You Are Not Special

One of my favorite forums to peruse out there in internet land is the one for authors on Goodreads. One particular thread on that board occupies most of my time. It’s called “Best Bang for buck book promos.” It serves as an invaluable information trading tool for all of us self-published authors curious about which advertising sites work well and which don’t. Although I’ve never found any silver bullet pieces of wisdom (aside from “get BookBub to promote your book, duh”) it’s good to keep track of any scams people trip over or any new/cheap promoters that always seem to boost your sales just enough to make a profit and expand your audience.

Occasionally, though, the thread wanders a little off topic. Not very far. Since we’re all there for the same reason, we all share a common desire to keep the information exchange on track. However, recently there was a flurry of posts where people commiserated with each other over the flood of terrible books on Amazon and what that glut of bad writing is doing to hurt the sales of all us good, honest, sincere, forthright, god-fearing and hygienic self-pubbers.

Luckily, I missed the week where these laments were being posted. Had I seen them in real time, I don’t think I could’ve resisted jumping in and picking a fight. My main problem isn’t with people complaining about bad books – for the love of Robert Heinlein, I’ve done plenty of that myself – but some commenters went so far as to recommend Amazon start trying to be more proactive about demanding a higher-quality of product before allowing it to be sold on the site. That’s when I started hopping up and down in my chair and blowing steam out of my ears.

 

Sometimes the steam doesn't come exclusively out of my ears...

Sometimes the steam doesn’t come EXCLUSIVELY out of my ears…

 

The whole point of self-publishing is to bypass any self-appointed gatekeepers and present your work directly to the consumers and letting them be the final judge of its merit! To start hemming and hawing and saying “yeah, but there are people who are just throwing up unedited half-finished manuscripts and it’s giving us all a bad name” makes you sound like you feel like you’re owed something. Like Konrath says “No one owes you a living.” Going beyond that, I would add “You are not special.”

I made this realization a number of years ago about myself and believe me, it was an uncomfortable shock. I thought because I was good at this thing or that thing, it meant I should be given as many breaks as I wanted. Slack should be cut to fit me! When it was explained to me through subtle suggestion and workplace experience that you’re only as good as the latest good thing you did and if you want to succeed at something you have to care enough about it to keep trying to be better at it – only then did I understand I should stop wasting everyone’s time and start carving out my place in the world. On a good day, the world will make a little room for you, but most days you have to dig it out for yourself.

But you say you want Amazon to start separating wheat from chaff for you and your readers? Really? Who’s to say your work isn’t crap? So, you published something that’s 100K words and paid to have it edited and packaged professionally. Good for you! So what? That means you deserve something and the guy who’s just using the marketplace as a free sounding-board for a peer-review and revision process (I’ve read a couple of authors who do this) should be shut out? No. That author has as much right to the open market as you do. You don’t like it? Fine. You’re allowed. Just don’t be one of those guys who wants to change the system to suit himself and tries to make it sound like it’s somehow for the greater good.

 

"There but for the grace of Trump, go I."

“There but for the grace of Trump, go I.”

 

Don’t be that guy. I understand you’re struggling and getting frustrated because you just can’t find an audience. Welcome to the club! Being an author is hard! But here’s the thing – you have to decide whether you actually want to be an author or you want to make money on Amazon. Because if all you want to do is sell books on Amazon, it’s actually not that hard to do. Go copy and paste some romance novels, change some names, photoshop some covers and then post under a pseudonym. Guaranteed after a few promotions and a dozen or so titles, you’ll be raking in a steady profit. NOTE: I’m not knocking romance writers – I’m just saying their genre is rife with this kind of nonsense.

That’s not writing. You know it and I know it. Want to be an author? Write. Write as much as you can as well as you can and after revising your work to the point where you can’t change anything more without changing the whole thing – then publish it. Wash, rinse, repeat. You’ll note that no where in that list of instructions does it mention complaining to Amazon that other writers seem not to try as hard as you do, so they should be shut out so your work is a little less buried under the pile. There’s no need for that and you shouldn’t have time to worry about it anyway.

Want to pass a gatekeeper and be in an elite club? Go the traditional publishing route! Then you won’t have to worry about any of this stuff!

