But What Does it Mean?

In which I look at the desperate neediness of authors, reviews, and status.

I get it. To hear from a reader who loves your book is a wonderful boost to the ego. But I don’t trust the system any more. I’ve seen too many ads for buying five-star reviews. I’ve heard author talk about paying for reviews. I’ve read too many articles on how to game the system. The worst part is that I completely understand why authors, including me, are so desperate for them.

Authors live or die by reviews—both self-pubbed and traditionally published authors. Some of Amazon’s algorithms, whatever magical and arcane formula they have, kick in after X number of reviews. Some major movers in the advertising biz won’t accept your ad until you have X number of reviews. Oh, and they must be five star (okay, we’ll accept four, but we don’t like it). Yes, I can personally testify to being told to review a book honestly, but if I can’t give it five stars (Okay, we’ll accept four stars), then don’t review it. When I read a novel (and I know the author has spent poured herself into it) that is amateurish, I can give concrete reasons why the book doesn’t resonate: character building, world building, dialogue, even grammar. I can point out where story structure has broken down, where they’ve used a deus ex machina to solve the conflict, where their logic has failed. Yet their reviews glitter with stars.

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My stars

And even if you try to have your book reviewed, many reviewers won’t respond to your request. They’re probably overwhelmed with requests because reviews drive the business. And it’s not just bloggers. The second book in my Wish series somehow never made it into the premiere review magazine for my genre. My editor swore it was sent, but they had no control over which books get reviews and which don’t. The first and third books were reviewed (very nicely), but the second never was. It made a difference in the success of the series. (It also speaks to my luck in this business). Since self-pubbing a few of my novels, I’ve tried to get reviews, but my efforts have been met with lukewarm success. Only half of the free books I’ve given out result in a review, and that’s with the stipulation I give you a free book in exchange for a review. I don’t even ask for five-stars. I want an honest one.

The “bestseller” achievement means little too. It’s too easy these days to hit the myriad lists. (Full disclosure, I haven’t.) You can find a lot of articles on how the NYT bestseller list is manipulated. And when someone isn’t happy about the list, they change it. Other authors got fed up with JK Rowling owning the list for years so they created a “new” category so they didn’t have to compete with her. Hit the top 100 on an Amazon list, however rare the category might be, the author slaps “bestselling author” on the cover of their novel. It’s certainly legitimate, but it doesn’t really mean anything any more. I’ve even seen an author use the title after their (plural pronoun used on purpose) book was the bestseller in a local bookstore. Their bookstore. The one they live near. The one their friends visit.

“Award-winning” is another designation that is tossed about so much it’s lost its meaning. (Full disclosure: I’ve used this one. I’ve won many awards for my writing.) If you’re savvy, you can find a contest to enter and win. Heck, there are some you can buy a win in. Some of these contests have more than a hundred different categories and charge a large sum to enter. Some give true bragging rights. In any case awards may simply reflect the opinion of one person.

So I’ve changed my mind. Go ahead and review if you want to, but don’t if you don’t want to. In the latest Time magazine, Kristin van Ogtrop’s essay, “The Amateur,” decries the need to review everything she purchases on the Internet (I’d link to the article, but it’s not available on line yet). The subtitle is “Don’t make me rate you: a plea to every business that has my credit-card number.” I feel the same way, including about books. I won’t review it. First, because I’m an author and I don’t think I should review another author’s books, and second, because no one wants honesty any longer.

I get it. It’s about business and the numbers. Am I whining? I don’t mean to. Am I grousing? Quite possibly.

–Gabi

Books I’m reading now:

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson