Tuesday, March 31, 2015

7 Ways To Deal with Positive and Negative Book Reviews: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I was on a panel in mid-March at Left Coast Crime in Portland. We had the “dead zone”. That is the name conference organizers give to the last time slot of the conference. And there were four other sessions going on at the same time so we were one of five options.

There were sessions I wanted to attend rather than my own! Our session had 30-ish people out of the almost 700 conference attendees. Of course, a bunch of them were sleeping in from the previous night’s hilarity or took early flights home. So the attending percentage isn’t as bad as it might sound. And, as one panelist pointed out, these are the hearty souls, those with a thirst for learning. A mighty group, albeit, small.

Our session title was: One Star: The Dos and Don’ts of Reacting to Reviews”. Joining me on the panel were Chuck Rosenberg-moderator; Christine Kling, Dana Kaye, and Bill Cameron. This was a spectacular group whom I enjoyed learning from and with. Our audience was similarly wonderful and participative.

The only direction the moderator gave us in advance was to be prepared to read both a good and a negative review and what that meant for us. Easy, but then I was uneasy about the range of other questions that I might not be prepared for. So I did what any former academic would do. I googled book reviews. Research is a standard in the academic world, and Google was good enough for my purposes. Especially for what they were paying me to be on the panel. (Righto! Zippo!)

I came across tens of thousands of links about good and negative reviews. I distilled a number of common elements and actually was able to incorporate most of them into the responses I gave.

As a published author you just need to get over yourself. After your mom and your bestie write their reviews, you may well, in fact likely will, receive less than positive perspectives on your work. EVERY author/book has received negative reviews. I just typed in “the Bible” on Amazon. The first version that popped up had over 5200 reviews with 4.5 out of 5 stars. There were 205 1-star reviews. So, as I said, get over yourself.

That said, I and many others don’t talk about the “bad” reviews received. Rather, we call them “negative” reviews. We probably learn more from our legitimate negative reviews than from the positive ones. If you see a trend in the comments, you should pay attention. Too late to fix this book, maybe, but the next one can correct the deficiency that many noted.

So get a cuppa and read your reviews, but remember some principles so you keep perspective. Here’s the list I compiled from multiple sources:

7 Ways To Deal with Positive and Negative Book Reviews

1. Make a list of your fears about what readers will say.
Before you ever read your first review, figure out what will hurt most and make a list. Just confronting the options is sort of like the desensitization exercises to get your over your fear of heights.

It would bother me if several said my culinary mystery wasn’t mysterious, that they figured out whodunit on page 5, that I have weak characters no one cares about, that I write poorly, that I left ingredients out of a recipe, that the resolution wasn’t satisfying. Stuff like that means I didn’t do my job. Next book, those are things I have to attend to. I must listen to my readers’ legitimate concerns.

2. Make a list of irrelevancies that readers might note.
Before you ever read your first review, by the same token, you need to identify those issues, that if raised, won’t cause you to rethink your book and author as your career choice. These are the little things that reflect personal preference.

For me, that would include that they didn’t expect that many suspects, or thought there were too few (or too many) recipes, thought it was too long (or too short), or that it had a rich vocabulary. While I would consider those aspects mentioned, things of this sort wouldn’t give me an anxiety attack.

3. Book reviews are more about the reader’s expectations than about you or the book.
If expectations are met, you likely get a positive review. If for some reason, the reader didn’t get what he/she expected, you likely get a negative review. That helps to explain some of the range you find. It also explains why your erotic romance title, Santa’s Night Out, wasn’t well-received by someone who thought it was a children’s story.

4. Any review is publicity.
Readers are suspicious (and so am I!) when my book has all five-star reviews. The average reader probably thinks I have a very extensive friends and family network “salting the mine.” I see the flaws oh-so-clearly. Surely EVERY reader couldn’t have missed them.

By the same token, I am more inclined to check out a book with lots of reviews rather than a few if the book has been out for a while. If the book is “old”, why haven’t readers found it? I cut some slack for new releases. And it always surprises me to see a bunch of reviews for a new book. Wow! How do they do that? Let me in on the secret.