You are not special. Neither is anyone else. However, you shouldn’t let that stop you from promoting your work and yourself. Keep writing and challenging yourself and your skills will eventually attract an audience. But trying to lobby for gates and referees on the playing field won’t help your game any.

 

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Thanks again for your valuable time! I deeply appreciate you sharing it with me. As always, feel free to express your thoughts below in the comment section.

This week’s T-Shirt winner is Mary Williams! Congrats, Mary! Look for the newsletter soon and please respond with size and mailing address!

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Until next time, drop a quick review on Amazon for a book you liked or hated or fell asleep on. Also…

 

"It puts the tip in the driver's hand or it gets the hose again."

“It puts the tip in the driver’s hand or it gets the hose again.”

 

 

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Reviews are everything, reviews are nothing

Amazon book reviews (and to a lesser extent Goodreads reviews and to an even lesser extent – is that possible? How many extents are there? How far does an extent go? Can an extent get an extension? More importantly, will I ever find my way out of this parenthetical? – wait… where was I? Oh yes… and to an even lesserer extenterer all other sites that allow reviews) are critical to an author’s success. They help or sometimes dictate if a 3rd party website will promote a book. They influence how seriously Amazon regards your book and if they will recommend it to their customers using an algorithm that is as full of mystery and magic as an average day at Hogwarts.

 

Pictured: Jeff Bezos, shortly after entering his mysterious school for gifted youngsters.

Pictured: Jeff Bezos, shortly after entering his mysterious school for gifted youngsters.

 

But do reviews actually mean anything? Bear with me for a sec here. If you’re an Amazon customer, do you write reviews for everything you buy? Of course not. I mean, obviously you wrote a scathing critique of that combination toaster/blender you bought, warning all the other unwary customers away from the product’s false claims of serving up a complete breakfast in minutes. Failed to mention how everything somehow tastes like a toast slurry, didn’t they?

But what about all the products you liked? Well, maybe you wrote one glowing review of that complete DVD box set of The Waltons you bought for yourself a while back. Sure, you wrote it after binge-watching all nine seasons, eyes bleary from three bottles of red wine and tear-filled from the regret evoked by painful reminders of the sunshine of youth now eclipsed and the glory of bygone days, but you meant every word! And you wouldn’t take back one single syllable. Well, except that mention of your first girlfriend and how you hoped she was happy and living the life you always knew she deserved. You went back and edited that out anyway. Don’t worry, I’m sure no one saw. Well, no one who cared anyway.

 

Don't you judge me, internet. Don't you dare judge me.

Don’t you judge me, internet. Don’t you dare judge me.

 

But besides that one special product near and dear to your heart, do you write reviews for anything else? I’m betting not. That latest pack of underwear sure was delivered on time and hugs your butt cheeks exactly as described, but you just can’t be motivated to take the time to pen a nice note stating that with your name attached and everything. No, for most products we buy on Amazon we blissfully neglect leaving reviews. Why? Because we have lives full of about a thousand things that demand our attention. How could writing a review no one will probably ever read even attempt to make it into the top 10 on your to-do list? I mean, I deliberately shifted gears on my life a couple of years ago to limit the amount of things going on in it so I could concentrate on writing and even I can’t be bothered to review my latest purchase of athletic socks and spanx!

I made up one of those purchases. I’m not telling you which one.

So, if we know this about ourselves, why then do we trust reviews so much? Why do we bother looking at them at all when we know all the 5-star reviews are absurdly slanted (if not outright bought) and all the 1-star reviews are from customers who either should never have bought the thing in the first place or are just angry that it isn’t everything they ever wanted? Why do we place such a great emphasis on weighing this critical feedback, which often is neither critical nor feedback?

The answer, of course, is that it’s all we have. Amazon and all the other e-tailers have no independent reviewers. There is only the feedback left from the seething mass of humanity. In a way this is good, but in another it’s bad. It’s good, because no one entity can be bribed or otherwise influenced to leave good or bad reviews. It’s bad because most people either don’t leave reviews or leave sloppy and clearly biased ones. With a situation like this it’s tempting to just ignore reviews altogether, but even though you are loathe to leave them yourself, you know you need them.

