Reviewing Reviews

I never have nothing good to say, I’d rather tear things down, than build them up.
-The Offspring, “Cool To Hate”

If you haven’t been following society in the last decade-plus then there’s something wrong with you, and you need to get out of your sweatpants and breathe some fresh air (with different pants on—I don’t want anyone getting arrested and put on a certain list). On the other hand, if you have taken a moment to grace social media or tune into the news then you will realize that people complain about their freedoms and rights all the time—the best being the complaint about freedom of speech. However, the sole fact that someone is openly complaining about their freedom of speech without authoritative consequence means, in fact, that they’re free to speak, so it really makes no sense sometimes.

The point is that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and that’s how it should be, but as we progress from a “networking” standpoint, too many voices are being heard. Sounds like a mental problem. Oops, I mean, “disorder.” Remember, you need to be sensitive toward others’ issues. Actually… this is where society becomes a tad hypocritical.

In the process of telling people what they’re doing wrong, you’re also telling them how to act, think, and speak. Who’s taking away whose freedom of speech now? When we start arguing about rights and freedoms, we’re really only arguing with each other, not necessarily the “government.” And when we argue with each other, we—yep, you guessed it—censor each other. It’s kind of funny how double standards complete a full circle.

Everyone has had a platform for some time now; everyone has a pedestal to preach their regurgitated theories. Most opinions have spanned generations; it’s not like these philosophical rationalizations are fresh outlooks on life that will revolutionize society. With that being said, more and more people are offering their opinions from the way a country should be run to how well a refrigerator runs.

Let’s force an analogy here. Grade : Students :: Reviews : Authors

Grades help or destroy students, and place them amongst their peers and higher education; reviews help or destroy authors, and place them amongst their peers and the direction of their career. If you higher-education folk recognize that format of the analogy, it’s from the MAT, which is a brutal placement exam used by some graduate programs. Within this analogy explanation, there’s another comparison: both can be explained by objectiveness and subjectiveness.

The MAT is objectively brutal because many of the timed questions you just will not know and don’t have extra seconds to work out the answer. If you answer 79 of the 120 correct, it means your IQ is in the top 2%. A D+ makes you a genius on this test. Why would they make a test so hard that brilliant people would still miss 40 questions? Beats me, but others may know why.

When some questions may be difficult for one, they may be easy for another. For example, people who know how to play an instrument may understand music terminology while someone who just listens may miss the reference; or someone who has an extensive vocabulary may not be able to answer a math equation and vice versa. Subjectively brutal.

Reviews for authors will be objective or subjective, but what’s their true worth?

I personally prefer objective reviews. I feel that the reader looks more at the story and writing rather than the topic or opinions of characters. Here are four good examples:

  • “…[the author explains almost everything via narrative instead of leaving things up to interpretation].”
    • This is good constructive criticism that an author should take into account. Your readers aren’t dummies, they can figure things out.
  • “The plot was good: it progressed more quickly than it would have in reality, but that kept the read[er] engaged, there are some inaccuracies, but not commonplace enough to deter most readers.”
    • This suggests that the book could have benefited from a little less pace, and the author should either watch their fact checking or consistency, but it doesn’t bash the story for minor issues.
  • “This is a fast and easy read… the characters are well written and the author gives great attention to detail. There’s plenty of mystery and just enough good humor to keep you reading till the end.”
    • This directly focuses on readability, character development, and the author’s style, and also the dynamics of what makes the narrative engaging.
  • “…the story is complex, with interweaving parts and historical references that will force you to use knowledge you may have tucked away… and in the end, feel that the book enriched my overall learning experience beyond just the story itself.”
    • This gives other potential readers a little more detail in what they’re getting themselves into, but doesn’t summarize the plot, and also presents plenty of intrigue, almost mimicking what one could expect in the story.