Whether positive or negative, however, keeping your name in front of eyeballs is typically good. Most won’t remember the number of stars or whether the review was positive or negative,

5. Don’t respond to negative reviews overtly.
Oh the temptation is great to take on a Negative Nelly, but I agree with those who say don’t take it on yourself. You might ask a friend (as I did once) to rebut the negative part, if the reviewer agrees it is inaccurate or inappropriate. There are tales of long exchanges among your fans and the negative reviewers as they rush to defend you, so you don’t have to do anything.

Some of the articles I read did say to engage reviewers. Thank them for taking the time to review and that you will think about their comments. And that can work when you have only 20. But imagine when your reviews are in the hundreds or thousands. I choose to err on the side of treating everyone the same. No comment.

6. Dwell on the positive reviews and positive parts of negative reviews.
Don’t obsess over the negativity. Figure your percentage of starred reviews. If you are in the 90s, heck even the high 80s, a bunch more people liked your book than didn’t.

7. Make yourself feel better by reading negative reviews of books you loved.
When you see that even the bestest of best selling authors of books you really liked got dissed, you’ll feel better. The classics and the current best sellers. The literarily acclaimed and cult faves. All of them have their detractors. You think you should be any different?

One more note: Reviews come from many sources. Amazon is the behemoth, of course, but there are independent reviewers, review sites, blog reviews, Facebook and Twitter comments, critique group responses, grocery store asides and all sorts of other sources for information about how others perceive your book. Attend to them as suggested here, and you will live to write another book.

A post on what authors want from book reviews is at "Romance Righter". Check it out. 

The next Left Coast Crime Conference is in Phoenix end of February, 2016. If you attend, please look for me! I’d love to chat about writing with you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Guest Post: "Author as Illustrator" by Sharon Love Cook

Sharon Love Cook brings a new dimension to this blog since she isn't content just to write the books. She wants to illustrate them, too! And, as you will see from these covers, she is very talented in both writing and illustrating her works! Welcome, Sharon!  (You gotta Love somebody with that name, eh?)

When Sharon asked me to be a guest blogger, I was very pleased. At the same time, I was afraid I’d already run out of things to say about my Granite Cove Mystery series. I’d mentioned elsewhere how I’d named my setting, the “sleepy fishing village” of Granite Cove. The fictional town is based on my home town, Gloucester, Mass., America’s oldest working seaport. In reality there’s nothing “sleepy” about Gloucester; a glance at the local newspaper’s police notes will confirm that. 

I’d also described the characters in Granite Cove and how they came to be. They are a hodgepodge of attributes borrowed from people real and imagined, but mostly real. On my opening page where I post a disclaimer, I state: “All characters in the book are fictional and products of the author’s imagination with the exception of Chester, the author’s 95 pound black Lab.” Chester doesn’t care what I write about him.

On other blogs I’ve related how I came to write this series--and how I started a writing career. At age seventeen I was hired by the Cape Ann Summer Sun, a seasonal supplement to the Gloucester Daily Times. I was a correspondent, covering the beach colony where I lived. I also provided a cartoon each week, the first time my cartoons appeared in print. Not much happened during those summers in the late ‘50s to early ‘60s. My copy tended to be about the Red Cross swim classes, the restoration of the wooden steps leading to the beach and the jellyfish invasions. On one occasion a teenage resident received a visit from her Japanese pen pal. This blew the jellyfish right off the page. 

Because I didn’t want to cover the same old territory, I thought it’d be interesting if I wrote about my book covers. An art school grad, I had the pleasure of illustrating them. When A Nose for Hanky Panky was being published by Mainly Murder Press, the editor contacted me. She told me to get in touch with the designer if I had suggestions regarding my cover. I promptly contacted the designer and said I envisioned the following on my cover: 
1.) a chi-chi office at night; a nice wooden desk, diplomas on the wall. 
2.) a shapely pair of legs in high heels jutting out from behind the desk.
3.) an empty wine glass on the floor, spilled wine spreading dark as blood.
4.) a  wheeled caddy holding bottles of liquor.
5.) An open window, curtains billowing. In the distance, a moonlit beach; looking in the window: a pig.

I only got that far when the designer told me to stop. “Can you sketch it out?” she asked. I said I’d try. I sat and drew exactly what I wanted. The drawing came out so well I got out my paints. When I was through I liked the finished product. I asked the editor if she would accept it. After a while she got back to me, saying my cover had been approved. 