 

WAT DO?

WAT DO?

 

Well, I know it’s going to sound like I’m telling you that one plus one equals a George Foreman Grill, but you need to write more reviews. Yes. You do. And me, too. (Well, I can’t really do it for books for reasons that should be obvious, but I can do it for other stuff.) I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true. We have too many meaningless reviews so we need more? Yes. But what we need are meaningful reviews.

No! No, don’t run away! Wait! Let me explain!

I’m not talking about full page critical analysis stuff. No one reads that bullshit anyway. No! I’m talking about 2, 3 and 4 star reviews where you leave twitter-sized feedback. One thing you liked, one thing you didn’t and would you purchase more. That’s it! From one sentence to a maximum of three! That’s all! Easy-peezy.

But will it work, you ask? Well, you tell me. When you look at reviews do you read the essay-length ones? Do you read the 5-stars? The 1-stars? I strongly doubt you read the long reviews. You might read bite-sized 5 and 1 stars, but if you decide to purchase the item,  do you realistically think your review of it will line up with either spectrum? Of course not.

Listen, here’s what I do. I read the 1-stars to see if they’re for real. If they sound legit, I’ll move on, regardless of how many 5-stars there are. Most 5-stars are bought. Everyone knows that. BUT – if the 1-star reviews sound fishy or complain about crap I don’t care about? I cut to the “most helpful” review and read a few other 3 stars. “Most helpful” reviews are usually 3-stars. Know why? Because most things are good and bad. But they might be good with things you care about and bad concerning things of which you couldn’t give one soft stool.

It’s a shock, I know. I’ll give you a moment with it.

Actually, we’re about out of time, so go ahead and hit the showers. I might revisit this topic later, but for now just try to make a little extra time in your schedule to do some on-line reviews. It’s democracy in action, after all. Did I mention that? No? Well, I’m mentioning it.

Until next time, everyone! Don’t forget to tip your driver and don’t forget to review your purchase!

 

 

Halloween tastes funny

This isn’t about bashing Halloween. I’m alright with Halloween. It’s not my favorite holiday, but it’s up there. This isn’t about how it is a hipster holiday, either, where everyone sarcastically celebrates the anti-religious overtone and engages in a pseudo-mockery of faux-revelry. (Really, is anything worth a genuine emotional reaction in hipsterdom? Don’t answer that. I stopped caring ten words ago.) It isn’t even about the inevitable duels for cleverest costumes among people who dress up as the latest killed character from the Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or insert-obscure-AMC/HBO/Showtime-original-series. No, it has nothing to do with hipsters. I’m alright with hipsters. They’re adorable, after all. No, for me it has to do with Halloween literally leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

 

"Young man, is this going to a naughty place?"

“Young man, is this going to a naughty place?”

 

Have you ever tasted fake blood? Don’t. It’s terrible. I once had the distinct displeasure of ingesting this horrible substance one Halloween when I was just a tiny Tone of Voice and it’s dreadful taste scarred me for life. I think it was the time my big brother had the great idea of dressing me up as the monster from the movie C.H.U.D. by using bits and pieces scavenged form other Halloween costumes. My brother’s personal touch? Using White-Out to scrawl PUD on the back of my vampire cape, so that instead of a Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller, I was simply a Pretty Ugly Dude. My brother found this riotously funny, but our mother was less than amused. I didn’t mind. I’ve never really minded being the butt of jokes, as long as they were funny. Teasing I’m not especially fond of, but a good joke is a good joke.

Unfortunately, no one got the joke, but I looked pitiful enough to score the usual bag of candy, so it all turned out in my favor anyway. Well, except for the fake blood. At some point, someone (I don’t know, maybe it was me) decided to add fake blood to whatever mask I was wearing, which would have been fine if the mask had any sort of absorbancy. Alas, it did not, so the stuff dribbled straight into the mouth hole and onto my lips.

If you’re wondering what fake blood tastes like, it’s a palate cleansing mix of plastic, falseness and melancholy. Three horrible tastes that taste like death together. I don’t think I got sick, I just know I couldn’t get that taste out of my mouth no matter how many mini-Snickers I inhaled.

 

"This candy tastes like failure and regret. Does this mean I'm an adult now?"

“This candy tastes like failure and regret. Does this mean I’m an adult now?”

 

To this day, I always suppress a shudder when I see people dressed up like zombies, their faces and clothes drenched in the supposedly “non-toxic” pseudo-plasma. “Non-toxic.” Pffft. Tell that to my flavor-memory. Seriously, there are times I will get this unfortunate taste appearing in my mouth from out of nowhere. I have no idea what triggers it, and for a long time I could not trace what it was or what it was linked to. (My dentist suspects it’s likely a leaky filling, and she’s probably right, but her logic and science aren’t welcome here!) I don’t know how I finally remembered. I suppose I eventually broke through the mental barrier I had built up around it and determined it was from that unfortunate Halloween. But even knowing its source, it still pounces on me from out of nowhere. In fact, it even hits me whenever I get too close to a heavily made-up woman.

Yes, this even affected my dating life, but for the better I think. People who wear too much make-up are duplicitous by nature. I once went on a date with a nice young woman who kinda-sorta looked and sounded like Meg Tilly. Trouble was, she wore so much make-up she also kinda-sorta looked like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. So, Elvira crossed with Meg Tilly. I know most of you are like “NOT BAD!” Well, I suppose it would have been, except for my aforementioned aversion to makeup. I couldn’t conceive of getting close enough to kiss her, let alone anything more intimate. Needless to say, that romance lasted all of one date, but I later found out from mutual acquaintances that she was a bit of a man-eater, so it was fortunate I had kept my distance.

 

"Vaht's the problem? You like the boys, maybe?"

“Vaht’s the problem? You like the boys, maybe?”

 

That’s not really how Elvira talked, but I just couldn’t bring myself to mimic her trademark valley girl/jersey girl accent.

But this just recently got me thinking that about the larger issue of selling yourself as something you’re not. It’s a topic I’m always grappling with as I try to figure out the best way to market my books. There are things that I have decided I simply will not do, because they just seem to me to be too fake and too gimmicky. Fake and gimmicky is fine for Halloween, but not for me. I don’t want to try to sell my books in categories they don’t belong simply to get a good Amazon ranking. I don’t want to constantly spam twitter/facebook/this blog or a mailing list with constant reminders about how great the Adventures of Grant Scotland series is (even though it’s pretty great, to be honest) in the hopes that eventually enough people will tiredly mis-click (or mis-tap) and end up buying a copy. I don’t want to engage in review trading with other authors and I definitely don’t want to buy reviews.

But I have to do something. I’m fine with marketing on Twitter and Facebook and all the rest regularly (but not constantly) and being patient as my audience slowly grows, but I sure would like to give the whole process a boost if I could. I’m currently thinking about doing a blog tour, which is essentially like paying for reviews, but it’s the LEAST offensive way to do it. Also, it’s a form of review buying that everyone does, from big publishers to self-publishers, so it’s generally considered to be kosher. We’ll see. I know the people who run those sites greatly prefer to do tours only for books that are about to be released, not existing titles, so I’ll keep it in mind for Book Four.

Well, that’s about it from me for tonight. As always, thanks for stopping by and spending some time reading about my fear of fake blood. Is there a name for that? Pseudo-hemophobia?

So long, folks! Tip your driver!

 

What I said and how I said it

You’re never going to be understood by everyone all of the time, let’s just get that out of the way right now. And of the ones that understand you, only about half of them are going to like what you say, if you’re lucky. And of those people, only a fraction are ever going to be bothered to let you know what they think about what you have to say. So, of everyone who could possibly ever leave you a review of your writing, only one half of one half of a fraction of a percent will ever do it. Don’t bother checking that math. I’m pretty sure it’s right.

Trust me. I’m a writer.

 

See? They wouldn't have made a t-shirt if it wasn't true.

See? They wouldn’t have made a t-shirt if it wasn’t true.

 

So, my point is that I’m grateful for every review I get. I never comment on any of them. It’s your review and you have every right to express your opinion about my work. After all, I released it to the public with the very expectation that some would love it, some would hate it and most would be somewhere in between (hopefully more on the love side, of course). And if you haven’t had a chance to post your review of my books yet, then PLEASE DO! Check out the links on the sidebar of my Home Page and get to it, people! Pretty please?