Subjective reviews are simply based on a reader’s preference, but are still valid because everyone has different tastes. However, does preference tell others more about the book or the reviewer? A little of both, but a subjective review is more of a statement than a critique if that makes sense. Here are three good examples:

  • “Every single woman in the book (and there are many) is inexplicably smitten with CHARACTER. It seems as though the majority of them only exist in the book to show what a charming, seductive man he is. There isn’t a woman in the entire book that isn’t painted as either a dumb, lust-stricken bimbo or a mere tool to increase the book’s sex appeal.”
    • This shows others more about the reviewer’s stance on how women are portrayed, and there’s no significant input to the main plot. Every author is allowed to write characters how they choose, and occasionally stereotypes are written with intention to boost another character’s traits. This reviewer actually proves that, but puts a negative spin on a writer’s strategy.
  • “There were way too many characters to keep up with without getting confused or simply bored. At least three or four of them could be cut from the novel without affecting the story or the relationships of the other characters in any way.”
    • This speaks more of how confused and bored this specific reviewer became. Just because they couldn’t figure out why the characters were placed in the book, doesn’t mean they don’t belong. An author feels that each character in their work serves a purpose, even if minor.
  • “I barely related to any of [the characters].”
    • This one always makes me laugh. Read a different book then, not everyone is going to relate to you. A 50-something-year-old bitter man who suffered through tragedy doesn’t relate to a 20-something-year-old cheerful girl whose biggest issue in life so far was when she posted an unflattering picture on Instagram.

Other issues that stem from a subjective review are the thought of whether or not the writing was strong or poor, and reader misconceptions. Here are two good examples:

  • “BOOK by AUTHOR was a clever endearing read but riddle[d] by [the] misuse of words, incomplete sentences, and dropped suffixes. One has to hope that the ARC presented was unedited and not the final effort.”
    • This is a little questioning because I don’t think any published book would have incomplete sentences, but the main problem here is the insult. What if the reviewer was wrong (and probably was)? They’re teetering on the edge of defamation if an author was to overreact.
  • “There were a few factual inaccuracies that were a bit too ridiculous to excuse.”
    • This was a review posted for a FICTION book that WASN’T historical fiction. So… yeah.

People need to remember, especially when dealing with fiction, that a novel is not a term paper, and to be mindful of what genre you’re reading.  Some situations may not make total sense to heighten the intensity of the plot, and some sentences will not be grammatically correct for style and voice purposes. The best example I can give of this is from Jonathan Coe’s “The Rotters’ Club”.  The book ends with a 13,955-word sentence. Do you think those 30-some pages were grammatically and structurally correct? Probably not, but it captured the essence of exactly what Coe was trying to write.

So what really matters in a review? What should you really consider? You don’t have time to dissect what everyone is saying, but look for similarities in the positive and negative aspects of a novel. If just one person doesn’t like the writing style and is finding multiple mistakes, but nine do enjoy the style and don’t mention any errors, then that person probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. On the contrary, if nine people say the book is poorly-written, and one person thought it was the best book they’ve ever read, then that may be the support of a family member or friend.

Unfortunately, that happens all the time, which is also fine. Another danger is that other “readers” will copy tidbits from posted reviews. You see this with paid promos. This recently happened to me. I ran a promotion for one of my novels and received a two-star review that simply stated the reader didn’t find the book interesting at all, the sentences didn’t make any sense, and the book was poorly written. I’m fine if I get a two-star review if that reader didn’t find the book interesting—again, people have different tastes—but attacking the writing without examples to back it up raised questions of the validity of the reviewer. The woman who ran the promo called that reviewer out, and they ended up recanting their post.

Authors know the gig; we know that there are going to be bad reviews for our books and that’s perfectly okay. Just make sure you have an explanation on hand, because, as we also know regarding society, people are on edge to make a spectacle of something that isn’t important because they have the freedom to do so.

In conclusion:

Reviewers, be honest and constructive, and don’t censor a person’s writing because of bias.

Authors, be willing to accept criticism and use it, and ignore the subjectiveness—don’t change your style to appease a handful of disgruntled readers.

Be you.

Rejection and Defeat

I wrote this article for a new indie press, Universal Butterfly, and it was originally published in their August 2018 Newsletter. You can subscribe to their newsletters via their website by clicking here.

“Please please tell me now.”
-Duran Duran, “Is There Something I Should Know”

We live in a world where rejection and defeat are being erased, criticism would rather be avoided and freedom to judge is safe behind a screen. Unfortunately, that isn’t as good as it sounds. People need to be vulnerable so they can overcome their exposure, and that means they must lose and be told “no” at least once in their life.

For lucky ones such as myself, I’ve lost and been rejected consistently throughout my life. Don’t worry, I’m doing all right (well…), plus it makes victory and acceptance so much sweeter and rewarding. The publishing industry has taught me all so well.