For my second Granite Cove Mystery, A Deadly Christmas Carol, I did the cover as well. I added another shapely pair of legs. As they were stretched out in the snow, these legs wore boots. (The legs are not gratuitous; they actually play a role in the books.) 

Now I’m working on book #3: Laugh ‘til You Die. As always, I plan to illustrate the cover. There will be a pair of legs jutting out from under a chest of drawers. The legs, in fuzzy slippers, won’t be shapely. They belong to an elderly woman who happened to take a nap in the wrong bed at a poorly-run nursing home. Although I don’t know who the murderer is in my current book, I know how the cover will look.

  I remember being in the fifth grade when our teacher asked the class to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote: “to write and illustrate a novel.” My teacher snickered. “Authors don’t illustrate books,” she said. I wish that teacher was alive today. I’d send her copies. 


Sharon Love Cook has written a humor column for The Salem News for many years. Click here for last week’s story: “Invasion of the Killer Icicles:”  http://www.salemnews.com/opinion/cook-invasion-of-the-killer-icicles/article_d87def5f-c71a-50ae-bd81-9f887024bf10.html?mode=story

 She is a writer and a cartoonist. She’s VP of Friends of Beverly Animals and not long ago maintained a herd of cats at her home that she shares with her husband, on Boston’s North Shore. The herd has thinned but she hopes to augment. Cook’s fictional village of Granite Cove is based on Cape Ann, Mass., where she grew up. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Why a Small Press and Not Indie?

My professional life as a university professor brainwashed me with the importance of external validation. No pubs from reputable journals and legitimate presses? Then no tenure, raises, or promotions. External validation of one’s work, in academia, is the coin of the realm.

It’s no surprise then that I went the traditional route for my first two books (and their sequels). I am currently published (e-books and print books) with two small presses. I put up no money and get royalties. I work with an editor for the publishing house. They send me cover art for input. They hire someone to format the manuscript for print and e-books.

It is the wimp’s way out. No hassles for me, and I feel I am a “legitimate” author (going back to my past life experiences). I am not so sure, for me, that the extra money for going indie would beat back my insecurities.

First, one has to get past the old vanity press notions that dog us. Sadly, indie e-books--rightly or wrongly--are linked to so many poor quality books that going indie still carries the taint of “you couldn’t make it traditionally.” It’s why you hear some indie published writers yearning for the traditional press book contract. Many of us carry around that baggage.

And for so many years vanity presses were the only option for writers who couldn’t get a press to publish them. These presses, we knew, would publish anything written, if you paid their fees and were willing to fill your garage with books you had to hawk out of the trunk of your car. The old-time vanity press authors, rarely sold enough to pay the fees they were charged, let alone make money.

But digital publishing provided a new way for authors to be published. Digital publishing makes it so much easier for authors. Publishing your work can be accomplished through royalty-paying publishers who review your book.  It can also be done on your own through sites like Smashwords, Lulu, and Create Space.  There are both “supported publishing” sites and there are opportunities to do each book on your own.

When traditionally published, you get a royalty rate, pay no upfront money, and may see
both e-book and print copies of your book. They pick the cover, they arrange the copyright (sometimes), and they provide editing services and will format your book for digital and print release.

When publishing on your own, you must do two things: pay to have your book professionally edited and pay to have an original cover designed. Both are critical to keeping up the quality of e-book and print books. Don’t rely on the stock covers various sites provide or you might be sharing a cover with another author’s book.

Additionally, indie authors arrange for copyright and use provided templates to format an e-book and/or print book for publication. Still, after you pay the fees, you own your book with all rights and you get all the royalties after paying some site fees.

In both cases, as all authors have learned over the last few years, marketing is Job One for you. Publishers, digital or print, do little. So, some argue, why split your money with traditional publishers? Go Indie! Isn't it nice to have options these days? My choice is my choice. I'm not into convincing anyone to do what I do. But it is right for me.

I am willing to stay with my small presses. I get individual attention and I don’t have to do anything except write and edit. And wait for royalty checks. Those are my strengths. Formatting books is so NOT my strength! To me, at my age, learning how to indie publish is not worth the additional money I would net.

I do have a couple of books I cannot find homes for with traditional publishers. I am trying to get brave enough to go indie! But I need major handholding or serious money to have someone do all that work for me.

So for now, the small presses meet my needs very well. Hats off to small press publishers and editors for all they do for authors.