Seriously. Do it. Even if you hated it, please leave a review. I’m remarkably level-headed about this. It’s my career, after all. I need to know what people really think, not some white-washed “that’s nice, Dan” crap. It doesn’t have to be anything big. Just what you liked, what you didn’t and would you buy another book by this author. That’s it!

And, if you did leave a review already, then double check to make sure it’s still there. Sometimes Amazon takes down reviews because they find out that – HORROR OF HORRORS – a reviewer has actually had some sort of contact with the author. If you think that’s messed up, then I invite you to sign this petition. I did. Amazon’s current policy, as well intentioned as it is to remove flame reviews and bogus inflated reviews, only succeeds in removing honest reviews from loyal fans and does nothing to stop the disgusting practice of purchasing reviews because some people have more money than self-respect, which is the real problem.

 

"Look World! I'm a writer!"

“Look World! I’m a writer!”

 

But while I’m on the topic of reviews, I will take the opportunity to expand on a point one reviewer raised in one of my Goodreads reviews. She seemed to like the book, mind you, so it wasn’t a bad review, just a “meh” one. She said the one thing that distracted her was my use of the “modern voice” in a fantasy setting. I fully respect her tastes and understand that my narrative voice isn’t for everyone, so I have no problem with her review. Her observation does, however, raise a point that has always bothered me about fantasy literature; the rather odd choices made by many fantasy authors in terms of exactly what narrative voice they use.

Most fantasy authors that I’ve read like to use a late 19th century American or Victorian voice for most narration and then throw in a smattering of Elizabethan terms during dialog to achieve some sort of pseudo-medieval… errrm… sound, I guess? And this is somehow supposed to be the “authentic” fantasy voice? I’m not sure why this is so or how it got started (might be a fascinating thesis paper for all you English Literature students not reading this blog) but it isn’t at all an actual medieval voice. First of all, such a voice would be called “Middle English” and second of all it’s utterly impenetrable. Have you ever read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in it’s original text? I have. It’s a foreign fucking language.

So, to me the use of narrative voice for fantasy books has always seemed to be up to the author’s whim. This is as it should be. It’s a fantasy world, after all. It isn’t historical fiction. Even if it was, a reader couldn’t read an authentic voice from classical/dark/medieval ages. We can barely read texts from Shakespeare’s day. Know why we can read texts from Shakespeare’s day and not before? It’s because he invented the language we speak today. It’s called “Modern English.” OK, maybe he didn’t invent it, but he was the first author of his generation (that I know of, anyway – literature was never my focus) to write how people actually talked.

After him, you can largely trace the great writers of following generations because they also bothered to write how people actually lived and spoke in their own times. In our current generation, it’s impossible for me to say for certain at this point. Maybe that’s too difficult a task to accomplish for your own generation. Maybe that’s a question for the ages. But, if I could switch mediums simply to illustrate a point, I might say Quentin Tarantino would be a good example in film/screenwriting. But, please, don’t tell him I compared him to Shakespeare. His head is big enough as it is.

 

I mean, look at the size of that thing. His melon is dangerously over-inflated.

I mean, look at the size of that thing. His melon is dangerously over-inflated.

 

In his writing, we see an honest approach to conveying how people in our everyday lives live and speak. Even if these people are heroes and villains of extraordinary proportions, they still engage in the same common struggles and conversations as the rest of us. Hitmen discuss the vagaries of human relationships, a man and a woman deflect sexual tension by talking about the price of a milkshake, etc. Great authors, in my opinion, invite everyone into their writing by mirroring the way they perceive the people around them talking and acting everyday. It’s the people who are alive you have to talk to, not the dead ones.

I guess that’s one reason why I chose such a “modern voice” for my Grant Scotland novels. Another reason was simply as an homage to noir detective novels. I realize it won’t be a voice everyone will be drawn to, but I’m hoping it will help more people, authors and readers alike, realize that there is no “authentic” fantasy voice. The only authentic voice is your own.