Incentivized Fraudulence (Eesh, That Sounds Serious)

“Don’t sell your soul for a pack of lies”
Eagle-Eye Cherry, “Rainbow Wings”

I realize that last post’s song, “She Works Hard For The Money” by Donna Summer, would have been a perfect fit for this article as well, but the lyric above still strikes the right chord (pun intended).

Solicitation. Whoa, whoa, whoa, settle down now, we’re not talking about the bad kind—or good kind, whichever way you want to view paying for services. The solicitation I’m talking about takes place in the writing community and the publishing industry. I’ve done it, you’ve done and future authors will do it.

Just to be clear, because I know some readers may be “groggy” from the turn of the year, I’m not talking about prostitution involving sexual acts. Sometimes, you just have to state the obvious.

Moving on. Let’s start by reading Amazon’s Customer Review Policy. I will give you a minute.

Don’t worry, that wasn’t the extended one. If you did read it, you may have noticed that some of the exclusions may seem outlandish, others valid and most create a double standard. Authors are in a difficult predicament when it comes to reviews because, whether we like it or not, they’re very important and have a direct impact on sales. There has been an ongoing argument in the writing community about who reviews are intended for. Some reviewers tend to believe that their posts are generally for readers, while publishers and authors view critiques useful for their own business or brand. The truth is: reviews are meant for everyone. Readers use reviews to see if the work is something that matches their interests or sounds intriguing enough to purchase, publishers examine how their product is performing through direct market analysis, and authors review criticism—hopefully constructive, but we know that’s not true all the time—to understand their demographics and better their writing. Though it seems that a review is as simple as writing something down and clicking the mouse, it’s far more complex than that. Here’s something a little startling: authors, the creators of the intellectual property, may actually make the least amount of money off their work out of the three mentioned parties.

Last post we discussed the amount of money that authors must put forth to publish a book, and that includes the time spent drafting and completing a written work. The author is now responsible for more tasks that have been primarily done by others in the past. This isn’t just limited to authors, but most writers. For example, in the journalism industry many job openings post duties that require the writer to not only write and report, but also take their own pictures and touch them up, design the layout of the article and fully edit the piece. As a journalist, that isn’t a big deal, however, they’re still only being compensated for one job, not three. I once saw an open position for a paper in Santa Fe, N.M., and the writer was responsible for all of the duties above and the salary was $30,000. The average salary in Santa Fe is $56,000 and the cost of living is very high for the region.

You may be thinking, “What the hell does this loser know?” Well, I know this type of stuff. I’m a writer in many forms, and this is why I returned to school to earn my graduate degree in journalism and creative media, and this is what my research involves. I’m here to help the writer—unlike other parties and platforms.

It takes authors longer to write a book than publishers to publish that work, and it takes authors longer to write a book than it takes for reviewers to read and critique that work. The time authors spend doing the actual work doesn’t guarantee any income. On the other hand, publishers take over during a stage that should lead to sales which betters their chances at turning a profit, and many reviewers are incentivized for their contributions—despite what Amazon believes, and what they do themselves for that matter.

Peter Riva, Publishers Weekly- Why most Amazon reader reviews are worthless

With incentive comes fraudulence. Ex literary agent Peter Riva said in his 2016 Publishers Weekly article, “My observation is that most Amazon and Barnes & Noble reader reviews are either fraudulent, or, at best, useless in assessing the true merit of any given title.” He continued, “It is trampling on First Amendment rights and playing into the hands of what is, after all, a nonliterary, mathematical rating system.”

Money drives the industry, but it doesn’t drive the authors. Many authors do this because they love writing and creating, however, their success and status is directly impacted on how other parties are incentivized. This is most apparent in reviewer credibility and retailer/media gatekeeping. Regarding the former, just like the publishing industry, the reviewer world is also competitive and over-saturated. In order to keep earning revenue through advertising and subscriptions, reviewers strategically provide scattered ratings; it’s almost like a quota to appear as a true critic rather than a paid blogger. An author may be receiving an average review just because a reviewer needs to mix up their rating average and not based on the quality of the content. The consequence of losing revenue isn’t the only factor in fraudulent reviews, however. There is also the relationship factor between blogger and author, whether that is a positive or negative connection.

