Thursday, January 26, 2017

Let's talk Amazon reviews

This post is directed primarily at writers, but others may find these thoughts enlightening, too. I think every writer -indie, traditional or hybrid; fiction and nonfiction- faces this struggle. It's the nature of the beast. When you work hard on something that's personal to you, and then you put it out there in the wild, you open yourself up to a whole world of hurt. It can be painful seeing the harsh words of a complete stranger as he or she systematically destroys something you spent months or years creating. It can be baffling, too. We've all read books we hate, but most of us don't feel compelled to race out and slander the author or the work, and try to destroy them on a personal level. Why bother? Why waste energy on something so trivial? Yet some people do.

But not always for the reasons we might immediately suspect.

A particularly bad review might make you feel targeted: "This person must have something against me... maybe it's someone I know, maybe it's a competing author using sock puppet accounts to sabotage my sales, maybe its that nasty agent who rejected me a couple years ago..." Or, it could be simpler than that. Maybe it was a different genre than what the reviewer usually reads. Maybe it just wasn't her cup of tea. Maybe a reader was offended by something in the book. In one of my books, Erased, a villain says something bad about cops. A reader took offense at that in a review. (Sorry folks, villains are supposed to say stuff like that!)

Sometimes people get upset because the book went in a different direction than they expected. (Harry Potter married the wrong girl. Oh noes! I'm one-starring this trash...) I got one of those the other day, and the reviewer was quite clear about the fact that my story sucked because it didn't go in the direction he thought it would. Some people really do seem to think you're a mind reader; that you have an obligation to write what they expect of you, not what your imagination tells you to write. It's disappointing, but not worth pulling your hair out over.

Sometimes reviews get posted to the wrong book. I've seen it happen, more than once. My wife has pointed out several reviews on my books that bear little or no resemblance to the actual story. Sometimes a reviewer has some other problem, and the review really isn't about your book at all. It's just a way for them to vent. There are also trolls who are just fishing to get a reaction. Many online trolls have mental or emotional issues. They feel vindicated when they attack a stranger, because this is justice for all that's gone wrong in their lives. They have a skewed sense of the world, and of the person they're attacking. There's no reason to take that personally.

There are many more reasons you might get a bad review that has nothing to do with the quality of your writing. Maybe it's a kid, or maybe the reviewer is mentally ill...

If you're even thinking about responding to a review like this, that last statement should give you pause. Many children and mentally ill people have access to computers, cell phones, and the internet. They can write reviews. Nobody's stopping them.  Do you really want to take a chance on responding to a negative review only to learn that you just retaliated against a child, or a mentally disabled person? No, you don't. This alone is a good enough reason to shrug it off (and in my opinion, you're going to be better off for it). What do you have to lose?

Just for kicks, I'm going to repost one of my all-time worst reviews. Here's a one-star review of The Tinkerer's Daughter by WLJ on Amazon (formerly known as SHE):

"I was really disappointed in this book and regret spending money on it. The summary makes the story seem exciting. It sounds like a steampunk adventure with eccentric characters that change the tide of a war. I cannot stress enough that this is not even close to how the book really is. It was very slow and very dull. The characters were bland with no distinctive personalities. There was absolutely no world-building. This read more as a creative writing assignment than a well-thought-out book. It is at a preteen reading level and not for adults who like some depth.

The book begins when Breeze is four. She looks older, but since she is an elf, she is mentally a child. However, she quickly grows up into a teenager within months, and for some unknown reason, her maturity level and emotional age now match her body. That was inconsistent and also just not believable. Her character is best described as a bland, preachy goody-goody, and I hate reading about goody-goodies. She eventually goes to school, and of course, all the girls hate her and the popular guy likes her. Oh, and he is rich, and that's why all the girls like him... because they are gold diggers. The awful gender stereotypes and the cliches made my brain hurt.

The plot is indiscernible, and the story dragged. She is captured and imprisoned multiple times, and don't think she uses her own cleverness to get out of these situations. She is too dimwitted and simple. I will not even get into the illogical parts that were just lazy on the author's part (as with her father just pawning Breeze off on a guy he barely knew). I dreaded picking up this book and eventually tried to skim it to see if it got better. It didn't. I was too bored to even skim till the end.

I do not recommend this book!"

So what's wrong with this review? Well, anyone who has read this book can tell you that a number of facts are just wrong. The story takes place over years, not months, and while Breeze does age about twice the speed of a human, her maturity certainly does not match her age. She's quite emotionally immature, and she points this out in the story. In fact, this flaw in her character is the primary motivating factor for all she achieves. A mature adult wouldn't go to all that trouble just to prove something, or because of a need to be liked... then again...

Moving on. Is Breeze a "bland, preachy goody-goody?" I don't know. I didn't try to write her that way. She did struggle against racism, bigotry, and willful ignorance. She was not "captured and imprisoned multiple times" but was jailed once, for a day or so, and was almost killed at one point (no spoilers). The reviewer wraps it up with: " I dreaded picking up this book and eventually tried to skim it to see if it got better. It didn't. I was too bored to even skim till the end." 

Ouch. In other words, this book sucked so bad WLJ didn't even bother reading it. Huh. In her own words, this reviewer admits that she only skimmed the book instead of reading it, didn't finish it, and that she dreaded picking it up in the first place. Obviously, this story wasn't her cup of tea. But this review is from an Amazon Vine Reviewer! Why use her bully pulpit as a Vine Reviewer to try to destroy my book? This review has 102 helpful votes... that means another 102 people (at least) found this book so repulsive that they came back to Amazon after reading it just to thumbs-up this inaccurate review. Fascinating. You'd have to look a while to find another book review like this, with so many helpful votes. 

Responding to a review like this is almost always a bad idea.Unfortunately, as an author, you don't have much recourse. You can thumbs-down the review as "not helpful," and you can flag it as "abuse," but its arguable as to whether Amazon ever really looks at those complaints, at least not until they come in significant numbers. Well, I did respond to the review in question. I pointed out that unfinished drafts of some of my stories were published erroneously (as described in a previous post) and that perhaps WLJ had an incomplete copy. I also politely pointed out a few of the inaccurate statements in the review, for the benefit of other readers. I tried to do this politely but firmly. I didn't want to pick a fight, but to give readers an alternate perspective, without raising too many hackles. And of course, I pointed out the flaws in the review to Amazon, hoping they would at least look into the inconsistencies. Unsurprisingly, their response was no response.

I could go on and on with this subject. For a couple of years, every time this book got a good review, a bad review would follow within 48 hours. Sometimes it would go weeks without any reviews at all, but when a new 4 or 5 star review appeared, a 1 or 2 star would immediately follow. These reviews almost seemed intentionally calculated to keep the book's rating at about 3.8 stars. Why would someone do that? Well, 4 stars is the breaking point for a lot of reviewers and book promoters. I missed out on chances to promote this book when it was new, because the star ranking was too low. I commented about this problem on a popular blog (The Passive Voice), and finally raised my concerns with Amazon. Within days, the behavior had stopped and the rating jumped up to 4.2 stars, where it now resides. 

Seems too much to be coincidental, right? Yes, it's sketchy, but my case is far from extraordinary. Stuff like this happens on Amazon all the time.

Here's the thing (and finally, the point of this post!): Despite all this, The Tinkerer's Daughter has been downloaded tens of thousands of times. This series has always been and remains my best-seller. In fact, one might even argue that the conflicting reviews, the mediocre star-rating, and the preponderance of 1-stars on the front page have actually influenced more sales. I think people know right away that something doesn't seem quite right. This alone is enough to make them give the book a second glance. In other words, if someone has been trying to sabotage this book, their efforts have succeeded in doing the exact opposite! 

That is why I say you should let this stuff roll off. Readers know all of this already. They know when they see a particularly nasty review, or something else that doesn't add up, it says more about the reviewer than about the book. They know about mental illness, online trolls, and sock-puppets And these days, readers are more suspicious of a book with 4.8 stars than a book with 3.8. Readers are smart. Give them credit. Some of them will thumbs-down the review, and that helps, but most importantly: Don't stress about this stuff. Don't take any review too seriously -not even the good ones.  More reviews will come, the trolls will lose interest, and you might even find at some point that they've helped you. Instead, put that energy and emotion into your art. Keep writing!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Quarter Million Served!

A few months back, I asked my wife to crunch some numbers for me. There was something I had been curious about, and since she does all my bookkeeping (I could NOT do this without her!), I thought she might have access to these reports to give me an idea of how many books I've sold in total. Well, it turned out to be not quite that easy.

When I started publishing back in 2011, I went for the widest distribution possible. I published my books with Amazon of course, but also with Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, and a few other places whose names I forget and which may not even exist anymore. One for instance, was a distributor who had contacted me with the idea of making one of my books free through his service as a loss-leader. I agreed, and I think it lasted about a year before I pulled it. I can't even remember who it was. (Terrible, right?)

Anyway, eventually Amazon gave Indie publishers a few tools to promote their books, but in exchange they demanded exclusivity. For a while, I decided going exclusive was the thing to do. I pulled my books from the other distributors and put all my focus on Amazon. After that, I lost track of some of those places. Now, I have no way to retrieve those numbers. But what I do have is a list of Amazon reports through KDP that goes all the way back to December, 2010, when I uploaded my first title and had a whopping TWO sales! (The slow start was for the best; it took a couple months to get the formatting and uploading issues worked out. Ever since, I've been a work in progress)

Back in those days, Indie publishers would talk a LOT about their numbers. It was cool, because we could compare our successes and failures, and learn not just about the publishing business in general, but also the unique aspects of digital publishing that no one had ever studied before. Things were changing fast, and we were all just trying to keep up with the times and understand this new paradigm.