I’ll compare getting a book traditionally-published to picking up a potential suitor. You worked hard on developing your product (your experience, personality, presentation, etc.), presented it to multiple people (chicks or dudes), and then were embarrassingly denied over and over, not knowing which aspect of you was actually at fault (probably everything). Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll get friend-zoned, teased with the possibility of something developing further, waste your time, and end up going to your safety net: Plenty of Fish. Self-Publishing is the Plenty of Fish of the book industry.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing – there’s definitely some quality out there, but we all know it’s mostly for instant and stubborn gratification. It’s a pool of willingness, and people don’t like to gloat about what they did after the fact… and then what about paying for services? Oh, boy. Are we talking about dating still or publishing? I don’t even know anymore.

Rejection in the publishing industry is going to happen; it’s inevitable so don’t go in thinking you’re going to be a bestseller on your first draft. I always say to no one in particular, “There are a lot more starving musicians out there than successful ones,” and the same goes for writers.

I’ve been tough on Self-Publishing thus far, but there are two reasons that back my thoughts: I’m experienced with the platform and Self-Publishing isn’t as independent as it was a decade or so ago. In 2011, Amazon ruined that. They, like they do with everything, monopolized the industry. So, in fact, there’s no independence in independentpublishing from that standpoint. They coddled you, they stroked your ego, they took your work and buried it in over-saturation – however, that’s for another article.

So what is the best platform? If I knew then I would be a bestselling author, and honestly, everyone has different needs and ideas of success. However, I can offer an opinionated and realistic guide for your goals in really bad dating metaphors.

Self-Publishing: Netflix and chill.
Agents: Trendy and stuck up and will probably end up alone. 
Imprints: The good-looking yet inferior best friend, but if drunk enough, you might get lucky.
Big Houses: Mean Girls, but a She’s All That scenario isn’t out of the question, just a slim possibility.
Small Indie Presses: A great marriage – traditional, but independent George is still alive.

I had a recent discussion with a publisher in the UK about the industry and he was explaining how publishers don’t want to spend the time on a project that will require a lot of work and that they tend to lack in efficiency at times. Though the latter depends on the house, imprint, or press, the former is spot on. This means you need to make sure that your work is polished. There can be mistakes, because there will be, but make sure your submission is not littered with grammar and spelling mishaps. Smaller publishers receive a lot of submissions so don’t ruin your chances over things you can control.

Also, 90% of manuscripts sent to industry professionals are usually rejected (it’s like 95% by agents), and many just from a review of the query letter because of the amount of submissions they receive. This is why making sure the story has good structure, your writing has great skill and the plot and characters present a lot of intrigue is so important – that, and you have to have a polished product.

Advice: Computers can hold a lot of documents, save as many drafts as you need. My books sometimes go through ten drafts, and there are still mistakes. Editing services cost a lot of money so if you’re not established you really need to buckle down and sacrifice your time, but also let friends and family read through your work with fresh eyes. You will never be a good editor of your own work; that’s a fact. It’s easy to breeze over the words because you already know how they’re supposed to read.

If I may delve back into my connections in the UK, and I will, I have noticed that of the few I have submitted to in the past, they’re the most responsive whether it is acceptance or rejection. Since we’re focusing on the negative here, the constructive criticism received has been actually useful. If you think about it, anything beats silence or “it’s not a good fit for us” or “unfortunately at this time” or “the ending isn’t what I expected” or “your grammar and spelling are awful” or “you suck and you should give up.”

What can you take from that? Only submit to publishers in the UK. Wait, that wouldn’t help us out at all. The truth is, and another local publisher we know has alluded to this, that no one publisher is the end-all, be-all experts. You have a voice and you have a story so the amount of interest will differ, but if “no” has become a common reply in your inbox then you may want to consider revising a tad.

On one hand, I believe it’s a publisher’s duty to offer a critique or validation during rejection to help the industry as a whole. Here’s something to think about: print sales increased 1.9% across the board last year which is great, but not one new book sold more than one million copies. The point is that commoditization has over-saturated the market, and lesser quality works are devaluing the unique, great stories still vetting for discovery.

To sum up: people will still pay for something worth reading so make your story better.

However, it would help if you knew how to make sure your work is quality, and a simple “not for us” doesn’t do you or your manuscript any justice. You put a lot of effort into your story so you deserve an honest review.

Now, on the other hand (finally) you need to accept the critique and the rejection as well. They’re in the industry, you’re not. No matter what you think you know, you probably don’t know. No matter what your family and friends said, this is a merited unbiased opinion so take it for the sake of your and the industry’s progression.