In regards to the latter, giant online retailers like Amazon and major publications like The New York Times have a stranglehold on which titles are presented to potential readers. They decide what is relevant and what is trending, and most of it is based on what already sells. Just like in the news: we’re only aware of what we’re exposed to, and sometimes the relevance is for ratings. Amazon essentially tells authors they’re prohibited from soliciting their material for reviews, however, this creates a double standard. Amazon will solicit an author’s work via their advertising campaigns—and incentivize reviewers themselves—and the more the writer is willing to spend, the more their book will be visible across the massive retailer’s site. They don’t care about quality; they only care about quantity—available titles and revenue, that is. Who suffers in the end? The author.

Jay Green, The Washington Post- Amazon sellers say online retail giant is trying to help itself, not consumers

In his 2019 Washington Post report, Jay Greene explained that in 2018, Amazon generated $42.7 billion in revenue from seller services, fees and commissions, and they have the power to charge for communication with account managers, push their own brands, alter pricing and control product exposure through advertising services.

That is a lot of money if you couldn’t figure that out, and authors are considered sellers as well. However, they also produce intellectual property, but as we have discussed before with the music industry, that doesn’t seem to actually matter no matter the legal jargon and threats. If intellectual property is work or invention that is the result of creativity, then shouldn’t the rights always be with the creator? Of course, people sell rights and this and that, but the origin remains and the creator of that specific work or invention will always be the same. That is an argument for another time, however, and law definitions are written a certain way on purpose.

Anyway, we’re spiraling here. The truth of the matter is reviews and publishers and self-publishing platforms are needed, but authors also need more flexibility when it comes to how they go about promoting their work because they deserve to make money off their intellectual property; especially considering most still maintain those rights. Authors should be aware that if their work only receives five-star ratings, then the reviews probably are not credible. I received a one-star review for Cursed: A Jack Swift Case recently, and that’s okay, not everyone is going to like your content, but what is said in these types of critiques needs to be considered as well. Due to cases of fraudulence, it has left authors and readers in a annoyingly difficult spot because sometimes both parties really need to take the time to dissect the review (time they don’t have) to see why a critic was unhappy or overzealous about the work, and if the rating was valid. With said one-star review, the reviewer was upset at a few word choices I used in dialogue (though the linguistics were consistent with a character’s personality). Did that warrant a one-star rating? Did the other 80,000 words not matter? Are we now teetering on the line on unwarranted censorship? Honest constructive reviews help everyone, but unfortunately, we all have to work for them.

Who are we really in competition with, and when did books become less about writing and more about the politics of the industry? Two of the most important things to do within the writing community is to support your fellow authors, and keep writing.

If you’re really bored, I will be more than happy to share past relevant research by scholars, and my theory paper as well if interested. Who has time for that? You should be writing because someone needs to make money off that.

Happy New Year!

 

Working for Free

“It’s a sacrifice working day to day, for little money, just tips for pay, but it’s worth it all, to hear them say that they care.”
-Donna Summer, “She Works Hard For The Money”

There is a major error in Cursed: A Jack Swift Case, and it’s embarrassing. It was pointed out by a reader, which I appreciate, and I quickly posted an apologetic statement regarding the issue here. I’m sure many others will bring up the mistake, and some may even base the entire novel on an innocent mishap.

There are two truths to think about: One, there are other proofreading errors than just the one, just like in every book, and two, some reviewers may deem the story to be completely unsuitable for publication.

Let’s cover the former first because I think authors need to be defended. Proofreading or editing your own work is nearly impossible; it will never be correct because the writer already knows what it’s supposed to say, so they tend to heavily rely on squiggly colored lines or will glance over some basic typos or grammatical errors. I know there are some authors who will say, “No way, my book is perfect and I do all the editing myself.” You may think that, but I would suggest reading it again. And then again. Sometimes I’ll go through close to ten drafts, and readers still point out errors. So why not just hire an editor? Ugh, this advice.

Proofreading and editing services cost money; it’s that simple, and they’re not cheap. Basic copy-editing can range from $25-$40 an hour, and an hour’s pace is five to ten pages. We’ll take the low-end of this calculation and use Cursed as an example. The book would have cost $1000 for the most simple of edits. So why not just have a friend or family member read through it for you? Ugh, this advice, too.