Eventually, the Author Earnings report came along and gave us an even better perspective of what was going on in the business, and how our individual roles were panning out. Because of this, things got more quiet, partly because it wasn't so important to share that info anymore, and partly -I think- because throwing those numbers out got a little old. No one wants any hurt feelings, and I'm sure that played a role. No doubt a few people felt a little embarrassed about their disappointing sales, and others didn't want to come off as boastful. So the subject still comes up, but it's not really the fresh, energetic discussion it used to be.

Well, at the risk of sounding either like a complete loser or an arrogant braggart (depending on where you're coming from) I'd like to share some of my numbers with you: In total, my books have been downloaded on Amazon 251,199 times. That includes daily sales and borrowed book page counts, promos, freebies, and perma-free titles, but it does not include paperbacks, short stories, loaned titles, or any of my sales through other distributors. In other words, the real number is likely rather higher. I probably actually reached the quarter-million mark sometime last year, but unfortunately its impossible to know exactly when. An educated guess would be late summer/ early fall, but that's still just a guess.

It's worth noting that this number is a total number that includes my several perma-free titles that I use as loss leaders. Those free titles account for more than half of my total downloads. In general, I've found that on average, anywhere from 30%-60% of my freebies lead to sales in the rest of the series. For example, about 60% of the people who download The Clockwork God go on to buy the next book in the series. Probably 80% of those go on to finish the series. These numbers are always in flux of course, so it's tricky to tack down a hard percentage on any given title, especially with the wild fluctuations in sales that I've experienced since October. (Some blame this on the election, but it's pretty clear to me that Amazon has done something with their system as well. The churn at the top of the charts is something I haven't seen in a few years, and I can only presume this was intentional.)

Some of my less popular series -the Hank Mossberg books for instance- seem to have the highest follow-through rates. Ironically, my most popular series, The Tinkerer's Daughter, has one of the lowest rates. This is probably due to the relative popularity of the genre, which leads to higher initial downloads, and also the failure on my part to produce books that stick to the confines of that genre. (Let's be honest, the world needs another victorian-steampunk-romance like it needs a thermonuclear war. Amiright?) But that's okay. I went into this knowing that I was writing as much for myself as anything. Formulaic fiction sells better. People like to know more or less what to expect from a book, and in general, they're reluctant to try something new. A good example is a recent review I received for Clockwork Legion. The story didn't go in the direction the reader wanted it to, and he found that personally offensive. He gave me a one-star review and essentially said he's no longer and fan and won't be reading any more of my books. The question is, would my book have been better if I had consulted this man first? Should I have written it to his expectations? If I had, would it have been better? Well, I'm sure he thinks so, but I'm not so sure. (Update- this review has since been removed. Although he won't be reading my books anymore, I guess the reviewer still reads this blog. I might have to write a post regarding my thoughts on reviews in general soon.)

The idea of writing to a formula always made my stomach churn. I felt that writing something unique and fresh was the way to write something memorable. I still believe that. (How many famous romance novelists can you name from fifty years ago? I'm not knocking romance writers, I'm just saying it's a highly formulaic genre, and authors who stray from that formula tend do so at their own risk.) Unfortunately, while writing to a formula generally leads to better sales up front, it's also a sure way to make sure you don't stand out from the crowd. From Shakespeare to Jane Austen to H.G. Wells (and a hundred others), no one we look back on as one of the "Greats" was sticking to a formula. They were making new formulas. (It's also worth nothing that for the most part, they didn't do particularly well, financially speaking. That's a very real trade-off that a writer should consider. Can you do both? Maybe, but don't count on it.)

I've added up some other numbers, as well. I was curious to see how many words I've written. In the last five years, I've published about twenty books. I'll have two more out in the next month or two, which averages out to about four novels per year. Not novellas or short stories: I didn't count those. These are full-length novels, mostly ranging from 60k-90k words. Excluding the two upcoming books I haven't published yet, I have 1,344,706 words in print right now. The next two Hank Mossberg books will bring that total up by approximately another 120,000 words.

There are several novels I wrote but never published. Most of those books were early attempts that I knew weren't publishable from the moment I finished them. However, I still occasionally toss a book. The first Hank Mossberg book falls into that category, along with the first He said, She said, and a sequel in the series that I gave up on. I'd have four books in the He said, She said series right now, but it would only be half as good.

Yes, believe it or not, I actually do have a little bit of self-restraint. And you thought my writing couldn't get any worse  : )

Anyway, if I add those other titles in as well, I come up with a number of just under 1.8 million words. That still doesn't include the stories I wrote in my youth, or my blog posts and short stories, or other things of that nature. This number is just fiction novels from the last ten to fifteen years.

So what do you think? Over 1.3 million words in print and more than a quarter million downloads, all in the last five years. That's a far cry from Stephen King or James Patterson, but not too bad for an uneducated indie author with a bad attitude. I feel pretty blessed for the fact that I've been given this opportunity -that I've been able not only to write and to make a living at it these last few years, but even to write what I want to write. That's huge. It means more to me than words can say, and I thank God for this blessing, and all of you who've helped make it possible. I can't wait to see where the next five years takes me!