Rejection and defeat are an important part of life so use both to get better. Separate yourself from the writers just trying something new for fun and become the writer willing to progress and make an impact.

Verified Purchases

“You’ll never hear so much as a complaint from me, as long as, baby, you don’t lie to me.”
-The Fratellis, “Baby Don’t You Lie To Me!”

It’s probably not the wisest decision to target a corporation that’s well on their way to taking over the world, but no one is listening anyway, so why not.

As you may be aware, I’m an author. If not, then I suggest you click on another menu item on my site. No, I don’t have food available. Stop multi-tasking while at a restaurant, you’re confusing all of us! Authors don’t make a lot of money—the successful writers are a misrepresentation of the general wordsmith mass. For example, I can probably afford something off a value menu at a fast-food restaurant while someone like Dan Brown is eating somewhere classy like, oh, I don’t know, Olive Garden or Chili’s. There are a lot more starving artists than there are successful ones. Don’t worry, I’m eating just fine, let’s not take that out of context and label me “insensitive” or whatever other terms people use to blow things out of proportion.

The over-saturated market has created two constants: an author needs quality reviews, and to hit social media harder than a teenage girl. Wait, the phrasing on that seems wrong. You know what I meant though. Regarding the former, the catch-22 is that you need reviews to get sales, but sales to get reviews.

There’s something I can tell you from experience: People used to take advantage of the system by paying for fake reviews. As a ghostwriter, a company once reached out to me to write multiple reviews for a wage for each post. I didn’t want to do that, no matter how much I wanted to join Dan Brown at Olive Garden. So Amazon cracked down on these trends and put into effect a new review policy. Good, right?

Yes. They became stricter on where IP addresses and email accounts originated, and also started fully implementing the “verified purchase” requirements. Still good, right?

Yes, in a way. Sure, people can buy your product, but not everyone gets to review it. Here are two examples that aren’t allowed:

-“A family member of the product creator posts a five-star customer review to help boost sales”: As many authors know, especially ones that are trying to break into the industry, your family will probably be the first people to know about your published work, and they will buy it, no matter how dysfunctional they appear to be. They will read it, some will be more honest than others, and then they will want to help you out. Fantastic! So Amazon is essentially saying that your mom can’t tell you that you’re the best at everything. However, this just says “five-star” which makes it possible for a jealous sibling to give a sub-par or slanderous review just because. How is that fair? Still, it’s understandable in a way.

-“You must have spent at least $50 on using a valid credit or debit card in the past 12 months”: This right here irks me a bit. I had two excellent reviews by people who bought my book off Amazon, but since they hadn’t spent $50 yet, they weren’t eligible to post a review. Why does it matter? They bought a product, and wanted to review it. Sounds like they were verified purchasers, but I guess Amazon just needs to get paid.

This is where I don’t think it makes sense. Say you’re a self-published author who has used Amazon’s service to put their book out. Amazon gets a hefty cut as part of the sale, so wouldn’t they want more verified reviews to gain more revenue? I’m all for making sure the reviews are valid, but when they obviously are, but Amazon wants even more money on top of what they made from the purchase, then I believe they’re crossing a line.

Here’s an eye-opener for you: If an author sells a paperback book on Amazon at $8.99 the author receives a little over $1. Yum, that’s McDonald’s money right there.

Here’s another eye-opener for you: Amazon’s sales of products, which includes books, rose 25.5% in 2017, to $118.5 billion.

But people can’t review something unless they spend $50? It doesn’t seem like Amazon is hurting that much to purposely hinder the sales of their own authors.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to not buy anything from Amazon because they had messed up my last 6 orders of 2017. That’s pathetic for a multi-billion-dollar, industry-leading corporation if you ask me. I will tell you this as well, their screw-ups accounted for more than $50 easily. Interesting.

Despite what I said, there are some exceptions to what I will buy now on Amazon, but I better damn well spend $50 before I can say what they are. Uh-oh, Is there a drone outside my window right now? Shh!

Oh what the hell. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Hi Jeff!

I’m just saying there needs to be a little bit of flexibility here, but sadly, this isn’t all Amazon’s fault. If people were just decent to begin with then this wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, there’s no way to monitor that without it affecting everyone from the big guy to the little guy, from the fraudulent to the honest.