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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: amazon

Why I don't write negative book reviews

Stephen H. Provost

I have a simple policy when it comes to reviewing books: If I like them, I give 'em props. If I don't, I keep my mouth (or my keyboard) shut.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, reactions to books are largely subjective. Some books are more popular than others, and that can speak to quality, but it also can speak to successful marketing, name recognition and other factors. A few highly praised works have bored me to tears, and some obscure volumes have been, to use my wife's term, "unputdownable."

(This is a great word, even if you won't find it in the dictionary, because it has two meanings: The book's so engaging you can't stop reading it, and it's so enjoyable, you can't find anything to criticize.)

Secondly, I like to support other artists. I know how hard it is to sell a book, and I also know how tough it can be to deal with numbing criticism from strangers who seem to take almost perverse glee in dismantling a work you've spent months or years creating. You put a big part of yourself into it, and it's hard not to take it personally if someone reams you over it. Having been on the receiving end of slow sales and (only occasionally, thank goodness) critical reviews, I know what it's like to feel that sting, so I strive to follow the Golden Rule and spare other authors any scathing rebukes from my pen.

From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
— Isaac Asimov

The Grammar Hammer

What about more objective issues? What if the book contains a ton of misspelled words, switches tenses in the middle of a chapter or treats subject-verb agreement like it's a temporary truce at best?

As an editor, these things drive me nuts, but what's even more galling is a review that consists largely or solely of grammatical critiques. Such reviews come off as holier-than-thou, and they tell me nothing about the plot or the characters. Reviewers: I want to know what you think of the story. I won't give you a gold star for digging up the most errors in some fanciful literary scavenger hunt. 

So, I won't blast an author by name in a public forum for using "it's" as a possessive or "comprise" instead of "compose," even though I may grind my teeth and roll my eyes when it happens. Those things aren't as important to me as the story, and no author can catch every mistake. (In fact, we tend to read right over our own typos, seeing what we think we've written rather than what's actually on the page. That's why we need editors. And it's why I'm more likely to hold an editor accountable for a slew of errors than I am to blame the writer.)  

If I have a criticism of a book that I believe is worth sharing with the author, I do so in private, not in a review. I may poke fun at grammatical mistakes on line, but I don't attribute them to particular writers. I like to say, as a professional editor, that I'm not getting paid to do that, but the reality is, I don't find shaming writers to be either fun or noble. I'd much rather encourage them.

Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of “telling people how bad different books are”? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
— Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

What makes a good review

So, how do I go about writing a constructive review? Here are a few things I try to include:

  • What's special about the story? What makes it stand out from the crowd?
  • You'll enjoy this book if you've enjoyed ... (fill in the blank with one or more similar titles you've enjoyed.)
  • Who was your favorite character, and why?
  • What did you like about the writer's style? Did the description stand out; if so, how? Was the dialogue crisp and realistic? Was there a twist you didn't expect?
  • If the book was "unputdownable," say so!

If I do include any critical info, I build it on a positive foundation. For example, "I enjoyed this character so much, I would have liked to see more of her. I hope the author considers telling readers more about her in a sequel."

And, of course, no spoilers.

But wait, you may say, "If you never leaves a negative review, how will potential readers know if the book isn't for them?"

That's easy. The descriptions you give might be positive, but if you mention elements of the book that appeal to some readers, these same ingredients might not interest others. If you describe the story as fast-paced, readers who don't like to feel rushed through a story line might pass. If you highlight a passionate relationship between the two main characters, that might flag those who aren't into romance to steer clear. If you label it "dark and brooding," that might not appeal to readers in search of an uplifting tale. And so on.

Believe it or not, eliminating readers who wouldn't be interested in a particular book benefits the author, too. It means that those who do read the work as the result of a review are more likely to enjoy it ... and leave a review of their own.

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
— Iris Murdoch

A lousy review isn't the end of the world, which should come as good news to authors and bad news to self-important critics who think of themselves as king-makers and book-breakers. S. Kelley Harrell calls online review sites "the slushpile of feedback," and Iris Murdoch said, "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia."

If you're an author with a leaky roof who happens to live in Patagonia, that might be a concern, but otherwise ...

A positive review probably won't make you a bestselling author, either. Still, I love getting them; most authors do. If you don't have time to leave a review, but you like a book, just rate it. That's great, too. It shows that you've read the book and (hopefully) that it kept you interested enough to reach the end. 

Speaking of the end, I've gotten there myself. At least for today.

Thanks for reading, and happy reviewing!

Goodreads to authors: Pay $600 to give away a $10 book

Stephen H. Provost

Hey, fellow authors, Jeff Bezos is laughing at you ... all the way to the bank.

Bezos is already the richest man in the world, but that’s not stopping him from making a few extra bucks off the proverbial “starving” authors.

Until now, Goodreads has offered a free service allowing authors to promote their books via giveaways. (They weren’t really free, as the authors were, giving away their books, but Goodreads didn’t make any money off it).

No more.

As an author who’s run Goodreads giveaways in the past, I received an email this morning about a new program that’s being touted as “a more powerful book marketing tool for authors and publishers.” Of course, there’s a catch: This new program will charge authors $119 bucks to run a “standard.” And if that’s not enough money to line Bezos’ (or his shareholders’) gilded pockets, you can run a “premium” giveaway for the bargain basement price of $599 smackeroos.

I call them Goodreads Takeaways.

Bezos, who just became the world’s only $100 billion man, is the founder and CEO of Amazon, which purchased Goodreads back in 2013.

Like he needs the money, right?

Forgive the sarcasm, but when you’re struggling to promote a book that sells for $10, it’s hard to get excited about paying 600 bucks just to give the damn thing away!

Any faint hope that these new packages would be somehow optional upgrades is quashed in the first paragraph of the email, which states that the new program “replaces our current Giveaways program.”

Of course, Amazon … er … Goodreads is touting enhanced features of the new packages. The standard package get “a notification letting them know there’s a giveaway starting.” Oh, goodie! Let me jump up and down a little bit higher.

And if you buy the premium package, you’ll get “premium placement in the Giveaways section.” Translated, this likely means that unless you dish out the $480 extra for the premium package, your giveaway will be buried.

(None of this is really much more than the giveaways offer now.)

I’ve paid to promote my books before. I’ve spent money on gas to drive to book signings. I’ve invested in posters and bookmarks and postcards. But I’ve never paid hundreds of dollars for the “privilege” of giving my books away, and I'm not going to do it now. That’s where I draw the line.

Oh, but the exposure!

I’m sorry, but I get paid to write. I get paid a decent salary to write in my day job, and I don’t value my work as an author any less. I'm not going to pay to do it. I'm not a flippin' vanity press.

As Wil Wheaton said when he was asked to contribute his work to Huffington Post in exchange for exposure, “How about no.”

That’s my answer to the new Goodreads Takeaways, too. They take money away from authors and give them to the richest man in the world.

Not just no. Hell no.

Let Goodreads know what you think: Take the survey here.

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