Fresh eyes are great, but you must be considerate of others’ time, and you also can’t push them to meet some unreasonable deadline—especially considering they’re doing this read-through for free. Many writers probably have someone who will help out, but money and time remain two major challenges for authors. Not only are proofreading costs high, there are other expenses that come with self-publishing—no matter how much Amazon says it’s free. If you want a professionally done cover, that will cost you a couple hundred dollars; then there are the printing costs if you decide to offer physical copies of your book (for authors just starting out, Amazon actually nets more money than you do on a print copy, so keep that in mind and push your eBooks); lastly, promotional costs can add up, and unfortunately, they don’t guarantee any positive impact on sales no matter how much the provider boasts about their service. In the end, authors can spend thousands of dollars to get their work to market, and never actually turn a profit, and some don’t even remotely come close. So why not just get an agent and get published by a traditional publisher—they have in-house editing, design and promotions, right? Ugh, this advice, too… again.

It’s not that easy. Agents only accept 5-10% of submissions, and due to the popularity of writing among amateurs, the over-saturated market and the volume of submissions, they don’t even look at every query they receive. We can leave that at that because it has been covered before.

I’m a perfect example of an author who has never turned a profit. I’ve now published work through self-publishing, boutique presses and the traditional process (not by a big house, however), and though I’ve sold copies and made money off my books, I’m in the red on each and every title because of the cost to get those stories into the market and exposed to readers.

My novel Forgotten Kids, which is set to be released early next year, almost had a huge bill attached to it because the use of song lyrics. I wrote about it here, but in the end (wait, can I say that because it’s a Linkin Park song?) I decided to re-word to avoid those costs because I, and the publisher, know that the book won’t ever come close to making that sort of money. In fact, in a 2017 Authors Guild survey, Calvin Reid and Jim Milliot reported that the median income received by published American authors for all writing-related activity in 2017 was $6,080, and 25% of the published authors surveyed earned no money at all—18% of them were full-time authors, which is no bueno for them.

People also tend to forget that writers spend hours, months and even years putting together their novels while receiving no wage to do so. They work for free and sacrifice a lot of their time just for the possibility of entertaining and moving readers, and then they use out-of-pocket expenses to issue free copies (that they had to pay for) to beta readers and reviewers, and sometimes all they receive back is nonconstructive criticism and judgment—and it comes from within their own networks as well.

One thing I will never forget is a situation that made me stop using Facebook for networking. I had completed my fourth draft of Forgotten Kids, but was thinking of changing the lead girl’s name from “Lizzy” to “Nikki.” I asked what people would prefer in a post, and one guy said, “Oh, so now we have to pick names for people? Give me a break. Do your own work, were not going to write the book for you.”

Really? That’s interesting. I was unaware that changing the first name of a character meant the same as writing and structuring a 115,000-word novel for me.

Over-exaggeration is a killer when it comes to properly reviewing an author’s work, and that brings us to the latter from earlier (geez, finally!). Reviewers need to be constructive and the criticism will be accepted. For example, in two recent reviews for Cursed, both readers mentioned there was a small amount of proofreading errors, but not enough to distract from the story. That is a great way of mentioning that the editor needs to do a better job when they are reviewing the work, letting the author know there are some mistakes they need to work on before the proofing process begins, and it also doesn’t intend to completely deter future readers from the story itself.

On the other hand, some reviews will blatantly defame the author and their writing ability. For Crooked Gold: A Jack Swift Case, one reviewer gave the book one-star and their summary simply said, “This didn’t interest me at all. None of the sentences even made sense.”

Really? NONE of the sentences in the entire book made sense? I’m surprised so many other people missed that. Amazon actually deleted that review because it appeared to be fraudulent. With that being said, I’m currently in graduate school, and my communications theory research targeted Amazon as a gatekeeper, and how incentivized reviewers directly impact the success of authors. The findings were actually fascinating, as were the studies that have been done beforehand, and from the feedback received by the faculty, my work may turn into my master’s project. We’ll have a nice recap of that if you have a little time next post to become bored.

Please don’t take this as a complaint of criticism because I value constructive reviews incredibly, and appreciate when people point out mistakes. However, when people blatantly and publicly offend an author based on a handful of typos and grammatical errors, then it’s a little uncalled for because they may not be fully aware of outside variables. Readers and reviewers need to keep in mind the financial restrictions authors have when crafting a story, and also that sometimes promotional expenses are more than book sales.

With that being said, authors just need to really buckle down during their line edits to avoid these poor reviews and nonconstructive criticism, as do indie publishers. Slow down and do more drafts, as many as it takes because the market isn’t going anywhere quite yet. Then, if necessary, do more editions after those inevitable typos are discovered by outside eyes (wait, ISBNs cost money, too, dammit!).

Here’s something to think about leading up to the next post: Amazon and incentivized reviewers can make more money off a book than an author.

Ah, the politics of the publishing industry.

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.