came out to diagnose a minor noise, kept breaking my heater a little worse with each visit, then wanted to sell me a new one. I despise it and I’m not going to do it. I was approached as a reviewer, and should stick to that.

He took the critique well, considering I was telling him he couldn’t write. What he does with that is up to him. It’s the worst thing about book reviewing: trying to remain halfway considerate without sacrificing honesty. And it’s why I decline most requests for reviews. I am in this situation too often for my liking, I end up doing lots of extra work, and there’s always the chance I’ll be punished for it anyway (making me wish I’d just adopted the big boy/girl approach).

Should authors respond to negative reviews?

In my opinion, the answer is a universal and thundrous ‘never!’ Don’t apologize because they say they wasted their money, don’t gripe that they weren’t fair, don’t bitch that they were mean. Don’t do anything. Say nothing. Shut up. I think it’s fine to respond to an exceptionally positive review, or respond to a question, but when they are critical, say not one word. You cannot win. You can only look worse.

You will look hypersensitive, thus showing other detractors that your goat is available for the getting. You will look like your work hasn’t been very successful, because you feel a negative review is impacting you. You will look petty, because you are bickering. And if you’re not careful, you may look stupid, because you fail to get the point everyone else got.

While new authors are usually the most sensitive about reviews, some damned famous ones can get very worked up about an adverse review. One may remember Laurell K. Hamilton finally breaking down and venting Dear Negative Reader, which came to define a trope. She’s never heard the end of that piece, because it conveyed to the public where she was sensitive.

The reasons not to crab back at critical reviews divide into two groups:

Professional:

  • Maybe they were actually being merciful, and you’ll convince them to stop that and say what they really thought.
  • You look petty and small-time, with so little real work to do that you have time to argue with reviewers.
  • Your book must not be selling very well if you’re afraid of a bad review.

Personal:

  • It shows the weak spot in your armor of public presence.
  • It then gives more people a good reason to want to find that weak spot and use it to torment you.
  • It opens you up to a debate you cannot win even if you’re right, stepping onto a level playing field where people won’t hesitate to gang up on you.

As you might guess, this came up due to an author’s mistake. A little over seven years ago, I wrote the following review of Joann Kuzma Deveny’s 99 Ways to Make a Flight Attendant Fly–Off the Handle: A Guide for the Novice or Oblivious Air Traveler.

Before I paid $13 for this I should have looked at the length. My mistake. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot of content here compared to other recent flight attendant books out there, and that content can be boiled down to a few salient points of guidance for travelers:

1) Have no emotions except gratitude to your sainted flight attendants for choosing to serve you. Strive for your own form of sainthood, which amounts to never having needs or feelings except the foregoing.

2) You are not here to get from point A to point B. You are here to monitor your every action to improve the flight attendants’ convenience. Now you know.

3) Flight attendants basically do not like you, so watch it, lest you receive the Dreaded Eye Roll and the Stony Ignore.

There. I saved you $13. Too bad the author doesn’t give us any real reason to want to make her life easier, as she doesn’t seem to like us much to begin with. Well, I didn’t like her co-workers much either to begin with, based on experience, but I’ve always tried to keep an open mind. I still will, but no thanks to Deveny.

That’s where the book fails those it purports to help: it fails to create any sense of community between flight attendant and passenger. Both are victims: the victims of airline deregulation, cramped planes, crappy food and miserable overall conditions. The two most aggrieved groups involved in the airline industry are natural allies. A balanced book that promoted improved relations between the two would be a real service. Instead, into the hands of already angry and frustrated passengers is dropped a treatise on how to spread that annoyance around to the nearest targets–with no incentive offered as to why they should not. So I’ll pick up some slack here.

Fellow fliers, please try and treat your flight crew with courteous respect, for everyone’s benefit, in spite of the fact that they rate you slightly above a used diaper. In so doing, you’ll rise above the mean-spirited ranting that fills this book. Focus your anger where it is deserved: the airline industry executives and the immense bonuses they get, all because flight attendants and passengers are the ones jointly taking a hosing.

As for me, I want to fly even less now than I did before I read it. I wonder if it’s occurred to the author that this sentiment isn’t really going to promote greater job security in her field.

As cold as that seems, the truth was colder. If I’d meant to hurt her, I’d have estimated the word count, to show people how little actual content they were buying. I’d have pointed out how many copies were for sale for $0.01 on the secondary market. I’d have given her one star (Amazon’s lowest rating) instead of two. I’d have used much harsher verbiage. It needed a critical review, but I had no reason to want to make sure it stung. Had I lacked all empathy for flight attendants, I wouldn’t have pleaded with the public to treat them decently in spite of the book.

Today, a mere seven years later, she commented on the review to complain:

Please look further to 99 Ways… eleven 4 & 5 star reviews. The overall rating is 4 out of 5, with only 2 people, with no sense of humor, in the minority. (2 to 11)

She left a similar gripe on the other critical review today. Here’s what’s comical there: she’d left a similar gripe on that one two years ago. Evidently she didn’t even read her own comment. The best argument she could come up with was, in digested form: ‘ignore this humorless minority opinion, other people love it.’

Salient point: before she griped, she looked okay. She had a couple of negative reviews, a much greater number of positive ones, and the reader was left to judge who to believe–the majority or the minority. (As I see it, I did my part. If they still want to buy it, it’s not my money, so I am not invested and don’t care.) Now she looks bad. Now every reader knows that she will be easily stung. If some real jerk wants to, he or she can use that to make the author’s life very unhappy. Not the sort of thing I (or any person with a life) would do, but the Internet has every kind of person, including obsessive psychotic bullies.

Will I do as I told her, and go back to re-read and edit the review so as to do a more thorough job of shooting the book full of holes? Nah, I doubt it. I was mainly warning her what a dumb thing she’d done. I’m not as sensitive about such things. She doesn’t like my review, well, fine; if I had cobbled together a minimal amount of mediocre content into a $13 book, and someone called me on it, that’s not what I’d want to hear either because that speaks to the book being a bad value. If it really is a bad value, of course that’s the last thing she wants people to grasp, because they will buy one of the 33 used copies available from $0.01 (at which price point it’s an okay value). I responded mainly out of kindness, to teach her a bit of a lesson, which she really does not deserve of me.

Then that thought morphed, and I realized that the entire subject might make an interesting blog entry. There is a perspective from the author’s side, but the great majority of talking about writing is done purely from a reader’s perspective; maybe readers are interested in the author’s side. One of the first things an author needs is to learn how to behave. If Deveny now pulls up this post on search, and leaves a snide comment, that’ll be proof she didn’t get what I was trying to convey to her, but I won’t stop her from compounding the mistake. Nor will I be angry. This is writing for public consumption, and not everyone will like or value it, and some of them will say so. I’ll deal with it and move on.